Tasting Notes

I used to do this thing where I'd do a series of quick hits on my media diet, but damn, it looks like I haven't done this in about five years? Let's rectify that situation:

Television:

  • The Good Place - I wasn't expecting much, but then I burned through the entire first season in just a couple of days. It's a fantastic season of television, very funny, great stakes, well paced (both in terms of individual episodes, but also in the way the series expands on its own world throughout the course of the season). There are some big twists that you might pick up on early in the season, but in general, the season works well as a whole. I'm somewhat wary of the forthcoming second season, but the writers managed to be pretty clever throughout the first season, so there's a hope that the second season will work. But they'll need to do something almost completely different with the premise this time around (otherwise, it could get very repetitive), which is a challenge.
  • Patriot - What a fucking bizarre show. It's clearly aping the prestige TV tropes out the yin yang (i.e. Breaking Bad-esque cold opens, anti-heroes, etc...) and I can't exactly say it's planting any of its own flags, but I actually kinda liked it? I find it hard to recommend and when I break it down, it's not super original and many of the characteristics of the show are things I don't normally care for, but somehow it tweaked me just right. At least until the very end, which is an anticlimax (albeit one you can kinda see coming). It's about a spy who goes undercover at a piping firm in order to travel to Europe and do some sort of deal to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Things immediately go wrong, and pretty much the whole series is an ever-telescoping series of crises built on top of crises. It has this ridiculous sense of deadpan dark humor (I think? Nothing about this show makes perfect sense to me...) that I don't think I have any reference point for... It's almost worth watching so that you can get to the Rock/Paper/Scissors game scene towards the end of the series, which is utterly brilliant. Again, a hard one to recommend though. It might be worth watching the first episode (it's an Amazon Prime original though, so I think you can only see it there). If you're on board with the ridiculous things that happen there, this series might be for you. I honestly still don't know what to think about it, which probably means I think its good?
Movies:
  • Dunkirk - Christopher Nolan's WWII epic is indeed a spectacle to behold, one of the best photographed movies of the year and definite nominee for Most Visually Stunning in the Kaedrin Movie Awards. Not a ton of dialog and minimal plot, and yet it's propulsively paced and at times harrowing. It's not your traditional crowd-pleaser, but nods in that direction far enough to keep interest up. I hope it continues to do well. It will likely make my top 10 of the year, though perhaps towards the bottom of that list...
  • The Big Sick - Delightful romantic comedy based on the true story of Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (who wrote the script), and you can see that heart up there on the screen. It deals a lot with family and culture clash in a sophisticated way, but it never drags at all, and is generally able to leaven the drama with comedy. Another film that will likely make my top 10.
  • Baby Driver - Edgar Wright's latest is fantastic entertainment, a sort of hybrid musical that substitutes car chases for dance numbers. This works spectacularly for the first two thirds, but there's some serious third act problems with the story (lots of inexplicable decisions and character turns), even though the execution of what's there is still very enjoyable. Hitchcock's refrigerator comes to mind here - it works ok when your watching it, but does not hold up to scrutiny. Not a shoe-in for the top 10, but will definitely be a candidate and it will certainly garner a Kaedrin Movie Award or two. Still recommended!
Books:
  • The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland - I'm about two thirds of the way through this book, which features witches, a quantum mechanical explanation for magic, and lots of time travel. And bureaucracy. I'm pretty much loving it so far, but as a long-time Stephenson fanatic, I think you could probably have guessed that, right? Really curious to see how it will play out (seems like a solid candidate for a Hugo nomination for me). More thoughts forthcoming in a full review...
  • Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin - Non-fiction story of gravitational waves and the LIGO project - an arduous, fifty-year endeavor to measure gravitation waves from events like two black holes colliding... So far seems to be pretty excessively focused on the personalities involved and the hoops they had to jump through to get funded, etc... Interesting stuff, but not necessarily the most immersive story.
  • Killfile by Christopher Farnsworth - Trashy little thriller about a security consultant/spy who can read people's minds. This is from the guy who wrote about the President's Vampire, so we're not looking for anything groundbreaking or anything, but it's a fairly fun little story. I basically got this (and its sequel, which I didn't like as much, but was basically more of the same) so that I could get a new President's Vampire story (which I actually haven't read yet and at this point, will probably save for the Six Weeks of Halloween), but these were an enjoyable enough diversion, if a bit formulaic and disposable...
Gaming:
  • Friday the 13th: The Game - This is an online multiplayer game (not my usual thing) that is set in the Friday the 13th universe (emphatically my thing). The technical term for this type of game is "asymmetrical multiplayer" because while most of the players are camp counselors running for their life, one randomly selected player gets to be Jason, whose job is to hunt down and kill all the other players. It's a lot of fun, even though I suck and the game and am not really willing to put the time into it to get good at it (the last time I played as Jason, I only killed one counselor and spent a couple minutes chasing one person around a table). Worth checking out if this seems like your jam.
  • Dominion - This is a deck-building card game that I stumbled onto because some folks at work started playing at lunch. I don't always get to play there, but once I got into it, it's a really deep and fun game to play. There's an online version (linked above) that works well enough, though it could use some updates (it's relatively new though, and they're still making improvements). I still really enjoy the meatspace version, and it helps that my friends have basically all of the expansion packs (which add a lot of flavor).
The Finer Things:
  • As always, I'm drinking a lot of beer and as you probably know, I have a whole blog where I keep track of this sort of thing. Recent highlights have all been IPAs, actually, like Tree House Julius and Burley Oak 100
  • Since it always takes me, like, 2 years to get through a bottle of whisk(e)y, I was intrigued by the concept of an Infinity Bottle (aka Solera bottle), which is basically when you take a bunch of nearly finished bottles and blend them all together into one super-whiskey. I started a bourbon based bottle recently, mostly Four Roses based, but with some Stagg Jr. and Bookers. Biggest problem right now is that the proof is excessively high (approximately 122) at this point. I need to find some low proof stuff with some age on it (am I crazy, or is this a job for an orphan barrel bourbon?) Still, it's a fun little project and it should get more and more interesting over time (as more and more whiskeys join the blend).
Phew, that's all for now. I will be on vacation next week, so posting is dubious, though you never know!
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Link Dump

After months of Hugo recapping and Kung Fu, the links have been piling up, they have. Enjoy:
  • Carmageddon is Coming - Angus Hervey forecasts the convergence of mobile tech, electic cars, and self-driving software:
    Within a few years, electric vehicles are going to be cheaper, more durable and more reliable than petrol powered cars, autonomy will be good enough that you don’t need human drivers and everyone will be able to hail a car on their phone (or their voice-activated Alexa spectacles). The cost of taking a car trip will become cheaper than getting a coffee, which means it will be accessible to everyone. Overnight, we’ll see a mass defection to mobility as a service.

    This is the real kicker: we don’t have to wait for people to get rid of their old cars; one morning, they’ll sit down and do their monthly budget, and realise it makes more sense to hail an autonomous, electric vehicle. Given a choice, people will select the cheaper option.
    The predicted timelines are a bit aggressive, but I think this gets the general shape of things right, including all the non-obvious impacts (to things like healthcare, etc...) I'm at the point right now where I would normally be thinking about getting a new car, but if these things actually do progress this quickly, that might not be a wise choice...
  • Meet the Artist Using Ritual Magic to Trap Self-Driving Cars - On the other hand, these guys trapped a self-driving car using a salt-circle, just like the frigging Winchester brothers use to fight demons. (In all seriousness, this is the sort of thing people point to as a silly failure mode of self-driving cars... that will obviously be solved quickly and quietly, until such failure modes become vanishingly rare, which won't take too long...)
  • Pharma Bro claims he can’t get a fair trial because of Post’s coverage - The story is fine and all, but this is worth clicking through just for the courtroom sketch, which makes Martin Shkreli look like an orc. Well played, courtroom artist, well played.
  • How a Minor Character from ‘Taxi Driver’ Influenced One of the Most Iconic Scenes in ‘Pulp Fiction’ - Neat story about how the character Easy Andy (the guy who sells DeNiro guns in a hotel room) was played by an actor who basically inspired one of Tarantino's famous scenes from Pulp Fiction.
  • no feelings may be hurt - Generalizing lessons from disputes over sexuality:
    demand for the affirmation of sexual choices may simply be an example of a greater demand, that for the affirmation of all the self’s choices. The real principles here are (a) I am my own and (b) the purpose of society is to empower and affirm my claim that I am my own.
  • Remembering the Murder You Didn't Commit - Innocent people so thoroughly bamboozled that even after they've been exonerated by DNA evidence, they still feel guilt and can recall the crime they didn't commit. It's an incredible story.
  • “I Just Wanted To Survive” - Another crazy story, this time about a college football player who was abducted and tortured for 40 hours.
  • The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We're All Going To Miss Almost Everything - Worth keeping in mind:
    The vast majority of the world's books, music, films, television and art, you will never see. It's just numbers.

    ... there are really only two responses if you want to feel like you're well-read, or well-versed in music, or whatever the case may be: culling and surrender.

    Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It's the sorting of what's worth your time and what's not worth your time.

    ... Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn't have to threaten your sense that you are well-read. Surrender is the moment when you say, "I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I'm supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn't get to."

    What I've observed in recent years is that many people, in cultural conversations, are far more interested in culling than in surrender. And they want to cull as aggressively as they can. After all, you can eliminate a lot of discernment you'd otherwise have to apply to your choices of books if you say, "All genre fiction is trash."
    With apologies for chopping up my quote so much, this idea that people are obsessed with culling is definitely a thing that spreads across broad spectrums. No one wants to build towards expertise, they want to know what the best such-and-such thing is so that they can immediately become an expert. I see this pattern all over (to pick a non-obvious example, beer is filled with dorks who are obsessed with only drinking walez, bro). But you need to know the bad before you can realize what the good is really doing. For skills, you need to learn to fail and learn from your failures before you can really achieve something. There was a computer programmer who got fed up with the preponderance of "Learn to program in 24 hours" style books, so he wrote a book called "Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years". Back to books and movies, I recapped a fairly wide swatch of martial arts films last week, but I've only really scratched the surface. Many of these movies aren't "great" in a broad sense, but even some of the bad ones have important or interesting elements that I'm really glad I caught up with...
And I think that's enough for now. Stay tuned, but I, um, don't know what's coming up next. This is both nice and also somewhat troubling.
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Martial Arts Movie Omnibus

In his review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Roger Ebert compared martial arts movies to musicals:

Fight scenes in a martial arts movie are like song-and-dance numbers in a musical: After a certain amount of dialogue, you're ready for one.
It's an observation that he'd made before, but it's one that strikes a resonant chord with me. I mean, I'm not a huge fan of musicals, but I sure do enjoy martial arts movies. Yet the mechanisms and structure of both are almost the same. Is there really that much of a difference between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung? Apparently not! As Ebert notes:
The best martial arts movies have nothing to do with fighting and everything to do with personal excellence. Their heroes transcend space, gravity, the limitations of the body and the fears of the mind. In a fight scene in a Western movie, it is assumed the fighters hate each other. In a martial arts movie, it's more as if the fighters are joining in a celebration of their powers.
Indeed, and while that might not completely hold true in all cases, it is something that sorta feels right anyway.

Early this year, I noticed that Amazon Prime streaming had made a whole slew of classic martial arts movies available, so I resolved to start exploring. As I made my way through what was available, I did start to stray further afield (even sometimes resorting to, gasp, physical media to see some of these). What follows is a pretty wide broad-section of the field, by no means comprehensive, but a decent place to start if anyone is curious. For the sake of honesty, I wasn't initially taking notes, so my recollections on some of these are a little sparse, but I figured I'd include everything I've watched this year. For posterity! This was a generally fun exercise and I expect my explorations of the genre to continue, but I figured it was time to finally start documenting what I've watched. Let's get to it:

The Prodigal Son (1981) - Directed by Sammo Hung, this one tones down the humor a bit, but the very premise is somewhat amusing. Yuen Biao stars as Chang, a wealthy heir that believes himself to be a kung fu master. However, it turns out that his father has been paying people to lose to him. Embarrassed, Chang joins a traveling circus in the hopes of learning from the master of that troupe. Hung plays a small part as one of Chang's instructors, but is mostly behind the camera, with Yuen Biao and Ching-Ying Lam (you will see some of these names often below). This is a prime example of Wing Chun style, a form of close quarters martial arts involving grappling and striking. Action Highlight: The final one-on-one fight is pretty great and represents a culmination of the action sequences, which start with light sparring and gradually become more and more serious and brutal as the film progresses, until you reach the finale. Clear, fluid, well choreographed stuff all throughout, and there's a good balance of action to plot. ***

Eastern Condors - This is a really unusual one about a mission to Vietnam to destroy a munitions depot left behind by Americans before anyone can put the weapons to nefarious use. There's actually very little martial arts in the movie, and what is there feels a bit out of place in a Vietnam narrative. I watched it due to Sammo Hung's involvement and he is technically the lead, but it's more of an ensemble piece (Yuen Biao shows up again). As Vietnam movies go, this doesn't quite stand up to the classics and isn't as fun as the more ridiculous 80s offerings. You'd be better off watching the movies that inspired this, like The Dirty Dozen, though I gather I'm an outlier in disliking this movie (it seems popular). Action Highlight: I guess the end at the munitions dump? I was not enamored with the action here. *

Magnificent Butcher (1979) - Another Sammo Hung vehicle, he plays "Butcher" Wing in this one, a student of legendary martial arts master Wong Fei-hung (a mainstay character in HK cinema). His newly wed brother comes to town, but the bride is promptly kidnapped by a student of a local rival master. He must team up with his brother and local a local drunken master to try and save her. Before I get to the action, which is amazing, I have to ding the plot here. Now most of these movies don't have a great plot, but the kidnapped wife trope is executed poorly here. Spoiler: she is murdered, leading to a revenge killing of the kidnapper. But the kidnapper's master doesn't know about all this, and vows revenge of Hung's character. The final battle sees Hung defeating the rival master, but it all feels a little wrong. That being said, the action in this film is phenomenal.

Sammo Hung
Directed by famed choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen, one would expect nothing less. Clear, fluid, intricate fights all throughout, and Sammo Hung is a spectacular performer. If you don't know Sammo, he's, well, on the overweight side of things. And yet he manages to be among the most nimble acrobats I've ever seen in one of these movies. The other performers hold their own, of course (look, another Yuen Biao appearance), aided as they are by Woo-Ping Yuen's choreography. If you're willing to overlook the unpleasantness in the plot, this is a spectacular action film.
Calligraphy Battle
Action Highlight: The calligraphy battle is marvelous and a standout from all the movies in this post, but the final showdown with Sammo Hung is also worth noting. ***

Warriors Two (1978) - Another Sammo Hung directed film, this is also a classic showcase for the Wing Chun style starring Casanova Wong (the famed "Human Tornado"). Wong plays a humble cashier who stumbles on a plot to assassinate the local mayor. Action Highlight: The last half hour of the film is almost non-stop action, with the highlight being Wong and Hung's two on two battle with the villains of the piece, including a weird "juggling" maneuver... **1/2

Wheels on Meals (1984) - A famous team-up of Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung, it's hard to beat that trio. Chan and Biao play cousins and business partners (owning a futuristic food truck, decades before such things were trendy), and Hung plays an inexplicably Jheri curled private detective. They all get wrapped up in some sort of weird crime gambit involving a young woman. Whatever, it's all just an excuse to get to the fights, which are great, varied, and numerous. This is one of the many movies in which Jackie Chan, clearly a susperstar, manages to generously share the screen with multiple costars (who, frankly, are also superstars within this genre).

Jackie Chan vs Benny The Jet
Action Highlight: Jackie Chan's infamous duel with Benny “The Jet” Urquidez towards the end of the film is astounding and features one of the coolest bits: Benny does a spinning kick so fast that he generates enough airflow to extinguish some candles on set. It was apparently an accident, but they obviously left it in the film because it's so cool (and another example of Chan's willingness to share the spotlight). ***

The Fearless Hyena (1979) - Jackie Chan's directorial debut about dueling martial arts schools and old enemies finding out about one of the masters because, yeah, the usual martial arts plot here. Revenge is involved. But the fights are great, and Chan goes through some amusing costuming.

Chopstick Fight
Chopsticks
Action Highlight: Lots to choose from, but the really memorable bit is one of the training sequences where Chan's new master prompts him to eat piece of meat sitting in front of him. What follows is a legit duel fought with chopsticks. Utterly brilliant. ***

The Young Master (1980) - Another early Jackie Chan directorial effort about a martial arts student whose brother inadvertently gets kicked out of his school or something, so Chan goes on an adventure to find him, running afoul of the local criminals and constabulary.

Fighting with a fan
Action Highlight: The opening dragon fight has its merits, and there's lots to choose from, but for me it's the impeccable choreography in the fight with the fan that takes the day. ***

Police Story (1985) - One of those Jackie Chan calling cards, it's the first movie of his that I've watched that really amps up the stunts, and boy are there a bunch here. There's also some great physical comedy reminiscent of Buster Keaton, such as the scene where Chan is alone at the police station and is juggling 4-5 different phones and getting tangled up in the wires and whatnot. Three classic set-pieces included a car chase through a small town (lots of destruction and mayhem), a bus chase, and the Action Highlight: A fight through a mall, lots of typically great fighting culminating in Jackie Chan's jump down a, um, lightpost? Whatever it is, it's a spectacular stunt. This movie was apparently a big deal at the time, and it's easy to see why. ***

Project A (1983) - Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao star (the trio rides again) in this adventure fighting pirates on the old China coast. More or less par for the course, solid action, but nothing seems to standout much (perhaps I'm just getting used to the slapsticky action comedy style). Certainly a strong entry, but not my favorite. Action Highlight: The bar fight at the beginning of the film has some great Jackie Chan getting-injured-but-pretending-to-be-ok bits, then just follows through to out and out injury. **1/2

Butterfly and Sword (1993) - This is a movie where Michelle Yeoh decapitates people with her silk scarf, then uses said scarf as a makeshift bow that costar Tony Leung launches himself off of like an arrow to blow clean through various nefarious enemies.

Making a bow with a scarf
Also, the villain turns out to have a Freddy Kreuger glove. That can shoot the blades. And as wuxia films go, there's plenty of floating and wirework that's quite neat. You'd think this would be awesome, but alas, it doesn't quite live up to its best moments. The action here is much choppier and covered in tighter shots with more camera movement than I'm used to. This isn't like modern-day shaky cam, at least, but it's not the cleanly shot elegance you generally get from this sort of film either (then again, perhaps an actual restoration/better transfer of the filmstock would help clean this stuff up - indeed, this transfer on Amazon might be pan-and-scan, which could explain some of the issues.) The love, er, quadrangle? (or rectangle, they're called rectangles) is reasonable but also a little fraught and doesn't always blend in with the rest of the story. So it's more frenetic and actually quite gory, which is a change of pace for these movies, but it falls a bit short on execution (though again, issues with the transfer might be the real problem). It's worth watching for students of the genre or of wacky movies, but not really a good intro to wuxia or martial arts in general. Action Highlight: The final battle with Freddy Kreuger is great and makes good use of Yeoh's scarf/bow. **1/2

Magnificent Warriors (1987) - Michelle Yeoh plays Indiana Jones, basically. Some good set pieces here, but the highpoint is in the middle, and while the finish works, it does feel a bit perfunctory.

Michelle Yeoh
Action Highlight: There's a scene in Kill Bill where Gogo Yubari fights the bride with this metal ball/blade thingy that's attached to chain. It's a memorable fight and weapon because of the way she flings it around, and in Magnificent Warriors, Michelle Yeoh basically has the same sequence (towards the beginning of the film), decades before Kill Bill. However, the true highlight is when Michelle Yeoh provides a distraction for our heroes' escape by kicking and punching the entire Japanese army into submission. Mostly. I mean, they end up captured, but still. It's an amazing sequence. **1/2

The One-Armed Swordsman (1967) - Very early Shaw Brothers flick about, yes, a one-armed swordsman. This is such an early example of the genre that it's like they hadn't even invented the trademark foley work that martial arts are known for. The action works reasonably well, but the choreography is not as intricate or elegant as the later works I've seen. This is a clear precursor though, and you can see its influence on the later films. Action Highlight: Honestly blanking on this right now, but I'll say that it probably involves swords. **1/2

Supercop (1992) - I want to say that I saw this in the theater back in the day. If memory serves (and it famously does not, so this might not be true), after Rumble in the Bronx, a bunch of movies made their way to the US, and this was one of them. I do kinda remember the scene in the training warehouse at the beginning, but other than that, I didn't remember much from this movie. It's quite solid! I mean, it's Jackie Chan teaming up with Michelle Yeoh, so what did you expect? Both are great performers, and there's lots of good action and stunts going on here. Action Highlight: The last 20-30 minutes of the movie feature lots of great stunts, including Michelle Yeoh hanging off of a truck, Jackie Chan riding a rope ladder attached to a helicopter, all finishing up on top of a train for some great stunts and martial arts... ***

Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976) - Apparently a sequel, I just jumped into this one without even knowing that. Directed by Jimmy Wang Yu (who also directed the aforementioned One-Armed Swordsman), this one represents the evolution of the genre. Surprisingly modern music cues (were these used for kill Bill?) The entire second act is a full-contact martial arts tournament, some of it quite gruesome, some more tame. The action is well done, not quite as intricate or stylized as much of the above, but it's certainly in that direction, and quite entertaining. Has an almost video game like structure, fight after fight, a series of boss battles, etc... Not the greatest transfer on Amazon, and it's dubbed (some scenes are bizarrely still in the original language with no translation available), but who cares, this is a movie where a dude uses a device to decapitate people at the flick of his wrist. There's not much plot at all, and it doesn't really matter. Action Highlight: The aforementioned tournament certainly has lots to praise, but the ending boss-fights probably warrant mention too. ***

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) - Classic Shaw Brothers production starring Gordon Liu that is certainly in the discussion for best Martial Arts movie of all time. Perhaps surprisingly, most of the martial arts movies in this post don't have great training montages, but this movie dedicates a good third of the running time to well structured training sequences, including seemingly insignificant skills that turn out to be important later on (i.e. not quite wax-on, wax-off, but along those lines). One of the classics of the genre, well worth checking out. Action Hightlight: The film builds to a series of final confrontations, all of which are pretty great. I feel like I should have more to say about this movie, but everything I think of basically just amounts to it being great. You should totally watch it. ***1/2

The Five Deadly Venoms (1978) - A dying kung fu master regrets training the Five Venoms, thinking that they may use their talents for evil. Each member of this gang has a specialty: The centipede's quick hits and blinding speed, the snake's deception and striking power, the scorpion's darts, the lizard's gravity defying ability to climb walls, and the toad's near imperviousness to traditional weapons. The dying master tasks his final pupil, a jack-of-all-trades (but master of none), with taking down the gang, so as to prevent any evil doing on their part. But he won't be able to do it alone, so he needs to ally himself with one of the five to take out the other four. The only problem? The Five Venoms all wore masks while training, so no one knows what they look like, not even them! The This movie takes a while to get moving, and indeed, it almost feels more like an Edgar Wallace mystery mixed with Yojimbo-style feuding factions being played against one another, with a dose of Kill Bill (though obviously this film was an influence on Tarantino rather than the other way around, and yes, I'm pretty sure some of the scorpion's sound cues are used in Kill Bill too). There's a lot of exposition and strangely, courtroom drama and a crooked judge. It's almost half an hour before we get our first proper martial arts sequence, but things start to slowly pick up from there. This is not exactly high cinema, but the story did grab me more than most razor-thin martial arts plots. This has a reputation as being one of the best, and it's certainly influential, but try to keep your expectations in check. Action Highlight: The final showdown is very well done, making ample usage of the Venom Mob specialties. **1/2

Crippled Avengers (1978) - What a bizarre way to start a movie. A young boy has both his arms cut off by bandits. His father vows to replace them with metal hands. And they shoot darts! You'd think these are the eponymous "avengers", but no, their injuries turn them into total dicks who go around town crippling villagers. One is blinded, another is made deaf and mute, a third gets his legs cut off, and finally, one man is struck dumb by a torture device while attempting to avenge the first three. When those three find out, they take that man back to his master, who vows to teach the "crippled avengers" despite their disabilities. Will our crippled avengers achieve vengeance? You bet ya! Chang Cheh's follow up to The Five Venoms, this one has decidedly more martial arts, but less Agatha Christi plotting. Still entertaining enough and the plot, simple and bonkers as it is, serves its purpose well. Action Highlight: Once again, I forgot to write down anything specific. In general, it's got great choreography, of course, and the fights are many and varied. **1/2

A Touch of Zen (1971) - This is not your typical Wu Xia film. Clocking in at nearly 3 hours, it's perhaps too long, but this is a movie that is more thoughtful than your typical entry in the genre. In other words, the plot here matters and is fraught with symbolism. Our heroes rely on ghosts of the past for their defense, and there's lots of sexual symbolism (it's no accident that the villain is a Eunuch). This is more artistic, moody, and deep than the rest of the films in this post, and that makes for an interesting contrast.

A Touch of Zen
It's also visually beautiful, and the artistry serves a purpose. The Wu Xia elements are clearly lowfi here, relying mostly on trampolines rather than elaborate wire-work, but you can clearly see why something like this would be considered so influential. Director King Hu received lots of plaudits from critics, but didn't seem to strike as much of a chord with audiences. The action is sparse at first, but builds towards a climax with the Action Highlight: The fight in the bamboo forest, crisp and clean choreography, not as intricate or mind-blowing as what would follow, but clearly a precursor. ***

My Lucky Stars (1985) - Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, etc... and... holy shit, is that Chong Li from Bloodsport in a bit part? Alas, he doesn't get to do any real fighting. Jackie Chan is an undercover cop who gets into trouble and asks for his friends from the orphanage to help... but they're all con men and crooks. Nice car chase and fight sequence up front, a decent enough recruitment phase, followed by an interminable scene where our 5 con men try to con their (female) police contact into being tied up with them? That part is dumb and inappropriate. Jackie Chan seems conspicuously absent for about half the movie, but the Action Highlight in the finale, as Chan makes his way through a haunted house and each of our con men (and woman) get something to do. **

Come Drink With Me (1966) - Classic early Shaw Brothers flick, clearly not all tropes have been established yet and the choreography, while good, isn't as intricate as later stuff (it fares better than One Armed Swordsman). The story feels very much like a western, with a group of bandits hoping to free their imprisoned leaders, ambushing convoys, holding a prince hostage. Then Cheng Pei-Pei shows up as the prince's sister to "negotiate" his release. Her first scene in the tavern is the Action Highlight, lots of tension, plenty of well choreographed action and some neat little tricks. She has another great set piece where she takes on the whole gang, but then seems to take the background as her newfound ally, the town drunk, takes center stage for the last third or so of the movie. The ending doesn't quite live up to the rest of the movie, but it holds on alright. A few years after this movie, director King Hu would go on to make A Touch of Zen, and you can see similarities here. **1/2

Phew. That's a lot of movies, and what's more, I feel like I'm only scratching the surface here. We may need another Omnibus post (or 5) before we get to all the movies I'd like to see...

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The voting deadline for this year's Hugo Awards approaches, so here's my ballot as it now stands. It's mostly fiction categories, with some Dramatic Presentation thrown in for flare and some comments on some of the other categories that I'm actually not going to vote for...

Best Novel
  1. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee [My Review]
  2. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers [My Review]
  3. Death's End by Cixin Liu [My Review]
  4. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders [My Review]
  5. Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer [My Review]
  6. The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin [My Review]
A decent enough lineup this year, not spectacular, but it gets the job done. Five out of the six nominees are part of a series, which is mildly annoying. A Closed and Common Orbit skates by on that count because despite being the second book, it can easily be read as a standalone and comes off as quite different than the first entry in the series (in a way that benefits the sequel greatly). Its generally positive tone is also noteworthy and has elevated it to the #2 slot. All the Birds in the Sky is the only true standalone and has a great whimsical tone to it, but despite overtures towards SF, it doesn't really stand up on that front. Ninefox Gambit is the first in a series and does a great job with worldbuilding while telling a reasonably satisfying and composed tale. Not completely self-contained, but there's enough meat on the bone to make me want to pick up the next in the series (something that doesn't happen too often with me on first novels in a series). Death's End at least provides some closure to its story and gets its jollies from big ideas, albeit existentially troubling ones. Too Like the Lightning is the first in a series, but doesn't seem to progress the overall arc very much. I hear the sequels will be better on that front... but that doesn't make this initial volume better in itself. Finally, The Obelisk Gate doesn't progress its overall arc much either, which again makes it hard to rank highly. Yeah, that's typical of second novels in a trilogy, but that doesn't make it worthy of a Hugo Award... This series conundrum continues to be challenging for me when it comes to ranking these novels. One might think that the introduction of a "Best Series" Hugo Award would help alleviate this, but apparently not. Obviously more detailed thoughts in my reviews linked above.

Predicted Winner: Ninefox Gambit, though A Closed and Common Orbit or All the Birds in the Sky also seem to be faring well. But what do I know. My predictions are always wrong.

Best Novella

I'm skipping this category this year. Relatively long stories combined with an extra finalist this year contributed to this decision, but really, I just wanted to start reading The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. and the prospect of spending a couple weeks sifting through a bunch of stories that I have historically not enjoyed very much wasn't doing much for me. I have read Penric and the Shaman and enjoyed it quite a bit, but even for that, I was a bigger fan of Bujold's other Penric novella, Penric's Mission (which, I'm told, was disqualified because it was a hair over the wordcount limit for Novella, but still).

Best Novelette
  1. Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman
  2. The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon
  3. You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay by Alyssa Wong
  4. The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde
  5. The Art of Space Travel by Nina Allen
  6. No Award
See My Reviews for more info. Sorry Stix Hiscock, Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex isn't making the cut for what I hope are obvious reasons. I rarely deploy No Award, but this is a pretty clear cut case.

Predicted Winner: The Tomato Thief

Best Short Story
  1. That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn
  2. Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar
  3. Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander
  4. The City Born Great by N.K. Jemisin
  5. An Unimaginable Light by John C. Wright
  6. A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers by Alyssa Wong
See My Reviews for more details. I made a slight tweak to the initial rankings. No need to deploy No Award.

Predicted Winner: The City Born Great? I mean, have I ever gotten one of these predictions correct?

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
  1. Arrival
  2. Stranger Things
  3. Rogue One
  4. Hidden Figures
  5. Deadpool
  6. Ghostbusters
I didn't explicitly post about this category, but I've already covered 2016 in movies pretty thoroughly. In general, I love the first two entries in my rankings, but there's a steep dropoff after that. This isn't particularly unusual for this category, and there's always one or two movies that would have been great nominees but didn't make the cut (this year, I was hoping The Witch would get some love, but it's not the type of movie Hugo voters tend to go for, I guess. Will be interested to see the nomination stats...)

Predicted Winner: Arrival, though Hidden Figures seems to have a fair amount of buzz...

Best Series

A fascinating category, for sure, but one that has significant logistical hurdles. I've read the entire Vorkosigan Saga and am really pulling for it, but is it realistic to expect people will read all of these books before voting? Especially considering that the best entries are pretty deep into the series? I mean, I obviously recommend this, but this has to be difficult if you've not already read these series. I've never been that into The Expanse but I've only read the first novel. Is it fair to judge the series on that one novel? There's only a couple of weeks left before voting closes and that's simply not enough time to read more of that plus 4 other series of books (or even the first novel in each). Ultimately, I don't feel like it'd be fair to vote in this category without giving each of the series a fair shake, which to me means reading more than one novel in each series (at minimum). I gather that this is somewhat unusual and that some voters are more than willing to give up on a book/series after only a tiny sample (or not reading at all). But that's not really my style.

Predicted Winner: Vorkosigan Saga, please?

So this marks the end of my Hugo journey this year. Look for a recap when the Awards are announced in August, but otherwise, we now return you to our normal wanking about movies (coming soon: a Martial Arts Movie Omnibus post!)
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Hugo Awards: Short Stories

I always feel like the Short Story category should be more fun. It could kinda be like speed-dating authors to find the ones you like. I suppose it does still fulfill that function, only I rarely like any of the stories that are nominated. In the past four years of reading Hugo short story finalists, I've really liked approximately two of the stories, and neither of those enough to investigate an author's work further (some more are certainly well written, but rarely are they my thing). I have no real explanation for this, though I have my suspicions. For instance, this is the category with the lowest barrier to entry in that it doesn't take a lot of time to read a bunch of short stories, but there are also a lot of stories to choose from, so the votes get spread far and wide, thus yielding niche stories that don't appeal to a wide audience (or maybe just me). This is merely speculation though (still there is evidence for some of this - in a world before slates, the category rarely filled up because most of the winning nominees couldn't muster 5% of the overall vote, which used to be a requirement). This year, at least, features one story that I did enjoy, so let's get to it:
  1. That Game We Played During the War by Carrie Vaughn - A human woman visits an alien man in a military hospital so that they can play chess. Technically enemies, each has spent time as the other's prisoner, but the experience brought them closer together rather than drawing them apart. The war is technically over now, and so she can visit her friend. The wrinkle is that his race is telepathic, so when they play chess, she needs to figure out a way to account for his knowing her every move ahead of time. There's some interesting character work here, the telepathy is explored fairly well for such a short story (though there's plenty more to explore), and the use of chess offers some thematic heft. A well balanced, interesting, and entertaining read. It's not a perfect story, but it is my favorite of the past four years of the award, so there is that!
  2. Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander - Despite protestations to the contrary, this is a story about a woman who is murdered, but she's not actually a woman. Rather, she's some sort of interdimensional birdlike spirit who can take on mortal forms. When she is killed, she simply regenerates and then takes sweet revenge on the man who killed her. A simple tale, one that spends more time whining about how often stories revolve around a man killing a woman (which is definitely true and worth subverting), but one that also seems beholden to that trope and unable to subvert it without resorting to didactic proclamations. Fortunately, there's lots of cursing, so it doesn't entirely feel like a lecture. It's at least got a plot, and the broad strokes of the narrative are attractive too, so it ends up pretty high on the list, though it might stumble down because of:
  3. Seasons of Glass and Iron by Amal El-Mohtar - A sort of retelling, mashup, and subversion of two fairy tales, this one also seems to rely a lot on didactic proclamations to make its point, but again, there's at least some sense of a narrative and a sort of hope in the end that is usually missing from such stories (and a lot of ye olde storytelling is pretty didactic, so this is true to form). This is one that has grown in my estimation since I have read it, and it may ascend to #2 if this continues...
  4. The City Born Great by N.K. Jemisin - New York City is alive, and is being reborn with the help of a homeless man chosen for the task and being trained in the ways of city birthing. There's also an enemy that could prevent the city from evolving. Will our homeless hero defeat the evil? After two novels and this short story, I'm beginning to think that something about Jemisin's style just doesn't jive with me. There's a nugget of an interesting idea here, but it seems lost in a cloud of style. Again, probably just my personal hangup here.
  5. An Unimaginable Light by John C. Wright - And Wright is another author I tend to just bounce off of. This one is better than the others I've endured, but that's a pretty low bar to clear and I think a big part of it was that it was at least mercifully short. It's a story about a man and a robot debating Asimov's three laws. I mean, not exactly, but anything that is interesting at all in the story is derived from Asimov, not Wright. There's a twist at the end that is almost laughable and forces scrutiny that the story cannot bear on its own. Damn, I wish I was rereading one of Asimov's robot stories. Wright is probably a better prose stylist (again, not a high bar to clear, sorry Isaac), but Asimov is a much better storyteller.
  6. A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers by Alyssa Wong - It's only been about an hour or maybe two since I finished this story, and yet, I can't seem to remember any pertinent details. Something about two women. Immolation. Worlds ending. I want to say it's more like a tone poem than a narrative, but I'm not sure I can say that because I don't remember anything about it. It sorta just washed over me, but then, it did leave me feeling vaguely annoyed. If only I could remember why.
Oof. I'm almost tempted to nuke everything after That Game We Played During the War with a No Award, but that's not really fair, so I'll probably just leave well enough be. At this point, the prospect of reading 5 Novellas isn't so attractive, especially since I've got The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. sitting right here, calling to me.
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Hugo Awards: Novelettes

So we come to the short fiction categories of this year's Hugo Awards. This year, I start with the Novelettes, that odd category that fits stories that are longer than a short story but shorter than a novella. If the past several years are any indication, these stories actually tend to be my favorite of the short fiction finalists. Short stories have been almost uniformly a disaster for the past few years (partly the doing of the Puppies, but it was an issue for me even before then). Novellas somehow seem to be bloated and overlong while still missing the depth you get from a novel (with the notable exception of Bujold's Penric novellas, which I love). Novelettes hit the Goldilocks zone, providing enough space for a complete narrative, but not so much that the story drowns in hooptedoodle. Does the trend continue this year? Let's find out:
  1. Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman - Mysterious alien ships arrive one night without warning. Translators (comprised of formerly abducted humans) emerge and claim the aliens come in peace and don't want anything. A woman is hired by the government to drive around a translator so that he can see the sights. It turns out that the aliens are intelligent but unconscious, which has some interesting implications. This story works well, with a good exploration of consciousness with the occasional detour into other areas. The ending has a twist that's pretty easy to see coming (though it does elicit some questions as to the premise of this whole road trip - aren't there, like, security clearances or something? Is the trip even necessary?), but it works. Lots of open questions, but at least we're getting something that's engaging with an interesting idea and trying to hit that sense of wonder that makes SF so great. Short and sweet, this is certainly not perfect, but it's got some solid ideas and it works well enough...
  2. The Tomato Thief by Ursula Vernon - An old woman with a penchant for growing tomatoes in the desert is surprised to find that a mockingbird is stealing her ripest tomatoes. All is not what it seems, and the old woman takes it upon herself to free some magically imprisoned folk. This is a neat little story, reminiscent of Stephen King's Dark Tower setting, it has a solid throughline and a genial protagonist. Moderate levels of hooptedoodle, but manageable and probably the tightest plot of the bunch. I currently have Touring with the Alien at #1, but this is really close and could potentially take it when it comes time to finalize my vote.
  3. You'll Surely Drown Here If You Stay by Alyssa Wong - A western about a necromancer pulled into service by greedy folk from out East to clear out a mine that's overrun by the undead. We find out about the source of his power and his relationship with a prostitute, but it seems his talents doom him to be forever alone. Or something like that. A markedly more somber tale than The Tomato Thief, but it almost feels like it's set in the same universe (and thus, it also has that Dark Towerish feel to it). Well written, but not a whole lot of meat on the bone here. Certainly a worthy entry, even if it didn't completely do it for me. Pretty clearly a #3 or #4 rank for this one.
  4. The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde - A valley protected by magical gems harnessed by "lapidaries" and wielded by ruling "Jewels" is invaded, thanks to the betrayal of a high ranking lapidary. Now it's up to two teenagers, the titular Jewel and her lapidary, to repel the invaders. This is one of those stories that just drops you in the deep end, which makes it rough going at first, but it eventually settles as you begin to understand the various worldbuilding concepts. The ending is a bit anticlimactic, but it works. Certainly not the best of this crop, but a decent read nonetheless. Again, could move up to #3, but not any higher.
  5. The Art of Space Travel by Nina Allen - A woman works at a hotel while astronauts destined for Mars stay for a night. We get a little about the mission and some information about a previous, failed mission, but it turns out that all the SF elements of the story are nothing more than window dressing for our protagonist's character study, relationship with her mother, and her quest to find out who her father really is (again, we initially think he might be an astronaut, but the truth is far more mundane). Well written and a decent story on its own, but it only barely clears the bar of SF and frankly not all that much happens, which knocks it down a peg or two (or, uh, 4) in the ranking.
  6. No Award - I don't hand these out often, but...
  7. Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex by Stix Hiscock - *sigh* Some people like dinosaur porn and three breasted green aliens that shoot lasers out of their nipples, I guess. Oddly, this is the second time I've actually read speculative erotica due to the Hugo Awards. That's a lot, voters. Below No Award for obvious reasons (this is only on the ballot due to trolling from a certain subset of fandom, so while I did read it just to be sure, it doesn't really deserve to belong here).
Not bad, I say. Stay tuned for the Short Story roundup next week. Will I get to the Novellas? Or the Best Series? I might have, but then The Rise and Fall of DODO arrived in the mail and... Sorry novellas, that takes priority.
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Hugo Awards: The Obelisk Gate

Of the six finalists for this year's Hugo Award for Best Novel, N.K. Jemisin's The Obelisk Gate was my least anticipated. I'm in the dramatic minority here, as the first novel in this series, The Fifth Season, received near unanimous praise and walked away with the Hugo in a decisive win. I was less sanguine about that initial novel's pessimism and relentless misery, which mostly served to distance me from the narrative rather than suck me in. There were some interesting revelations and solid worldbuilding in that initial volume, but on the whole, it didn't feel like much progress had been made in the overall arc. Such things happen in the first volume of a series, I guess, but that didn't exactly inspire confidence that the second book in the trilogy would fare better. Spoilers for both The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate forthcoming...

When a novel's overarching narrative is that the world is ending, but the world is so monstrous that such an apocalypse is seen as almost welcome from its inhabitants (at least, the ones we get close to), it's hard not to feel detached. As I noted in my review of The Fifth Season:

If Fantasy too often errs on the side of optimism, this book perhaps errs too far on the side of pessimism. It's one thing to confront complex problems, but it's another to propose a solution that is the end of the world. That's not a solution that provides hope or inspiration, merely despair. Or maybe I'm just being too literal. Jemisin is certainly a talented author with a good command of language, but this novel never really managed to get over the hump for me.
The Obelisk Gate begins with a rehashing of man murdering his toddler, because such anguish was only hinted at in the previous book and obviously needed to be expanded upon with further detail here ("It doesn't take a lot of effort to beat a toddler to death, but he hyperventilated while he did it.") After this cheery interlude, the story picks up where The Fifth Season leaves off. Essun (aka Syenite, aka Damaya) has not yet caught up with her toddler-murdering husband Jija or their kidnapped daughter, Nassun, but is instead living in an unusual underground comm called Castrima, where she has met up with her old mentor Alabaster. She learns that he has actually set off the current world-destroying event by attempting to leverage the obelisks that float in the skies to end the cycle of Seasons and thus shatter the social structures that oppress so many, but he apparently failed and his powers are on the wane. The cryptic and tantalizing cliffhanger of The Fifth Season was a simple question: "Tell me, have you ever heard of something called a moon?" It seems that this world once had a moon, but a previous civilization did something to drive it off, and we get some background here. Now it's returning, and Alabaster attempts to share his knowledge with Essun so that she can finish the job. But since the world is currently ending, they also have to deal with enemies at the gates, and all that fun stuff. Elsewhere, Essun's daughter Nassun has wound up being trained as an orogene herself, and is starting to come into her own.

The horror of the opening chapter's infanticide aside, I actually found this to be a somewhat less grim exercise than the opening novel. Nassun's thread, in particular, is a welcome addition. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of misery to go around and Nassun is clearly coming under the influence of some unsavory folk, but maybe I'm just inured to it this time around, or maybe I just braced properly for the sucker punches. Still, it's good to get a differing perspective on the world, even as Essun's narrative seems to stall out. Such is the way of middle installments of a trilogy, but I'm still struck by a remarkable lack of progress in the overarching narrative. Two books in, and little has actually happened. Jemisin seems more concerned with her characters than the plot, and the big twists of these novels bear that out. In the first novel, we find that the three viewpoint characters were actually the same person. In this novel, we finally figure out who is telling Essun's story in second person narration... it's Hoa, the stone eater. This is not quite as interesting as the first book's revelation (and I'm not entirely sure how Hoa knows enough details to narrate that way), but at least we're getting somewhere. The various factions of the world (guardians, stone eaters, etc...) are fleshed out a bit more (though still plenty of open questions), as is the magic system, but it all still feels like characterization, worldbuilding, and setup rather than a satisfying story in itself. Not to overuse this bit from Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, but I can't help but think that too much of this book is "perpetrating hooptedoodle." The clouds have been gathering for two novels, but I suspect the finale will be a light rain shower, not the exciting thunderstorm that would normally be expected.

I think I can see the outlines of the endgame. I suspect Essun will be reunited with her daughter... in battle! As Essun tries to save the world by bringing a renegade moon into orbit (thus perhaps permanently quelling the earthquakes that shatter the world so), it looks like Nassun is being manipulated to bring the Moon crashing down on the world, ending everything once and for all. Plus, her feelings towards her mother don't exactly indicate any desire for reconciliation in the first place. Or something like that. Of course, I could be completely wrong. Jemisin seems to revel in subverting established tropes of storytelling, which sometimes results in an interesting spin on a familiar story (the "revenge" throughline of this series certainly hasn't gone as expected, for instance), but that sort of thing is difficult to pull off. Sometimes tropes are tropes for a reason. I'm guessing the "battle" I mentioned above won't be a big action setpiece, but rather a small, intimate battle of wills. Is that enough? On a personal level, I simply haven't been able to get over the hump, even if it feels like the near unanimous sentiment of fandom is one of ecstatic enthusiasm.

Ultimately, if it weren't for the Hugo Awards, I wouldn't have read this, and I have no real interest in finding out if my above speculations will come to pass. Hugo voters doing what they do, though, means that the final book will probably get nominated and thus I'll feel obligated to give it a shot. Jemisin is a talented writer, but not one that has really struck a chord with me. I've now read all of the novels nominated for this year's Best Novel Hugo. Alas, this one will be bringing up the rear, along with Too Like the Lightning. A peg above those two is All the Birds in the Sky. I keep flipping Death's End and A Closed and Common Orbit, but either would make a fine #2 or #3 ranking. At the top of the list remains Ninefox Gambit. A pretty good list this year, if a bit heavy on the hooptedoodle.

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You will criticize me, reader, for writing this review of Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning in the style that the book itself notes is six hundred years removed from the events it describes (though only two hundred years removed for myself). But it is the style of the Enlightenment and this book tells the story of a world shaped by those ideals.

I must apologize, reader, for I am about to commit the sin of a plot summary, but I beg you to give me your trust for just a few paragraphs longer. There are two main threads to this novel. One concerns a young boy named Bridger who has the ability to make inanimate objects come to life. Being young and having a few wise adult supervisors, he practices these miracles mostly on toys. Such is the way they try to understand his powers while hiding from the authorities, who would surely attempt to exploit the young child ruthlessly.

Looking after Bridger is Thisbe Saneer, a member of prominent bash' (basically a house containing a family that is less biological or romance than interest-based, though all seem to coexist in this world) that controls the world's transportation network and Mycroft Canner, who is our erstwhile narrator. He's also a mass murderer, like a combination of Jigsaw and Hannibal Lecter. He was long ago caught for torturing and murdering an entire bash' (a crime we're told, repeatedly, was the worst in centuries), but in this society, most criminals are not sent to prison, but instead are relgated to becoming a "servicer" who wears a uniform and serves at the pleasure of society. With his Hannibal-esqe intelligence, Mycroft is actually highly sought-after by the most powerful people in the world, frequently mixing with rulers and highly-influential businesses. At least, he wants us to believe this is so. It is unclear as yet why Mycroft has such an interesting service regime. Has he been conditioned, Clockwork Orange-style, to be less violent? Or is there something deeper at work here? He's our narrator, and we should, reader, assume that he's an unreliable one (even if it's not entirely clear in this initial volume of the series how this will manifest). Regardless, Mycroft has taken it upon himself to protect Bridger from the world powers in whose orbits he revolves (at least, until Bridger is old enough to fend for himself).

The other plot thread has to do with a stolen a Seven-Ten list (more on that in a moment) that mysteriously shows up at Thisbe's bash' house. A crude attempt at a frame-up that is immediately seen for what it is, but investigation is unavoidable. This bash' is responsible for the world's transportation network, after all, and if it was so easily broken into, this must be investigated, which, alas, may have the unintended consequence of exposing Bridger.

So Seven-Ten lists. There are things about the worldbuilding that might give pause, but this, reader, is perhaps the most difficult thing to swallow in the book. Each year, a number of publications present listicles in which the worlds most influential people are ranked. For some unfathomable reason, a given leader's position on these lists can actually have a profound effect on the political, social, and economic order of the entire planet. Surely, these lists are based on some sort of objective, measurable criteria, right? No, dear reader, they are not! Completely subjective, and some appear to be ghost-written by the equivalent of a bright intern who thought it might be fun to shake things up. It is very nearly a bridge too far, reader, enough to almost make this feel like a Buzzfeed-feuled dystopia.

But no, reader, I exaggerate. Listicle worship aside, the rest of this world feels balanced and approachable, if not entirely convincing. Depending on one's predilections, one could even go the opposite route and see a utopia in the making. On a personal level, I find that unconvincing though. This setting has the ring of tradeoffs. For example, there is a sort of internet that is easily and freely accessed by a device called a "tracker", which I think you can intuit also provides various surveillance capabilities to authorities. It gives you convenient access to information and travel networks, but at the price of privacy. This isn't new, reader, it's just a simple and perhaps even likely extrapolation of current trends. Sure, it'd be a big change for us but after a period of adjustment, we'd probably get along fine. Not utopia fine, but just regular fine, complete with tradeoffs, like we've always had to deal with. Other aspects of the worldbuilding are somewhat less successful. Each of the "Hives" have interesting concepts attached, but we don't really see how they play out and none of those concepts are sufficiently explored. There's a lot of "telling" without actually "showing", and all we really get a look at is the "Great Men" of this world.

Is this style starting to get to you, reader? Surely it is my own lack of knowledge and skill that grates, but my experience with the novel's narration was sometimes strained as well. Science Fiction is infamous for its exposition and info-dumps, and indeed, this device provides an interesting and perhaps more justified approach than most. On the other hand, exposition and info-dumps are still out in full force, and this strategy, while clever, might also have provided a false sense of security for the author. The information that is summarily and frequently dumped on us, reader, is often interesting in its own light, but in context presents certain challenges. Pacing, for example, becomes a genuine problem. It's difficult to get into the story when you're constantly being interrupted. This is absolutely intentional, but self-awareness does not necessarily make it less of a flaw.

The information on offer ranges from worldbuilding tidbits to philosophical interludes to sexposition (a sequence that I must admit, reader, fooled me in precisely the way Palmer intended) to character background to Mycroft's running commentary, a sort of humorless MST3King of the plot as it unfolds. Some of these are vital, others work at first but chafe after a certain point. The Eighteenth Century direct address and prostration for forgiveness bits work fine at the start, but halfway through the book, on the umpteenth occasion that our narrator lectures us on gender pronouns, it grates. Not because of the subject mater, reader, but because of the repetition and dismissive assumptions. I get it, and the gender pronoun contretemps presents some thought provoking ideas that have generated some interesting debate in the fandom. But after the dozenth time the plot is interrupted to rehash that very same idea, I was less willing to go with the device.

I have been calling you reader, but I'm virtually certain you do not frequent my writings. This is not an admonishment, reader! Just context, since you may not have seen a recent pointer to Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, in which that estimable author perfectly describes my feelings on this book's stylistic trappings. He calls it "perpetrating hooptedoodle", and that, dear reader, is what this book is filled with. Also this review, so let it be clear, reader, that I'm not above hooptedoodle. But I'm not nominated for a Hugo award either, and with good reason.

All that being said, there is much boiling under the surface here. As absurd as the Seven-Ten lists are, their superficial nature belies the fragile balance the various world powers have struck. There's clearly more going on here than the lists, which, indeed, appear to be a red herring and are dealt with in pretty short order. But the investigation of Thisbe's bash' does present other problems, and not just for Bridger. I must admit, reader, that this book had nearly lost me before the revelations of its final chapter (a chapter, I should note, that is not narrated by Mycroft, who you must remember is an unreliable narrator). Are those revelations enough to get me to read on? Will the potential be fulfilled? And how, reader, shall I rank this amongst other Hugo finalists?

In order to emphasize the incomplete nature of this story, I was going to try and end this review on a cliffhanger. Perhaps just finish the review mid-sentence, or add a "To be continued in one year..." note. But that would be unfair to you, reader, and to the author as well. It still does beg the question though: Is this like one of those TV series where you have to get through the frustrating first season to get to the good stuff? Or one of those video games where it, like, totally gets better after you put 40 hours into it? I almost certainly wouldn't read the sequel to this book, with the one caveat that the Hugo Awards tend to revisit series throughout, and this feels like it could be one of those. This is clearly ambitious stuff, and I am curious about some of the open plot threads. The revelations of the ending could certainly lend themselves to a more engaging narrative and let's not forget some of the logical endpoints of the Enlightenment, such as the Reign of Terror in France. Will this series actually go there? I admit curiosity, but not so much that I'd check it out without nudging from a second Hugo nomination. For all its interesting ideas and ambition, as it stands now, this book would fall somewhere towards the bottom of my current ballot.

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The universe is so large that it's inconceivable that we'd be the only form of intelligent life in existence, but in the words of Physicist Enrico Fermi, "Where is everybody?" If there's lots of intelligent life out there, some far more advanced than we are, why isn't there any evidence that they exist? This contradiction between probability and evidence is known as the Fermi Paradox. There are potential explanations, but the implications of the Fermi paradox are often not very comforting and sometimes downright depressing.

In science fiction, first contact stories usually deal with this in some way, at least implicitly (if not explicitly). In The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu lays out one reason first contact should be carefully considered. Spoilers for all three novels follow! In that novel, a Chinese scientist, disheartened by her Communist upbringing (during the Culural Revolution, her father is killed, she is persecuted for reading a banned book, other family members joined the Red Guard, etc...) and general cruelty of humans, basically invites a nearby alien race to come and "purify the human race." The Trisolarans live in an inhospitable star system and the relative comfort of a planet like Earth is attractive to them, so they naturally begin invasion procedures. Interstellar travel being what it is, even for a civilization more advanced than we are, it will take their invasion fleet 400 years to reach earth. To clear the way for the invasion, the Trisolarans send and advance party of Sophons (basically a computer/AI embedded into a single proton in a handwavey but bravura sequence in the book) that will spy on the humans and also halt human scientific research and development by interrupting experiments and giving false results, etc...

The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo award a couple years ago, thanks in part to its absence from Puppy-related slates (and yet, being the type of story that Puppies seem to like). The follow up, The Dark Forest, picks up where the first book left off: Trisolaran fleet on its way, Sophons blocking technological progress, whatever shall humans do? After some speculation on the general impact such events would have on society and politics, the book settles into an examination of a human plan called the Wallfacer project. The UN selects four individuals and provides them with unlimited resources in order to devise a counterattack to the Trisolarans. However, thanks to the surveillance of the Sophons, these four men must keep their true plans secret. The Trisolaran response, carried out by human traitors in an organization called the ETO (Earth-Trisolaris Organization), is to designate four individuals in opposition, the Wallbreakers.

Due to the need to keep these plans secret, they all appear to be rather simplistic and silly on their face. However, as the novel progresses and the Wallbreakers study their opponents, the true nature of the plans come to light. Wallfacer Frederick Tyler, the former US Secretary of Defense, has a public plan to create a fleet of mosquito ships with kamikaze-like pilots that will swarm the attacking fleet and detonate nuclear bombs. His Wallbreaker reveals the true plan, which involves bringing a huge amount of water into space and using it to fuel a massive hydrogen bomb (this plan was never all that clear to me). Wallfacer Rey Diaz, famous for repelling a US invasion of Venezuela, has a similar public plan of creating huge nuclear bombs, but his true plan, to use the nuclear bombs to launch Mercury into the sun, thus destroying the entire system (including Earth), is exposed by his Wallbreaker. While this might have been an effective deterrent, it was revealed too early and the rest of humanity wasn't too keen on the plan. Wallfacer Bill Hines, a British neuroscientist, wants to use genetic modification to improve the human mind. His true plan is subverted by his Wallbreaker, who is also his wife. Details are a little unclear, but it turns out that the "Mental Seal" device he created actually instills defeatism in its users. Fortunately, the process was never fully adopted.

Finally, there's the most unlikely Wallfacer, Luo Ji. If this book could be said to have a protagonist, it would be him. He immediately refuses the honor, but his refusal is taken to be part of his plan. Resigned to his fate, he simply adopts a hedonistic lifestyle, finding an isolated home, drinking expensive wine, and using the UN as a dating service to find an attractive woman (who, for some reason, goes along with this?) Eventually, he reveals a public plan to transmit a "spell against the planets of star 187J3X1" into the universe. He says this will take at least one hundred years to work, but he predicts that his spell will be devastating. For their part, the Trisolarans seem the most afraid of Luo Ji, and rather than assign a Wallbreaker, they simply try to assassinate him. Luo Ji escapes barely, and manages to make his way into hibernation.

200 years later, he awakens to a changed world. Environmental degradation has lead to large underground excavations. Despite the Sophon block, technology has increased dramatically, and humanity now sports a fleet of thousands of spaceships. Observations of the Trisolaran fleet show trouble for our enemies, as the size of the fleet dwindles (presumably due to accidents or damage sustained during high speed travel). Humanity seems to regard the Wallfacer program a failure and is now seeking to establish diplomatic talks with the Trisolarans. Despite this, Luo Ji has to dodge a series of assassination attempts after he awakes, so clearly the Trisolarans are still scared of him.

All's well, right? Well, not so much. The arrival of the first Trisolaran probe results in a devastating attack on humanity's space capability (dubbed "The Battle of Darkness"). If such a tiny probe is so advanced, humanity has no chance against even a weakened Trisolaran fleet. That is, until Luo Ji's spell finally takes effect and star 187J3X1 is destroyed. His Wallfacer plan is thus finally revealed, and it relies on one of the more depressing explanations for the Fermi Paradox: While intelligent life may be plentiful in the universe, if you reveal your location, at least one of those civilizations will be both more advanced than you AND be a scary, predatory culture that will only see you as a potential threat. The strategy of such a civilization would be to preemptively strike any developing civilization before it can become a true threat. Luo Ji had sent out a message indicating that it came from star 187J3X1. This message was presumably received by lots of alien civilizations, but it eventually reached a more predatory species who simply destroyed the system. The title of the book comes from a metaphor: The universe is a dark forest where every civilization is a silent hunter. Any civilization that announces itself becomes a target.

Phew, that's a lot of plot, and believe it or not, I'm greatly simplifying here and leaving lots out. Like its predecessor, this book is stuffed with plot, ideas, and little thought experiments. This makes for interesting reading, and the overarching conflict is tense and exciting, but in execution it does feel a bit scattershot. The concept of the Wallfacer project is great, but it takes a bit too long to get at the hidden plans, and we spend a lot of time with characters who are closed off and focused on seemingly tangential plot points. It turns out that in deceiving the Sophons, the Wallfacers also have to deceive the reader, which is a great idea, but Liu only barely clears that bar, making this an entertaining read, but one that feels like it has a lot of filler. By design and for good reason, but filler nonetheless. That being said, I was surprised that it didn't manage to make the Hugo ballot last year. Then again, it's not like I read it back then or nominated it, so I don't have to look far for an explanation.

So finally we get to Death's End, the conclusion to Liu's trilogy and one of the nominees for this year's Hugo Awards. Naturally, this one starts with a segment set during the Fall of Constantinople. Without spoiling details, it ends millions of years in the future. Inbetween, we get some other approaches to the Trisolaran threat that parallel the Wallfacer project (a timeframe referred to as the "Crisis Era"), such as the Staircase Program (an attempt to send a lone human emissary to meet the Trisolaran fleet). We eventually get to the "Deterrence Era" in which Luo Ji is known as the Swordholder and deters the Trisolarans with mutually-assured destruction. But Luo Ji is getting old and must be replaced. His replacement is Cheng Xin, who worked on the Staircase project. Unfortunately, at the moment of transition, the Trisolarans immediately attack (using their probes and Sophons, etc...) and it's revealed that a new invasion fleet, capable of light speed, has set out from Trisolaris and will arrive in 4 years. Cheng Xin does not initiate the Dark Forest broadcast (because that would kill both civilizations) and the Trisolarans start colonization procedures, allowing humanity to collect itself in Australia (while the Trisolarans will take the rest of the planet). When the full implications of this emerge (the Trisolarans expect only about 50 million humans to survive), humanity gets all uppity and ends up broadcasting the location of Trisolaris into the Dark Forest, resulting in its quick destruction. It's only a matter of time before that same scary, predatory race intuits Earth as the origin of these broadcasts, so the Trisolaris fleet changes directions and flees into the galaxy. Humanity works on ways to counter the predatory race, either by hiding from it, escaping to interstellar space, or a few other tricks. Will they succeed?

Once again, what we have here is a novel that is overstuffed with ideas and thought experiments. Liu has a knack for naming things to evoke archetypal characteristics. Wallfacer/Wallbreaker, Staircase, Swordholder, and even the various Eras referred to throughout (Broadcast Era, Bunker Era, etc...); all of these lend a certain feeling of universality and scope that make this seem classical and enduring. High ambition, high stakes (that are actually earned), and a willingness to confront uncomfortable ideas and take them to their frightening but logical conclusions. I won't spoil the ending, but it's bittersweet at best, and existentially terrifying at worst. There's a reason that Fermi Paradox folks like to say "No news is good news" and this novel nails why that statement works.

Those ideas that evoke the fabled SF goal of Sense of Wonder are what make these books work. The more sociological and philosophical aspects of the story are a little less focused and successful, leading to some inconsistency in terms of characters and pacing that perhaps make the series too long and pull the books down a peg or two. I suspect some things are lost in translation here, but this is not meant as a slight on Ken Liu (who translated the first and third books in the series), just an acknowledgement that translations naturally produce, for example, awkward dialog and pacing. I'll put this on me too, as reading a book from another culture always presents challenges that I'll readily admit I'm not always equal to. However, most of my complaints are far outweighed by what this series gets right, and this will rank high on my Hugo ballot, though I don't know that it will unseat my current frontrunner (which remains Ninefox Gambit). This isn't quite the diamond-hard SF of Greg Egan or Peter Watts, but it's fully in the tradition of "literature of ideas" and even if some of those ideas don't land for me, it's definitely my kinda SF.

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Link Dump

I've run across some links of such importance that any and all other thoughts had to be postponed so that I could just point to them:
  • Things full of beans that shouldn't be full of beans - Um, ignore the intro above.
  • If Guardians of the Galaxy was DC - Marginally better than beans, but still completely frivolous. A fun takedown of DC's humorless approach though.
  • Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing - This one is actually a pretty useful list of writerly tidbits:
    A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

    My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

    Man, I'm really going to fall back on this when reviewing Hugo finalists that are "perpetrating hooptedoodle" (of which there seems to be a lot).
  • The Conceptual Penis as Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies - These stunts are anecdotal, but remain a little troubling anyway. The reference in the subtitle is from physicist Alan Sokal's famous nonsensical parody "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". Sokal was pretty thorough, but this most recent effort should have been embarrassingly easy to spot. For example, their references were mostly fake:
    Not only is the text ridiculous, so are the references. Most of our references are quotations from papers and figures in the field that barely make sense in the context of the text. Others were obtained by searching keywords and grabbing papers that sounded plausibly connected to words we cited. We read exactly zero of the sources we cited, by intention, as part of the hoax. And it gets still worse…

    Some references cite the Postmodern Generator, a website coded in the 1990s by Andrew Bulhak featuring an algorithm, based on NYU physicist Alan Sokal’s method of hoaxing a cultural studies journal called Social Text, that returns a different fake postmodern “paper” every time the page is reloaded. We cited and quoted from the Postmodern Generator liberally; this includes nonsense quotations incorporated in the body of the paper and citing five different “papers” generated in the course of a few minutes.

    Five references to fake papers in journals that don’t exist is astonishing on its own, but it’s incredible given that the original paper we submitted had only sixteen references total (it has twenty now, after a reviewer asked for more examples). Nearly a third of our references in the original paper go to fake sources from a website mocking the fact that this kind of thing is brainlessly possible, particularly in “academic” fields corrupted by postmodernism.
    Again, it's anecdotal, and there's plenty of pay-for-play type journals out there that don't have any integrity (see this guy who got an article published in a medical journal about Seinfeld's fictional urology disease "uromycitisis"), but that this seems to keep happening isn't exactly encouraging...
  • Ever wonder what happened to Kirk Van Houten right after he was fired from the cracker factory? - An excerpt that didn't make it into a Simpson's episode... Very funny. Introduction above reinstated.
That's all for now.
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