Hugo Award Season 2017

The nomination period for the 2017 Hugo Awards is open, so I thought I'd get some of my thoughts out there before the requisite whining and controversy begins in earnest. I've read several eligible works, but as of right now, only two will make my ballot:

The interesting thing about these choices is that both feature the concept of two characters sharing one consciousness. Ninefox Gambit comes from an arguably SFnal perspective, while Penric's Mission is distinctly fantasy. Ninefox's characters have a more adversarial relationship, while Penric's characters are more symbiotic. I don't know what this says about me, especially if you're the type who doesn't believe in coincidences.

On the novel front, I'm currently reading A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers that has the potential to make the cut. I might get to one or two other novels before the nomination period ends, but I'm probably more interested in digging into some short fiction in the near term. Of note here is Jonathan Edelstein's roundup of short fiction over at Haibane.info, of which several seem right up my alley.

This also marks the first year the Hugos are considering a Best Series category. It's not guaranteed to continue, but there are tons of eligible series this year, including some heavy hitters. As far as I can see, this is Harry Potter's award to lose. I'm also nominating Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga here, though again, I'm doubt any series could stop the Harry Potter juggernaut. The rules for best series are pretty simple, which of course means that there are lots of edge cases that make it difficult to predict how or even if this award will continue. The devil is in the details, and there are a lot of non-trivial problems with this award. For example, let's say we get 5 series nominated. If you haven't read all of them, what does that mean for the voting process? The Vorkosigan Saga is somewhere between 15-20 stories (depending on how you count some of the novellas) that would be difficult to read in just a couple of months. All of which is to say that I'm curious to see how this shakes out this year...

I will obviously be nominating for the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form award, most notably Arrival (which I think should win) and The Witch (which I'm doubting will get a nomination at all). After those two, there's a second tier of worthy nominees that I'll have to wade through.

I'm hoping that this will be the least controversial year since I started voting, as the Sad Puppies will be proceeding much like they did last year, while Rabid Puppies seem to be reticent to spend any money to support the Hugos anymore (which will, you know, mean less influence since it costs money to nominate and vote).

Any recommendations or suggestions are welcome! I will most likely post a follow up post with my final nomination ballot as the end of the nomination period approaches (sometime in March or so).

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Vintage Science Fiction Month: Wasp

Vintage SF Month is hosted by the Little Red Reviewer. I don't know how I missed this before, but since I've already read two vintage (i.e. "older than I am") works this month without even trying, I figured it would be fun to participate! First up: Wasp, by Eric Frank Russell:

"... the driver lost control at high speed while swiping at a wasp which had flown in through a window and was buzzing around his face. ... The weight of a wasp is under half an ounce. Compared with a human being, the wasp's size is minute, its strength negligible. Its sole armament is a tiny syringe holding a drop of irritant, formic acid. In this instance, the wasp didn't use it. Nevertheless, that wasp killed four big men and converted a large, powerful car into a heap of scrap." - Wasp, pages 3-4

Terrorists make for unlikely heroes, especially in our post 9/11 world, but Eric Frank Russell's 1957 novel Wasp represents a valiant effort that feels prescient and relevant to this day.

Sometime in the future, humans are at war with the Sirian Empire. Even though the humans posses superior technology in nearly every way, the Sirian Empire is able to compensate because their population outnumbers the humans by a ratio of 12 to 1 (along with commensurate advantage in resources). What to do when confronted with numerical inferiority? Resort to asymmetrical warfare! James Mowry is the titular wasp, a single human saboteur sent to the Sirian empire to sow discord and disruption. Given suitable circumstances, one man against a whole planet can "obtain results monstrously in excess of the effort."

He is, in effect, a terrorist. His tactics start out innocently enough. Phase 1 of his plan simply involves slapping subversive stickers all over various cities in order to establish the existence of a (nonexistent) resistance organisation named Dirac Angestun Gesept (Sirian Freedom Party). Subsequent phases escalate to targeted assassinations and bombings. He is aided by the panic of the Sirian government, depicted as an oppressive police state that engages in censorship and forceful suppression. Ironically, one of the strengths of asymmetrical warfare is that when your enemy commits a major act of violence against the people, you (the terrorist) win and you become stronger.

This is certainly a peculiar book. Terry Pratchett once commented that he "can't imagine a funnier terrorists' handbook." The tone of the book is certainly lighter than you'd expect from the above description, and it does have a dark, dry humor to it that is surprising. Mowry is a likable enough agent provocateur, but he is still a terrorist. We really don't know that much about him, actually. His recruitment at the beginning of the novel is coerced and I read it to basically be a death sentence (i.e. even if he survives, he will simply be redeployed). Russell does his best to soften the violence against the Sirians leadership by portraying them as obnoxious bureaucrats, but he leaves room for doubt due to reprisals on the innocent population (who are mostly portrayed as ordinary, perfectly nice people). We're clearly meant to root for Mowry, but Russell doesn't quite let us off that easy and provokes questions that are not easily answered.

Of course, the procedural aspects are great, and hold up pretty well too. Most of the tactics used in the novel feel logical and independent of hand-wavey technological cheats. For instance, there's a clever variant on a typical "follow that car" sequence in which Mowry, not wanting to attract suspicion, tells the cab driver that he doesn't remember the exact name of where he's headed, but he does remember the how to get there, so he'll just direct the driver as they go. Humor emanates from some of these tactics as well, like when the Sirian government, attempting to counter Dirac Angestun Gesept by requiring every organization on the planet, from the lowliest knitting group to the largest corporation, to formally register. Unphased, Mowry obtains a form and formally registers Dirac Angestun Gesept (Purpose of organization: Destruction of present government and termination of war against Terra. Names and address of elected officers: You'll find out when it's too late.). The 4GW crowd would probably love this book... if they didn't already have a well worn, dog-eared copy. The Sirian level of technology does seem suspiciously like that of 1950s earth, but Russell mitigates that with his earlier notion that the Sirians are technologically inferior.

Russell did serve in the RAF in WWII, and that's lead to some speculation that he had at least some firsthand experience (or at least, knowledge) of disruption in occupied Europe. As an anecdotal observation, the depiction of asymmetrical warfare in fiction was beginning to uptick in the 50s and 60s (I'm thinking of Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in SF, as well as French memoirs and even some films like Jean Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows). In this respect, Russell's work does seem prescient, though it would be interesting to do more formal research to see how fiction depicted terrorism over time.

Aside from Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman has also counted himself a fan, and even set about trying for a movie adaptation:

The only book I've optioned was WASP. I started the script, wrote about a dozen pages, then Sept 11th happened, and I let the option lapse; I didn’t think that the world (or at least the U.S.) would be ready for a terrorist hero for a very long time. And he is a terrorist—one man tying up an entire planet's military might as they look for a huge non-existent organisation, using nothing but the 1950s plot-equivalent of a couple of explosions and a few envelopes filled with anthrax powder...

It would make for an interesting movie, though I'm guessing they'd rethink the Sirian appearance of purple skin, bowlegged gait, and funny ears. Regardless, I think it's something we could handle now, so perhaps, someday...

It's a short, easy to read book with little in the way of character depth or stylistic flourishes, but it's also fascinating, prescient, relevant, darkly funny, and a little scary. Certainly worth a few hours of your time.


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The Year in Books

In accordance with tradition, I'm taking a look back at the year in books (and movies, which will be getting their own, more elaborate, recap in the coming weeks). I keep track of my reading at Goodreads (we should be friends there!), and they have some nifty statistical visualization tools that I can use, even if I'd love a deeper dive into this sort of thing (which I can do, for sure, but which would be much nicer if automated).

First up is total books read:

Number of books read

I read 50 books last year which ties my record in the current era (set in 2012). Full list here. Of course, standard disclaimers apply, as this includes a fair amount of short fiction and graphic novels which distorts the numbers a bit. Also, some were audiobooks, which might be a tad misleading. That being said, total pages read provides another angle:

Number of pages read per year

Notably more than last year, just barely edging past 2012, and narrowly missing the 2014 record. Adding in the inherent variability of page numbers, and I think it's reasonable to put me on par with the record of the modern era. Not too shabby. Anecdotal observation indicates that I tend to read more page numbers when reading shorter books, while longer epics tend to slow me down. This year I had some of both. Sure, I had a bunch of short fiction, but I also read two 900+ page books and several 600+ page books. Some more data:

Summary of Book Reading

Slightly off pace this year, as last year's average page length was 306, but again, variability puts this number at about par. Still, this represents a long slide from my high of 356 pages, set in 2013 (which, ironically but tellingly, also had the fewest books read). The longest book of the year was The Ascent of Wonder, a SF anthology clocking in at 992 pages, but I will note that these were large, dense pages that took longer to read than most other books (i.e. this is probably longer than most of my previous longest reads). Runner up would be Swan Song at 956 pages.

Pie Chart

The breakdown got a little more complicated this year and includes more short stories and comic books than last year. Probably less non-fiction though, something that I should rectify in 2017.

Books by Publication Date

In terms of publication dates, I definitely spread myself out much more this year than in the past two years. I attribute this to lower participation in the Hugo Awards nomination process, which means less current reading, more time to explore the classics or older stuff. The oldest book was 1939's classic And Then There Were None/Ten Little Indians, followed by 1949's Needle, also very good.

So I declare last year a success. I don't have any overriding themes or needs for 2017, so I think you can expect more of the same. Maybe more non-fiction and slightly less current fiction, but no dramatic changes. I'm again on the fence about this year's Hugo Awards, but after last year's mild improvement, I'm hoping this year could represent a return to form. I certainly have a few things that I think would make great nominees, so hopefully they still let last year's members nominate this year... Well, that just about wraps things up. How did your year in books go?

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2016 Year End Movie Cramming

As our planet completes its orbital cycle, most critics and publications have already published their "Best of 2016" lists and other such reminiscences. Here at Kaedrin, we love movies, but we're beholden to no one and do not conform to your silly timelines. Also, I'm like, just a guy who likes movies a lot. I don't have critic credentials, have access to screeners, or any other such luxuries. So my top 10 movie lists tend to come out in February, not long before the Oscars. This gives me time to catch up with some movies that only had qualifying runs in NY/LA theaters or some indies that are only now coming to streaming availability. It has nothing to do with laziness, I swears. Anyway, my January tends to be chock full of the previous year's movies. As of Christmas*, I had seen about 45 movies that would be considered a 2016 release (are you on Letterboxd? We should follow each other.) This might be a hair behind the past few years' pace, but it's basically on par. By the end of January, I'll probably have seen 70-80 movies from 2016 and have a pretty solid top 10. There's still lots of ground to cover, so let's create a list of films I want to see. As per usual, much of this is dependent on availability, so I most likely won't get to every one of these, but it's a good place to start:
  • Tickled - A documentary where a journalist delves into the rough and tumble world of... online competitive tickling? This is exactly the sort of documentary that normally gets me, so it's at the top of the list (and yes, I've now seen it, and it's about much more than, uh, tickling; it's also fantastic). (Available for purchase, should be rentable soon.)
  • Weiner - Documentary covering Anthony Weiner's rise, fall, attempted comeback, and additionally collapse. Apparently notable for the amount of access the filmmakers had during his run for Mayor, especially when the scandals broke. (And yes, it's an astounding document.) (Available on Showtime's various streaming channels, I was able to watch it on Amazon with a 7 day free trial that I canceled the next day.)
  • Moana - Disney's latest animated musical has been getting rave reviews and they've been on a bit of a hot streak recently, so this goes on the list. (Totally worth it, it's a lot of fun...) (In theaters now.)
  • Hunt for the Wilderpeople - I didn't know much about this except that it was the next film from Taika Waititi, who made one of last year's favorites, What We Do in the Shadows, which is enough to make me want to see it. (And it's great!) (Available for rental. Streaming on Hulu.)
  • Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World - Werner Herzog's exploration of the Internet and technology, what's not to like? (It's decent, a bit unfocused, but interesting.) (Streaming on Netflix.)
  • La La Land - Director Damien Chazelle's throwback musical about an aspiring actress falling for a jazz musician in LA. I am not much of a fan of musicals, but this looks to be a front-runner for this year's Oscars and I've heard people say things like "This is a musical for people who say they don't like musicals". This makes me skeptical, but I'll give it a shot. (And I really enjoyed it! Not sure if it's top 10 material, but it's fun!) (In theaters now)
  • Love & Friendship - So I'm not particularly into Jane Austen costume dramas and I've actually never seen a Whit Stillman movie, but I've heard good things about this from folks I trust, so on the list it goes. (And it's quite good! It took me a bit to get into it, but by the end I was quite taken with it...) (Streaming on Amazon Prime.)
  • The Handmaiden - Chan-wook Park's latest film about some sort of, um, handmaiden who is seeking to defraud her employer. Or something. Who cares, it's Park Chan-wook, I'm in. (Releases on DVD/Streaming sometime late January)
  • Kill Zone 2 - AKA "SPL 2: A Time for Consequences", this is a Tony Jaa action movie with some buzz behind it. I will watch this. (Available on Netflix Instant)
  • Swiss Army Man - Ah the Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie. Despite that pitch, it's apparently a very good film, so I will be checking it out. (Available for rental or purchase on most services)
  • Finding Dory - Never saw Pixar's latest in the theater, which needs to be rectified. (Available for rental on most services)
  • Pete's Dragon - Live action remakes aren't usually my jam, but I'm told this is worth checking out so I probably will... (Available for rental on most services)
  • The Jungle Book - Again, live action remake of an animated movie that I was never particularly in love with in the first place, but then, I hear good things... (Streaming on Netflix)
  • The Mermaid - Stephen Chow's latest was apparently a huge hit in China... but it's American release was suspiciously quiet. I will watch. (Available for rental or purchase on most services)
  • The Autopsy of Jane Doe - I know nothing about this except that it's supposed to be one of the better obscure horror releases of the year. Sold. (Available for rental or purchase on most services)
  • Kubo and the Two Strings - Another animated movie that I skipped in theaters, but people keep raving about it, so I guess I should give it a shot... (Available for rental or purchase on most services)
  • De Palma - A documentary about Brian De Palma? Ok, sure, why not? (Streaming on Amazon Prime.)
  • The Fits - I don't know much about this other than that it starts a young actress named Royalty Hightower, which is the best name ever. Also, it's supposed to be good, so there's that. (Streaming on Amazon Prime)
  • Elle - Paul Verhoeven's latest and probably worth checking out solely because of that, but then, this has been getting mixed reviews, so there is that. Might not get to this one... (Availability unknown, which doesn't help)
  • Moonlight - Critical darling of the year, it's only playing in Philly and I'm not sure if I can get down there before it leaves theaters. Does not sound like my cup of tea, but seems worth the stretch. (In theaters now.)
  • Three - The latest from Kaedrin favorite Johnnie To, this one doesn't appear to be available anywhere just yet... (Availability unknown)
  • The Love Witch - I have no idea what this thing is and I've read about it a few times but I still don't have a clue, which does make me want to watch it, but I can't seem to find it anywhere. (Availability unknown)
  • I Am Not a Serial Killer - I've heard good things about the book, so why not watch the movie? (Streaming on Netflix)
Phew, that's 23 movies, which should keep me busy. I'm sure I'll see some other things not on this list, and I most certainly will not get to all of these, but it's a good start.

* I started writing this post a little before Christmas and meant to post it earlier last week, but this is a busy time of the year and yes, laziness was probably involved too. As such, a goodly portion of the above have already been watched - I'm now at 52 movies from 2016 and counting.

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Rogue One

The case against Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens boils down to its plot, a retread of the original Star Wars Death Star storyline. While I was more than willing to go with it, as it it does execute well (plus, as I mentioned at the time, it does "rhyme" with the original trilogy much better than the prequels), I do certainly feel like that plot point is getting a bit tired. Enter Rogue One, the first in a series of one-off "Star Wars Stories" that will be injected between the numbered outings. Once again, we're focused on a Death Star plot... but this isn't really a retread. It tells the story of how the Rebels managed to snag the original Death Star's plans (and how they so quickly found its weakness). Spoilers aho!

As a child, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) sees her mother killed and father, genius scientist Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), suborned by the Empire to complete the construction of some sort of mysterious superweapon (that we immediately know is the original Death Star). Jyn manages to escape and is rescued and raised by a splinter rebel faction led by Saw Guerrera (Forest Whitaker). Jump ahead a few years and Jyn is imprisoned by the Empire, though they luckily do not know her true identity. She is rescued by the Rebel Alliance, who needs her connections to that splinter faction, as they've captured a defector claiming to have a message from Galen Erso. At first reluctant, Jyn gets onboard and builds a team of rebels, including the spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a reprogrammed Empire droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a Zatoichi-like blind martial artist who is clearly not a Jedi named Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), and his machine-gun wielding friend Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). Together they must find the Death Star plans and deliver them to the Rebel Alliance. Along the way, they are opposed by Empire apparatchik Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and his bosses, Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin.

Phew. Everybody get that? For a general plot that is very simple at its core, they've certainly amped up the moving parts to imply complexity. Tons of new characters, lots of new planets, backstories, subplots, and so on. It's a bit overstuffed and perhaps not every arc is completely earned, but they managed to pull it off, even if it sometimes feels a bit perfunctory. Still, for a movie that is technically a prequel where you know how it's going to end up, this does a remarkably good job inserting itself into the series without distracting from the originals. This is a movie that engages and enriches the original. It doesn't just retread things we already know or fill holes, it adds something meaningful to the series. It's probably one of the better prequels ever made.

I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that almost all of these characters are new and relatively interesting. We recognize many side characters, but the core is all new and unknown to us. Again, we don't necessarily get to spend enough time with each character's backstory or subplot to completely earn the payoff, but it's still a payoff. There are some standouts, namely Alan Tudyk's voice acting for K-2SO, who gets a couple of great lines. I liked the idea of Forest Whitaker's cave-dwelling terrorist gone half-mad with paranoia and yet, being on the "right side" of Star Wars history. Similarly, Diego Luna does some good work with his tortured spy who's seen and done horrible things. Felicity Jones does well in the lead role, and once her character buys in, she displays enough charisma to get by. Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang make for a good team and are total badasses. The problem is, again, not enough time to really flesh out these characters, making the movie feel a bit overstuffed.

This movie is a little more consistent and even though, so we don't quite get anything as great as BB-8 giving the flaming thumbs up in VIII, for instance, but we also don't get as many head-scratchers (how exactly does Starkiller base work?) Ultimately, we care about the characters and they're fun to be around, even if they don't really go above and beyond in that respect (i.e. we're just not given any reasons to really dislike the characters, which is a trap that they could have easily fallen into). The plot is simple, but it does add some interesting retcons that actually enhance the series (namely, why the Death Star is so vulnerable).

Visually, it's a very impressive movie. Director Gareth Edwards seems to be good at that, and his action chops are up to par as well. I really enjoyed the action here, and the set pieces were varied enough that it never becomes repetitious or tedious. Edwards isn't as great with story, but what's here is light years beyond Godzilla or Monsters.

Also distressing, especially given Edwards visual effects background, is the baffling choice to use CGI models for Grand Moff Tarkin (and one other character that shall remain nameless). This is something that has kinda worked in other movies (see Marvel's use in Ant-Man and Civil War, though in both cases, what you're seeing is younger versions of living actors - I guess the tech isn't quite there for actors who have passed long ago...), but fails pretty miserably here. Individual moments or stills might work fine, but added up, the CGI never quite clears the uncanny valley. They get pretty far across... only to faceplant on the far edge of the valley... It becomes even more baffling given that they were able to cast some pretty great lookalikes (at least, close enough) for some of the other side characters, like Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly). O'Reilly played Mon Mothma in Episode III, which is interesting because that movie also features Wayne Pygram as Tarkin... and that looked fine!

Finally, I think they managed to pull off the darker, grittier vibe they were pulling for without distracting from its Star-Warsian nature, but once again, they don't really have enough time to really nail these themes down. They walk the line well, though it would be nice, just once, for someone to say that a sequel or prequel will be "brighter and more fun" rather than "darker and grittier".

So I'd call this movie a success. It's not perfect, but most of my criticisms are relatively minor. That being said, let's maybe lay off the Death Star focused storylines from now on, shall we? Maybe it's just because there've been sooo many sequels in 2016 that failed so completely at this, but Rogue One walked a narrow tightrope on this movie and got to the other side. In general though, this fits well with the series. The original trilogy still resonates most with me, but I'd put Rogue One at least on par with VII, if not better. It's certainly a massive improvement over the prequels, that's for sure. I'm looking forward to more "Star Wars Stories", and am obviously excited for VIII. We live in bountiful times for nerdy pursuits, which makes me happy.

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Link Dump

As per usual, links from the depths of ye olde internets:
  • A Ridiculously Obsessive Appreciation for "Casino Royale" - Matt Patches exhaustive, scene-by-scene appreciation for the Bond reboot:
    Casino Royale scared audiences in 2006 shitless with an opening shot that bypassed the traditional gun-barrel opening. What the hell was going on? "I DID NOT JUST PAY $35 FOR TWO TICKETS, A POPCORN, AND JUNIOR MINTS TO WATCH SOME ARTSY CZECH MOVIE ABOUT PARLIAMENTARY GOVERNMENT OR WHATEVER," they screamed. Despite being a 50-year-old franchise, a Bond movie had yet to draw back the color palette to crisp black and white.
    Detailed, insightful, and funny. Worth a read if you love the movie (as I certainly do!)
  • This Photo Of A Naked Jai Courtney Proves That SUICIDE SQUAD Was Worth It In The End - Jai Courtney was on Conan and described this one time during the filming of Suicide Squad, he was naked and chased director David Ayer around the set. Not exactly convinced that this makes up for the movie, but it's a step in the right direction.
  • If the Worst Suicide Squad Reviews Appeared in Its Trailer - This I agree with.
  • False Dmitry - Uh, just call me Dmitry.
That's all for now.
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As we hurtle on towards the end of our current orbital cycle, I thought I'd check out some of the SF/F that's been making waves this year in preparation for the Hugo nomination process. I've discovered some pretty good stuff, but little that is really inspiring. Still, I have one or two things that will probably end up on my nomination ballot, so that's a good start.
  • Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel - A little girl accidentally discovers a giant metal hand buried in South Dakota. After decades of study, the government finally starts making some progress. They've located other body parts and, amazingly, they fit together, creating a huge, pilotable mecha. Told from the perspective of a nameless interviewer with a surprising amount of political power and influence, the book consists mostly of his interviews and debriefings. It's a surprisingly effective framing device, and while the story moves quickly and efficiently, it does get fairly ridiculous as it moves on. There are some tantalizing hints at future conflicts, but since this is the first in a series, we don't really get much of that. This book concerns itself more with the discovery and initial baby steps (pun intended!) than with grand, galactic conflicts. All well and good, but it makes the ending feel a bit anticlimactic. It's a fun, page-turning book, but not something that is really inspiring me to pick up the next in the series when it comes out next year. It reminds me a little of Lost, but unfortunately that cuts both ways: I love the mysterious and speculative aspects of the story, but what's been revealed so far does not exactly inspire confidence that it will end much better than Lost did... but I've been wrong before! This would probably make a great TV show though (found footage? mock documentary?)
  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee - Captain Kel Cheris has a knack for unconventional combat tactics. Unfortunately, in a battleground where armies rely on emergent properties of rigid social systems called "calendars", her innovations are considered heretical, even when she succeeds (or at least, prevents a rout). She's thus given a chance to redeem herself by retaking the Fortress of Scattered Needles, a star fortress that has recently been captured by heretics. To do so, she enlists the help of an unstable military genius, Shuos Jedao. Of course, since he died centuries ago, only his mind survives... and is thus temporarily implanted inside of Cheris's brain. This book is difficult to pin down. On its surface, there is tremendous complexity. The calendrical weapons and exotic effects are well drawn and entertaining, to be sure, but it's difficult to grok how they work simply from their (often grotesque) effects (which is all we are really exposed to). There are various factions within the calendar, and other emergent effects as well. This rewards close reading, but you can also only go so far. Fortunately, while we don't know how this stuff works, I do get the feeling that they are internally consistent and rigorous, so it doesn't feel like magic (nor does it seem to fall into the typical magic trap of escalating powers). All of this is worldbuilding and only really surface-level detail though. The story itself is a little more straightforward and essentially boils down to the relationship between Cheris and Jedao. There's a sort of mentor/mentee relationship there, with differing but complementary skillsets. For his part, Jedao is manipulative and sneaky enough to earn the reputation he has as a madman/mass-murderer, but also sympathetic enough to make you wonder if he isn't quite as crazy as he seems. This is also the first in a series, but I'm much more likely to pick up the sequels in this case (fingers crossed that I'll remember enough about the worldbuilding to not be completely lost), and this book will be on my Hugo nomination ballot next year.
  • The Dispatcher by John Scalzi - In a world where murder becomes nearly impossible (anyone who is killed simply disappears and awakes in their home, alive and well), Tony Valdez has taken on the job of a Dispatcher. Someone who legally kills people who would normally die under natural causes (i.e. when someone is going to die, he murders them, so that they can remain alive), a handy tool to have in an operating room or if you've been in some sort of accident. When a fellow Dispatcher is seemingly kidnapped, Valdez is recruited by a detective to sort it all out. So this idea is pretty much nonsense, but Scalzi does a good job fleshing it out, speculating on how the world changes because of this and figuring out various workarounds to the "rules". Much like his last novel, Lock In, this plays out like an above-average police procedural with speculative flair. The plot is twisty and turny enough, and Scalzi's general skill at pitter patter dialogue fits well. Definitely a worthy listen (this is currently only available as an audiobook). Not sure if it's Hugo-worthy though, and if I remember correctly, its audio-only release may create eligibility issues.
  • Dark Matter by Blake Crouch - Jason Dessen is a physics professor who probably could have made some breakthroughs if he'd prioritized his career over his family, but he didn't, and now lives happily with his wife and son. One night, he's kidnapped and knocked out my a mysterious masked man. He awakes in a strange new world, similar but not quite like his own. A world where he did make the decision to prioritize career over family. His wife became a successful artist and their son doesn't exist. As he puts together the pieces, he is aided in an escape attempt... and ends up traversing several alternate universes in an attempt to find his way home to his family. This is another pop-SF story that executes a little better than Sleeping Giants and barely skirts past the feeling of being SF-lite. Certainly a page turner and very entertaining, this only really manages a true sense-of-wonder jolt towards the end of the novel. Just when Dessen thinks he's made his escape, the shit really hits the fan. It's a neat concept, and the solution works satisfyingly enough. After reading a bunch of "first in a series" books, it was nice to have something self-contained. Ultimately, this is pretty good. Not quite Hugo level for me, and it's another book that almost seems ideally suited for a TV adaptation, but I enjoyed it well enough.
  • All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders - Patricia Delfine discovers she has magical powers when she is a little girl, speaking to a wounded bird and visiting the Parliament of Birds in a giant world-tree. Laurence Armstead has a knack for science and technology, building a two-second time machine when he's just a young boy. Of course, these two outcasts become friends, even if they're constantly interrupted or pulled away from one another. Decades later, the world is falling apart around them, and Patricia and Laurence keep running into each other. Can they save the planet? The idea here is intriguing - part fantasy, part science fiction, put them together and watch the sparks fly. Alas, this leans pretty heavily on the fantasy side of things. SF gets its licks in, but feels a little too stylized. The story fits together reasonably well. There is one jump in time that's a little more disruptive than it should be, it eventually gets back on track. The book has a nice whimsical tone to it that works well, even if that's not normally my thing. This is certainly not a rote pop-SF concept, but it is a page-turner and comports itself well. I don't know that it will make my ballot, but Anders has some Hugo cred already (having won with her novelette, Six Months, Three Days back in 2011) and I think it could end up on the ballot.
I'll probably tackle a few others before nominations close, but I don't have a ton of stuff left on my list of 2016 stuff that I'm super interested in...
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Story of Your Arrival

Ted Chiang's 1998 novella Story of Your Life is an unlikely candidate for a movie adaptation. I wouldn't go so far as to call it "unfilmable", but its concentration on an unromanticized depiction of a mother's relationship with her daughter, intercut with the mother's pragmatic attempts to translate language from an alien species visiting earth, doesn't seem particularly cinematic. So when I heard that director Denis Villeneuve was making an adaptation, I was curious to see what would come of it. Villeneuve has done well for himself in his past few outings, which gave a glimmer of hope that someone would get it right. Eric Heisserer wrote the screenplay, but his filmography did little to instill confidence. As it turns out, I'm quite pleased with the result. It's a different story, to be sure, but that it captures even a little of what makes Chiang's story so interesting is enough to make it one of the better films of the year (and one of the few movies to capture the experience of reading science fiction). It won't really be possible to comment further without Spoilers, so here be your warning.

Arrival was marketed in a way that made it look like another alien invasion movie. Even the film's title seems to indicate a shift in intent; Chiang's story leans heavier on the mother/daughter relationship, and the title reinforces that. Arrival focuses more on the aliens and adds in a geopolitical subplot that isn't present in the original story at all. The mother/daughter stuff is still there, and indeed, the opening of the movie leans heavily in that direction. But there are changes, changes that seem subtle at first, but which yield a very different outcome. Abigail Nussbaum noticed this too:

To someone familiar with the story, there is a hint early on in Arrival of its shift in priorities and premise. The film opens with a series of flashes to the relationship between linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and her daughter Hannah, culminating in Hannah's death, in her early adulthood, from a disease. In the story, Hannah dies in a climbing accident. The change initially seems pointless--or perhaps yet another indication that Hollywood thinks cancer is inherently more dramatic than any other form of tragedy--and then troubling. In the story, the point of Hannah's death being accidental is that it is easily preventable. Someone with knowledge of the future--as Louise will eventually become--could keep it from happening by saying a few words. The point of "Story of Your Life" is to explain why Louise doesn't do this. Making Hannah's death something that Louise can't prevent seems, in the film's early minutes, like an odd bit of point-missing.
I don't find the shift nearly as "troubling" as Nussbaum, nor is her interpretation and extrapolation of the story's themes the only one (for instance, I don't think we really know that her daughter's death is easily preventable, but I think that ambiguity is the point and we are meant to consider that), but it does seem clear that Villeneuve and Heisserer deliberately made these changes to the story in order to emphasize some different themes.

This is always the trap of the adaptation. It's possible to be too faithful to the original and generally doom yourself to an inferior experience. But if you stray too far, you end up with something completely disconnected from the original. The movie makes changes and is less ambiguous, but it does still inspire the same questions in my head. Chiang's story is a subtle examination of free will and determinism, the movie is more forthright and lays things out clearer, but still raises those questions. And frankly, I don't have the answers. I think that's the point.

The film certainly isn't perfect. Some of the exposition is awkwardly presented, in particular by our heroine's scientist counterpart, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who at one point delivers a voice-over that feels wholly out of place, even as it lays out some important ideas. Later he simply blurts out the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that learning the structure of a language affects the way you think and perceive the world, which is the key to the entire story. This is par for the SF adaptation course though, and this movie actually comports itself well on that scale. Villeneuve does well visually too. Towards the beginning of the film, we spend a fair amount of time entering the ship, where physics works differently. It's a nice visual representation of the linguistic shift of perspective the character is about to go through. Is it as good as Chiang's use of past, present, and future tense in the story? Probably not, but it does represent some thought put into adapting those ideas.

The added geopoltical subplot feels like it was probably necessary in order to get this film made, and it proceeds along more conventional lines. That said, it is well executed and dovetails nicely with the final twist. Its message of unity and harmony is well timed with world events, which doesn't hurt, and it never takes away from the core of the story. It also doesn't turn this into an action movie, however much the marketing wants you to believe it would be so. This is much to its strength.

This is a good adaptation of a subtle and difficult story, and one of the best movies of the year. Filmic SF so rarely captures the sense of wonder present in so much of its written counterpart that even if the adaptation isn't absolutely perfect, it still puts this movie in the top tier of SF films of all time (at least, in my book). You will probably see this near the top of my top 10 list this year, and I'm hoping it garners enough attention in Hollywood to yield more attempts at this sort of thing.

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Redesigning Kaedrin, 2016 Edition

So I did something dumb this week. I've been thinking about how poorly my sites display on mobile (not dumb) and was playing around with Movable Type (marginally dumb) and accidentally clicked on a new theme (extra special dumb). This had the effect of blowing out all of the design templates and modules I had ever created (and replacing them with the default MT setup). Because I installed MT back in aught-two, all of that crap was custom. Sure, it was backed up, but restoring it would be a pain and hey, maybe I should take this opportunity to refresh the technology behind the blog. Lots of things have changed in the decade-plus since I cobbled this place together and I haven't been keeping up. It's the sort of thing I've been meaning to do for a while, but who has time to redesign a site from scratch? It turns out that accidentally resetting the design was just the kick in the arse I needed. So welcome to the 2016 edition of Kaedrin (He says, as if he's done anything in the past decade or so. For reference, here's a writeup of the first few designs and here's what the site looked like until this afternoon.)

The biggest benefit you'll see is that the site looks a lot better on Mobile devices. The layout now uses some rudimentary responsive design techniques - if you shrink your browser window, you'll see some things rearrange themselves (notably the right navigation). It's far from perfect, but still a large improvement over the table based layout that had been in place for so long. Lots of changes to typography and spacing, mostly to accommodate mobile, but also because of the prevalence of higher resolution screens. I tried to keep the visual design fairly consistent, but lots of things have unavoidably changed. There are also tons of behind-the-scenes improvements that you won't notice, but Google will.

Of course, a few hours of tweaking the default templates does not a complete redesign make. There's still a lot of stuff I'd like to tackle, and plenty of other considerations:

  • Mobile still requires a lot of tweaking. The navigation at the top of the page does some funky things when the screen gets small, and frankly not all of that stuff is probably needed. Most of it is legacy content from the pre-blogging, turn-of-the-century timeframe and should mostly be jettisoned.
  • Speaking of navigation, most blogs seem to have abandoned the stuff that's currently in my right navigation. This might be worth considering, so long as I can still provide a way to navigate (I do hate it when you can't find someone's archives or they rely exclusively on lazy-loading or something).
  • Categories need a major overhaul. There's not much rhyme or reason to them, and many aren't complete (i.e. when I created a new one, I rarely went back and added legacy entries into the category). Because this is a generalist blog, a rigid categorization scheme is perhaps not ideal (unlike my beer blog, which has a well-thought-out and consistent categorization scheme). I should probably look into tags as well.
  • Monthly and Category Archives are kinda minimalist now. I'm planning on updating them to include full entries.
  • Breadcrumbs might not be necessary at this point, but I had them on the old site so they stay for now. Unfortunately, the default layout in MT puts them in a location that is mildly inconvenient. This might be the first thing to go.
  • Archives are all using the same filename conventions as previously, so this redesign shouldn't break any links. That said, I'd like to figure out a way to at least update the individual entries to use a more descriptive filename. This would break old links though, so I'd have to figure out the Canonical linking strategy, and that's no fun.
  • Visual design could certainly use some more work. I'm no artist, but I liked what was there before and I'd like to make some incremental improvements to this design as time goes on. The masthead needs some work, the footer is a mess, and the right nav could use some rethinking. Typography and spacing could use some tightening as well.
  • CSS needs considerable cleanup. Everything appears functional right now, but it's a mess. That's partly because CSS is an inherent nightmare, but also because I'm out of practice and MT's default templates are bonkers.
  • I tested the site in most modern browsers, but there will undoubtedly be a ton of tweaks needed in the near future. If you see anything dramatically wrong, please email or leave a comment.
  • Expect tons of tiny, incremental changes over the next few months. This is the big bang change, everything else should barely be noticable.

There's probably lots of other stuff as well and this whole fiasco did get me thinking generally about the state of personal, generalist blogs (i.e. they're basically an anachronism at this point), but I'll leave that for later posts. For now, just enjoy the new design and mobile experience...

Update: I've been making some tweaks throughout the day. I'm going to put a running list in the Extended Entry, partly just so that I can make sure that works too.

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Link Dump: Election

I don't think anyone wants to hear more about the election, but no one reads this blog anyway, so you're safe. Or, er, no that doesn't make sense, but nothing about this election made sense, so that's fitting. Or something. I don't write a lot about politics anymore, and I'm not generally interested in knee-jerk analysis, but that's all we've got right now. My instinct is try and understand what happened in a broad sense, and everyone is so shell-shocked right now (even the "winners", mostly) that they're just reverting to their previously held biases. From what I can see, almost every explanation for the election played a role. I won't go so far as to say that there were 118 million reasons why people voted the way they did, but to pin it all on one thin explanation is also pretty foolish. Statistics failed us pretty well in this election, so I want to know more about that, and about why things are the way they are. This is easy to say for me, and others are in much worse shape, but I'm trying not to let all the anger and fear or joy and elation influence me too much.
  • Election 2016: Exit Polls - Various demographics can be interesting, but the real goofy part is that literally all of the polling up until the election was dramatically wrong, yet we're treating these exit polls like gospel. The polling was wrong, let's base our diagnosis of the election on more polls! Intuitively, most of these aren't that surprising, but that's kinda the point. Intuitively, Donalt Trump had no real chance of winning either.
  • Voter Turnout Fell, Especially In States That Clinton Won - Turnout numbers, at least, are probably more reliable. It was a douche and turd election, few seemed to actually like who they were voting for, and that generally leads to lower turnout. Yes, I know that you think the choice was clear, but the majority of Americans seemed pretty apathetic about their choices. But here I am speculating based on polling again. Oof.
  • A Running List Of Reported Racist Incidents After Donald Trump's Victory - This shit is unacceptable. I don't think bigotry was the main driving force behind Trump's victory (partly because I don't think there is a single, main driving force, but rather dozens of smaller ones), but it's impossible to ignore this wave of xenophobic bullshit. I have not personally seen anything like this and I'm hoping that it will quickly subside, but I've read too many stories like this since the election. If you can do something about it, please do.
  • Louisiana student 'fabricated' story of hijab attack, police say - Well, shit. I'm consistently baffled by stuff like this. There's enough genuine bullshit going around, why do you have to support those that would dismiss it by fabricating an attack?
  • Bystanders yell anti-Trump taunts as man beaten after car crash - And hey, this ain't great either. What the hell is going on.
  • Stumped by Trump’s success? Take a drive outside US cities - A lot of stuff from before the election suddenly seems more relevant these days:
    While Trump supporters here are overwhelmingly white, their support has little to do with race (yes, you’ll always find one or two who make race the issue), but has a lot to do with a perceived loss of power.

    Not power in the way that Washington or Wall Street boardrooms view power, but power in the sense that these people see a diminishing respect for them and their ways of life, their work ethic, their tendency to not be mobile. (Many live in the same eight square miles that their father’s father’s father lived in.)

    Thirty years ago, such people determined the country’s standards in entertainment, music, food, clothing, politics, personal values. Today, they are the people who are accused of creating every social injustice imaginable; when anything in society fails, they get blamed.

    The places where they live lack economic opportunities for the next generation; they know their children and grandchildren will never experience the comfortable situations they had growing up - surrounded by family who lived next door, able to find a great job without going to college, both common traits among many successful small-business owners in the state.
    This has been a pretty common thread that I've seen. Many have been dismissing this view or blaming it on something other than what it is. Of course, I'm doubting that Trump can actually provide what these voters think, but its hard to dismiss their complaints. It also illustrates the divide between city and rural, which is not really new. But where there used to be at least some semblance of balance in our culture between this geographic divide, it no longer feels that way. The divide is growing. I realize it might be silly to look at horror movies for insight here, but hey, I just spent a month and a half watching them, and one thing that often pops up is the city/country divide. Carol Clover wrote about this in a chapter concerning rape-revenge films like I Spit on Your Grave and Deliverance and delved in to a more general "Urbanoia":
    The city/country split is by no means confined to the rape-revenge film - or even revenge films in general. An enormous proportion of horror takes as its starting point the visit or move of (sub)urban people to the country. ... Going from city to country in horror film is in any case very much like going from village to deep, dark forest in tradional fairy tales. ... One of the obvious things at stake in the city/country split of horror films, in short, is social class - the confrontation between the haves and have-nots, or even more directly, between exploiters and their victims.
    There is, of course, lots to unpack there, and as mentioned above, this can't explain everything, but it does seem to be a base disagreement that is driving divisions in this country. People in the city/country divide are dismissing each other with ever more vigor, and that probably plays a small part in what's going on here.
  • To the supporters of Donald Trump - Jason Kottke wrote a bit about this in July and tied it to Tyler Cowan's description of Brexit:
    Many Americans share a frustration of the current political system and how it is wielded against us in our name by skilled political practitioners, but I do not believe the US is a country filled with small-minded, intolerant racists, despite the perplexing level of national support for a proudly dishonest and bigoted TV personality, whatever his keen political instincts. Trump is the one lever being given to those frustrated voters for sending a message to their politicians and many are choosing to use it despite many of the reasons listed in that letter. Sending that message is more important than its potential consequences.
    This goes to the "outsider" view of the election, another common theme. Again, I doubt Trump will actually be able to deliver on what these voters actually want, but their complaints are valid. Part of the Trump win? Sure, but not all of it, which also seems to be a common theme.
  • Trump Won Because Leftist Political Correctness Inspired a Terrifying Backlash - This is another example of someone using the election to harp on one of their hobby horses, but it's not entirely wrong either.
    If you're a leftist reading this, you probably think that's stupid. You probably can't understand why someone would get so bent out of shape about being told their words are hurtful. You probably think it's not a big deal and these people need to get over themselves. Who's the delicate snowflake now, huh? you're probably thinking. I'm telling you: your failure to acknowledge this miscalculation and adjust your approach has delivered the country to Trump.

    There's a related problem: the boy-who-cried-wolf situation. I was happy to see a few liberals, like Bill Maher, owning up to it. Maher admitted during a recent show that he was wrong to treat George Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain like they were apocalyptic threats to the nation: it robbed him of the ability to treat Trump more seriously. The left said McCain was a racist supported by racists, it said Romney was a racist supported by racists, but when an actually racist Republican came along—and racists cheered him - it had lost its ability to credibly make that accusation.

    This is akin to the political-correctness-run-amok problem: both are examples of the left's horrible over-reach during the Obama years. The leftist drive to enforce a progressive social vision was relentless, and it happened too fast. I don't say this because I'm opposed to that vision - like most members of the under-30 crowd, I have no problem with gender neutral pronouns - I say this because it inspired a backlash that gave us Trump.
    Once again, I don't think this is the only reason the country went for Trump... but it played a role.
  • A friend posted this on Facebook, and it's well said:
    I understand that there is anger and fear right now. But, I just got through 8 years of hearing from extremely conservative friends and family about how Obama is not their president. It did not make me want to lend credibility to anything they said regarding him after that. Like it or not, Trump will be your president. Claiming otherwise is the most divisive thing you could do right now. He does not have a mandate and by all means, let there be fierce opposition to every unconstitutional and harmful policy he proposes. The important thing is to keep this country a place where you can openly criticize your president, assemble to protest your president, read about your president in the free press and where a president can be impeached if necessary and most of all, where power continues to peacefully be transferred from one president to the next one.
    Again, well said.
  • I could keep going on here, but if there's one thing I'm trying to keep in mind, it's that there's no easy explanation for an election result, especially this election. Everyone who is writing about it seems to think they've identified that one, key component... and it just happens to conform perfectly to their worldview. Voter turnout, bigotry, third party voters, politically correct wolf-crying, city/country divide, immigration, bathrooms?, single-issue voters, capitalism/socialism, Russian influence (fucking Russia?), the list goes on and on and on. No one of these things put us where we are, but we can't really dismiss any of them out of hand either.
  • One other thing I've noticed in the past few years, on both sides of the divide, is a lack of respect for free speech. I feel like it's been constantly dismissed in the past few years in favor of [insert preferred ideology here]. Again, this goes both ways. Trump has repeatedly threatened free speech because he's such a crybaby. Many on the left decry speech they disagree with too (you could argue that the politically correct stuff feeds into that). But now we're really going to need free speech. This country has safeguards to protect against wannabe authoritarians, and free speech is one of them. We need to be vigilant about stuff like that. One of the reasons I'm always cautious about executive power and the expansion of federal power is that you never know who's going to wield it next. You may have been comfortable with Bush or Obama wielding certain powers, but now Trump has them. Are you still comfortable?
  • Some bite sized nuggets from twitter:
Alright, that's enough of that. I'm still trying to understand and none of the above is meant to dismiss or harangue anyone with unwanted advice. The only advice I have comes from Bill and Ted: Be excellent to each other. We now return you to your regularly scheduled SF/Movies programming.
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