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Sunday, November 23, 2014
Weird Book of the Week
Last time on Weird Book of the Week, we tackled a touching tale of Dinosaur Nazis. This time, well, it's not so much the contents of the book so much as the cover:
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Weird Movie of the Week
Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we took examined a touching tale of a gay yeti and his frat boy lover. This time around, we've got dolphins. Lots of dolphins.
Update: Dammit, I post this, and then two days later, Mike Nichols passes away. He's totally an underrated director, despite having made multiple classics. RIP...
Sunday, November 16, 2014
Ann Leckie's debut novel Ancillary Justice was a huge breakout novel that vanquished all comers during awards season. It racked up wins from Locus, the BSFA, the Arthur C. Clarke, Nebula, and Hugo Awards. As you might imagine, the recently published sequel, Ancillary Sword, was eagerly awaited. I enjoyed the first book despite some reservations, so I was really hoping this one would shore up some of the lacking elements of its predecessor. What I got was completely unexpected.
This is a really odd novel. It picks up where the first book left off, with Breq accepting a commission as an officer in Anaander Mianaai's fleet and leading an expedition to... a space station with some minor strategic importance. There she butts heads with the local forces, led by one Captain Hetnys, and otherwise gets embroiled with various bits of local politics.
Like it's predecessor, this book is somewhat lacking in plot, though I will say that it does become somewhat tighter as a result. Unlike it's predecessor, many of the interesting things about the first book have been jettisoned. The complex non-linear narrative is gone. The first book's heady mix of hard and soft SF has shifted much more to the soft SF side. Many of the most intriguing things about the first book, particularly the ambitious exploration of hive minds and what that means for identity, while present, aren't really expanded upon in any real way. When Anaander Mianaai's condition is revealed in the first book, it opened up many tantalizing opportunities... that are almost completely bypassed in this sequel. The mysterious alien presence of the Presger was hinted at in the first book, and while the Presger's ambassador plays a significant role in this book, we still don't really get much in the way of information on the Presger. Even some of the softer ideas, like the way Radch culture doesn't distinguish between the sexes, calling everyone by female pronouns, aren't really expanded on at all. I suppose we get some closer looks at Radch society, but little beyond what we already knew.
It's a decidedly low-key approach that is not entirely unwelcome, but which makes me wonder where Leckie is trying to go with this series. It started off as a series filled with interesting ideas and an epic scope, and yet, it's all shaken down to this rather simple story that doesn't seem to really advance the series all that much. I suppose the implication is that the events of this book are happening all over the Radchaai Empire, which would make sense. And it's not really bad per say, it's just unexpected. Conceptually, I think this is something that could have worked really well, lots of crunchy ideas on a smaller, close-up scale. Alas, all of the interesting ideas originate in the first book and aren't expanded upon very much in this sequel.
The book has a more episodic approach than its predecessor, and many of the individual episodes are quite good. The opening reveals Breq to be a capable leader who immediately recognizes the deception of one of her officers. There's a great sequence where a pissed off Breq goes to the armory for target practice. Since she is a thousand of years old AI, she's pretty good at it, leading to some slackjawed crew members (Seivarden memorably notes: "Fleet Captain is pretty fucking badass.") Some of the incidents at the space station are less successful, though there are plenty of interesting bits about the formality of Radch society. There's a decent enough courtroom drama at one point, and several other interesting tidbits here or there. Leckie's not particularly great at action, but there's not a ton of action here anyway and she gets the job done. Many of the new side characters are pretty fantastic. Alas, when you add it all up, it's merely the sum of its parts, nothing more.
So I have mixed feelings about this. There are many bits to like, and I will say that it seems to be aging well in my head, but I don't think it's quite the equal of its predecessor either. It's almost certainly going to appear on the Hugo ballot next year, but I'm doubting that it will win. One other side note: I listened to this on audio book, and I hated the reader. She was fine most of the time, but for certain characters, particularly the ones we're not supposed to like, she puts on this ridiculous, high pitched, exaggerated cockney accent (I think). That wouldn't be a disaster if she didn't use the exact same voice for multiple characters, and if the story weren't so talky (which it really is, and it gets kinda weird when Breq is speaking with two of the weirdly accented people). Just a fair warning, you'd probably be better off reading this one rather than listening.
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
As per usuals, lots of interesting things on the internets for yous to checks out:
Sunday, November 09, 2014
I read a fair amount, but there are only a few authors whose output I eagerly await. Longtime readers already know that Neal Stephenson and Lois McMaster Bujold are the ringleaders, but John Scalzi is also among their ranks. Scalzi rankles a fair amount of folks because of his politics (which have been getting more and more pronounced over time), but in general, I've found his novels to be enjoyable pageturners. Being "easy to read" also rankles a certain element of fandom, those who seek "literary" status as opposed to entertainment and good old fashioned storytelling. Scalzi won a Best Novel Hugo award last year for Redshirts, which produced much teeth-gnashing from a wide range of people. It was an odd novel, but it's one that seems to have aged well in my head (my only issues with it were meta-issues). I suspect I would not have ranked it #1 that year, but like this year's Ancillary Justice win, I can't really fault people from voting for what they like - the Hugo is a populist award, after all. So it's with this baggage that I come to Scalzi's latest novel, Lock In. In short, I found it disappointing. Not bad, per say, but I have trouble mustering up much enthusiasm.
Lock In takes place in the near future, after a global pandemic of something called Haden's Syndrome that mostly presented flu-like symptoms, but for about 1% of the population, resulted in locked-in syndrome. This is a real condition that is thankfully pretty rare, but in the world of the novel, the amount of locked-in patients (called "Hadens" in the book) exploded. The world adapted and developed a whole suite of solutions, including a Haden-only virtual reality space, embedded neural networks, and robot-like machines that can be "driven" by Hadens. This is all worldbuilding though, and the story proper is a pretty straightforward police procedural, following FBI agents Chris Shane (a Haden himself) and Leslie Vann as the investigate a Haden-related death.
Science Fiction is perhaps infamous for its reliance on exposition and info-dumps, but the first chapter of this book is a pretty egregious example. It baldly lays out the worldbuilding, encyclopedia-style, and as near as I can tell, it's completely superfluous. You get a lot of the same information through context as the story unfolds. I may be griping a little too hard about this, but it started me off on the wrong foot, and it took a while to recover.
While I'm complaining about things, Scalzi's politics are showing. Of course, an author's politics are always showing in one way or another, and Scalzi's past novels were no exception, but this time around there are completely unnecessary tangents on things like, for example, gun control. These are disappointing tidbits, but fortunately, they aren't pervasive. On the other hand, Scalzi's concern with gender is much more successful. Agent Vann is great, a smart, tough, hard-drinking veteran agent who reminded me of the well connected smuggler at the heart of Polar City Blues (another SF mystery that, alas, I wound up enjoying more than Lock In). If you are paying attention, (and if you read Scalzi's blog, how could you not pay attention to this stuff?) you'll notice that Chris Shane's gender is not specified. This apparently blew some people's minds, but I was expecting this sort of thing from Scalzi. Of course, it's pretty easy to pull off when your character is represented by a featureless robot 99.9% of the time in the novel, which did make me wonder much more about the lives of Hadens. Again, this is a detective thriller, so there's not a lot of time given to exploring these aspects of a Haden's life, but as tangents go, that would have been a welcome one.
The overall mystery is well done, but nothing particularly special. There aren't any grand revelations, but it's more satisfying than your typical episode of [insert CBS procedural here]. It took me longer than usual to be hooked (perhaps because of that clunky opening chapter), and while Scalzi normally excels at snappy dialogue, it wasn't quite as snappy as his other recent efforts.
I ultimately did enjoy the book, but I found myself nitpicking, which I generally attribute to some deeper dislike (though I'm having trouble pinpointing that). It has been getting pretty good reviews though, so I'm fully expecting that it will be nominated for a Hugo next year (it will not, however, be appearing on my nominating ballot). Apparently Lock In was also optioned for a television show, and a SF police procedural might actually work really well. So I wasn't totally on board with this book, but regardless, I'm very much looking forward to the second Human Division novel (er, collection?), as I really loved the first installment (even if it ended on an unexpected cliffhanger).
Wednesday, November 05, 2014
As per usual, interesting links from the depths of the internets:
Sunday, November 02, 2014
6WH: Speed Round and Halloween
Six weeks sounds like a long time, but time flies when you're cowering in abject terror. As per usual, I have not actually written up every movie I saw during this festive Halloween season. Sometimes a movie just doesn't fit with a given week's theme, or perhaps I only caught a portion of it on television, or I've already written about it, or sometimes I just don't have much to say about a movie. So every year, I close out the marathon with a quick roundup of everything I saw that hasn't already been covered.
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
6WH: The Ones That Got Away
The Six Weeks of Halloween is an ambitious undertaking. I've noticed that every year, I try to start with some sort of namby pamby, pretentious, usually historical theme. Stuff like Italian Giallos, German Krimis, Classic Universal Horror, Silent Horror, Kaiju movies, and this year's Remade. Invariably, I fall back on schlocky horror or slashers and the like, but I always find myself pining for films I don't actually get to during the actual six weeks of this marathon. It's a long time, but there are still plenty of movies I want to watch, but don't really get the chance to watch in time. Here's a sampling of some stuff I wanted to watch this year, but most likely, won't get to:
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