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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fantastic Fest Dispatch #1
So things have been quite busy so far. Not much time to really record detailed thoughts, but since it's Sunday, I'll list out a few of the movies I've seen earlier in the week. Tons of fun stuff going on, but quite frankly, not much time to discuss. I'll probably have more time to cover movies next weekend (and since I'm traveling on Wednesday, probably no post then either)... Also, this is technically the first week of the 6 Weeks of Halloween Marathon. Not all of the below movies are horror and thus aren't necessarily Halloween movies, but they're all pretty weird and at least a few are pretty horror-focused. See also: Dispatch #2 and Dispatch #3.
  • Blind - I missed the beginning of this movie by about 15 minutes, so I missed out on some of the establishing scenes. Near as I can tell, a blind former police officer becomes a witness to a crime. Naturally, this presents a bit of a problem, and the serial killer starts playing cat-and-mouse games with her. The description initially reminded me of Kaedrin fave Mute Witness, but while this film is well done and engaging, it never manages the suspense of Mute Witness. That being said, it does feature some excellent set pieces (most notably the one on the subway) and some effective relationships. Very solidly constructed thriller, but not something that will blow you away either. **1/2
  • Boys on the Run - Bizarre movie about... I honestly don't know how to describe it. It's an exaggerated romantic comedy, in a way, but one with Japanese perverts, inopportune boners and sex workers and the like. Lots of embarrassment humor, a nice taxi driver homage, and one of the best slow-clap sequences I've seen in a while. I really liked the performance from the female lead's roommate - very funny. The ending was somewhat disappointing though, making me wonder why I bothered watching it. It's got its moments, and it did make me laugh, but I never really connected with it either. **
  • The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) - Human Centipede 2 has all the disgusting, graphic scenes I was dreading in the first film. Not exactly a good thing, but it represents an interesting commentary on the fans of the original film. Devin Faraci has probably the best take on this I've seen so far:
    This time it’s meta. Martin is a bug of a man, round like a beetle with huge, bulging eyes. He’s Peter Lorre working the dead shift at a parking garage, where he spends his hours obsessing over the movie Human Centipede. Finally he begins to create the ultimate fan fiction - a human centipede of his own, except this one is 12 people long. ...

    Martin is a direct parody of the fans. He’s fat and sweaty and awkward and possibly mentally disabled. He’s also a parody of how the detractors see the fans. He’s malleable and unable to tell reality from fantasy. ...

    Six is attempting a level of critique that’s impressive, and the film feels like a response to every single review and editorial written about the first Centipede.
    As Devin says, it's a big "Fuck You" movie. I don't think I'd use the word "restraint" to describe the first film, but it actually was pretty cold and clinical and you really don't see that much (it's graphic, but not as much as you fear), while this sequel is dirty, grimy, and explicit. The film doesn't hold back at all, breaking every taboo it can, and then some, leaving me wondering just what Tom Six has planned for the third (and hopefully final) film in the series. In the Q&A after the movie, Six says the third one will be "really sick". Given how grotesque this movie is, I don't know if I really want to take Six up on that third film. One last thing - I'm a little disappointed. I counted, and there were only, like, 40 legs on the creature that Martin creates. While a big improvement over the first movie, that's still, like, 60 limbs short of an actual centipede. Perhaps this is what Six plans for the next film. Anyway, the film is surprisingly well directed and acted, and it does make an interesting comment on the nature of fandom and critics, but I still can't really recommend it in any fashion. You were warned. (this one kinda defies rating, but I'll say **)
  • The Yellow Sea - Gritty Korean crime picture featuring more knife and hatchet fights than any movie I've ever seen. Unfortunately, some of that is obscured by shaky-cam action, a trend I wish would just go away at this point. The movie tells the story of a poor cab driver in China who goes to South Korea to find his wife. She's gone earlier to make money, but has now disappeared. In order to fund the whole venture, the cab driver must take on a job - assassinate one of the Korean crime lords. It's probably not a spoiler to say that the cab driver is betrayed at nearly every turn. There's a lot of resilience in the face of adversity going on here, and some nice touches in terms of the nuts and bolts of things. It's a little long, but very complex and never boring. ***
  • Retreat - Interesting and twisty single-location film. A troubled couple travels to an isolated island for quiet time, but when a bloody stranger turns up at their doorstep, things start to get weird. The twists aren't quite mind-blowing, but they always keep things interesting. The remoteness of the cottage they're staying at certainly increases the tension a bit, as the only person within radio distance is not answering. On the other hand, there are some stupid horror movie character moments when you want to yell at the characters for doing something so stupid. Thematically, there are some interesting reversals, but ultimately it doesn't really gel. Well shot and well acted, it can be a bit of a downer, but it's worth a watch if you're into this sort of thing. **
And that covers it for now. Again, probably no entry on Wednesday. Maybe I'll get to something on Thursday, but probably more likely to see posting resume next Sunday. There are still about 3 or 4 movies I'm really looking forward to, so let's hope I can actually get into those shows!

Update: Dispatch #2 and Dispatch #3 have been posted.
Posted by Mark on September 25, 2011 at 01:31 AM .: link :.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Netflix's Woes, Continued
In the wake of Netflix's pricing increase, it's been estimated that they've lost somewhere around 1 million customers. On Sunday night, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings attempted to explain the move. He starts off the announcement by saying "I messed up. I owe everyone an explanation."

He then proceeded to explain how he would make up for everything... by totally screwing over customers even more.

Essentially, Netflix is splitting into two independent entities (both owned by the same parent, for now). One is the DVD by mail service, which will work the same as ever, but which will not be named Qwikster. The other is the streaming service, which will retain the Netflix name. I see no reason to do this, but whatever. Maybe it's an accounting thing. But then Hasting drops the bombshell: "Qwikster.com and Netflix.com websites will not be integrated." Um, what? All the sudden, this whole thing went from baffling to insane. The ratings you give movies on Netflix won't be reflected on Qwikster (and vice versa), if you want to change address or credit card info, you have to do so on both sites, and you presumably won't be able to tell if a movie is available on streaming when looking at the Qwikster website.

Now look, I'm not a Netflix hater. I love the service and even with the price increase, it's a great value. I remember the old days of Blockbuster and do not want to return. I even defended their price increase back in July, essentially calling all the controversy an infantile response to Netflix's reasonable reaction to unreasonable studio demands. If the studios charge 10-100 times as much for Netflix to stream movies, it's only natural that the price would increase.

But this new change is utterly ridiculous. What's more, it seems to make no sense whatsoever. I'm not an expert in business practices, but I can't find a single compelling reason to make this change at all. There isn't a single operational benefit to the switch and there's now a massive usability hurdle placed in front of the customer. I suppose there could be some sort of internal accounting or business or stock reason to make this change, but even that doesn't make sense. In July, their stock was nipping at $300 a share. Now? It's at around $130 a share. How does this benefit them? My guess is that the stock will rebound a bit, but that they'll continue to bleed subscribers. The only thing I can think of is that Netflix really does want to just sell off the DVD business and focus on streaming. Depressing the stock prices the way they have means that maybe potential investors will see it as a more attractive investment or something. I don't understand why that would be a viable option, but it's the only thing I can think of...

For the first time since subscribing to Netflix over 6 years ago, I'm looking into alternatives. I will most likely keep their streaming service, but the way they're setting up the DVD service seems to beg customers to look for alternatives. Before the split, Netflix was a unique value proposition. You had access to nearly every movie available on DVD. The streaming selection was limited but growing, and you could always fall back on DVDs if needed. Now? There's no compelling reason to use either of Netflix's services. The only thing that could save this would be if Netflix actually expanded their streaming selection significantly, something I don't see happening anytime soon. And if they keep bleeding customers the way they are, their position at the bargaining table will only get worse as time goes on.

Streaming may be the future of video content, but there's a fairly significant chicken-and-egg problem that needs to be solved first. In order to get favorable deals with the studios, the streaming service must boast a very large number of subscribers. In order to get those subscribers, a streaming service must boast a very large selection. Again, I don't see how this move helps Netflix in any way.

In the end, I'm flabbergasted. I just cannot comprehend what is going on right now. Netflix was great while it lasted. It's a shame it's going away.
Posted by Mark on September 21, 2011 at 02:52 PM .: link :.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

NPR's Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books
I've been meaning to comment on this for a while, but haven't gotten around to it until now. A couple months ago, NPR put out the call for fans to nominate the best science-fiction and fantasy books. Out of several thousand nominations, NPR narrowed the list down to a few hundred, then had another voting period, finally ending up with the top 100 books (or series).

Like most lists, especially crowd-sourced lists like this, there are many quibbles to be had, but it's a pretty decent list. Below, I'll bold the ones I've read and add annotations where I can, then follow up with some comments.
  1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien - An unsurprising choice for the top slot, and while it may not be my "favorite" series, it's hard to argue with it being the most influential of the books in this list (indeed, many of the fantasy novels below are deeply indebted to LotR).
  2. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams - Another unsurprising pick, though my shocking nerd confession is that I don't seem to like this as much as most other nerds. Go figure.
  3. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card - Given Card's reputation with the NPR crowd, I'm surprised this book made it this high. Of course, he doesn't espouse any despicable views in the book, and it is very good, so it's well worth reading.
  4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert - I've only read the first book, which is fantastic. I never got around to the sequels though, and from what I've heard, I'm not missing out on much.
  5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin - I've not read any, though I've seen the first season of the TV show, which is excellent. Probably more likely to keep following the show than read the books. I have to wonder, given some of the heavyweights that fell below this book, if the TV series gave this entry a bit of a boost in the voting...
  6. 1984, by George Orwell - A classic, probably deserves to be higher on the list, but it's hard to argue with a top 10 slot.
  7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury - Another shocking nerd confession - I haven't read any of Ray Bradbury's books. Consider this book on the list of shame.
  8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov - This one always seems to come out near the top of lists like this, but I've always preferred his robot books.
  9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley - I should read this someday, but I just can't muster the enthusiasm to read dystopic stuff these days.
  10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman - I like this book a lot, but 10th best SF/F book of all time? I don't think so. I wonder how this one got to be so high...
  11. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman - I've never read this, but I get the impression that the movie is better than the book and that the book is getting a bump due to the sheer awesomeness of the movie (which is brilliant).
  12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan - Never read any of it. It may surprise you to learn that I don't actually read much in the way of fantasy novels (though obviously I've read some of the ones on this list).
  13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell - Another classic, and one that I now like despite being forced to read it in school (seriously, being able to climb out of that cellar is a big feat in itself).
  14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson - Probably the best of the Cyberpunk novels, which isn't say that much since it was really the first of the Cyberpunk novels. Still, it's a good one, deserving of a lot of the praise it gets. Wouldn't be as high on my list, but I can see why it's here.
  15. Watchmen, by Alan Moore - It is probably the best comic book series of all time, well worth the placement on this list.
  16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov - Well here's the weird thing. They grouped the Foundation novels together (along with lots of other series on the list), but not the Robot novels? I really like I, Robot, but I like the way the series goes as a whole (I guess people aren't as big a fan of Asimov's latter work where he tied Robots and Foundation together).
  17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein - Heinlein makes his first appearance with... one of my least favorites of his work. I suppose it does represent more of a cultural touchstone than his other work, and I know this novel was one of the driving forces behind the 60s counter-culture, so I guess it's not a surprise that the NPR folks like it, but still. Luckily, more Heinlein shows up on this list.
  18. The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss - I've not read this fantasy series, though lots of folks really seem to love the first novel. I've heard mixed reviews of the second book, and like a lot of fantasy series, who knows how long this will go (I believe it's planned at 3, but so were a few other long-running series, so again, who knows). I also can't think of this book without thinking of Scalzi's story of "hearty stew" fantasy.
  19. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut - Another one that goes on the list of shame (at least I've read some Vonnegut before).
  20. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley - Is this the first female author on the list? Damn. Well, it's a justified classic novel, probably belonging higher on the list.
  21. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick - I've never read this, but I have to wonder if the fact that everyone knows Blade Runner was based on this story has anything to do with its performance.
  22. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood - Never read it and I'm not a big fan of dystopias either, but at least there's another female author in the top 25...
  23. The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King - A series filled with high highes and very low lows. Difficult to describe, but there was a time when I loved these books. But the series kinda finished with a wimper. I had kinda steeled myself against the ending, knowing that it could not possibly live up to what was being built up in the earlier novels, so I didn't hate the ending, but it was still an unsatisfying conclusion. I might, however, make a case for Wizard and Glass, it being an interesting and tragic tale that is, perhaps more importantly, mostly self-contained. (As an aside, both the Dark Tower series and the previous book on this list, The Handmaid's Tale, feature a city-state known as Gilead - a biblical reference, but interesting that these two were ranked next to each other.)
  24. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke - An interesting choice for the first Clarke novel on the list. Once again, i wonder if it gets a bump from its incredible movie adaptation. Still, it is a very good book that I did enjoy (even having seen the movie).
  25. The Stand, by Stephen King - I do really love this book. There are some issues with the ending, but something like "the hand of God came down and saved them" works infinitely better on the page than it does on the screen (not that I'd hold up the TV mini-series as something particularly good). Well worth a read, probably my second-favorite Stephen King novel (with the first being The Shining, which probably doesn't qualify for this list).
  26. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson - If the aforementioned Neuromancer popularized Cyberpunk, Stephenson put the final nail in the coffin with this satirical, action-packed romp through cyber-space. It's a surprisingly prescient novel, though it doesn't get everything quite right. Stephenson is my favorite author, but I would have ranked Cryptonomicon higher (more on that below).
  27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury - On the list of shame.
  28. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut - On the list of shame.
  29. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman - I was always under the impression that Gaiman's Sandman stuff didn't hold up as well as some of his other work, but I guess people still love it. I've never read it, and probably won't...
  30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess - Never read it. If the rest of the list is any indication, there seems to be an inflation of rank for films with great movie adaptations...
  31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein - An interesting thought experiment from Heinlein, who basically originated the modern military SF genre with this novel, but there's not much of a story here. An important book, but one that would probably chafe a lot of readers with its ideas and the bald way Heinlein presents them.
  32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams - Saw the movie, probably won't read it, makes sense to be on the list though.
  33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey - Eh, fantasy. Only the third female author so far.
  34. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein - My favorite of Heinlein's novels, its libertarian themes and strange sexual politics could probably turn off readers, but there's a well paced story that accompanies things this time, and I really enjoyed the novel.
  35. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller - Never read it, but it's in the queue somewhere.
  36. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells - On the list of shame, though of course I know the general idea of the story (which says something about its importance, I guess).
  37. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne - See previous entry.
  38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys - I'd heard of this, but never knew what it was about until now, and I kinda want to read it now.
  39. The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells - See The Time Machine above.
  40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny - It's in the queue somewhere.
  41. The Belgariad, by David Eddings - Another fantasy series. Good to know if I want to read some fantasy, but I doubt I'll get to this anytime soon.
  42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley - The fourth female author.
  43. The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson - More fantasy I'm unlikely to ever read.
  44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven - In the queue somewhere, I think my brother might even have a copy somewhere, but I just haven't gotten to it yet.
  45. The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin - Wonderful SF novel probably deserving a higher spot on this list. And the fifth female author so far.
  46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien - A little bit of a cheat, as I haven't read the whole thing, but still. Why isn't this considered part of the LotR series?
  47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White - I think I read this for school? King Arthur and stuff? Must not have made much of an impression.
  48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman - In terms of pure enjoyment, I think this is Gaiman's best. Real page-turning stuff here, and a more satisfying narrative than American Gods or Stardust.
  49. Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke - A solid choice and a good novel, but I've never been as in-love with it as everyone else. There are a couple other Clarke books I'd put ahead of this one.
  50. Contact, by Carl Sagan - Adaptation bump? Whatever the case, I've heard that the movie kinda stops short, while this one make a bolder statement. I've always really loved the movie, but if it really does betray the book, I'd find that disappointing.
  51. The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons - The first book is certainly on my list to read, but I've heard the rest of the series is kinda meh, and then there's the fact that I've never actually read a good book by Simmons (I read one of his weird vampire books a while back and hated it so much that I drilled a screw through the book so that no one else would read it).
  52. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman - I know I read this, and I'm pretty sure I liked it, but I don't remember anything about it and it's been sorta overridden by the movie adaptation in my mind (rightly or wrongly, I did enjoy the movie, which I understand diverges pretty significantly from the book)
  53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson - My favorite book of all time? Perhaps! Would definitely be higher on my list.
  54. World War Z, by Max Brooks - I can only imagine that this is on the list because people love zombies right now. I hate zombie stories.
  55. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle - Fantasy. Fleh.
  56. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman - Considered by many to be Haldeman's response to Heinlein's Starship Troopers, this is first rate SF and it actually features some semblance of a story. There are some flaws (in particular, the way he treats sexuality), but it's still a great book.
  57. Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett - The only Pratchett I've read is Good Omens (co-written with Neal Gaiman), but I was underwhelmed by it and have never really sought out more Pratchett. I should probably do so at some point, but I guess we'll see.
  58. The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson - Fantasy series. Fleh.
  59. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold - Love that this made it on the list. I really enjoy these novels and am looking forward to reading more of the series. Would be higher on my list.
  60. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett - See Small Gods above.
  61. The Mote In God's Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle - I keep hearing about this novel, but I've never read it. It's in the queue.
  62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind - More fantasy. Fleh.
  63. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy - More dystopia. Fleh.
  64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke - I've wanted to read this for a while, I've just never gotten around to reading it.
  65. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson - A study of isolation and grim irony. Does this get a bump from the movie adaptation? The movie kinda stinks. The book is far more disturbing, and it's definitely influential in many of the horror writers who followed.
  66. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist - More fantasy. Fleh.
  67. The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks - More fantasy. Fleh.
  68. The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard - I enjoy the movies, but I doubt I'll ever get to the books...
  69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb - More fantasy. Fleh. But the blurb on NPR sounds nice, I guess. But then, zombies. Fleh.
  70. The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger - Doesn't seem like it would be my thing, but I'd be open to reading it, I guess.
  71. The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson - More fantasy. Fleh.
  72. A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne - Familiar with the story, but never actually read the book.
  73. The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore - More fantasy. Fleh.
  74. Old Man's War, by John Scalzi - Fantastic modern entry in the military SF canon. Scalzi's tightest novel, though he's got some other good ones.
  75. The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson - I'm surprised this made the list, as I'm convinced that Stephenson's reputation for bad/rushed endings comes from this book. Still, it is a really good book, and you can see the transition he was making between Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. I would probably put Anathem higher than this, but I can't argue with putting it on the list.
  76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke - This might actually be my favorite of Clarke's novels.
  77. The Kushiel's Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey - More fantasy. Fleh.
  78. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin - I was less impressed with this novel and it probably wouldn't make my list, but I can see why so many people love it.
  79. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury - On the list of shame.
  80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire - Eh, really?
  81. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson - More fantasy. Fleh.
  82. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde - Never heard of it, but it sounds interesting.
  83. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks - In the queue somewhere.
  84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart - Yet another Arthurian tale (I think this is the third on the list so far). Not much interest here.
  85. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson - Very nice to see this one on the list despite it's relatively recent release. A fantastic novel, his best since Cryptonomicon.
  86. The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher - More fantasy. Fleh.
  87. The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe - On my list of shame.
  88. The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn - I'm surprised this Star Wars series made the list. I loved this as a teenager, but when I revisited it a few years later, it wasn't quite as riveting. Still a thousand times better than the prequels! And Grand Admiral Thrawn was indeed quite a great villain for the series. I'm glad Zahn got a place on the list. He's a workhorse, but I tend to enjoy those authors.
  89. The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan - Not familiar with this, may have to add it to the queue!
  90. The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock - More fantasy. Fleh.
  91. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury - *sigh* List of shame.
  92. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley - More fantasy. Vampire fantasy. Fleh.
  93. A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge - One of the best portrayals of a truly alien species in all of SF. The ending is a bit... strange, but I really love the book (A Deepness in the Sky is pretty good as well and I'm really looking forward to The Children of the Sky, which comes out in October I think)
  94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov - As previously mentioned, I'm a big fan of the Robot series. Again, these are books I read as a teenager, and some of them don't hold up as well, but the ideas are great.
  95. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson - On my list of shame.
  96. Lucifer's Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle - In the queue somewhere.
  97. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis - It's a really good book, but I'm not sure I'm as taken with it as some others.
  98. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville - It's been sitting on my shelf for, like, 4 years at this point. I have promised myself that I'd read it by the end of this year!
  99. The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony - Fantasy, but Piers Anthony rings a bell for me. I may check something of his out, maybe not Xanth though.
  100. The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis - I didn't even know these existed!
I did some quick counting of the list:
  • I've read 38 of the books on the list
  • The breakdown between Fantasy and SF is arguable, but a quick count got me 37 fantasy, 63 SF.
  • Only 15 of the books on the list are written by women (and there's at least one woman who comes up twice)
  • Of those 15 books by women, 7 are fantasy (again, the line between SF and Fantasy can be blurry for some of these)
I should note that despite my frequent "fleh" comments above, I don't really have anything against fantasy, I just don't read much of it and thus don't have much to say about it. There are at least a couple series/books above that I'd probably check out at some point. I thought I'd have read more than 38 on the list, but when you consider that only 63 are SF, that does change things a bit, as my focus tends to be on SF.

I'm not sure what to make of the disparity between male and female authors on the list. Is it that there are less female authors of SF/F? Or is it that there are less female readers voting? I can think of one glaring omission on the list - The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russel is superb, and would certainly be on my list (I'm pretty sure it was on the shortlist, but got culled when NPR cut down to 100). Thanks to my incessant Bujold reading, 10 of the 23 books I've read so far this year have been written by a woman (though again, most of that is Bujold). I could probably improve that to 50/50 by the end of the year, which would be nice.

And that about covers it. How many have you read?

Update: Forgot to bold one of the books I read, so my count at the end was off. Updated!
Posted by Mark on September 18, 2011 at 08:32 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Link Dump - Action in Movies Edition
Some interesting movie-related links I've run across of late:
  • In the Cut, Part I: Shots in the Dark (Knight) - Jim Emerson's very long but fantastic video takedown of the convoy chase action sequence in the The Dark Knight may come off as overly harsh and gloriously nitpicky, but I don't really have any issues with the complaints he points out either. Sure, in some cases he's just not giving the benefit of the doubt, but most of his complaints have merit. I've always said that Christopher Nolan wasn't as impressive as a director as he was as a writer and, perhaps to a lesser extent, editor (of course, some of Emerson's complaints are with the cuts, so there is that). In the comments at Badass Digest, I also learned that Nolan apparently doesn't use a second-unit or any sort of pre-visualization. If this is true, I think it goes a long way in explaining most of the problems that Emerson points out. On the other hand, Emerson's article at Press Play shows what look like storyboards, so who knows. He also seems to cut Nolan a little more slack in the text, acknowledging some of the constraints that Nolan was working under, but his ultimate opinion is still pretty harsh. But I have to say that I really appreciate this video. A lot of critics say that Nolan's action is incomprehensible and hard to follow, but few take the time to explain in detail what they're talking about. All that being said, I still love The Dark Knight.
  • In the Cut, Part II: A Dash of Salt - Well, if Dark Knight fans weren't incensed enough by Emerson's complaints about that movie, they might be driven insane when they see him hold up the middling thriller Salt as an example of a movie that gets action right. That being said, you really can see how much clearer and streamlined the action is in that sequence. I'm really glad that I got to see this video because watching just the part 1 video makes it seem like Emerson is just a stuffy critic making too much of too little, but in this case, he shows how even a mediocre movie (which I did enjoy) can get things right. We need more videos dissecting movies, shot-by-shot, like this.
  • Hulk Explain Action Scenes! - So this is an excellent, and very long article about what makes action scenes work. I have one major complaint though, and it has nothing to do with what Film Crit Hulk is actually saying. I realize this is a very usability-nerd complaint, but for fuck's sake man, drop the ALL CAPS schtick. Look, it works in small doses and is indeed perfect for Twitter, but reading an long article in all caps is simply excruciating. I couldn't read the whole thing in one sitting and indeed haven't finished it yet, despite the fact that I really like what I'm reading. What's more is that he's not using CSS or other means to create the all caps effect, he's actually typing this in all caps (meaning that there's no easy way to convert this into normal, readable text). The grammar schtick isn't nearly as bad, but if you're going to be writing long pieces of analysis, it's really unnecessary to spend the entire article in the Hulk's voice. Anyway, this proves to be a nice complement to Emerson's videos.
Both Emerson and Film Crit Hulk are planning additional parts to their respective series, so look out for them. They are well worth while.
Posted by Mark on September 14, 2011 at 09:02 PM .: link :.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

SF Book Review, Part 8: Vorkosigan Edition
I've read the first few books in Lois McMaster Bujold's long-running Vorkosigan Saga and reviewed them in the the last couple SF Book reviews. In short, I've really enjoyed them, and now I've read five more books in the series.

At this point, it's hard to talk about the series without giving a little background info to start with. This, by necessity, means some spoilers, which I'll try to keep at a minimum (if you're sold on the series and want to get started, just skip to the last paragraph of this post). Here goes: In Shards of Honor, Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony meets Aral Vorkosigan of Barrayar, and they get married around the time Aral becomes the Regent of Barrayar (the planet is ruled by a military class called the Vor, which consists of an Emperor and a bunch of Counts. A Regent is appointed when the current Emperor is not yet old enough to take the throne). Barrayar is a largely feudal society, so there's lots of Machiavellian scheming going on, and thus Aral's Regency was not unchallenged. An assassination attempt exposed the pregnant Cordelia to a teratogenic gas. All survived, including the fetus, but the baby was born with several birth defects, including most notably brittle bones.

That covers the first two books in the series (in a really frighteningly abrupt manner that leaves a ton of important stuff out!), and in The Warrior's Apprentice we are introduced to Miles Vorkosigan, who has grown up in a world that hates and fears "mutants" like himself. Unable to depend on physical prowess, Miles instead relies on his powers of observation and quick-thinking wit. He doesn't give in to the urge for self-pity, but he isn't one-dimensional caricature of a man driven by demons either. Bujold tends to write his stories from his perspective, so we get lots of visibility to what's going on in his head, and he's always thinking ten steps ahead (as is required of him). In The Warrior's Apprentice, he fails to get into the Barrayaran Military Academy due to his physical infirmities, after which he stumbles into a military conflict involving mercenaries, eventually improvising a mercenary fleet of his own (called the Dendarii Free Mercenaries) and foiling a political plot against his father. His mercenary fleet only knows him as Miles Naismith and does not know of his connections to Barrayar, which is a good thing, because Miles and his father propose making them Barrayar's secret army. Impressed, but given few options, the young Emperor pulls strings to get Miles accepted into the Barrayaran Military academy. Whew. That took longer and was probably more spoilery than I intended, but it gives you the appropriate background (I assure you, Bujold is much better at explaining all this! Read the first three books!)
  • The Vor Game - The novel opens with Miles Vorkosigan graduation, followed by his assignment to the Barrayaran equivalent of an arctic outpost (i.e. not a very desirable position). It turns out that the commander there (General Metzov) is rather insane, and a confrontation leads to a career wrecking scandal for Miles. His only option at that point is to work for Barrayaran intelligence, but of course, his first mission there goes belly up as well, forcing him to take command of the Dendarii Mercenaries (again) in order to help save his Emperor. Oh, and there's a Cetagandan invasion fleet on its way to Barrayar too. Yes, it's difficult to describe this plot, but it's an excellent novel, and Bujold deftly maneuvers around various pitfalls and tropes.

    Bujold does a particularly good job with the initial confrontation with the mad General Metzov. Miles has been ordered to participate in a massacre that is most probably illegal. However, disobeying orders isn't exactly a good option either. Miles isn't just a newly minted soldier. He's a Vor Lord, a member of the military caste, son of the Prime Minister (and former Regent) and cousin of the current Emperor. And he's faced with an impossible choice here. Participate in an atrocity, or potentially ruin his life, maybe even taking his father with him and soiling the family name. What do you do when all the available options are bad? It's a recurring theme in these books - and Miles can't just make decisions for himself, he has to constantly consider the political, social and cultural ramifications of his actions.

    Later in the book, he runs across the errant Emperor, where Bujold has steadfastly declined to give in to cliche. Emperor Gregor has been in the series since he was a little boy, protected by Miles' parents during an attempted coup. Miles and Gregor grew up as playmates (inasmuch as the Emperor-to-be could have playmates) and in the hands of a lesser writer, Gregor would have grown into a tyrant that would be the flip-side of Miles's honor. Or something. But Bujold avoids that temptation without going too far in the opposite direction. Gregor is, in himself, a most interesting character. He's got his flaws and some major problems, which we see in this novel, but he's not a tyrant either.

    In the end, it's easy to see why this got the Hugo award for best novel. I don't think it's Bujold's best, but it's definitely a great novel and well worth a read.
  • Cetaganda - One of the great things about this series of novels is that Bujuld doesn't stick to one type of story for all the books. The series is primarily comprised of Space Opera stories, but there are a number of books that stray from the path, and this is one of them. Miles and his cousin Ivan (who is Miles's cousin and something of a foil, usually referred to by Miles as "That idiot Ivan.") are sent to represent Barrayar at the Imperial funeral of the dowager Empress, mother of the current Cetagandan Emperor. The Cetagandans are generally the villains of the Vorkosigan universe, so you can imagine that when Miles gets into trouble (which happens almost immediately upon arrival), things get hairy pretty quickly. In essence, this novel takes the form of a murder mystery, with some espionage and political wrangling thrown in for effect. The Cetagandan empire has a multi-tiered aristocracy, along with numerous castes and an almost inconceivable list of customs, traditions, and ceremonies. Like the best SF, Bujold keeps the info-dumps to a minimum, letting us infer the details of all this from the context of the story. Of course, Miles is in-over-his-head almost immediately, yet he manages to pull it out (that's not really a spoiler, right?). Indeed, given his earlier career (as discussed above, along with the fact that his exploits with the Dendarii Mercenaries can't be trumpeted), his success on Cetaganda proves almost politically embarrassing! This is actually the most recently written book of the ones listed in this post, though it is placed rather early in the actual chronology. I guess this is getting a bit repetitive, but it's a good, fun read, handled with wit and care, like all of Bujold's work.
  • Ethan of Athos - Perhaps the most unusual of the novels in the series in that it does not feature Miles (or anyone from his family) at all, instead focusing on Dr. Ethan Urquhart, from the planet Athos - a planet entirely populated by men. It's an isolated and reclusive planet that does not seek any real outside contact. They reproduce using uterine replicators (something mentioned often in the series, actually), basically technological wombs where children can be grown. However, they do require certain genetic materials, which means that someone has to go out into the big bad galaxy and secure some new biological samples. Ethan is their man, but he's quickly embroiled in a galactic conspiracy. He is helped in his task by Commander Elli Quinn of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries (which is one of the ways in which this book connects with the rest of the series). When we last saw Quinn, she had her face blown off during a battle in The Warrior's Apprentice, but she has since had reconstructive surgery, and is now quite the beauty. Given that Ethan has never had contact with women, this makes for a somewhat interesting dynamic. The bulk of the action takes place on a space station and it takes the form of an espionage thriller. This was actually among the first books of the series to be published, and I think you can see that, but once again, it's a really good story, and provides you with some background information on an important character (Elli Quinn) and obliquely connects with a couple other books in the series. Another good read.
  • Borders of Infinity - Ah, this is the book that causes a great deal of confusion for those of us seeking to read the series in chronological order. It's basically a collection of three 100 page (or so) novellas, with some connective tissue provided in the form of an interview conducted by Simon Illyan, who is the head of the dreaded Barrayaran Imperial Security Service (basically an intelligence organization). However, the confusion comes in because each story takes place between other books in the series. I tried to read them in the appropriate order, but kinda messed up because the connective tissue takes place after Brothers in Arms (which is the next book below). No matter, because these are three of the best stories in the series.

    The first story, entitled "The Mountains of Mourning" is particularly effective, and it even earned Bujold a (well-earned) Hugo award for best novella. It's another of the murder/mysteries, but it takes place in the backwoods of Barrayar, allowing Bujold to explore certain Barrayaran prejudices - especially for their intolerance to birth defects or "mutants". This is particularly impactful because Miles is, himself, something of a mutant, and he has a lot of political considerations to make during this investigation.

    In "Labyrinth", Bujold tells a somewhat less plausible tale, but it is one which connects with Ethan of Athos and Cetaganda a bit, and it is quite an enjoyable read. I'm kinda curious as to whether or not the character Taura will make another appearance in the series (it would certainly be a welcome development!) The third and final story, "The Borders of Infinity" starts a little strangely, but it quickly escalates, and Bujold manages a few interesting twists in what basically amounts to a prison-break story. It ends on a bit of a tragic note, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit.

    Like a lot of short story collections, this one doesn't quite work as a whole as much as a single novel would, but that's to be expected, and each individual story is truly excellent. Indeed, I would put "The Mountains of Mourning" up as one of the best stories in the series, and the other two aren't too shabby either. If you're looking at reading the series and think it's ok to skip these because they're "only novellas", think again - these are really fantastic and should not be skipped. I believe they're better integrated into the omnibus editions that are now in print, but that's probably a topic for another post someday.
  • Brothers in Arms - One of the things I've always found somewhat improbably about this series was that Miles would be able to lead an entire fleet of mercenaries without anyone noticing that he was one of the most famous Barrayaran noblemen in the galaxy. In this book, Bujold solves that problem rather handily. If I tell you how she did so, well, it will sound ridiculous. And it kinda is. In the hands of a lesser writer, it might have fallen flat, but Bujold does an excellent job executing her solution here. It's almost comedic, though she never quite goes that far (if you just accept the premise and go with it, you'll find yourself laughing). However, by the time of the time you reach this novel, she's laid all the groundwork, and it actually fits rather well. The story itself is more of a political espionage tale, and quite a good one at that. Elli Quinn makes another appearance here, and the story ends at a point that leads into the whole connective tissue parts of Borders of Infinity. I expect to see more of a few of these characters in later books as well.
Yes, I'm completely hooked by this series. The only reason I haven't devoured the 8 remaining books is that I'm deliberately trying to prolong the experience, as I will no doubt experience a bit of withdrawal when I finish the series. Of course, the most recent installment was just published last year, so more books are not out of the question.

I heartily recommend the series. If you're interested, I would start with Shards of Honor (or the omnibus edition called Cordelia's Honor, which features Shards of Honor and the hugo-award winning Barrayar) which primarily deals with Miles's parents, or The Warrior's Apprentice (which is probably easier found as part of the omnibus called Young Miles, which features The Warrior's Apprentice, "The Mountains of Mourning" from Borders of Infinity (another Hugo winner), and The Vor Game (yet another Hugo award winner)). Actually, I think those two omnibus editions are an excellent deal, and will give you a significant amount of the series with just two purchases... Well worth it, if you ask me.
Posted by Mark on September 11, 2011 at 08:42 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

So this story is a week old at this point, but it's so amazingly stupid that I can't seem to wrap my head around it. It seems that George Lucas is still screwing with the original trilogy, and he's made the most egregious and ridiculous change yet in the new release of the original trilogy on blu-ray. Here it is (stick with it, the change is about 30 seconds in):
As Devin notes:
It’s hard to believe this because Vader crying ‘Noooo!’ was one of the most widely derided aspects of Revenge of the Sith. It’s easy to believe because Lucas is so out of touch and loves the idea of on the nose symmetry between the two trilogies.
And the story has been confirmed by multiple sources, including the NY Times.

It's a flabbergasting change, for a million reasons. Of course, there are tons of stories about it all over, and folks are already creating funny mashups and posting screenshots of canceled orders (I think that's my favorite response actually).

But really, no parody is needed. Lucas's antics have gone beyond the point of outrage or controversy (like some of the other changes Lucas has made) and into pure comedy gold. Russ Fischer notes that: "There is a troll at work here; we just don’t know yet if it is George Lucas, or some anonymous prankster." At the time, the story hadn't been confirmed yet, so Fischer was thinking of the whole thing as a hoax. However, even though it's not a hoax, I think Fischer was on to something there. I think George Lucas is trolling us. I think it's become clear that he is literally playing a practical joke on us, one that has been decades in the making. He spent several years making these amazing movies that everyone would grow to love, only to abandon the whole thing when he finished. Fifteen years later, he put his long-term practical joke in motion by tweaking the old films (Greedo shooting first being the most egregious change), then releasing three poorly made prequels. Not satisfied with the reaction to this (which, granted, made him even richer), he continued his changing of the classics (even convincing Spielberg to change E.T.!), noting that fans went bonkers over every change, no matter how small. He even went and ruined Indiana Jones while he was at it.

But none of these things were good enough, and strangely, he seemed to keep making money off of these atrocities. Every troll gets to this point, sooner or later. When Lucas realized that he could do anything, I think he actually sat down one day and wondered to himself: Everything I've done so far has been small potatoes, how can I really piss these people off? Lots of people have speculated about why Lucas has made the changes he has. Some think it's pure greed - for every change he makes, he can sell a new copy to the same old customers. But that rings hollow. The real prevailing wisdom here is that George Lucas actually believes he is making the movies better. He is an artist! And this is his vision! Or something like that. Well, maybe he really is an artist. Maybe this is his crowning achievement. It's not an achievement in film though, it's an achievement in trolling.

I know it's unrealistic to expect that these Blu-Rays won't sell. They will. But the only way to defeat trolls is to ignore them. Or perhaps applaud their trollishness... and then ignore them. Well played, Lucas. But I'm not buying your movies anymore.
Posted by Mark on September 07, 2011 at 09:00 PM .: link :.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Tucker & Dale vs Evil
In horror movies, taking a vacation in the woods never seems to work out so well. There are a number of variations on the theme, including the traditional slasher (exemplified by the Friday the 13th movies) and, of course, the Hillbilly Horror subgenre in which a bunch of kids find themselves in a rural area (usually in the deep south or, most notoriously, West Virginia), hunted by inbred cannibals. As it turns out, hillbilly horror cinema is a surprisingly deep subgenre, including the likes of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Cabin Fever, Deliverance, Wrong Turn, and dozens of others.

Tucker & Dale vs Evil is a new horror comedy that takes full advantage of that tired premise by turning it on its head. It begins with the typical establishing shots of Hillbilly Horror, following a group of college kids as they go camping in the woods of West Virginia. I don't want to give too much of it away, but the twist is that after the initial sequence, this film is told from the perspective of the hillbillies... and it doesn't quite play out like you'd expect.
Tucker and Dale
Tucker and Dale
The clever script plays with the tropes of the genre and, quite amazingly, winds up being more plausible than most of its brethren. Even when the misunderstandings and accidents begin piling up and escalating (a process most films of this type usually stuble at), the film maintains an even keel. It's also maybe the funniest movie of the year so far. Anchored by great performances from Alan Tudyk (who you know as Wash from Firefly/Serenity), Katrina Bowden and especially Tyler Labine as Dale, it's a parody with a heart. There are tons of in-jokes and references to other films, but they're subtle and never distracting. It shows reverence for the subgenre whilst skewering it mercilessly.

Again, I don't want to ruin the movie, and quite frankly, I'd recommend avoiding the trailer, as it gives away a number of the comedic beats in the film. It is perhaps not a perfect film, but I was quite taken with it. It's currently available on Comcast's VOD (and perhaps other cable providers' VOD services), though it is a bit expensive (still cheaper than most theaters though). I believe it's slated for a limited theatrical release later in the month as well. It's well worth checking out, especially for fans of horror.

Incidentally, writer/director Eli Craig was the guest on the /Filmcast last week, which is where I heard of this film in the first place. Check out the episode (and the After Dark episode)...
Posted by Mark on September 04, 2011 at 01:21 PM .: link :.

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