Brian is a lonely inventor in rural Wales who spends his days building quirky, unconventional contraptions that seldom work. Undeterred by his lack of success, he soon attempts his biggest project yet. Using a washing machine and various spare parts, he invents Charles, an artificial intelligence robot that learns English from a dictionary and has an obsession with cabbages.
This was an audience favorite at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and apparently represents something of a modern (seemingly more comedic) retelling of Frankenstein. It’s certainly a shoe-in for a Kaedrin Movie Award nomination for Best High Concept film, once I get around to actually watching the thing (it’s just hitting streaming now, but is still in the premium/purchase phase of release.) And who knows, maybe even the Hugo Awards would recognize it, if voters take a chance on indie stuff.
The voting deadline for the 2022 Hugo Awards is this week, so this is about as final as my Ballot will get. The categories I’m voting in are a bit on the slim side this year, but you only have time and motivation to do so much. Let’s take a gander:
Everything after #2 could shift around a bit depending on my mood, and a part of me thought about throwing a “No Award” at #3 and leaving it at that, but that’s unfair. These are all solid books, even if some are not especially my cup of tea. I have no idea what to expect when it comes to the winner. Project Hail Mary seems to be getting a lot of criticism because there’s too much science and math (in Science Fiction? No way!) and not enough character, but it’s always hard to tell how representative such sentiments are…
Harder to complain about voters’ tendency to favor bland blockbusters over anything artistic or weird when you’ve got The Green Knight as a finalist. Even Wandavision takes some pretty bold chances (even if the ending rubs me the wrong way). Still, pour one out for Werewolves Within, I’m Your Man, Finch, and Malignant, amongst others.
I took a look at some short fiction categories, but didn’t get anywhere close to having read enough to actually vote.
I might catch up with the Dramatic Presentation, Short Form episodes I haven’t seen yet (but I doubt any would surpass For All Mankind: The Grey.
I might also catch up with some of the fan awards (Fan Writer and Fanzine both have folks I already follow, so might as well make it official).
And that about covers the 2022 Hugo Awards Final Ballot… stay tuned in a few weeks for the results!
King’s appearance in an auditorium on the K-State campus had several hundred people in it, and it took place on a foggy night. When he took the stage, King noted that it was spooky weather, like one of his novels. Then he started speculating that it was the kind of night that a homicidal escapee from a mental asylum might be running around in. The crowd laughed. King continued that the maniac was probably out in the parking lot, checking cars to see if any were unlocked. The crowd loved it. Stephen King was telling us a creepy story on a foggy October night. How cool was that? King kept talking, adding details about the maniac and the knife he picked up somewhere. The crowd grew a bit uneasy but was still chuckling.
Then Uncle Steve started in on asking us if we were sure, REALLY sure, that we had locked our cars. You thought you did, but do you actually remember doing it? By then, the crowd had fallen silent. By the time King described the maniac finding an unlocked car, everyone was on the edge of their seat. Say what you will about the man, he took a brightly lit auditorium full of laughing cheering people and creeped the living shit out of everyone in it in about two minutes. And when I left, I checked my backseat before getting it, and I wasn’t the only one in the parking lot who did.
Just a series of quick hits on my media diet (and sometimes, uh, regular diet) of late:
Obi-Wan Kenobi – Perfectly cromulent but completely unnecessary. It feels like a two hour movie drawn out to five hours, but I’ve always liked Ewan McGregor’s take on Kenobi and it’s fun enough hanging out with him. It’s a little weird that people being offed with light sabers seem to keep surviving and one of the things I’ve always been disappointed by was that all the Jedi were hunted down and killed by people other than Darth Vader. We do get some Vader though, and it’s all reasonably well done. Not disappointed that I watched, but again, it’s unnecessary.
For All Mankind – What if the Soviets landed on the moon first? This alternate history NASA chronicle is a little overheated and sweaty, a space program soap opera, but it’s quite entertaining. Now in its third season, having jumped through the space program from the late 60s through the 80s and now the 90s and with the race for Mars in place, it’s holding up reasonably well… except for an ill-advised subplot from the second season that they inexplicably doubled-down on in the third season (the weird Karen/Danny relationship is just cringe in the extreme, I can’t believe they are still trying to draw it out like this.) Recommended!
Only Murders in the Building – I initially resisted this, then when my Amazon firestick kept crashing during one of the first episodes (which I looked up and was apparently a known issue for several months at least) I kinda fell off the train. Once the second season rolled around I picked it up again and immediately binged the entire first season (I guess they fixed the bug). It’s quite fun, Steve Martin is great, Selena Gomez is fantastic, and they have a solid restraining effect on Martin Short’s excesses. The chemistry between them is unconventional but well done, and the story offers enough twists and turns and stylistic gambles that it all comes together in a balanced way. The second season is starting off alright, though I think Amy Shumer is a distinct downgrade from guest stars from the first season…
Stranger Things – Season 4 comports itself as well as ever, though the strain of characters and geography are starting to show. Too many characters being spread too far apart geographically is not helping, though they do manage to pull it off reasonably well. As usual, the Steve/Robin/Dustin thread is the best (perhaps because they quickly link up with Max/Lucas/Nancy), while the Mike/Will/Jonathan/Argyle crew is clearly the worst. Eleven is separated from most for the bulk of the season (leading to amusing “we usually rely on this psychic girl we know to fight these things” moments), but her story is illuminating and you can see the overall arc of the series taking better shape (maybe a little retconny, but still). The initial 7 episodes play pretty great and lead to a solid finale, but the next two feature-length episodes are perhaps less successful, in part because there’s so much maneuvering to get people back together for next season, but then, I’m looking forward to the next season, in part, because a lot of the characters are back together, in one place.
Hustle (2022) – Solid Adam Sandler Basketball movie (not a recipe guaranteed for success at Kaedrin HQ, to be sure, but they pulled it off). It’s got some fun little procedural elements of a basketball scout, and it’s largely set in Philly, which is always a plus. Not perfect, by any means, but a solid underdog sports flick that’s worth a watch. **1/2
The Princess (2022) – An inverted medieval take on The Raid‘s episodic, video-game-esque battle through a tower. There’s a bit of a fairy tale component to it and the whole story is cheesy, but the action sequences and choreography are great and quite entertaining. **1/2
Stone Cold (1991) – A last gasp of 80s action tropes that I’d definitely seen bits and pieces of back in the day, but had never sat down and watched from start to finish before. Totally ludicrous cops and criminals action genre comfort food. Brian Bosworth felt a bit hokey at the time, but looking back at his absurd excesses is fun enough these days, and boy, they don’t do car crashes and explosions like they used to anymore… ***
Electra Glide in Blue (1973) – A quintessential 70s movie, riffing on an inverse Easy Rider premise about a highway patrol motorcycle cop in Arizona angling to become a detective. Apparently derided in its time, it seems like it’s due for a revival. Really great filmmaking and visual style throughout, with set pieces ranging from an action car chase, to tense cops vs hippies confrontations, to a woman emasculating a corrupt cop at a biker bar.
It’s deeply cynical stuff, which usually isn’t my bag, but it’s well made and interesting in a lot of ways. Recommended for fans of that sort of 70s dusty crime road movie sub-genre. ***
What’s Up, Doc? (1972) – Pretty much the complete opposite in tone to Electra Glide in Blue, this is something of a screwball comedy starring a young Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, with supporting turns from lots of folks you might recognize, like Madeline Kahn and Austin Pendleton. The whole thing revolves around four identical suitcases and the various wacky schemes people are going through to get their hands on one or the other of these bags, only to find it’s been inadvertently switched with another. It’s really fun! ***
Mad God (2021) – Famous effects guy Phil Tippit spent decades hand crafting the stop motion animation for this sprawling passion project filled with visually spectacular imagery…
Almost no plot or dialogue, but lots of squishy sound design and creative creatures and monsters and gross out body-horror-esque sequences. I generally prefer more plot or story meat on the bone, but it’s hard to deny the visually spectacular imagination at work here (definitely a shoe-in for the Most Visually Stunning Kaedrin Movie Award). **
Ambulance (2022) – Alright, who let Michael Bay get his hands on a drone? Pretty great action flick about a heist gone wrong with a few robbers hijacking an Ambulance and driving it all around LA to avoid the cops and so on. There’s some typical Bay style macho dudebro posturing, but Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Eiza González are a compelling trio, and the action is the real standout here. Clocking in at 136 minutes, it maybe overstays its welcome a bit, but this sort of non-green-screen action is worth celebrating these days (and this was definitely underseen in theaters). Worth a look for action fans.
The Kaiju Preservation Society, by John Scalzi – The usual enjoyable Scalzi experience, snappy and fun, but clearly middle tier at best, perhaps in line with his Lock In or Head On offerings. Actually, that comparison is quite apt, as that series also had clumsy worldbuilding and a protagonist whose gender is unclear. The plot of Kaiju takes a while to formulate itself and relies on a cliched, shortsighted corporate CEO villain, but even when the story is bogged down in establishing various Kaiju protection schemes (ranging from mildly clever to outright silly), Scalzi’s page-turning ability, likeable, competent characters, and zippy dialogue keeps everything afloat. I still generally look forward to all of Scalzi’s releases and while this is hardly his best, it’s entertaining and fun.
The Broken Room, by Peter Clines – A young girl escapes from a government science project and enlists the help of a former CIA operative. Decent little thriller with some nice procedural spy business and a supernatural body-horror element that gets more pronounced as it goes. Nothing particularly new here, but it’s brisk and nimble with a few twists and turns and solid action.
Into the Black Nowhere, by Meg Gardiner – A minor improvement over Gardiner’s first Unsub novel, this is another serial killer thriller that strikes that page turning airport novel balance, but isn’t especially doing anything special. Still, it’s entertaining enough and I’m looking forward to Gardiner’s co-written sequel to Heat coming soon.
I’ve been playing along with the 2022 Hugo Awards and it’s time to take a look at the Fantasy novel finalists (the ballot is split evenly between fantasy and science fiction, and we’ve already covered the SF novel finalists in another post). For the record, I do tend to lean more towards science fiction than fantasy, so you’ll need to take what follows with the appropriate boulder of salt.
A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark – Set in an alternate Cairo in 1912, this novel tells the story of Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, as she investigates the murder of an entire secret brotherhood dedicated to a famous magician.
As a genre, fantasy has been focusing more and more on stories that eschew Tolkein’s vaguely medieval, Western European worldbuilding. There’s still tons of elves and orcs and wizards and whatnot out there, but this year’s Hugo nominees tend towards more diverse settings and magics. P. Djèlí Clark’s alternate Cairo is an interesting place, but the format of the novel remains familiar. It’s a police procedural, complete with a fantastical mystery, some political intrigue, even a heroine who insists that she works alone forced to partner up with an enthusiastic rookie cop.
At its best, this novel sets up situations that are resolved with a duel of wits, as when Fatma makes deals with a djinn (who are famously tricky in their literal, punishingly ironic interpretations of requests). At its worst, you get a climactic battle with a Wild Wild West-style mechanical djinn. Spoilers, I guess, but while you probably won’t see that particular tidbit coming, the Scooby Doo-esque villain reveal was the least surprising thing in the book. In between, we’re left with a series of scattershot tangents and various character bits that don’t entirely land.
It doesn’t help that the mystery at the core of this novel isn’t particularly well done. Fatma is great at dealing with djinn, but she doesn’t seem to be much of an investigator. When the story awkwardly turns towards a more international intrigue angle, Fatma is even less impressive (this turn feels much more like an excuse for Clark to delve into the perils of colonialism, a favorite topic of the Hugos over the last decade, and boy do the British take a pounding here). As usual with this sort of thing, Clark tries to head off this complaint by explicitly calling it out in the story: when someone tells Fatma something she should have discovered herself, she thinks “what kind of investigator was this unaware of what was going on right in front of her eyes.” Indeed! Unfortunately, self-awareness of incompetence doesn’t make up for that incompetence (this is a particular pet peeve of mine; clearly others are fine with it.)
Another example: throughout the story, Fatma runs into an acolyte to one of the old Egyptian gods. Every time she sees him, she’s struck by his odd appearance, and it seems like he’s actually transforming into the god he worships. You’d think that an agent of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, living in a world with djinn, goblins, ghouls, and all manner of magical objects would at least consider the possibilities, but she simply writes it off as a crazy man disfiguring himself (spoiler alert: he’s not.)
It’s an interesting setting, but all too often, despite the ample cultural vocabulary and distinct locations, it’s only used as window dressing for a derivative story. That’s not inherently a bad thing, and I’m sympathetic to a familiar trope if it’s executed well. This isn’t a terrible novel, and there are times when it captures that X-Files-style procedural transported to a historical Cairo vibe that the premise calls to mind (a type of story that scratches an persistent itch for me), but there’s nothing here that makes me think this is the best genre novel of the year.
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan – In 1345 China, the starving peasant Zhu family is hanging by a thread. When a bandit attack orphans the two children, and the son quickly succumbs to grief and starvation, this leaves the daughter alone to fight for survival. She hatches a plan to use her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, she must hide her true identity as she learns what the monastery teaches. Once the monastery is destroyed, she joins the rebellion against Mongol rule, eventually becoming a general destined for greatness.
This is basically a fictionalized account of Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty. The key difference here, of course, is that he was not a woman in disguise. The premise of a woman taking on a man’s role is a classic trope, and while this obviously calls to mind Mulan, She Who Became the Sun is obviously a much more serious take on the idea.
The gender swap is clearly the driving force behind the story, and the implications are many. For instance, when Zhu joins the monastery, she must be careful to avoid feminine-gendered tasks:
Zhu felt a sickening lurch, as of the world reorienting itself. She’d assumed that everyone could braid, because to her it was as natural as breathing. It was something she’d done her whole life. But it was a female skill. In a flash of insight so painful she knew it must be true, she realized: she couldn’t do anything Chongba wouldn’t have done.
Later, as she rises through the ranks in the rebellion, she leverages these gendered roles to win battles in unexpected ways. The character of Zhu is well established and explored throughout the novel. Later, though, a secondary protagonist appears. The Mongol general Ouyang was the last surviving son of a Chinese family sentenced to death by the Mongols. To avoid death, Ouyang accepted castration and servitude to the Mongols, eventually rising through the ranks, in part thanks to his relationship with the prince’s heir, Esen. Unfortunately, Ouyang’s story feels a bit awkward and extraneous, especially as it gets encumbered by the court intrigue between Esen and his brother Wang. Still, the gendered nature of Ouyang, frequently described as having a feminine appearance, is a sorta mirror of Zhu’s experience. I can see why this secondary story exists, but it muddles the overall narrative a bit and impacts pacing as well.
The story is punctuated with various battles and political scheming that befits your typical epic fantasy, and some of these are well done, but it’s clear the focus here is on characterization and in particular, the sexuality and gender of our characters and how they subvert or queer gender for their own purposes. Another aspect of this story that I don’t see people talking about is how one’s expectations and seeking out of greatness and power can hollow out the soul. Zhu frequently laments that her actions have crossed a line that she will have to pay for dearly in the afterlife, and these actions get more and more troubling as the story goes on. While successful on these character building fronts, it’s another tick against the momentum of the story.
I can see why this novel is popular with Hugo voters, who have an obsession with gender and sexuality, but the biggest complaint I have here is that this is barely a fantasy. It reads much more like historical fiction than anything else. There are some scenes where Zhu sees ghosts, but they play no role in the story at all and are there purely as a symbolic or thematic note. I guess this is sorta alternate history, but there’s not really a sense of “what if” going on here (the result is ultimately the same as our history). I will fully admit that I’m not exactly the target audience for this book, but I’m glad I read it, and I do think it’s really well done. I’m just struggling with how to rank it within a genre that it doesn’t really represent very well…
Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki – Once upon a time, Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil. If she doesn’t deliver seven souls to hell, she will forfeit her own. A violinist by trade, Shizuka has already enticed six of her students to sell their souls for fame and success, and she is now searching for her seventh and final student. Katrina Nguyen is a transgender runaway with no prospects, but she catches Shizuka’s eye (or, er, ear) with her raw talent and obsession with violin. Oh, and there’s also an incognito alien refugee who owns a donut shop that Shizuka falls in love with, just to complicate matters further.
This might seem like an odd agglomeration of plot elements and it really shouldn’t work as well as it does, but color me surprised at how much I enjoyed this novel. Sure, it’s obsessed with sexuality and gender, just like the grand majority of Hugo nominees over the past several years, and the occasional passage feels more like a Twitter talking point than prose, but this novel does back that up with a deeper exploration of those surface level ideas.
The kindness that Shizuka shows towards Katrina is well established throughout the story, and the traumas of Katrina’s past mean that Shizuka has much to learn as well as teach. Of course Shizuka’s kindness is tempered by the ultimate fate she intends for her student, which is a source of tension that drives the story. Indeed, it almost feels even more cruel to show that sort of kindness only to condemn someone’s soul to eternal damnation. But without getting too into spoilers, this is ultimately a hopeful story.
While this is clearly an atypical fantasy novel, we’re treated to numerous procedural bits and details that would interest someone with a science fiction mindset. For instance, there’s several sequences involving a woman at a violin shop who repairs and restores violins, and it’s not just a passing reference. The book goes in depth on carpentry, wood, strings, bridges, famous historical violins, even cursed violins. Shizuka talks a lot about what makes music tick, and while the novel clearly doesn’t gloss over the transgender social elements, much of it is discussed in relation to music. There’s lots of things that Katrina does that are driven by her identity that are almost ironic compared to what Shizuka is used to from her students. Where A Master of Djinn used its Egyptian setting as window dressing for a conventional story, this book more thoroughly integrates its disparate elements.
For instance, at one point in the story, Katrina’s trans identity is revealed online (by a demon, naturally) and her Youtube videos, which previously had lots of comments about how inspiring the music was, start attracting vicious culture war comments and so on:
Furthermore, Shizuka immediately noticed something even more insidious than the hate. For not all the responses attacked Katrina’s womanhood. Some people where vehemently defending her right to gender representation. Some were calling out racism. Some messages were well wishes and hearts and “Your so inspiring,” and “Good luck.”
Some people were accusing others of being Nazis, while others said Katrina deserved justice.
But in all this, where were the comments about the music?
Culture war stuff can be exhausting in part because it reduces people’s identities to one simple axis, and everything else gets lost in the shuffle. Here, Aoki is able to maintain a more wholistic sense of character dynamics.
There are some things that didn’t quite work for me. I tended to appreciate the donut shop aliens more than most readers, but the “Endplague” that they are trying to escape from isn’t particularly well explained. Stylistically, Aoki has a tendency to shift perspectives frequency. Not just chapter to chapter, but mid-scene or mid-conversation. This can be a bit disorienting at times, and while some authors can get away with this (Pynchon comes to mind), I can see this stylistic tic rubbing some folks the wrong way. Ultimately, these are only minor issues for me.
One again, I’m probably not the target audience for this novel and it touches on lots of things that don’t especially interest me… Like, I enjoy the occasional donut and violins can make great music, but I’m not exactly intrigued by either subject (and I don’t mean to imply this is all that’s in the book, these are just two examples). But he way that Aoki weaves all of this together impressed me, and made me interested in things I normally wouldn’t seek out. It’s quirky and weird and doing something new with well worn tropes (it’s not as if Faustian bargains are an untapped sub-genre, you know) in a way that clearly isn’t for everyone, but which worked surprisingly well for me. It’s clearly my favorite of the fantasy nominees, and I’ll probably rank it higher than at least one of the SF nominees (even if this probably won’t take the top slot).
That about wraps up the 2022 Hugo Awards novel finalists. Top slots in my ballot will probably be Project Hail Mary and Light from Uncommon Stars.
In his forward to the short story collection Night Shift, Stephen King opined on the dominance of story:
All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story value holds dominance over every other facet of the writer’s craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else can be forgiven.
Night Shift, Page xxx
It’s a good notion and I think it captures what a lot of people look for out of stories (whether they be books or movies or whatever), as evidenced by King’s outsized success. Of course, nothing is absolute and attempts to boil storytelling down to a simple rule are probably doomed to failure. This reminded me of the opening lines from Clive Barker’s Imajica (I quoted this before, in reference to genres, something similarly difficult to boil down to their essence):
It was the pivotal teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was only ever room for three players. Between warring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer or a child. Between twins, the spirit of the womb. Between lovers, Death. Greater numbers might drift through the drama, of course-thousands in fact-but they could only ever be phantoms, agents, or, on rare occasions, reflections of the three real and self-willed beings who stood at the center. And even this essential trio would not remain intact; or so he taught. It would steadily diminish as the story unfolded, three becoming two, two becoming one, until the stage was left deserted.
Needless to say, this dogma did not go unchallenged. The writers of fables and comedies were particularly vociferous in their scorn, reminding the worthy Quexos that they invariably ended their own tales with a marriage and a feast. He was unrepentant. He dubbed them cheats and told them they were swindling their audiences out of what he called the last great procession, when, after the wedding songs had been sung and the dances danced, the characters took their melancholy way off into darkness, following each other into oblivion.
Imajica, Page 1
Likewise, there are lots of books and movies that challenge King’s assertion that story value dominates other aspects of fiction. There are some that even succeed. Indeed, King wrote that line in 1977, and in the intervening decades, even he has written stories that are perhaps less story focused than that line might imply. Like a lot of things, it’s good to have a guideline, but you can break it if you know what you’re doing. Alas, it turns out that breaking these sorts of guidelines is quite difficult.
“Once-and-for-allism” occurs when people decide that they wish to stop worrying about an issue at the margin. They might either dismiss the issue, or they might blow up its importance but regard the issue as hopeless and undeserving of further consideration. Either way, they seek to avoid the hovering sense of “I’ve still got to devote time and energy to figuring this out.” They prefer “I am now done with this issue, once and for all!” Thus the name of the syndrome.
I see once-and-for-allism with so many issues, but one recent example would be the forthcoming path of Covid and Long Covid. Most people just don’t want to think about it any more, and so they settle on something (“it’s just a cold!” or “it will bankrupt the nation!”) rather than having to do lots of intellectual revisions based on the stream of new data.
He gives lots of other examples in his post (like crypto, UFOs, abortion *ahem*, etc…), and perhaps one we could add storytelling and/or genre definitions to that list.
In defense of crypto(currency) – I’ve linked to some stuff that’s been (highly) critical of crypto in the past, but the underlying data structures and technology are interesting. I’ve always thought of crypto as a solution in search of a problem, and while it has solved some problems (i.e. thwarting man-in-the-middle attacks, enabling criminal enterprises, etc…), they’re, um, not all favorable. As currently constructed, these systems aren’t especially useful, but the engineering problems aren’t entirely insurmountable and the amount of money tied up in these schemes (even with recent tumbles) means there’s a big incentive to fix them. Healthy skepticism still warranted though.
And I’ll leave you with the tweet of the week (those poor librarians, but I can’t stop laughing):
It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of these Book Queues, but since the TBR pile is getting larger, I figured it’s time. Back when blogs were a thing, posts like this were common enough even if they aren’t particularly useful, but I do find that posting it publicly does motivate me to actually read the books I have sitting on the shelf (as opposed to picking out something new and shiny and reading that instead). So let’s get to it:
Authority and Freedom, by Jed Perl – Subtitled: “A Defense of the Arts”, this looks to be an exploration for the enjoyment of the arts as art (as opposed to art as political statement, or personal confession, or whatever deeper meaning people insist on projecting into a lot of art). It’s a subject that I’ve been thinking about recently, and will hopefully provide some new avenues of exploration.
The Immediate Experience, by Robert Warshow – Subtitled: “Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture”, this looks to be a variation on the theme of the previous book. Warshow was apparently annoyed by the critical establishment’s dismissal of popular culture (in favor of higher art, etc…)
A Culture of Fact, by Barbara J. Shapiro – In this age of practiced disinformation, fake news, and social media, taking a look at how we, as a species, came to respect facts in the first place, might be a good idea. I’ve had this on my list since Neal Stephenson kept name-checking it during his interviews promoting Fall and now Termination Shock, but I finally found a copy. It seems to be somewhat of a dry, academic tome, but certainly a worthwhile subject.
Reunion, by Christopher Farnsworth – Alright, that’s enough with the snooty non-fiction, how about some trashy fiction? I actually don’t know anything about this book other than that it’s written by Farnsworth, who I’ve enjoyed since discovering his President’s Vampire series, which were a whole boatload of fun. Not sure when he’ll get back to those vampire books, but in the meantime, he’s written several thrillers and other fun little stories.
The Kaiju Preservation Society, by John Scalzi – Another one based solely on the author. Scalzi has this habit of glomming onto some fun cultural meme and turning it into a book that I’m not in love with (see also: Redshirts), but his books are generally snappy and fun, so I always check them out.
Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki – The last of the Hugo novel finalists on my list, I’ve actually started reading this. It was probably my least anticipated of the nominees, but despite (or perhaps because of) that, I’m finding it surprisingly good. There’s a lot of stuff going on here, and it really shouldn’t work, but so far, it’s actually pulling off a decent balancing act. It’s still early and there’s plenty of room for a downturn, but still happy enough with this so far…
XX, by Rian Hughes – This feels something like a cultural heir to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Lots of visual experimentation with typefaces, modern epistolary (i.e. story told partially through emails and wikipedia pages and the like), images, collages, and so on. It’s more based around alien signals from space than the haunted house of House of Leaves, but it sounds interesting (and oh, it’s, like, a thousand pages, great).
Upgrade, by Blake Crouch – I’ve enjoyed Crouch’s last few books, in part because the appear to be one-off stories rather than series. This one hasn’t been released yet, but it’s definitely on the list…
Heat 2, by Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner – Not sure what inspired Mann to revisit the characters from Heat in novel form, but I love that movie, so I’m certainly onboard (perhaps it was a pandemic project, like what Tarantino did…) This book is cowritten by Meg Gardiner, who has been writing police procedurals and serial killer novels for a while. I checked out Unsub, which was solid airport thriller fare, even if it isn’t doing anything particularly new. I might check out more from that series too… Heat 2 doesn’t come out until August, but I’m onboard.
I’m sure you’ll be seeing more about these in coming months, so stay tuned.
CIA agents Palmer and Gagano are tasked with the perilous mission of destroying “The Soviet Union!” As they enter the system using a VR simulation, their mission quickly turns into a delirious trap, far more complex than expected, as the fabric of reality starts unraveling around them.
Longtime readers know that this series of posts is somewhat inconsistent in that I don’t always watch the weird movie in question (usually due to availability), but this one was on Amazon Prime Streaming, so while the description above sounds a little funky, this was how I summed it up:
Imagine Adult Swim commissioning Alejandro Jodorowsky to make a Too Many Cooks style pastiche of a late-era Philip K. Dick fever dream inflected novel. I’m still not sure if that’s good or bad, but it’s certainly not boring.
Ah yes, that gets to the weirdness.
I’m just going to quickly list a few things that are in this movie, just to give you more of an idea:
A good portion of the film is stop-motion animation where our heroes run around wearing paper masks of famous people in a virtual reality world
There’s a cocain snorting black Batman who is referred to as “Batfro”. I think he’s the mayor or something?
Stalin is portrayed as Scottish?
There are 3 ninjas called Spaghetti, Ravioli and Baltazar
At one point a pair of fly monsters show up. One of them shoots laser beams from its eyes and accidentally immolates itself. The other fly creature pulls his hand off and candy comes pouring out like he’s some sort of piñata.
I know my description involves Philip K. Dick and a lot of people throw that out as a descriptor, but it’s very clearly an influence here – one of the characters is even named Palmer Eldrich.
And there’s lots more where that came from. As you might intuit from all of this, the film is a bit of a mess. It’s certainly not beginners fare, though I suspect there’s a very specific type of person who will get a lot out of this. Who those people are, I have no idea. I found it interesting from an almost anthropological observational standpoint, but that sort of detached reserve is obviously not what’s driving this whole thing. Anyway, if you’re a veteran of weird movies, this one might due the trick.
Since I’m playing along with the 2022 Hugo Awards process and I’ve made good progress on the novels, I figured I’d split out the SF finalists in one post (look for another post covering the fantasy finalists coming soon).
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir has already been reviewed and remains at the top of my ballot. I’m not particularly sanguine about its chances, given the current Hugo voter’s obsession with social issues and character, as opposed to the science or ideas that drive Weir’s book. I suspect they’d see it as a bit of a throwback, but then, it did make the ballot in the first place, so who knows? I only have one book left, but I don’t see it budging this one from the top of my ranking.
A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine – The sequel to the 2020 Hugo Best Novel, A Memory Called Empire, this one is essentially more of the same. Which is to say, it’s competent space opera fodder that I enjoyed quite a bit! Is it good enough to be the best SF of the year? That’s the rub.
One of my complaints about A Memory Called Empire was that while it hinted at an alien threat throughout the story, it mostly covered a predictable thread of court intrigue and political power struggle right up to its completely expected conclusion. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that and there’s something to be said for a well executed take on standard tropes.
This sequel shifts focus to that alien threat, and once again, it feels like Martine is playing with the standard playbook – this time for first contact stories. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that and it’s reasonably well executed, but Martine seems far more interested in exploring the galactic empire she’s set up, and all the baggage that goes along with imperialism and colonialism, especially as it relates to the relationship between our two main protagonists. Which is well drawn and I enjoy spending time with those characters, even if it feels like we’ve been down this road before. In general, this focus on character over action does muck with the pacing, and the more military SF aspects of the story get shorter shrift. There’s also a thread involving the emperor-to-be and imperial communications that feels a bit tacked on, though it is eventually tied back into the overall narrative well enough.
It’s ultimately a worthy sequel to the first novel, better in some ways, but ultimately there’s not much new here. It’s a totally cromulent experience for sure, but if you’ve read a bunch of first contact stories before, you won’t be particularly surprised, and if you have been following along with the Hugos for the past few years, similar social issues and character beats have been hit pretty hard by other nominees. Again, nothing inherently wrong with that and there’s something to be said about well executed versions of standard tropes, but I don’t know that this rises to the level of best SF of the year.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers – At this point, I’ve read all of the books in Chambers’ popular Wayfarers series and have come away with somewhat mixed impressions. As I summarized on Chambers’ most recent Hugo-nominated entry in the series:
I’ve generally enjoyed the books in this series, a space opera that focuses on nice people, rather than grim despair or dystopia (as a lot of modern takes go). The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was a character-driven, episodic narrative about the crew of a hyperspace tunneling ship that had seen better days. Most of the events covered in the book were well done but underwhelming, though it ended on a relatively strong note and the characters were enjoyable. The next book, A Closed and Common Orbit, focused much closer on two of the characters from the first book, and was significantly better for it. Like the first book, the stakes and tension weren’t particularly high, but the two characters at the heart of the story were endearing and interesting and once again, the ending was strong.
Alas, the third entry in the series, Record of a Spaceborn Few, was my least favorite so far. A set of day-in-the-life character sketches almost completely devoid of tension or drama, it really didn’t work for me at all. At first glance, this most recent entry in the series has a similar tone.
The story takes place at the Five-Hop One-Stop, a sort of truck-stop in space, as three visitors and the proprietor get stuck together due to a freak accident in orbit around them that prevents any traffic from coming or going. All the characters are from different alien races, and none are human. As you might guess from Chambers’ generally positive attitude and optimistic vibes, this isn’t going to be a pressure-cooker situation where inter-species conflict threatens to explode, but there’s actually lots of interesting exploration going on here. Sure, most of it just comes down to various characters talking and attempting to understand one another’s cultures and perspectives, or even other races not present in the book, but it works a lot better than the previous book. Naturally these conversations hit on a lot of topics of interest to human readers, even if the characters aren’t human, and given the general politics of the Hugos the past few years, I think you know what you’re in for – though it’s nowhere near as ham-fisted or preachy as some other nominees have a tendency to be…
This lends itself to some mild tension and conflict, though it never really boils over into anything even remotely threatening. Perhaps the most memorable discussion involves us humans and our weird obsession with cheese and how it’s made, and how disgusting it is to the aliens, which is very funny. There’s one genuine argument between two of the characters, but that’s understandable enough, even to the characters themselves. One character has a bit of separation anxiety with their sibling stuck in orbit, but that’s not played up too hard. And there’s an incident involving a child in danger, but we all know it will work out fine in the end, and of course it does. I guess that’s a spoiler, but not really.
All in all, it’s another enjoyable entry into an enjoyable series, with likable characters and a nice positive attitude. I can see why it’s popular, especially with Hugo voters, and while I enjoyed it well enough, I don’t think it rises to the level of best SF of the year. Indeed, I’d put it about on par with A Desolation Called Peace with a similar notion of being a generally well executed version of something we’ve seen before. If Chambers is ever able to harness her storytelling powers to generate something more compelling, and populate it with these likable characters she’s so good at creating, that would be a true winner. These slice-of-life sketches are all well and good, but they don’t tend to stay with me…
So that covers the 2022 Hugo Awards SF finalists. Stay tuned for a look at the fantasy-oriented finalists. I only have one book left to go there, but it may be a few weeks. In the meantime, maybe I’ll give the Short Stories a whirl…