Turn and Face the Strange

With apologies for two weeks in a row of naval gazey posts about blogging, I’m still playing around with WordPress. I managed to solve the most pressing issues for this initial migration from Movable Type to WordPress and have made the momentous transition from the old blog to the new. As described last week, this has already conferred many benefits, including HTTPS, a better responsive design, and pretty permalinks. That said, there are a few stragglers and other things that I still need to implement.

One thing that has struck me during this process is how easy a fresh installation is versus the challenges inherent in converting an existing site to a new system. This is something that has come up in my professional life as well. After decades of new systems being layered on top of old systems, we’re finally embarking on the process of retiring some of those older systems. It’s a challenging proposition, but the devil is in the details, and the details are all in the transition phase where the system to be retired still exists. Everyone loves designing a new system; no one loves retiring the old legacy systems and all the thrash implied in such an effort. Also, no one wants to lose functionality, just like I didn’t want to lose decades of blog posts and whatever Google juice I might have conjured up.

Look, this blog has never been popular and I’m not under any delusions here, but part of the reason it took so long to make this transition is that I didn’t really want to lose what I’d built up. Most of this was for my own edification, and thus, so is the transition, but at the same time, it wouldn’t be public if I didn’t want anyone to see it.

Anywho, here’s some remaining considerations:

  • Adding Widgets – There are a few things that I used to have on my old blog page that I want to port over here, namely some introductory text and additional links (i.e. the blogroll, etc…) for the sidebar. It shouldn’t be too difficult, but I haven’t looked into it yet and from what I’ve seen, there’s probably some ideal way to do it that won’t involve mucking with design themes.
  • Design Themes – Speaking of which, I’ve chosen a pretty basic design at the moment. One of the benefits of this process is that I should be able to change designs very easily… and there are tons of design themes out there for the picking. Navigating those themes is pretty rough though, and they tend to be very extensible, so even just previewing them can be awkward.
  • Commenting – I played around with this last week and immediately started getting spam. I know the process of commenting on my old blog was awful, but it at least prevented spam. There are, of course, lots of plugins for this sort of thing, so I’ll just need to play around with it. I’ll probably try opening up commenting again today
  • The Beer Blog – I’ve actually set up the WordPress version, which appears to be working well enough. It’s the transition that will kill me here. For some reason, I installed the original beer blog on a subdomain (it’s currently at beer.kaedrin.com). This, of course, does not play nice with WordPress (or, uh, vice versa). That said, I should be able to do something similar to here, which is to write up some regex code for .htaccess file to 301 redirect to the new site. Needless to say, my regex skills are not up to snuff at this point, so I’ll need to do some research and learning. In some ways, it’s nice to learn something technical to solve a problem. In other ways, I just want to get the new version up and running.
  • Various and Sundry Cleanup – While importing all the entries for both blogs was a relatively easy process, not everything survived intact. There’s lots of weird formatting issues strewn about that probably should be cleaned up. That said, the prospect of going through thousands of posts to do such a thing is a bit daunting. But I will probably pick and choose individual posts to be cleaned up here and there.
  • Stone Knives and Bearskins – So once I get all this fancy newfangled blog stuff sorted, I should probably go back and figure out some of the older content on the site (much of which pre-existed the original Blogger weblog, let alone Movable Type or WordPress). Some of it is probably fine to languish in obscurity, but some of it should probably be ported over here. Again, this will involve some sort of republishing and 301 redirects.

So yes, plenty of changes still to come. This process has been both easier than expected and yet some of the difficulties are exactly what I wanted to avoid. Good progress so far though, so let’s keep things moving.

Changes, They Are A Comin’

To the blog. I mean, yeah, sure, the world too (boy, are they!), but this post is about my blog. I’m sorry. It’s been about 4 years since the last refresh, and even that was kicked off accidentally and thus never quite achieved what was truly needed. Since then, additional requirements have come to light, and I figure it’s finally time to take a serious look at the technical foundations of Kaedrin.

Since 2002, this weblog has been powered by Movable Type. At the time, this was pretty much state of the art. It was significantly better than Blogger (the original platform I used) and other competitors at the time (i.e. Greymatter, etc…) WordPress was still three years away, and the initial versions were probably a bit behind Movable Type. For a long while, I feel like the two platforms kept up with each other and the competition was probably good for both. Movable Type even offered an Open Source option under GPL for a while. Alas, WordPress became the standard… but by then, I’d build up a solid decade’s worth of posts and the transition seemed like a lot of work for little benefit.

Well, things have changed a bit. Movable Type retired their Open Source version and basically priced individuals out of the software. I’ve mostly limped along since then, never really finding the time or motivation to seriously fix some of the issues. I could certainly continue on this path, but there are a few things I’ve wanted to do for a while now and it seems like WordPress would be a much better (and more sustainable) option for the future. You know, the one where people still care about and read blogs?

So anyway, after 18 years of service, I’m planning to retire Movable Type. Take a bow. Yeah, I probably should have made this transition a decade ago, but for all its faults, MT has served me well. So, what are the reasons I’m making this change? Here’s a few things:

  • HTTPS – Security has become more and more important over the years and somewhat recently, browsers and search engines have started penalizing sites that don’t use TLS/SSL. There are ways to do this on MT, but WordPress appears to be much easier.
  • Pretty Permalinks – Back in 2002, the only option for permalinks was to just use the numerical post id in the URL. A while later, the standard changed to using something more descriptive and while MT offered that option, I’d built up enough history that the change wasn’t as easy, and then it only got worse as time went on. So while I’m updating to HTTPS (which counts as a URL change), I might as well switch to a better, more descriptive permalink. More about how I’ll achieve this below…
  • Responsive Design – I technically already have this, but as already mentioned, it’s barely functional. In general, the design of Kaedrin has degraded a bit over time, and one of the things that WordPress is really good at is allowing quick and easy theme changes. They have a massive library of thousands of designs to choose from, while MT has, like, a dozen (maybe, I’m not checking). Now, the process of browsing and choosing a design theme leaves a lot to be desired, but I think I’ve found a few that could be interesting (and many allow for enough customization that it’ll be fine).
  • Comments – It’s possible to comment here, but man I’ve made it obnoxious to do so, haven’t I? Well, there are plenty of limitations on the MT side and it relied on some third party services that are no longer working (particularly, Google’s OpenID system broke again a few years back after I managed to briefly fix it). In any case, WordPress seems to have a much better way of capturing comments and their anti-spam measures are also better.
  • Support – In general, WordPress has a much better support community. This is also why it has so many design themes and plugins.

And there’s plenty of other reasons. You may have noticed that everything looks the same, and that’s because the transition hasn’t quite happened yet. So why isn’t this fancy new blog shooting into your eyeballs right now? What have I done and what’s left to do?

  • Installation – Installation was a breeze, actually. Only minor little kerfluffles here and there. WordPress is actually powering the main kaedrin.com page right now. It’s not much to look at, but now I’ve got some more options.
  • Importing Posts – Also a relatively simple process. There was one snag, which had to do with the CONVERT BREAKS indicator not being imported properly, but a quick google search for “wordpress movable type import line breaks WHY THE FUCK WON’T IT WORK” yielded a good solution. The only other annoying thing was that the importer can only work on files that are 1 MB or less. Believe it or not, this blog exports to a 12 MB file, so I had to spend some time splitting up the files and importing in batches. But all in all, it was a pretty easy process.
  • Stupid Rewrite Engine – So WordPress does this thing where it uses .htaccess rewrite rules to run the entire URL structure. Which, like, sure, it’s probably better than MT’s static HTML files, but it’s also not nearly as flexible in terms of where you can publish your blog. In particular, since this “weblog” directory already exists, WordPress has difficulty displaying the main page (everything else works fine – I can go to individual posts, archives, etc… with no problem). If you came here in the last few days when I’d been playing with this, you may have seen the main blog page show a 403 error (and you may see that again as I work out kinks). Now, the grand majority of users probably aren’t migrating 20 years of posts and are, in fact, just starting something new and thus won’t experience any issues. But after a few decades and several content management strategies, my directories are a bit of a mess, which causes issues with WordPress’ rewrite engine. It’s nothing insurmountable, but it will take some time to resolve.
  • 301 Redirects – Basically, I need to set this up for every blog post (I’m less concerned about Monthly/Category archives, etc…) There are easy ways to do this and I think there might be a way to do it in bulk, I just need to figure it out. I was hoping that the new and old blog could coexist for a while so that I could do a more leisurely transition, but this may ultimately be for the best anyway…
  • Updating Manual Links/Images – There may be some weirdness in the beginning as some of the old links and images are hardcoded into entries. The 301 redirects should function for the links, but it’s not a good practice to keep them in place; they should be updated to the new URL structure. I should be able to fix the majority of these using find/replace capabilities in WordPress, but again, some weirdness may persist in the archives.
  • The Beer Blog – I haven’t even started on the beer blog, but I’m anticipating basically the same problems there. Not only does that directory already exist (thus probably breaking the rewrite engine), but I also made that directory a sub-domain (again, WordPress’ lack of flexibility in terms of publishing makes this problematic). I’m also shuddering about the thought of reorganizing all the categories there (the import process flattens the category hierarchy – I’m hoping there’s a plugin that allows for better category management, I just haven’t looked yet).

There’s still plenty left to do, but it all seems more approachable than I had feared. A big part of this is the huge ecosystem of plugins and support that WordPress has built up (and that is practically non-existent for MT). I’m hopefully that the new blog will be up and running for the 20th anniversary of the weblog (while Kaedrin existed in various incarnations before the weblog, the first post here was on July 14, 2000). Until then, stay safe and healthy out there folks.

Update 6/30/20: The changes have come and are blasting into your eyeballs as we speak. Turn and face the strange. Moar to come.

Link Dump

I debated writing about something political today, which was a bad idea and now I’m depressed so here, fun links that might brighten up your day.

That’s all for now. Stay safe out there.

SF Book Review – Part 33: Hugo Nominees and Moar

I started this post a few weeks ago, but I had wanted to at least acknowledge what was happening in the world in the intro and that ended up becoming its own post. All of which is to say, stay Safe and Constructive out there everyone! A surprising amount of progress has been made in a short time, but now we’re in for more opportunism and potential backlash, not to mention wave two of the pandemic. Wallowing in social media probably won’t be very productive for a while and maybe losing yourself in a novel is a good way to reset. Here’s a few that I’ve read recently…

  • The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow – January Scaller is the ward of the wealthy Mr. Locke, an enterprising collector of mysterious trinkets and curious treasures. Set in the beginning of the 20th century, the story follows January and her talent for finding portals to other worlds. She has discovered a book amongst Mr. Locke’s belongings, a book of adventure and doors that features elements eerily familiar to January’s experiences. It’s an interesting enough premise, and it hits on two popular tropes that could make for an interesting combination: the portal story and the book-within-a-book. The former is merely a tease. There are portals to other worlds in this novel, but if you think this is going to be a story about actually traveling to new and interesting places and having adventures there, well, you’d be wrong. There are tantalizing mentions of these other worlds, some of which sound like they could be really exciting, but that’s all we get. We’re mostly just stuck in turn of the 20th century world, which is fine I guess, but doesn’t really deliver on the promise of a portal story. As a result, the world building feels a bit incomplete. The whole book-within-a-book conceit doesn’t really do much for me either, other than wreak havoc with the pacing of the novel. As previously mentioned, it’s not exactly a rollercoaster to start with, so this addition was not especially appreciated. Furthermore, both of these narrative threads (i.e. January’s and the book’s) are told in first person as a retrospective, which also has an impact on the stakes of the story. The characters came off as a bit flat to me. The heroine is fine, if not especially special (which is weird, because we’re often informed about how unique she is, even as she resembles a million other similar characters). The villains are obvious mustache-twirly types whose motivations don’t make much sense. Frankly my favorite character was Bad, the good doggo that January takes on early in the story. The prose doesn’t help things along either, as it’s overly flowery and at times, preachy (yes, this novel shares the politics of every other Hugo nominee from the past few years and it sometimes comes off as a leaden lecture). Ultimately, with the pacing issues and overbaked prose, it feels like not a lot happens in the book, which is one of those things that just bothers me. I’m obviously in the distinct minority on this one, so I’ll leave it at that. I clearly didn’t enjoy this and as of now it’s at the bottom of my Hugo Awards ballot. If you’re going to open a bunch of doors, you should probably go through them at some point.
  • Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir – Gideon is a swordswoman attempting to escape a life of servitude for the Ninth House. Harrow is the heir to the Ninth House and a necromancer. When the Emperor summons the heirs to each house to find a leader so that he can defeat some threat on the horizon, Harrow enlists Gideon as her Cavalier. As the heirs to each house gather for their trials, dead bodies start to pile up, and mysterious bone creatures rear their ugly heads. I really ought to like this more than I do. It’s got a lot of winning elements. A Gothic whodunnit with bone witches and swordfights? What’s not to like? It’s got all the elements, and it comes together in the end fairly well, but there’s just a bunch of nagging complaints I can’t quite get over. A lot of people complain about the dense fog of jargon that is just sorta dropped on your head at the start, but that sort of thing usually doesn’t bother me. Some of the worldbuilding is unclear though, and that does lead to some confusion. The characters are a bit too snarky for my tastes. Gideon, in particular, seems awfully insubordinate for someone who’s supposed to be an indentured servant, and her relationship with Harrow is kinda weird. The whole odd-couple, enemies-to-friends thing is a time honored trope, but it only barely works here because the relationship is just so fraught with mistrust and pain that when things shift later in the story, it comes off as abrupt and perhaps unearned. The rest of the characters are a bit less defined and harder to care that much about, perhaps because there are so many of them (and they drop like flies as the story progresses). The story does seem to lapse into a repetitive state in the middle, but the conclusion is rousing enough. And along the way there are plenty of swordfights and necromantic creatures to keep things interesting. Ultimately, well, this isn’t really my preferred genre, but it comported itself just fine. It’s perhaps a bit too long and while it’s got all the right elements, there’s some tweaking needed to make it really sing. As with A Memory Called Empire and perhaps even The Ten Thousand Doors of January, I feel like this would be better served as a nomination under the Asounding Award (formerly the Campbell) for best new writer (all three of these novels are debuts, and thus it’s perhaps not so surprising that I have similar complaints). As a Hugo finalist, this can’t quite compete with the more developed storytelling that you get from Middlegame (which is still at the top of my ballot, even as I didn’t love that novel either…)
  • The Last Emperox by John Scalzi – The conclusion to Scalzi’s Interdependency novels (The Collapsing Empire and The Consuming Fire) is, well, more of the same. Which, considering that I enjoyed the first two novels, is a good thing. I won’t call this Scalzi’s best work or anything, but it’s solid stuff and very entertaining. I don’t need to go into the plot much here because it’s kinda right there in the titles. The empire’s transportation network is collapsing and the Emporox must find a way to restore independence to each system before the become isolated while also fending off various assassination/coup attempts. Look, it’s getting a bit repetitive by this point and maybe it’s something that didn’t require a trilogy of novels to cover, but in general, I enjoyed spending time with these characters and while the scheming and intrigue are repetitive, Scalzi is actually pretty good at this sort of thing. Indeed, reading this not long after other Hugo nominees (particularly A Memory Called Empire, which has similar Empire-in-crisis vibes), put Scalzi’s talent for clever machinations and storytelling in stark relief. There were several surprises throughout, and even though some of them were fakeouts that some might find cheap, I rather enjoyed them. I won’t claim this should be nominated for a Hugo Award, but I do really enjoy Scalzi’s style. This isn’t his best work, but it’s highly enjoyable, and in these dark times, that’s laudible.
  • Randomize by Andy Weir – This is actually a short story, but I thought I’d give it a crack because I like Weir and while this has some interesting elements, it doesn’t fully gel for me. It basically tells the story of how quantum computing could wreak havoc on our world, though he focuses the story on a particular Casino. It’s a good idea and the Casino world is a good microcosm, but some of the machinations, particularly towards the end of the story, are strained and not quite believable. Still, I’m always curious to see where Weir goes. Nothing he’s written recently has been as great as The Martian, but I like his approach.
  • Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge – Towards the beginning of lockdown, I read two books that… start with plots about disease. This was not planned at all and felt a bit weird, but in this one, the disease was really just a delivery vector for something else. Once the story proper starts, the disease bit becomes background. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, Robert Gu receives a series of medical treatments that basically cures him of Alzheimer’s disease. He was a world-renowned poet before the disease, but now he awakens to find a world that has dramatically changed. Also, he was apparently a prick before the disease, so he’s got a lot of baggage to wade through with his family and friends. Then he gets caught up in some sort of conspiracy involving that disease vector thing. Once again, reading this in comparison to recent Hugo nominees puts things in stark relief. The sheer idea content of this book is so much higher than anything nominated in the past few years that I’m wondering where this type of science fiction went (incidentally, this won the Hugo back in the aughts). The storytelling is a bit less successful. It’s overlong and some of the characters aren’t entirely likable at first, but it still functions well enough. It sorta meanders a bit at times though, which doesn’t help with the pacing, and while the conclusion pulls all the threads together well enough, it just wasn’t as satisfying as it should have been. That said, the aforementioned idea content is high and so even when it’s going off on tangents, it’s interesting. I really enjoyed this book, even if it isn’t Vinge’s best work.
  • Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear – Ah, and this is the other disease novel that I inadvertently started reading during a global pandemic. I mean, I guess I should have read the description more, but I like Bear and this has long been on my book queue to catch up with, so I just took a chance and started reading it. Fortunately, it’s a pretty darned good book! Molecular biologist Kaye Lang believes that ancient diseases encoded in human DNA could awaken and start infecting people. Christopher Dicken is a “virus hunter” for the CDC who is hot on the trail of an elusive flu-like disease that only infects expectant mothers and their offspring. Mitch Rafelson is a disgraced paleontologist who stumbles upon the preserved bodies of a prehistoric family in the Alps. Of course, all three plotlines are completely independent with no overlap whatsoever. Oh, wait, no, the opposite of that. To be perfectly honest, much of the details of Bear’s exploration of DNA and disease are way over my head. That said, it all sounds impressive and isn’t obviously wrong, so he’s got that going for him. The broad strokes of the story seem plausible enough and are easy to discern, and it’s an entertaining yarn. It’s the longest book covered in this post, but it earned its length I think. Perhaps I’m just a sucker for Bear’s dense style though, so maybe take that with a grain of salt. The ending perhaps leaves too much room for a sequel (which is out there) and thus isn’t as satisfying as it could have been, but it works well enough.

That’s all for now. I’ve actually got quite a backlog of books to cover, so we’ll probably have another of these posts sooner rather than later.

Safe and Constructive

I’ve been writing this blog for almost 20 years now and while I’ve touched on politics from time to time, it’s not a strong point and I’ve found that while arguing about stuff on the internets can be productive at times, these days it just makes me angry. Social media doesn’t help. With all due respect to Twitter and Facebook, they’re awful platforms for these sorts of discussions. They’re optimized for “increased engagement” but that basically amounts to algorithms that seek to obliterate nuance and sow discord.

A couple of months ago, as the world went into various forms of lockdown to fight a pandemic, I thought maybe blogs could make a comeback. That’s somewhat naive, I guess, and it’s not like some blogs weren’t a cesspool, but they were at least easily isolated or avoided cesspools. Social Media only occasionally scratches that blogging itch, but it’s too easy to mix garbage into your feed (or to have an algorithm insert garbage into your feed despite explicitly rejecting to follow someone, etc…) It’s a signal vs noise problem, and the algorithms find that noise actually increases engagement, so it’s encouraged.

It reminds me of that scene in Private Parts where they’re going over Howard Stern’s ratings and they’re like “The average radio listener listens for eighteen minutes. The average Howard Stern fan listens for an hour and twenty minutes.” and they’re like “That’s amazing, but what about the people who hate him?” and the response is “Good point. The average Stern hater listens for two and a half hours a day.” People like to be angry I guess, and social media is built around that concept.

Mad

If there’s one recommendation I can make right now, it’s to at least be aware how this sort of thing works. I don’t think you need to avoid social media altogether (though it may be a good idea to take breaks from time to time!), so long as you are thinking critically about what you’re seeing. Anger is a natural and legitimate response to a lot of things in this world (what happened to George Floyd, for instance), but social media’s goal is to increase engagement by stoking that anger into something less focused and unproductive.

Look, anger can prompt action, but it can also end in counterproductive events or, strangely, apathy. I’m not very productive when I’m angry (or, I should say, that kind of angry), which benefits no one. We’re living through an unprecedented mixture of upheavals ranging from a pandemic to police officers committing murder to protests to antifa to looting to curfews and much more. No one reads this blog and to be honest, my “in the moment” analysis isn’t going to be very productive, but I’m reading and thinking and trying to find core issues and ways to support needed change (justice for George and I’m glad the police officer in question has been arrested and charged, but it goes far beyond that). I’m angry, but I’m trying to find ways to contribute that will actually help. As are most people! Another failing of social media is that it amplifies the most divisive voices even what the grand majority of people can all agree on a given issue.

For the record, some bullshit Executive Order isn’t going to “solve” social media. I’m critical of social media in this post, but it also contains value, and improvements to social media probably won’t come from government. The only way to “solve” social media is for its users to be more aware of what those platforms are and how they react to it. A lot of the best parts of the internet are also its worst parts, and it’s important to understand how that works.

All of which is to say: be safe and constructive out there, people. It might seem impossible, but we can get through this stronger than before. Change happens incrementally, and while it might seem like small victories aren’t enough, they can add up and build a base for larger change. But we have to want that. We’re trying to move mountains here, it won’t happen overnight. Being angry on social media isn’t going to get it done. Only a few people read this (or, for that matter, my social media accounts), but if you are reading this, I will repeat: stay safe and constructive.

The 1978 Project: Part V

The 1978 project is a deep dive into the cinema of a single year, undertaken on a whim late last year. As it turns out, this is somewhat good timing, as tons of 2020 films are getting delayed, so it’s nice to still get a feel for a single year, even if it’s not this year… and honestly, it’s much easier to get a feel for the current year because, you know, you’re already living it. I have no idea when I’ll finish this project, but I’ve been making steady progress. Current status: I’ve seen 62 films made in 1978. I still have at least 10 films I want to check out, if not more. It’s about the journey, not the destination. Speaking of which, let’s see what I’ve been watching whilst in lockdown:

  • I Wanna Hold Your Hand – Robert Zemeckis’s feature directing debut about Beatle mania and six teenagers from Jersey who make the trek to NYC to see The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. The only problem? They don’t actually have tickets for the show. It’s basically a nostalgic “one crazy day/night” story reminiscent of American Graffiti, except this is much more focused and all the little episodic bits tie together better. This little sub-genre experienced a sorta heyday in the 80s, but has remained with us in various incarnations to this day. It’s also notable that most examples of this sort of thing are not led by teenage girls, which this definitely is (though a couple of boys are along for the ride).
    I Wanna Hold Your Hand
    I tend to like, but not love, these sorts of movies, but this one is definitely one of the better examples. The use of the Beatles really serves to crystallize what could easily have fallen into a fractured narrative with no cohesive point. The tone is also perfectly calibrated. Zemeckis isn’t parodying or mocking Beatle mania, nor is he especially praising it. It’s just a thing that existed, and while the goal of getting to meet the Beatles might seem silly, it’s not like it wasn’t a common desire at the time. Zemeckis takes the time to show that the screaming throngs of teenage girls outside the Beatles’ hotel all had their own stories and hangups and reasons to be there, and the result is a playful little film that doesn’t feel forced or cloying (as Zemeckis would later do with Forrest Gump), but remains sweet and a whole lot of fun. ***
  • Up in Smoke – The first Cheech and Chong flick and landmark stoner comedy holds up reasonably well, I guess, but this duo has never really been my thing. They get into wacky adventures and do drugs and it all feels disjointed and pointless… but then, no one is claiming this is high art (though maybe it is, um, “high” art). Some of the bits work well enough and I chuckled a few times, and I like the concluding rock show where Cheech is running around in a tutu playing guitar… but it’s not like I’m gonna rush out and watch the rest of the Cheech and Chong oeuvre. **
  • The Lord of the Rings – Ralph Bakshi’s animated take on the Tolkien classic has a tortured history, and unfortunately that kinda sinks the movie. Bakshi clearly didn’t have the budget to pull off what he was attempting, and there were apparently lots of studio shenanigans and meddling in play. The animation doesn’t look particularly great. There’s a mix of traditional 2D animation and rotoscoping, and the latter comes in a variety of quality ranging from not that bad (I thought it looked ok for wide shots or landscapes) to absolutely horrendous (the barely animated film of extras wearing off-the-shelf gorilla masks pretending to be orcs). The transition between the two styles can be jarring too. A lot of that can be chalked up to budgetary constraints, but even the general designs aren’t that attractive, and the decision to condense the first two books into one narrative leads to an awkwardly plotted, rushed, and yet somehow simultaneously plodding experience. Much of the battles and chases take forever to get through, even as the narrative plows forward. Naturally, it ends on something of a cliffhanger and Bakshi’s follow-up was never produced (though there was a Rankin-Bass attempt to resolve the narrative a couple years later). Bakshi’s movies have a bit of a cult following, and I can kinda see why, but now that we have Peter Jackson’s take on the trilogy, this just pales in comparison.
    Lord of the Rings
    Even considering that Jackson clearly has some affection for Bakshi’s adapatation (he lifted some scenes directly from the animated version, particularly when the Ringwraith catches up with the hobbits on the road), the live-action films are far better paced and look much better. It’s worth a watch for completists and Tolkien nuts, but probably not much interest to anyone else. *
  • Fedora – Billy Wilder’s penultimate film winds up being something like Sunset Boulevard Redux, covering similar themes, perhaps updated for the 70s. Unfortunately, what that means is that the film demands comparison to an all-time classic and can’t help but fail to live up to that standard. That being said, it’s an interesting little ride, and Wilder’s not-so-flattering portrait of Hollywood and its inhabitants works well enough, even when transported to Europe. A down-on-his-luck Hollywood producer attempts to lure the famously reclusive but world-renowned actress Fedora out of retirement. But he’ll have to get past her retinue of well-meaning but possibly abusive hangers-on. It’s not quite as clever or twisty as it wants to be, and it drags in the second act, but it’s still a fun ride and the ending is engaging if not entirely surprising. If it’s a failure, it’s an interesting one. **1/2
  • Autumn Sonata – A mother-daughter showdown between an absentee concert-pianist mother and mousy caretaker daughter. Also known as “The Meeting of the Bergmans”, with Ingmar Bergman directing Ingrid Bergman (no relation) in the waning chapters of both of their careers. It starts slow, with the mother arriving for a visit and the daughter seemingly glad to have her… but things gradually become more tense, perhaps even passive aggressive. It all boils over when a lifetime of pent-up resentment and anger gets released one night.
    Autumn Sonata
    This is not normally my thing, but once that second half started, I couldn’t help but fall into the rythms of the movie. It’s talky and melodramatic, but you can’t help but fall for it. Ultimately, I’m not sure how much I really understand about these characters, though it’s hard not to feel for them. Ingmar famously deploys closeups in his directing, and he uses them to good effect here, making the accusations and emotional baggage nearly inescapable. Ingrid Bergman is certainly the more famous actress and she’s great as the overbearing yet oblivious mother, but I was more impressed by Liv Ullmann as the deservedly angry daughter. Her initial meekness and all the niceties of her interactions takes a big turn mid-way through the film, with Ullmann nearly hyperventilating in anger and resentment, and she pulls it off well. Ultimately, I can’t help but respect this movie, even if I don’t especially “enjoy” it or even understand it that well. ***

I’ve got a few more flicks in the hopper, but I’ll leave it at these five for now… look for another recap in a few weeks!

Link Dump

The usual links from the depths of ye olde internets:

  • How I’m Handling Online Teaching – Watch until the end; sheer perfection.
  • It’s Time to Build – Interesting view on where we are that is ultimately optimistic, if only we can overcome our inertia:

    The problem is desire. We need to *want* these things. The problem is inertia. We need to want these things more than we want to prevent these things. The problem is regulatory capture. We need to want new companies to build these things, even if incumbents don’t like it, even if only to force the incumbents to build these things. And the problem is will. We need to build these things.

    And we need to separate the imperative to build these things from ideology and politics. Both sides need to contribute to building.

    One of the books I’ve read during lockdown was The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and this goes well with the article. One of Taleb’s main points is that our inability to predict a fabled “Black Swan” event means that our institutions need to be flexible and prepared… but that sort of robustness can appear to be inefficient or redundant during the longer periods of normalcy. A lot of the stuff in the linked article is talking about exactly this sort of thing. Weirdly enough, Taleb mentions in the book (multiple times) that our overly interconnected globalised supply chain makes us vulnerable to certain events… like a pandemic (i.e. he didn’t so much predict the pandemic as he did the poor response to the pandemic). I like the linked article above because it’s at least thinking about a path forward, while most people are stuck politicizing anything and everything for no benefit whatsoever. It’s frustrating, but again, there’s a way out, and maybe it’s worth thinking about that more than, I dunno, masks.

  • Inside Joe Manganiello’s Epic Dungeons & Dragons Campaign – Among many weird little tidbits in this is that Tom Morello invited Vince Vaughn to play in this campaign. I don’t know, I just find it funny that they’re friends.
  • The Architecture of Dread – So some prepper billionaire bought an old underground nuclear missile silo and turned it into an inverted skyscraper/self-contained bunker full of luxury accommodation and video screen windows and now he and 57 other people have gone inside and shut the doors…
  • ‘Expert Twitter’ Only Goes So Far. Bring Back Blogs – I had kinda hoped that this whole lockdown situation would result in a resurgence of blogs, but that’s probably just wishful thinking. Still, it’s heartening to see I’m not the only one who thinks Social Media is too slight to carry the burden we’ve place on it.
  • Quibi Sent These Podcasters A Cease-And-Desist, So Now They’re Out For Blood – Utterly bizarre response to fans of a service that was facing enough struggles as it was without shooting themselves in the foot on purpose.

And that’s all for now…

Hugo Awards: Middlegame

Middlegame is the fifth novel by Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) to be nominated for a best novel Hugo Award. She’s been nominated in and won the award in several other categories, but the best novel win has eluded her. Will this one do the trick?

Roger and Dodger are twins bred for a specific (but secret) purpose by rogue alchemist James Reed (himself an alchemical creation, reminiscent of Frankenstein, that’s been scheming for over a century on said secret purpose). Rodger is skilled in all things words and language. Dodger is a math whiz. Separated at birth and placed in foster homes, they somehow managed to connect via some sort of handwavey quantum entanglement; they can speak to one another and even see through each other’s eyes. Their parents and teachers generally attribute this to imaginary friends, but Reed knows it’s the pair’s latent powers beginning to manifest and he doesn’t want them to do so too early. He and his merry band of alchemical minions stop at nothing to keep the two separated until their powers can be fruitfully harnessed for whatever dreadful purpose they have in mind. Will Roger and Dodger manage to discover and subsequently foil Reed’s nefarious plans? Spoiler alert: yes.

Middlegame

While this novel is a bit too long and overly cryptic for its own good, McGuire is a good yarn-spinner and has developed two core protagonists that are likable enough such that the pages turn quickly, which certainly mitigates the issues I have with the novel. Roger and Dodger have a great chemistry together and McGuire is able to generate a lot of empathy for their various plights. The story requires them to be separated, sometimes forcibly, and McGuire is able to harness this conflict to induce a certain longing and desire to seem them connect.

The story suffers a bit when Roger and Dodger aren’t around, but those are thankfully brief little episodes and only make the connections they make more sweet. The overarching secret purpose at the core of the story does fall a bit flat in the end, but since we’re so invested in Roger and Dodger, it still works. Along the way, we get some nice surface explorations of mathematics and language and the interplay between both. It’s still firmly rooted in the fantasy genre, but it does incorporate some SF window dressing well enough. Dodger uses mathematics in some interesting ways and there’s even a bit of time travel (or, at least, an ability to reset a timeline); none of this is explored in a particularly SFnal way, but it works well enough in a fantasy story like this. Some of the story choices and various sub-plots might not entirely fit together, but the page turning nature of the novel and the likable protagonists mitigate that.

McGuire is a good storyteller and her craft is evident here, especially viewed in contrast to the other Hugo nominees I’ve read (both of the other two novels I’ve read are by debut authors, and while they pull off their stories in fine style, it’s clear that McGuire’s experience gives her an advantage). I enjoyed the novel and expect it to fall near the top of my ballot, though who knows, maybe one of the remaining three novels will really knock my socks off. All that said, I’m still not entirely sure this novel is award worthy. I haven’t read a ton of Seanan McGuire, but I get the impression that she’s capable of more, and while her talent is undeniable, I’m not sure it’s the best Fantasy novel of the year. But what do I know? It’s not like I’ve read a ton of this year’s fantasy offerings…

A few words, if I may, on the audiobook, which is at best functional and at worst awful. It’s read by Amber Benson of Buffy fame and while she’s got plenty of geek cred (and she’s an author in her own right), some of the choices she made in her reading of this book are just baffling. In particular, the exaggerated, emphatic verbal tics she employs for the alchemist Reed and his murderous minion Leigh are weirdly out of step with the tone those scenes should be generating. Just completely over the top. Like, sure, they’re kinda mustache twirling villains, but they aren’t straight up cartoons. Likewise, I’m not sure what she’s doing with Roger’s voice, but it ain’t a New England accent. The one character she is able to nail, though, is Dodger, so credit where credit is due. She’s suffused with nervous energy and Benson carries that off well. I got a very Jordan from Real Genius vibe from her reading of Dodger (this is also due to McGuire’s overall conception of the character, but Benson does add something of her own here.) It’s a testament to McGuire’s skill as an author that I came away with an overall good opinion of the work.

Dean Vernon Wormer’s Lockdown-Friendly, Double-Secret Probationary Quarantine-Quality Movie Quiz

Dennis Cozzalio of the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has posted another of his famous movie quizes, and as always, I’m excited to participate. Previous installments answering questions from Professor Hubert Farnsworth, David Huxley, Professor Fate, Professor Russell Johnson, Dr. Smith, Professor Peabody, Professor Severus Snape, Professor Ed Avery, Dr. Anton Phibes, Sister Clodagh, Professor Arthur Chipping, Miss Jean Brodie, Professor Larry Gopnick, Professor Dewey Finn, Ms. Elizabeth Halsey, Professor Abraham Setrakian, Mr. Dadier, Professor Abronsius, Professor Moriarty, Professor Birdman, and Dr. Jonathan Hemlock are also available. Hard to believe it’s taken this long to get to Dean Wormer, but here we are… Let’s get to it:

1) You’re on a desert island (and you sort of are)—What three discs do you select out of your own collection to keep if you had to get rid of all the rest?

These questions are ruff because I hate choosing favorites from such a large pool, but at least they narrowed it to discs from my personal collection. Which isn’t tiny, to be sure, but it’s not exactly comprehensive either. Then there’s the added complication of format. Normally, The Godfather would be the immediate first choice, but I’m still working off of the DVD Collection, which is great and all, but I’ve been hoping I could leapfrog to 4K (given the number of double dipping they’ve done with this series on BD, it’s shocking that there isn’t a 4K edition yet). Same problem for The Terminator. So looking at my shelves and considering rewatchability and quality of the release, here’s what I’ve got: The Criterion release of The Silence of the Lambs (a classic that I rewatch far too often, and it being Criterion, there’s plenty of special features), the recent 4K release of 2001: A Space Odyssey (it’s funny, I don’t normally handle movies paced like this that well, but I’m always transfixed by this one, and it will be a good option to have for when I’m being more contemplative on the island), and oh, let’s just say the regular BD of Ocean’s Eleven (I want something fun and breezy, after the previous two). This was harder than I thought…

2) Giuletta Masina or Jeanne Moreau?

Jeanne Moreau by default, since I’ve actually seen her in movies and stuff.

3) Second-favorite Roger Corman movie.

Limiting this to movies he directed, I’m going with A Bucket of Blood. I only caught up with it recently, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it…

4) The most memorable place you ever saw a movie. This could be a film projected on a big screen or seen in some other fashion—the important thing is what makes it memorable.

It’s sadly not anything particularly special: I really loved going to the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin for Fantastic Fest a few years ago. Fantastic time, good food, good beer, and a great crowd of cinema lovers.

5) Marcello Mastroianni or Vittorio Gassman?

I haven’t seen much of either (though in a twist for these, I’ve actually seen movies from both actors), but Marcello Mastroianni, because I’ll definitely be seeing him again when I get to some of the classics that I haven’t seen yet…

6) Second-favorite Kelly Reichardt movie.

Oof, I’m not a huge fan of the two that I have seen, so I haven’t seen more, but I’ve seen enough to answer the question: Meek’s Cutoff. I might like it better if it wasn’t so monotonously paced. Remember earlier where I said that I don’t usually handle this sort of thing well? Here’s an example where it doesn’t work for me, while 2001 for some reason does.

7) In the matter of taste, is there a film or director that, if your partner in a relationship (wife/husband/lover/best friend) disagreed violently with your assessment of it, might cause a serious rift in that relationship?

Depending on how violent they get, I don’t see any serious rifts developing because I think that the world would be a boring place indeed if we all agreed on everything (so long as we can agree to disagree). Now, if they, like, stabbed me or something because I liked/disliked something, that might be an issue… but that’s more the stabby-stabby part causing the issue. If we’re just talking about violent verbal assaults, we’re probably good.

8) The last movie you saw in a theater/on physical media/via streaming (list one each).

I believe the last movie I saw in the theater was The Invisible Man (which was great!), but it’s been a while. It may have been The Way Back (which I’m a little more mixed on). On physical media, it was Curse of the Golden Flower (Zhang Yimou needs more releases in the US). On streaming, it was Extraction (really solid action sequences with derivative glue inbetween, solid B movie territory here).

9) Name a movie that you just couldn’t face watching right now.

There’s lots of movies that I feel like I want to be in the right mood for, but I’m not particularly interested in tackling famously disgusting movies like Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom or A Serbian Film

10) Jane Greer or Ava Gardner?

Definitely Ava Gardner. They both have some nice noir films to their credit, but Gardner also has wacky 70s horror like The Sentinel, which puts her over the top.

11)Edmond O’Brien or Van Heflin?

I’m going Edmond O’Brien. Mostly because I’ve seen more movies starring him, but also because I really do enjoy those movies moreso than the ones I’ve seen Van Heflin in (though I like those too).

12) Second favorite Yasujiro Ozu movie.

And here comes my first embarrassed mulligan. You might just shame me into watching Ozu as a quarantine opportunity.

13) Name a proposed American remake of an international film that would, if actually undertaken, surely court or inevitably result in disaster.

There was once a time when I really followed upcoming movie news, but that time has passed, so I’m finding it difficult to think an answer here. Are they still trying to remake Akira? That seems like a disaster waiting to happen…

14) What’s a favorite film that you consider genuinely subversive, for whatever reason?

I’m not exactly a connoisseur of subversive films, but let’s just say Pink Flamingos for the extremity and rawness with which it throws itself towards the human condition. That sounds good, right? Sure.

15) Name the movie score you couldn’t live without.

My mind first went to John Williams, but then I tried thinking of things that I actually listen to on a regular basis. I actually love the original score from The Terminator, so let’s go with that one.

16) Mary-Louise Weller or Martha Smith?

Mary-Louise Weller (this reminds me that I should probably rewatch Animal House as part of the 1978 project)

17) Peter Riegert or Bruce McGill?

Bruce McGill, without question. A lot of times with these questions I have to look up who the actor is, but not for him, a favorite “that guy”.

18) Last Tango in Paris—yes or no?

As always with questions like this: Yes.

19) Second-favorite Akira Kurosawa movie.

Well that’s a tough one! I could probably narrow it down to a top 5, but they’re always shifting in rank.

Sanjuro

Let’s just say: Sanjuro, because I feel like it’s one of his more underrated flicks.

20) Who would host the imaginary DVD commentary you would most want to hear right now, and what would the movie be?

My first thought would be Quentin Tarantino, just for the sheer depth of his knowledge of the medium (and the number of recommendations and rabbit holes you could go down based off of a tossed off line in one of his commentaries). He doesn’t do a lot of commentaries, but they’re always great. As for what I’d want the movie to be, I’m not sure – it could be damn near anything, honestly. Let’s go with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, because it’s one of my favorites and I’ve been meaning to rewatch it lately. I also thought of a lesser example, which would be a Kevin Smith commentary for Zack and Miri Make a Porno. It’s basically the movie that broke Smith, not so much because of the filming, but because of the reception. There’s actually a lot to talk about with that movie and up until that point, Smith had been very open about the inner workings of his career, so it would have been interesting to hear his commentary on the film. His commentaries are always a lot of fun (or, er, they were up until that point) so it could have been an interesting expose of marketing and behind-the-scenes shenanigans. For whatever reason, I don’t think he even did a commentary for that one…

21) Favorite movie snack.

Look, popcorn is the answer, but it’s so obvious and ubiquitous that I’ll be more interesting and say: Soft Pretzel Bites (or some variation of Soft Pretzel). Most theaters just use crappy ones, but occasionally you’ll find a theater doing something more ambitous.

22) Second-favorite Planet of the Apes film (from the original cycle).

I guess it would be Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Nothing beats the original, but this one was a neat inversion.

23) Least-favorite Martin Scorsese movie.

I guess it would be New York, New York. I actually don’t remember too much about it other than that I wasn’t enjoying it and it was loooooong.

24) Name a movie you feel doesn’t deserve its current reputation, for better or worse.

Vertigo. It’s a fine movie, but it’s nowhere near Hitchcock’s best, and certainly not the best movie of all time.

25) Best movie of 1970. (Fifty years ago!)

Patton.

Patton

I caught this on TV a couple years ago and man, I’d forgotten how good this movie is.

26) Name a movie you think is practically begging for a Broadway adaptation (I used this question in the last quiz, but I’m repeating it because I never answered the quiz myself and I think I have a pretty good answer)

My answer from last time: Planet of the Apes, especially considering there’s already a template that people absolutely love and really my answer was only that so that I could link to that clip, which is really so fantastic. You’ll never make a monkey out of me.

27) Louise Brooks or Clara Bow?

Clara Bow! Another person I actually don’t need to look up. Things are looking up for my chances in this quiz.

28) Second-favorite Pier Paolo Pasolini movie.

Oh, never mind, let’s take a second embarrassed mulligan. (Or maybe not so embarrassed – as mentioned earlier, I’m not rushing out to watch Salò these days)

29) Name three movies you loved in your early years that you feel most influenced your adult cinematic tastes.

The Terminator, Phantasm, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (woopsie, I usually try to avoid mentioning the same movies over and over, but then, here we are).

30) Name a movie you love that you think few others do.

Gabriel Over the White House, mostly because no one else has seen it. Let’s get Criterion on this ASAP.

31) Name a movie you despise that you think most others love.

To be consistent with previous quiz answers to similar questions: Easy Rider

32) The Human Centipede—yes or no?

Yes, though in this case, I don’t actually blame people for saying no.

33) Anya Taylor-Joy or Olivia Cooke?

Anya Taylor-Joy, mostly because I just love The Witch so much.

34) Johnny Flynn or Timothée Chalamet?

Ah crap, I don’t especially love either, but I guess Timothée has some more exciting movies on his filmmography.

35) Second-favorite Dorothy Arzner movie.

Third embarrassed mulligan. How many of those do I get? This is a very long quiz, at least.

36) Name a movie you haven’t seen in over 20 years that you would drop everything to watch right now.

I don’t know if it’s been 20 years, but I really want to revisit Raise the Red Lantern, which isn’t really available anywhere at this time…

Raise the Red Lantern

We need to get Criterion on this!

37) Name your favorite stylistic filmmaking cliché, and one you wouldn’t mind seeing disappear forever.

My favorite would probably be long takes/tracking shots, even stitched together ones like I just saw in Extraction. My least favorite is the “shaky cam” aesthetic. It worked in Saving Private Ryan and Paul Greengrass can occasionally coax something out of it, but it’s otherwise a ghastly cliche that has thankfully been on the wane in the past few years…

38) Your favorite appearance by a real-life politician in a feature film, either fictional or a fictionalized account of a real event.

I love seeing Fred Thompson show up in everything, and he’s usually some sort of official. I’m particularly fond of The Hunt for Red October and In the Line of Fire. Smallish parts, I guess, but he’s got a memorable gravitas or something.

39) Is film criticism dead?

Nope! This is the sort of question that lead to Betteridge’s law of headlines.

40) Elizabeth Patterson or Marjorie Main?

I guess I’m going with Marjorie Main. I’ve seen movies starring both, but I feel like I remember Main more…

41) Arch Hall Jr. or Timothy Carey?

Timothy Carey, because I’ve seen more movies with him and they’re also pretty great movies he’s in…

42) Name the film you think best fulfills the label “road movie.”

Lots of options here, but my favorite would probably be Midnight Run.

43) Horror film that, for whatever reason, made you feel most uncomfortable?

Martyrs really gets under my skin. I can respect what it’s going after, but I will never watch it again and will never recommend it.

44) Least-favorite (directed by) Clint Eastwood movie.

The Rookie. I don’t remember much about it (I think I saw it on cable about 30 years ago and promptly forgot about any meaningful detail, other than that I didn’t like it).

45) Second-favorite James Bond villain.

Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He’s great, but got watered down by too many different depictions.

46) Best adaptation of a novel or other form that had been thought to be unfilmable.

The Lord of the Rings is a pretty strong contender for this one, but I’m tempted to go with Arrival or maybe even Naked Lunch. I’m having trouble deciding, so there. Deal with the three answers…

47) Michelle Dockery or Merritt Wever?

Michelle Dockery. I haven’t seen quite as many of her movies as Wever’s, but I like Dockery’s movies better…

48) Jason Bateman or Ewan McGregor?

Ewan McGregor is certainly the better actor, though they both choose a lot stinkers, which muddies up their filmographies.

49) Second-favorite Roman Polanski movie.

Chinatown, though it could easily swap with Rosemary’s Baby… but then, I try not to spend a lot of time thinking about the filmographies of fugitive child rapists.

50) What’s the movie you wish you could watch with a grandparent right now? And, of course, why?

All of my grandparents have long since passed away, so really it would just be anything, so long as they were alive…

51) Oliver Stone two-fer: Natural Born Killers and/or JFK—yes or no?

Yes, though JFK would be more yes than NBK.

52) Name the actor whose likeness you would proudly wear as a rubber latex Halloween mask.

A circa 1978 William Shatner mask with maybe a bit of white paint.

53) Your favorite cinematographer, and her/his greatest achievement.

Is Roger Deakins a boring answer? Because he’s great, and stuff like No Country for Old Men or Skyfall are really elevated by his work (especially the latter film, which might be the best looking Bond movie ever).

54) Best book about the nitty-gritty making of a movie.

I don’t know that I’ve read a book about one movie, but Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman is phenomenal and really gets into the details in a way that most accounts don’t… and I think it’s also worth noting Crystal Lake Memories, an absurdly comprehensive oral history of the Friday the 13th films that almost inadvertently becomes an exploration of how indie cinema evolved in the 80s.

55) If you needed to laugh right now, what would be your go-to movie comedy?

I don’t know that I have an actual go-to movie for this, but two movies I want to revisit: Blazing Saddles and Jackass: The Movie. I feel like we need more comedies in our lives, especially these days.

So there you have it! As always, looking forward to the next quiz already.

Hugo Awards: A Memory Called Empire

A Memory Called Empire is the debut novel from Arkady Martine and is a finalist for this year’s Hugo Awards. Mahit Dzmare, an ambassador from a small, independent mining colony is sent to the heart of the Teixcalaan empire, only to find that her predecessor has died. Under mysterious circumstances that no one wants to talk about. Fortunately, with the help of an Imago memory device, Mahit has an old copy of the former ambassador living inside her head. Unfortunately, that copy is far too old and doesn’t explain why her predecessor had such an outsized influence on Teixcalaan imperial court, up to and including a personal relationship with the emperor. This being a story that involves an empire, there is naturally political instability, uprising, succession woes, a potential coup, and so on. Naturally, the emperor has his own plans, and our little fish out of water must carefully navigate her way through an alien society, solve the murder of her predecessor, prevent the empire from annexing her mining colony, and deal with promises made to the emperor. Oh yeah, and apparently there’s some alien threat out there somewhere that’s been swallowing up ships.

There’s a lot to like in this novel. The worldbuilding is solid and I like the way the Teixcalaan empire isn’t inherently evil, even if it’s large and unwieldy and suffuse with all the baggage that goes along with imperialism and colonialism. It might not be a good thing and it’s not like the folks involved in the uprising don’t have a point, but the empire, even at high echelons, isn’t entirely filled with cartoonish, mustache-twirling supervillains. It’s an empire whose culture is at least partly based on poetry, for crying out loud. It’s just nice to see that not everyone in the empire is the absolute worst. For instance, when Mahit arrives in the Teixcalaan system, she’s assigned an attaché by the empire. In most stories, this attaché would be shifty at minimum and probably outright betray our protagonist at some point, but here the character Three Seagrass becomes an invaluable resource and cultural guide, loyal to both Mahit and the empire. Ditto for Twelve Azalea, another Teixcalaan character who lesser novels would have betray Mahit. As a result, I generally liked the characters and spending time with them wasn’t a chore, even if their are better examples of this sort of thing out there.

The Imago device at the core of the story is something we’ve seen a lot of in the past few years. Whether it’s Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire stories or even Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric and Desdemona series, other stories of two people inhabiting a single brain have been surprisingly common of late (even amongst Hugo-nominated works). The one interesting thing that Martine does with this story is that she has the device malfunction, such that we don’t actually deal with the two characters/one head situation very much. On the other hand, the device becomes an important part of the plot in an obvious way that undercuts what should be revelations later in the story. This exemplifies the true issue with this book, which is that it drags rather heavily in the middle.

As I was sorta hinting at towards the beginning of this post, anyone who’s read a science fiction story about a galactic empire has seen what’s going on here a million times before. I won’t spoil it, but it takes far too long for our characters to suss out what’s really happening. Too much of the story takes place with characters just sitting around talking, and while this is a common convention of science fiction that I’m usually happy to put up with, it doesn’t help when these discussions seem repetitive and redundant. Martine does try to inject some action into the proceedings at times, but it all felt a bit muddled or underbaked. There’s this alien threat that’s hinted at all throughout the story, but we only get small snippits of what’s happening there, and are instead obliged to follow some obscure thread of court intrigue to its completely expected conclusion.

This is perhaps a bit harsh. There’s something to be said for a well executed version of a story we’ve seen before, and I did quite enjoy this novel and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in this sub-genre… but that doesn’t make it the best SF of the year, for which the bar should be higher. Fans of Anne Leckie and Lois McMaster Bujold will probably like this, which probably explains why this has gained so much traction with the Hugo set. This is an excellent debut novel and I’d love to see how Arkady Martine evolves as a writer, but this is only the start. I suspect this would be a better match for the Astounding award (formerly the Campbell) for best new writer. It’s also worth noting that I probably enjoyed this more than a lot of the nominees from the past decade or so, so there is also that to contend with (it would probably fall somewhere in the upper-middle tier). Its the first of the Hugo shortlist I’ve read this year, so it’s officially number one on my ballot and despite my misgivings, it might hold on to that spot for a while. Next up, we’ve got Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame (I’m about two thirds of the way through that one, and it’s pretty solid fantasy stuff…)