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…)

Link Dump

As per usual, just a list of fun stuff seen on the internets of late:

  • Choose Your Quarantine Character – Perfect little parody by filmmaker Alina Polichuk. Every detail of this is well observed and executed perfectly. And there’s a Part 2
  • What Day Is It? With Todd Meany – Cleveland news programs are having fun with people apparently not realizing what day it is anymore because they’re just sitting in their house all day.
  • put me in coach – I have no idea what is going on in this video, but the comedic timing is absolutely perfect
  • The Movies Behind Your Favourite GIFs – Interesting video exploring the concept. The guy’s voice is grating at first and ew could probably use more examples, but it’s a good exploration of the topic.
  • Pizza (2012) Movie Review by Dylab – This Indian movie about a pizza delivery guy getting stuck in a haunted house was a contender for Weird Movie of the Week, but it’s not quite weird enough… but this review of the film is really fantastic and you should read it. (The movie is far too long for what it is and some of the haunted house stuff is overbaked, but it’s got some kooky twists and is pretty fun otherwise.)
  • Getting In My Ex-Girlfriend’s Back Door – This locksmith video is a hilarious deadpan April fool’s joke.

So there you have it. Stay safe and sane in lockdown, folks.

Hugo Awards 2020: Initial Thoughts

The 2020 Hugo Award Finalists were announced earlier this week, so it’s time for the requisite whinging:

  • Best Novel has some interesting meta-characteristics. In terms of genre, we’ve got half science fiction, half fantasy (though at least one of the ones I’m counting as SF appears to be more of a mixture of SF and fantasy, and in looking further, one of the fantasy seems to have SF elements). Only two novels are part of a series, and they’re both the first in the series (and, one hopes, could operate well enough as a standalone read). Fully half of the nominees are first novels, though at least one of those authors has previously won a Hugo in a short fiction category… All of the nominees are written by women and this is, to my knowledge, the first time this has ever happened (though it was inevitable given the past few years; by my count women authors have outnumbered men 21-8 in the past 5 years, even if men have historically taken the cake). This is also the first time in a decade that I haven’t read any of the finalists before they were announced.
  • Of the nominated novels, I have already started Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire and am enjoying it so far (I’m only about a third of the way through). Of the nominees, this was the one that was on my radar but for some reason I never caught up with it. I’ve not read a ton of Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant), but I’ve generally enjoyed her work, which has been nominated quite a bit over the last decade or so, and Middlegame sounds fun. Alix E. Harrow won last year’s Hugo for Short Story (and it was my favorite of the nominees), so I’m curious to see if she can translate that success to novel size with The Ten Thousand Doors of January. Gideon the Ninth appears to be Tamsyn Muir’s debut, and it sounds like a fun fantasy in space. I’ve been mixed on Charlie Jane Anders in the past. On the one hand, I nominated her short story a few years back. On the other hand, I was more mixed on All the Birds in the Sky, which has a nice whimsical tone, but the mixture of SF and fantasy didn’t quite work for me. Her new novel, The City in the Middle of the Night, sounds similar to that. Finally, The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley appears to be military SF, but I haven’t particularly loved Hurley’s work in the past. Every year, I wonder if I should keep participating. This shortlist looks decent in comparison to last year, but it’s pretty heavily focused on fantasy, and even the SF seems less like my particular cup of tea. Then again, current circumstances have conspired to give me extra reading time and I’m actually looking forward to a couple of the fantasy stories, so perhaps I’ll soldier on.
  • In the shorter fiction categories, I see that two Ted Chiang stories from Exhalation made the list. I foolishly saw the publication history page of that book and didn’t realize that not all the stories were listed (i.e. I thought all the stories in that collection were previously published, but a couple were new and thus eligible). Of the two nominated stories, I really liked the novella “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”. I actually recognize a couple of the other novellas, but the rest of the pack is new to me, though most of the authors have been nominated before.
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form continues to befuddle me. On the one hand, I like the nomination of Us. On the on the other hand, how on earth does Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker make the list? Marvel movies always make the cut, but even this crop seems a bit weak. Also? Two different tv seasons were nominated? What’s going on here? Anyway, pour one out for Prospect and The Kid Who Would Be King, both worthy of your attention (and better and far more interesting than the likes of The Rise of Skywalker).
  • In an unusual twist, I’ve already seen 4 of the 6 nominees for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. But the question remains: if Watchmen was good enough to garner two nominations in the short form category, why weren’t people nominating it for long form? What criteria are people using to determine when a series should be rewarded in short form vs long form?
  • The 1945 Retro Hugo Award finalists were also announced last week. The thing that jumped out at me the most was Theodore Sturgeon’s novella “Killdozer!” which is about exactly what you think it’s about. Best Dramatic Presentation has the usual smattering of Universal monsters and RKO horror, but a couple other interesting nominees that I might have to check out…

I’ll probably make my way through at least some of this stuff, but then again, I’ve got the new Scalzi coming next week and the new Murderbot novel coming a few weeks later so… we’ll just have to see.

2019 in Books: A Belated Recap

Basically, I forgot to do this and had other fish to fry at the beginning of the year, so enjoy this belated recap of books I read in 2019. I keep track of my reading at Goodreads (we should be friends there), and they have a bunch of fancy statistical visualization tools that give a nice overview of my reading habits over time, especially now that I’ve been doing so for… an entire decade! First up, a simple look at quantity of books read:

Number of books I read in 2019

I read 53 books in 2019, just a hair behind the record of 54, set just two years ago (and second in recorded history (i.e. the last decade)). See the full list. It’s worth noting that a good portion of these are short fiction, novelles, etc…, owing to my participation in the Hugo Awards. I’m also including audiobooks, which feels a bit like cheating, but is also a pretty key way for me to consume books these days. Of course, these caveats also apply to previous years, so there is that. There is also this:

Number of Pages I read in 2019

Even taking the inherent variability in page numbers into account, I blew the record out of the water, with nearly a two thousand page jump from last year’s record-setting run. Some more info:

Summary of 2019 books read

While I did read a bunch of short fiction this year, which inflates “book” totals, the average book length this year was a whopping 345 pages. This represents a huge improvement over last year’s 306 average pages, which was in itself a big improvement over the previous year’s 279 average pages. It’s still a few pages off the record, set in 2013, which was 356 pages (but then, that was only over 31 books), but it’s a pretty great showing. The longest book of the year was a reread of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, clocking in at 1044 pages (done in anticipation of its quasi-sequel Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, itself nearly 900 pages).

2019 Books by Publication Date

In terms of publication dates, I’m still annoyed at myself for having read Alice in Wonderland and The Picture of Dorian Gray in 2010, thus stretching out the vertical axis of this graph. I’ve done a decent enough job spreading out my reading, though there’s still a big recency bias here, probably owing to my participation in the Hugo Awards as well as generally keeping up with favorite authors. You can see the influence of Vintage Sci-Fi Month in Januaries on the graph, but it’s nice to see some vintage stuff throughout the year as well. Since the first few months of 2020 are included in this graph, I’ll just note that I seem to have spread things out extremely well in these three months, hitting up all the decades since the 1950s with at least one entry.

Goodreads includes books and pages over time, but the graphs aren’t super useful because of the spikes produced when I finish books at the beginning of a given month or when I read through, for example, the short story category of the Hugos (and the subsequent valleys). Given the number of books per year, it’s pretty obvious that I’m averaging about 1 book a week. Page numbers are more variable, but sometimes they also produce big spikes for the same reasons…

Some more assorted observations on the year’s reading:

  • 12 non-fiction books in 2019, a marginal improvement over last year’s 10 (and the previous year’s 7), but I suppose I’m moving in the right direction and I want to continue this trend in 2020.
  • 17 books written by women, another marginal improvement over last year, but a big drop from the previous year (where I was roughly 50/50 split). All of this happened in the course of normal reading without any sort of plan though, so we’ll see what 2020 holds.
  • The oldest book I read all year was Darker Than You Think by Jack Williamson, a sorta SF/Horror hybrid I read during the Six Weeks of Halloween (and used as an example of the Intersection of Horror and SF in preparation for Vintage SF Month)
  • Somewhere on the order of 27 books were science ficiton, so a little more than half, perhaps a bit down from previous years, but within tolerances.
  • Since we’re well into 2020, I’ll make some brief observations. According to Goodreads, I’m 3 books ahead of schedule to hit my goal of 52 books this year (and am on pace to hit 60-64 books). Similarly, I’m doing well on page numbers, which are on pace to hit just shy of 20,000 this year. This appears to be driven by the current semi-quarantine status of the world right now, so this pace may slow down when/if things get more back to normal later this year. In the meantime, my reading habits seem to be in good shape.

So there you have it, a pretty solid year with no big changes in sight.

Link Dump

Just the usual interesting links from the depths of ye olde internets.

  • Is My Pastor an Alligator? 7 Gospel-Centered Takeaways – A recent gem from the #idontknowwhatthefuckisgoingon tag, the entire Matthew Pierce Evangelical Thought Leader™ site is a doozy, but I loved this one in particular:

    Have you ever heard horrible snarling and grunting sounds coming from your pastor’s office and walked in, only to find your pastor’s wife quickly trying to button her Mandy Moore Walk to Remember good girl white shawl with her stubby little arms and your pastor holding a copy of Systematic Theology in his lap but it’s upside down and he clearly wasn’t reading it, he’s just trying to hide his man goodies and you’re like oh, my bad, and your pastor is like “oh, uh, Sherri and I were just praying” and Sherri is so nervous she knocks over the lamp with her green scaly tail.

    Brilliant.

  • The Two Generals’ Problem – Pretty good overview of a classic computer science problem. In case you can’t tell, I read a lot of science fiction (and, for the record, science fact), and one of the concepts that comes up is that we could, like, digitize ourselves and beam copies to other planets/systems/wherever. You’d need to travel there via conventional means first, but once you have a receiver… but then you’d have to contend with the Two Generals’ Problem, which is terrifying in this context.
  • Long Chile, Ohio2, and the Snack Rack – You may have seen the strange and brilliant alternative USA map drawn by a creative teenager; this is the story behind that, as well as some other antics from their family.
  • We Interviewed David Lynch and Now We’re Trapped in This Diner Forever – I mean, what did you expect man?
  • Gone Girl Commentary: Four Days – David Fincher calls Ben Affleck unprofessional in this short clip from the Gone Girl Commentary. I can’t tell if this is an actual, true story, or if Fincher just has a really dry sense of humor and is just messing with Affleck.
  • A family bought a 20,000-square-foot Freemason temple in Indiana for $89,000, and they’re now turning it into their home – Living the dream. I mean, I assume the place is a total Money Pit in the long run, but it seems like a no brainer otherwise. It’s also apparently haunted.
  • America Uses Fahrenheit. The Rest of the World Uses Celsius. America Is Right. The Rest of the World Is Wrong. – There are arguments to be made about the rest of the metric system, but Fahrenheit vs Celsius is a different story. The chart on this page is dead one.
  • Why are they called Triscuits? – Twitter is often a cesspool of political bickering, but stumbling upon stuff like this is just the best.
  • The Lord of the Rings with Lightsabers – Normally, I’d say that people have too much time on their hands, but then, you know, pandemic. Pretty sure someone would have done this anyway though.

That’s all for now. Stay safe and healthy, everyone.

The 1978 Project: Part IV

The 1978 Project is a deep dive into the cinema of a single year (guess which one!) The chosen year is mostly arbitrary, but it’s been a fun experience so far. I’m still working through a backlog of films watched earlier in the year, so these reviews are bound to be a bit fuzzy. I’ve made pretty good progress so far, and am hoping to do the usual Movie Awards and Top 10 sometime this summer. For now, here are six 1978 flicks, these perhaps less obscure than the movies from the last recap:

  • Death on the Nile – Hercule Poirot returns, this time taking a luxury cruise down the Nile river. Naturally, a newlywed heiress is found murdered under suspicious circumstances. Can Poirot solve the mystery before the ship arrives at its destination? A sequel to the more famous 1974 production of Murder on the Orient Express (helmed by Sydney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as Poirot), this one doesn’t really carry over any of the creatives from the earlier film, but still comports itself well in comparison. Director John Guillermin is more of a journeyman director than Lumet, but here he’s perhaps hitting above his weight (while Lumet wasn’t doing his best work on Orient)… or perhaps it’s just that the cruise down the Nile affords more picturesque atmosphere, and the ship presents more varied environs. Peter Ustinov also does admirable work as Poirot; not hamming it up as much as Finney, but still presenting the calm fastidiousness and passive aggression of the character well. Along for the ride is a talented cast of side characters, including Bette Davis trading barbs with Maggie Smith in a tuxedo, which is something to behold.
    Death on the Nile with Bette Davis and Maggie Smith in a tux

    Angela Lansbury and Mia Farrow are there too, as is Olivia Hussey (perhaps only of note to genre nerds like myself, but it was neat to see her in something else). The story itself, based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name, works well, lots of twists and turns and a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps a bit overlong, but once everything’s established, it moves at a brisk enough pace. Solid stuff, well crafted. ***

  • The Boys from Brazil – A wannabe Nazi hunter played by a larval Steve Guttenberg stumbles upon a sinister plot put together by none other than Josef Mengele to rekindle the Third Reich in 1970s Brazil. It’s a good example of the Nazis in South America plotting mayhem trope, but despite some kooky twists and a trio of scenery chewing performances by elder statesmen actors Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, and James Mason, it all feels a bit inert. The plot has some weird components, but there’ve been plenty weirder, and it feels like the long-ish runtime dilutes the premise too much (that, or we’ve see far too many of this sort of cuckoo nutso Nazi tales and thus put the pieces together far quicker than anyone else in the movie). It’s a sturdy little thriller and well worth checking out, but I suspect you’ve seen many of these elements before. **1/2
  • The Inglorious Bastards – A not so straightforward men-on-a-mission in WWII flick made in Italy, it stands in contrast to Force 10 From Navarone (covered in my last recap). It’s a little more freewheeling and mean-spirited, as evidenced by the fact that the men on this mission are all slated for prison. They get lucky when a German attack disrupts their convoy, and are able to escape from both the Allies and Axis forces, attempting to make their way to neutral Switzerland. Along the way, they get entangled with the French Resistance and become reluctant heros. Or something like that.
    The Inglorious Bastards

    While Force 10 From Navarone felt formulaic and staid, this is more suffused with the chaotic 70s energy mixed with who-gives-a-shit grimy exploitation panache. It’s easy to see why this attracted the attention of someone like Quentin Tarantino, who clearly took inspiration (though not plot or story) from this movie. It’s not as star studded as something like Navarone, but folks like Bo Svenson and especially Fred Williamson keep our crew of criminals likable enough that we never really turn on them. Director Enzo Castellari doesn’t get as much play as his brethren in Italian horror (Bava, Argento, Fulci, etc…) but you can see that same Italian flare here, and you better believe I’m gonna watch more Castellari (up next: 1990: The Bronx Warriors looks like a ton of fun.) This is a solid little romp through war torn Europe with a couple of bombastic action setpieces, and I really enjoyed it. ***

  • Midnight Express – A youngish guy is caught attempting to smuggle drugs out of Turkey. The Turkish courts decide to make an example of him, eventually sentencing him to more than 30 years in prison (in a legal process that is really torturous, as it starts as a 3-5 year sentence that is extended right before he’s set to be released). There are only two ways out of the mess: 1. legal appeals and 2. escape, termed the Midnight Express. It’s based on the true story of Billy Hayes, though it’s pretty obvious that some of the scenes (particularly towards the end) are fabrications made for the sake of dramatic expedience (i.e. typical filmic adaptation of real events stuff). That being said, the story at its heart is genuinely involving and powerful. While Hayes did a dumb thing, the sentence and conditions of the jail are pretty extreme, and you can’t help but put yourself in his place. The opening, where Hayes is caught, is fantastic and tense, but things slow down a bit in the second act as he adjusts to prison life. Brad Davis plays Hayes in a pretty melodramatic way, which works during the initial portions of the film, but becomes a bit strained by the end. It’s not a bad performance and the movie does fine, but I found something lacking, especially in that middle portion. Of note in the supporting cast is a young Randy Quaid, playing a bit of a hothead (apparently not much of a stretch!) It’s not exactly a pleasant movie and it has its flaws, but it ultimately works. **1/2
  • Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! – Tomatoes have become intelligent and mounted a revolt against humanity. Cheap spoof of B-movies has its charms and a couple of laughs, but isn’t exactly a good movie. It’s outrageous and some of the gags actually work, but many really don’t. This is one of those movies that a lot of people know about, but few have actually watched all the way through. I suspect I may have had fonder memories of this if I had caught up with it when I was 12 or something and the premise is genuinely goofy and fun… but you already know that just from the title of the film, and I’m not sure the actual movie can sustain that premise. Maybe if I was in a different mood I’d like it better, and again, I like the premise and some of the gags, but it’s not exactly inspiring me to revisit it anytime soon. **
  • Starcrash – Yet another Star Wars ripoff, made in Italy and starring Caroline Munroe (best known for her role as a Bond Girl in The Spy Who Loved Me, but fans of horror know her from the likes of Maniac and Slaughter High), Christopher Plummer (most recently seen as a scummy bank robber in The Silent Partner), a fresh-faced David Hasselhoff, and typical “that guy” Joe Spinell (who would work with Munroe again on the aforementioned Maniac). As with most other Star Wars ripoffs, the plot here is almost nonsensical, the dialog laughable, and the performances wooden (the Italian practice of dubbing, even when the actors were originally speaking English, doesn’t help). It’s ultimately more trippy and woozy than Star Wars, though I don’t know if that makes it any better. There’s lots of special effects and miniatures work, which looks decent enough, though this is clearly a low budget affair. The production design is more reminiscent of older serials and 50s Sci-Fi movies, which doesn’t really hold up, but has its charms. Interestingly, the fighting is a little more gruesome. While Star Wars was a mostly bloodless affair (even when stormtroopers are being gunned down), this one kinda makes you feel the laser burns. At one point, a dude whips out a lightsaber and just slaughters a whole group of people in reasonably graphic fashion. Munroe doesn’t get a ton to do other than wear fantastic space bikinis and the like (which, to be sure, she’s great at, even if it’s pretty incongruous; at one point she gets caught by the space police and sentenced to “hard labor”, where her prison uniform is a… space bikini.) Spinell looks pretty great as the main villain, and is suitably menacing, if a bit silly (like the whole film). Also of note is Marjoe Gortner as Munroe’s kinda partner in crime. He has a weird sorta charisma about him that is almost repulsive; then I found out that he’s kinda famous for being a former Child-Evangelist who made a documentary about the “Religion Business” and so on. Weird dude. It’s far from a good movie, but in its own way, it’s far from a bad movie too. I guess? It’s not a movie that I’d recommend, but it has some fun bits for dorks doing a sorta anthropological study of the impact of Star Wars on cinema… **

Current tally of 1978 films seen: 55 films (pretty much caught up with the backlog, so we’re back on track)

Hugo Award Season 2020

The nomination period for the 2020 Hugo Awards closed yesterday, so I figured it was time to take a gander at what’s coming. I didn’t read a ton of eligible works this year, or, at least, a bunch of stuff I read didn’t feel nomination-worthy. I did manage to nominate two novels and a novella though:

I estimate an approximate 1% chance that either of the novels will actually make the ballot, but I really enjoyed both of them and think they’re worth checking out. Bujold has secured nominations for the Penric novellas before (not to mention being in the running for most nominated author of all time, maybe?), so there’s actually a pretty good chance this one will be nominated (let’s say 75% chance).

I read plenty of other eligible works, but nothing that really rose to nomination quality. Longtime readers know I’m totally in the bag for Neal Stephenson, but while half of Fall; or Dodge in Hell was fantastic, the other half was a bit murky, even for me. My anecdotal assessment is that most eligible voters will feel the same way. Michael Mammay’s Spaceside was on the bubble and I enjoyed it just fine, but I didn’t feel like it did enough to warrant the nomination. I really loved Ted Chiang’s Exhalation, but it’s a short story (or novelette/novella) collection and… all of the components were already published before 2019 and thus not really eligible.

In accordance with tradition, my Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form will avoid the most mainstream options, but I fully expect the category to be dominated by Marvel/Star Wars anyway.

All three nominees did well in my year-end movie awards and Top 10/Honorable Mentions, but the only one that seems to have a real chance at making the ballot is Us. There are two other quasi-indie darlings out thre, Ad Astra and High Life, but I didn’t particularly enjoy either, so I left them off my ballot. Midsommar and The Lighthouse are more borderline cases, but I didn’t really go out on a limb for them because I don’t really love them either. I fully expect stuff like Avengers: Endgame (which, to be fair, I really enjoyed) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (which I did not love) to make the ballot, along with some other mainstream stuff.

There’s also a Retro Hugo Awards this year for 1945 (covering stuff made in 1944), but I sadly did not dedicate a lot of time to this stuff. I really should have sought out Theodore Sturgeon’s Killdozer! because it’s something I’d always heard about, but it can’t possibly be as good as the title implies, can it? There are a some Clifford D. Simak and Leigh Brackett stories that I’d probably be into reading too, but I never got to them. I only really nominated for the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category, with two pretty obvious entries:

There are a bunch of other Universal monster movies that could qualify that I never sought out, so I’m the worst. Also, there’s a movie called The Tower of the Seven Hunchbacks that looks promising, but again, I never really got there. The Scarlet Claw seems like it could work too. Man, I should have spent more time on this (in fairness, I’ve been busy with the 1978 project).

No need for recommendations at this point, since nominations have actually closed, but I’m pretty curious to see how things play out. I’m actually on the fence as to whether or not I’ll participate this year. I don’t mind stretching myself or getting out of my comfort zone, but the last several years (i.e. almost the entire time I’ve formally participated) have been pretty rough, so… we’ll see what the nominations hold…

The 1978 Project: Part III

Back in September, I started a deep dive into the cinema of 1978. This was mostly on a whim and 1978 was chosen just because it was the year of my birth (i.e. it’s still pretty arbitrary), but it’s been an interesting exercise so far. Since September, usual blogging traditions have somewhat gotten in the way, especially the Six Weeks of Halloween (which at least had some 1978 entries) and the recap of 2019 movies. Now that we’re clear, I’ve built up a pretty steady backlog of 1978 flicks to cover, so strap in. These are the older ones that I watched in Decemberish timeframe, so recollections might be a bit more sparse, but here goes:

  • The Silent Partner – Elliott Gould plays a sullen bank teller who is able to anticipate a bank robbery and works things so that he ends up with the money while the blame goes to the robber. Realizing he’s been conned, the robber (played by Christopher Plummer) tracks Gould down to engage in a game of cat and also-cat. With Susannah York along for the ride as the love interest and John Candy in an early role. Special notice goes to Gail Dahms-Bonine, the buxom blonde who works at the bank and wears t-shirts with bank-themed innuendo (i.e. “Penalty for early withdrawal” and “Bankers Do It With More Interest”). A decent enough 70s thriller that doesn’t have much else on its mind, Gould has charisma but the character as written is a bit of a cold fish. Not as smart as he thinks he is, but smarter than the robber, who is far more ruthless. It’s an interesting battle of wills that only occasionally breaks suspension of disbelief. It’s a fun little flick, if not exactly mindblowing. ***
  • Message from Space – Kinji Fukasaku helmed this Japanese Star Wars ripoff. It has a nonsensical plot that’s almost not worth describing at all, solid special effects for low-budget 1978 Japan, great costumes and production design, and a soundtrack that apes Star Wars except when it turns into surf-rock.
    Message From Space

    Highlights include the Darth Vader analog wearing a Shogun-esque costume (his mother is the Emperor, which was a nice touch), the Battlestar-esque ships mixed with ships with, like, space-sails and shit, like something out of Master and Commander but in space (anyone remember Spelljammer? No? Just me? Ok then). Sonny Chiba and Vic Morrow provide some recognizable faces and you’ll recognize a lot of stuff copied from Star Wars, which makes it feel familiar even if it’s completely bonkers. Worth a watch for fans of batshit insane cinema, but not exactly “good” but then, what does “good” even mean in this context? **1/2

  • Force 10 from Navarone – Straightforward men-on-a-mission in WWII flick is pretty entertaining, if a bit derivative. It doesn’t really do anything new with the story, and previous films in this arena are certainly better (i.e. the original Guns of the Navarone or Where Eagles Dare are far better), but there’s something to be said for a well executed formulaic film like this, and it’s a decent enough watch. Seeing the likes of a young Harrison Ford (just off Star Wars), Robert Shaw, Carl Weathers, and a bunch of “that guys” like Richard Kiel and Franco Nero help out considerably, but again, it doesn’t really stand up to previous iterations on similar stories (or, as we’ll see later in this series of posts, other 1978 men-on-a-mission movies). **1/2
  • The Avenging Eagle – You know what, I might have to have a separate top 10 of 1978 for martial arts flicks, because there are just tons of great entries in 1978. I wasn’t expecting much out of this one, but it was a really fun flick with great action sequences and decent enough performances.
    The Avenging Eagle

    The story involves two guys running into each other on the road to their respective tasks of honor, or something like that (one of them is seeking to atone for dishonor). Initially distrustful of one another, they eventually gain an unconventional respect for one another. Again, fantastic fight sequences scattered throughout, and they stand up to the heavyweights in the genre. Plus the villain has metal claw hands, which is fun. ***

  • The Redeemer: Son of Satan! – A priest (or maybe a demon or a priest possessed by a demon, or something like that) lures a group of former classmates to a high school reunion, traps them in the building, and starts killing them off one by one, citing their sins as justification. It sounds like it would an interesting sorta proto-slasher (or at least a proto Slaughter High), but it’s far more surreal than that. This might really click with a certain type of viewer, but it did not click very well with me. There’s some interesting visual tags here and there, but there’s a fine line between surreal and nonsense, and this veers a little too far towards nonsense, and the characters aren’t especially likable, which makes the whole affair fall a little flat. Maybe the film thinks it’s explaining things enough, but it didn’t really make much sense, and the scares were pretty rote and unmemorable. The only thing that really strikes me, a few months later, is the opening and closing shots of the film. I have no idea what they mean, but they kinda work? I dunno, it’s not the worst movie, but it’s not something that’ll climb very far on the 1978 rankings… **
  • Girlfriends – This slice-of-life, angst and ennui of a 20-something woman in NYC has become something of an indie cliche in recent years, but this sort of thing was exceedingly rare back in 1978. This is emphatically not my style of movie, but I’ll say this: I liked this a lot better than I liked Frances Ha (which clearly models itself as a sorta modernized Girlfriends). It’s hard to deny the sincerity and genuine affection the film has for its characters and the way they grow apart and together, change, and evolve. It’s not really my thing, but it’s well done and I’m glad I watched it. **1/2

We’ll follow this up with another post on 1978 flicks soon, so keep your eyes open for that. I mean, you can still blink. And you’ll probably need to sleep before I post the next one. Just, you know, do normal things with your eyes, but at some point, you’ll be able to point them at another post on 1978 movies, which I’m sure you (and the other 3 people who still read blogs) will be spellbound.

Current tally of 1978 films seen: 53 films (I covered 6 in this post, but another 5 are already in the hopper for the next post…)