Sunday, December 31, 2017

Last book of the year - great SciFi

I missed my reading challenge goal by rather a lot this year - I've read 25 of the 75 books I'd initially pledged and I only made it to a full 1/3 of the way because I powered through the last forty pages of this wonderful little scifi collection tonight.

13 Great Stories of Science-Fiction lives up to its title - there are a couple of stinkers in here but what's good is really good, and occasionally existentially haunting in a way that I didn't expect a little pre-moon-landing book of pulp to be.

Also this book was a gift from my friend Dani's mother, so thanks Mrs. Hopkins - I really appreciate ending 2017 on a high note thanks to you.

And now, a quick response to each of the stories in the book:

"The War is Over" by Algis Budrys: Okay, this one fucked me up and if you can find it I highly recommend it, holy shit, I don't want to say more because this story is going to stick with me for a long time and I want you to have the same opportunity for wistful joy.

"The Light" by Poul Anderson: Look, it's weird as fuck to read stories about landing on the moon written before we actually landed on the moon. There's a lot this story gets wrong from a scientific perspective, but from a story perspective it does a fantastic job.

"Compassion Circuit" by John Wyndham: Creepy. Very creepy. But in a good, healthy, Asimov way. A cool story about robots and our eternal fear of them that is surprisingly apt in this era of discussions of uploaded consciousnesses.

"Volpa" by Wyman Guin: Hey what's up I hated this story but I think I was at least supposed to hate its main character but really I hated everything, check out this page from the book:

Moving on.

"Silence, Please!" by Arthur C. Clarke: It's always great to get to read early works from authors who would blow the fuck up later in their careers, especially if it's in little forgotten anthologies. This story is hilarious and silly and a wonderful joke at people who exploit scientists by profiteering off their patents. A+

"Allegory" by William T. Powers - *FANTASTIC* just wonderful, a great little story about bureaucracy, the unwillingness to admit progress, and the social model of sanity.

"Soap Opera" by Alan Nelson: Gosh you know, a lot of the stories in this book are really exceptionally funny. This is one of them. It's absurd and lovely and sweet and snarky and I dig it.

"Shipping Clerk" by William Morrison: Another funny one - this one is also compassionate and weird and gross and larger than it seems like it should be. Good shit, maybe my favorite story in the collection.

"Technological Retreat" by G. C. Edmondson: Funny again, but in a more biting way that's a pretty strong critique of capitalism and humans as a whole.

"The Analogues" by Damon Knight: Fucking Scary. Foreboding. Full of the kind of totalitarian promise that continues to unnerve and upset us.

"Available Data on the Worp Reaction" by Lion Miller: Weird, cute, and kitschy. The language used to describe neurodivergence at the time leaves something to be desired, but I'm also fascinated by the fact that this is a SF story with an autistic protagonist written from a relatively sympathetic standpoint at some time in the 50s.

"The Skills of Xanadu" by Theodore Sturgeon: This story answers the question of "What if Paul Atredies had been a hedonist who defeated the Harkonnens through technology" and that's a spoiler and I don't care. Sturgeon telegraphs that spoiler all the way through and watching it build up is half the fun. A remarkably complete little world for a 20 page story.

"The Machine" by Richard Gehmen: Fucking Hilarious. Also maddeningly familiar in an era of fake news, but tremendously amusing, a great way to round out the collection and the end of my year.

Thanks for reading, happy new year, and I'll catch you in 2018.

     - Alli

December is for Star Wars

Look, we're all stoked when we get to see a new Star Wars move but sometimes I'm a little sick of the hype.

The Last Jedi is far from the worst film in the series, but I will happily and loudly disagree with anyone who says it's the best. The parts of it that I liked I like more than I like most of the rest of the series, the parts of it that I disliked are more irksome to me than the worst of the prequels.

TLJ needed a heavier hand with the editing - there are about three main stories happening all at the same time and while I know it's typical to bounce between mains in a Star Wars movie at least most of the time all of the stories are doing something that matters. That's not the case here, and unfortunately it seems like only one of the stories really makes a difference in-universe. It fucking sucks that the Leia storyline and the Finn storyline are the least interesting and least impactful.

There's also some shitty writing going on here. I feel like with a couple of relatively simple changes the film could have felt a lot more whole and complete.

Spoilers here:

Admiral Ackbar's death is pointless and meaningless and the audience isn't given a chance to feel it or care about it. You know what would be a really easy way to fix this? Skip Laura Dern's character and fill that role with Admiral Ackbar. There's no need to waste time (in an already extremely long movie) with characterization on a one-and-done character while denying a legacy character the death both he and the audience deserve when you've got it right fucking there. It would make more sense for Ackbar to butt heads with Poe, for Ackbar to sacrifice himself for the remains of the resistance, for Ackbar to survive the bridge exposion and still die - it would give us a moment of real tragedy  instead of the blank "wait, did Ackbar just die" moment followed by the vast hollow depths of my inability to give a shit about Holdo's death (because I don't know her, I don't know her history, I don't respect her because all I've seen her do up until this point is fuckin drive into the goddamned nether when for real IF THE HYPERSPACE TRACKER IS ONLY ENABLED ON THE SUPREMACY SHIP THEN WHY DID THEY WAIT FOR SO MUCH OF THE RESISTANCE TO GET SHOT DOWN AND DEPLETE FUEL IN THAT RUN TO CRAIT MOTERHFUCKERS ADMIRAL ACKBAR COULD HAVE DIED A HERO TAKING OUT THE SUPREMACY AFTER ALL CREW HAD BEEN MOVED TO VESSELS THAT STILL HAD FUNCTIONAL WEAPONS AND SOME TRAVEL ABILITY YOU JACKHOLES. WHY DID YOU SAVE THAT FOR YOUR BIG END MOVE AND LET MOST OF YOUR FORCES DIE IN A LONG AND POINTLESS SLOG THROUGH SPACE INSTEAD OF SENDING ONE FUCKIN PILOT THROUGH THE FUCKIN SUPREMACY AT LIGHTSPEED WHILE EVERYONE ELSE STILL HAD THE ABILITY TO GET AWAY GODDAMNIT).

Anyway, I feel like the film could have used a couple more treatments.

Kylo and Rey's force bond, their fight in Snoke's throne room, his betrayal of her, Leia's first onscreen use of the force, Poe's love for BB8, Rose's sister (though not her fucking ridiculous bomber), DJ, and everything having to do with Luke was fantastic and I loved it.

Finn and Rose were wasted in this film, though Finn's role in the fight on Crait and Rose's freeing of the animal on that incredibly boring gambling planet were very nice.

Again, a couple more treatments or a heavier hand with editing and I feel like this would have been a fucking amazing Star Wars movie. As it is, it's flawed and I enjoy large parts of it but other large parts of it are just frustrating.

     - Alli

Highway to Hell's Angels

Even though it seems that he always felt bad about himself reading Hunter S. Thompson is a good way to make you feel bad about yourself. Or good about yourself. It depends.

I spent August and September working my way through The Proud Highway, a collection of Thompson's letters from his young adulthood. It makes me feel awful about myself because 17-year-old Thompson had found a style of expression that I can't even begin to emulate (in terms of hilarity, originality, maturity, and cynicism) as a person almost twice that age. It makes me feel great about myself because I may not be as witty as Thompson but at least I've never ended up stranded in Puerto Rico burning bridges of friendship as I leave my abandoned belongings with someone unwise enough to be generous with me.

Thompson had a turbulent, exciting, patently ridiculous life and reading his letters really gets to the heart of that in a way that his essays and novels don't. He was chaotic and mean and ballsy, he's easy to loathe and easy to admire in his writing.

I can't recommend this collection to everyone - there's a fair helping of racism that is difficult to look beyond and is upsetting to experience through his eyes. But if you're looking for a novel way to explore language or play with pacing then reading some Thompson would not be amiss.

There are two further volumes of Thompson's letters that I want to read someday, and reading this book made me want to give Hell's Angels a second pass (these letters lead up to the publication of that book and I want to read it with fresh insight into Thompson's perspective while writing it). I think I'll always enjoy reading Thompson's work, but there's always an edge of mania that galls and there's usually too much bitterness or outright hatred for me to approve of, but the words can be transcendent. 

     - Alli

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Book Wrap Ups in 2017

Old-timey racism still isn't cute

Okay, I'm reading some Wilkie Collins because of a Stephen King book. In The Long Walk one of the characters is dying and mentions that The Woman in White is his favorite book and since I read The Long Walk for the first time I've wanted to read The Woman in White.

But it wasn't available as a free e-book until recently so I read The Moonstone instead.

The book is fine? Like the story is fine and I'm actually pretty pleased with how the narrative structure was arranged. That's peachy.

But oh wow is it kind of pretty damn racist. I mean hey, yeah, big surprise, here's a book written by a white British Victorian dude, who would have thought he'd be pretty fucking rude about Indians? Yeah.

The plot of the novel is compelling, unfortunately it's rooted in the idea that three "savage" Indians are tracking down a gemstone that was stolen from their sacred temple as a war trophy and that the "savage" Indians are wholly in the wrong here.

This would be *so* easy to fix by making it a haunted gemstone, or a gemstone belonging to a local conniving duke whose sons are tracking down their ill-gotten gains or whatever. But that's not what happens and so we can't really get around it.

I enjoyed significant parts of this book, it can be extremely funny. But it isn't commenting on the harms of racism and imperialism, the way that Twain did, it's reveling in the idea that pure, virginal British women are threatened by foreigners motivated by mysterious magic.

And that just kinda sucks.

     - Alli

Gotta Light?

I've been extremely behind on this blog, so we're going to talk about Twin Peaks: The Return even though I started watching it nearly a year ago and haven't re-watched it since the end of its initial run in September.

My sister hated it, and I don't think my parents were fans, but we dutifully sat down and watched each episode as a family, diving into the weirdness of Lynch together.

I loved it, but that's totally in character for me. I liked the journeys we took with the characters we already knew and I liked the places we went with the characters who were novel to us as viewers. I liked the visual textures and sonic assault that threaded through every episode. I loved the rock-slow pace of the thing, drawing and dragging you with it as it went to strange places. I wanted to get up and dance in the netherworld of the Roadhouse.

It didn't make sense because magic doesn't make sense. But in many ways it felt more wholly a part of Twin Peaks than some of the later episodes from season 2.

Anyway, spoilers? Spoilers.


I kind of wish they hadn't brought Dale back. I kind of wish it had just been a quest for Dale and the realization that he was lost, that some things end.

And I kind of like the way they got there anyway - bringing Dale back didn't matter. He didn't get to go home. Sometimes things don't work. Sometimes evil wins.

However 10000000% I am here for Lucy getting her big hero moment. Lucy fuckin rules.

I want to rewatch the series, I have both of the books associated with this release and have to read them. I want to keep spending time in this world and learning more about it. It's beautiful and sad. It hurts and cleanses.

     - Alli

Friday, October 6, 2017

Not so keen on the new Bladerunner, also: spoilers

Okay, the number is 2049 (did you know I am dyscalculic and dyslexic? When there’s a number in a title I tend to just think of it as “Title: Number” unless it’s like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 and I’ve learned it, so I thought of this movie as Bladerunner With Numbers After but now I’ll probably remember it was 2049. Side note, the dyslexia is also why I only know the main elves in Tolkien - the names in the Silmarillion are too similar for me to parse them with such similar characters, but I know if it starts with “El” they’re probably related to Elrond and Arwen)
But, now on to other things about the movie.
  • Hans Zimmer was a bad choice. There are tons of people working now who could have done a better job of maintaining the feel of the Vangelis soundtrack while modernizing it without the movie going “BWWWWWAAAAAAMMMMMM” during every exterior flying shot. That was incredibly distracting and I’m fucking salty about it. It happens within like the first thirty seconds of the movie and my first thought was “This will get annoying very fast if they keep it up” and then they kept it up and I was annoyed. A lot. It was literally so loud that it vibrated my seat. It was painful and distracting in a movie that had lots of quiet dialogue.
  • Pick an aesthetic and stick to it. When the movie was trying to mimic the look of Bladerunner it failed (too grey, too washed out, not enough neon) but when it was going for its own style it worked really well (the bright, vibrant orange of the desert, the clean open spaces of the farm - grey looked good and sensible there) but they ended up with these weird muted pastel-brights when they were going for “vibrant in the city.” Like it was just desaturated. And desaturated neon is bad for a Bladerunner flick. Compare the Joi ad to the big Japanese ad in the original - while Joi is colorful, and the only visually interesting thing in that frame, the ad on the bottom is brighter and more saturated - strong yellows and reds, electric blue. And the pastels create a very dreamy feel, but I sort of feel like if you’re going for neo-noir in the style of Bladerunner you’re doing yourself a disservice when you back away from actual neons.
  • Also the lighting and visuals of the Tyrell-corp-replacement (Wallace corp? I don’t remember what it’s called but it’s the place that makes replicants that Jared Leto is in charge of) are super fucking cool looking and also way over-the-top style wank. The lighting is busy in a way that feels like it’s spoon-feeding you the plot, shadows move and shift so characters faces can be artfully revealed in the right moments while the soundtrack is bwamming joyfully along. And perhaps that’s because Leto’s character is blind but that’s not a great excuse because…
  • This movie has way more characters than it needs and Leto is one of them. And I’d like to remind people that Jared Leto has been accused of sexually assaulting several women and has openly bragged about sending used condoms to his Suicide Squad costars, something that should have gotten him fired immediately as sexual harassment. Whether or not you believe his accusers *he* has admitted to being a shit human and doing things that would have gotten him fired, sued, and maybe had a restraining order implemented if he was working in any other industry. Anyway, there are too many characters with tantalizing hints of backstory that we almost get into exploring but never spend enough time with. It’s frustrating, but I’ll get into that more in the spoiler section later.
  • Um hey this film is also really really really white for a flick that’s supposed to take place in future Los Angeles. I guess one of the love interests is Cuban, there are a couple of black folx with speaking roles, Dave Bautista is in it. But the backgrounds are full of white people eating Japanese food out of vending machines with european languages on them. It’s a weird shift from the aggressively multicultural background in the first movie. 
  • Also the way women are handled in the movie is ????? High-key pretty gross? In every direction? I don’t know, I’ve got comments on that that are spoilers. See them later.
  • People gripe about Bladerunner being slow (it is, but that’s a good thing) and people are going to gripe about this movie being slow (it is, but that’s a bad thing). Bladerunner has a lot of tension in its slower scenes, and even if there’s not a lot of tension you’re being introduced to this new world that has a ton of stuff going on in the background to explore if you get tired of the slow dialogue. NOT SO HERE. In fact, let me tell you a story: my family knew people who were working on Bladerunner and everyone we knew who was married when they started working on the film was divorced by the time the movie was done because there was so much time and effort that went into shit like costume design and lighting and matte paintings and fucking architecture. There is so much shit going on that you learn something new about the world in every frame. The new film has a lot of empty space that is stunning to look at but doesn’t pass on any content to the viewer. Something’s always in motion, your eye stays busy, but the consideration and thought that went toward storytelling in the original is missing.
It was a pretty movie and I mostly enjoyed watching it but the music was distracting and it wasn’t as substantive or interesting as the original film by a long shot.
Now, onto spoilers.
Also TW for Violence and misogyny.

Okay so at one point Leto’s character disembowels a newly made replicant woman because he’s upset that they haven’t created replicants that can give birth. He does this while he’s complaining that they can’t create enough replicants. So he destroys a newborn, naked woman by slashing her open where her uterus would be. Because he’s upset that they can’t make replicants fast enough. I ??guess?? this is supposed to be character development that makes him look evil, but his objectification of the replicant *before* he disembowels a newborn while talking about how replicants just want life *in front of* his personal replicant he forces to do horrible things and has named “Luv” is evil enough? There’s no need for this gratuitous awful thing that is already fucking uncomfortable as he’s handling a naked, greased woman and lamenting that she’s sterile. Which is what I mean when I say this movie doesn’t handle “women” as a subject well.

And they’re attempting to retcon the rape from the original movie! Kay, the Ryan Gosling character, is tasked with discovering the identity of some replicant bones they’ve found, of a replicant who died giving birth. Turns out that it’s Rachel from the first film, and when Kay tracks down her serial number he hears part of her initial Voight-Kampff interview with Deckard. Kay’s comment on hearing her voice for like ten seconds is “She liked him, this Deckard, she’s provoking him” and later it’s emphasized that Deckard and Rachel were planned to fall in love, destined for it. Which is like cute and all but ignores that she was trying to leave and be autonomous (you know the entire fucking point of this whole goddamned fictional universe) when he threatened her with violence and forced her to kiss him out of fear (and I guess then fuck her out of fear).

Also what the fuck with scifi universes where “we can create complex adult humans”/“have space magic”/“can travel vast distances and explore the genesis of the human race” but delivering children is just as much of a fucking mystery/death sentence as it was in the Victorian era?
In 2049 there are replicants with open-ended lifespans and replicants who always obey humans. The Nexus 8s were developed around the timeline of the first movie and it’s hinted that Deckard was one of the early Nexus 8s with an open-ended lifespan. That’s left ambiguous and I like it. Most of the other replicants we meet are the obedient type, like Kay.

Kay, a replicant, has Joi, a personal assistant/romantic partner whom he loves. Joi hires Mariette, a replicant sex-worker, to have sex with Kay while wearing Joy’s projection like a second skin. This happens immediately after Kay finds out he needs to go on the run and includes a moment where Joi tells Mariette not to speak or participate. It’s visually interesting, and sometimes you can see Mariette’s eyes from beneath Joi’s projection staring at Kay and being attracted to him, but it is weirdly timed and I think it actually cheapens Kay and Joi’s relationship (Joi gets fridged shortly after and near the end of the film it’s revealed that much of their relationship was stock phrases that the Joi advertisement repeats to Kay).

We are clearly supposed to have complicated feelings about Luv; she works for the big bad, she kills people he commands her to, and she ends up having the big boss battle of the flick with Kay. I don’t have complicated feelings. Luv is done wrong by this film. She is designed to obey an evil person, this clearly bothers her and he clearly doesn’t care about bothering her, she wants to win his affection because he is the human being she relies on for *everything* up to and including her ability to continue existing, and for that we watch her brutally choked and drowned. And yes, we’ve seen her ruthlessly murder people, but we’ve also seen that replicants don’t have choices. They can’t say no. She was told to kill people and she can’t say no. She was told to torture people and she can’t say no.

Which brings us to a *very fucking interesting* scene between Kay and his commanding officer Lieutenant Joshi (played by Robin Wright). At one point they’re in Kay’s apartment, she asks him to tell her a memory of his and he says there would be no point; she says “would it make a difference if I said that was an order” and he tells her a memory. She’s drinking with him and asks him what would happen if she finished his vodka, he asks if she shouldn’t be back at the station and she leaves. Prior to this scene we’ve seen her tell him that sometimes she almost forgets that he’s a replicant and that he’s been getting along fine without a soul. She has been admiring and assessing him all while continually reminding him he’s beneath her, and when he leaves Joi pops up to tease Kay about the fact that his Lieutenant wants to sleep with him. And that’s *very fucking interesting* because the scene flips the script on rape in the franchise - all Kay can do is ask her not to make him do this because he doesn’t want to but he can’t say no. It hammers home the restrictions the new generation of replicants face, how far they are from being free. (which incidentally is why it’s so frustrating that the film goes out of its way to retcon the rape in the original movie)

Anyway I don’t want to spoil the whole movie and deconstruct the entire plot on its release date so I think I’m going to leave it here for the moment, but these are some of my major criticisms of the film and some of the things I was disappointed by. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it the way I love the old one (it also sucked in the dialogue department - no tears in the rain or “it’s a shame she won’t live” lines here (Dave Bautista gets to day “You only obey because you’ve never seen a miracle” but that’s a bad line that is obvious and trite and shitty and they probably shouldn’t flash back to it but that’s just an example of how little faith this movie has in its audience to pick up the story and themes from context).

Also everything Jared Leto did that was actually necessary to the plot could have been done by Lawrence Fishburne on speakerphone or some shit, we didn’t need this gratuitously gross character who was played by someone in cripple cosplay and has been accused of rape, there is literally no reason to have him in this movie or to have a blind character played by a sighted actor or to make him only part-time-blind you know what okay I have huge problems with Jared Leto in this film and look forward to making an edit that does not include him.