2019年10月22日 星期二

"The Help" by Kathryn Stockett (2009)

Is this "Chick-Lit?"  I'm pretty sure it's Chick-Lit.  Whatever it is, it's definitely not the kind of book I usually read.  But you know, sometimes dudes like me get tired of reading about artificial intelligences, sex and crime, so it can be nice to read a book like The Help.



"Rule Number One for working for a White Lady.  Minny: it is nobody's business.  You keep your nose out of your White Lady's problems, you don't go crying to her with yours - You can't pay the light bill?  Your feet are too sore?  Remember one thing: white people are not your friends.  They don't want to hear about it.  And when Miss White Lady catches her man with the lady next door, you keep out of it, you hear me?"

...and look at this handy Reader's Guide in the back of the book!  Let's discuss!  Spoiler alert: these questions and my responses to them give away a lot of the books' plot, but if, like me, you've seen the movie already there aren't any big surprises here.

1. "Who was your favorite character?  Why?"

There are three main characters in the book.  There's Skeeter, a young white woman with dreams of becoming a journalist; there's Aibileen, an older black woman who works as a maid in a white household; and there's Minny, a younger black woman who also works as a maid for a white family.  Of the three I'd pick Aibileen.  She's not as neurotic as Skeeter, and the way in which she expresses her discontent is more pragmatic.

2. "What do you think motivated Hilly?  On one hand she is terribly cruel to Aibileen and her own help, as well as to Skeeter once she realizes that she can't control her.  Yet she's a wonderful mother.  Do you think that one can be a good mother and, at the same time, a deeply flawed person?"

I'm not seeing the "wonderful mother" part in the book.  She obviously cares about her child more than Elizabeth Leefolt does, but I don't see this care as exceptional.

What do I think motivated her?  People will always feel a need to uphold the status quo, especially when they're sitting on top of the social pyramid.  Hilly might not have phrased it in such terms, but she was obviously trying to consolidate her own position.

And yes, someone can be a good mother AND a deeply flawed person.  I have personal reasons for saying so... and more than that I will not say.

3. "Like Hilly, Skeeter's mother is a prime example of someone deeply flawed yet somewhat sympathetic.  She seems to care for Skeeter - and she also seems to have very real feelings for Constantine.  Yet the ultimatum she gives Constantine is untenable, and most of her interaction with Skeeter is critical.  Do you think Skeeter's mother is a sympathetic or unsympathetic character?  Why?"

The real question is whether Skeeter's mother cares for other people as people, or whether she views them as her personal property.  In the beginning of the book it's difficult to gauge her appreciation for other people, though by the end I think she comes across as sympathetic.

4. "How much of a person's character is shaped by the times in which he or she lives?"

At a certain point answering this kind of question becomes a debate centered around nature vs. nurture, or even free will vs. predetermination.  You're also asking how much of a person's character is shaped by the times they live in, versus how much of the times they live in are shaped by their character.  I like to think that people can always take "small steps" toward the kind of world they want to live in, though the greater thrust of history - whether framed in the context of a decisive individual/leader or not - is determined more by the countless individual choices which are later interpreted as a collective will.

But perhaps that answer isn't literal enough.  OK, let's pick and number and say 80%.

5. "Did it bother you that Skeeter was willing to overlook so many of Stuart's faults so that she could get married, and that it wasn't until he literally got up and walked away that the engagement fell apart?"

No.  Anyone who hasn't been a fool for love hasn't really lived at all.

6. "Do you believe that Minny was justified in her mistrust of white people?"

Of course.  Why would she have trusted them?

7. "Do you think that had Aibileen stayed working for Miss Elizabeth, Mae Mobley would have grown up to be racist like her mother?  Do you think racism is inherent or taught?"

Again, nature vs. nurture.  I think it's very likely she would have grown up to be racist like her mother.

But is racism inherent in all people?  I think to some extent it is, though certain types of racism are strengthened by the social institutions in which people live.  People tend to think in categories, and even though race is a rather unscientific category it can - unfortunately - be a convenient way to group people.

This said, it isn't natural to think of all black people/African-Americans as "niggers."  It's also not natural to think of all "white" people as oppressors and thus more given to racism and racist thinking than other groups.  So yeah, racism in its more easily recognized/institutionalized form is taught.

8. "From the perspective of a twenty-first century reader, the hair-shellac system that Skeeter undergoes seems ludicrous.  Yet women still alter their looks in rather peculiar ways as the definition of "beauty" changes with the times.  Looking back on your past, what's the most ridiculous beauty regiment you ever underwent?"

Back in junior high I had a brief love affair with mousse and styling gel.  I really layered the stuff on.  Looking back on it now, I'm sure my hair looked gross.

9. "The author manages to paint Aibileen with a quiet grace and an aura of wisdom about her.  How do you think she does this?"

Aibileen spends most of her sections of the book talking about other people.  Minny, the only other maid who is also a main character, spends most of her sections talking about herself.  Aibileen can't help but look graceful and wise by comparison.

10. "Do you think there are still vestiges of racism in relationships in which people of color work for people who are white?"

Of course there are, at least with respect to prevailing attitudes.  I'm not sure, however, if this question refers to every instance of a colored person working for someone who is white.  This question of race is also an aspect of human behavior, so if you were going to define "vestiges of racism" as prejudice/preconception, then I suppose there are vestiges of racism is every human relationship, not just those in which colored people work for whites.

11. "What did you think about Minny's pie for Miss Hilly?  Would you have gone as far as Minny did for revenge?"

If you'll excuse the pun, this is the one part of the book I had trouble swallowing.  There is just NO WAY someone in her position would do that unless they were fixing to get lynched.  There is NO WAY Hilly would have quietly tolerated that.  We're talking about Jackson, Mississippi in the early 60s, and those white supremacist types didn't mess around.

Related Entries:

"The Story of My Teeth" by Valeria Luiselli (2015)
"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu (2016)
"Libra" by Don Delillo (1988)
"Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" by Lee Child (2013)

P.S. It's a good book.  I'd recommend it.

P.P.S. The movie is good too.

2019年10月14日 星期一

"The Story of My Teeth" by Valeria Luiselli (2015)


"By the year 2011, Mexicans had lost their minds.  Everybody was at war with everybody else, and there was a general climate of antagonism and bitterness - a sense of living on the verge of calamity.  It had been some time since I'd been summoned to call an auction.  I believe this was because Mexicans are also like crabs in a bucket, and this needs no further explanation.  My skills languished, unused.  I had also stopped travelling, principally because I'd realized that despite the Mexicans, who make every possible effort to ruin everything, Mexico is glorious."

And that paragraph is the best part of the book.  YOU'RE WELCOME.  Saved you a lot of time, didn't I?

The rest of it?  Eh, it's OK.  Very forgettable.  Even now, an hour after finishing it, I can't really tell you what most of it's about.  There's a guy named Highway who has a thing for teeth.  There are a few shorter stories framed in the context of an auction.  There are a lot of quirky asides that lead nowhere.  In an afterword the author tries to defend/explain her work.  I'm not sure I'm buying that defense/explanation.

Reading this book won't take up much of your time.  You could read it.  Or not.  There are better books by other Mexican authors though.  Much, much better.

Related Entries:

"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu (2016)
"Libra" by Don Delillo (1988)
"Choke" by Chuck Palahniuk (2001)
"Purity" by Jonathan Franzen (2015)

2019年10月9日 星期三

"The Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu (2016)


"I didn't have any toys except my paper menagerie.  I brought Laohu out from my bedroom.  By then he was very worn, patched all over with tape and glue, evidence of the years of repairs Mom and I had done on him.  He was no longer as nimble and sure-footed as before.  I sat him down on the coffee table.  I could hear the skittering steps of the other animals behind in the hallway, timidly peeking into the living room."

I begin to realize that publishing companies are hip to Wikipedia.  When you look at Ken Liu's entry, it's obvious that extra special care was taken with it.  If this wasn't the case, why mention awards that he was only nominated for?  It's not like you're going to find such information in Isaac Asimov's entry.

Anyway, Liu was born in China and immigrated to the States when he was 11.  From there he went on to study English, Computer Science and Law.  Aside from his short stories, he's written a couple "epic fantasy novels," and has worked as a translator of (among others) Cixin Liu's books.

The Paper Menagerie is a collection of his stories.  These stories vary quite a bit in quality, and I think that the inclusion of some of them was a mistake.  In the earlier stories you can tell that the author was still finding his voice, and these earlier stories are obviously early attempts at better-designed stories in the same collection.

In "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species" the auther presents us with several examples of extraterrestrial bookmaking.  It's not long enough to grow annoying, and he manages to avoid a certain type of pretentiousness that marks some of the other stories here.

"State Change" starts out lyrical and gets dumb fast.  I'm not buying the spiritual metaphor at play here, and the labored way in which the title is worked into the ending is clumsy in the extreme.

"The Perfect Match" presents a world in which social media threatens our individuality - or at least more than it does now.  It would have seemed more prescient a few years ago, but in 2019 it falls flat.  There's an aside in this story about the cybernetic nature of our relationship with technology which reminded me of Yuval Noah Harari's work, but this aside is never followed up on.  This is too bad, because that would have made for a much better story.

In "Good Hunting" a Taoist shaman's apprentice confronts the modern world.  The "hulijing's" (fox spirit's) solution to the problem of modernization seems implausible to me (even given the fantasy setting), and the twist at the end doesn't feel earned.

"The Literomancer" is set in Taiwan after the Korean War.  While I think Western readers might find this story "moving," it's implausible from the point of view of someone living in Taiwan.  Why would the old man make that kind of confession to a Western girl he hardly knew?  How would he not know that the girl's father was someone he should be very, very careful of?  This story tries hard to be deep, but comes across as "Fun With Chinese Characters" minus the Taoist theology that would have backed up the old man's fortune-telling.

"Simulacrum" is the first story mentioned on the back cover of the book.  It tries to make a point about the danger of defining loved ones by long-gone choices, but I don't think it does so in the most efficient manner possible.

"The Regular" is a decent attempt at cyberpunk, but I'm not buying the private investigator's method of discovering the killer's height.  As the whole story is predicated on this method, it all seems rather unbelievable.  The ending, so similar to a traumatic event in the protagonist's past, also seems unlikely.

"The Paper Menagerie" is the first genuinely good story here.  It's about a boy's relationship with his mother.  This said, how does a story like this win the Hugo, the Nebula and World Fantasy awards?  "Magical realism" perhaps, but this story is neither science fiction nor fantasy.

"An Advanced Reader's Picture Book of Comparative Cognition," like "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species" above, flirts with intellectual masturbation.  A mother journeys to the stars to pick up broadcasts from alien civilizations, but the unique characteristics of the alien species discussed are never tied to the story's central plot.  And what does any of that matter, if the human race would have been effectively dead (or evolved beyond caring) by the time any of those transmissions reached the Earth?

"The Waves" is a good story.  It ties together mythology and evolution in an interesting way, and doesn't get bogged down in any of its details.

"Mono No Aware" is also good.  After catastrophe strikes the Earth a Japanese astronaut makes a heroic sacrifice.  This said, it reminded me a little too much of Cixin Liu's "Sun of China" and Neal Stephenson's book Seveneves.  I have no idea which of the three stories/books came out first, but the author was definitely acquainted with "Sun of China" at some point.

"All the Flavors" is in some ways very cute, but it attempts more than it accomplishes.  The history of Chinese immigrants in America is a huge subject, and this story fails to do it any kind of justice.  I also wasn't buying the non-Chinese characters in the story.  I'm sure there were some people back then with open minds, but they would have been few and far between.

In "A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel," a retired laborer starts a love affair and remembers the building of a huge undersea tunnel between the U.S., Japan and China.  It takes a stab at Imperial Japan near the end, but does so in the lamest way possible.

"The Litigation Master and the Monkey King" is set during the Ching Dynasty.  A "lawyer" defends a local woman against a wealthy relative and also uncovers an atrocity.  This is one of the better stories here, even if it's heavy-handed and dabbles in ethnic nationalism.

"The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary" is the last story in this collection.  Apparently there are particles that allow people to witness the past (it makes no sense), and a historian's revelations concerning Japan's Unit 731 in Manchuria trigger an international outcry.  Like "A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel" above, this story takes a swipe at Imperial Japan, but as with that story it fails to do the historical event in question justice.  And if you ask me, couching this particular historical incident inside a poorly executed time travel story is/was in extremely bad taste.

Thoughts on all of the above: I'm getting a bit tired of Asian authors who try to represent all of Asia.  Ken Liu doesn't do this as much as some, though he does stray into that territory.  Kevin Kwan does this WAY more, but then again Kwan has a light touch with his characters that Ken Liu can't match.  

And you know what I like about Cixin Liu?  He extrapolates only from China; he extrapolates only from things he knows.  He doesn't try to be America's pan-Asian spokesperson, and for this reason his stories have a genuineness that will, I think, stand the test of time.

I'm not trying to say that authors shouldn't write about cultures they don't belong to.  But I have noticed this trend recently.  It's as if a lot of non-Asian Americans (or Westerners) want to elect a literary spokesperson for an entire continent, and what this spokesperson writes is taken less critically than it ought to be.  Ken Liu is a decent writer, but his desire to pose as such a spokesperson is obvious at times.  It can be off-putting.

I doubt I'll be seeking out any of his books in the future.  I suppose if I come across one of his two novels I'll read it, but I'm not in any hurry to do so.  He'd probably be a lot better if he stuck with subjects and themes he really knows, but I doubt he'll be doing that anytime soon.  He's probably writing some great pan-Asian epic as I type this, something that will really impress those ready to experience "Asian culture."

Whatever that means.

Related Entries:

"Seveneves" by Neal Stephenson (2015)
"The Wandering Earth" by Cixin Liu (2017)
"Orion" by Ben Bova (1984)
"The Artificial Man" by L.P. Davies (1965)

2019年10月4日 星期五

Superhero Movies From October 2018 Onward (9)

For reviews of older superhero movies click here and here.  It felt like time to get rid of the "baggage" those older entries carried, so I'm starting again from October 2018's Venom.

Oh and by the way, I think I'll stop reviewing these movies as a separate genre at the end of 2020.  Endgame has come and gone, the MCU is now an established brand, and to be honest I think most of the best superhero movies are behind us.  2020 seems like a good time to move on to movies as a whole, rather than focusing so much on whatever Marvel Studios, Warner Bros., or Sony are putting out.


Superhero Movies On The Way

Morbius, the Living Vampire (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, July 31, 2020 in the States)

Wonder Woman 1984 (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, June 5, 2020 in the States)

The New Mutants (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, April 3, 2020 in the States)

Birds of Prey (Taiwan Release Date Unknown, February 7, 2020 in the States)


Joker


What I Liked: This movie is brilliant.  Joaquin Phoenix doesn't disappoint, and director Todd Philips more than rises to the occasion.  Just the way the title pops up in the beginning is masterful.  This is the kind of movie that sparks debates, avoids safe choices, and gets people riled up.  It's also a harrowing portrait of both one man's struggle with mental illness and the uncaring nature of the society he lives in.

What I Didn't Like: This is a small complaint, but I think this movie tried a bit too hard to tie the Joker into the larger Batman mythos.  Having Thomas Wayne in the movie was enough; there was no need to include other members of the Wayne family.

Future/Sequels: Please Joaquin Phoenix, DON'T do another one.  And don't appear in anything else Batman-related.  This one was just about perfect the way it was.  Just leave it there and it'll age like wine.


Spider-Man: Far From Home


What I Liked: Zendaya.  She was my favorite thing about this movie.  Her character holds the whole thing together.  Without MJ this movie wouldn't make a lot of sense.

Also Mysterio's illusions.  I don't think I'm giving any plot points away when I mention them.  His illusions are some of the more visually impressive things in the MCU.

And speaking Mysterio's illusions, the battle at the end is great.  Setting this battle in London was a good choice.

What I Didn't Like: You can see the plot twist coming from a mile away.  Maybe not calling him "Mysterio" right of the bat would have helped.

Future/Sequels: A third one seems likely.  Still no word as to whether this take on Spider-man will tie into Sony's other Spiderverse films.


X-Men: Dark Phoenix


Got bored and saw it the other day.  It was blazing hot outside, and there wasn't much else to do.

What I Liked: For one thing it wasn't nearly as bad as some of the reviews would lead you to believe.  It's definitely NOT great, but if you were able to sit through Apocalypse you'll be able to sit through this one.  It's actually not bad up until Jean visits the house, though after that point...

What I Didn't Like: At times this movie just doesn't make sense.  WHY do the cops show up after Jean visits that house?  And WHY do the two mutant factions fight in New York?  And WHY do the aliens insist on boarding the train from the other end, when they're clearly walking all along its length, thus making it incredibly easy for the X-Men to fight them off?  

To make things worse, Sophie Turner really can't carry a movie.  Watching her interact with some of the other, more talented cast members is truly cringeworthy.  As bad as this movie is, it's still better than X3and yet I found myself missing Famke Janssen throughout the film.

Most inexplicable of all is Magneto.  First he says revenge is wrong and that he's given up on it.  Then someone gets killed and he's all about revenge again.  Then he learns about the Phoenix Force and he's all about saving Jean.  This, and that magnetism/telekinesis battle between him and Jean is the most unintentionally hilarious thing I've seen in a long time.

Future/Sequels: As far as anyone knows, The New Mutants is still coming out next year.  After that it'll be a long wait before we see Marvel Studios' take on the same set of characters.


Avengers: Endgame


What I Liked: Everything.  This movie is awesome from beginning to end.

What I Didn't Like: Only two (very small) complaints: 1) Bruce and Nebula's explanation for their "heist" probably isn't going to satisfy anyone who bothers to think it through, and 2) the part at the end where all the "Marvel superheroines" line up and go into battle seems a bit too much like checking off an item on a checklist.

Future/Sequels: The next MCU offering is Spider-Man: Far From Home later this summer.  No other films have been given a release date as yet.  I think it's fair to say that Marvel will make a big announcement soon.


Hellboy


What I Liked: Uh... it's more... British than the original?  That's good, right?  More interesting?

And uh... the fight with the giants is kind of cool.  Brief but cool.

This movie has the quirkiness that made the Mignola comics good.  Upping the gore was also a good idea.  Not sure about the humor though.  Seems like they should have doubled down on that part.  Making this movie funnier would have also differentiated it from the original.  As it is it strays too close to the Del Toro version.

What I Didn't Like: It's pretty bad right from the beginning.  For me the worst thing was the sequence explaining Hellboy's origins.  This part of the movie ventures so close to Del Toro's version that you can't help but compare this one to that one, and this one is always going to suffer by comparison.  They should have avoided that altogether.

Future/Sequels: Ha ha not likely.


Shazam!


What I Liked: Zachary Levi and Asher Angel are both examples of great casting, the story is well thought out, and the battle at the end takes some interesting twists and turns.  I consider Shazam! a vast improvement over Aquaman, which was trying to do too much in too short a time, and also Captain Marvel, which was in my opinion one hot mess of a movie.  Shazam! is much smaller-scale compared to those other two films, but its smallness works to its advantage.  It's very focused and to the point.

Mark Strong, who was wasted on Martin Campbell's Green Lantern, has much more to do in Shazam!  Even if his reasons for being "evil" aren't that well thought out, he's still a good (bad) villain.

What I Didn't Like: The battle at the end goes on a bit too long.  I think shortening it would have made for a better movie.  The introduction of the rest of the Marvel Family feels a bit rushed, even if it was gratifying to see them onscreen together.

Future/Sequels: No definite plans for any sequels as yet, but one of Shazam's other villains is introduced in a post-credits scene.  It's early to say, but I think this movie will be well received and I'd be surprised if a sequel isn't announced soon.


Captain Marvel


What I Liked: There's a part about halfway through, when Carol Danvers is reunited with an old friend.  In that part you can see Brie Larson's skill as an actress.

The fight on the spaceship near the end is oddly satisfying, but some of my satisfaction may have to do with 90s soundtrack, and the fact that I was a much younger guy when those songs were everywhere.  Nostalgia, in other words.

What I Didn't Like: Going back to the comic books, I never found Carol Danvers especially interesting, and this movie did nothing to change my mind.  Really, what is her reason for doing anything in this film?  At what point does her character change or make any real kind of discovery?

She's also so much more powerful than anyone she comes up against in this movie.  There's no sense of threat when "danger" strikes.  Jude Law?  Nope.  The Skrulls?  Not really.  Ronan the Accuser?  Their confrontation is a non-event.

I've also got to say, the explanation given for Nick Fury losing his eye really bothered me.  It's always seemed like this event should be of crucial importance, but in the movie it's explained in such an offhand manner.  The randomness of this explanation diminished the entire film.

Future/Sequels: Strap yourself in because Avengers: Endgame is less than two months away.  After Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home Marvel has announced no other films, though if Captain Marvel does well I'm sure we'll see a sequel.  I've heard a lot of talk about an Eternals movie, but we'll see.

I think what's going to make or break a Captain Marvel sequel is the Asian market, especially China.  If it goes over big in Beijing and Shanghai (as Aquaman did) you can be sure there will be another one.  If, however, this movie fails to find an audience in such places, I imagine Kevin Feige will start vaguely alluding to "future adventures" without making any real commitment.




Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Does this one count?  Batman and the Justice League are in it.  It also features the newer and older versions of Aquaman.

What I Liked: It's a funny movie, though not as good as the first.  This said, it's not nearly as hyper as the first one, which might be a relief for those who found the first film slightly overwhelming.

What I Didn't Like: It does drag a bit toward the end.  It's weird to say, but I found myself having to really concentrate on Lego Movie 2.  There are SO many references, to so many things, that after the first hour my brain got tired.  

Future/Sequels: There might be a sequel to the Lego Batman movie, though there's no release date as yet.  There might also be The Billion Brick Race.




Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

What I Liked: Everything.  In my opinion this movie's awesome from start to finish.  The characters, the plot, the animation, the soundtrack, all of it's great.  I suppose it depends on how it does financially, but Spider-Verse could be a real game-changer for CBMs.

For me the best part of the film was the Bill Sienkiewicz-inspired sequence halfway through.  I've been a huge fan of that guy for years, and seeing his art animated almost brought tears to my eyes.  That version of the Kingpin?  That's all Bill Sienkiewicz.

What I Didn't Like: Small complaint: no Spider-Woman.  I've always liked Spider-Woman more than Spider-Man, and it would've been wonderful to see Jessica Drew (finally) show up in this movie.

Future/Sequels: There's talk that Spider-Woman could feature in the sequel alongside Spider-Gwen and Silk, but such plans are tentative of course.  It's entirely possible that a sequel would feature Spider-Man 2099 instead.




Aquaman

What I Liked: Atlantis looks cool.  Amber Heard is easy on the eyes.  The battle in the end - aside from a ridiculous pause in the action for a predictably romantic moment - looks amazing.

What I Didn't Like: Weird moments of exposition.  Instead of showing the audience what's happening/has happened, the characters in this movie often feel the need to stop whatever they're doing and explain things.  The only part of this movie where the action flows seamlessly is when Aquaman and Black Manta have their big showdown halfway through.

The part in the beginning about Aquaman's parents could have been removed entirely.  It adds absolutely nothing to the story, and starting the movie from the adult Aquaman's first appearance would have made a lot more sense.

This movie gets dumber as it goes along.  By the end I was laughing at certain scenes and bits of dialogue, and I wasn't the only one.  And before someone chimes in with "at least it doesn't take itself so seriously," let's remember there's a difference between laughing WITH a movie and laughing AT a movie.

The small ray of hope being that it's not as terrible as Justice League.  Not that this is saying much.

Future/SequelsShazam!, also set in the DCEU, will be out in a few months.  After that it's a long wait until Wonder Woman 1984.  Aquaman 2?  It's kind of early to tell, but the movie's been doing well in China, and those wanting a completely brainless superhero romp will be all over this one.




Venom

What I Liked: After a really clunky beginning there are some great action sequences.  Everything after Venom shows up is much better than the 15 minutes that try (and fail) to set up the story.  The fight between Venom and Riot near the end is very good.

What I Didn't Like: That beginning part.  It feels like they weren't sure what kind of movie they were making.  Horror?  Action?  Science fiction?  Going more for the "body horror" elements would have improved the film, and the spaceship/alien invasion subplot could have been dispensed with altogether.

As clunky as the beginning is, the dialogue throughout the movie is by far the worst part.  None of the actors seem at ease with what they're saying, and a couple of lines are unintentionally hilarious.

Future/Sequels: There are plans for a sequel with Woody Harrelson's Carnage in a bigger role.  I think that after setting up the general premise, a sequel is bound to be better.  Harrelson would also make a great villain.  Last I heard, Sony's next comic-based movie will be Morbius the Living Vampire, with Jared Leto as Morbius.  There may be some crossover between Venom and Morbius.

Related Entries:

The Other Movie Oscars: The Late 1970s
Some Other Movies From 1978
Some Other Movies From 1976
An Incomplete List of Weird and Ridiculous Things in Flash: The Silver Age Vol. 4 (1966ish)

2019年10月3日 星期四

"Seveneves" by Neal Stephenson (2015)


Warning: spoilers follow.

"The failure of the radio, shortly after the beginning of the mission, had been caused by a defective part for which there was no replacement: a simple, stupid oversight.  The longest leg of the trip - the year and a half spent coasting from the L1 gate to Grigg-Skjellerup - had consisted of lengthy stretches of boredom interrupted by occasional panics, most of which had to do with the life support system.  This was based on using sunlight to grow algae, a process that worked well in the lab but turned out to be difficult to sustain on Ymir.  The newest arklets in the Cloud Ark had benefitted, in this respect, from lessons learned operating such systems in the time since Zero, but Ymir had been built and launched very early, using systems that now seemed painfully out of date."

Neal Stephenson is a science/speculative fiction writer living in Seattle.  Degrees in science run in his family, but he doesn't have any PhDs to boast of.  Seveneves is his most recent novel, and the only of his books I've read.

In this lengthy tome, which is divided into three lengthy parts, a mysterious force known as the Agent causes the moon to shatter.  This event triggers a frantic scramble to establish a viable colony in space.  The old International Space Station (ISS) serves as the nucleus for this colony, with smaller crafts/habitats sent up to join the ISS as the Earth is bombarded by lunar fragments.  Various power struggles also come to the fore as governments worldwide come to grips with the extinction of all terrestrial life, and the politics of who and who isn't allowed to immigrate to the orbiting colony divide friends, family and even whole cultures.

So much for the first part.  After that point those inhabiting the colony begin a years-long struggle for survival, predicated upon the allocation of resources, and methods of organizing the colonists into a self-perpetuating community.  The colony's primary goal is achieving a higher orbit, away from the more dangerous pieces of lunar debris.  Two powerful factions emerge in a debate over how to attain this higher orbit, one faction led by the scientific personnel aboard the ISS, and another faction led by the former President of the U.S. from a smaller craft/habitat.

All of which leads to the third and final part, in which the descendants of the remaining colonists resettle Earth and create a new civilization.  Seven of these descendants, each descended from a particular survivor of the factional struggle described above, are sent to investigate an anomalous sighting on what used to be North America, and also to solve the mystery of what this sighting holds for the future of humanity.

All of which sounds GREAT, doesn't it?  It sounds like a stirring epic along the lines of Asimov's Foundation or Frank Herbert's Dune novels.  It sounds like something you could lose yourself inside, something you'd treasure long after the last chapter (and the next 5,000 years of human history) is concluded.

But there's a problem.  The problem is that Neal Stephenson absolutely DROWNS this narrative in details, to the point where finishing it becomes a real chore.  Keep in mind that I have no problem with hard science fiction.  It might even be my favorite genre.  But even I had to roll my eyes at certain points in this book.  Another discussion of orbital mechanics?  Another discussion of genetics?  Another discussion of how human culture has changed over the last few millennia?  

All of these discussions/digressions might add an element of realism to Seveneves, but they do nothing to add interest to the story.  If you're looking for character development, look elsewhere.  If you're looking for dramatic conflict, don't bother.  Both of these things are present in the novel - and when they finally do make themselves known it's SO much better - but in-between their sporadic appearances are pages of scientific detail, backstories, and asides that do absolutely nothing to advance the plot.

This, and the last part of the book is both a fairly derivative AND a fairly anticlimactic science fiction adventure story, not unlike Star Trek III: The Search for Spock meets Larry Niven's Ringworld.  And once you start thinking about Ringworld and Star Trek III you can't help but arrive at the conclusion that they're both more concise and more entertaining stories.  Stephenson's details - for all their hundreds of pages - do little to disguise this fact.

In this I can't help but contrast Neal Stephenson with Andy Weir, another science fiction author who's gotten a lot of attention recently.  Weir, like Stephenson, also adds a lot of detail to his off-world adventures, but the scientific details found in The Martian and Artemis are central to those stories.  Even if I do have certain reservations about Weir (and Niven), it's significant that the details they provide allow the reader access to their plots, whereas most of the details in Seveneves 800+ pages could have been edited out of the book entirely.

Will I be reading more Neal Stephenson in the future?  Well, after asking about his bibliography on r/scifi I was told that his best novel is/was Snow Crash, written 23 years before SevenevesThe Wikipedia synopsis for that book seems to indicate it was a more concise effort, and I think that in Stephenson's case a little less detail might be a good thing.  Some authors just work better in that kind of medium, and I have the suspicion that Stephenson is one such writer.

Related Entries:

"The Wandering Earth" by Cixin Liu (2017)
"Orion" by Ben Bova (1984)
"The Artificial Man" by L.P. Davies (1965)
"They Shall Have Stars" by James Blish (1957)

2019年9月20日 星期五

"The Wandering Earth" by Cixin Liu (2017)


"The moment at which Curse 2.0 appeared online found Cixin and Pan next to a trash can in the vicinity of the Taiyuan train station.  They were fighting over half a pack of ramen that had been fished from the garbage only moments before.  They had slept on floorboards and tasted gall for six years, until at last they had produced one three-million-character, ten-volume work of science fiction and one three-million-character, ten-volume work of fantasy.  They had titled their works the Three-Thousand-Body Problem and Novantamililands, respectively."

Cixin Liu is a science fiction writer from China.  All of his original works are in Chinese, and this short story collection, The Wandering Earth, is an English translation.  What follows are synopses of each of the short stories in this collection.

"The Wandering Earth" inspired the blockbuster (?) movie of the same name.  I put a question mark after "blockbuster" because it was really only a phenomenon in China, where audiences rallied around its imagery of a Chinese-led race to the stars.

The movie, however, bears little resemblance to the story that inspired it.  Humanity is threatened, the Earth wanders, but on the whole the story is more about the changes that humanity undergoes during its flight from the solar system, and less about a specific nationality or family unit.  If, like me, you were underwhelmed by the movie, you should check out the story, which is much better.

"Mountain" might be the trippiest story in this collection.  It begins with an alien visitation, and then proceeds to a description of a very, very different corner of the cosmos.  It's hard to describe this story without giving too much of it away, but I highly recommend it.  It's a wonderful marriage of lyrical/classical Chinese imagery and one of the most interesting attempts at world-building I've ever seen.

"Sun of China" is about the development of an "artificial sun" over China.  It starts out well, but it degenerates into a kind of sentimental nationalism.

"For the Benefit of Mankind" is the kind of story that would make William Gibson proud.  In it a trained killer is offered a fortune to kill three people in the wake of an alien invasion.  It would make a great movie IF that movie could make it past Mainland Chinese censors.  As it is I doubt they'd touch it with a ten-meter pole.

"Curse 5.0" is the story of a virus.  It's a more lighthearted, more tongue in cheek effort, something like Doctor Strangelove in a second-tier Chinese city.

"The Micro-Era" tells an alternate history of how humanity survived the solar flash which triggered "The Wandering Earth."  There's not much of a plot to this one, and the comparison of cultures isn't enough to drive the story forward.

"Devourer" is hampered to some extent by its obviousness.  The minute "Fangs" arrives it's fairly evident where his species has come from and what they mean to do.  This is, I think, a story that overreaches itself, and the speculations concerning competition vs. cooperation in a biological context could have been expanded upon.

"Taking Care of God" like "Curse 5.0" above, is a more lighthearted effort, yet if any science fiction story ever reflected day-to-day life in communist China this is that story.  The gods who arrive to burden humanity are compelling characters, and it also ties into "For the Benefit of Mankind" above.

"With Her Eyes" is the story of an unfortunate accident.  I can't say more than that without giving the whole thing away.  It's very forgettable.

"Cannonball," the last story here, is great science fiction in the tradition of Jules Verne.  One of the characters even mentions Verne's From the Earth to the Moon near the end.  I'm still not entirely sure why humanity felt the need to revive - and single out - the main character twice, but the idea at the center of the story is very interesting.

All in all, a very worthwhile read and also one of the best science fiction collections I've read in a long time.  While Liu's science fiction may strike some readers as less "grounded," his disregard for scientific verisimilitude is firmly in the tradition of writers like Stanislaw Lem, Jules Verne, or even Italo Calvino.  There's a wonderful spirit of play in Liu's work.  He knows that some of the concepts used in his fiction are ridiculous, but he also knows that they're fun to think about just the same.

I'll be reading his trilogy (The Three-Body Problem, The Dark Forest and Death's End) just as soon as I finish up a few other titles.  I've been very happy to make an acquaintance with Mr. Liu's fiction, and I'll be renewing this acquaintance in a month or so.

Related Entries:

"Orion" by Ben Bova (1984)
"The Artificial Man" by L.P. Davies (1965)
"They Shall Have Stars" by James Blish (1957)
"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)

2019年9月13日 星期五

"Orion" by Ben Bova (1984)


"I am Orion.  I am Prometheus.  I am Gilgamesh.  I am Zarathustra.  I am the Phoenix who dies and is consumed and rises again from his own ashes only to die once more."

Several of Ben Bova's books have been reviewed here.  You can check the sidebar for these reviews and assorted biographical details.  This will probably be the last of his novels reviewed here for some time.

Orion isn't really a science fiction novel.  There's a brief discussion of lasers near the beginning, but after that point it's firmly in the realm of fantasy.  It's in the tradition of Michael Moorcock, an author I was never that fond of, and perhaps also in the tradition of Robert E. Howard, a much earlier author who could've told this same story better.

Those familiar with Moorcock's concept of an "eternal champion" will find Orion easy to relate to.  In a world where the dual gods of the Zoroastrian pantheon are real, a human champion is created to stave off the apocalypse.  And of course he's handsome.  And of course he's strong.  And of course the love interest falls instantly and irrevocably in love with him.

The only real twist here is that time travel is involved.  The hero travels backward in time to four different historical epochs, while the villain travels forward in time to those same four historical epochs.  The hero is attempting to preserve the "space-time continuum" by ensuring that history remains the same, while the villain is trying to disrupt this continuum by altering key events in human history.  In terms of causality it really doesn't make a lot of sense, especially given the fact that the book starts in the modern day, but the author (thankfully) doesn't give the reader much time to reflect on that fact.  Instead he moves the adventure steadily forward - or backward - depending on your point of view.

Athough it might have been more fun (and less open to debate) if the author had made Orion the pinnacle of human development, and if he'd also made Orion's interventions in human history less about the species and more about ensuring that Orion himself is born at some point in the distant future.  This would have made his speculations regarding Ormazd's "plan" even more fruitful, and would have also given the novel a lot more depth.  Then again, Ben Bova obviously wasn't trying to write that kind of book.  Frank Herbert could have written the shit out of that kind of thing, but Ben Bova's a more literal type of writer.

Orion also resembles Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, though Bova's take on gods-made-real is less technologically-based, and more a straight-ahead swords and sandals adventure.  I think this straightforward approach makes the material more accessible (hence the many sequels), but fans of Bova's science fiction will probably feel alienated by this one.

For my part I thought it was brainless fun.  Could it have been better?  Certainly.  Could certain parts of it have been thought through more?  Yes.  But if you're looking for a light adventure story in which good battles evil, you could do worse than Orion.

Related Entries:

"The Artificial Man" by L.P. Davies (1965)
"They Shall Have Stars" by James Blish (1957)
"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)
"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)

2019年9月6日 星期五

"The Artificial Man" by L.P. Davies (1965)


"She was oddly relieved that his loss of memory had been caused artificially and not intentionally.  Now she was to meet and become one of the people he had told her about."

L.P. Davies?  Who the hell is L.P. Davies?  Well, to start with, he was British and he died in 1988.  He was active from the late 60s to early 80s.  He was never famous.  This book, The Artificial Man, is perhaps the best-known entry in his bibliography.

The Artificial Man opens with a man waking up in his country house, talking with various neighbors, and then setting out for a walk in the hills.  Then begins a slow process of realization.  Everything around him, this man learns, is not as it seems, and the people in his life may have sinister intentions.

Paranoia, in other words.  And not too far out of Philip K. Dick's wheelhouse.  Like a lot of PKD's fiction, it's not so much based on scientific concepts as conjecture based on the psychological theory of the day, and also on a certain willingness to venture into the ambiguous nature of the self, one's relation to other people, and on the role of the individual in a society where good is never all that good, and evil is only a bad decision away.

This would seem to imply a novel of great depth.  This is, however, not what I want to say.  No, The Artificial Man isn't Ubik.  It isn't Dune.  It isn't The Eden Cycle.  It's more a tale of weird science, of powers of the mind gone astray, and perhaps also a tale of spies working within a geopolitical reality very similar to our own.  If it seems deep that's probably more of a coincidence, although the author is to be given credit for his way with words.

My only complaint is the plot twists near the end.  In the last fourth of this novel there's a plot twist every ten pages or so, and after the third or fourth plot twist I found myself losing interest in the story.  It would have been better, I think, to have ended the thing 50 pages or so earlier.  No need to over-complicate what was already working.

Just the same I enjoyed this book.  I doubt I'll be coming across other titles by the same author, but if I ever do I'll be glad to give them a go.

Related Entries:

"They Shall Have Stars" by James Blish (1957)
"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)
"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)
"Coyote" by Allen Steele (2002)

2019年9月2日 星期一

"They Shall Have Stars" by James Blish (1957)


"The hugest loss of money the whole Jupiter Project had yet sustained had been accompanied by such carnage that it fell - in the senators' minds - in the category of warfare.  When a soldier is killed by enemy action, nobody asks how much money his death cost the government through the loss of his gear.  The part of the report which described the placing of the Bridge's foundation mentioned reverently the heroism of the lost two hundred and thirty-one crewmen; it said nothing about the cost of the nine specially designed space tugs which now floated in silhouette, as flat as so many tin cut-outs under six million pounds per square inch of pressure, somewhere at the bottom of Jupiter's atmosphere  - floated with eight thousand vertical miles of eternally roaring poisons between them and the eyes of the living."

James Blish had a checkered career in science fiction.  It wasn't so much that he fell out of favor as dropped off the radar.  He wrote several inventive stories in the 50s, later combined these stories into a series of novels, and then went on to become a noted critic in the genre.  In this respect his career overlapped that of Damon Knight - another author who never quite realized his full potential - at several junctures.  Blish would end up making most of his money from a sequence of Star Trek novelizations, and I think it's fair to say that he's not well-remembered among modern readers of science fiction.

In They Shall Have Stars, the first book in Blish's Cities in Flight series, two scientific discoveries converge to trigger a new chapter in human evolution.  The first of these discoveries is a cure for aging; the second is the development of faster-than-light travel.  Both of these discoveries are made against the backdrop of Western collapse, in a society fraught with suspicion and paranoia.

In stylistic terms this novel is first-rate.  Blish really had a way with words, and his impressive vocabulary and command of characters are about as polished as you can get.  His skill with regard to the written word again brings his contemporary Damon Knight to mind, and even a casual perusal of this book brings home the fact that many science fiction writers of Blish's time were writing at a much higher level.

Blish was also a stickler for scientific accuracy, and that comes across in They Shall Have Stars.  He was writing at the forefront of scientific developments in 1957, and his background in microbiology is very apparent.  Sure, he writes about cells in the absence of DNA, and he writes about faster-than-light travel in the the absence of time dilation, but given the time in which he wrote I think he can be excused on both counts.

If I have a complaint about this book it's that it doesn't quite come together the way it ought to.  At the center of the story is a bridge some of the characters are building on Jupiter, and this bridge is intended to symbolize - at least to some extent - the decay of Western civilization.  But the book doesn't quite merge the Jovian bridge, the cure for aging and the faster-than-light narratives into a single theme, and as a result the conclusion feels very rushed.  Summarizing the end of the Cold War, the discovery of immortality, a revolution in space travel, and the possible End of History is always going to be a tall order, and even a writer of Blish's skill isn't going to be able to do that in 159 pages.

With this aside, I still think They Shall Have Stars is one of the best science fiction novels I've read in quite a while, and I plan on reading the other Cities in Flight novels whenever I have the chance.  Blish's intellect and interests were clearly wide-ranging, his writing ability was beyond question, and I'm eager to see what else he came up with during his brief career.

Related Entries:

"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)
"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)
"Coyote" by Allen Steele (2002)
"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)

2019年8月30日 星期五

"Out of the Sun" by Ben Bova (1984)


This:

"Sarko glanced at Colt, then went on, 'General, it's only a matter of time before laser weapons make manned aircraft obsolete.  They'll shoot down anything in the sky with the speed of light.  What we've seen here today is just the beginning - the equivalent of the first fliers of World War I shooting at each other with revolvers.'"

...and this:

"It wasn't until the twentieth century that a new understanding of light replaced the wave theory.  But the wave theory was extremely valuable.  It explained not only light but many other things as well."

A couple of Ben Bova's other books have been reviewed here already.  Check his name in the sidebar if you're interested in reading more.  I'll also be reviewing another of his novels, Orion, in the near future.  His biographical details aside, he's one of the better-researched science fiction authors.

This book is really two books, or rather a story followed by a lengthy essay.  The story, "Out of the Sun," is a Cold War thriller following a scientist as he tries to discover the cause of several plane crashes.  It's not a very scientific science fiction story, and most of the action hinges on whether a certain kind of laser can or cannot damage a certain kind of metal.  It also feels like something that belongs more to the 60s than to 1984, the year in which this story was supposedly written.  I have the feeling that Bova dusted it off for later publication, and that it took form much earlier.

Weirdly enough, the second half of this book is an essay titled "The Amazing Laser," detailing the history of the laser from Galileo to the mid 80s.  It's a well-written tour of developments in that field, even though it seems to have been written in support of Reagan's "Star Wars" defense initiative.

Yet I can't help but wonder - how many people felt tricked by this book?  The front and back covers say nothing about the essay, and if you weren't looking carefully you'd also miss the minuscule mention of it on the title page.  How many people were expecting ray guns and rocket ships, only to find themselves confronted by discussions of electromagnetism and stimulated emission?  I'm guessing a lot of readers opted out of the second half, likely feeling deceived by the publisher.

If you're working your way through Bova's bibliography, you'll certainly end up reading this one.  If not, I wouldn't bother.  The concepts employed in the story have been done better elsewhere, and the essay covers material presented more effectively in any number of textbooks.

Related Entries:

"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)
"Coyote" by Allen Steele (2002)
"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)
"Distress" by Greg Egan (1997)

2019年8月29日 星期四

"Mindhopper" by James B. Johnson (1988)


"Manny blasted me with my first experience of a surge of psychic fear.  I couldn't mistake that, either."

James B. Johnson wrote the majority of his books from 1981 to 1991.  From what I gather from both Wikipedia and the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, he was never well known in the world of science fiction.  His approach to the genre - at least as it's encapsulated on those sites - also doesn't strike me as particularly inventive or stylistically accomplished.  If Mindhopper is taken as representative of his fiction as a whole, the works of Theodore Sturgeon were a big influence on him.

In Mindhopper a young boy develops the ability to converse with certain people telepathically, and various individuals seek to use this ability to create a faster-than-light propulsion system.  The book's plot revolves around an older man's struggle to keep the young boy safe.  It's fairly violent, but at the same time very coy when it comes to sexual matters.

In stylistic terms this novel is somewhat amateurish, but then again it represented an early work by an author new to the genre, and perhaps he got better later on.  Mindhopper is written in the first person, and this storytelling device makes for some confusion in one of the book's closing chapters, where the protagonist is describing events he wasn't able to witness.  A lot of the profanity in this book struck me as somewhat juvenile, and at times the author either explains too much or too little, depending on how "scientific" the passage is.  His choice of words in certain contexts is also baffling, with many paragraphs marred by unnecessary sentences or extraneous clauses.

One could also ask the question: is this really science fiction?  As works of fiction go, there's very little science to be found in the pages of Mindhopper.  Sure, there are discussions of cars and there are discussions of car racing.  But the author's understanding of how the brain works is/was obviously rudimentary, even accounting for the time in which he wrote the book.  And as for descriptions/explanations of how telepathy ties into faster-than-light travel, he doesn't even bother.

Yet its amateurishness aside, I'd have to say that Mindhopper is a fairly consistent book.  It's not good by any stretch of the imagination, and it owes a lot to Sturgeon's More Than Human, but I've read much worse "science" fiction, and this novel isn't long enough to wear out its welcome.

Related Entries:

"Coyote" by Allen Steel (2002)
"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)
"Distress" by Greg Egan (1997)
"Artemis" by Andy Weir (2017)

2019年8月25日 星期日

"Coyote" by Allen Steele (2002)


"The sudden roar of engines from the opposite side of the camp draws Jorge's attention.  He looks up from the tent stake he's driving into the soft ground just in time to see the Wallace - rechristened the Mayflower - ascending into the afternoon sky on its VTOL jets.  A hot blast rips across the meadow; everywhere around him, colonists pause in their labors to cup their hands over their ears and watch the shuttle as it lifts off for its final rendezvous with the Alabama."

Allen Steel lives, surprisingly enough, in Massachusetts.  He's won the Hugo for one of his short stories and has written dozens of books.

In this book he follows a group of conspirators as they hijack a spaceship bound for another solar system.  The leaders of the conspiracy are intent on rescuing several intellectual dissidents from the clutches of an authoritarian government.  More than 200 (Sol) years later, they find themselves confronted by the challenge of colonizing a new world with limited resources at their disposal.

The first part of this novel is good.  It sets up its characters well and the author has a good grasp of the science involved.  I found the overall theme of the book ("The South will rise again!") gratingly obvious, but the author does a nice job of setting the characters on their journey.

But after the conspirators/colonists arrive on Coyote, this novel really loses a lot of its momentum.  It's here that the fact that this book was cobbled together from several short stories becomes increasingly plain, and certain details are unnecessarily repeated between different parts of the book.  A better editor would have eliminated these unnecessary details, but apparently the person in charge of editing Coyote couldn't be bothered to do so.

Where this novel really drops the ball is the ending.  I can't go into too much detail without giving this ending away, but let's just say that the colonists are faced with a very real, very technologically superior threat which they overcome in the most ridiculous way.  It's as if the author got to that point, decided he was tired of writing, and then tried to wrap up a 400+ page book in the most half-assed manner possible.  There are SO many questions left unanswered in the last section, and the colonists' ability to outwit their rivals defies understanding.

In stylistic terms Allen Steele is a good writer, but the plot of this book needs a lot of work.

Related Entries:

"Slow Apocalypse" by John Varley (2012)
"Distress" by Greg Egan (1997)
"Artemis" by Andy Weir (2017)
"The Windup Girl" by Paulo Bacigalupi (2009)