Saturday, July 8, 2017

In praise of gateway novels: A Closed And Common Orbit

I've greatly enjoyed both of Becky Chambers' books so far, primarily because of their warmth, their concern with everyday life in an interstellar future, and their concern with human (and non-human) relationships.

And it's no coincidence that A Closed And Common Orbit is the only one of the Hugo-nominated novels I can see being adapted for the big or the little screen, as these are much more common traits of SF film and television than they are of novels and short-stories.
Orbit is a spin-off from its predecessor, The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, following several of its supporting characters: Sidra, a starship's AI now hiding in an illegal android body and Pepper, the gadgeteer acting in loco parentis for her. It follows both Sidra's attempts to find a place for herself in a new and confusing world planetside, while also telling Pepper's backstory as a young refugee from a backwater colony built on genetic manipulation.

So, it's a double Bildungsroman, or less pretentiously, a coming of age story, a YA novel in adult clothing. And I mean that last as a compliment - both Orbit and Planet are about young people making their way in a confusing universe, learning life lessons and looking for somewhere to fit in and belong. 

And while fantasy turns out young adventurers by the score, SF has lost the art of this somewhat in recent years and it's nice to see Chambers do an good job of redressing the balance. Her work is very well suited as a gateway into the wider genre.

So, it's an enjoyable read, but is it the best book on the Hugo shortlist? In a way, Orbit has the opposite problem to Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit, which is hard to truly like but easy to respect. Chambers give us memorable characters, snappy dialogue and moves the plot along smoothly - in short, she gives us fun - but these are all virtues of writerly craft rather than of art. And you've got to have both.

The themes she explores - artitificial intelligence and a genetically modified underclass - aren't particularly new or refreshed either. And the climax of the book is also somewhat underplayed, given how emotionally invested in the outcome the reader should be by that point.

Another way of putting it is that while there is much good in it, even the every good in places, Orbit isn't quite the complete package. For me, it also lacks the uncanny superlative (that Bill and Ted 'Woah' factor) that in different ways characterises the best of both SF and fantasy. 

A Hugo nomination for what is still only Chambers' second novel reflects how far she's already come, however, and I look forward to reading (or indeed watching) more by her in the future.

Hugo Rankings So Far

1. Charlie Jane Anders, All The Birds In The Sky
2. Yoon Ha Lee,  Ninefox Gambit
3. Becky Chambers, A Close And Common Orbit

Monday, July 3, 2017

This review removed for non-compliance with consensus reality: Ninefox Gambit

I've seen a great deal of appreciation in some quarters of the internet for Yoon Ha Lee's Hugo-nominated debut novel Ninefox Gambit. Me, I'm still trying to decide if I actually liked it or not. 

Now, likeability isn't necessarily a sign of a great book, but if it's not aimiable it has to have other things going for it. And what Ninefox Gambit does have is a great idea: that of a totalitarian regime consciously shaping its own consensus reality through control of philosophy, physics and mathematics; right down to the calendar and how time is measured.

This might seem far fetched, until we recall revolutionary France's new calendar which renamed the months and introduced a ten day week, or the Cambodian Year Zero. Control of time, of information, of language is something we are all too familiar with from the last century. 

Lee simply takes this to a logical endpoint. And then goes right over the edge with the idea that mass belief can generate special combat effects like something out of a role-playing game (or the human machine code of Snow Crash, or Julian May's psychic protagonists combining their powers in metaconcert). 

Needless to say, there is something of a tension between the serious and the silly in Ninefox Gambit.

As a story, it plays out as philosophical military SF - a war of competing ideologies, but also of guns and ships powered by those same beliefs. There are scads of space battles, close-quarter fighting and political intrigue here to enjoy. 

My reservations? It's not as sure footed in its storytelling or world-building as it thinks it is, and could do with a wee bit more exposition. Tonally, it's all over the place too, with ill-fitting comic moments not really working in a much grimmer bigger picture.

But having said that, Ninefox Gambit is a novel I'd like to think I would have published had I the opportunity - it may not be likeable but it sure is interesting. It's a calling card for a new talent and I'll certainly read it again, if only to get a better handle on it.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Wholeness and wholesomeness: Waitress reviewed

More from the vaults...

Waitress (2007) starts off bitter and slowly graduates towards sweet, and by the end is more than a little cloying. Still, if you can forgive it that, there's a lot to like here.

Keri Russell (who 2017 me has just remembered was also the best thing in Austenland) plays Jenna - a typical waitress in a classic American diner, with a pie fixation, a lousy husband and an initially unwanted pregnancy. Via an affair with her doctor and with the support of an ensemble of small town comic stock types, she finds herself!

So full of archetypes is it, Waitress only really makes sense to me as the filming of an indie slice-of-life graphic novel, a four-colour tale of wacky waitresses, bad-tempered cooks and nerdy-but-loveable suitors. But that's not necessarily a bad thing if it's done with skill, as it is here thanks to presiding spirit writer/director/co-star Adrienne Shelley *.

Rather, it makes it a film with a vision - a way of looking at the world. Wholeness and wholesomeness.

Until the last act, Waitress does a good job of tempering this sweetness with the damaged marital relationship at its core. And it's not that I begrudge the film its happy ending, it's just that without that dilution the mawkishness goes right up to 11 and it loses its charm somewhat.

Up to that point though, a most likeable picture.

* who was tragically murdered shortly before the film was released.

From the vaults: Eagle Vs Shark reviewed

Another film review retrieved from journals past, this time Eagle Vs Shark (2007). If you want to know what Taika Waititi was up to prior to What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, well, this is it.

EvsS is (surprise!) a quirky New Zealand indieflick about a shy romantic (Lily, played by Loren Horsley) with the misfortune to fall in love with self-obsessed geek Jarrod (Jermaine Clement, pre-Conchord mania) at a 'come as your favourite animal' party. The film follows them as they return to his home town for a showdown with the school bully.

As well as being deadpan funny, 2007 me found EvsS unexpectedly moving. It illustrates not just the pitfalls in both self-centredness and passivity, but also how they can reinforce each other. Happily for the viewer, it also shows that these stances can shift, no matter how firmly embedded they seem. 

There's some fine comic ensemble playing, but what carries the film are the two main leads. Clement plays Jarrod with sufficient vulnerabilty that you can sense the damage underneath the bursts of staccato bravado. Meanwhile Horsley adroitly moves Lily from a woman with her heart in her mouth at all times to one who finally holds herself like she's answered her own question.

EvsS is no Wilderpeople, yet if you want to see early signs of the comic humanism that powered last year's breakout success, you'll find plenty of evidence here.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

If Dylan were a Timelord: I'm Not There

I've been archiving seven or eight years of journalling from the London and Birmingham years recently and have found a few more film reviews to share.

I'm Not There is Todd Haynes' Dylan fantasia - a novelistic treatment of seven different stages of Bob Dylan's career. 

It's starting point is perhaps that the man himself is ultimately unknowable, a view Volume 1 of his autobiography does nothing to unpick, I fear. So instead, different actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Marcus Carl Franklin, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger, and Ben Whishaw) are employed at each stage to symbolise these sharp changes in presentation and artistic direction. 

As if Dylan were a Timelord, if you like (*).

From earnest folkie, through plugged in rocker chasing that wild mercury sound, to Woodstock exile and born-again Christian, I'm Not There veers between realism and magic realism depending on which 'Bob' is on stage. And all seven Dylans are compelling: above all Cate Blanchett as electric Highway '61 Bob and Christian Bale. The playfulness and passionate engagement with the source material runs right through the film, and the music's great too.

It's focus on Dylan as myth rather than as man means it's biggest weakness is inevitably it's lack of emotional heft. The closest it comes is Blanchett portraying an artist on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But for all that it avoids bathos and the over-dramatisation of the conventional biopic. So despite it's slight flaws, it's a brave, engaging film.

* And I suppose Bob and The Doctor occupy similar locations in our modern mythology - outsiders, tricksters, tellers of truth to power. Symbols of self-transformation, what the graphic novelist Grant Morrision would call hypersigils. But that's one for another post.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The hypercompetence of mavericks: thoughts on Die Hard

I've been wondering why Die Hard has lasted, as against so many other 80's action films, having seen it for the first time in ages last year in a festival movie tent.

On one level, it's an easy question to answer. Die Hard is a competent B-movie action picture elevated to something special by the interplay between the two character-actor leads: Bruce Willis and the late Alan Rickman. 

Both are especially good at the grey area between comedy and righteous anger (Willis) or menace (Rickman) respectively. And tonally speaking, that's the screwball sweet spot for 80's action films - the violence has to be undercut enough by the banter so as to be palatable for a mass audience. 

But there's more to Willis than comic timing - he's a powerful identification figure for the audience. Rugged but not ripped, Bruce can do 'concerned, heavily armed citizen' John McClane in way that anomalous Arnie or sonorous Stallone would struggle to match. 

His buddy-buddy relationship wth desk cop turned first responder (Reginald VelJohnson - also a great piece of casting) is convincing because of that. And the actions he takes against the terrorists/robbers are all the more credible for it too.

Which brings us too, I suppose, to the legendary quality that fuels Die Hard. While its merits as a film with a great cast have helped it last, it also doesn't hurt that it's perhaps one of the most persuasive cinematic restatements of the armed civilian myth: the idea that what you really need in a crisis is not the state but a frontiersman with a gun. 

And in Bruce's case, a "Ho, Ho, Ho" too.

Yes, the film stacks the deck massively in favour of this reading - the deputy chief of police is an idiot, the two FBI agents even more so - but that is to argue its credibility rather than its mythic power. 

This isn't a post about gun control, and it would be ridiculous to directly extrapolate from Die Hard to arguments for or against anything in the real world. On the other hand, the stories we tell and retell about the world can be inadvertently revealing. 

What does it mean that films like this valorise the hypercompetence of violent mavericks? What does it signify when they also strike such a chord in us too?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Some recipes I'm trying

In the spirit of reminding myself how relaxing I find baking and cooking, but not just cooking vegetarian paella on autopilot every week, here's a log of any new recipes I try over the next few months.

Moroccan harcha (semolina pan-fried flatbread)
Chipotle black bean chilli 
Jamie Oliver simple tomato pasta sauce (deployed with Ikea meatballs and the vegetarian equivalent)  
Sun-dried tomato risotto (recipe used pearl barley instead of rice but we didn't have time on this occasion, maybe the next one)
Stuffed pepper leftover experiment (exactly as tasty as it sounds)