Month: July 2014

Transcendence (2014)

Transcendence (2014)

(Video on Demand, July 2014) Even as science fiction concepts make their way to the mainstream, I remain more and more convinced that there is a fundamental difference between the mindset that gravitates toward cord SF and the rest of the population. And here’s Transcendance to make the case, as it plays with heady concepts while reassuring audiences that technology is inherently evil. Sort-of updating the moral virtual panic of The Lawnmover Man for a new generation, Transcendence once again shows an uploaded mind turning evil: SF as an excuse for horror, and a film in which characters gravely say “we fear what we don’t understand”… before doing exactly that. The technical errors abound in this film, which is almost a relief given the silliness of the entire script (“hey, let’s set up a consciousness upload laboratory in an abandoned high-school gym”). There’s a lot to dislike in the structure of the film that spoils much of the ending early on, while the rest of the script doesn’t quite seem to understand where it’s going besides an apocalyptic conclusion. (The ending can sustain a multiplicity of interpretations, the most charitable being that our two lead characters are still working quietly at changing the world.) Director Wally Pfister has a good eye for ponderous images, but he’s really not as sure-footed during the action sequences, which play out as fairly silly on-screen. Johnny Depp once again plays Johnny Depp, but the film’s tight-lipped seriousness undercuts the eccentricity that is his biggest strengths as an actor. Meanwhile, as much as I like Rebecca Hall (to the point of watching nearly everything she’s been doing lately), she is definitely underused in this film, her usual brainy character being neutered into nothing much more than the damsel-in-distress. There’s also something strange about Morgan Freeman being in the film, but in a nearly-useless role. Other flaws abound, from the herky-jerky nature of technological innovation to risible terrorist antagonists to a climax that looks amazingly cheap considering the scope of the film so far. Transcendence is the kind of maddening film that holds a strong set of ideas, but can’t be bothered to actually do anything interesting with them… or take the leap forward that technological innovations can actually be, you know, beneficial without anyone turning into a creepy omniscient god-monster. I suspect that being a fairly knowledgeable SF reader is tainting my impression of Transcendence in ways that may not occur to the average moviegoer, but such is the baggage that I bring to the film.

Frozen (2013)

Frozen (2013)

(On Cable TV, July 2014) Walt Disney Animation Studios have been on a roll lately, but with Frozen they move just above the already high level of Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled into a blend of heartfelt sentiment, fantastic animation, big laughs and successful musical numbers that evokes nothing short of the studio’s best pictures. The focus on the relationship between two sisters is unusual enough, but the script has a number of blatant curveballs and fake-outs that clearly signal that Frozen has more than the usual Disney Princesses in mind. The quality of the animation is astonishing, especially considering that much of the film takes place in a snowy environment –speaking as a Canadian, not every shot of snow is equally convincing, but there is a lot of nice work here. Frozen, more than any of the recent Disney films since The Princess and the Frog, leaves quite a bit of time to its musical numbers, and they work exceptionally well: Like everyone else, the past few months have drilled “Let it Go” in my head, but hearing the song isn’t nearly as effective as seeing it in-context, where it’s simply a thing of beauty and characterization. Much of Frozen feels like a tightrope act taking decent storytelling into more audacious and ultimately more rewarding territory: it could have been just another animated film, but it ends up being something more, like many of Pixar’s best productions. (For instance, Olaf the snowman could have, under many other circumstances, taken over the film as simple comic relief. Here, he’s used judiciously in a more complex fashion, being very funny but also bringing a bit of poignant naiveté.) I’ll try not to quibble about the strange anachronisms scattered throughout –for a film set in 1840ish Norway, it’s still definitely produced by 2013ish South Californians. Frozen remains an easy film to love, and why not? The lead characters are both interesting in their own way, and once you throw in a reindeer and snowman into the mix, well, it’s hard to resist the entire thing.

The FP (2011)

The FP (2011)

(On Cable TV, July 2014) The problem with a high concept is that it isn’t in itself a guarantee of success. In order to succeed, it needs to answer “And then?” in at least two ways: the high concept has to be fleshed out in a satisfying fashion (“And then why?”), and it has to lead to something beyond the high concept (“And then what?”). Alas, while The FP takes on an absurdly high concept (rival gangs fighting over control of California’s Frazier Park by playing a Dance-Dance-Revolution clone), it also chooses to play the absurdity completely straight. While there’s an admirable rigor to the way the filmmakers end up producing something that feels like an overblown eighties-Hollywood-style underdog comeback epic on a $50,000 budget, the pleasantly bizarre dichotomy between its urban speak and low-rent rural setting, bargain-basement sets versus florid ambitions can’t quite answer the subsequent “And then?” By choosing to leave the comedy at a high level and to deliver the actual film in a serious deadpan, The FP creates an impression of emptiness –sure, it’s a joke, but it’s still one joke and it’s been the same joke since the first five minutes of the film. Coupled with the ultra-low-budget aesthetics, the urban-slang dialogues and the familiar boilerplate structure, The FP sets itself up for unfavourable comparisons. Which is a bit of a shame, because writer/director pair the Trost brothers have some promising skills: The FP looks pretty good for the budget they had and the film is put together competently. It’s hard to dislike a film so low-budget that it shows as a labour of love, and so I’ll be curious to see their next efforts. Still, The FP itself is often too dull to create much enthusiasm — After watching it, it’s hard not to feel as if I’ve wasted my time.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

(Video on Demand, July 2014) There are movies that transport you in a parallel universe, and then there are movies that make you want to build a machine to travel to parallel universes. So it is that Jodorowsky’s Dune is a making-of documentary about a movie that never was: an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic Dune as would have been directed by eccentric visionary writer/director Alejandro Jodorowsky sometime in the mid-seventies, well before the 1984 David Lynch film. Jodorowsky himself (at an amazingly-well-preserved 84) is a centerpiece of the film as he tells the many small stories of the abortive effort. The centerpiece of the film is a custom-made book containing all the visuals and storyboards developed for the film, featuring the amazing trio of Moebius, Chris Foss and H.R. Giger as conceptual artists. It’s an amazing line-up already, and the film is quickly to point out that even if Jodorowsky’s version of Dune went nowhere, it definitely left a mark: copies of the book probably made their way throughout Hollywood (a collage of subsequent film clips make the case for visual similarities), while the Moebius/Foss/Giger triad (alongside visual effects artist Dan O’Bannon) would all receive credits for Alien‘s visual conception. Jodorowsky’s Dune is perhaps more fanciful in discussing how the director approached a variety of legends for musical and acting roles: From Pink Floyd to Dali to Mick Jagger to Orson Welles, the stories are entertaining but we only get third-party confirmation for Dali’s involvement. It’s also optimistic to believe that a version of Dune as directed by Jodorowsky in 1975 would have been the film promised in this documentary: Any knowledgeable cinephile knows of countless movies that looked amazing on paper but never measured up in reality… and considering Jodorowsky’s eccentricity, there’s no telling what the end result would have been. Still, Jodorowsky’s Dune is a fascinating look at a film that never was, a good grab-bag of stories and a chance to see a number of legends discussed in the same breath. It’s a must-see for SF movies enthusiasts, and a pretty good time for everyone else.

Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010, Damien Broderick & Paul di Filippo

Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010, Damien Broderick & Paul di Filippo

Non-Stop Press, 2012, 288 pages, $14.99 tp ISBN 978-1-933065-39-7

As someone who rather enjoys reviewing science-fiction novels, I’m not exactly the friendliest target audience for a book such as Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010 (henceforth 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010). I’m not a librarian looking to stock up my collection; I’m not simply a reader looking for a few new book recommendations. I am, in some distant ways, a colleague of Broderick and di Filippo in the Grand Community of SF Reviewers, fact-checking them and trying to find out whether they did their jobs correctly.

And then there’s the question of canon-making.

Books like 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010 are essential in the formation of a continuing genre SF canon. They point at novels that should become part of the genre’s continuity, present an updated view of the genre’s last few years and can influence what we think of the genre by claiming novels that did not emerge from the SF genre conversation, but may come to influence it someday. David Pringle’s introduction explicitly sets 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010 as a successor to his own Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, 1949-1984 and in doing so sets it up as part of a critical continuity. Much as the previous volume was used to stock up libraries and influence reading choices, this one also attempts to present a certain vision of the genre’s latest quarter-century.

Dispending right away with some essential statistics and credential-building: 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010 does indeed proposes 101 novels for consideration as the best of that 25-year period. (The complete list is available here.) I have read roughly 57 of those novels, depending on your definition of “read”. If you look through my Alternate Hugo list of favourite SF novels, you will find that I too think the best of about 20 of the 101 novels, and that I also quite like 16 more. The rest, well, does reflect a certain critical consensus.

But moving beyond pointless shelf-measuring contests, 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010 is remarkable for the way it tries to redefine the Science Fiction genre in at least two ways. For one thing, this is a very inclusive list. Authors only get one entry on the list, which means that some entries act as general discussions on the entire body of work of an author (the entry on Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game includes commentary on Speaker for the Dead, for instance), and also allows more authors to make it on the list. You can see how this may skew the result: My own list of “best SF novels of 1985-2010” would probably include five Charles Stross novels, for instance, but Broderick/di Filippo only (rightfully) select Accelerando.

They also reach out and claim novels that may not conform to a strict definition of SF. This isn’t merely going and claiming The Hunger Games trilogy as an explicit bid to bring YA back to SF (even though the book itself has significant flaws as science-fiction, Broderick/di Filippo make the point that it’s the kind of work that escapes the self-referential tendency of genre SF), but also going and claiming works such as Perdido Street Station, Temeraire and Zero History that are great books, but are usually more closely aligned with other genres rather than SF.

Fortunately, there is more to 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010 than just a list you can look up elsewhere on the web: Much of the real value of the book is in the (sometimes frustratingly short) commentary offered on all listed novels. Broderick/di Filippo are professional reviewers, and their commentary is usually able to highlight what makes each novel special, and why they deserve to be read. There’s an attempt to present broader trends through the lens of each selection. The sum of each entry ends up forming a set of broad opinions about the state of the genre from 1985 to 2010. It’s a broad set of opinions, and it isn’t immune to the kind of silliness you get when trying to develop 101 critical approach vectors to tight deadline: in other words, don’t be surprised to find a lot of very strange assertions in the text of the book as it overreaches and states things that may not sustain scrutiny. But that’s what you get for explaining 25 years of SF in 101 750-words segments.

Broadly speaking, it does occur to me that the selection of 2010 as the last year of this roundup is going to be more significant than simply the end of a quarter-century. As you may recall (Bob), 2010 marked a second post-recession year, the introduction of the iPad, the consequent explosion of the eBook market and the beginning of major changes to the publishing industry. (Including more and more authors taking control of their backlist and publishing them as eBooks –who’s going to check how many of those 101 novels are available as eBooks, and will be in a year?) 2014 is still far too early to tell where we’re going to end up, but the rise of eBook self-publishing as a viable commercial alternative means that the next 101 Best SF Novels 2011-2035 is going to look very, very different from the 1985-2010 installment, which may represent the last hurrah of a genre with well-defined boundaries defined by the traditional book-publishing industry.

And that’s fine. Part of canon-making such as listing the 101 best novels of 1985-2010 is allowing us to define the past and prepare ourselves for the future. No one knows how the genre will evolve in the best few years, but it can depend on solid foundations to find its way.

Captain Phillips (2013)

Captain Phillips (2013)

(On Cable TV, July 2013) Director Paul Greengrass has carved himself a niche as someone willing to engage contemporary real-life issues in a highly naturalistic style. The approach isn’t always successful (the shakycam thing gets annoying quickly) but his last few movies have shown increasing polish, real-world relevance and surprising thrills. So it is that Captain Phillips tackles the real-life story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama cargo ship hijacking through the story of its captain Richard Phillips. As one expects from a Greengrass film, Captain Phillips takes a realistic approach to its material, delving into the minutiae of modern maritime shipping, presenting events in a deceptively unglamorous light and using handheld cameras whenever possible. (Which, thankfully, isn’t possible in establishing helicopter shots) Still, despite the rough images, there’s no mistaking the heroic dramatic arc of the protagonist, or the careful construction of the script. This is meant to be a punched-up version of reality (something that minor controversies surrounding the film have made clear) that, despite an unheroic climax in which the lead character demonstrates a textbook example of shock, is meant to leave viewers reassured. It works well: the film manages to combine real-world details with old-school suspense and thrills, leading to a result that feels both real and satisfying –especially in portraying how the Alabama tries to defend itself against pirates. Tom Hanks initially seems wasted as the everyman titular captain Phillips, but the role and Hanks’ portrayal get more complex and difficult as the film advances, leading to a final sequence that’s as fearless as anything the actor’s been asked to portray to date. Relative newcomer Barkhad Abdi also makes an impression as antagonist Muse, bringing some humanity to a role that could have been played as caricature. While Captain Phillips runs a bit overlong (especially during its third act, which seems to be purposefully repetitive), it’s a fine docu-drama and a refreshing antidote to so many overblown Hollywood thrillers.

Snowpiercer (2013)

Snowpiercer (2013)

(Video on Demand, July 2013) Madness awaits those who try to interpret Snowpiercer as a completely realistic “vision of the future”: Its central premise (a train running into an infinite loop after a world-wide disaster, carrying what remains of humanity) is so deliriously impossible that a heap full of disbelief suspension salt is required before the film even begins. But moving on, since one big deviation from reality is what is required for nearly all SF movies… Snowpiercer‘s saving grace is that it’s well-directed and imaginatively justified: Director Joon-ho Bong brings visual inventiveness and slick action directing to the mix. It sort of helps, in this fable-like story, that the narrative structure looks so simple: An uprising of oppressed passengers starts at the back of the train, and makes its way forward –we know the story will reveal its final mysteries and conclude once the front has been reached. Chris Evans is solid as the protagonist, but an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton steals the show as an unhinged matron bureaucrat trying to perpetuate the train’s social order, with good supporting performances by Ed Harris, John Hurt, Ah-sung Ko and Kang-ho Song. Occasionally as visually warped as Terry Gilliam’s best films, Snowpiercer has a number of set-pieces that linger in mind: The darkened-tunnel action scene, the wildly impossible loop shoot-out, the demented classroom sequence… It almost doesn’t matter that the premise makes no sense (and that the ending, far from being triumphant, boils down to “and now their troubles really begin.”) when the rest of the film is so richly imagined and well-handled. Unlike a film like Elysium, which so clearly attempts to be realistic that it disappoints when it’s not entirely consistent, Snowpiercer carries with it an ember of madness (Swinton’s first big speech, for instance) that makes it easier to consider without perfect coherency. I’m not entirely convinced that it’s a great SF movie, but it’s enjoyable and original enough. (And if nothing else, it’s quite a bit more satisfying than the original French graphic novel, which purposefully seeks to end without satisfaction.)

Daybreak Zero, John Barnes

Daybreak Zero, John Barnes

Ace, 2011, 400 pages, C$33.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01975-5

While I generally agree that all novels should stand upon themselves and require as little contextual knowledge as possible, there are exceptions. John Barnes has always been a surprisingly challenging author (his repertoire of authorial motifs often includes sexual violence, repellant protagonists, deliberate antagonism of his core-SF audience, tragic endings, and at least one novel in which the entire universe surrounding the protagonists changed every few pages) and in his case, I believe that as much external knowledge of the work is usually preferable.

While Daybreak Zero may look like a bog-standard post-apocalyptic second-volume-of-a-trilogy, at least one piece of information may help in understanding it. [August 2014: Actually, two pieces of information may be best, but after reading the third volume of the trilogy, I’ve moved the second item to the review of the third volume. As a hint, though: The trilogy was never meant to restore civilized order, but to set up another series.)

So: keep in mind that the book was the result of a somewhat unfriendly editing process. The story, simply put, is that Barnes was attempting a sprawling post-apocalyptic trilogy in his usual in-your-face fashion at a new publisher. (After years and dozens of novels published by Tor, this was Barnes’ first experience with Ace) Conversely, Ace wanted a safe and comfortable SF trilogy with clear heroes, despicable antagonists and a focused storyline. Add to that the industry context (falling sales during a recession, mid-list writers being squeezed out of the industry, the 2010 sea change in ebooks as signaled by the quick uptake of the iPad) and you can see how a novel like Daybreak Zero could be affected. As he writes on his too-infrequent blog…

So the first two books were chopped way, way, way down, with me trying to keep them sprawling and ambiguous and undecided and interesting, like the world, and the editor trying to narrow them down to one-hero-one-problem-on-one-side like movies-on-the-reader’s-forehead. One way we frequently compromised was that I got to have some of the material left in but with scenes shortened

So that probably explain the stop-and-go pacing of Daybreak Zero, which takes a break to tell us how a scoutmaster was able to survive an all-inclusive apocalypse, while setting up traitorous plot developments as quickly as it can knock them out in the next scene. There’s a bit of discontinuity to the book that could have been smoothed out with more breathing room. (Not helped along by a structure that takes place almost all “in real time” with quick little scenes that offer little opportunity for time-skipping such as “for the past three weeks, our characters had done this…”) A surprising amount of stuff takes place off-screen, or so quickly on the page that it may have not been there at all.

I mention this because it helps a lot in forgiving some of the irritants in Daybreak Zero. I had a few others that were my own fault –I read Directive 51 four years ago, and didn’t remember some of the crucial details: So I was all ready with indignant objections that so many people would be part of Daybreak, until I was reminded that it was a self-sustaining memetic system partially prefigured by Barnes’ own One True series.

Mind you, it doesn’t explain away the novel’s lack of overall plot development: Despite the trips and decisions taken, deaths of viewpoint characters (no less than four of them!), and ominous final developments, the shape of the world as the novel begins is very, very similar to the one it ends with despite pieces being moved on the checkerboard; the third novel, The Last President, should settle how useful this middle volume truly was.

Still, I’m rather pleased by Daybreak Zero. The entire concept of Daybreak is ingeniously infuriating (although I do hope that its mysteries get cleared up nicely in the next volume), one character gets a terrifying arc from nerdy hero to brainwashed villain and, as is usual with Barnes’ work, Daybreak Zero remains a pleasure to read with plenty of narrative velocity. It doesn’t quite amount to much more than interesting sequences furiously aligned one after another, but that’s part of the problem in second-volumes of trilogies.

Fortunately, those second volumes also require quite a bit less hand-holding than first volumes. Now let’s see what Barnes intend to do to close the story.

All is Lost (2013)

All is Lost (2013)

(On Cable TV, July 2014) Some movies demand admiration simply by sheer audacity, and All is Lost‘s ultra-minimalism in portraying a single man stranded on a damaged boat in the middle of the ocean is the kind of stunt filmmaking that makes for an intriguing departure from the usual movies. There is only one cast-member: Robert Redford, supporting an entire film on his shoulders while having fewer than a dozen spoken lines. Much of the film is spent seeing him react to the collision between his boat and an errant shipping container: as his situation gets worse (powerful storms don’t help when the boat is leaking), All is Lost becomes a pure survival thriller about a man losing everything and yet never giving up. Writer/director J.C. Chandor delivers a superb cinematographic exercise, considerably improving upon the directing in his debut Margin Call. There’s a refreshing lack of dramatic intensity at play: Redford underplays everything as would befit a man focusing on survival, while the score and cinematography also try to restrain themselves. But while the film is easy to admire, it’s not quite as easy to love: it’s a bit longer than it should have been, and the ambiguous ending will either work or not. Still, much of All is Lost‘s power comes from its self-assured portrayal of survival at sea under desperate circumstances. It would work as a good double-feature for either Life of Pi or Gravity.

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with his Century: Vol2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, William H. Patterson, Jr.

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with his Century: Vol2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, William H. Patterson, Jr.

Tor, 2014, 672 pages, C$39.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-765-31961-6

When the first volume of William J Patterson’s Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with his century appeared in 2010, my review reflected the critical consensus: While Patterson had better access to source material (including the cooperation of Virginia Heinlein) than anyone else and was able to shed light on hitherto-unknown aspects of Heinlein’s early life, the result was burdened in trivia, lacking in any critical perspective and so utterly beholden to Heinlein as to approach hagiography. Still, complete judgement had to be suspended until the publication of the second volume, which tackled Heinlein’s better-known era, his marriage to Virginia Heinlein and his accession to best-sellerdom. Now that the second volume is here, it turns out that… much of the critical consensus about the first volume also applies to the second one.

The Man Who Learned Better starts in 1948, roughly coinciding with Heinlein’s third wedding and (after a brief detour via Hollywood where he worked on Destination Moon), gradual home-making in Colorado. Much of this second volume presents a detailed minutia of Heinlein’s life, almost day-by-day as he writes stories, attends events, receives visitors and becomes involved in various causes. Eventually, health issues come to the forefront, from the near-death experience he suffered in 1973, to a lengthy period of ill health, culminating in a series of crises that led to his death in 1988. The immensely detailed narrative often borders on the trivial, but the effect becomes strangely hypnotic, almost as if we were living with the Heinleins on a daily basis. Patterson may not have been a particularly gifted writer (see below for a few examples), but the book does have an affecting melancholy to its latter sections, as a couple struggles and copes with health issues that force them to downsize their life before the inevitable end.

Anyone looking for re-interpretation of Heinlein, or expanded commentary of his work will be disappointed: Patterson is a biographer far more than he is a literary critic, and since he hews so closely to the Heinleins’ point of view, he too regards reviewer as either useless (when they praise Heinlein) or malevolent (when they don’t). Noted critics such as Alexei Panshin and H. Bruce Franklin both turn up as recurring villains, to say nothing about Forrest J. Ackerman. While we get a hint as to what caused the enmity (Ackerman misappropriated Heinlein’s work, Panshin had the annoying habit of making inferences about Heinlein’s character, while Franklin was –horror of horrors- a Maoist), the level of vitriol thrown at these three men is almost ridiculous.

Still, it’s a useful clue at what the biography leaves out. Reading In dialogue with his Century, one gets the impression that Heinlein towers over everyone else. That he is never wrong. That he never changes his mind even as the country moved leftward. (Making a mockery of the title “The Man Who Learns Better”) That everyone who went against him was a simple-minded villain. This somewhat charitable viewpoint can’t quite paper over the fact that Heinlein, by all accounts, was kind of an arrogant jerk. (There’s a better word that rhyme with …hole, but it goes against the PG-rating of this site.) Contemporary accounts of his behavior make it clear that if Heinlein was a member of your family, he’d be the insufferable blowhard uncle who’s always right, always willing to harangue family members for their political opinions and usually ends holiday gatherings by leaving early after having insulted everyone. It’s this dimension of Heinlein’s personality that has so fascinated fans for decades, and it’s that aspect that gets the shortest thrift here.

It really doesn’t help that Patterson, being an ardent fanboy, doesn’t just idolize Heinlein (the introduction starts with “Mr. Heinlein”, always a bad sign for a biographer), but seems more than willing to co-opts Heinlein’s opinion into the current right-wing mindset. So it is that Heinlein-extended-by-Patterson gives us gems such as the Baltic states being enslaved by the USSR because they didn’t want to “do what must be done”, unlike the Scandinavian states (has Patterson ever looked at a map?) [P.198]. Such overreach of contemporary political opinion over historical events were easier enough to accept in the first volume of the biography which discussed a time too far away to be controversial, but it proves harder to tolerate with more contemporary events and figures.

Furthering the problem is Patterson, graceless style. There are moments so clumsily written that they jar any reader out of the narrative. Take, for instance, this paragraph about a visit to Rio de Janeiro…

…they drove up Corcovado mountain to see at first hand the monumental Christ the Redeemer status overlooking the steep hills over Rio –and, what the Heinleins may not have realized they were overlooking, Rio’s favelas, some of the worst slums in the world, so legendary in their poverty, violence, and crime that they are still being used as the setting for many “shooter” video games. [P.105]

…and tell me how we can justifiably go from an account of a 1950s trip to a faintly reprobate mention of contemporary video games. Worse yet is the following:

…During the course of the operation, Heinlein received blood transfusions collected from five anonymous donors. Since Robert had an uncommon blood type (universal recipient – Ginny had the even rarer universal donor type), it was almost certain that his life had been saved by the efforts of the National Rare Blood Club he had come across while researching I Will Fear No Evil. [P.320]

As written, this makes almost no sense: Heinlein did have a rare blood type (AB+, roughly 3.4% of the population) but as a near-universal recipient, he could have received blood by nearly everyone –hence instantly debunking the assertion that his life had been saved by the National Rare Blood Club. (Notwithstanding the above blunder, the two chapters covering Heinlein’s year-long involvement with Blood donations reveal much about one of Heinlein’s most underrated life achievements, and stand as a highlight of the book.)

Insufficiently copy-edited, the book also contains a number of typos and small annoying mistakes. Even my casual read of the text showed typos such as “Candian”, or “crities” (this one quasi-maliciously incorrect, as it refers to a section of Alexei Panshin’s web site), or more seriously “November 23, 1963” as the date of JFK’s assassination, when it actually took place on November 22nd.

I hope that my exasperation with the text comes through. In details and in larger interpretation (or rather a lack thereof), In Dialogue with his Century is an immensely well-documented book that nonetheless seems to avoid commenting on the man at its center. Patterson seems to know everything about Heinlein but understand quite a bit less. To see this, the work of two lifetimes, result in a biography that falls substantially shorts of the gold standard of the genre is an exercise in frustration. This biography should have looked at its subject sympathetically but not uncritically. Even today, Heinlein does not need hero-worshipping –he needs someone willing to do what Heinlein himself couldn’t bear to do, which is to explain who he was. Readers can work from inferences (it’s no surprise that a trained military officer would later turn out to be particularly paranoid about threats to US hegemony) but for a biography claiming high that Heinlein avoided simplistic reductions, the fawning uncritical look at Heinlein seems unworthy of the subject. On related matters, we get some information in this volume about Leon Stover, first chosen biographer to Heinlein (and who was later removed from the project by Virginia Heinlein for “unauthorised” enquiries) but little about Patterson’s involvement itself.

Still, it’s a heck of a scholarly work. There’s a lot of stuff in this second volume (from a scholarship aspect alone, I expect it to be nominated for a Hugo next year… even if the book really isn’t as good as it could have been), and I hope that it will become a reference for anyone writing a better biography. It’s also a tremendously rich book to discuss: My list of notes and items of interest from the book easily contains twice as many things I have the time to write about, and as a reviewer this is the kind of book that I love to discuss endlessly, largely because it isn’t perfect and could be improved.

I’m also saddened to report that Patterson died barely a month before this second volume was released. For all the faults we can find with The Man Who Learned Better, his death leaves the ensuing conversation about Heinlein without a crucial voice, and without someone to receive and collect information that could have been raised during this discussion. (As Patterson himself writes in the appendix to his second volume unearthing new information about Heinlein’s early years, “the good stuff” invariably comes out shortly after publication.) Still, Patterson does leave in his wake a massive work of scholarship that will hopefully inspire others to further examination in Heinlein’s life.

I also suspect that this biography will act as another lightning rod in the current fracture within the SF field, the old-guard of fans trying to preserve the memory of Heinlein against younger, more progressive and far more diverse fans. In the old-guard’s minds, In dialogue with his century is an attempt to prove that Heinlein is still of relevance today; that his fiction remains exemplary of what SF means to do, and that his philosophy is still valid. In claiming the good old dodge “I didn’t change my mind, everyone else did”, In Dialogue with his Century moves goalposts, but also servers to illustrate the difference between this old school and the new guard: The old school sees “the country moving to the left” as a sorrowful conclusion, whereas the new guard will perceive older men like Heinlein being naturally left behind.

As far as I’m concerned, I expected this second volume of Heinlein’s life to mark a capstone of sorts to my own dealing with Heinlein. While I found him tremendously influential as a teen and young adult (I’ve been reading his novels since I was nine), I have recently, through various experiences and life changes, come to accept his dwindling relevance to today’s readers: While I still hold tremendous affection for his work, I accept that he will, from now on, be read mostly as a historical writer: even in the SF field, where his influence is unparalleled, I see younger viewers rejecting his novels and claiming other (often newer) writers as relevant. And that’s fine: the genre is not stuck in amber, and we need to move forward. Isn’t it enough to realize that his place in history is assured?

But something happened in reading The Man Who Learned Better: I felt some jitterbug energy coming back, compelling me to go and re-read some of his fiction. So it is that I’m embarking (even with my limited time) on a modest re-reading project: Heinlein’s four Hugo Award-winning novels, from Double Star to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, stopping by Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land for completeness. We’ll see if they’re dated, if they can’t stand contemporary social standards, and if they are as I remembered them. I haven’t read them in twenty years; now is the time to revisit them.

Redshirts, John Scalzi

Redshirts, John Scalzi

Tor, 2012, 320 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-765-31699-8

Geez: As recently as three years ago, I used to read (nearly) all Hugo-nominated novels as a matter of course –sometimes even before they were nominated. Now it takes a year before I get around to reading the one Hugo-winning novel. Life changes. Stuff happens. I’m busy. Insert your favorite excuse here.

It’s not even as if I had any particular reluctance to pick up John Scalzi’s Redshirts: I’ve been reading Scalzi since the original hardcover of Old Man’s War, have the rest of his novels on my shelves and find him to be a highly enjoyable entertainer. His work tends to be slighter than I’d prefer, and not every one of his novel works (I’ll argue that Zoe’s Tale, as charming and readable it can be, is almost useless from a narrative standpoint when put alongside The Last Colony.) but he is, book-for-book, one of the most reliable professionals in the business today.

But I’ve been taking a break from reading in general for the past two years, and it’s only now that I’ve got the time for Redshirts. I will admit that my enthusiasm for the title was tempered somewhat by the plot summary, concerned as it is with the fate of expendable people in a suspiciously Star Trek-like future. The titular “Redshirts” expression is an old Star Trek fandom joke (as in “if you’re wearing a red shirt, you’re in trouble!” –because you will die in the first act as a way to heighten suspense) and I wasn’t too sure what Scalzi would be able to bring to the concept.

For a while, it looks as if he doesn’t do much more than bring his usual witty dialogue and light touch to the table. As five new crewmembers board the Starship Intrepid, the in-jokes fly thick and low: everyone aboard is terrified to volunteer for away missions, lousy science seems to be the order of the day, and none of our witty five new crewmembers have any clue as to what’s happening. It’s not unpleasant to read, but it’s not much above dozens of years of trek in-jokes and banter. In fact, at that point, Redshirts seems to be a sub-standard comic Trek take-off, unwilling to dig deeper in the inanity of Trek’s premise and markedly less amusing than what one would expect from a comic romp. Andrew Dahl and the Methods of Rationality this isn’t.

But wait… because there’s some serious weirdness ahead. It quickly becomes clear that something very strange in happening aboard the Intrepid whenever events start taking on dramatic qualities. People act differently, not quite understanding why they do. Logic flies off the window, taking with it what a professional team should know. Ominous warnings are given about The Narrative. People die, following a logic that our heroes desperately try to understand before they, too, suffer the same fate.

Before long, things turn severely meta and Redshirts finally becomes more interesting than the simple Trek commentary promised on the back-cover. Without spoiling anything explicitly, let’s just say that Scalzi revisits territory previously explored in Agent to the Stars, and questions of personal identity similar to The Ghost Brigades. The novel ends with philosophical questions about our relationship to fiction. Redshirts concludes quickly, leaving time for three codas that prove unexpectedly moving as consequences to the novel’s events are explored, further developing our understanding of the wreckage left behind by protagonist heroics. Redshirts gets more and more interesting throughout, eventually showing (among other things) why it’s not a bad idea for someone with a degree in philosophy to be writing science-fiction.

There are highs and lows along the way. Much of the writing is Scalzi’s usual mixture of snark and wittiness, which works well in blog posts but occasionally feels misplaced on the page. Many of the lead characters can’t easily be distinguished (this is played for laughs once, but it more often smacks of Scalzi-writes-one-kind-of-character-really-well. There are significant issues with willing disbelief in the middle third of the novel (including mentioning Star Trek by name), that are eventually papered over by the rest of the story. But, to its credit, Redshirts is rarely less than compelling to read: it’s got a lot of that elusive “reading fun” that so many other novels fail to achieve. Don’t be surprised to finish it within days even if you are a slow or busy reader.

(I’m not quite as convinced it should have been a Hugo-award-winning novel, but I’ll leave that rant for another time.)

Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross

Neptune’s Brood, Charles Stross

Ace, 2013, 336 pages, C$27.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-425-25677-0

I grinned when I heard that Charles Stross’s Neptune’s Brood earned itself a Hugo nomination: Stross’s brand of densely-packed imaginative Science Fiction may not be to everyone’s liking, but it’s certainly a favorite flavor of mine. Stross is able to meld SF’s traditional core strengths with contemporary social sensibilities to produce SF that’s both recognizably in-genre, while reaching out to integrate new ideas and social inclusiveness. I welcome any excuse to read his books, especially when they take the form of a Hugo nomination.

Loosely set thousands of years after the events of Saturn’s Children, Neptune’s Brood features a vast post-human diaspora settled on multiple worlds. Despite the lack of faster-than-light travel, technology has progressed sufficiently that people can be beamed from star to star… as long as the required infrastructure is in place. But even without the troublesome aspects of sending meat-flesh across interstellar distances, space colonization is hard. As Stross explains in an enjoyable series of explanatory passages, building a colony from scratch requires a ruinously expensive starship, dozens/hundreds of years of hard work in building laser transmission and reception infrastructure, and thousands of very specialized people working together. There’s no way to do that without incurring astonishing amounts of debt, and how do you do that across interstellar distances and years of separation?

The solution, ingeniously posits Stross, is to develop “slow” money, algorithmically created in much the same way emerging digital currencies currently are, that are not subject to the same kind of fluctuations as “fast” money used in day-to-day transaction. Slow money, of course, is different from fast money: a single slow dollar converted to fast money is enough to make an individual rich for years.

Having built a space opera on a physically-accurate economic framework, Stross then proceeds to deliver on of his usual thriller yarns, featuring an endearing heroine specializing in the history of frauds and on the trail of a massive financial con. Despite the heavy economic content, Neptune’s Brood is heavy on thriller plot mechanics, traditional SF devices and amusing set-pieces: By mid-book, we’ve been hanging with skeletal bots, zombie queens, space pirates and genetically-modified mermaids. Stross is clearly having fun, and it’s this blend of economic/futuristic speculation and out-and-out comic thriller sensibilities that make Neptune’s Brood so enjoyable.

Seasoned SF readers will, as usual, find much to like here. Stross understands genre SF completely and fluently plays with typical concepts, subverting a few of them and faithfully upholding others. The way Stross manages to present a vivid interstellar civilization despite the limitations of STL is intriguing (even though he still had to get rid of unmodified humans to do so), and the conceptual economic model her proposes is the kind of work other authors will, or should, adopt as part of their far-future toolbox. Anyone looking for SF speculation probably won’t find any better book this year.

As a long-time Stross reader who often peers over the author’s keyboard as he reveals aborted projects and odd sources of inspiration, it’s good to see his “Space Pirates of KPMG” pitch resurface after being deep-sixed as a sequel to Iron Sunrise. Neptune’s Brood will feel very comfortable to anyone who loves Stross’ far-future speculations (the indebtness to Saturn’s Children and the Eschaton series is obvious, but there’s shadows of Accelerando and Glasshouse in here too, and the criminal/financial theme finds resonance with the Halting State / Rule 34 universe as well.)

I’m not completely blind to the novel’s faults. It’s part of the point of Neptune’s Brood that travel between systems is slow and expensive, but that limits the amount of space-opera scenery we get to see during the trip. There’s also a certain familiarity to the caper-and-thriller plotting that undercuts the originality of the premise; I recall having some of the same reactions upon Saturn Children‘s release. Finally, perhaps more importantly, the narrative ends more abruptly than expected, with nary a denouement to release readers after the climactic so-there.

But those are relatively small quibbles in a strong SF novel in the classical mold, with enough speculation to keep core-SF readers happy, and enough thrilling action to satisfy adventure-minded readers. Stross remains at the top of the SF game and my reaction to Neptune’s Brood reaffirms why I should always make time on my schedule for his novels even as my leisure time has shrunk.

Riddick (2013)

Riddick (2013)

(On Cable TV, July 2014) I’m constantly nonplussed at the insistence on making Riddick an ongoing SF franchise. Sure, I was an early fan of Pitch Black. Of course, I really like Vin Diesel. It goes without saying that I wish writer/director David Twohy the best in his career. But after the messy incoherence that was The Chronicles of Riddick, we’ve seen the best that universe had to offer, and it’s something best let go. Not that Riddick is overly enamored of its predecessor either: It’s impressively dedicated at erasing the memory of the previous entry, quickly and definitively putting Riddick back in his favorite environment: battling nature and human opponents on a planet where survival seems unlikely. The first twenty minutes of the film go by with nearly no dialogue, all the better to demonstrate against how much of an invulnerable bad-boy Riddick can be. By the time a “mercenary station” (WHAT???) is reached and two competing teams land to vie for Riddick’s head, the film settles into a comfortable B-movie routine. There are, to be fair, a few good moments here and there. By stripping down to the basic essentials of a survival thriller, Riddick judiciously focuses on its lead character and goes back to straight-up suspense rather than the nonsensical extended mythology of the second film. Other actors get a chance to try to equal Vin Diesel’s usual intensity: There’s a nice rivalry between Matthew Nable and Jordi Mollà as the rival mercenary leaders, while Katee Sackhoff gets to be a little bit more than just “the girl” in the script. Of course, there’s little suspense regarding Riddick’s fate – it’s the kind of film to be watched to see what the protagonist will do to his enemies. (In most movies, we fear when a protagonist is in chains and threatened. In this one, we sit back and anticipate the carnage.) Of course, Riddick is a movie for fans –essentially an attempt to gain operating capital for the next installment. As such, it’s a bit bland, a bit competent, a bit ridiculous and a bit enjoyable. There may or may not be another installment in the series –I don’t particularly care, which is actually a step up from how I felt at the end of the previous film.