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Sunday, August 23, 2015
Hugo Awards: The Results
The Hugo Award winners were announced last night, and since I've been following along, I figured I should at least cobble together some thoughts on the subject. Also of note, the full voting breakdown in case you wanted to figure out how instant-runoff voting works. In short, this year's awards were a clusterfuck, and no one's coming away happy. "No Award" happens in several categories, and those voters were clearly the dominant force in the final voting. You can blame this whole thing on the puppies if you like, but to my mind, it's a two way street. Plenty of blame to go around. Action and reaction, it's a thing.
Sunday, August 16, 2015
Cross Posting: Booms, Busts, and Beer
Remember when blogs were the cool new thing? It was an exciting time, but things have changed dramatically in the intervening decade or so. The rise of social media basically quashed the fabled "generalist" blog, one of which you are currently reading. Such things have become, at best, quaint anachronisms. Specialized blogs, though, are perhaps holding on by a thread because of their laser focus on a given subject. That's why I started Kaedrin Beer Blog almost 5 years ago. It has achieved a modest amount of success and I sometimes write things over there that might be of interest to the few of you still clinging to this generalist blog, so let's take a look at a few recent highlights:
Sunday, August 09, 2015
The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.That's the eye-opening first sentence of Neal Stephenson's latest novel, palindromically titled Seveneves. It speaks to how much science fiction loves the what if mode of storytelling. What if the moon exploded? At first, not a whole lot. The moon splits into 7 big pieces, but thanks to gravity, they're generally in the same location and orbit, exerting the same tidal forces, and so on. That is, until the pieces of the moon start to smash into one another, splitting massive rocks into smaller chunks, leading to an exponentially increasing number of collisions. While we're not really expecting the moon to explode anytime soon, the notion of space debris colliding with other space debris, creating more debris and thus increasing likelihood of further collisions, is something NASA scientists have actually speculated about. In the novel, Stephenson calls this the "White Sky", and the smaller pieces won't stay nicely in orbit like the moon did. Within two years of the moon exploding, the Earth will be assaulted by what Stephenson calls the "Hard Rain" as all of the pieces of the moon fall to earth as bolides, releasing so much energy and heat as to make the Earth uninhabitable for thousands of years.
The human response to this news is to send as much material into orbit as possible. In a way, this is an "ark" story (a common subgenre, though it's also often relegated to backstory), but since Earth orbit is going to be crowded with moon parts, it can't be a single, giant ark. Instead, Stephenson comes up with the concept of a "cloud ark", a series of small, independent arklets that can swarm and maneuver to avoid debris. Various groupings can be made, and there's also a home-base of sorts with the International Space Station, which is somewhat larger than it is today and which is also bolted to a large iron asteroid called Amalthea (which acts as a shield for the ISS). Naturally, the cloud ark cannot accommodate more than a few thousand souls, so there's lots of Earthside wrangling and politics over who is chosen to survive, and who will remain on ground to perish in the hard rain.
You'll notice that I haven't mentioned anything about characters yet, and that's pretty illustrative about how this book reads. There is a very large cast of characters, of course, but the book seems primarily concerned with orbital mechanics and more broad sociological interactions. The depth with which Stephenson explains various elements of humanity's future home in space will no doubt turn casual readers off, but this is par for the Stephenson course. Blog readers know that I'm totally in the bag for this sort of thing, so it didn't really bother me, and while info-dumps can be frustrating when done poorly, Stephenson is a master of incorporating that sort of detail into a larger narrative. Here, the orbital mechanics are mixed fairly successfully with social mechanics and the more divisive political aspects of the cloud ark.
Depending on your point of view, this could be viewed as an intensely pessimistic view of humanity. I was actually reminded of the Battlestar Galactica television series, where people can't seem to agree with each other about anything, even when the entire race is on the brink of extinction. In some ways, it's not quite that pessimistic, and spoilers aho, humanity manages to survive, but not after some pretty harrowing and surprisingly sudden crises. More spoilers forthcoming, but the immediate takeaway is that fans of Stephenson will probably enjoy this, but like most of his novels, you probably have to have a certain mindset to enjoy it...
Individual characters feel more like chess pieces in the story's game. Sure, they have personalities (this comes into play later in the book, moreso than early on) and they're a compelling enough bunch, but their actions are severely constrained by their circumstances. This is, in many ways, the point. Living in space does not allow for many of the habits and practices we're used to here on our cushy planet, after all. Personal space, privacy, and so on are pretty severely limited. Still, the characters feel more like types than individuals. There's a science populizer called "Doc" Dubois Harris who is basically Neil Degrass Tyson. There's a miner turned roboticist named Dinah Macquarie, who is arguably the main character of the first two thirds of the book. We like both of them, and several of their surrounding characters. There's an almost cartoonishly devious political villain that emerges as well, along with her own retinue of followers. We don't like them! And there are dozens of other side characters, some becoming very important, some unceremoniously dispatched in one space disaster or another.
It's a huge novel in nearly every way, including it's physical size (another 800+ page hardcover), but also in terms of its ambition and the way Stephenson tells the story. If you think the first line is cool, the transition about two thirds of the way through the book was another pretty big surprise. At the time, humanity isn't in particularly good shape. They've fractured into two main camps, but few remain alive when they rejoin one another. On the other hand, they've finally reached a relatively safe and stable position in space to build out from, and they have enough technology to ensure the survival of the species... and then Stephenson starts a new chapter with "Five Thousand Years Later" and proceeds from there.
It's a bold choice, one of many in this book. Unfortunately, when you move the action that far forward, there's a lot to catch up with. As mentioned above, Stpehenson is a master of info-dumps, but this section of the book, in which nearly every narrative event is preceded by long and complicated digressions about how this or that piece of new orbital technology works or how this or that aspect of society works (again we get the juxtaposition of orbital and social mechanics frequently here) left even me a little impatient. It doesn't help that the events that drive that future part of the narrative seemed pretty obvious to me from the start (it's based on something from earlier in the book). Still, once the basics are established, the story gets moving on its own terms and ends strong enough.
It's just that you have to get through 5000 years of basics, which takes a while. A lot of Stephenson's ticks are noticeable here (and I don't mean that in a bad way). Stephenson loves to play with familial relationships and often returns to certain types of characters. Here, we get seven different strains of characters, such that when the story is moved 5000 years into the future, even if we don't know the new characters yet, we know their ancestors, and this gives you a little bit of an idea as to who they are. It's not a perfect, one-to-one relationship, the same way that Randy Waterhouse is distinct from Lawrence Waterhouse (in Stephenson's Cryptonomicon), but there's some underlying type that works for them both. Now, it is a bit of a hard sell to say that the 7 distinct genotypes (the eponymous seven "eves") wouldn't have interbred more in the intervening 5000 years (it is implied that this does happen, but it seems infrequent), but I can accept that the storytelling works better when you make such sharp distinctions.
It's funny, but this feels like Stephenson's most cinematic work. Many of these info-dumps and extended discussions of orbital mechanics would be much less daunting if presented visually (the book even includes a few illustrations to help you visualize what he's talking about, but they are few and far between). Alas, I'm guessing such a movie (or, more likely, TV series) would be cost prohibitive because of all the special effects required to blow up the moon, portray the white sky and hard rain, and all the arklets, let alone the far future space habitats and gigantic orbital launch devices, etc... Perhaps someday this could happen, and I think it could perhaps even surpass the book in terms of quality if done right.
I'm a total sucker for Stephenson, so it's not a surprise that I enjoyed this novel. It's not going to unseat Cryptonomicon as my favorite, but it compares favorably to his other work. I have to admit that I don't particularly agree with all of his sociological musings here, but this is interesting, exciting, and ambitious stuff, and I can't fault Stephenson for wanting to explore this fascinating territory. I know that this is an unpopular line of thought with increasingly ideological Science Fiction fans of late, but I'm actually capable of disagreeing with a work that I think is great without actually needing to doubt that greatness. This is bold, adventurous writing, and while there are plenty of valid complaints to be made, I still think this is some of the most interesting SF published in the last few years (it certainly puts the last few Hugo novel ballots to shame). You can bet this will show up on my 2016 Hugo nomination ballot.
Sunday, August 02, 2015
The usual roundup of links from ye olde internets:
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Hugo Awards: Skin Game
Nominees like this are difficult to judge. It's the 15th installment in Jim Butcher's long-running Dresden Files series of books detailing the exploits of that other wizard named Harry. The series started out as a mashup of fantasy with detective fiction, with Harry Dresden playing the role of a PI with magical powers. He even has a listing in the phone book. Of course, as the series went on, some variation crept in, some are still traditional noirish detective stories, others not quite so formulaic. My experience with the Dresden Files actually began with the short-lived SyFy television series. Not even realizing at the time that it was based on a book series, I actually enjoyed the show quite a bit (for a time, it was on Netflix Instant and Amazon Prime streaming, but it appears that convenience is no more). It's not one of those things that would get cited as part of the hallowed golden age of television we're currently ambling our way through, but it was an entertaining enough series (and without going into personal circumstances at the time, it was exactly what I needed). I wish it lasted more than one season.
A few years later, and a book club run by some coworkers selected the first book in the series, Storm Front, so I figured it was time to check it out. I enjoyed that first book quite a bit, but the bounced right the hell off the second book, Fool Moon, which put me off the series for a while. Last year, after I burned out on SF, I read the third book in the series (looking for something trashy and fun), Grave Peril, and found it better than the second book, but still not quite fulfilling the entertainment quotient provided by the TV show. Then Skin Game gets nominated for the Hugo Awards this year and despite not having read the intervening 11 books, I feel like I need to give it a shot. I was a little hesitant about this because I was reliably informed that the book featured mostly long-standing characters whose personalities and motivations were rooted in earlier books.
This is certainly true, but I found that I was able to follow along well enough given my knowledge of the first three books (and even the TV series, to some extent), and indeed, the central plot here is self-contained enough to be compelling even if there were some personal matters that weren't entirely fleshed out. I'm no expert on urban fantasy or anything, but the series seems to pull from enough folklore that I was generally able to keep up with the proceedings. I ultimately enjoyed the book heartily, and it had enough going for it that I think it compares favorably to the other nominees (such that my initial #2 ranking feels justified).
The book started off a bit on the rough side, with Harry living on the island of Demonreach, acting as a Warden to a sorta magical prison. He's running around the island and jumping over obstacles while screaming "Parkour!" which is pretty painfully silly at first, but sorta rebounds during a few later callbacks (at one point, Butcher even acknowledges how ridiculous it is in the text, which is nice I guess, but doesn't make it any less ridiculous). There's a bunch of stuff going on here that is clearly from earlier novels, but it doesn't take long for things to settle in, as Dresden's Faerie Queen arrives to offer him a job: help fallen angel Nicodemus steal something from the vault of Hades.
It's a heist story, complete with all the tropes, but with a nice magical twist or two thrown in for spice. Assemble the team, devise devious ways around the vault's magical safeguards, deal with some obstacles, prepare for deception and betrayal within the group, and so on. It's a pretty well executed heist tale too, with some neat puzzles, intrigue, double agents, and so on. I'm sure most of the characters on the team were well established in the series, but for the most part, I was able to pick up on the specialists, and the shifting allegiances weren't hard to follow or anything like that. Of course, I recognized Harry's primary allies in Karrin Murphy and Michael Carpenter (and, to a lesser extent, Waldo Butters and Bob the Skull), but most of the other characters were new to me. Again, I didn't have much trouble catching on, and even grew to like a few of the characters.
As with previous books, this one feels a bit bloated, with Butcher never missing an opportunity to expound on this or that magical theory, and while I was able to follow along, there did seem to be a fair amount of what I'll call continuity-service, consisting of references to the fallout of recent books and so on. I've never been a particularly big fan of the way Butcher portray's action in this series either, and that's also the case here, though it is better than I was expecting, and the puzzle-like nature of some aspects of the story are enjoyable. Some of it is just lingered on a little too much.
One of my problems with the earlier entries in the series is the sort of escalation of magical powers that necessarily happens in stories like these, as well as the damage that Harry typically takes on in the course of the story (usually an absurd amount that beggars belief, even assuming some sort of magical healing power). Some of that is certainly here, but there are plenty of times when Harry reasons things out for us and it all makes logical sense, which is more than I can say for some of the early novels. There's even some explanation for why Dresden can take more punishment than normal here, which is appreciated. Butcher also has a tendency to revel in pop culture references a bit, which sometimes works, and sometimes just seems extraneous (I mean, a Black Hole reference? Another situation where Butcher explicitly has a character call out how ridiculous the reference is, which is nice and all, but doesn't make it less ridiculous!)
I really enjoyed the heist aspects though, and there were plenty of well executed twists and turns late in the story that kept things moving at a brisk pace. I particularly enjoyed when Hades singles out Harry (during the heist, of course) to sit down and have a drink. It was probably my favorite part of the book, even if it's a bit hokey. It's my kind of hokey, I guess.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed the book, and I can see why this series is so popular. Not having read the previous 11 books in the series, I have to say that some of that probably sailed over my head, but I seemed able enough to follow along, and was still able to find plenty of enjoyment here. I think my #2 ranking on the ballot is warranted, and will probably remain that way. I'm also resolving to read more from this series, as from what I understand, I'm past the worst bits. Don't hold your breath though, I've got plenty of other stuff to read. This basically concludes my Hugo reading for this year, though I'm sure I'll have something to say when the winners are announced in August...
Sunday, July 26, 2015
Hugo Awards: Semi-Final Ballot
As the voting deadline approaches, I find myself rushing to finish one book, but have otherwise read what I want to read and pretty much know how my ballot will shake out. I'm pretty much only voting in the fiction categories, avoiding commentary and zine categories like the plague. I might take a look at the artist stuff in the voters packet, but for now, this is what I've got:
Predicted Winner:The Three-Body Problem (It's not on the Puppy ballots, so it's acceptable for people to vote on it, but the Puppies seem to like it too, so I think it's in good shape)Best Novella:
Predicted Winner: Big Boys Don't Cry (though No Award is a strong contender this year, because controversy)Best Novelette:
Predicted Winner: "The Day the World Turned Upside Down" (though No Award is a strong contender this year, because controversy)Best Short Story:
Predicted Winner: Totaled (though No Award is a strong contender this year, because controversy)Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form:
Predicted Winner: The Lego MovieSo there you have it. Not a bad slate overall, and I actually enjoyed it slightly more than last year's slate. What I did not enjoy was all the whinging about Puppies or Noah Ward and so on. Fingers crossed that next year won't be quite so contentious. With the likelyhood that No Award will win some categories this year, I don't see that happening, nor do I see the vitriol subsiding (heck, it hasn't really subsided yet to begin with). I may just end up bailing on the whole enterprise next year and just read stuff I like. What a novel idea.
Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Weird Movie of the Week: Holiday Horror Edition
Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we covered a remake of Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1973 film The Holy Mountain that is composed entirely of salvaged clips from old dog movies and VHS tapes. This time we've got some Holiday Horror:
A Christmas Horror Story has a lot going for it. It's from several of the creative minds behind the Ginger Snaps trilogy (Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban and Brett Sullivan) and takes place in Ginger and Brigitte's fictional town of Bailey Downs; it stars William Shatner as a drunk, hyper-conservative radio DJ full of holiday cheer; it features Krampus and zombie elves. Like any horror anthology, there are great moments and there are weak moments, but its framework is cleverly constructed, tying all of the vignettes together in an interesting way that isn't revealed until the final act.So the fact that it is a Holiday Horror movie is not, in itself, very weird. There's lots of them, and we've covered this territory before. Repeatedly. Nor is it that it comes from the folks who made Ginger Snaps (an original take on the werewolf story, to be sure, but not quite weird). No, what sold me on this was the Shatner line: "it stars William Shatner as a drunk, hyper-conservative radio DJ full of holiday cheer". Inspired. I'm all in.
The review isn't exactly glowing, but few of these movies are actually very good. As it mentions, it's clearly inspired by Trick 'r Treat, one of the best horror anthologies ever made (surely the most consistently good and interconnected), which is funny, because this movie supposedly features the Krampus, an obscure Santa precursor that represents Santa's... darker side (many precursors are actually two separate people, one to give gifts to all the good boys and girls, the other to punish the not-so-good). It turns out that Trick 'r Treat's writer/director Michael Dougherty is releasing his own take on Krampus during this holiday season. It's an embarrassment of riches for Holiday Horror fans this year. Looking forward to it.
Sunday, July 19, 2015
As per usual, interesting things from the depths of the internets:
Thoughts and ramblings on culture, movies, technology and more; updated every Sunday and Wednesday.
Kaedrin Beer Blog
And Now the Screaming Starts
Back of the Cereal Box
Movable Type 6.1
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