Bergen, Norway

This morning I sat for half an hour in the shade beside a lake, as people walked by, and birds chirped, and a saxophone played somewhere off in the distance.

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X-Men Apocalypse

X-Men Apocalypse would be a good film, if they hadn’t decided to skimp on character development in favour of filling the middle with pointless fanservice and padding.

(Spoilers ahead.)

I just got back from seeing the film, and I already tweeted a bunch of thoughts on it, but here I’ll go over them in a little more detail.

So you’re making a movie, and you have a group of teenage characters who are just getting to know each other. The foreign exchange student wants to see a bit of US culture, so what else is there to do but have them take a trip to the mall? (This is set in the 80s, after all.) They get to hang out together on their own terms for the first time; you can show how they interact as a group, start them bonding. Maybe the new kid gets into some trouble because he looks different, and his new friends stick up for him. When they come back to school and find out that plot has happened, they’ve already become a team to the audience’s eyes.

Or you can have all that happen off screen and show another Quicksilver slow-mo sequence instead. The fans liked that last time, right? They won’t want to get to know these new characters, what they want is the same thing as last time, but twice as long and with way more forced humour.

And that there is where X-Men Apocalypse falls down. While we do get to know Scott Summers, Jean Grey, and Kurt Wagner somewhat, their initial bonding as a group happens off screen. This is perhaps because the following segment of the film has the three of them working together to help rescue several other X-Men (and Moira McTaggart) from Colonel Stryker, but the problem with that is the entire sequence is irrelevant to the plot of the film.

At best, the section in Col. Stryker’s secret base exists only to have a fanservice scene of a newly-created Weapon X Wolverine slaughtering his way through a small army. It’s padding, pure and simple, and adds nothing to the Apocalypse story.

(Can I just jump in here to say how bullshit it is that it’s the three characters who get to work together here? There are four friends who go to the mall together, and thus avoid getting caught by Stryker. Jubilee, another fan favourite character, is one of their group. And yet I’m pretty sure the film never even named her, and she disappeared entirely after the destruction of the school.)

Speaking of the Apocalypse story, this too suffers from the unnecessary padding of the film. When he first ventures into the modern world and encounters Ororo (also never named, iirc) it seems like we’ll get to see how he brings her onto his side – but instead, he gives her power and that’s it, she’s on side with no explaining or convincing. Each of the first three of his Four Horsemen – Storm, Psylocke, and Angel – is turned completely at the first demonstration of his power. There’s no sense of why these characters would go along with his plan to destroy the world. Their recruitment scenes wind up perfunctory, and kind of repetitive. Only the fourth Horseman, Magneto, gets an extended scene convincing him to join – because of course he does, this latest trilogy of X-Men films always likes to make everything about Magneto when it can.

Considering the amount of padding in the film, they had so much room to develop all these characters. Show us how Apocalypse convinces Ororo, what it is about his message that gets to her, and it would become much more meaningful when she turns against him. If they’d spent less time shoehorning in Wolverine cameos and Quicksilver music videos, maybe we could’ve got to know why Angel is the way he is, and maybe we’d know a single damn thing about Psylocke.

This film had a villain whose entire plot was “recruit followers, then use their power to destroy the world”. When there’s little in the way of event in your plot, you make it up with character. Make us empathise, make us understand. Don’t just throw in additional empty action to keep us occupied until you reach the page on your screenplay marked “start climactic battle here”.

(The rest of the film was alright. Not amazing, but certainly not bad.)

What I’ve Been Reading – Winter Edition

I started writing this post in March, but I was never quite happy with my summarising of the books. I’ve been in a reading slump and have not finished any reading or writing I’ve done for the last two months. I finally decided to try to finish what I had here and just post it. It took me 10 minutes. /shrug

Since the last time I made one of these posts, I’ve only written about two books on this blog – Seveneves and Radiance – but there are several others I haven’t mentioned. Here are some brief thoughts on all those other books.

Karen Memory – Elizabeth Bear
A steampunk western about the residents of a brothel who become targets of a powerful and ambitious criminal after taking in a rescued trafficking victim. Meanwhile, a serial killer is targeting prostitutes in Rapid City, and Deputy US Marshal Bass Reeves seeks their help with his investigation.
There’s plenty of wild steampunk invention in this alternate history where “Mad Scientist” is a licensed profession, from submarines to mind control to mech-suit sewing machines, and a lot of action. The main strength of the book however is probably the narrative voice of the protagonist, Karen Memery, who aspires to own a ranch and write adventure novels, and finds herself right in the middle of all this trouble.
I can’t say it’s among my favourites of Bear’s work, but it’s certainly a fun read.

The Fifth Season – N. K. Jemisin
In a world where frequent major tectonic activity causes devastating “fifth seasons”, some people, known as “orogenes”, have developed the ability to control and cause tremors. Feared and hated by ordinary people, orogenes, once discovered, are either killed or sent to the Fulcrum in Yumenes, to train in captivity to serve the empire.
The Fifth Season tells the story of Damaya, Syenite, and Essun – a child found and taken to train at the Fulcrum; a young women travelling with a powerful orogene to fulfill one of the Fulcrum’s missions; and a woman whose son has been killed and daughter taken by their father, who she now chases after as the world begins to end around her. There’s more going on than there seems, however, with mysteries surrounding the strange beings called Stone Eaters, the floating Obelisks, and the truth behind the origins and methods of the Fulcrum.
This complex novel fits together these three stories from three times in a way that gradually peels back the surface of this society and begins to show us the mysteries underneath, and something of the truth to come. The story of Syenite is the most complete here, as she travels with Alabaster, the most powerful Fulcrum orogene, and begins to learn the reasons for his bitter cynicism toward the empire. It’s between this and Damaya’s storyline that Jemisin addresses the slavery of the orogenes, and how the empire keeps the worst truths of its treatment of them hidden away. Essun’s story, on the other hand, seems mainly to lay groundwork for the future of the trilogy; if there’s one place the book suffers, it’s in being the opening volume of a series. Overall this is an excellent book, and very much a series to watch.

Binti – Nnedi Okorafor
Published as part of Tor.com’s new novella imprint, Binti tells the story of a young woman who is the first of the Himba people to be accepted into the most prestigious university in the galaxy. Leaving without the approval of her parents, she sets off on a spaceship journey to Oomza University – only for things to go wrong when the ship encounters a hostile alien species.
Binti is about identity, communication, and understanding – in particular, it’s about respecting one’s heritage and culture while forging your own path, and discovering who you are as an individual. It’s a charming story with a strong lead character who solves problems through empathy.

Persona – Genevieve Valentine
The United Nations meets beauty pageants. Persona shows us a future where every country has a Face, an individual who serves as a mix of ambassador, personification, and figurehead. Faces are the public representatives of their governments, their images and lifestyles tightly controlled; celebrities whose reputations are tied closely to those of their countries. When an assassination attempt is made against Suyana, Face of a tiny South American nation caught between competing powers, she ends up having to rely on photographer Daniel – an aspiring member of the illegal paparazzi – to help her uncover who was responsible and find a way to restore her position.
A light and fast-paced political thriller, this didn’t quite match the strength of Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club (one of my favourite novels of 2014), but I still enjoyed it. At the ending I was left feeling that a lot more could have been done with the story, so I was happy to hear that a sequel, Icon, is on its way.

Black Wolves – Kate Elliott
The outsider King Anjihosh has conquered the Hundred, killing the Demons who ruled the country and uniting it under his rule. Decades later, under his grandson King Jehosh, it seems like the peace and unity he created is beginning to fall apart as factions within the palace scheme for power.
As the foreign ruling family impose their customs and faith on the country, this fuels discord among the people. King Jehosh himself is no longer sure how much power he really holds. Dannarah, the king’s aunt and formerly Chief Marshal of the giant-eagle-riding Reeves, sees the systems of the Reeve Halls being torn apart and remade in dangerous forms by her great-nephews. Kellas, once the most trusted Captain of King Anjihosh and his son Itani, is brought out of retirement to help Jehosh, but he is part of another, larger agenda. They and others become caught up in the plots that are tearing the Hundred apart.
This is a big, complex epic fantasy, where every character has their own secrets and you’re never really sure who can trust who. It’s hard to summarise, with so many characters and so much going on. What I can say is that it was one of the most engaging and well-crafted epic fantasies I’ve read, full of great characters (the back-cover copy – and the very long prologue – focuses on Kellas, but it tends to be the other characters, mostly female, who carry the story), and written with a clear awareness of issues of prejudice regarding race, gender, religion, and culture.
The Black Wolves trilogy is a follow-up to an earlier series, however you do not need to be familiar with those books to follow the plot of this one – I have not read the Crossroads trilogy, but based on the strength of Black Wolves, I intend to.

Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho
Zacharias Wythe is the new Sorcerer Royal of England, but faces hostility from the magical establishment in his role – Zacharias is black, a former slave freed and adopted by the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe, and trained in magic in an effort to prove to the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers that people of his race are just as capable of magic.
On a visit to a school for “gentlewitches” (which specialises in teaching young women how not to use magic, which is considered unladylike) he encounters Prunella Gentleman, an orphan of unusually powerful magical ability, and seizes on the idea of training her in order to demonstrate the capabilities of women – just as she seizes on him as a means of escaping her current life and finding a better station for herself in London society. Together they end up dealing with assassination attempts against Zacharias, the efforts of a Malaysian witch to stop British magicians supporting persecution of her people, and the unexplained closing off of Faerie and dwindling of magical power in England.
The novel is written in a style that mimics the period, but with a willingness to address Britain’s colonialism, and the ugliness of race and gender prejudice. It’s been earning a lot of praise and award consideration, and I can see why.

Archivist Wasp – Nicole Kornher-Stace
In a post-apocalyptic setting where ghosts wander the world, Wasp is the Archivist, whose role is to capture these ghosts and from them try to learn anything she can about the world before. The ghosts, however, do not talk – until she encounters one strange spirit, a soldier who seeks out Wasp’s help in finding his former partner. Their journey together will lead Wasp through many questions and discoveries about who she is and where she came from.
Archivist Wasp is a journey-through-the-underworld tale with a very original spin, and woven within it is the touching science fictional story of the ghost soldier and his partner. Both sides are ultimately about finding your own identity, and escaping the roles that others have shaped you for.

*

In addition to the above, I’ve gone through a number of audiobooks, but I’m having a harder time shaping my thoughts on those. I’ll leave you with these for now. I’m currently reading Testament by Hal Duncan, which is doing some very interesting things with its reinterpretation of the gospels, but has taken me a very long time to get through as the Bible can be somewhat dry.

My Hugo Award Nominations, 2016

Today is the last day for submitting Hugo Award nominations, and I’ve been working on finalising my ballot. Below, you’ll find all the works and people I’ve nominated, plus some other bits where there were close calls. I’m making this post mostly as a record for myself of the stuff from 2015 that I liked enough to nominate.

If you’re interested in checking out any of the works I’ve nominated, I believe everything in the Short Story and Novelette categories is freely available online, as is one of the novellas.

Best Novel
– The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu
– Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie
– Uprooted, Naomi Novik
– The Fifth Season, N K Jemisin
– Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace

This was tough to winnow down to 5 nominations. Also in the running were:
– Black Wolves, Kate Elliott
– Radiance, Catherynne M Valente

Best Novella
– Binti, Nnedi Okorafor
– Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, Kai Ashante Wilson
– The New Mother, Eugene Fischer

Technically, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is above the length requirements for this category at 43k words, but the rules have some allowance for works that are close to the limits and fit the category better.

Best Novelette
– The Oiran’s Song, Isabel Yap
– Ballroom Blitz, Veronica Schanoes

This was a difficult category not because there were a lot of things to choose from, but because I looked at the list of short fiction I’d liked from 2015 and found only one novelette on that list. There’s a surprisingly small amount of fiction published at this length. I managed to catch up and read the Isabel Yap story today, which was recommended on a few other people’s lists, and it immediately went onto my ballot.

Best Short Story
– The Shape of My Name, Nino Cipri
– Madeleine, Amal El-Mohtar
– The Half-Dark Promise, Malon Edwards
– Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight, Aliette de Bodard
– Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers, Alyssa Wong

There are a bunch of other short stories I wanted to read, but I never made time to catch up on all the links I have saved. These five, however, are all deserving of their spot on the ballot, so I don’t feel bad about not seeing all the other options. Also under consideration were:
– Elephants and Corpses, Kameron Hurley
– The Language of Knives, Haralambi Markov
– Planet Lion, Catherynne M Valente

Best Related Work
SFF in Conversation: Foz Meadows – Thoughts on Fanfiction

I don’t keep up with a lot of stuff that fits this category, but I thought this essay by Foz Meadows on fanfiction was excellent, a very in depth exploration of the subject.

Best Graphic Story
– The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl vol 1
– The Wicked + The Divine vol 2
– Bitch Planet vol 1
– Saga vol 5
– Nimona

There are always lots of good comics. Some that didn’t make my ballot this time:
– Ms. Marvel vols 3-4
– Rat Queens vol 2
– ODY-C vol 1

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form)
– Mad Max: Fury Road
– Star Wars: The Force Awakens
– Marvel’s Jessica Jones
– Sense8
– Ex Machina

Fury Road all the way. Please don’t lose this to Star Wars. (The others are also good, though I think I’m less excited about Ex Machina.)

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)
– “Cut Man”, Marvel’s Daredevil
– “AKA Sin Bin”, Marvel’s Jessica Jones
– “What Is Human?”, Sense8
– “4,722 Hours”, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I’m not all that enthused on this list. They’re decent episodes, but a lot of the TV I’m watching these days works best as single long works.

Best Fan Writer
– Foz Meadows
– Abigail Nussbaum

I don’t keep up with a lot of fan writers, but these two I do are consistently good.

Campbell Award for Best New Writer
– Alyssa Wong
– Sunil Patel
– Isabel Yap

I’ve not read a whole lot of work by these three, but what I have has been strong.

The following categories were left blank, because I don’t really know what to do with them:
Best Editor (Long Form)
Best Editor (Short Form)
Best Semiprozine
Best Fanzine
Best Fancast
Best Fan Artist

Some Half-Formed Thoughts on Dwarfs and Gender in Discworld

This is a quick post just to get something out of my head that’s been rattling around since I finished Raising Steam a couple of weeks ago. I tweeted most of this at the time; this is just pulling those thoughts together without the character limit.

On a surface level, the dwarfish race in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld has gender equality: all dwarfs look alike, and gender is considered a secret relevant only to the dwarf theirself and their significant others. This has apparently been the case for the whole of dwarfish history. However, the emergence of female dwarfs who want to imitate female humans’ presentation of gender is a repeated subject of the novels. On the one hand, this is presented as an issue of self-expression in the face of restrictive cultural norms, but the sense is generally there in the books that these cultural norms are not just a restriction of what all dwarfs can do, but a specific repression of females from presenting as such.
But, as I’ve said, dwarfs on Discworld don’t appear to have any cultural history of a gender binary in terms of dress and behaviour. This is something that seems as though it can only have come from outside influence, through observation of human culture on the Disc (significantly, it is the more “modern” dwarfs of the human city of Ankh-Morpork who initiate this movement of female gender expression), however dwarfs in the books are depicted in some cases as harbouring pre-existing resentment of the requirement to present as “male”.

The result of it all is the impression that Pratchett is presenting the gender binary of human culture (specifically the 19th-century cultural analogue of the Discworld) as something that is innate and desirable even by those that have no history of such. In Raising Steam specifically, part of the climax of the book is the Low King of the Dwarfs, Rhys Rhysson, declaring herself to be a Low Queen and adopting a feminine name – an act that makes little sense in a culture that has no history of gendered names, but it’s intended as a symbolic gesture. Following this event we are told a significant number of dwarfs rush to “out” themselves following her example.

This is not to object to the idea of individuals choosing their own gender expression, but it is telling that this is something that only applies to female dwarfs, and the depiction leaves the reader with the impression that almost all female dwarfs have just been waiting for the moment to come where they can begin to openly acknowledge their gender by adopting these human practices. I couldn’t help coming out of the ending of Raising Steam with the feeling that Pratchett was, through the dwarfs, promoting the idea of our culture’s gender binary as something that is right and proper.

Now, I’m a little concerned I might just be showing my ass here, as I’m not sure I have found the best way to express my thoughts on the topic, and I’ve got the lingering feeling I might be reading too much into things. But this isn’t the only area where Pratchett has appeared to show an unquestioning acceptance of stereotypical gender roles and behaviours – he’s quite fond of clichéd marriage jokes in many of the later books, for example – and it seems like this is one of the places where his well-intentioned attempts to reflect real-world struggles for equality and freedoms has fallen foul of problematic implications.

All of this is not intended to take away from the fact that Terry Pratchett was a great writer, and one who was as far as I can tell funny, intelligent, and a genuinely good person. But every one of us has our blind spots and unintentional biases, and even the best of us has moments where those show through despite intentions.

Radiance by Catherynne M Valente

In a universe where the worlds of our solar system are close, and every one of them is habitable, humanity left the bounds of Earth in the nineteenth century, establishing itself across all the planets and their moons. This expansion was fuelled by the discovery of callowmilk, a substance extracted from mysterious creatures in the seas of Venus called Callowhales; their milk provides humanity with much of the nutrients it needs to survive beyond Earth. The cities of Luna, the Earth’s moon, became the centre of the nascent cinematic industry; an industry that remained largely silent and monochrome, held back by the exorbitant fees charged by the Edison Corporation for use of their patents on sound recording and colour film.
A filmmaker, Severin Unck, disappears during production of a film about the unexplained destruction of a Venusian colony. Radiance is this universe’s attempt to make sense of what happened, through her films, through recordings of her life and those who knew her, and through the attempts of her father, the legendary director Percival Unck, to tell her story.
It’s a novel that at times feels like a complicated puzzle, presenting pieces of information, telling Severin’s life out of sequence, and circling in on the events that occurred in the village of Adonis – events tinged with weird horror, of which you made gradually aware. There are shifts in tone along the way, through noir and gothic and fairy tale narratives, each taken up and discarded as Percy Unck attempts to find the shape of his film. And it’s this element that makes it the most interesting – the knowledge, repeatedly made clear, that everything in the book is told at one remove; second hand or interpreted by the mind of a filmmaker.
The story of Anchises St John, sole survivor of Adonis, attempting to discover the truth about Severin is not reality, but the plot of Percy’s film. Scenes from Severin’s movies, which are documentary and very personal, we are assured are heavily scripted and rehearsed. Even Percy’s home movies are suspect, as we are told of how he would have his family re-enact events until things were just right. There was a point, around two thirds of the way through the book, where I became very aware of the unreliability of everything I was being told, and I assumed the book would ride this ambiguity all the way to the end, providing no solid answers and leaving the explanations a matter of interpretation.
I was a teensy bit disappointed, then, when the final sections of the book not only offered up an explanation, but seemed to confirm that this explanation was the correct one. It was a very neat and tidy conclusion. This is not to say it wasn’t satisfying, however; the ending takes all of the pieces, all the clues layered throughout the text, and brings them together to show you how they all fit, and the solution to the mysteries is a weird and wonderful bit of worldbuilding in itself.
In all, I found Radiance a fascinating and entertaining read, even if it didn’t quite end up where I would have expected. It’s a fun book, one that rewards close reading, and quite unlike any other I’ve read. If the idea of a book that mixes pulpy planetary sci fi, cinema, mystery, and unconventional storytelling appeals to you, definately check this out.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

(This isn’t exactly a review, as I’m trying to be fairly relaxed and brief in my thoughts here. I always have trouble writing up my thoughts on books, and am trying to make it easier.)

I don’t usually read hard science fiction (I generally don’t read all that much sci fi in general), but Neal Stephenson is an author I’d seen a lot of talk about over the years, and his latest novel Seveneves was getting some positive buzz, so I went ahead and got it.

Seveneves is about what happens after the moon breaks up. How it happens doesn’t really matter to the story – it’s an unexplained phenomenon, a mysterious Agent that strikes the moon and breaks it into several pieces – because this is a story of how civilisation might survive the catastrophe. It’s a near-future setup, not quite our current day; this is a world where we have captured an asteroid and attached it to the ISS (a development that allows it to survive falling debris from the former moon), and where genetics and robotics technology are both a little more advanced. But apart from those few things, it attempts to tackle how humanity might find a way to survive in orbit when they know the earth is about to become uninhabitable.

There’s a lot of technical detail in this novel, going into how every part of this survival scheme works, backing everything in real science. Because of this Seveneves can be a little dry in places, but I was surprised by the way Stephenson was still able to make this a compelling read. It’s an extreme survival story, with a lot of science, a little politics and some action, and though dense it moves along pretty well. The main appeal of the book is not so much characters as it is the presentation of problem and solution, and the worldbuilding that results. (That isn’t to say there’s a lack of compelling characters; that would be untrue, and selling the novel short.)

That worldbuilding takes full control in the final section of the novel, which is set five thousand years after the initial disaster, and shows humanity as it is beginning to return to the earth’s surface. I found this the least enjoyable part of the story, to be honest, as it often felt like its purpose was to show off the fantastic technologies Stephenson had extrapolated from the earlier parts, and the unusual ways he’d come up with for humanity to develop. I found the ending itself a little abrupt, as if he had finished giving us the tour of all the ideas he had come up with, and that was it. I’m being a little unfair to the book there – I can see the intent; it ends on a note of hope, at a point where the reader can see a the potential future of the earth and wonder on how it will work out – but since the actual plot of the final section was slow-moving and somewhat predictable, the thought that it was only there to showcase the author’s worldbuilding was forefront in my mind.

All in all, I did enjoy Seveneves – the ideas were fascinating, and Stephenson knows how to keep the infodumping readable and occasionally compelling. I still feel like I’m selling the book short; it’s the work of a skilled author after all. If you’re at all interested in the ideas of how humanity could survive in space, this is a book worth reading.