Archives for posts with tag: science fiction

Something spoilers this way comes. I’m assuming you’ve all seen the movie and aren’t reading this for trenchant commentary on something you’re unfamiliar with. I also know that there are far more important things to be writing about today. (June 24, 2022 is a date that will go down in history as the day that US democracy definitively died. I do hope we can resurrect it, but in the meantime, I’m writing about Star Wars.)

George Lucas’ Attack of the Clones (2002) is definitely an improvement on The Phantom Menace. The characters are better defined, the story is more coherent, and the arc of the story mostly makes sense. I remember being excited about the title because there’s the one scene in A New Hope where Luke says to Obi-Wan, ‘You fought in the Clone Wars?’ It’s a phrase that everyone who saw the movie before the prequels wondered about.

I was keenest to watch this one because it’s where we meet Boba Fett. I remembered, watching Book of Boba Fett that we meet him as a child, and that his father is associated with the Republic’s clone army. The entire army are growth-accelerated clones of Jango Fett and Boba Fett is his unaccelerated son. Boba Fett in the Disney+ series is played by the same actor who played Jango.

And who’s idea was it to name the planet that’s been erased from the Republic’s database of star systems Kamino? As in, it was unreal until Obi-Wan visited and the we had Real Kamino.

I’m sure I also have something to say about the person who gave Obi-Wan the lead on Kamino. A a too-small tank top-wearing short order cook in a railcar diner with a droid waitress like some kind of sci-fi version of American Graffiti. Oh. Wait. Lucas is still carrying that, isn’t he. Gracious.

There are two parallel plot lines running through Attack of the Clones. One is finding who is behind a plot to kill Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman, still acting head and shoulders above the rest of the cast). The other is the developing love story between Anakin and Padme. The love story seems creepy and weird and invasive. Anakin’s love is, however, obviously reciprocated, despite the dangers to all concerned, which Padme recognizes and Anakin rejects. I had to look up what the differences in their ages are supposed to be. Anakin is nine in Episode I and Padme (an elected queen, note) is 14. The elapsed time between the two films is supposed to be about ten years, so love between a 24 and a 19 year old isn’t too far-fetched.

The plot lines converge on a planet where a droid army is being constructed. Obi-Wan has followed the Fetts there from Kamino and Padme and Anakin go there from Tatooine. If I understand correctly, both the droid army and the clone army are products of a long-range plan set in motion by Darth Sidious (aka Chancellor Palpatine, later The Emperor). The clones were commissioned ten years before, theoretically by a Jedi knight who is long dead.

The convergence on this planet produces two fantastic scenes where the heroes are in definite danger and the only reason we know they survive is because they’re the heroes. In the droid factory, Padme ends up in a giant stone bowl soon to be filled with molten metal. It’s proper Saturday serial action. And Anakin ends up on an assembly line with one arm drilled into a piece of sheet metal and barely able to avoid big cutting things. This is the kind of knuckle-biting tension missing from The Phantom Menace.

As they get out of that part alive, they end up captured and chained in a giant arena, to be torn apart by giant alien creatures in a properly Roman style execution. And that tension is back again. And while this sequence might be as long as the pod race in Episode I, it serves a purpose – we see the relationships between Jango, Count Dooku (another lousy Lucas name – he seems chock full of them), and the Trade Federation leaders, as they all watch for the senator and the Jedi knights to be torn apart.

All in all, this one was quite entertaining. Possibly the best of the three prequels. In much the same way that Empire Strikes Back stomps on episodes IV and VI, it’s a bridge that the filmmakers use to stretch out the characters and let the story breathe a little bit.

I want to also point out all of Natalie Portman’s excellent costumes, of which she sports about a dozen in the course of the film. I thought maybe there might have been an Oscar nomination in that category, but it looks like the film’s only nod that year was for effects, and it lost out to Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (which, to be fair, had excellent effects as well).

Since best beloved and I started watching The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, I’ve been tempted to re-watch Star Wars Episodes I-III. I’ve seen episodes IV-VI so many times I’ve lost count (having been 10 when A New Hope was released, I’m of *that* generation). On the other hand, The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith I’ve seen only once each. Until today.

Yeah, I know I’m not going to complain about anything here that the fandom hasn’t been complaining about for 23 years. Adding my voice to the noise, I suppose.

Well, I watched The Phantom Menace (dir: George Lucas, 1999) over the last 24 hours. Is it better than I remember it? A little. Does that mean that in any objective analysis it gets more than two stars? No. It’s still lousy from many perspectives. Don’t get me wrong, so are most of episodes IV-IX, but differently.

The effects are great. The make-up is great. The fight and battle scenes: Also great. Ray Park’s Darth Maul: Fantastic. Sort of.

And this brings us to the main problem: The story. From the three-paragraph crawl at the beginning with its nonsense about the Trade Federation, to Queen Amidala and her double, to Anakin’s immaculate conception, to miti-chlorians to Jar Jar Binks. Lucas had about 13 years of notes he’d taken since Return of the Jedi and he threw every single one of them against the wall. I suppose some of it stuck.

Read the text crawls for the first three episodes. Boom, you’re right in the action, you know who’s important, and you know enough of what’s going on to be present as the rebel ship is boarded and we meet our important characters. As soon as The Phantom Menace starts, we get trade negotiations, blockade, a planet we’ve never heard of, and no idea who to root for. The problems, of course, only begin there.

It’s hard to feel for any of the characters. The actors, oh yes, we feel for them because they have to deal with Lucas’ awful dialog. Poor Liam Neeson. He so took the brunt of it that one had to wonder what Lucas had against him. Then we remember some of the dialog the inestimable Alec Guinness was saddled with.

I understand the reasoning behind having Queen Amidala require a double who plays as a member of her bodyguard (or something), but the story doesn’t give us any reason to believe it was necessary. Nor is there any surprise in it when the one character’s identity is revealed.

Then there’s the casual, and not so casual racism associated with several important characters. The two representatives of the Trade Federation have faux Japanese accents. Watto, the character with the huge hook notes who owns Anakin and his mother, is so obviously supposed to be a Jewish caricature that it’s painful to watch and listen to. And then there’s the awful Rastafarian parody embodied in Jar Jar Binks. Several years ago, I read an argument that was supposed to become an agent of the Empire in episodes II and III. There was such a backlash against Binks, that Lucas had to drop any idea of him having much of a role at all after Episode I.

When this movie came out, I queued up on opening day to see it at the Coronet in San Francisco, a single-screen theatre with a proper sound system. It’s also where I’d seen A New Hope 21 years before. I wasn’t ready to analyze most of this at the time, but one thing any fan of the franchise knew was that The Force was The Force. The joke about it being like duct tape, having dark and light sides and holding the universe together rang true because that’s all you needed to know about it. The Phantom Menace fell apart when Obi-Wan explains The Force with a blood sample and the nonsense term miti-chlorian. It sounded enough like mitochondria, a term we all learned in high school biology, to be possibly interesting. Explaining The Force away as something found in the blood makes all of our belief in what motivated the characters meaningless.

In addition, did Lucas really not realize how many fans had memorized the original movies? He honestly might not have done, but we know that Obi-Wan Kenobi says he doesn’t recall owning a droid in Episode IV. Fans arguing over on Substack suggest that Obi-Wan was lying when he told Luke this. In the same way he lies when he says Darth Vader killed his father? Possibly. But it’s another thing that shreds the continuity and credibility of the work. People shrug this kind of issue off when they say ‘they’re just kids’ movies,’ but kids also demand credibility and continuity, and it demeans them to deny it.

The main problem is that there’s a certain inevitability to the whole thing. That everything that happens, has to happen. There’s no tension, no Saturday morning serial thrill to it. Anakin has to be found and has to win, the fight with Darth Maul has to end the way it does, even though Maul has only one spoken line and we have no reason to consider him anything but a bad guy – there’s no motivation behind that on our part or on the character’s. The pod race, in which we see Anakin’s skills made manifest takes longer in this movie than the Death Star run in Episode IV and yet there’s only one possible outcome. The satellite battle at the end, in which Anakin participates by accident only has one possible outcome as well.

So, yes, I’m going to watch the other two, but I know I’m only in it for the effects and the fight scenes, not for the storytelling. Which is, in fact, the sad state of action/adventure films in general.

So my desire this year was to read more books by women and non-binary writers. This doesn’t mean that I’d be focused on literary fiction necessarily, and I read very little. I’ve been getting newsletters from Tor books (sign up here) for a while and taking them up on the occasional freebie and this guided most of my reading this year. Meaning a lot of SF and fantasy. Occasionally I’d pick something recommended by The Writer’s Almanac. And for some reason I reread Virgina Woolf’s Orlando and was far less impressed with it than I was 25 years ago.

I have several new favouite authors whose works I hadn’t known of before this year. Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series is probably my favourite new writing. She’s created a version of the future with fantastic non-terrestrial but marvelously human characters to interact with superb earth-descended folks. Of the three novels so far published in the series (fourth and final due in February), the one that touched me the most was A Closed and Common Orbit.

Nnedi Okorafor‘s Binti series is only my second or third encounter with Afrofuturism (Black Panther and the Parable novels by Octavia Butler being the others) and I found it intriguing and fascinating and beautiful. While I’m now caught up with Chambers’ work, Okorafor has been prolific. I’m not quite sure where I’ll go next.

I’m going to have the same problem with Mary Robinette Kowal. Her Lady Astronaut series posits a US space program that begins of necessity in the 1950s due to a meteor striking the eastern seaboard. Our main character was a pilot in WW2 and has to fight her way into the space program. In the first two books we have this great combination of hard science and the realities of sexism and racism in mid-century America. I read the first two volumes of the series (The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky). The Relentless Moon is waiting for the new year. And, again, she’s prolific, with eight other novels and a scad of short stories waiting for me as well.

A.E. Warren’s Tomorrow’s Ancestors series, posits a future in which supposedly more advanced humans have not quite enslaved Homo Sapiens, but they keep Sapiens down in retribution for the ills and wars they created. The situation is a lot more complicated, but our teen hero Elise teams up with both cloned neanderthals and more advanced humans to seek out a new future. The Museum of Second Chances and The Base of Reflections are out now and are really good. (Note: these books will be reissued next year. The Museum of Second Chances has a new title: Subject Twenty-One.)

I’ve also really enjoyed the first three books in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries. Our (anti-) hero is a SecUnit (a kind of cyborg guard/gun for hire who should be under the control of The Company, but they’ve managed to hack their own governor module and can roam free. All Murderbot really wants is time to enjoy soap operas and other downloaded entertainment, but there are mysteries to solve first. I enjoyed All Systems Red and Artificial Condition (Murderbot 1 and 2) more than Rogue Protocol (#3) but I’m hoping that’s a glitch and that books 4, 5, and 6 will be better.

J.Y. (Neon) Yang’s Tensorate series has a promising start. The twin offspring of the Protector are raised in a monastery and eventually learn that one is a prophet of sorts. In the world of the stories, one doesn’t choose one’s sex until age 18 or so. Eventually they join the rebellion against the Protector. For relatively short novels, they’re really hard to summarise but very beautiful. Yang drops us somewhat in the deep end with the technologies of the stories’ world, but it’s well worth riding out. Start with The Black Tides of Heaven and continue with The Red Threads of Fortune. Black Tides is included in Tor’s free anthology, Fantasy from Asia and the Asian Diaspora.

I think my favourite read of the year was This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Two characters fighting on opposing sides of the titular war leave eachother messages on their various battlefields and eventually fall in love. And it’s so much more complicated and beautiful than that. The ending comes much too soon. A couple of years ago, my friend Jeff recommended Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, which at the time was a whole lot of money for little cash for the kindle, so I bought and it sat in the queue. After Time War, I read the first book in the sequence, Three Parts Dead, which is also quite good. I look forward to getting to more of that in the new year.

Another near-perfect book is Silvia Moreno-Garcia‘s Signal to Noise. The story is of a trio of misfit teenagers in late 80s Mexico City who discover a sort of magic. Various tensions tear the trio apart. Our protagonist, Meche, moves to Norway after high school, but returns in 2009 for her father’s funeral. And the stories run in tandem until we learn the various secrets everyone has held. On the one hand, it’s a fairly straight up romance with a smidge of the supernatural. On the other hand, the writing is magical all on its own. And Moreno-Garcia, who I’d never previously heard of, has seven other novels and a bunch of short stories. And her MA thesis is on the work of HP Lovecraft.

And most recently, I’ve finished the first book in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, Every Heart A Doorway. Book 6 (of what I hear will be 10) in the series comes out in January or February and Tor offered the first five for free for one day each a couple of weeks ago. I thought on day 1 that there had been a mistake, because I had book two in my download folder. I pinged tor.com on Twitter and the author tweeted me back very quickly, but not before I’d figured out that I had book two from a previous giveaway and I’d downloaded book one into the wrong folder. Anyway, Seanan McGuire is really nice on the tweetbox. Every Heart A Doorway is a slightly creepy and very beautiful story of children who have all found doorways to other worlds, but for whatever reason had to come back to this reality and deal with all of the consequences. And in the midst of a new arrival’s first week, there’s a murder. And so there’s a nifty sort of Agatha Christie story to tell as well. And not only are there four more in this series immediately available and one preordered, McGuire has published a couple dozen other novels and a lot of short stories. And five albums of music which are currently out of print, though there’s a rumour at least one is coming back out.

I recently grabbed an e-book of Arthur C. Clarke‘s classic SF novel Childhood’s End on a whim. I remember being fascinated by the final sequence and it’s one that has stuck in my head since I was about 14.

The story holds up even if the prose doesn’t so well. The characters and their motivations are often flat. The rigid gender roles and racism are especially striking. While they may be reflective of the early 50s when it was written, they’re jarring now.

The plot is possibly well known. Aliens (‘Overlords’) come to Earth and stop humans in their tracks just as the space age begins. You won’t go into space, they’re told, but we’ll end the wars and the cycle of poverty. All of this in advance of an epochal change in humanity.

Weaving around the lives of four characters, Karellen, the Overlord supervisor; George and Jean Greggson, a couple whose children are the first exemplars of the change in question, and Jan Rodericks, a doctoral student of mixed heritage who manages to stow away on an Overlord ship to their home planet, the novel offers multiple perspectives on humanity’s last days and decades.

From the opening conflation of Earth’s first proposed journey to Mars with the arrival of the Overlords, we’re at every moment on the verge of something great that is subverted by the overarching history playing out.

As I came to the end, I was most struck by how Clarke’s story reflects how all of our predictions for business or security or war in any coming period are subverted by how reality plays out – think of our headlines about how we might support the world’s population or protect the wildlife we have left. What we thought the future would hold a decade ago or half a century ago bears no resemblance to the present we have.

Dutch edition of Childhood’s EndThe failures of the book also include an awful lot of exposition used to get across the science necessary to the plot, but these are overshadowed by the poignance that interweaves the lives of these characters. Kerallen tells us that his race has overseen the apotheosis of several other races at the behest of what he calls the Overmind, but that the Overlords will themselves never achieve the same. George experiences a double loss, that of his children to the the change that overcomes the last generation of humans and that of the possibilities with his own wife.

‘George looked down at her with sympathy, but nothing more. It was strange how much one could alter in so short a time. He was fond of her: she had borne his children and was part of his life. But of the love which a not clearly remembered person named George Greggson had once known towards a fading dream called Jean Morrel, how much remained?’

When Jan prepares to leave Earth, he sends his sister a letter in which he expresses how little holds him to the people he know, who will all be dead when he returns in 80 years. With this storyline, Clarke cleverly engineers both a witness to the Overlords position in the cosmos and a human narrator for the end of the story. If you’ve never read it, I don’t want to give anything away, and if you have read it, I urge a rereading.

A lot of rereads this year. And I’m mostly reading easy fantasy stuff because times are a little hard.
1. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan – recommended by my friend Karen – a real winner. Nice evocation of San Francisco and the life of the independent bookseller of yore.

2. Jigsaw by Ed McBain – Always a great crime in the 87th precinct.

3. Cruel and Unusual by Patricia Cornwell – My first Scarpetta – looking forward to reading more

4. Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan – Great back story for Mr. Penumbra’s 24 -Hour bookstore. Interesting to know how the characters got where they were.

5. John Carter and the Giant of Mars by Edgar Burroughs – Short and sweet. I can only read one or two of these a year, though. Pretty cheesy.

6. Neptune Crossing (Chaos Chronicles #1) by Jeffrey Carver – This was a 99p goodie from one of those daily book bargains. Having really enjoyed it, I found that the whole trilogy could be had for something like 4.99. Cool. I’ll play your silly game.

7. Day After Night by Anita Diamant – Really good telling of what it was like to settle in Palestine after WWII. Recommended by my wife. I trusted it would be good having really enjoyed The Red Tent. Would have been nice had the acknowledgements given a nod to Elie Wiesel.

8. Strange Attractors (Chaos Chronicles #2) by Jeffrey Carver – Yeah, #2 was a good continuation – stonking space opera with interesting robots, fantastic aliens of many kinds, and incredible scope. Looked forward to #3.

9. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift – They call ’em classics for a reason.

10. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett – Again, they call ’em classics for a reason.

11. The Infinite Sea (Chaos Chronicles #3) by Jeffrey Carver – Well, this was a goodie too, but as I got to 75-80% of the way through, I was really wondering how Carver was going to wrap it up. Yeah, got to the end, and he hadn’t wrapped it up at all. Three more volumes at 4.99 each. Kinda felt had, but I’ll probably buy the next ones.

12. 11/9 by Ben Lovejoy – A dandy thriller with plot holes kept to a minimum.

13. Trouble is my business and other stories by Raymond Chandler – Not a duff one in the bunch. But there’s a reason he’s considered a master of this stuff.

14. The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola – Never managed to finish this when I was in college. One way to look at it is as a collection of pre-colonial/cargo cult African mythology. That’s incredibly reductionist, though.

15. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming – I’d read the Bond short stories and figured I’d dig some of the novels. Good stuff.

16. Ciardi Himself – 15 Essays in the reading, writing, and teaching of poetry by John Ciardi – interesting collection by the bloke who did my favourite translation of the Inferno.

17. Star Wars Aftermath by Chuck Wendig – Really glad Wendig got chosen for this big-time gig – writing the novels that bridge episodes VI and VII. I’ve enjoyed his blog and his other work for years. He’s bloody prolific and worth delving into.

18. Live And Let Die by Ian Fleming – see above.

19. Night by Elie Wiesel – Given my feeling about the conclusion of Diamant’s novel, and that Wiesel’s obituary had just been printed, I gave this a reread. Still brilliant, but bloody sad. Of course it is, though.

20. The Robert Silverberg Science Fiction Megapack – High point: The Night of No Moon.

21. Thief’s Covenant by Ari Marmell – reread in advance of the second Widdershins novel, False Covenant. YA fantasy featuring a great female hero who is the last worshipper of a god who resides in her head. Trust me, it’s a good one.

22. The Second Fritz Leiber Megapack – Great sci-fi for cheap. The Last Letter was probably my favourite piece here.

23. The Cricket In Times Square – Another reread of a classic children’s story. I probably read it the first time when I was about 11.  

24. The Return of Vaman by Jayant Narlikar – one of several science-based sci-fi stories included in a Humble Bundle (same with the next one). Interesting, but not brilliant.

25. The Caloris Network by Nick Kanas – Yeah, interesting bit of sci-fi that takes place on Venus. 

26. The Pendragon Protocol by Philip Purser-Hallard – reread in advance of The Locksley Exploit. Tasty 21st century renewal of both the Robin Hood and Arthurian legends. First of a trilogy.

28. The Second Murray Leinster Megapack – There were a lot of good pieces in this – some great sci-fi and a couple of thrillers. Nightmare Planet, Murder Madness, and the Runaway Skyscraper were high points

29. Hooves Above The Waves by Laura Clay – Three tasty fantasy/horrorshort stories set in Scotland. 

30. Turing and Burroughs by Rudy Rucker – Interesting story that assumes Turing faked his death and met the beats in Tunisia and went on to wreak havoc in the United States. Displays a great love of the characters, but falls somewhat short. 

31. Mythology 101 by Jodie Lynn Nye – reread (probably first read it in ’86 or so) – Very sweet story of a college student who learns that there are elves who have set up a village in the basement of the library. The same library he’s been campaigning to have demolished in favour of a modern new one. I gather there are several sequels.

I may finish either False Covenant or Post-Apocalyptic Nomadic Warriors before the end of the year, but I may not. The Locksley Exploit will wait until after that.