Philip K. Dick – A Maze of Death (1970) Review

A Maze of Death

8/10

This incredibly strange novel starts out with the premise that the existence of God, or God fragments, is proven scientifically as entities existing in the cosmos. Beings described as the Mentufacturer and the Intercessor, but their power of miracles, goodness and knowledge degrade with distance. Sometimes they are in the cosmic neighborhood though. It is the 22nd century and an empirical religion exists in which people shoot prayers magnified via radio, and sometimes a God takes an interest.

Ben Tallchief prayed for a new job, and next thing he knows he is allowed to leave for a settlement on another planet, named Delmak-O. The same story goes for Seth Morley. He’s stuck in a shitty place, but after a prayer he has the chance to move to Delmak-O. Thirteen people arrive on the unexplored planet, and none of them know for what purpose or whether God was responsible for sending them in the first place.

Despite being a very dark novel, full of death, it’s also a drily funny novel. Dick makes it a point to describe events from his characters’ perspectives, and his skill in creating odd characters and writing wittily increased over the years. Many pages concern characters bickering with each other while they are stranded on Delmak-O and nervous. They are all very distinctive and think in weird ways. Most of all, they are all extremely self-centered. There is almost no effective communication between them.

When they start dying one by one, I start thinking of what kind of message Dick is trying to convey with this story. A dozen very selfish people, all getting their prayers answered which leaves them stranded, and then they create a hellish place for themselves. Smells like a morality story, but there is still something very strange about this planet Delmak-O. Animals behave weirdly, and some turn out to be artificial. What is real here? Always a relevant question in a PKD novel.

I wouldn’t recommend this as a starter novel for those new to Philip K. Dick. A Maze of Death comes from a period in PKD’s writing in which his religious ideas began to get fueled more and more by his drug addictions and paranoia. He puts a lot of gnostic speculation in it. Certain themes come to the fore that have their seeds in earlier novels. For instance, he wrote similar ideas about localized God entities in earlier The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965). I think it adds an interesting speculative element that isn’t often found in SF novels.

Without spoiling anything, I can say that A Maze of Death ends with a couple of stunning twists. Some of the best of Dick’s career and it propels the novel into the realm of his best ones. I’m especially relieved because halfway through the story it all started to feel a little empty and drawn out. Compared to more complex novels like the previously mentioned Three Stigmata or Ubik, A Maze of Death reads like a very episodic story, moving straight from A to B, like a homage to “and then there were none”.

Only at the end does it gain the depth and layers that I was looking for. It has psychological ideas about how people cope with pressure and being cooped up with others for a long time. It has interesting ideas about religion, about human inventiveness in this aspect, and the whole story has a metaphorical dimension in which different environments seem to double for ideas such as limbo and purgatory.

I can’t see myself rereading it though. It’s a one trick pony.

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Isle of Dogs (2018) Review

isle of dogs

9/10

You could not confuse this film for anything other than a Wes Anderson film. In moving to stop-motion animation he deployed his own particular style and in the fusion of the two he created his own new animation style. In a way, it seems as if Wes Anderson was always set to experiment with animation. Not just because he tried it before with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, but because his style was already so crafted as an exaggeration of reality, so artificial in a way, that only animation itself would give him greater means to shape the world of his movies.

The typical Wes Anderson shots, such as tightly controlled panning shots, excessive use of flat frontal views and a dedication to symmetry, those all gave his live action movies the feeling that you were already watching a cartoon, in which every shot was meticulously composed to feel like comic book panels. It is strange how the Marvel movies move from comic books to fluent reality, while Anderson moves the opposite way and forces reality into a comic book style artificiality. It is what we perceive as the quirkiness of his movies.

In Isle of Dogs, he is fairly showing off, on a number of aspects. First of all, the level of detail. His stop-motion worlds are incredibly detailed, hinting at enormous numbers of work-hours to craft it all, but some of these shots only appear for a split second. To really appreciate all the details, you’d need to stop the movie and jump from frame to frame to discover it all, but when you just watch the movie in the theatre, there is too much to take in, so the shots arrive in your brain as their gestalt impressions.

Isle of Dogs takes concentration to follow the quick dialogue and to take in as much of the scenery as possible. It even becomes a bit excessive near the end, making me wish for a short break to recharge my eyes and brain and appreciate it more.

Secondly, Anderson’s immersion into the Japanese culture is so complete for his movie that he has Japanese talk Japanese without subtitles and generally approaches the culture in a way that feels complete in the way people behave and the historical backgrounds. It is of course a bit cartoonified and cliché and presented as something “other” for a western audience, but I appreciated the depth of the immersion. The Japanese language even sounds a bit stop-motion to my Western ears and so fits wonderfully with the animation and style of the movie itself.

Some sub-plots felt too contrived. Especially one involving an American foreign-exchange student who feels driven to take political action. Perhaps she represents Anderson’s and America’s fascination with Japan, and her crush on Atari, the Japanese boy and main character, is like a “marriage” of mutual interest.

I think Anderson deserves some admiration for the incredible inventiveness that he displays with every scene. Anderson has his favorite techniques, of course, and it might feel as if he is just repeating himself with every movie, and while there is some truth in there I also think that he is trying his hardest not to be lazy and to use these techniques to their best effect. Every individual scene shows that thought went into the shots. The camera perspectives and the compositions of the backgrounds all felt the result of careful consideration and not of him working on autopilot.

I suppose if you like Wes Anderson’s work, you will like this too. I thought it was immensely enjoyable and quite impressive, but a bit exhausting towards the end.

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Joe Abercrombie – Best Served Cold (2009) Review

Best Served Cold

8/10

Best Served Cold is a revenge tale. It is, in fact, Kill Bill in a fantasy setting. This isn’t The Count of Monte Cristo with a heartfelt, innocent beginning and a drawn-out revenge over the decades, no! This is a quick bloody betrayal and a checklist of seven assholes to cut down. It is, in fact, very much in the spirit of Kill Bill in that the book is mainly enamored with violence, plans and a motley bunch of bastards. The cover kind of gives it away.

The vengeance theme is interesting but not so interesting as to make a novel an automatic buy for me. It is that this is written by Joe Abercrombie, and if there is anyone in fantasy who makes characters work and violent plots feel juicy and poignant, it is him. Abercrombie seems to know exactly what he loves and what he is good at, and Best Served Cold distills this into a heady brew.

The woman who sets everything in motion is Monza, a hard woman who learned early in life to push away her emotions and attack life with anger. The betrayal is quickly set up within a few dozen pages; no real backstory required. It’s exciting though. It is real and gritty and visceral from the beginning. A second main character we know from the First Law trilogy: Caul Shivers, a though Northman.

And here we come to a side question of whether this works as a stand-alone. I guess you could read it as your first Abercrombie novel and I think it would be a good introduction to whether you like what he’s all about. But the later parts of the novel have more to do with the First Law world and you’ll miss many references. In fact, many characters from the First Law trilogy show up and it is a pleasant surprise each time to find this novel working as some sort of coda or sequel to that trilogy. Abercrombie also recycles some ideas from his trilogy, like the repeated use of sayings he made up himself and the dysfunctional connection between Ninefingers and Ferro, this time repeated between Shivers and Monza.

Abercrombie’s writing is just so entertaining. You might feel that he inserts himself as a writer too much into the text with his cynicism and wittiness, but I find that it adds a feeling of pathos that way, and after every chapter I find myself thinking: “Yes, Abercrombie! Well done!”

But, if the writing is so good, why do I still feel so non-committed to reading the thing? It is Abercrombie’s philosophy that starts to tire me out. Maybe, when you get down to it, this is just a story about some assholes out to murder some other assholes. It presents a very limited, cynical view on life. Even the sex scenes are the most mechanical and grossest I ever read. I have read reviewers who call this stark realism, but I think it is just a view on life in which the only emotions people feel are anger and lust. Why would that be the baseline of reality?

The character development is an indicator of how seriously Abercrombie takes this world view. Shivers starts out as an optimist, hoping to become a better person. I largely disliked the direction Abercrombie took their development, but then again he never takes that final step to fully commit to the most cynical worldview. There is always a hint in the background that these characters don’t like who they are or that they need violence to sustain their self-regard. But these hints are faint, and it makes it hard to care about them and their story.

It is a very full novel. With a large cast, many locations and adventures, and a long road to travel down. We see the whole continent. It felt a bit overlong to me, but that is because I didn’t care much about the characters, and the climax keeps on twisting and turning this way and that way until it seemed to lose track of where the story once started. While I am complaining a lot, I still think Abercrombie made it a success. His plotting and writing are impressive, and it makes for a great addition to the earlier trilogy. Some side characters, like Nicomo Cosca and Castor Morveer, were much more interesting than the two leads and a pleasure to read about.

A solid novel and recommended for fans of Scott Lynch as well.

 

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Nocturnal Animals (2016) Review

nocturnal animals

Amy Adams plays some rich woman (Susan) with a successful career in visual art. One day, she receives a package in the mail: a book written by her ex-husband. She hasn’t seen her ex in 19 years, and while she has remarried, her new husband isn’t a very loving person. And that art career, well, the way she feels about it is that it is divorced from the real world, the meaningful world. All quite depressing for her.

So on a night when her husband is away, she opens the book written by her ex, and thinking back fondly of memories of love between them. The book is dedicated to her, starring her and him, but, creepily, it turns out to be a revenge tale.

The movie switches back and forth between three storylines: Susan in today’s world, Susan’s memories of her ex-husband, and the world of that novel, which might or might not be real events of her past with her ex-husband and daughter. Whatever happened 19 years ago is extremely uncomfortable, and Susan might well have ran away from the real world into that fake world of pretentious visual arts with all its high society and focus on appearances. But that novel is also a message delivered to Susan personally.

This movie is tense. It made me angry as hell and sad. And that’s exactly what it set out to do. This is an expertly written film. Very stylish too with beautiful moody shots and music. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Susan’s ex-husband Edward and lacks some assertiveness, which is a real shame when a lot of terrible things start happening. The always great Michael Shannon plays a cop helping him out. At one point the story of the novel clearly diverges from reality, and we just see Amy Adams looking out, visibly shaken, but since we don’t know what really happened, her thoughts are still a mystery.

I’d call this film very layered. The hard events from Susan’s past, which reality long remain a mystery, still have their impact on the art that she produces today. She’s driven to deal with these repressed emotions. And her ex-husband’s story is also a personal interpretation of his version of events, and of his idea of Susan as a person. One key scene shows that Edward already had some internal picture of Susan in his mind that didn’t match with how she felt about things.

The truth is hidden underneath layers of interpretation from every which way we approach it. In this sense, the movie closely resembles how memories work in general. If you have two people in a relationship who both look back to an event many years ago, you’ll probably get two different stories. There is no real way to solve this dilemma and get to the truth, and what even is the truth if it always gets filtered through our own experiences?

The film keeps the viewer guessing at every turn. What is the real message that Edward wants to convey to his ex-wife? What was her role in everything? How does his novel relate to how he feels about what Susan did in the past? It’s a rich, complex story and quite a ride for the viewer to follow it. One moment it is tense, another moment it is sad, and packs a sweet punch that made me think the movie over a couple of times afterwards. One of the best thrillers of 2016, I’d say.

8/10

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Frank Herbert – Dune (1965) Review

Dune1

9.5/10

What could I possibly say about Dune that hasn’t already been said by countless reviewers through the years? I’m not sure, but I’m going to write a review nonetheless. Now, if you don’t know Dune, you probably don’t read science fiction at all or you haven’t been at it for long. Arrakis. Dune. One of the genre-defining epics; only few SF series enjoy equal prestige and fame. Outside of realm of literature, there’s Star Wars and Star Trek, and inside the literary world Dune stands alongside Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion. In the 1990s we got the British space opera revival with Iain M. Banks’ Culture series and the works of Alastair Reynolds, but other than those, I have real trouble thinking of any series with the same fame and prestige as Dune.

Written in 1965, it spawned a whole series written over the decades (which I am delighted to read for the first time after finishing this one), a movie, an abandoned movie and two TV series. Soon, director Denis Villeneuve will give his interpretation of Dune on the big screen; a good excuse to pick up the novel for a reread.

On to the novel. It is quite incredible how much information Frank Herbert tries to convey in just the first couple of pages. The amount of foreshadowing is immense. Little Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto, is our main hero. He is to travel with his parents to Arrakis, Dune, to be part of the new ruling family on the planet. Already, we learn that he has prophetic dreams and that a mysterious organization named the Bene Gesserit of which his mother is a member, has been training him with mental and physiological exercises, and they seem to see a special role for him. There are themes of training awareness and rising above animal consciousness, themes of religion, and it is all sort of set in an interstellar society of empire and fiefdoms. To convey all this in a few pages means that Herbert’s writing is very dense, polished and precise.

My memories told me that Dune was basically Lawrence of Arabia in space, with Paul being Lawrence, the Harkonnens the Ottomans, the Fremen obviously the Bedouin and the Spice was the oil. And while there are many obvious parallels, up to the point of the Fremen using Arabic words, I am selling the novel short this way.

Dune2

There are strong themes of religion in the novel, but what is interesting most of all are the themes of the pliable, designable human and seeking transcendence. The Bene Gesserit sect engages in constructing societies, planting myths and even in engineering blood-lines through careful crossbreeding. And so-called Mentats are humans functioning as computers after being trained since infancy. In Paul Atreides, all these themes come together with a Messianic figure, simultaneously being the end goal of millennia of crossbreeding, societal engineering and mental training. All to “rise above the animal”, as the Reverent Mother says.

The first hundred or so pages move slowly. They mostly feature conversations with Paul or Jessica as they move into Arrakis. But Herbert wastes no words, he turns a dinner conversation into a battleground of politics, intentions and efforts of mindreading. A rich, deep universe unfolds before us without Herbert ever sacrificing the character development of Paul, Jessica and many others. It is deftly done.

When Paul and Jessica finally find themselves exiled, a most extraordinary story starts in which Paul sees himself playing out a living myth, all the while seeing all the possible branches of the future. They find themselves in the extreme Fremen society, which Herbert brings to life meticulously. A society full of ritual and meaning, where every moment is a crossroads for Paul on his journey of ascendancy.

The world of speculative fiction has changed a lot since the 1960s. Unlike many modern genre epics, full of morally gray characters, Dune is strikingly black and white. The Atreides household is all about respect, love, restraint and wholesomeness. The Harkonnens are devious, cartoonishly evil, with repulsive appetites, and they even have a contender for the part of Messiah in Feyd-Rautha, another outcome of a Bene Gesserit bloodline and therefore genetically fit to replace Paul; a satisfying symmetry in the story. Another difference with today’s novels is that the story today would have been drawn out over a trilogy with three times the page count. Instead, the story is dense, skips large time periods and the resolution is condensed to a few dozen pages at the end. And I find that I like it this way.

Dune is still a tremendous story with fully fleshed out characters, a complex backdrop and a theatrical flair. What sets this above so many other SF and fantasy epics is how it incorporates themes of transcendence and prophecy in a way that is not at all tiresome but stirring and intelligently delivered.

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OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies (2006) Review

OSS 117

OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies is a French comedy; a spoof movie in fact of Sean Connery-era James Bond movies. The movie is actually based on a long-running French series of novels starring the special agent OSS 117, written by novelist Jean Bruce. This may sound as a knock-off of Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, but Bruce’s novels actually predate Fleming’s by a couple of years. It is however impossible now to take up Bruce’s novels as serious spy novels after James Bond has been ingrained into our collective consciousness so much. So, an OSS 117 film now exists as a parody of James Bond and all its tropes and conventions.

Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath is the secret agent, sent to Cairo to protect the interests of France against Nazis, Soviet and English spies. His old partner Jefferson worked in Cairo and disappeared, but on arrival he teams up with local beauty Larmina (Bérénice Bejo, looking very 1960s) to unravel the web. Wacky hijinks ensue, and Hubert gets the girl in the end.

Agent OSS 117 is played by the French actor Jean Dujardin, who later gained fame in The Artist (2011), incidentally directed by the same director. Dujardin made an impression because of his extremely expressive face and winning smile. His charismatic smirk feels very reminiscent of Sean Connery himself, so that makes Dujardin an excellent choice for main actor in a Connery parody. Agent 117 is a simpleminded fool, and frequently racist and sexist too (and looking back at those old Bond films, it was a sign of the times) and there’s lots and lots of smoking.

OSS 1172

The film looks like it is from the 1960s, as it is shot with a 1960s color scheme, and dated visual effects are played for laughs such as painted backgrounds and fake driving shots. Compared to later Bond parodies like Get Smart, OSS 117 plays much closer to how the old movies actually look and feel. At the same time it tries to go for Airplane and Naked Gun type silly lines, but somehow it doesn’t communicate well. The visual gags worked, but OSS 117 as a silly man just left me puzzled most of the time. Maybe it has something to do with “French humor” which you can observe in all its glory in Luc Besson’s movies, like Wasabi. It can be strangely inconsistent, being really silly sometimes, visually inconsistent or really dumb and thick the next moment.

It’s quite an entertaining movie, yet something is missing. Maybe it is an inconsistency in the comedy or in Hubert as character. He is dumb and rather unsympathetic. I never quite knew what to make of it, even though some sequences are quite funny. In premise it is comparable to the horrible, horrible Johnny Depp movie Mortdecai, but so much better than that. For one thing, Jean Dujardin is a better actor. He delights in his role, and the film is worth seeing for him alone.

6.5/10

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John Crowley – Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (2017) Review

Ka

9/10

John Crowley writes books in ways that defy market sense and would never be accepted in writing classes. You want human characters, easy to understand? You want a story that starts in medias res and can be sold as a series? Here: have a John Crowley story instead: a story starring a crow, beginning with a prologue and then a piece of mythology that effectively goes like: “in the beginning… before there were People…”

The story of Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, starts a bit like this. A man finds a sick crow in his backyard, nurses it back to health, and then the crow says: “look, I know how to speak to humans. And I’m immortal. This is what happened to me since the beginning of time.” And that’s the story. To be more precise, the story starts a few thousand years ago when the crow, our main character, grows up and his roost encounters humans for the first time – a tribal people.

What happens next is basically that we see humanity through the eyes of a crow. He learns to speak to a young trapper, learns about names and is given one, and looks at all those strange human customs through the eyes of nature. John Crowley effectively reflects human nature back to us through the mirror of his crow. The ways in which we differ from animals makes Dar Oakley (the crow) wonder, like giving names to individuals and that humans apparently think that their dead ones aren’t truly dead.

Death is a major theme. Crowley addresses the basic cosmic mysteries of life and death and how humans deal with them, and so gives his novel beauty and depth. In a way it reminded me of Richard Adams’ Watership Down, except that humanity is not an evil force, but forms a curious symbiotic relationship or companionship with crows. Oakley is first attracted to humans after a bloody battle left a feast of corpses for the crows, and the issues of death, mortality and legacy are present throughout Oakley’s entire telling.

The crow then finds that he keeps fulfilling the same roles in each of his lifetimes: he becomes a familiar, a crosser of realms, to shamans and priests and others. He feels himself being part of a story, or the stories that humans tell to themselves, or to The story, the very concept of a story that Oakley learns and communicates back to other crows. And so Crowley adds another layer of interpretation and meaning to his novel. If there was a name for it, then this would be deep fantasy, a genre that investigates the very nature of storytelling and the creation of meaning in a universe of mortality. It feels like mythology, when fantasy elements still spoke strongly to our subconscious. Come to think of it, Ka is like the perspective of an ambassador of nature playing roles in human mythology.

The way Crowley brings a sense of consciousness to his crows is just prefect in pitch. I think the book would have stood or fallen based on his personification of the crows, so I greatly admire this. They speak and think with an elegant simplicity that is at turns funny and profound.

The story feels like a lengthy repose. At other times, it is elegiac, haunting and bittersweet. There is a turning point as we enter the second half where the story becomes more personal for Dar Oakley, as he starts edging towards human ways of thinking. At first the story seemed to be drifting, unfocused, taking too long, but Oakley now starts making his own stories instead of merely being an actor in human ones. His stories are basic ones about life, love and death, but still connected to the world beyond death, which seems to change, to evolve, as humans think differently about it.

Ka proves that there can still be innovation and inspiration in the fantasy genre as a vehicle for myth making that taps directly into our deepest emotions. And, as has happened before, we need John Crowley to show us the way.

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