Dave Eggers – The Circle (2013) Review

The Circle

  • Genre: dystopia
  • Pages: 491
  • My rating: 7.5/10

I am always a bit suspicious of immensely popular books in which a mainstream author dips his or her toes into science fiction. These novels are invariably lauded as innovative and “important” by those who are not used to reading science fiction. But since the movie was coming out, I decided to give the novel a shot.

Mae is a young, insecure, naive and ambitious woman who is hired for an entry-level job at California’s most innovative tech company, The Circle. The office is filled with relentlessly passionate people and everything seems magical to Mae. Buoyed up by her own desire to achieve and fit in, she is sucked into the inviting yet toxic corporate culture of the Circle, whose influence reaches all over the globe.

This novel raised painful memories in me of the latest corporate environment I found myself in. The Circle seems filled with passionate believers, like a cult, and at the same time tries to buy the loyalty of its staff with luxurious stuff that is not related to its business. It swallows the lives of its employees. Underneath the smiles and the sheen of excitement lies a suffocating pressure, a neediness, to be part of the “community” at all times. Things start to get really creepy when Mae receives a third screen at her desk, solely meant for being a part of the company’s community, coercing her to like and wink and comment upon the messages of her colleagues at all times.

The Circle is a company that is supposed to be so much ahead of the curve that it went full circle. But the book itself and the technology it talks about is already here and gaining presence. Social media already creates intense social pressures that are new and alien to those that are not part of it. Modern kids already live in electronic worlds and worry about social media-related pressures that older generations are not even aware of exist. For example, the portable webcam invention in The Circle is getting popular right now as dash cams.

In this sense, The Circle is a bit like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Its science fictional element is small, but the social pressures are stifling. Eggers is not the guy for dazzling science fiction readers with technological ideas, but he does a great job in making you feel squeezed and trapped. In another sense, The Circle is a bit like Huxley’s Brave New World, because Mae enters a world where everyone seems so happy with the new status quo. The dystopian conditions are embraced by people who like what is happening and believe in its messages. That’s just scary.

None of The Circle‘s ideas or messages are new or unique in any way. I do agree with the way social media is shown here in a negative, invasive way, but the message itself is the least interesting thing about this novel. What I enjoyed most about this story is how Eggers took these well-known ideas and used them to create an office space nightmare. I read this with a delicious feeling of scaring myself, because entering the Circle is entering a world full of oppressive, unrealistic expectations. Unfortunately, the message is what interested Eggers the most, and he delivers it with the subtlety of a hammer.

As a consequence, Eggers’ characters are all very one-note. They are vessels to communicate the message. Mae is an empty vessel, insecure and accepting, and her eyes never do open. Her ex-boyfriend Mercer is the voice of reason, and her colleagues are the voices of the zeitgeist. Mae has no spine, never stands up for herself, doesn’t see how she is selling her soul step by step, and she enters badly written sex scenes with strange men. All the characters are so overblown, so unrealistic. Now, if the crazy managers act strange that makes the Circle only more oppressive, which is great to read about, but Mae is blind to it, even joins it, and that makes her impossible to identify with.

As I was reading this at a train station, an old woman approached me and said that I was reading an important novel and that I shouldn’t be taken with all those IT companies that make everything sound great. I nodded politely and said I agreed, but I had to restrain myself from saying that I only enjoyed this as an office space nightmare and refrained from moaning about the bad characters. Those complaints would have fallen on deaf ears. There is a fun novel hidden inside Eggers’ The Circle, but it is buried beneath its own self-regard.

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Eric Harvey – The Leadership Secrets of Santa Claus (2015)

Santa Claus

Please join me while I peruse this highly interesting booklet. We might learn some life lessons. After all, it has over 250K copies sold, even though I got it from a box of free books at the local bookstore. It is an advance reader copy. Strange how an ARC has so many copies sold.

Let’s read it, even though I don’t want to become a middle manager. I can imagine though that Santa Claus has some good leadership advice. After all, he has to deal with high expectations, market fluctuations, and nobody believes in him. In this book he shares 10 essential leadership secrets, which won’t be secrets anymore afterwards.

You know what, instead of reading this book as a self-help management book, this can also be read as a serious effort to expand the Santa Claus mythos. Christmas time lore and Santa worldbuilding is about to receive a serious upgrade. This might be the Silmarillion of the Santa Claus universe. Man, all those Tim Allen movies are going to be even more dated after this.

So what is he up to during the year when we don’t see him? The first thing we learn is that Santa Claus keeps his elves in the information loop. He also gives them leadership classes. And not every elf or every deer has the right resume to enter his workshop. He hires tough to manage easy. New deer do have to be committed to responsibilities like teamwork and customer service. How sad. I fear that this book is going to undermine all that is jolly about the Santa Claus stories.

My first takeaway from this book is that even Santa’s workshop cannot escape the banalities of office life. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. When Harvey talks about how Rudolph became a “lead reindeer”, I realized that even Santa’s reindeer are a team with inner competition and all the banal office space jealousies and tensions that always happen when you put 12 strangers together and demand that they cooperate.

This is the saddest book I have ever read. It takes everything that fun and jolly and replaces it with management lingo.

The elves aren’t happy because they are elves. They are happy because Santa lets them know how they are making a difference. The reindeer also join the regular State of the Workshop meetings so that they know what is going on in the business.

I guess I did learn something important here. All those management clichés about leadership and teamwork are some kind of necessary evil. If I can believe Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, then humans work well in groups of about 150 acquaintances, but whenever that group grows larger, we need shared beliefs to keep cooperating. And when we need to get things done, like making toys for all the children of the world, you need some kind of culture to keep things running.

As Santa says: Ho ho ho, but don’t forget the snow…

santa clause

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Alien: Covenant (2017) Review

Alien Covenant

6/10

If watching Prometheus makes me go: “Meh, I’d rather pop in Alien again”, then watching Alien: Covenant makes me go: “Meh, I’d rather pop in Prometheus again.” On the surface, these three films are all quite similar. Their stories follow the same beats: we have a ship, we land on some planet, we find alien structures, we get eaten. Usually, people escape, but the monster has followed them onto the ship and there’s a last stand-off. But what is behind this descending order of quality?

Alien: Covenant is simply regurgitating the same stuff that we have seen a thousand times, and to be fair, some people want that. Some might like every Alien film to be the same movie, but it gets really formulaic by now. An Alien film basically writes itself. The least a director could do is provide a new spin, a new twist to the tale. Looking at Prometheus, that movie did succeed in doing so. It looked epic; it had vision and memorable scenes. Not all of it made sense but it breathed new life into that same old story. But Alien: Covenant lacks vision. Worse, it is boring.

The whole first hour hardly takes us anywhere. We get some pretty shots of the new space ship, inspired perhaps by Passengers and Avatar, and our characters walk around a planet that looks like Oregon or Norway. Katherine Waterston plays eeuhh… I forgot her name but she cries and blubbers a lot. The characters just don’t really come to life. Michael Fassbender commands the movie as the android David, but this time he feels overused. And the moment something goes wrong, the whole crew started screaming and panicking like mindless chickens. It was as if the characters suddenly lost all ability to think straight because the plot asked this of them.

Alien Covenant2

Then in the second half, when things are supposed to pick up, there is no suspense. On top of this, the supposedly scary scenes are not properly grounded in the world that the movie establishes. For example, the sparse, industrial ship that the crew arrived on also had a luxurious two-person shower just so that we could film an Alien shower scene straight from some 80s slasher movie. Also, this giant colony ship only has one tiny shuttle to transport people to a planet.

On the whole, Alien: Covenant feels slapped together as if a script needed to be found within a weekend. The writers simply let the previous films lead them. The solution or continuation of the story of Prometheus feels unsatisfying, because it enters the film out of nowhere and had much greater potential for wonder and imagination. But that is now unfortunately lost to us. The special effects are not utilized well, because the alien “xenomorph” never really thrilled. It was too visible, perhaps, but it seems more as if the director didn’t understand how to build suspense well. Big vistas were clearly matte paintings that had no feeling of depth.

I’ve got to wonder what was going on before and during the production, because originally, Neil Blomkamp, director of District 9, was planning an Alien movie. But that one got put on hold indefinitely, probably because director Ridley Scott protested against this, and then Scott quickly pushed through this one. In effect, wresting the Alien series away from other directors and back into his own orbit.

I was really disappointed by this movie. It tries to be two different movies: it takes the philosophical angle of Prometheus, and it tries to be Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Space, but it half-asses both of these elements. The whole story about the Engineers and Elizabeth Shaw’s travels has come to an abrupt ending without the satisfying sense of wonder that Prometheus promised. And it just wasn’t scary or tense. I am mostly frustrated because the Alien franchise is once again dying. It fizzled out after Alien 3 and everything that came after, got a new boost with Prometheus but that second wind is proving short-lived.

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Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Only lovers left alive

8/10

In some back alley in a North African city, or in the outskirts of Detroit, there live small communities of odd, pale-looking loners. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) looks like an aging rock star, living in some ornate room in Detroit like a hermit, while his lackey Ian (Anton Yelchin) buys him expensive guitars for him to fiddle on. Eve (Tilda Swinton, looking like a proper dusty mummy) meets at night with the age-old Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) in a Moroccan courtyard to exchange pleasantries and pick up a bag of blood. They are vampires.

The first half hour of the film is like the first movement of an atmospheric symphony, laying bare all these secrets as if we are observing the movements of an elusive animal. It’s best to regard them that way. Their dens look amazing; holes in our architecture where they have lived for hundreds of years. Eve’s place holds thousands of books; Adam’s is the lair of a music connoisseur, full of equipment. They are cultured creatures of the night. Each shot looks carefully curated, composed visually with good attention to colors, light and shadow.

The casting is absolutely perfect. Tilda Swinton has this ageless, unusual look to her and shows stability and intelligence. Hiddleston is perfect to portray a tortured soul, moody and artistic, suffering under the burden of centuries of human stupidity. They look at the world from the perspective of ancient history, seeing how everything we humans do is transient. They talk about the personal quirks of long-dead historical figures while eating blood ice-cream. When Eva’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) appears, trouble is on the horizon. After all, it must be tiring to have a teenage sister for all eternity.

Only lovers left alive2

Director Jim Jarmush puts it on slightly too heavy. Adam and Eve talk about all the ancient musicians and scientists a bit too often, and their love for 20th century music is a bit too exaggerated. The film starts out as a proper artwork, but gets in danger of becoming corny. It does get hard after a while to not see Adam and Eve as walking around in some self-absorbed world of teenage escapism. How are they any different from any young adult who paints their hair and hangs around in a bar at night, looking down at regular people out of some sort of defensive impulse?

What would it really be like to live for centuries and to hold the same lover for all that time? What would love become, and life for that matter? Jarmush’s interpretation holds as much water as any other, I suppose, but does feel superficial. Eve has found a stability in eternal life, but Adam still struggles to find meaning. Deeper than that question Jarmush does not dare to dive. It is mainly a rock movie, rather slow, more concerned with mood than anything else. The ponderous nature of the film rather fits the aimlessness of Adam’s eternal life.

Only Lovers Left Alive is one of the more tasteful vampire movies out there. It takes the alchemy between vampirism and romance and give it a sensitive, artistic twist. The movie is a feast for the eyes and for the ears, but don’t expect a stirring tale. If, however, you feel drawn towards the dark, melancholic dimension of the night and eternity, then this film may inspire you with the mood it tries to point down.

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Ken Liu – The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (2016) Review

The Paper Menagerie

  • Genre: fantasy/science fiction
  • Pages: 450
  • My rating: 7.5/10

Ken Liu is now making a name for himself with his Dandelion Dynasty series (of which I reviewed the first part here) and with his translations of the science fiction novels of Chinese author Cixin Liu. But before he started these endeavors, Ken Liu was as a short story writer. The Paper Menagerie and other stories collects his best short stories and those that Ken is simply the proudest of. The collection takes its title from one of the 15 stories, The Paper Menagerie, which was the first work of fiction to ever win all the major SF awards (Hugo, Nebula and WFA).

In general, I found this collection to be uneven in quality, and slightly disappointing when holding it up to all the praise that it is being given.

There is a melancholy to Liu’s writing that is quite beautiful. Liu’s stories are aimed towards a fairy-tale like logic that chases these feelings of melancholy, and in the process Liu discards the orthodox ideas about the boundaries between fantasy and science fiction. His work is both at the same time, or you could call it speculative fiction perhaps. Although his stories can be a bit too melodramatic for my taste, there is usually some underlying metaphor to his stories that is aesthetically very pleasing. He even promotes this idea in his introduction, because, as he says, metaphors make sense of a rather random universe and people’s confusing lives.

A great example would be the second story, State Change, in which people carry their souls with them as physical objects. The main character has an ice cube that represents her soul. You could probably guess already what kind of character she has, and what the state change from the title means for this fairy tale. Most of the stories are like little experiments in metaphor. Liu takes a fantasy idea, and then explores that idea in an analytical, extrapolative way.

Stories:

The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species (3.5/5) A bit on the short side, but nicely imaginative. Reminded me of the silliness of Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad. Has lots of unrealistic aliens to laugh at and some crazy ideas.

State Change (4/5) A story about people carrying their souls about as physical objects. A bit sad, a bit beautiful and it made me think a lot.

The Perfect Match (4/5) A dystopia story about Google growing out of control and its algorithms making all decisions for people. It’s a slightly new variation on a familiar story, especially how an AI making decisions for you can be deviously desirable. The balance that Liu walks between the good and bad sides of algorithms is impressively done.

Good Hunting (3/5) I’m sure what to think of this, or what to do with this. It’s a story about magic disappearing from China with the arrival of railroads and steam engine, and then in time we discover that the magic is there, but it has transformed too. Strangely, the story moves through about 200 years of history in the time of what seems to be 20 years, and that feels forced only to complete the allegory.

The Literomancer (4/5) A very heavy story. It’s situated in Taiwan in the 50s and follows an American girl whose father is stationed there. Seen from the innocent eyes of a child, grown-ups can be so unnecessarily cruel to each other, but Liu shows that that same tendency is present in children as well. It delves into Chinese history and calligraphy and I really enjoyed reading about that. A warning: there is some torture in the story and it comes unexpectedly, so be careful if that makes you nauseous.

Simulacrum (4.5/5) Short but powerful and saddening. It’s about a rift between a father and a daughter that cannot be healed, and about futuristic technology that is just making things worse. Technology can give us coping mechanisms that keep us from growing emotionally.

The Regular (4/5) A longer detective story with some good character development. Liu showcases some near-future technological enhancements that change the shape of committing crimes and solving them. As always, a painful human heart is the center of the story.

The Paper Menagerie (5/5) The most painful stories are those of broken relationships between parents and children. It is stunning how much emotion Liu can squeeze out of a small number of pages. The final paragraphs hit like a brick. Powerful in its simplicity. Highly recommended.

An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition (3/5) Rather similar to the first story. Obviously, Liu likes to juxtapose a central story with lots of snippets of side-stories that have some metaphorical relationship to the central one. But I didn’t see the connections here, nor the relevance. The short stories inside this one were a bit childish. It felt too random to me.

The Waves (3.5/10) About evolution and one generation rising above the previous one. It’s a story about lots of topics, actually, most of all about embracing change. Ultimately, it lacked punch and left my mind quickly.

Mono No Aware (4/5) A short and melancholic piece, about the resilience of the Japanese and self-sacrifice. If we go into space, we may need to see the heroism of communities instead of individuals. The story tries very hard to tug on the heartstrings but by now this is getting repetitive in Liu’s writing.

All the Flavors (3.5/5) A western in which an American girl befriends Chinese who work in the mines. The Chinese are given a “magical Indian” treatment in the story, showing them full of foreign wisdom. The mythical hero Lord Guan Yu finds himself wandering the American West. The myth parts are more exciting than the Western parts.

A Brief History of The Trans-Pacific Tunnel (4/5) An interesting alternate history story about a Trans-Pacific tunnel, which in turn lead to a very different twentieth century. Again, this story connects America and Asia, as Liu does in many of his stories. An Asian man and an American girl find each other at the midpoint city of the tunnel. Liu squeezes a lot of personal and world history into a few pages.

The Litigation Master and The Monkey King (4/5) In the 17th century, an elderly villager helps out his fellow people with the Chinese law. He is tricky with words, because in his mind he hears the voice of the Monkey King, a mythological demon. It’s a smooth, well-paced story with interesting people, and we learn some Chinese history to boot.

The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary (4.5/5). A documentary is the right word. Using a variation on time travel, this story is close to a history lesson about Japanese prisoners of war camps in China. Liu deftly explores all the political and philosophical implications of simply observing the past as if you were there. Again, it has quite some torture scenes. Gruesome, but well written.

Overall:

Most of Ken Liu’s stories exist in the interplay between the American and Chinese worlds, no doubt inspired by Liu’s own life experiences. In these stories, Liu’s need to express certain feelings simply radiates from the pages, and hence these stories feel the most genuine and powerful. These stories are also often about broken relationships between parents and their children and are very touching.

Other stories I found remarkably less gripping. In some of these, he injects short fantasy tales into larger tales to double down on the theme that he wants to tackle, but that technique never really works well here. The writing was a bit bland here and there and businesslike. Overall, I am not as enamored by this collection as many others seem to be. I was losing patience halfway through the collection. I found it very forgettable and never felt compelled to keep reading. No story here is bad and some of them are powerful, but most were not particularly remarkable.

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Fist Fight (2017) Review

Fist fight

3/10

I usually refrain from talking about movies like this, but this one just shows what crap studios dare to present in theatres.

This is the most confusing mess that I have ever seen, and it isn’t because this is some arthouse film. A film like this is usually simple. But through sheer laziness and incompetence has a movie been made that makes you wonder what the hell you are watching. And I have narrowed down what the problem is. And foremost it is that the jokes are so incredibly unfunny that I didn’t recognize them as actual jokes at first. So while the movie was trying to explain what it was about, its jokes undermined the cohesion of the story so much that I just ended up confused.

You see, what a movie usually does, is that shows what the story is about at the start of the film. That is a basic element of storytelling. The premise here is that Charlie Day plays a cowardly teacher at a high school, and he raises the ire of another teacher, played by Ice Cube, who challenges him to a fist fight. And this premise is for some unknown reason set against the backdrop of the end of the school year, which turns the school into a pit of hell because the students do all sorts of pranks on the teachers.

Like Dante’s bloody Divine Comedy, there are layers of incompetence inside this movie. First there is the story of this high school where the students do shitty pranks all the time. The only function for this in the story that I could come up with is that it causes the conflict between Ice Cube and Day, but the whole idea of this school out of control is so unrealistic that it just throws you out of the story. It’s also supposed to be a source of practical jokes for the film, but none of those are funny. It’s just the same cheap raunchy jokes that we have seen a thousand times before. The pranks are not funny and neither are the reactions of the teachers.

And that brings me to the third problem: the characters of the teachers are awful and so are the actors. There are teachers walking around that are caricatures who just say shocking things out of the blue. Jillian Bell is there to throw out random sexual lines, Charlie Day is yelling all the time like a panicking cockroach, and Ice Cube is just angry because he is angry.

So, we have a film in which just about everything is awful: the story, the humor, the writing and the acting. And it is all stacked on top of each other like a jenga tower, and in every scene the tower crashes down. And I don’t know what is worse, whether this was supposed to be a genuinely funny movie, or whether the writers were so out of inspiration that they just threw every cheap thing on the screen in the hope that something would raise a laugh.

This is not a movie. This is a collection of vaguely related scenes that one by one fail to deliver.

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Prometheus (2012) Review

Prometheus1

7.5/10

The start of Prometheus is absolutely stunning. As we glide over a primordial landscape (shot in Iceland), deep sounding horns are playing noble music. The scene exhales a sense of significance akin to something like 2001: A Space Odyssey. We are at the start of time, and a circular space ship hangs ominously over a powerful waterfall. This fantastic image could have been an inspiration for the visuals of Arrival (2016). An alien reminiscent of a Roman statue drinks a potion and dissolves in the water, most likely seeding the Earth with its DNA.

Not only is it a great scene that imprints itself into the memory, it is also a promise that the film we are about to see is epic and profound. Alas. It has the look, but the story is messy, full on confusing turns, jumbled backstory, needless complication and characters making dumb decisions. But my, does it look epic.

The story is much more like a soft reboot than a prequel or sequel to the Alien films from the 80s. Just like Star Wars: The Force Awakens reminded so many of 1977 Star Wars story, Prometheus follows the beats of the first Alien film very closely. Presumably, Ridley Scott wants to remind his audience of that first feeling of frisson that the first Alien film gave them and play it safe. Also, Prometheus gets to retread that satisfying road of exploring giant alien structures and building up tension. It all looks great. Also, David the robot (Michael Fassbender) is there with his uncanny behavior. Fassbender talks just like HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And so, in the first hour, the audience is firmly put at ease that they are watching an epic story that is going to deliver what they were hoping for. Only afterwards does Scott start to mess around with backstory and characters and things start to get confusing. There is one basic difference between Alien and Prometheus though, and that is while Alien was about people being hunted by a terrifying monster, Prometheus is more straight up biological horror. Of course, Alien is known for its sexual horror, since the monster attacks humans through penetration, insemination, procreation and so on. Prometheus is much more about infection and not about being hunted.

Prometheus2

Actually, after only half an hour the team that is investigating a giant alien building is already showing signs of tiring incompetence. They are rash, needlessly confrontational and follow no protocols. Nobody is on the same line regarding goals and expectations. What is wrong with these people? I know that conflict is supposed to generate tension in stories, but when people are behaving stupidly, it generates something quite different: frustration.

Prometheus is very impressive when it comes to atmosphere. It’s beautifully shot; the production design and creature effects are great. Especially tense is that surgery scene. But some characters are really, well, wrongly selected for this mission, and raise a lot of frustration. Neither did I like Guy Pearce in his unconvincing make-up and Charlize Theron as the icy, cruel blond board member of Wayland enterprises. It is a role that Theron is filling in more and more often in Hollywood, most recently in The Fast and the Furious 8, and that’s a shame because she has much more to offer as an actress.

The main problem is that I didn’t care about them. I also didn’t care about the occasional confused rambling about science and religion. Mr. Wayland (Pearce) keeps on asking questions that sound profound, but make little sense. These aliens have created us through biological science, and Wayland and the scientists keep asking “what they are” and want to “find the answers”, because Ridley Scott interprets this discovery as something about gods and belief, but it sounds as if everyone in this movie is chasing some ill-defined esoteric question that the story never really clarifies for us. All in all, Prometheus is a mixed bag. It is easy to mock, but I feel sad mocking it.

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