David D. Levine – Arabella of Mars (2016) Review

Arabella of Mars

  • Genre: Science Fantasy
  • Series: The Adventures of Arabella Ashby 1
  • Pages: 382

The year 1812. England and France are at war. Arabella Ashby has a pleasant life running through canyons on Mars. She lives there as a young lady with her family and their chitinous Martian servant. But this is not proper behavior for an English lady, and her mother decides to take her and her sisters back to England, Earth, where “the slightest display of audacity, curiosity, adventure, or initiative was met with severe disapproval.” When her father unexpectedly dies on Mars and her cousin Simon hears that the Martian estate is ripe to be appropriated, Arabella is locked in the pantry while Simon sails the interplanetary atmosphere to Mars. Arabella escapes and, disguised as a male sailor, follows her cousin’s trail.

Adventure on the high seas between Earth and Mars! David D. Levine takes his inspiration from the adventure tales and science fictional romances of the late 19th and early 20th century. There are shades here of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series, and the film Treasure Planet. The name Arabella sounds similar to the SF film Barbarella, a story with which it shares an adventurous spirit, although Arabella of Mars is more clearly written for a modern young adult audience. I hate to use the young adult label because of its negative connotations, but just as Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching novels are immensely readable, so is Levine’s writing a delight.

Speaking of writing, Levine adjusted his style to something more formal and old-fashioned to reflect the stiff Regency-era culture it is set in. It takes a moment to get used to, but it works quite charmingly and draws attention to Levine’s good vocabulary and writing skill. Plot-wise, not every twist and turn feels realistic and some characters make abrupt decisions that feel forced to move the story along. I suppose only Arabella is well explored as a character while the rest are closer to walking tropes. And I suppose too that Arabella’s story is predictable. She is a heroine with modern values who doesn’t fit into that society. Naturally, this is a coming-of-age story of a smart young woman in an unjust world.

I don’t want to be too nitpicky because this is a very readable book. It is also nothing really exceptional. It is just very solid with some interesting characters and locales and an adventure plot that chucks along at a reasonable pace. Just know what you get yourself into. If you are looking for some hard SF, note that Arabella of Mars is creamy science-fantasy fudge, where the science-fantasy element not even feels essential to the story. It might as well have been set in Australia during the British Age of Empire. There is a lot of sailing in air currents and Levine seems to know his business when it comes to sailing.

For an adventure novel, this story is terribly tame. Arabella has a well-balanced personality and her adventures on the ship keep granting her the right opportunities to prove her worth to the sailors. An odd education by her father taught her precisely the few things she needs to find her place on board. Every conflict is quickly solved and takes up no more than 20 pages. So, this is almost a novel with a dozen small short stories inside them, which may be an artifact of Levine being a short story writer. In a way, it reminded me of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (2014) where small conflicts happen while a woman tries to adjust to an interplanetary voyage.

Arabella of Mars is beautifully written, but as a series of quickly-solved problems it did not thrill as much as I hoped it would.

7.5/10

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Star Trek: Discovery & The Orville?

So, in September there is a new Sci Fi show coming out named The Orville, and it provides us with an intriguing look into what is going on with the legacy of Star Trek.

Successful and/or notorious producer Seth MacFarlane is producing and starring in The Orville as a ship captain. This is going to be a comedy show about a Star Trek-esque exploration vessel in the 24th century, named the USS Orville, and it has a Star Trek-esque crew with a first officer, a sort-of Klingon, a walking robot and so on. It is not just a parody of Star Trek, like Galaxy Quest, but for Seth MacFarlane it is a direct comment on the current status of Star Trek itself. In interviews, he says that Star Trek stopped doing what they were doing 15 years ago, and he misses that, and The Orville is his way to bring that feeling back. And indeed, the show looks like a The Next Generation fan’s wet dream. This is all about nostalgia.

The Orville

The Orville

At the same time, there is a new Star Trek series coming out named Star Trek: Discovery, also in September at the same time as The Orville. This makes the two shows competitors in a very blatant way. Discovery attracted its own share of criticism from the fanbase, because many of the choices made do not sit right with many fans. Discovery tries to go for the lens-flare look of the recent J.J. Abrams movies and its trailer makes it look like an action movie. In any case, far removed from what Star Trek used to be. Also, it is once again a prequel series set before the age of Kirk and Spock, which let many long-term fans down. Smaller annoyances are a reimagining of the Klingons, although The Next Generation did the same thing in the 90s.

Star Trek Discovery

Star Trek: Discovery

The Star Trek fanbase now seems to be split over these two “reimaginings” of Star Trek. Orville threads keep popping up on the Star Trek reddit and a discussion is going on whether they should be removed. For brand-loyalists, it seems painful that The Orville looks like a better produced show than Discovery. The Orville looks more familiar, it looks like more money has been thrown at it, it attracts all the public attention and even attracts old Star Trek writers like Brannon Braga, who worked on The Next Generation and Voyager. Jon Favreau will direct the pilot. MacFarlane seems to do his utmost to make this a success. The only thing different is that it has MacFarlane’s brand of humor, which I personally am not a fan of. Discovery, meanwhile, is left floundering as a show even before it starts.

The search for a reimagining of Star Trek has been going on ever since the end of the 90s. After the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation, two other shows followed up in the same vein, Deep Space Nine and Voyager. The series Voyager was narratively weak, and when the same producers added a fourth new series named Enterprise, that one lasted only four seasons. Enterprise too tried to reimagine Star Trek by making it topical about terrorism and then about reaching back to the original show of the 60s, but they were reaching and it never got popular. The movies also grinded to a halt with some bad instalments. It seemed like the imaginative juice had run out. Star Trek was wrung dry, and we needed some years to recuperate.

Star Trek Enterprise

Star Trek: Enterprise

Then, in 2009, J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek, and this really lead the genie out of the bottle, since his new films were not set in the same continuous universe as all the previous material. He created a flashy, action-packed variation that, again, divided the fanbase. The show Discovery now seems to try to ride the success of Abrams’ films, and The Orville is again a reaction to that. The fanbase is now fragmenting in all directions. I suspect that many fans actually want the story to continue from where it stopped with Voyager, but both the new shows are about banking on nostalgia and about attracting new fans.

Looking at what happened these past few years, we can see that an exciting transition is taking place. The concept of Star Trek as it exists in popular culture is detaching itself from the actual Star Trek universe that was established by the original series and the series of the 90s. Directors are chasing the elusive feelings they have for the old shows in their new products, just like the new Star Wars movies are doing. Television itself has been reinvented this last decade and Star Trek follows suit.

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T.J. Bass – The Godwhale (1974) Review

Godwhale

T.J. Bass only ever wrote two books and this is his second and last one. Both of them are extraordinarily weird. So, Half Past Human (1971) and The Godwhale (1974) play out in a future earth where a few trillion humans live underground in hive cities. They are very degenerated and the hives work like giant machines, and an AI named Earth System provides the humans with simple protein and jobs. Bass was a doctor and he suffused his writing with medical terminology, so the humans are more or less described as biological robots with mandibles and papillae and gonads and lymphocytes. The effect of this is an absurdist, darkly comedic dystopia full of bio- and robotic weirdness. As if the world of Demolition Man progressed another few thousand years.

A main character is Rorqual Maru, a beached android whale. Part ship, part whale and sentient, Rorqual was once a harvester in the oceans for humanity. But after the oceans died out, she swum around for thousands of years looking for organic life and humans to command her. And there is Larry, a young guy who loses his legs in the first chapter. He keeps freezing himself in the hope that future technology can heal him, having adventures as a crippled man in the Hives and ending up as a centaur with a fruit machine girlfriend.

There are a couple of recurring characters, but the novel mostly follows a sequence of events that plays out over hundreds of years. There isn’t much of a plot, and each new chapter may introduce new characters, so the story is more like a disjointed heap of short stories that Bass wrote while being a doctor in daytime. Chapters jump through time a lot, skipping through months or years. A story does crystallize out of the heap eventually, but there is no hook to pull you through it and getting through the novel occasionally feels like work.

I had trouble getting through it because I just didn’t care about anything that happened. Bass actually doesn’t spend much time with Rorqual Maru and is more interested in writing about an underwater society of humans, but the relationships are clumsy, even creepy, and the pacing and story is haphazard.

There is however a touching pathos in Bass’ stories when it comes to robotic life. Robots come in all shapes and sizes and have nicknames and are often cute and childlike. The whale Rorqual has a little cleaner robot sidekick named Trilobite who swims around the oceans looking for humans. In Half Past Human, there was a cool sentient spear named Toothpick. So, while the robots are humanized and written as pets, the human society itself is robotized in an interesting inversion. The characters are flat, though, and Bass comes across as very old-fashioned when it comes to women.

This is the kind of book that needs an affinity with the genre in its readers to be appreciated. I would never recommend this as anyone’s first SF novel. What’s more, you’ll be better off with Half Past Human anyway, because that one introduces this weird world. If you like that one and want more of the same, this one is waiting for you at your convenience. For me, two books was more than enough.

7/10

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Dunkirk (2017) Review

Dunkirk1

What Nolan aims to do with Dunkirk, if I interpret it correctly, is to make us feel what it was like to actually have been there, as an anonymous soldier, one of countless thousands. And as is clear near the end, the operation at Dunkirk is seen as a military disaster and the soldiers were burdened with a feeling of shame for letting down their country. Nolan dedicates this film to them and to their experiences.

For him the best way to do this is to simply chronicle the event from a couple of viewpoints, without ever giving us proper characters to identify with. There are no real characters in this film, because viewers are supposed to be characters themselves. To identify with a character is one more step of removal that Nolan wanted to short-circuit. We are just observers as if we are running along. I would almost say that the film is akin to a computer game where you yourself fill in the blank space of the observer, with the major difference that Dunkirk is a traumatic experience that happens to you.

And the hopeless situation at Dunkirk is the great traumatic experience where the other soldiers around you feel just as helpless as you do to influence what happens. Nolan’s deceptively simple plot of a couple of soldiers trying to find a boat to escape that horrible beach does the trick. Every time they think they made it, they find themselves in another situation that strands them back at Dunkirk. Boats are full. Or they are bombed, or some other disaster happens. Or a pilot finds himself rescued and then taken back to Dunkirk. The sheer helplessness and desperation is the emotional goal of the movie. That is how their memories are honored.

Dunkirk2

I find the script to be extraordinarily successful in this. We are a young eager man on a fishing boat, steering towards Dunkirk. We are an exhausted soldier sitting in the sandy wind and salty, murky waters of the North Sea. We see what it feels like to chase planes far above the waters.

Compared to Nolan’s earlier films, Dunkirk feels refreshingly simple and streamlined in its message. No convoluted science fiction story to make rather basic points about love. Simple empathy for the soldier in battle is enough, and do away with strict black and white opinions about courage. Nolan tries to depict bravery in impossible situations, and addresses shellshock and painful choices between life and death, mercy and toughness. For instance, when the character George on the boat asks if a rescued soldier is a coward, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) corrects him, and later on we see his son set aside his own anger to spare that soldier more emotional pain.

On top of all that, yes, it is technically impressive and visually overwhelming. The lack of characters can turn one away from the film, but it is hard to mark it as a fault when it was intentionally done. It might work for you or it might not. But, if there is one thing that Christopher Nolan never lacks, it is the ambition to tell grand stories. He has the freedom and the guts to follow his own vision, and I admire him for that. So, Dunkirk is admirable and impressive, once you stand back to consider what Nolan’s point was with it and what he did with it.

8/10

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R. Scott Bakker – The Unholy Consult (2017) Review

The Unholy Consult

  • Genre: epic fantasy
  • Series: Aspect-Emperor, part 4

In reviewing this novel, I accidentally wrote a novel myself.

So it has come to this. The final book in the Aspect-Emperor sub-series. All storylines converge in the far north. The Ordeal marches on across Agongorea, while it succumbs ever more to the madness of the Sranc that are eaten. Akka and Mimara go north, in search of Kellhus to confront him with Mimara’s Judging Eye. Kellhus himself thwarted Yatwer, saved Esmenet and Kelmomas and brings them as he returns to the Ordeal. Sorweel, Serwa and Moenghus too return, after Ishterebinth has been cleansed of Consult influence.

Bakker drops many answers, or at least hints towards answers, to questions that have been open for many books. What exactly happened during the Circumfixion? Why did Kellhus break Proyas’ faith? And so on. He also leaves many things ambiguous, and the eventual manuscript is sure to generate long discussions on internet fora.

In my reviews of the previous books, The Judging Eye (2009), The White-Luck Warrior (2011) and The Great Ordeal (2016), I have mused about Bakker’s deeper goals and the themes that he is grappling with. Above all, it was clear to me that Bakker’s two series are a profound meditation upon the natures of love, worship, relationships and power, and how the Dunyain make travesties of these concepts. Still, I feel like there is a deeper thematic layer in Bakker’s work and that I have not fully taken up the gauntlet that he throws before his readers’ feet.

The most superficial way of looking at this story is that of a march of the armies of humanity against an evil force, in the way that Aragorn returned to Gondor in the Lord of the Rings and then marched all the good and righteous human men, filled with nobility, against the evil Sauron and his quest for power. A very black and white picture of good and evil. The Aspect-Emperor series is in many ways a color negative version of Tolkien’s story. A similar picture of good and evil exists, an objective morality that declares people damned or not, but it feels either justly or unjustly imposed by “gods” and does not align with the war between what we interpret as good and evil forces in the story. This is not a critique; this is by design.

The Aragorn of this story, Kellhus, may therefore liberate humanity from evil, while being damned in the eyes of the gods all the same. As we saw in The Judging Eye, Mimara has a metaphysical third eye that shows the truth about someone’s damnation in the afterlife. Achamian is damned simply because he is a sorcerer and messing with the nature of reality has damned him. But using other humans as tools is similarly damnable and if there is one thing that the Dunyain do, is making tools of humans. Don’t they deserve damnation for that? As Gandalf says to Frodo: who are we to decide what others deserve? Especially since Kellhus’ action of making a tool out of humanity might well save the human race. Now the nature of good and evil is totally twisted, and even the evil force bent upon eliminating humanity is given an ethically defensible position.

Phew. This raises so many questions. We have different definitions of good and evil now in the story that are juxtaposed, including everything that we take personally into the books with us. Different lenses of morality to flip before your eyes to look at the story. And Kellhus, the lynchpin, both sociopath and savior (depending on which lens of morality you use), carries on his shoulders the future of humanity and the wrath of the Gods and of humanity’s evil adversaries. He is not a character to identify with, and how to regard him is a central mystery of the story. As is his plan.

There is no fantasy series in existence where this subversion is so thoroughly and captivatingly explored.

Sorweel, Believer-King and at the same time instrument of the goddess Yatwer, also embodies this central conflict of moralities. He is stretched between these vectors in a very immediate way. The marching humans, too, are stretched upon the same spider web of crossing moralities. They lose all sense of nobility and humanity to be able to even reach Golgotterath, but this is a consequence of Kellhus’ plan in which the human army is just a tool. Bakker does not shy away from graphically describing every depravity in a series of chapters that feel overlong.

The writing can be cryptic at times. Its connection with common human emotions does not work so well, probably because the text often feels overwrought and misses a poetic fluidity. Especially the chapters concerning the Ordeal and its descend into obscenity are full of prose that is just excessive. But when the focus turns towards the landscapes or the large scales of time and space, the prose does have exactly the intended effect, and I can feel the sheer weight, the enormity of the events I am witnessing. This is epic to an awe-inspiring level, and the battle of Golgotterath holds its own compared to the battle of Minas Tirith. Almost no other current fantasy series reaches this height, and it is also a clear victory for Bakker’s world-building.

Bakker dives into inhuman states of mind with great gusto. Just about every character is filled to the brim with conflicting emotions and traumas, and if you thought you were going to read a simple story of a human army marching towards the bad guys, you thought wrong. This is not Tolkien. This is closer to the later parts of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels, in which alien madness infects humanity. But it is not just madness; there is a clear vision behind this series, and together with every step that the army takes, we step through Bakker’s design.

Without spoiling the ending, it will divide people. It’s abrupt and rather unsatisfying. In general, the pacing of the novel is uneven, with some parts stretched out in the first half and the ending feels a bit truncated. On the one hand, the sub-series definitely gets the ending it deserves. This is a 450-page ending, in which every twist and turn of the concluding events are writ large. The fortunes wax and wane in a gigantic concluding battle. The confluence of powers is on a level with Steven Erikson’s books. Originally it was supposed to form a single novel with the previous one, and it does feel like the book is not a self-standing whole, but I think Bakker made the right decision in cutting it in half. Abridging this story would have hurt its impact. On the other hand, the ending is also a setup for a next series and that may be why many characters do not get a fair conclusion of their arc in this novel. Too many questions remain, and some built-up antagonists feel underwhelming. Let us hope that future books will truly wrap it up for the characters.

Almost one-third of the novel is taken up by a gargantuan appendix that brings back memories of the novel of The Return of the King. It also has two short stories.

What do you get when you have an author who really “gets it” when it comes to worldbuilding, who creates unique and fascinating characters and has a deep philosophical interest behind writing his series? You get one of the best fantasy series ever written; it is surely in my top five of all time. Bakker’s series is on a level with Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, and like Wolfe’s series it will probably never really find the big crowds of readers and will be disliked by some, but it will also be found again and again with each new generation and it will be greatly admired by a subset of readers.

9/10

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Motivational Growth (2013) Review

motivational growth1

When Ian’s television set breaks down, his entire world breaks down with it. Living like a hermit, his television (nicknamed Kent) was the only thing keeping him going. Ready now to commit suicide in his bathroom, a fungal growth under his sink starts talking to him. It calls itself The Mold and convinces Ian to go on a journey with him. The Mold decides to get Ian back on his feet, and it may have other plans for him as well.

It sounds heavy but Motivational Growth is brought to us like an airy, breezy film. Ian quickly breaks down the fourth wall, narrating his life to us in person. He is played very sympathetically by Adrian DiGiovanni. His philosophy on life he illustrates wonderfully with a little speech while sitting on the toilet. He is wonderfully expressive about his sad state of mind.

The Mold is voiced by the always great Jeffrey Combs, better known from a couple of Star Trek series and many other TV shows. We only hear his voice, and the Mold itself looks like a dark green, eyeless Jabba the Hutt living in a disgusting corner of his bathroom. The special effects on the mold are barely acceptable, not better than the effects on Jabba the Hutt in fact, back in the 80s. The extreme close-ups on its mouth don’t help either. It just flaps its mouth like a plastic object, but at least it is a practical effect, because this is a low-budget film and any attempt at a computerized effect would have been horrible.

motivational growth2

The Mold knows, Jack. The Mold knows.

The film floats on a lot of witty monologues and dialogues. Most of it works, but not all side characters are that great at acting, and their personalities are taken too far to the extreme. DiGiovanni does a good job though and thank heavens because he carries the whole thing, and the story is quite a funny, quirky one. Combs is great with the dialogue that he is given, but the lines for the Mold are laid on thick. He sounds like a car salesman and an uncle trying to impersonate a motivational speaker. It takes a while to get used to.

The romance subplot is incredibly unrealistic but that is ok because the whole time the movie plays around with what is real and what is some fungus-induced hallucination. We, like Ian, don’t even know anymore. But after floating on this film for more than an hour and grasping at plot points, it starts to get a bit tedious. There is too much weirdness going on and not enough storytelling to keep me engrossed in Ian’s fate.

Director and writer Don Thacker does a whole lot with a small amount of money. The whole movie basically plays out in Ian’s apartment, which is wonderfully gross. Parts of the story are suddenly told as pixelated animated sequences which look quite alright, and 8-bit music is incorporated in the background. At other times, this film comes close to a David Lynch nightmare. The creature effects are nicely varied and squirmingly gross. Overall, the film has some nice effects and fun dialogues to offer, and that what-the-hell factor of a talking mold that is worked out quite well.

6.5/10

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Jeff VanderMeer – Borne (2017) Review

Borne2

  • Genre: New Weird/Science Fiction/Biopunk
  • Pages: 336
  • My rating: 8.5/10

Jeff Vandermeer’s new creation, or concoction, requires so much explaining that I don’t know where to start. I will try to give a brief description of what is only the setup: we are in a city that I presume is somewhere along the coast of California. A biotech company has lost control of one of its bio-engineered creations: a giant floating radioactive bear the size of Godzilla, named Mord. The bear has ravaged the city and knows how to levitate in the air, and by night it nests in the ruins of the Company’s campus. Many of the other bio-engineered creatures of the Company get lost in its fur at night, and fall into the city by day when the bear floats over it.

Rachel is a scavenger in the city and finds a small purple pulsating anemone in the bear’s fur and brings it home to her boyfriend Wick, who is a bio-engineering drug dealer. The anemone stays in their hidden warren of a home and grows into something extraordinary. Now, any other writer would have spent large paragraphs in infodumps to explain all of this, but Vandermeer very neatly unfolds all of this in the background of the text while also describing Rachel’s character and her relationship with Wick and how their living area mirrors their own psychological state at the same time.

The text is very economical and evocative at the same time; very dense in its explaining power. And Vandermeer creates a world that is shockingly strange but feels real and dangerous too. There is a completeness of vision behind Borne where the characters, their relationships and their surroundings click together. It has the biopunk inventiveness of Paul McAuley’s Fairyland and the imaginative strangeness of China Mieville’s Railsea. But its emotional core is stronger than both of these novels.

Borne is also one giant allegory for motherhood. On the basis of it, this story is a variation on that of the unusual creature that enters someone’s life and plays a personal role in that person’s development, like The Iron Giant, My Neighbor Totoro or Lilo & Stitch. But Borne grows up, gets in between Rachel and Wick, and learns from Rachel. The post-apocalyptic world outside is dangerous, and Rachel gets upset when Borne moves out to live next-door ( ‘cause Borne also needs his privacy). We move through all these parenting stages with her. I suppose Jeff Vandermeer approached his wife Ann and suggested: what if I write a book about a mother with some kind of cute alien baby?

For a biopunk novel full of weird organisms in a post-apocalyptic world, this is a very personal and heartfelt story. Vandermeer dives deeply into his main character Rachel’s emotions and especially her connection with Borne, the anemone that grows into something like a child to Rachel. I was worried at first that the creature Borne would be presented as too unbelievable, too cute, too much like some kind of imaginary fantasy of a super creature that can do all kinds of things, and Vandermeer does not totally avoid that trap. Borne is all big eyes and colors and cute speak to the point that this became rather childish, but the idea that Borne is a designed, bioengineered organism makes it more acceptable, and his interactions with Rachel are also very charming.

Thoughtful and moody, Vandermeer goes to great length to describe the feel of this world that he creates. Very similar to his Southern Reach trilogy, Borne is full of wandering people, making observations of the mood of the place. It even has a woman who describes herself as a ghost with a fascination for tidal pools, a nameless mysterious company, a landscape deformed by a new ecology. And like Annihilation and its sequels, it even becomes an exploration of inhuman sentient life and how we might interact with that.

Borne does not recreate that same frisson of spookiness of Annihilation and repeats quite a few of its themes, but it does have a much stronger emotional heart. I wished though that Vandermeer spent more time designing a plot and would show more than tell us what is happening. The story drags at times, but the inventiveness and completeness of its vision is very impressive.

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