Robert Sheckley – Untouched by Human Hands (1954) Review

8/10

Robert Sheckley was one of the giants of science fiction in the 1950s and 60s and wrote about 400 short stories and a bunch of books, but nobody remembers him now. A shame, because his work is very entertaining and witty, and easy to read. I greatly enjoyed his novel Dimension of Miracles (1968) which is regarded as a predecessor to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Sheckley’s prose isn’t exactly like Adams’, but like Adams he was a master of comedic storytelling. Untouched by Human Hands is Sheckley’s first short story collection and shows Sheckley as he was finding his way as a starting writer and was discovering his style.

Sheckley’s approach is to take oft-used science fiction tropes and look at them from a new, fresh angle. Either by twisting things around or inside out or through exaggeration. Think, for example, of a first-contact situation seen through the eyes of the aliens, or of the commodification of life to the point that people only have to push buttons all day. It makes sense that Sheckley himself felt that he “wasn’t really writing science fiction. I was in some way writing a commentary on science fiction…” His stories are distortions of not only reality but also of the science fiction genre itself. At least, in the shape it existed in the 1950s.

Now, most of Sheckley’s subversions of tropes don’t smell so fresh anymore, to the point that the subversions have become tropes in their own right, and his approach has been copied by a small army of writers over the century. But his stories are still a joy to read because you never know what kind of story you’re going to get. Each story keeps its secrets close and you’ll still need to walk through all the funny situations to understand where it is going. The journey of discovery is still great fun. In this way, reading Sheckley is similar to reading R.A. Lafferty, but Sheckley’s writing is much more accessible. He’s Lafferty-lite. 

I would recommend a collection like this as a palate cleanser between longer, heavier tomes. Or as dessert; meringue after a full meal of space opera. I can’t really see this collection as a masterwork in its own right, as the stories feel a bit shallow sometimes. The clues never really take you by surprise and are not as subversive as they once were, but they are entertaining. They flow well. Dialogues are sharp and get to the point, and are used to create some funny people and funny situations. But then a story like Warm or Specialist comes along and proves that Sheckley can do more than superficial satire. He can tackle abstract speculative weirdness and realistic characterisation too.

Interesting too that some of these stories, like The Impacted Man, feature companies that create planets and galaxies. Sheckley would reuse this idea in Dimension of Miracles a decade later, and this was still decades before Douglas Adams wrote his books. Seventh Victim reads like it was an inspiration for Stephen King’s The Running Man, and some scenes in Alastair Reynolds’s Chasm City. I’m getting the impression that Sheckley was an important link in the development of the genre.

There are 10 short stories in the Penguin Classics edition (the one displayed above), but there is a confusion about how many stories should belong in this collection, as older versions of this collection seem to have two or three extra stories. And one of the stories, Watchbird, isn’t even present in older editions. I’ve no idea what Penguin has been doing. It’s like they’re using frog DNA to resurrect a dinosaur. So get an older edition if you can find one, but regardless your experience with this book will be roughly the same no matter the edition.

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Review: The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck (1994-’96), by Don Rosa

10/10

It is really hard for me to be objective in any way about these comics. As a young boy I read and reread them to the point that they are burned into the brain. Every single panel is immediately familiar to me. This remains one of the comics I love the most and I consider them a genuine masterclass in comedic drawing. Also, you wouldn’t believe how much more popular these comics were here in Europe than in the United States. Keno Don Rosa and his predecessor Carl Barks are widely regarded as heroes in the comic scene in Europe and very well known. 

What Don Rosa basically did, was to take the Duck material created by famous Duck artist Carl Barks and build on it. In case you don’t know who Barks was, he was the artist who fully fleshed out the Donald Duck universe for the first time and his comics are highly regarded. Barks invented Scrooge McDuck, and many other recurring characters besides, like the Beagle Boys, Gladstone Gander, Gyro Gearloose, The Junior Woodchucks, Magica De Spell… he basically created the Duck universe. 

Now, Keno Don Rosa, as Barks’s greatest fan, regarded the stories by Barks to be the only work that approached anything like “canon” for the adventures of Donald and Scrooge. And based on the material by Barks, on the stories and the background hints, Rosa set out a timeline for Scrooge McDuck’s life and started filling in the gaps – eventually creating an entire series of chapters that chronicled McDuck’s life, from his junior years up to the point where he gets reacquainted with Donald and all the others. And so for the first time creating something of a coherent universe and timeline.

Barks already made McDuck a complex character, but Rosa presents his whole life history here, including McDuck’s old clan, his moving from Scotland to America, his love affair, his adventures on the Mississippi and in the Klondike gold rush and much more, only to end with a homage to Welles’s Citizen Kane. But at that moment, Donald and his nephews show up to subvert that tragic Rosebud ending and bring new love and energy to McDuck’s life. And that is the start of Scrooge’s adventures with Donald and the rest as we can read in Barks’s work, so Rosa’s series works like a prequel and the events in Rosa’s series are looked back on with nostalgia by Scrooge.

In the original run of 12 chapters, young Scrooge travels all over the world, but most of the stories take place in either the States or in Scotland. He is present at historical events, like the Klondike gold rush where we hang out at Dawson and Whitehorse and we see the towns grow up, and at the Transvaal gold rush in South Africa. Scrooge runs into historical figures like Geronimo, Buffalo Bill and Theodore Roosevelt. In some later chapters in expanded collections, he is present at the digging of the Panama Canal and at the Krakatoa eruption. Rosa put in a lot of research to make his stories square up with the historical and geographical circumstances.

Every chapter holds a significant development for McDuck’s character. We see him formulating his goals, exploring his own destiny, finding out how far he is willing to go and what regrets he will carry with him. He might be the most developed anthropomorphic character ever created. And the comedy is just fantastic. The visual jokes and recurring gags are pure brilliance, and each story is dense with them. In short, these stories do everything right. The drawings, the comedy, the character development, the plotlines and references to history, the metatextual elements referring to Barks’s work, all of it is done right.

All Rosa’s stories are dedicated to Carl Barks. In every one of his stories, there is a hidden D.U.C.K. abbreviation in the opening panel somewhere, which stands for: Dedicated to Unca Carl from Keno.

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William Gibson – Neuromancer (1984) review

8.5/10

William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is nowadays known as the novel that started or invented cyberpunk. That’s only partially true. Gibson started using the word ‘cyberspace’ in Neuromancer, but the subgenre of cyberpunk has roots that go back much farther, to the books of Philip K. Dick and Samuel R. Delaney and comics like 2000 AD and the films Blade Runner (1982) and TRON (1982). Still, Gibson’s novel made a huge impact on science fiction. And why? It’s not that the cyberpunk genre was totally new at the time but that Gibson’s style and the themes he selected play such a crucial role in hammering home a mood for the genre. 

What was new since the days of Philip K. Dick was the concept of virtual reality. In Neuromancer, cyberspace is a place to visit while you are connected. For our main character Case, it pulls at him like a drug. His life is seen through a drug haze, including the type of drugs that Dick was talking about; Gibson just added cyberspace as a new one. “All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void…” Yes, The Matrix. In 1999, 15 years after Neuromancer, many viewers still had trouble understanding the concept of virtual reality, but Gibson was there much earlier. Gibson didn’t even have a computer when he wrote this. He simply extrapolated what he knew towards something magical, and in doing so approached something not far off from what the future would actually hold.

Case and the other characters are flawed, on edge. Alleyway survivors in some dystopian in-between world that is a playground for cyber- and biotech. A seedy underworld defined by odd characters with cybernetic or neurological fixes. A place of both freedom and danger, a place of console cowboys. Case’s anxiety translates to a fast-paced story that jerks the reader this way and that. Mentally, we have to run to keep up with Case and the crazy world he lives in.

Gibson’s conception of cyberpunk is a place full of traps. The traps of addiction I mentioned. Cyberspace is a trap. It makes people feel dismissive of the real world and their bodies. Of meatspace. Gibson leans heavily into that aesthetic of neon-lit cities at night. I believe Blade Runner took that up before him, but in Neuromancer it works as a metaphor for cyberspace, and datastreams in cyberspace resemble skyscraper canyons. And so cyberspace and the real world start to blend into one another and both become the same trap. “He looked back as the plastic door swung shut behind him, saw her eyes reflected in a cage of red neon.” A cage.

Gibson’s writing style still feels fresh, controlled and exhilarating. So full of details, so evocative of more. Enjoy the flow and structure of the sentences. Let it sink in. His blitzkrieg of neologisms induces a future shock in the reader. Which is typical for the genre in that SF often goes for that puzzle-like cognitive estrangement, but Gibson pushed it farther than anyone else had back then. And with his matter-of-fact narration he creates an effect of absurdity about this dystopian vision of the future. I did not expect this density of wild ideas. Reading it took time. Every page has some new wild thing happening, and together with the high pace of storytelling the effect is like a caffeine rush. 

The novel is also a bit one-note on riding that high of future shock. Look at this future! Isn’t it wild? It’s the overriding aim of the narrative. Other elements like character are not developed much and the plot, a heist story, is in service of that fast paced shock doctrine. I often had to reiterate to myself what the actual plot was. The heist story with multiple AIs who mess around with Case’s perception becomes a bit convoluted and the stakes aren’t clear, except that we care a bit for the fate of the characters.

It makes Neuromancer very different from slow Blade Runner. It also ultimately made the novel more of interest academically than emotionally. It’s slick, fast, like chrome paint, set in world that Gibson filled in with buckets of imagination, but also a bit flat emotionally. Those moments of human connection that Blade Runner had, like Deckard and Rachael, like Roy Batty’s speech before dying, such moments are missing here. Twenty years later, M. John Harrison would write a similar environment in Light (2002) but manages to add more comedy and melancholy to his washed-up characters. There is an effort to create something more emotional with Case and his on/off girlfriend, but the character Case never got developed enough to have his story say something more meaningful about this weird future world or about humanity’s place in it.

I still enjoyed this novel immensely and am very impressed with Gibson’s writing. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. 

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Review: I Hate Fairyland (2015-’18) by Skottie Young

This comic is based on the idea that if Dorothy had been forced to stay in the fairyland of the Wizard of Oz, then after 27 years those characters would really have gotten on her nerves. I can’t blame her, because the comic itself got on my nerves as well, but the first volume was great fun.

Gertrude is 6 years old when she wishes to be transported to fairyland and her wish is granted. All she has to do is find a special key to unlock the door back to the normal world. She even gets a little travel companion, Larry, a fly with a magic hat. Unfortunately, after 27 years, Gertrude still hasn’t found the key. And the rules of fairyland are that guests like Gertrude cannot be hurt or killed. Her body doesn’t age so she still looks 6 years old, but inside she is a 30+ cynical, vengeful, violent woman whose only pleasure left in life is to butcher all those annoying fairyland creatures that get in her way. Larry the fly is middle aged now, smoking cigarettes nonstop. Now Cloudia, the queen of fairyland, is cooking up plans to get rid of her.

Gertrude is, in her words, forever teetering on the edge of a riddle-induced psychotic break and the dark abyss of diabetic coma, and her days are filled with endless amounts of bright colours no human eye should have to take in. And that’s sort of what it feels like to read this series. But in a good way. The story is fast-paced, ever unpredictable and doesn’t take itself seriously. But the main draw is the art. Here I have to give praise to the colorist, Jean-Francois Beaulieu, because those drawings really pop. Skottie Young’s art is also endlessly inventive and his fairyland is full of strange fairytale creatures and beautifully realised environments. This book is begging for an adaptation, but it won’t be as stirring as the comic.

The art is also the main draw here, because the edgy comedy isn’t really working for me. A young girl as a trigger-happy antihero with an axe cutting up goblins all the time doesn’t get much of a reaction out of me. Some of the jokes are just references to well-known properties like Game of Thrones, which get worse in the second volume, and there is the thing where she is cursing all the time but the curses are censored and replaced by cutesy words like fluff and spell and muffin hugger. Which, well, I don’t find any of it particularly funny. And the story is so random and haphazard that story arcs are restricted to little ten-page chapters with the freedom to throw every storyline overboard at a moment’s notice. So what is left to draw me in is the energetic drawings and huge imagination on the pages.

But that imagination also gradually runs out of steam in the next volumes. Gertrude ends up in a game world and in a fairyland expo-con and a Japan-themed village and by then it feels like the writer is reaching for cheaper ideas to fill the pages. The first two volumes were all originality but the well is now running dry. The dialogue also starts to incorporate more and more internet-speak, hyper-sarcasm and over-explaining its own jokes, and seems to go on and on as scenes are stretched out. It all ends with a whimper in the fourth volume.

I Hate Fairyland, the series as a whole, is like a bright flame that burned itself out fairly quickly. I recommend the first volume but every subsequent release was a step down in quality when it comes to comedy and originality. The art stays pretty strong throughout.

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James S.A. Corey – Persepolis Rising (2017) Review

7/10

Book 7 in James S. Corey’s The Expanse series.

Almost three decades had passed since (…)” are the words with which this book opens. Three decades on from the events of the previous books. From the perspective of the writers, this basically amounts to a soft reset of the story. Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck made this leap into the future to have some of their storylines develop over a longer period before picking up the story again. This seventh book in the series is therefore also a new start of what would be the concluding trilogy of books in the series.

The characters that are familiar to us from the previous books, like Holden, Amos, Bobby, Drummer, they’re now in their 50s or 60s. And while they are still in the same headspace as they were three decades ago, history has moved on. Humanity is basically now trying to find its stride in becoming a species stretched out over multiple solar systems, and people like Drummer do their best to shape this transition in a good way, but every action they take will echo loudly into the future. Our characters have learned a lot too; they’re no longer such naive rocketeers as they once were.

Actually, no. Their bodies are 30 years older, but the Rocinante crew are still exactly the same characters as they were, with the same behaviour, the same concerns, mannerisms, reactions, relationships, as if not a day has passed. This is really strange to me. There’s no character growth at all. We’re even talking about the same six people living on a boat in space for all that time. None of them left to start a family somewhere? The real reason for the 30 year leap becomes clear soon: to have yet another evil empire blossom into life as adversaries for Holden. The writers are very obvious about it too: we have an immortality-hungry emperor who is building an oversized capital city and giant warships. Nothing in this series is subtle, is it?

The emotional core of the story that involves the most important characters is solid, but the writers use cheap, lazy ways to describe things or to communicate ideas. For example, Drummer’s political discussions have complexity and depth, but when the story needs Drummer to feel appreciative of a side character, the writers tell us that “they even shared the same birthday”. Or when the story needs a character to be annoying, they have that character mispronouncing names to be disrespectful. Or when the story needs a conference room, we are told it “looks very similar to the old UN room”, because they want the reader to have that picture in the mind. Descriptions are reused with the same words again and again. These are all small issues, small occurrences of lazy, superficial writing, but they accumulate and these books are full of them, giving me a constant itch of mild annoyance.

I am being awfully harsh and cynical about this book, but the writing just sinks into mediocrity now and then. The story it offers is generic as it goes through all the usual steps of an empire taking control and of underground resistance, and after an entertaining first few chapters the plot starts to suffer from a very long middle act in which a lot of characters try to organise a lot of things. Plot events are signalled way in advance, so you can always predict with accuracy who is going to die at the end. On the positive side, the final act is exciting and the main characters are likeable, and more distinct compared to the first books. Alex and Amos are easier to keep apart. Keep in mind that the TV show had already been running for two seasons when Persepolis Rising was published, so it could be that the writers adjusted the characterisations in the novel to be more like the actors in the TV show. 

What the writers are still good at is Hollywood-style action spectacle. Think about zero-G combat scenes, rockets and railguns, and space-station takeovers, interspersed with personal moments among the Rocinante crew. It is how the novel is set up – as an unfolding action movie in space. Like a Gerard Butler movie – slap a highfalutin title on it like Olympus has Fallen and profit. There I go again with my cynicism. I like a good action movie, and if I regard this book in the same way then it isn’t all that bad. It’s just that it has been done a thousand times before.

Now I have to tell you guys my terrible secret. I never read books 4, 5 and 6. I read the first three books but I wasn’t all too impressed with them, but then the TV show drew me in and made me love this universe. Persepolis Rising picks up the story after the TV show ended, and I wanted to know where the story would go next. Following the plot was no problem. Unfortunately, Persepolis Rising reminded me why I quit the books in the first place. The writing is superficial and the story seems to repeat itself. It’s fast food.

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Review: Maus (1991) by Art Spiegelman

It is not easy to pin down Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980-91) in a neat category. It is a comic book or graphic novel, but it is also nonfiction – and can be categorised as biography or memoir too. What it is, is a biographical story about Art Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, as he told his son Art about his experiences in the Second World War and the Holocaust and how he eventually escaped to New York. That is the story, related by the father in somewhat broken English and enlivened by Art’s art in little busy cartoon panels.

Maus is not just about history, it also made history. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 as the first and only graphic novel ever to do so, and as such played a pivotal role in giving the graphic novel the honour it deserves as serious art. It changed the common perception that comic books were only about superheroes. 

The first two-page prologue makes very clear that this is not just a funny cartoon about animals. We see young Art rollerskating with his friends in New York, and they are all drawn as mice, so it looks cute. In the story, Art falls and his friends abandon him on the street, and he walks back home crying. At home, his father tells him: “Friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… then you could see what it is, friends!” Followed on the next page with a quote by Adolf Hitler. Not exactly the material that you would expect from a funny-looking cartoon with animals, would you? With those shocks fresh in the mind, we start Part I: the years 1930 to 1944.

It is a harrowing story, of course. Shocking and heartbreaking at every turn. Vladek tries to live a normal life with his family in Poland, but over a span of a few years, things just get worse and worse and worse, like a pressure cooker. And at every turn, there is the hope that things will turn around. First, people say that there won’t be a war; then, just try to keep your head down and wait for it all to blow over, but then come the gestapo and inspections and roundups, to the point where you have to build a hiding place in your shed to hide your grandmother from the Nazis. Every despicable act is shocking because you just don’t expect people to actually go that far. Vladek’s story shows what the war meant for ordinary people, from month to month.

Consider the decision by Spiegelman to display the Jews as mice, or rats, and the Nazis as cats, and all the connotations that come with that. Mice and cats are natural enemies; have been waging a war of survival for millions of years. The danger of a cat Nazi to a mouse Jew is something that can be felt, something immediately clear and obvious. The mice look cute in comic form, making them look sympathetic. And, let’s not forget the negative connotations with mice and rats, in that they swarm, and carry diseases, are dirty, which all mirrors what the Nazis were thinking about them. In short, this artistic decision was a stroke of genius for the story. However, other people groups are depicted as animals too and Spiegelman opened quite a can of worms with this. Poles are shown as pigs, which has received its share of criticism, for the reason that pigs are not considered kosher in Jewish culture and Spiegelman would have been aware of this. And Americans as dogs – but it is the cat-mouse contrast that holds the most meaning. Although the American dogs chasing away the cats feels like a well chosen setup. 

While the cartoon figures don’t look very distinct from one another – they all have simple triangular mouse heads – their characters shine through. Spiegelman adds all those peculiarities of real life and real people that make it totally believable that this story is based on true events. The reality shines through. The story moves back and forth between the diegetic levels of Art and his ageing father talking in their room and the story of the father where the panels represent his past and his memories. In those panels where we cut back to Art and his father, Spiegelman adds more personality to the father so that we see him as he was in the past and as he is now. And all that with simple mouse drawings. It’s amazing how much Spiegelman achieves with some squiggly ink lines.

And, you know, it is a way for Spiegelman to form a connection with his father. There is a huge gulf separating the two, a generational trauma. The extreme experiences of Vladek formed the rest of his life and Art lives in a totally different world. That makes the little scenes with old Vladek in New York so powerful, because they show the difficult father/son relationship going on. The act of interviewing his father heals some of that rift.

By now this book had been analysed to death in beautiful compendium novels and in academic literature, but the fact remains that there is simply a lot to talk about. It’s a deeply layered work and absolutely beautiful, shocking, impressive and heartbreaking. Everyone should give it a try.

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Review: Elder Race (2021) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

8.5/10

Let me bring out that old, chewed-out saying by Artie Clarke. Say it with me now: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Yes, and boy does Adrian Tchaikovsky play with it here. Elder Race (2021) is a delightful little novel (or novella) that juxtaposes the perspectives of fantasy and science fiction in a very immediate way and to humorous and emotional effect. This was great fun.

Lynesse is the Fourth Daughter of the Queen. As an independent spirit she has always been fascinated by the stories of her ancestors and how they called on the ancient wizard Nyrgoth the Elder to help the kingdom fight against demons and dark magic. That was centuries ago, but now a new demon stalks the land, causing the forest peoples to panic and flee. Lynesse takes it upon herself to travel to the old wizard tower to ask the wizard Nyr for his help once more.

Nyr is a centuries-old anthropologist, residing in frozen sleep in his high-tech outpost, only to awaken once every few centuries to observe the progress of these primitive kingdoms, these regressed peoples from earlier waves of space exploration. Two hundred years ago he was asked by a queen to help him slay a “demon” which was in fact an old mining machine that got operable again. He isn’t supposed to meddle with these people, but Earth stopped sending messages and he got lonely. His clinical depression is kept at bay by advanced technology, but sometimes he has to let the void break through. And Lynesse reminds him of her own grandmother, whom he loved.

Off they set on their “quest” to “slay the demon”. Short chapters from Lynesse and Nyr’s perspectives alternate at a good pace, so at every turn of the story we get both their interpretations of events. This leads to some funny situations and misunderstandings. We as readers occupy some odd place in between these two characters. We have outgrown the pre-scientific world of wizards and demons but we only vaguely understand Nyr’s nanotech and neuroscience.

We’re the missing link as readers, but we’re not there to help them out, although we would find Nyr’s perspective more understandable and comfortable and that makes this a sci-fi book in disguise. It overrules the other in sense making, although the fantasy perspective is emotionally resonant on a deep level. And, the main trope that this book plays with, that of a wizard in a tower and a quest, comes from the fantasy side of things, and it shapes the plot. Makes me wonder if we still regard the stories of our own lives in a way that is similar to fantasy stories, while the sense and meaning of everyday events is interpreted through a scientific lens.

This little book has perhaps the best depiction I have seen in science fiction of a character struggling with depression. Nyr has a neurological gadget that allows him to switch off his emotions so that he can engage in calm and rational thought, which he frequently deploys. But he can feel the pressure of emotions building up behind that barrier and he regularly needs to switch the barrier off to let that buildup of feelings wash over him before the dam breaks. The communication problems with Lynesse add to his despair, as does the loneliness and lack of prospects. 

Elder Race is a beautiful little novel that embraces two genres, two modes of storytelling and making sense of the world, and marriages them in a touching story. It is surely among Tchaikovsky’s best work to date.

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11 Mini Reviews of Films and TV Shows from 2021 & 2022

Eternals (2021). A very long film about barely interesting superheroes. Some of the ideas and visuals are interesting if you don’t think about the story too much, but in the end it is just a randomised assortment of actors punching monsters until your brain goes numb. They suck at their job too. The greatest problem is that the inter-group drama and bonding of the heroes all falls flat. In the middle of the climax I paused to watch a YouTube video of an orang-utan driving a golf cart and completely forgot I was watching a film. 

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021). Cumberbatch plays an eccentric goofball artist who paints cats, and struggles mightily and clumsily against English stiff-upper-lip culture and class hysteria to woo Claire Foy. I suspected Cumberbatch could play these characters in his sleep by now, but he is very good here. It is a quality film, lifted up by production value, talent and artistry. In the first half, it has precisely that kind of saccharine storytelling that you would expect, but the story gets more unconventional and uncomfortable towards the end, dives deep into mental health problems and ultimately is much more touching than I expected.

House of Gucci (2021). A love story and history, based on real events, involving the rich Gucci family. A lush film, full of grand locations, famous people, expensive clothing, and it leans heavily on those elements. Most of the acting was good; some performances strong, some, like Lady Gaga’s, full of life and energy. But much of the film is dominated by an eccentric performance by Jared Leto that feels anything but authentic, while that of Driver, Irons and Lady Gaga feels so natural in contrast. All subtleness goes out the window in many scenes – in the writing too – and the end result is entertaining to watch but uneven as a production and a bit shallow.

The King’s Man (2021). The third film of a rather overrated series that never had a clear vision for what it wanted to be, and so lurches from one direction to another. This film chooses to be a heavy-handed prequel that lacks the youthful energy and humour of the first film. A dash of absurdism during some of the fight scenes doesn’t mix well with the rest and doesn’t justify the film’s existence.

Nightmare Alley (2021). Guillermo del Toro’s new movie is a beautifully realised piece of art. Bradley Cooper’s acting is smooth and natural as a mentalist at a carnival who tries to make it on his own. Del Toro’s style of course fits perfectly with that most colourful and grotesque environment of a carnival. Everything in this world is just a bit… nightmarish, including Blanchett the psychiatrist and the plans they concoct together. The film is a pleasure to watch simply for the quality on display in every facet of filmmaking, from the sets to the shots and acting. The conclusion could have been stronger, though. It all happened a bit confusingly, while the clues were at the same time a bit too obvious. I’d still highly recommend it. 

Licorice Pizza (2021). A new Paul Thomas Anderson film is always a must for every film lover. Anderson makes unconventional movies, about unconventional people, and Licorice Pizza is about an unconventional relationship/partnership/association between a young guy and a little bit older girl where you never really know what it is between them, but it sure is fun to watch. Their ‘ship evolves over time, worming its way through various business enterprises where they support each other, and the film paints a portrait of 1970s California while it’s at it. The unfamiliar actors do great work and show oddball chemistry that made this film very enjoyable. Cute and atmospheric.

Red Rocket (2021). This film is both a bit of a masterpiece and disgusting. It follows some 45 year old ex-pornstar who moves back to Bumfuck Texas to hustle his way back into his ex’s life. Then he meets a 17 year old girl and starts… grooming her for the porn industry. Director Sean Baker (Florida Project) is making a name for himself by filming the poor underbelly of America who live in the most depressing places, and adds real-life people to his film next to the actors. Baker found the perfect location for this film where every horizon shows some dirty oil refinery constantly in the background, like a symbol of exploitation. The film lures you in with its smooth-talking actor who really seems like he is trying to fix his life and he even seems kinda charming, but before soon you realise that he corrupts every situation he is in while leeching off other people. It’s a very immersive film, like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021). A pretty good superhero film. The more of these films that you have seen, the more meaning you will take away from it, because there are a lot of callbacks to earlier films. What makes the film succeed are many moments that resonate emotionally. It provides closure for many plot-lines and for many characters, and new beginnings too. It’s somewhat of a capstone for a series. For the character of Peter Parker, he goes through a transformation of emotional upheaval and destruction, and mental reconstitution. He learns about himself, and grows. And this always lay at the heart of the Spider-Man tales.

Turning Red (2022). A new Pixar film, about an Asian-Canadian girl who receives a curse that turns her into a giant red panda every time she gets excited. To take back control over her life and grow as a person she needs to stand up to her overbearing mother. I liked this much more than the recent hit animation Encanto (2021), with which it shares similar themes. The comedy is far better and quirkier, and the characters are more interesting.

The Wheel of Time Season 1 (2021). It’s a pretty decent adaptation. Production value is high, casting is pretty good, acting is decent and the landscape shots and interiors give a great sense of place, evoking those Lord of the Rings vistas. I have no great love for the source material and I thought that the liberties taken were all pretty understandable, although the final episode omits a lot of the book’s material that I was looking forward to, and I understand if fans of the books feel bewildered. The first three episodes are a bit frantic and messily edited, but the show goes up in quality after that when the adult actors get more chance to shine and scenes get more powerful. 

The Expanse Season 6 (2021). The Expanse continues to dazzle with its depiction of solar system conflict, even though this may be the final season. The whole season works like a 5 hour movie of incredibly tense buildup and action, with the fate of the solar system hanging in the balance. Great lines, great acting, great effects. The universe it has built feels so rich and tactile. Just one of the best SF series of all time.

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Greg Egan – Axiomatic (1995) review

8.5/10

Axiomatic gathers together 18 of Greg Egan’s first short stories, from the beginning of his writing career and most of them written in the early 1990s. Six of these 18 also appeared in the recent The Best of Greg Egan collection (2019), but look here: both collections have around 20 stories, but Axiomatic is about 300 pages and the Best Of collection is about 730 pages! Egan’s short stories doubled in length over time, but his earlier, shorter work was much stronger for me – more focused. And I think that Axiomatic is therefore the better collection.

Egan loves throwing the reader into crazy, unknown situations where the rules of physics don’t seem right. For example, we follow a character who casually mentions that a neighbourhood is flipping through alternate realities, or, say, that time is running according to the details that the main character put in their diary that morning, and we’re left wondering what the hell is going on. And only in a second chapter, Egan will casually throw us a line, like “Francis Chan wasn’t the first astronomer to hunt for time-reversed galaxies…” and that will be the start of some explanation. The rest of the story will then gradually make more sense. And once we are caught up, he will go ten steps further into the consequences of his little thought experiment to finish up the story.

So, the stories are heavily focused on ideas. The characters in these stories are not much more than first person narrators giving us chunks of their thoughts. But those thoughts are typically those of a scientist or of someone with a very rational, analytical way of thinking. For deep character studies and complex plots about power and politics, please look elsewhere. But if you are looking for mind-blowing scientific ideas that mess around with our physics, our perception and our sense of identity, then you’ve come to the right place. Many of these stories tackle topics like free will and determinism, consciousness, space-time anomalies, technology affecting our identity, and so on. We learn about the narrators, about their relationships and careers and what these sci-fi concepts do to them, as they relate their stories.

Egan’s writing is lean and efficient, but his voice as a writer is very one-dimensional. All narrators talk with the same affect, in that rational, analytical way. So, while the stories are all about the exploration of some sci-fi concepts, he sometimes glances over explanations that could have been a lot clearer, and he sometimes wraps up a story in a way that feels emotionally underdeveloped or unrealistic, when for example the reactions of side characters feel suddenly strange. As a consequence, for some stories I didn’t understand the point of them, meaning that I couldn’t pinpoint a central idea, or any other effect or message that Egan was aiming for. Maybe that’s on me. But Egan falls squarely into those preconceptions that people often bring with them when they think about science fiction: all about the ideas and the rest underdeveloped. 

Nevertheless, this is an exceptionally strong short story collection, judging on the sheer mind-blowing strength of the ideas. I guess I am saying all this not to criticise Egan too heavily but to warn readers of what to expect, especially because there are enough positive reviews out there that praise Egan’s work into the heavens. 

Contents:

  1. The Infinite Assassin (1991) ****
  2. The Hundred Light-Year Diary (1992) *****
  3. Eugene (1990) *** 
  4. The Caress (1990) ***
  5. Blood Sisters (1991) ***
  6. Axiomatic (1990) *****
  7. The Safe-Deposit Box (1990) *****
  8. Seeing (1995) ****
  9. A Kidnapping (1995) ****
  10. Learning to Be Me (1990) *****
  11. The Moat (1991) ****
  12. The Walk (1992) ****
  13. The Cutie (1989) ***
  14. Into Darkness (1992) *****
  15. Appropriate Love (1991) *****
  16. The Moral Virologist (1990) ***
  17. Closer (1992) ****
  18. Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies (1992) ****
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Review: The World of Edena (1983), by Moebius

The World of Edena (Le Monde d’Edena) is one of French artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud’s most essential works. Along with The Incal and Arzach and the Blueberry comic series, the Edena Cycle and all its supplementary material that Moebius created is a significant part of his career. The Edena Cycle is a sprawling science fiction epic with stunning artwork, comprising five chapters that are usually all collected in a single omnibus edition. The story takes place on a single planet, mostly, and has strong New Age influences. I’ll dive deeper into its conception and storylines because there are interesting facets to explore.

The Edena Cycle was born out of a short promotional story that Moebius wrote for the car company Citroën. In this short, two tiny car repairmen crawl into the engine of a stranded car to repair what’s broken. The repairmen, Stel and Atan, use their psychik mekanik powers to heal the heart of the car by diving into their own childhood memories. Moebius felt compelled to continue their adventures after the deal with Citroën was done. Also, at the time, Moebius was influenced by certain New Age instincto-therapy ideas, which involve diving into humanity’s “earlier, truer state of being” before civilization, and eating raw foods and so on to explore that. This all influenced the adventures that he would plunge Stel and Atan into.

The story of Edena starts with Stel and Atan arriving at an abandoned space station, and while they investigate what happened there, the station starts falling towards the planet that it orbits. The two travellers crash on the planet and are forced to survive its wildernesses. They travel towards a mysterious blue light just over the horizon, which is a place where every stranded astronaut eventually ends up, from all the thousands of alien races throughout history that crashed on this planet. There, they are transported to an Eden-like environment. Each alien ends up in its own version of Eden, I suppose.

At the start of this story, Stel and Atan are sexless and genderless. Maybe they are cloned or otherwise constructed organisms in this far future setting. In the Eden-like environment they have to relearn how to eat unprocessed foods to survive, like fruits and nuts. It is a highly traumatic experience for them. As they travel, Stel and Atan start to differentiate. One becomes male, the other female. They start to rediscover feelings as well, like falling in love, and fighting primordial evil in their own hearts. But the planet has many surprises in store. Dangers as well. Moebius’s idea was that the two travellers rediscover humanity’s true state of being, reinventing itself from a synthetic state. Stel and Atan have to push through all sorts of mental blocks and fears to get there. In a way it was a mirror to Moebius’s own psychological journey at the time. Through this comic, he tried to clarify for himself what he believed in.

The strangest part of the story is where Stel and Atan encounter a society of humans that has cut itself off completely from the natural world. It is very formal, with everyone covered in masks and calling each other ‘sir’. For Moebius, this society embodies certain neuroses, like false layers of personality that we develop during childhood, but then on a societal scale. Their long-nosed masks are hilarious, but they are a source of endless trouble for our heroes. But such broken ideas about society are of course doomed with the coming of our “pure” heroes.

The artwork is magnificent, and shows a transition for Moebius to a “clear line” style that was popularised at the time by Hergé, the creator of Tintin. Moebius wanted every line of ink to show the essence of anatomy and shape with a maximum of economy. Many of the designs here also show up in his later work of Arzach and The Incal. The result is a very elegant style that looks childishly simple but is actually incredibly hard, with every panel and perspective perfected. 

Much of the story is left open to interpretation. The heroes receive dream guides, nightmares, fight some versions of good and evil, and by the end you don’t even know what is real anymore. The first time I read it, I wasn’t all that impressed. I was annoyed a bit with the spiritual woo-woo and with Moebius’s old-timey notions about gender, which has him depicting women only as either pure goddesses or evil hags. But looking back at this series, it has an amazing originality and a huge variety of settings and ideas, and beautiful art. I don’t love it as much as The Incal, because Moebius’s personal interests don’t speak to me that much and they tend to come to the fore when he writes his own stories. But as a whole, this cycle is a work of art.

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