Blue Remembered Earth

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Blue Remembered Earth is different in one obvious way from other works I’ve read by Reynolds: it plays out on a much less epic canvas. It’s set only a century or two in the future, and the action is limited to the Earth, the Moon and Mars. This has the useful side effect of allowing Reynolds to have some fun with geopolitics – Africa, China, and India are now the dominant powers, and there’s nary a mention of the United States and Europe – but on the less bright side, we see less of the futuristic inventiveness that characterises so much of the technological backdrop of, say, the Revelation Space universe.

Instead this book hinges mostly on plot, which to its credit is engaging enough. The plot is structured as a quest: Geoffrey Akinya, who spends his time studying elephants in Africa, and his sister Sunday, a struggling artist who lives in a libertarian colony on the Moon, follow a series of clues left behind by their recently deceased, famous, larger-than-life grandmother Eunice. In a hint of Reynolds’ usual epic reach, it becomes clear as the plot unfolds that the clues point to something hugely important for humanity’s future. Of course, we can’t have protagonists without antagonists, and we have ourselves some villains in the form of the corporate-caricature cousins, Hector and Lucas, who run the massively wealthy and influential corporation that Eunice founded, Akinya Space. (Reynolds definitely has some fun with these two; I particularly enjoyed the bit where Lucas is revealed to use an ’empathy shunt’ – an implant disabling his capacity for empathy – to make him more effective during business meetings.)

The book’s weaknesses come from its blandness in other dimensions. No character stands out as being particularly well-developed, and some characters, like Jitendra, could be removed entirely from the book with virtually zero impact on the narrative. With the exception of the Mechanism, an all-seeing computerised entity that reaches all over the Earth and has the power to intervene and stop crimes before they are committed, none of the technology is particularly interesting either. (Not that the Mechanism is much more than a background presence: its social implications are brought up but never fully explored, with everything in the book being subordinate to the progression of the quest.)

Verdict: Good reading to while away idle time. And a gentler introduction to Reynolds’ work than the Revelation Space books, which I recall being frankly weird in parts. Sequels could be promising, since the book’s ending sets up well for them.

I give this book: 3.5 out of 5 elephants

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Ant-Man

This feels like Marvel’s freshest effort in years.

I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Ant-Man. Part of it might be due to going into the movie with relatively low expectations, and another part of it might be due to the fact that the movie takes place in San Francisco. But Ant-Man is great because it feels like it was made for fun. Unlike Age of Ultron, which felt like a “going-through-the-motions” type affair in the long march to the Infinity War films, Ant-Man has space to be weird and be itself.

Indeed, Ant-Man shares a great deal with the first Iron Man movie, not least in terms of plot: irreverent guy with a special set of skills escapes from prison, dons a suit and fights a bald corporate shark in a similar but evil suit. But the movie also shares with the first Iron Man a certain subversiveness and also a certain intimacy. It’s a small story in more ways than one, and not just because Ant Man stars a superhero the size of an ant. It allows the motivations of people to come to the fore a bit more, to couch things in more human terms than just a desire to save the world. While Ant-Man doesn’t break new ground in terms of character motivations, it does so with a bit more groundedness than most other, more weighty, Marvel efforts.

The movie does several things well. Humor is one – Ant Man’s brand of humor retains the high-speed wisecrackery that characterises Edgar Wright’s films – a holdout from when Wright was at the helm of the movie. Michael Peña in particular is very funny as Scott Lang’s partner in crime Luis who can’t stop recounting the irrelevant details of his various activities. Michael Douglas is a standout as Lang’s crotchety mentor, Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man. Paul Rudd is pretty funny too, at times, channeling his other work. Unlike with Iron Man, there is no dominant personality like with Robert Downey Jr., in Ant Man the cast gels together as one comedic unit, acting out what resembles in many ways a heist film. There’s chemistry between the members of the heist team, with Lang at the center, and it works.

The other good thing is the action. Summer superhero movies can get a little bit stale with the generic CGI’ed action scenes, but Ant Man breathes new life into it by shrinking the action down. In a smaller world, mundane objects take on titanic proportions, physics appears to behave differently, and we are treated to a new visual world. The movie takes advantage of the fairly ridiculous premise to inject kinetic humor into the action – the titanic battle between Ant Man and Yellowjacket on a Thomas the Tank Engine toy train set is the standout example. The scene features frequent back-and-forth cuts between the action as perceived by Lang and the action perceived by a normal-sized observer, highlighting the deliberate absurdity of the scene. Ant Man’s tininess makes for some very creative, and very satisfying, action chops.

There are a lot of sly references to the events and characters of the other movies, and even a few hints about the upcoming Marvel Spiderman reboot. Lang even asks Pym why he just didn’t call on the Avengers to stop Yellowjacket – a nice example of tidying up your metaplot by pre-empting a potential audience question. Lang even goes to the Avengers base in New York to steal a piece of macguffin tech, and in the process gets into a fight with one of them. That kind of fanservice is much appreciated, and adds to the appeal of the film.

All in all, Ant Man is great because it’s one of those movies that Marvel was able to take a chance on – to deliver something more laid-back, more relaxed, and more subversive, while still linking it, in subtle but satisfying ways, to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. And those ants are seriously and surprisingly cute too.

I give this movie: 4 out of 5 Anthonys

Baptism of Fire

A marked improvement over the previous two books in terms of structure and pacing.

Baptism of Fire continues the adventures of Geralt as he searches for Ciri amidst war, intrigue and adversity, but it now feels much more focused and tautly-paced than Time of Contempt, which meandered and had too many odd narrative threads that didn’t seem to go anywhere. The core of the series, and its greatest strength, has always been the depiction of Geralt and his travails, and it’s no surprise that this entry in the series features Geralt most heavily, not to mention a wonderfully odd assortment of characters that he meets as he journeys across the ravaged landscape to save his adopted daughter. There’s Zoltan Chivay and his hilariously profane parrot, Field Marshal Windbag, the elf-sympathizer Milva, the foppish bard Dandelion, the benign vampire Regis, and Cahir, the Nilfgaardian who is not a Nilfgaardian. Sapkowski’s wry humor shines through the translation, particularly in Geralt’s dry quips – the series hasn’t been this darkly funny since The Last Wish.

Baptism of Fire is an apt name for the book, in  a series where the titles of individual volumes have often been more contrived metaphors than actually evocative of the themes of the book. Characters go through multiple baptisms of fire – Geralt’s band of misfit allies, for example, are one bunch forged in literal fire. Fellowships tempered through adversity are one of the motifs of the book, both where Geralt and Ciri are concerned. Sapkowski appears to be becoming more sophisticated as a writer, in terms of using rudiments of literary craft. Something I noted was Sapkowski’s use of innovative narrative frames as a way to pace Geralt’s journey. For example, Geralt’s travels are told in short vignettes interspersed with interludes that suggest that the story is being recounted far in the future. This allows Sapkowski to depict the passage of time without actually having to write it out, because he can jump from vignette to vignette by using his narrative frames. The novel is also now a lot easier to follow and flows better, feeling for the first time like an actual novel, rather than a hodgepodge of narrative fragments.

If I had to criticize one aspect of the series so far, it would be the unconvincing way in which Ciri’s transformation into murderous bandit was effected. It began in Time of Contempt, after Ciri’s own baptism of fire, when she was picked up by a gang of thieves known as the Rats, after which she suddenly dons an alter ego and starts reaving. Is this teenage rebellion? A weird reaction to jumping through a magic portal? Or the evil spirit of the Elder Blood that is causing her to act out? The book seems to couch it in terms of Ciri’s resentment at being abandoned, but that character motivation doesn’t really sit well with me, considering that she leapt through  a magic portal to escape the carnage in Thanedd. But the jury is still out, so we’ll see.

And at this point we come to an awkward stumbling block in the reading journey – because the final two books have not, at the time of this post, been released for publication in English. I’m going to be reading the fan translations of the final two books just to catch up on the lore leading to the Witcher: Wild Hunt, but I won’t be reviewing them because the awful translations don’t do justice to the original. Hopefully the actual books get released soon.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 sihils

Grand Theft Auto V

Single-player games are solipsistic affairs, and there is none more solipsistic than Grand Theft Auto.

Video games often present themselves as escapist fantasies. The escapism is enabled by immersiveness. Grand Theft Auto is a masterclass in immersion. It puts you in a lovingly-crafted, ridiculously detailed parody of Southern California and lets you run amok, with total freedom to partake in one of any number of bespoke activities – tennis, golf, dirt bike races, hiking, paragliding – and of course, the old staples: reckless driving and criminal violence. The interesting thing about such games is in what people do when given such freedom and the assurance that their behavior will invite no repercussions – a total solipsist power fantasy.

There is a plot, of course – there always is, and it’s usually a crime caper with a liberal dose of satire that decry various aspects of the American Dream. Players are obliged to role-play as three different protagonists – the miserable retired bank robber Michael, the dissatisfied gangbanger Franklin, and the honest-to-god psychopath Trevor. The plot is an excuse to play a range of terrific scripted missions that make the player feel like they’re in the middle of a blockbuster movie, especially with the inclusion of first person in the next-gen console and PC versions of the game. The plot itself isn’t terribly riveting, the characters themselves are rough-hewn archetypes with poorly-sketched out motivations, and the satire’s laid on a little too thick, which takes away from the ability to feel sympathetic to the characters. It’s the classic video game conundrum: characters do quests because that’s what the player wants to do as a function of playing the game, and not because it makes sense for the character to want to do them in the context of his established personality. As a result of these factors, I was unable to identify with them as characters. This is not a function of the fact that they are hardened criminals – Niko Bellic of GTA IV was a more sympathetic character than anyone in this game – it’s a function of the prioritization of spectacle and satire over character building. Story is not this game’s best suit, which is a shame, because Rockstar games have been known for having compelling and evocative narratives before. GTA V’s story is too smart-alecky satirical and cavalier to be much good.

But it’s a far bigger world than just the travails of three criminals. GTA V is an open-world extravaganza, beautiful, with a sense of scale and place. Never before has an open world been so completely realized. As the player, you spend time between missions dicking around, completing challenges, and generally doing whatever you want, and the world has a lot of activities in which to engage, of which violence is only one. GTA V is so supremely accomplished in this respect that the open-world dicking and the story mode seem like two different games at times. The former can be slow, contemplative and meditative, the latter is usually fast, violent, and cinematic. Of course, completing the story will reward the player with the money needed to partake in the activities of the open world, but even then, cash is not a particularly important commodity in terms of general game mechanics.

What may be more interesting, in my view, however, is the fact that GTA V’s immersive, expansive but fundamentally empty world liberates the player into a state of anarchic freedom, unconstrained by social mores and laws. GTA V provides the opportunity to indulge in one’s baser instincts. The fact that your avatars are criminals helps disassociate agency from responsibility, as it feels like roleplaying. Indeed, I was most violent in this game when playing Trevor – he was like a kind of Mr Hyde alter-ego that served as a conduit for the expression of primal violence. Feeling like Trevor didn’t give two hoots about what society thought of him, I painted his car bright pink and gave him full-body tattoos and a giant shaggy beard. Trevor wouldn’t give a shit, I thought. Does that say anything about me? I don’t really know. As Michael, I mostly drove recklessly and generally moped around. As Franklin, I was the adrenaline-head that participated in triathlons, paragliding, hiking and dirt racing. I felt more guilty mowing people down as Franklin than I did playing Trevor. At some point, one gets unsure how much of the violence one commits in the game is a function of role-playing a character, or just the kind of dangerous boredom that leads a child to use a magnifying glass to idly burn a colony of ants.

Although the game world is physically beautiful, the soul of Los Santos is distressingly shallow. Perhaps it’s like LA in a sense, that deliberate superficiality and the over-emphasis on appearances. Perhaps it’s the satire that exists in all corners, from the social media company LifeInvader that dispatches teams to map the insides of people’s homes, or the pathetic celebrities on Vinewood Avenue, or the sarcastic radio ads and the sophomoric innuendo-laden references scattered everywhere, or the game’s blithely cavalier attitude towards the deadly violence visited upon the city by its three protagonists. There is a sense of detachment, of alienation from the world of Los Santos, despite its graphical fidelity and detailed layouts. The city feels like a parody of a parody, a flat, plastic place that you drive around, like a lego set. It doesn’t quite feel “lived in” in a sense. Los Santos, in other words, has no memorable landmarks; it just feels like the most painstakingly crafted ode to generica that ever was made.

Did I have fun playing this game? Definitely. It’s a game that needs to be played for its technical accomplishments, its smooth first person mechanics, its engaging immersiveness, and of course the feeling of being radically free in a solipsistic open-world. But do I wish Los Santos had the character to match its beauty, perhaps injected through better narratives and more well-drawn and sympathetic characters? Yes, I do. Satire of the American way is a fun topic to dwell on, but I think this game might lay it on a bit too thick, especially because LA is just too easy to satirize, so this is really a double whammy of satire – as I mentioned, a parody of a parody. But it’s hard to knock a game with such vision and brilliance in most respects. And the soundtrack is amazing too.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 bongs

Time of Contempt

As the the adventures of Geralt head inexorably toward a bleaker place, some of what made the earlier books so fun seems missing from this book.

This second entry in the Witcher saga of novels continues to follow Sapkowski’s strange, connected-vignettes style of storytelling. The story is told in narrative fragments, overheard conversations between soldiers, across a multiplicity of viewpoints, some appearing once or twice and never again, some persistent and recurring, but all over the place. It can be somewhat difficult to follow.

Time of Contempt’s main plot development concerns the destruction of the Chapter of mages due to treachery and Nilfgaard’s wholesale invasion of the North thereafter, exploiting racial hatreds to incite guerilla units of non-humans to fight against the armies of the Northern Kingdoms. Geralt and Yennefer are present during this conflict and Ciri, also with them, is lost, escaping the chaos raging around them by jumping into a portal that spits her out in a godforsaken desert, only to ultimately join a crew of brigands out of desperation, abandonment and despair.

The world of the Witcher has by this point grown so large and unwieldy that much of the narrative doesn’t even feature Geralt, Yennefer or Ciri, which is a departure from the short stories in which every story featured Geralt in a leading role. More and more, it is no longer just Geralt’s story, but Ciri’s as well, and by extension, a story that will determine the fate of nations. Geralt, accustomed to facing monsters that he can see, now has to contend with being a pawn, strung along by unseen forces.

But with the separation of Geralt, Yennefer and Ciri, the book has little space for the emotional dynamics between those characters. By growing bigger, it chooses to sacrifice the intimacy of its smaller-scale predecessors. Only by reading on will I be able to find out whether the new characters that have been borne out of this turn of events will prove just as compelling as the ones already established.

The series retains its characteristic moments of brevity, such as the point where Dandelion fakes bravery as he walks into the dryad-controlled forest of Brokilon to find Geralt, knowing full well that its inhabitants are only too happy to riddle intruders with holes without warning. Or the banquet scene in which Geralt walks around eating hors d’oeuvres while exchanging sarcastic remarks with fascinated sorceresses. But the general tenor is somewhat more grim.

One more thing I’m preliminarily bothered about was how easily Ciri succumbed to the weird sexual wiles of the bandit Mistle, and proceeded to live a life of brigandry. It seems quite out of character for her, even for someone who feels like they’ve been abandoned. We’ll see how this pans out in Baptism of Fire.

I give this book: 3.5 out of 5 lizard eggs

Blood of Elves

The world of the Witcher just got a whole lot bigger.

Blood of Elves is the first full-length novel in the saga, but it still reads like a hybrid between a short story collection than a novel. It’s a series of loosely-connected, chronologically-placed narrative vignettes spanning a whole host of characters. There isn’t really a conventional narrative arc – no rising action, climax, falling action -but a series of strung-together moments, slowly building up the overarching story to a rising crescendo. As moments, however, some of them are greatly affecting – and I think this is one of Sapkowski’s signature traits.

There is a clear trend here that the world of the Witcher is slowly chelating into a coherent place. No longer is it a misty, indistinct fairy-land of vague polities; great power politics and war become central plot elements, weaving themselves in with the more human stories of Geralt, Ciri and Yennefer.

The book starts with Ciri, the princess of the kingdom of Cintra, fleeing her homeland as the forces of the Empire of Nilfgaard raze it to the ground, but is rescued once again by Geralt at the end of Sword of Destiny. The impressionable girl trains in the art of witchery (swordfighting, in other words), which engenders some comical moments, and is just as endearing a daughter-figure to Geralt as in the previous book. Ciri is a MacGuffin character whose bloodline and apparent sorcerous potential make her a target for a number of groups, and this causes a succession of characters to look after her as she grows up. The book follows Ciri as she leaves the Witchers’ stronghold to study how to use her Magic under the sorceress Yennefer’s guidance. Yennefer’s developing relationship with Ciri is another wonderful vignette from the books, raw, real, and possessing a certain genuine quality. As the reader, you really come to care about these people as people – and that’s a rare feat indeed.

The old themes of the previous books return. One vignette pontificates viscerally on the horrors of racism and the toxic distrust of the other, engendering mutual and cascading hatreds. There are the inevitable inclusions of venal and self-serving power politics, with kings and sorcerers treating lives like pawns on a chessboard. The blood-and-guts reality of war is a sobering theme. And of course, Geralt the Witcher slowly and painstakingly comes to realize that the refusal to take sides is in itself a choice with potentially terrible consequences, as a terrible and destructive war looms in the horizon, with Ciri at the center of it all.

The world of the Witcher was always dark, but compared to this book, The Last Wish and the first few stories of Sword of Destiny are beginning to feel somewhat idyllic in comparison.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 pendulums