Old Man’s War

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What it’s about: In a universe filled with hostile alien civilisations, the Machiavellian Colonial Union turns to Earth’s elderly masses as a source of fresh conscripts, promising to restore their youth and vitality in return for fighting their wars. Septuagenarian John Perry joins up and goes through a whirlwind of space adventures in which he kills alien baddies and gets the girl.

Notes

  • This is the first in a long line of Old Man’s War books, and is best understood as such. This is a book that treads the fine line between science-fiction jingoism and an introspection on great power politics writ large across vast interstellar distances, but the ramifications of the Colonial Union’s brutally realist stance towards foreign policy will be borne out in full in later novels.
  • That said, it feels very old fashioned in a way – a power fantasy whose protagonist is an old man who’s only ever known existence on a tiny blue world, suddenly thrust into the great unknown. He meets new friends and allies, gets shouted at by a drill sergeant who comes to grudgingly respect him, shoots aliens, does the whole heroic shtick, and finds love at the end of it.
  • There’s the whole sensawunder thing going on here , as Perry discovers that humanity in space has mastered far more advanced technology than they let on to their Earth cousins. Much of the book is powered by a sense of discovery over the imaginative strangeness of the universe and humankind’s precarious place in it.
  • That said, the best thing about Old Man’s War is how it so gleefully acknowledges its own cliched premises while playing them straight. It adds freshness and a dash of wry self-referential humour in what is also just a fast paced and enjoyable read. Someone on the Internet put it quite nicely – Scalzi’s best books tend to feature intelligent characters that face an uncaring universe with humour, brio, and derring-do.

Verdict: This is one of the classics of the genre; a taut, rollicking thriller chock full of the signature Scalzi humor and panache. A easy but obligatory read for any science fiction fan.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 ritual battles

 

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Black Mirror (Season 2)

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This second season of Black Mirror has a galaxy of interesting ideas, but somehow does less well on the follow-through.

The second season follows the first in taking boilerplate speculative what-if? scenarios and turning them into macabre, character-focused stories. Overall, however, I feel that the episodes of the second season generally share a tendency to aim too high and then fall somewhat short providing satisfying narrative closure.

The first episode, Be Right Back, touches on a very disquieting and relatable conceit – what if you could create robotic simulacra of a lost loved one from fragments of their social media existences? The episode starts out strong, with well-played emotional overtones that convincingly explain the protagonist’s succumbing to the temptation of bringing back her deceased husband. The resulting reunion is as bittersweet as it is creepy, and is very well done. But as the episode wears on, it’s not clear that it knows how to develop the ramifications of the premise to compelling conclusions, fixating on the protagonist’s emotional rejection of the simulacrum due to her realisation that it can never truly replace her husband, which, I think, is a less interesting conceit than if the protagonist were to have accepted that fact – and perhaps ask the more pertinent question of whether the simulacrum could one day be considered a real, distinct person. There is also no real resolution, or neat round-up, only a coda that takes place a few years later, that doesn’t wrap the episode up thematically in any coherent (to me) way.

The second, White Bear, is chilling, weird and terrifying from start to finish, but is predicated on a twist that, while truly unexpected, turns the episode into something on another level that is so extreme in its implications as to be unbelievable. A woman who doesn’t remember who she is is forced on the run from some maniacal murderers, constantly being filmed by hordes of silent, smartphone-brandishing zombies. It mixes and subverts many horror and apocalyptic tropes in a very smart way, and turns into a meditation on tit-for-tat vengeance as a form of participative mass entertainment. But it makes certain assumptions about contemporary human societies and the ways in which they deal with these things that don’t sit well with me somehow. In what society would carefully staged vigilantism turn into an outlet for popular entertainment, while preserving contemporary received values of justice and due process? I do understand that these scenarios are meant to be speculative and push the boundaries to present a thematic point, but my preference is for even such societies to have a greater amount of self-consistency.

The last, The Waldo Moment, is probably my least favorite for similar reasons as the second – an irreverent, vulgarity-spewing virtual character runs for political office and gets voted into power by a disgruntled electorate, tired of conventional politics. While some would call it chillingly prophetic of Donald Trump’s rise, this episode doesn’t, in my mind, really convincingly show how it happened, even as it plays off the Jekyll-and-Hyde contrast between the quiet, introspective voice of Waldo and his Waldo-esque stage persona, which takes a life of its own. The episode’s premise strains credulity as Waldo becomes an international revolution, transcending cultures and languages. The annoying coda shows a dystopian future in which the homeless protagonist ekes out a meager existence in a world where Waldo has become the virtual avatar of the powers that be, which is the very definition of stretching a premise far beyond its breaking point.

The 2014 bonus White Christmas episode, which I will take as part of this season, is basically a complex and convoluted mishmash of many different sf ideas into a single three-parter mega-episode that, while interesting, is too convoluted to have that sense of single-issue coherence that other Black Mirror episodes have. But it is probably still the best and most complete of the episodes insofar as it expertly wends together its disparate technological, sociological and psychological strands to a fitting and utterly chilling finish.

I give this season: 3.5 out of 5 blue bears

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 1)

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of those shows I thought I’d never watch, on account of its sitcom nature and workplace-focused premise. But man, if this isn’t one of the funniest and best-written comedies I’ve watched since Arrested Development.

B99, as we’ll call it, focuses on the wacky hijinks of a crew of detectives in the fictional 99th Precinct of the NYPD. More workplace sitcom than police procedural, the antics of the nine-nine extend beyond their putative case-closing and into their personal lives and workplace relationships.

There are the Precinct’s star detectives, the brilliant but utterly irreverent Jake Peralta and the studious teacher’s pet Amy Santiago, the supporting cast – Terry Crews in a frequently hilarious turn as gentle giant Terry Jeffords, Andre Braugher as the unflappable Captain Holt, Joe Lo Truglio as the enthusiastic but bumbling Charles Boyle, Stephanie Beatriz as the brooding and tough Rosa Diaz, and Chelsea Peretti as the spacey civilian administrator Gina Linetti.

Each has their own quirks and stereotypical behaviors, and perhaps at first the writers lay it on pretty thick to establish them – and it’s for this reason that I found the first few episodes only moderate at best. But the season improves rapidly, with the development of interesting dynamics among the team, playing off their various idiosyncrasies but in a way that effectively humanises them more, and binds them together as a team. With few exceptions, they transcend their types during strategic times for both comic and emotional effect – Jake can be serious when he needs to, and the usually stoic Captain Holt has his moments of pure hilarity – particular when he declaims something pompous with a his over-articulate deadpan manner.

One thing I like about the series is also just how effortlessly progressive it is – half the characters are people of color, the women are just as strong – if not stronger – than the men, and the Captain of the outfit is a gay black man whose homosexuality and color are just two of the many facets of who he is, rather than dominating his characterization for either thematic or emotional effect.  This is the best type of progressivism – just making a quality show free of either negative or positive stereotypes – and letting the characters be who they are beyond their superficial attributes.

Although, if one wanted to critique, the show isn’t perfect in that regard. It is generally quite good natured except when it comes to detectives Scully and Hitchcock, two old white detectives who are basically lazy and incompetent and who exist as the two punching bags for everyone on the show to direct their scorn against – and they really are punching bags, with the least development of all the characters. Scully in particular gets laughs from his girth and disgusting food habits, and Hitchcock just comes across as intrusive and creepy. Both get their share of laughs, but in a rather mean-spirited way.

And of course, despite the diversity of the cast, the only Asian American character – and I mean the only one, not primary, secondary, supporting, or guest character, that ever appears on the show is some hacker guy who shows up for about five minutes of screentime and sort of becomes the Precinct’s IT expert, and – as far as I can tell – is never seen again.

Having said that, I’m not someone who will critique B99 for what it fails to do – because it gets a lot of things right. And even if you don’t buy its progressive outlook, the fact that it handles it so gracefully means that it is decidedly apolitical – it’s just about a bunch of cops who try to do right by themselves and by society. Perhaps the worst thing that can be said about it is that it kind of glosses over the NYPD’s checkered record as a crimefighting organisation and paints it in pastel colors when the reality is probably quite far from its idyllic picture. But taken as a source of entertainment, it is really just an extremely well-written and frequently hilarious show.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 medals of valor

Black Mirror (Season 1)

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This has been a very long time coming.

Black Mirror‘s five-minutes-into-the-future style of cautionary, slightly paranoid speculative fiction is nothing new in principle, but it does make the sub-genre accessible and compelling for wide audiences.

Season 1 gives us a good introduction into the series’ anthology style. Here are three longform episodes, all with different premises, characters, and timelines, with the only common strand being that they are all slightly macabre commentaries on the social or psychological impacts of future technologies or societal arrangements.

The first episode, The National Anthem, explores the lurid potential of social media to mislead, confuse, and distract national attention away from issues of importance, and does so through a truly morbid premise – a hostage situation that forces a sitting prime minister to undertake something truly horrifying in the midst of the public eye. Gross, lurid and disturbing? Yes – but its sheer visceral impact hammers the point home, and in a Trumpian age, its message is more prophetic than ever.

The second one and my personal favorite, Fifteen Million Merits, is a surreal and hyperrealist depiction of a future society hooked on meaningless labor, their every action a commercial transaction, whose only repast is brainless entertainment of the sensory-overload variety, and their only hope of escaping this state of affairs is to audition in a American Idol-esque talent show and become a star in the process. I like this one in particular because of its cheeky subversion of boy-meets-girl tropes and the fact that it is just a satire of existing capitalist systems. It is, in fact, a distillation of the essential traits of capitalist society from a critical theory perspective – populace chained to wage-based labor, all aspects of life transactional, glued to the television screen as a distraction to their true state of affairs, with the hope of escape being to transcend into becoming yet another cog in the machine – through becoming a part of the endlessly-distracting mass-entertainment regime. In the end, even our protagonist, who has seen through this state of affairs, becomes an Alex Jones type conspiracy theorist talk-show head on television, channeling his revolutionary fervor into yet another tool for the state to distract its populace through the vicarious catharsis of mass entertainment.

The last one, The Entire History of You, is a send up of the sousveillance state, hinging on the social costs of being able to record everything you experience and the things it might do to your psyche. This is a more conventional cautionary-sf sort of story because it relies on a macguffin technology to make it work. This kind of story is a bit more iffy to me because it just assumes the ubiquity of a technological concept in their future society without questioning if people would choose to adopt that technology in that manner in the first place. Luckily, in this episode, I can kind of see where the appeal of such a technology could come from, but the episode itself is a fifty minute long account of a man slowly spiralling into self-destruction, enabled by technology, and is honestly harrowing to watch.

All told, however, Black Mirror‘s first season knows what it wants to achieve and goes about doing so in a brave and self-confident manner, without pandering too much to public stereotypes about alarmist science fiction. That, in our mass-entertainment age, is achievement enough.

I give this show: 4.5 out of 5 TV-stars

Wonder Woman

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Wonder Woman mostly succeeds in creating a compelling origin narrative of one of the DC Cinematic Universe’s most promising superhero characters, even as it is weighed down in its final act by the appearance of a bombastic villain and some dubious plot choices.

I have to say that the inherent premise of Wonder Woman seems a little silly from the outset. An island of Hellenistic superhuman female warriors sounds like some sort of adolescent male fantasy, treating the prospect of empowered woman warriors as an exoticised “other” straight out of outlandish Greek legend. And how does it fit into the cosmology of the greater DC universe, and how Gotham City and Superman fit into it?

Also – how old is Diana anyway? Thousands of years old? Is that why she knows hundreds of languages? How long have the Amazons been hiding in their island, and are they all immortal or something?

But anyway, if we take all that at face value, Wonder Woman does a creditable job (as much of live action can) of making us suspend our disbelief. Much of it comes from the film’s sense of humanity, established in the first half hour or so of the movie, which portrays the society of the Amazons in grounded fashion, centered around the figure of young Diana as she goes about her business and secretly trains to become a strong warrior like her elders.

As the movie goes on, it deftly avoids a lot of the tired tropes that one might expect govern the plot beats of this kind of origin story. For example, Diana’s departure from her cloistered existence is not met with anger and resistance from her mother, but instead with rueful and loving acceptance. The gendered jokes and sexual hangups are kept to a minimum, and do not hinge on Diana being a complete neophyte about sex and gendered relations. Diana is strong, but also embracing of her femininity in a way that doesn’t seem exploitative.

As a superhero, Diana’s character narrative centers around the tension between her power and her confident naïveté over the affairs of the greater world. Part of her growth in character is about having her idealism punctured by the horrors of World War I, but reforming her sense of self through her sense of compassion. The film also plays up Diana’s fish-out-of-water nature in the ways you’d expect, but she manages to overcome that and succeed in her endeavors through a combination of dogged optimism and steely courage – refreshing in its earnestness and vigor.

In addition, Steve Trevor is a good kind of “superhero girlfriend” character – he exists, has things of his own that need doing, and is prepared to sacrifice himself for it. He’s a character independent of Diana, even as he serves to provide an emotional anchor for Diana’s character development.

That said, I wasn’t impressed with the movie ultimately panned out in the third act. Diana’s journey has thus far involved her quest to hunt down and kill the god of war, Ares – whom she thought was responsible for the evil in men’s hearts, whose influence led to war ad conflict. Diana’s resolve to kill Ares is therefore rooted in her optimistic belief in the intrinsic goodness of people. But when she cuts down who she thought was Ares, and the war continues to go on, she realises that her conception of good and evil is hopelessly naive.

The film, till that point, was doing a creditable job at developing Diana to the point where she needed to have that realisation. At that point, Ares was just a bogeyman to focus her energies – and I really thought that the film would go ahead and let Ares remain just that – a convenient moral fiction. But the film does reveal that Ares exists, and I wish it hadn’t. Ares’ reveal is flawed in many respects – it brings back the kooky mythological part of the franchise that could have been glossed over, Ares himself doesn’t look the part in the least (one of the lamest looking and sounding supervillains played straight I’ve come across), and Ares’ motives are your typical nonsensical supervillain shtick.

I guess to some extent it might have been important so that the film could have a climactic showdown with a powerful nemesis – sort of how Obadiah Stane ended up being the villain in the first Iron Man – but I thought that if the film had had more guts, it would have just gone ahead and revealed that Wonder Woman’s worldview was wrong and she was just another gifted metahuman who could come into her own because of what she’d learnt about herself in her experiences in the wider world, and not because she’s some ordained demigod. I suppose the challenge there would have been how to send off the film on a high note – although I’m sure there would’ve been other ways to do so.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 lassoes of truth