Evening’s Empires

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What it’s about: In a far-future Solar System recently ravaged by the actions of unknowable alien intelligences, a resourceful young scavenger seeks revenge against the agents that killed his family.

Verdict: Again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the worldbuilding in Evening’s Empires is excellent, positing a Solar System in decline after a cataclysmic affair and rocked by religious awakening after a bizarre cosmic event called the Bright Moment. But its plot is a meandering, directionless mess with meh-at-best characters, odd plot trajectories, and a conclusion that falls flat after the expectations that have been built up around it in the form of the esoteric mysteries that McAuley has posited as part of his future history. As a work of fiction, it serves as the barest of threads to string together McAuley’s otherwise intriguingly imaginative world together.

I give this book: 3 out of 5 Dr Gagarian heads

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Thor: Ragnarok

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What it’s about: Thor goes on a galaxy-spanning quest to stop the evil goddess Hela from remaking Asgard into her own image.

Notes:

  • I have to say, after watching director Taika Watiti’s hilarious Thor and Daryl shorts, I had high expectations for this film in the laughs department. And I was not disappointed. Thor: Ragnarok is a great comedy, almost to the extent that it kind of strikes a discordant note with the tone of the rest of the MCU. Seriously, there’s so much screwball humor going on here that it actually seems strangely out of place with the previous two films (although The Dark World had its fair share of funnies). The Watiti-voiced Korg, in particular, with his strong Kiwi accent and almost fourth wall-breaking genre savviness, is one such example of humor encroaching upon, for lack of a better term, tonal verisimilitude (although he is a great comic character). The Odin-play and Thor calling the Hulk a “friend from work” are some other jokes that don’t quite square with what you’d expect from the usually-seriou superhero. That said, Watiti’s lack of concern for tonal consistency gives the film the artistic freedom to be one of the freshest and most entertaining MCU films yet.
  • The plot is admittedly based on a string of unlikely coincidences and contrivances though. Thor, getting thrown onto the very planet that Valkyrie and Hulk are on; Thor conveniently storing the Surtur helmet and eternal flame in the same vault, even though the Asgardians took such special care to separate the Infinity Stones from each other. There’s also the fact that apparently the entire population of Asgard can fit within a medium sized spaceship? Where the heck is everyone? These plot contrivances do add up, but the film is so hilariously irreverent about so many other aspects that somehow, their presence doesn’t matter so much.
  • I do hope  that Thor: Ragnarok’s character development actually takes in future Marvel films, though – I’d hate to see Loki, for example, fall back to his fundamentally manipulative ways in Infinity War, when the movie went to all the trouble to give his character a kind of redemptive arc. He did steal the Tesseract at the end of the film, though, and it remains to be seen if he’ll proffer it in some way back to Thanos.
  • I’m glad Watiti chose to go with the flow and not weasel out of the premise of the movie, i.e. Ragnarok and the destruction of Asgard. It feels like things are moving into place for an intense climax in the form of Infinity War, especially with the movies now including more and more crossovers, and Watiti found a pretty decent way to make a good twist ending around the annihilation of Asgard.

Verdict: Intensely watchable and funny, if a little out of place tonally, Thor: Ragnarok is Marvel’s most successful attempt yet at integrating effective comedy with into its storytelling, and a sure crowd-pleaser.

I give this movie: 4 out of 5 Surtur helmets

 

In the Mouth of the Whale

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What it’s about: A thousand years after the events of Gardens of the Sun, a war is taking place in the distant Formalhaut system, with the dictatorial and militaristic True Empire and their Quick slaves battling the descendants of the transhuman Ghosts. Amidst this, a ship bearing the consciousness of Sri Hong Owen approaches ever closer, bringing with it a promise of transformation.

Notes: 

  • The Quiet War universe of books moves into the distant future with this third book, the worldbuilding of which I think actually trumps the near-future intrigue of the first two books in its audacity and sheer sense of vertiginous alienness. While the first two books strove to maintain some connection to contemporaneous Earth, the societies and polities depicted in Whale are indubitably strange, and yet familiar in how the chords of human nature play out even millennia in the future under the light of a different sun.
  • The polities depicted in Whale, particularly the True Empire and its slaves, the Quicks, are a sobering example of McAuley’s prognostications on what the terrible things that can happen when people obtain the power to bioengineer life at this level of sophistication. The baseline-human-fetishizing Trues have an overwhelming belief in their own superiority to the post-human Quicks, to the extent that they see Quicks as less than human and have free rein to treat them in the most inhuman ways possible, tweaking them without restraint to serve as their slaves and playthings for their most depraved pastimes. The True Empire, themselves, live across a smattering of planetoid bodies; their society is rigidly hierarchical, clannish, and militaristic, and they employ technologies they do not fully understand, that lend the book a kind of space fantasy vibe, what with various references to harrowing of Hells and purging of demons (essentially, entering virtual audio-visual representations of data structures to eliminate lethal computer viruses that have the annoying habit of downloading themselves into your brain and driving you insane).
  • That said, one gets the sense that, once again, McAuley lets his worldbuilding get way ahead of this storytelling. Narrative progression is essentially a vehicle for McAuley to introduce all his interesting sf concepts, and as one gets closer to the end, one can sense McAuley struggling to find a way to resolve the plot threads. At the very end, the story just runs out of steam and the collapse of the True Empire is relegated to a few passages without a clear link between the events of the book and the ending. Ultimately, despite all the cool concepts being flung around, reading the book didn’t give me that much satisfaction in reading a self-contained story with a clear sense of what it wanted to say. It’s like watching the beginning of a race, then skipping all the way to the finish – you don’t really have a sense of how the winners got to the front.

Verdict: Suffused with McAuley’s by-now signature imaginative power but lacking a compelling sense of story, In the Mouth of the Whale never really lives up to the potential of its fantastic sf premise.

I give this: 3 out of 5 bush robots

Archer (Season #2)

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What it’s about: Just like in the first season, every episode sees Archer and the rest of the dysfunctional members of ISIS get into remarkably consequence-free secret agent hijinks.

Notes: 

  • There’s not much point wishing a show did things it never sets out to do. Archer has by now established a winning formula based on its mean-spirited but admittedly funny treatment of all its characters, who by now have well-established personality dysfunctions.
  • Unlike R&MArcher isn’t particularly concerned with bona fide character development or inter-episode continuity: the fact that it seems to be set in a weirdly anachronistic historical bubble of pastiched spy tropes is one indicator of its fast and loose relationship with chronology.
  • So I’ve come to watch it as a constant dose of misanthropic humor that doesn’t offer much in the way of psychological succor but nevertheless allows time to pass quicker in gym sessions.
  • Season #2 is really not much different from Season 1 in that regard; Archer may have some Revelations here and there and he may be slowly becoming more self-aware of his own hyperbolic inadequacies, but by and large it really is still exploring the myriad ways it can denigrate its main characters by appealing to the humor in the ways in which they express their own flaws in the most hyperbolically venal of ways.

Verdict: Deliberately lacking in sentiment or compassion, Archer is nevertheless a reliably funny dose of humor for the angry little misanthropist in all of us.

I give this season: 3.5 out of 5 speedboats

Blade Runner 2049

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Blade Runner 2049 may feature the classic’s oppressive dehumanising cityscapes of its predecessor, but like its storied forebear, it is heartbreakingly and effusively human in its emotional and thematic outlook.

A film as self-contained as Blade Runner never seemed to need a sequel to complete it, but BR 2049 achieves that rarest of things – it takes the first film and iterates on it, providing a fresh new experience while drawing on the same primordial themes. 30 years after the  first film, replicants have been re-introduced on Earth; this time, they are made to be pliant and unquestioning in their service to humanity. K (Ryan Gosling), a replicant Blade Runner who dispatches previous iterations of “dangerous” replicants, follows a trail of breadcrumbs that leads to a secret long thought buried and forgotten – the fate of Rick Deckard and Rachel, and the existence of an impossibility – a child born of a replicant.

First off, BR 2049 is a darned good hardboiled detective story. K broods in his tiny apartment, accompanied by his AI companion Joi (played to perfection by Ana de Armas) while his implacable detective instincts lead him inexorably on the chase. The film is long – almost three hours – but it unravels in a stylishly noirish slow burn. Some have called it slow, but personally, I never felt bored at any point – every scene seemed to drip with tension and atmosphere and foreboding. The aesthetics of this film – in the rainy, ocean-buffeted megalithic cityscapes of Los Angeles, to the parched radioactive wastes of Las Vegas – are brilliantly realised, and the thundering, discordant score suffuses each scene with a barely contained power. The film may take its time, but it is filled with viscerality, and every scene is plastered with visual interest.

Where BR 2049 really shines, though, and takes its place as a worthy sequel to the original, is just how emotionally resonant its character relationships are. In particular, K and Joi are a sweetly tragic pairing, two created beings at the bottom of the hierarchy that, despite everything, love each other. While the film is deliberately ambiguous about whether Joi’s affection for K is just a manifestation of her programming, the visceral sincerity of their affection for each other on screen always cuts through that ambiguity and makes their relationship feel authentic. Every scene with the two of them together was a wondrous technical and emotional achievement on Villeneuve’s part.

(NB: although if you take the position that Joi is just a glorified interactive dakimakura, you might be of the opinion that the relationship has chauvinist undertones. But I’m kind of with Daniel Dennett on the notion that there’s  probably no quantum leap between consciousness and not. If it looks, acts feels and thinks like a person, it probably is a complex enough gestalt to be person, notwithstanding that it follows some rules of engagement with respect to behaviour. Humans are no different. Can we truly be said to be free of biological programming, to love, have babies? There is probably no philosophical zombie, no Chinese Room).

And it’s that relationship, coupled with K’s own journey of attempted self-actualisation, that underlies the film’s core theme – that to be human isn’t about what you are made of, but about one’s ability to make human choices. Joi’s selflessness may be due to her programming, but if she, at some level, demonstrates her agency to choose, then she is human. Gosling’s K momentarily believes that he is the Replicant version of the Chosen One – a trueborn of his kind, with a real childhood. But when disabused of this notion and told that he is – after all, just another regular Replicant Joe – he chooses to exercise his human agency to ensure that Deckard gets to see his daughter (and that final scene where he peers through the glass to see her – that cautious but yearning look – is pure catharsis that makes K’s efforts seem even more worth it. Bravo, Harrison.) . It doesn’t matter that he, like Pinocchio, wasn’t made of flesh – his choices made him a real boy.

There is a pleasing symmetry to the first film – where the Roy and his gang fought to give themselves a future (in trying to extend their lifespans), K sought to give himself a past (by trying to find out if he was realborn, and that his implanted memories were not fake). They both failed, but in the process, their actions bequeathed them the humanity that society denied them. And the respective scenes near the end of both movies, where both K and Roy rest their weary heads, are equally emotionally charged. For while our heroes didn’t fulfill their original quests, they have self-actualised in another, very human sense.

This is something the Replicant Resistance doesn’t quite understand. Like Roy and his gang of dancing replicants, they are in a quest to give themselves humanity by fixating on its essential attributes – long life in the first film, childbirth in the second. It may break the world, but the ability to have kids doesn’t make Replicants human – even if they think it is. That is why K defies their order to kill Deckard and instead saves him – because he knows they got it all backwards. I both loved and was emotionally devastated by the film’s quite masterful sleight of hand in making audiences think K was someone special – the revelation that he was not broke me emotionally. But K pulls through his despair and does what he thinks is right, and claims his humanity even as he loses his happy ending.

Many science fiction films have played with this trope – to varying effect, but BR 2049 is one of the most compelling and emotionally resonant renditions of this theme I’ve watched on film. It’s a testament that great film can’t just appeal to the intellect, but to the heartstrings as well.

It’s not a perfect film – I thought Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace was a ham-fisted Ridley Scott-esque play at the megalomaniac corporate villain, and his ambitions to create a race of self-replicating replicants a bit wool-headed given the implications. But most notably, he is just evil for evil’s sake, lacking any human empathy or capacity for understanding that cloning someone doesn’t bring them back. He kills for expository effect, too. Just an all-around narmy clown. His Replicant henchwoman, I thought was well-executed for her role as the baddie, but I thought there was a lot of scope to make her character more complex than just being Wallace’s tool with the occasional pang of sympathy for a fellow Replicant.

But beyond that, BR 2049 does what it sets out to do so well – and with such grace, style, beauty, and economy of storytelling – yes, I think that running time is justified – that it will be taking its place in my personal list of the all-time science fiction greats.

I give this film: 5 out of 5 emanators

The End of All Things

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What it’s about: The sixth book in the Old Man’s War sequence continues the story of the Colonial Union’s quest to survive amidst various encroachments, primarily that of a clandestine organisation that has a stake in its dissolution.

Notes:

  • Like The Human Division, this book is also comprised of a number of interconnected novellas, but unlike The Human Division, these are much more tightly connected and linked to a central narrative strand that was just only hinted at in the previous book. The Human Division had attributed various mysterious happenings to an unseen agent, but it is only in this book that the big bad is finally revealed in all its dastardliness, and this book is all about confronting that main antagonist. In that sense, The End of All Things is the more focused and narratively cohesive work.
  • This is the book where the political philosophies banded about throughout the series’ length gets put to the fore and discussed. Space, with its vastness and unpredictability, is a perfect canvas for a Hobbesian state of affairs where it’s every civilization for itself. But in this environment, two major polities have emerged – the Colonial Union and the Conclave, and the former is actually the “bad guy” in the Universe – an aggressive and expansionist entity that regards its actions as the only way to ensure survival in a cold and unfeeling universe. The Conclave, on the other hand, is a liberal, heterogeneous polity forged out of grudging consensus, an international order governed by mutually-reinforcing norms, that views the CU as a threat to its fragile state of affairs.
  • The Big Bad, known as Equilibrium, belongs to an order of political thought that views this bipolar world as inherently unstable and dangerous – that at some point, one entity will gain hegemony at the total expense of the other, imposing its fiat on the rest of the polities in known space, while erasing the losing party from existence. In a bid to resolve this state of affairs, they seek to use subterfuge and a whole host of frankly vile tactics to topple both empires and return the galaxy to a purely multipolar state of affairs, which they believe to be the most stable. Of course, they’re also counting on enriching themselves in the process, and the journey back into multipolarity is going to result in genocide.
  • Now, contemporary IR theory is of many minds about the stability of various polar configurations. Classical realism would hold that multipolar worlds offer the greatest stability, others think that it would still result in a large number of petty wars and force individual polities to mind too many different enemies, increasing the chances of overreaction and petty warfare. Either way, war is a constant, but Equilibrium clearly thinks that in a scenario where each state commands weapons capable of destroying vast swathes of an opposing planet, a multipolar world would diffuse aggressiveness and maximise the chances of species continuity (since no one species would be enough of a threat to be a concerted target of genocide from an alliance of other races). Basically, a return to a world where war is fought to maintain the balance of power, rather than to exterminate the enemy in their entirety.
  • IR aside, though, Equilibrium’s methods clearly paint them as an avowed antagonist, and the entire book is about the good guys’ efforts to sic them out and wipe their mercenary asses off known space, which proceeds in satisfying fashion. The first novella, the story of the preternaturally-resourceful Rafe Daquin, who, even as a disembodied brain in a jar, manages to outsmart his Equilibrium captors and reveal their existence to the world, is classic Scalzi – a story of how an underdog uses smarts to win the day against all odds. The second segment discusses the internal politics of the Conclave, and the third and last segments sees them coming to a modus vivendi  with the CU and Earth in a bid to defeat the newly found enemy. The stories are focused, fast-paced and thrillingly smart, interlaced with classic Scalzi humor and satisfying descriptions of subterfuge. Really, no one beats Scalzi at setting up convoluted plots that unroll across the telling of a tale in such a satisfying way.

Verdict: Yet another classic Scalzi doing what he does best, The End of All Things wraps up the latest strand of the intriguing Old Man’s War universe in satisfying and kinetic fashion.

I give this: 4.5 out of 5 brain-controlled ships

Cooked (Netflix Documentary)

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What it’s about: The documentary version of Michael Pollan’s book of the same name, which I have reviewed here. The show, like the book, takes a look at the four main ways of preparing food in each of its four episodes: roasting for fire, braising/stewing for water, baking for air, and fermenting for earth.

Notes:

  • Documentary adaptations of non-fiction books are a strange and special kind of adaptation that don’t suffer from the ills of fictive adaptations – the people depicted and written about are real, and there is less value in our mental models and images of them, unlike in a fictive adaptation where we are as active participants in the worldbuilding as the author is, and visual adaptations often take that agency away from us and turn us into consumers of another person’s imagination.
  • The show is very similar in spirit to the book, and I have already extemporized at length about the latter. Suffice to say that in this case, the show really adds a vital visual and aural interest that the book simply cannot provide, though Pollan does extremely well at evoking the passions of cooking and food through his prose. Seeing the people – real people – that I’d hitherto only read about enriches the immediacy and the visceral elements of Pollan’s message, and makes it that much stronger.
  • Pollan’s book still contains the meat and potatoes of his message, and the show is best seen as a complement, rather than a substitute, for reading the book. The show excels in its new material which I recall was less present in the book, in which the foodways of different cultures with respect to the four modes of cooking are explored – Aboriginal fire hunting for roasting, Indian home cooking for braising, Moroccan breadmaking for baking, and cheesemaking in a Connecticut convent for fermenting. The documentary provides insight into how these different processes of food preparation are an inherent part of different foodways and a vital component of what makes us human. Commensurately, Pollan’s personal experience is less emphasized than in the book – in fact, he seems to only serve a function of being a talking head on the show, rather than the person who goes roving around and talking to people. So the show and the book should definitely be considered complements – and there is value in watching the show and reading the book, although you might want to do it a few weeks apart to minimise repetitiveness.

Verdict: This is an impeccably made, viscerally resplendent adaptation of Pollan’s book, and should be watched even if one has read the original for added information and a greater sense and understand of the real people and places that Pollan describes in his book.

I give this show: 4.5 out of 5 cheese wheels