Tag Archives: sf

Infomocracy

Not sure how I missed this one when it came out a few years ago… some failure of mine or the system, I guess. Anyway, I finally read this (and the rest of the trilogy) last year, and felt a hankering need to reread this year. And apparently I didn’t review it last year, so now’s the time!

There’s no specified year that this book happens; it’s two decades after the near-global institution of micro-democracy, and it’s still a fairly recognisable world aside from that, so mid to late 21st century makes sense. Micro-democracy means that most of the world has been divided into ‘centenals’ – areas of 100,000 people (or is it voters? that’s unclear, I think) – and each centenal votes in their chosen government. The biggest are Heritage, which seems like an ordinary conservative party, and Liberty, which is theoretically all about citizen freedom… then there are some old-nation-based parties, like 1China; and most terrifyingly, there are military-based parties and corporate ones, the largest being PhilipMorris. In the long run I’m not sure which of the latter two are most scary. And then, the party that gets the most centenals over the whole world is the Supermajority and they get… some unspecified powers.

This entire book is about the lead-up to the third global election. I know, it doesn’t sound like it should be riveting. But oh my goodness, it is.

Firstly, this isn’t just a world with micro-democracy. It’s also a world with Information. Information is like Google, I guess, but made a public utility that is genuinely meant to be working for the good of everyone. There’s a touch of cyberpunk in that most everyone can access Information via a handheld device if they must, or via optical implants if they can; depending on your Information settings, you can walk around anywhere and get facts about the construction of buildings, names of plants – and the public Information of the people you’re around. Older begins to explore the consequences of Information here (and I know it’s ‘begins’ because that’s something that continues throughout the trilogy, SORRY SPOILERS). And what happens when Information isn’t available?

Secondly, of course something nefarious happens, and it needs to be rectified. The two focal characters are Mishima – absolutely my favourite – and Ken. Mishima works for Information doing a variety of things, which sometimes involve a stiletto and shuriken and climbing furniture. She also has a ‘narrative disorder’ which is never fully explained but helps (usually) to sort through a mass of data. Ken is a campaigner for one of the middle-tier parties, Policy1st, who ends up finding out some of the nefarious things and gets pulled into the action. Ken’s fine; he’s an interesting mix of altruistic and self-interested that makes sense, and his doubts and angst are portrayed sympathetically but not at annoying length. Mishima is awesome; she is splendidly capable but not all-knowing, and I basically love everything about the way she acts, reacts, and thinks.

This is seriously awesome book. I guess it’s on the ‘techno-thriller’ side of things although exactly what that means I’m a bit hazy on. I would be confident recommending this to someone who doesn’t love SF, because it could almost be tomorrow; the tech’s not that outrageous. It’s fast-paced but not ludicrously so, there are a range of characters who show a range of issues, and it’s just great.

The Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson continues to be one of the great voices of climate change fiction – particularly, the consequences of, and how humans might mitigate them (since no way are we avoiding).

The Ministry of the title is the use-name for a small international organisation set up under the auspices of the Paris Climate Agreement, kind of but not entirely associated with the UN and based in Zurich. Their remit is to basically to represent future generations, who currently don’t get a say in what they will inherit, and therefore to advocate for policies that will be good for those future people. It’s a clever way of showing that current decisions have downstream consequences, and of having people whose job it is to focus on that.

Part of the book, therefore, focuses on the Ministry: policy and the struggles of international collaboration. Another large part isn’t even really narrative so much as a series of vignettes from individuals who are either directly affected by some aspect of climate change – like the devastating heat wave that opens the novel – or by people who are involved in climate change mitigation, like farmers in Kerala who are doing awesome things with agriculture. The scope of the book is a couple of decades, thus showcasing the problems as they develop as well as the myriad and varied attempts to deal with the issues.

It’s not a standard linear narrative, therefore; but it is recognisably a Kim Stanley Robinson. For example, New York 2140 had several characters to follow and a few clear narrative threads, which sometimes intertwined, plus the narrator who dumped info on you. This is more experimental, I think, but feels like an extension of what was going on in 2140. I guess there are two main characters, although they probably don’t get quite enough space to really legitimate the title: the head of the Ministry, a middle-aged Irish woman who is awesome; and an American aid worker caught in the Indian heatwave who continues to suffer the repercussions of that for years. If it’s anyone’s story, it’s theirs; although having said that really it’s the planet’s story, and that of the entire population. Which feels so right for a book like this. It makes sense to hear from farmers in India and glaciologists in Antarctica! Less so the bits from the sun, and a carbon atom; but I’m prepared to indulge Robinson’s whims.

I trust Robinson to generally have his science right, if slightly on the outlandish side – that is, his suggestions probably match known science, but they may require more time / other resources than is considered feasible… although actually, this is something that he addresses in the book – that what seems like a large amount of money kinda isn’t when you set it in context. I do wonder whether a copy of this should be sent to people at the UN, and glaciologists, and agriculture people…

This book won’t work for everyone. The structure will annoy some, for sure, because it decentres characters and because it doesn’t really have much of a narrative. It just… covers a period of time, and what happens to the world in that time. So if you like a neat open and close, this probably isn’t for you; if you like really strong characters driving the story, likewise. But I really do recommend this as an exploration of the next few decades on our planet… it’s both optimistic on some levels but also devastating.

Station Eleven

The first question to ask here is, how did I not read this book when it first came out in 2014? And then how did I not read it when it won the Arthur C Clarke Award?

Those of you who have already read this are now possibly backing away in dismay, and reflecting my second question:

How could I read this book this year: did I not know that it involved a… y’know… flu-like virus??

The answer to the second is no, actually, I didn’t. It came as quite a surprise. And it’s a bit of a spoiler I suppose to those who haven’t read it yet but I figure that’s a community service at the moment. Because the thing is, this is a fantastic book and I want to recommend it to everyone… it’s just that, at the moment, such recommendation requires a little delicacy.

“Mum! You should read this book!! … how do you feel about reading about pandemics?”

(That’s not quite verbatim, but close.)

(For the record, she said she was fine with it.)

At any rate, I bought this in one of my spates of book buying this year, as a title I’ve had hanging at the back of my mind for five years and knew basically nothing about. And then I read the whole thing in a day. I would have read it faster than I did but I had to keep stopping to eke it out just a little bit longer. Yes, it’s one of those.

There’s a lot to love about this book. The writing is wonderful, easy to read and utterly absorbing. It takes a particular style to get away with declaring “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” In the first part of the book, in particular, this felt a lot like one of the best of Kim Stanley Robinson’s stories (and yes, just to be clear, that’s definitely a compliment from me).

The narrative goes back and forth between times – pre- and post-pandemic – filling in character histories, drawing links between people, giving detail to the world. The two central characters (I would argue) are introduced at the start of the novel – both actors, one old and one a child. Their lives and the people they interact with largely inform the rest of the story. The child, in particular, grows up to be a focal part of the future story, traveling with a group of actors and musicians across an America utterly devastated by pandemic (see? this is why recommending it requires a certain delicacy right now!). These artists use a Star Trek quote as their raison d’ĂȘtre: “because survival is insufficient”. And I love this for many reasons.

As well as flitting between times, the narrative also shifts between characters – all of whom end up having some connection with the two actors, deep or glancing, which is a neat device that Mandel manages to make neither cheesy nor just too convenient. The range of people (rich and not, pleasant and not, etc) allows Mandel to explore multiple human experiences and reactions to disaster – which, let’s face it, is often the point of writing post/apocalyptic narratives. Another sign of a narrative that is well-paced and features multiple characters is that I never got impatient in reading about some new character, wanting to get back to an original – they were all engaging and, especially as the threads started to come together, I always wanted to see what the new character brought.

There’s not that many books about which I can confidently say “I will read you again.” This is one of them.

Avengers: Endgame (MCU 20)

And so it all comes to an end, and many (but not quite all) of the narrative points are tied up, etc. It’s an epic finale (and too long, but that’s basically to be expected), and most people get interesting parts, and there are some great working-together moments too.

Except for what happens to Natasha.

I LOVE the start of this film. That it’s on such a small scale – Tony and Nebula hanging out dying together, and then saved by the BIG DAMN HERO Carol Danvers. Then coming back to Earth, and that’s all a big reunion and so on.

And then it’s five years later.

I was intrigued and a bit boggled by that time jump. It felt so out of place in the entire MCU run – which has been much more about relatively small jumps in time, keeping everything together. On the other hand, from a narrative perspective, how absolutely brilliant and devastating. And the idea that people have, largely, been… getting on with things….

The changes that people have experienced are fascinating. Steve is the one doing the counselling, and Sam is off being a hero. I loathe how Clint has become a vigilante, as if somehow that’s what he would become – it’s not like the people he’s killing are in any way connected to his family’s deaths. I am kinda delighted by Tony and Pepper and Morgan, and their rural retreat. I am devastated by Thor’s reaction to his perceived mistakes, and feel that – while it’s maybe a bit exaggerated, and uncomfortably played for laughs a couple of times – this is entirely believable and in some ways was a bold choice. Genuinely showing the effects of PTS? The idea, at least, is a good one. I do not like BannerHulk at all, but whatever.

And then there’s Natasha. Who has lost her family and is desperately trying to keep it together and I’m not sure people really appreciate all that she’s doing. She is so ill-served in this film.

Then there’s Scott coming back, and somehow The Quantum Realm etc etc oh and NOW we get to have time travel and basically write another massive love letter to the entire franchise. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a neat way to try and deal with the issue, and I love seeing some of those earlier scenes from a different perspective – but let’s not be under any illusions about this being a bit too self-referential and delighted with its own cleverness.

The replay of Steve’s fight in the elevator: brilliant. And fighting himself – hilarious. Tony with his dad – I mean, ok, Stark finally gets to deal with his self-loathing re: dad. Thor getting to see Friga again was wonderful (although no way would she make a jibe about his weight, that’s just offensive). Unsurprisingly I kinda love how Quill is shown to be a douche with his whole dancing routine from the first Guardians film.

And then there’s Natasha. On the one hand I can love that she wants to be sacrificial because she loves Clint and the rest of her family. On the other… it makes me so, so mad that it was her that died. After all she’s been through, and all the evil Clint has done. I refuse to believe that her death was inevitable. It’s the single biggest thing I dislike about… probably the whole franchise, actually.

Finally, the stones are back and we have two Nebulas running around and the final, epic battle. Which once again brings together all of our heroes (Sam’s “on your left” may have brought a wee tear to my eye… again…), and is genuinely a culmination of everything. And how restrained that this is the first and only time the writers used “Avengers, assemble”! I know I’m falling for some emotional manipulation, but golly the whole passing-between-women scene made me happy.

Can we all just agree that Danvers and Wanda are the strongest Avengers, by the way?

And finally proof that Steve can lift Thor’s hammer – everything about that little by-play made me happy.

I know certain people who complain The Return of the King has too many endings. Clearly they’re wrong (because it’s missing one, the scouring of the Shire), but I feel like that’s the case here. I can basically see the point for all of them, but… it does go on a bit.

  1. Tony’s death. Appropriately shocking, and in some ways a bold choice, but so appropriate for the entire franchise that started with him.
  2. Tony’s funeral. yeh yeh, whatever. A small mention of Natasha which also made me scowl.
  3. Thor giving up Asgardian kingship. This is a great moment, actually, and I really want to see a film all about Valkyrie in the role.
  4. Steve returning the stones and then… not coming back. Until he does, as an old man. And this is where I have LOTS OF QUESTIONS. In particular:
    • Which timeline did Steve’s happy ending happen in? because if it was the timeline of the films, how the HECK did Steve and Peggy let Hydra get to that point in SHIELD??
    • If it wasn’t “our” timeline, how did he come back to Sam and Bucky?
    • Other timey-wimey, cranky, questions.

So now the whole Infinity Stones set up has come to its end. The Iron Man saga is done; the Thor saga, as initially set up, is done; the Steve Rogers saga is done. Natasha is dead and I’m still cranky, and Hawkeye does not deserve any sort of standalone. But there’s still room for more Captain Marvel, and how I wish there could be more Black Panther with Chadwick Boseman. And I can imagine there will be more Guardians of the Galaxy but whatevs. I am waaaay more excited for Thor: Love and Thunder.

Avengers: Infinity War (MCU 19)

It’s taken me ages to write this review because… once you’re through, it has felt like there’s not much to say. So this isn’t going to be the most comprehensive of reviews.

The opening is awesome: Banner arriving back and Stark and Strange having to work together; Wanda and Vision having Their Moment; all of Thanos’ minions are very much bad takes on 1960s-style Bond villains. The interaction between Quill and Thor is just cringeworthy and I continue to dislike Quill.

Etc etc. Things go bad, people meet up, Peter Parker is adorable (“this really old film called Aliens…”). The fight in Wakanda is wonderfully choreographed and showcases different abilities. I think one thing I love about this and the next film is the way people from the different franchises are matched up and work together.

I love that Shuri gets such great moments. And Wanda – although her arc is one of the more heartrending. Okoye is of course transcendent, and M’Baku can have his own film as far as I’m concerned.

And then Quill proves that he’s a right tosser and destroys everything. Yeh, yeh, Strange saw all possible futures etc blah blah. Doesn’t negate the fact that Quill let his emotions get in the way in a spectacular way that basically means half the galaxy’s population DIES, QUILL. Tosser.

The very end, with people disintegrating, is genuinely distressing (although also a bit nonsensical, since why do some people take a while to go, and others don’t? why doesn’t everyone disappear at the same time?). And it took someone else to point out that basically we’re left with the original Avengers, at the end; everyone else is dead.

This film is exactly what it needs to be (except: too long). It brings together a whole bunch of threads that have been building up for nearly 20 films; it destroys the world and leaves the desperate need for things to be better in the next film; it gives some lovely character moments (except not for you, Quill. You suck). It doesn’t ignore the problems that have gone before – Steve and Tony, etc – but allows the characters to be genuinely heroic (except for Quill) in swallowing that animosity, in general, and doing what is required.

It’s not a perfect film, but I like it a lot. It doesn’t really have a heap of rewatchability, for me; the dramatic tension is a bit lessened with repeat viewings. But I have to admire the foresight that enabled a film like this to be the culmination of all that came before – and if there were reworkings and things had to be rewritten because they previously hadn’t worked, well, the writers and producers did a good job of that, too.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (MCU 18? or 19?)

So we watched this after Infinity Wars, but in retrospect that was stupid. The argument is that because the mid-credit scene happens in the Snapture, this should be watched between the two Avengers films, but I am deeply unconvinced. I think it would be better to get to the mid-credit scene and be wildly confused by what happened… and then have the explanation in Infinity Wars. So, I’m putting this next in my reviews.

This movie is pretty daft, all told. I like that it’s the after-effects of Civil War; I think that’s a really nice aspect to the entire saga. But… a lot of this film is just silly. Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, and Michael Pena continue to be perfect little cinnamon rolls and honestly they give me life. I’m intrigued by Hank Pym turning out to be actually not a very nice person, here – and I really like this as a reveal! – and I had no idea Laurence Fishburne was in this film and that was a splendid discovery.

But the rest of the film? the narrative? Sheesh. It’s just… so silly.

Quantum realm! Time… stuff! Living in miniature and completely alone and not going nuts!

(The opening, where we find Scott has been under house arrest for nearly two years and has had to entertain the kid for weekends in that situation, is all too real right now.)

Anyway… yeh. This is not a great film. I mean, it’s fine – I don’t regret watching it, I’m super glad the ex-wife and new partner came around to actually accept Scott into Cassie’s life, and so on. I can put up with a lot of hand-wave-y science nonsense (I have watched The Core… more than once) but this pushed even my limits. Perhaps the best bits were cars getting big and small during car chases, but only if you don’t think about it too much. The narrative also suffered from lacking a convincing antagonist. Ava was theoretically interesting but she absolutely should not have been playing a villainous role – and that does kinda switch with the arms dealer stepping into that, but the whole thing was just so messy and confusing.

So. Not great. Only got made to set up ~~the quantum realm~~ for the Infinity saga, as far as I can tell.

Thor: Ragnarok (MCU 17)

And so we complete my top 5 favourite MCU movies.

The change in tone from the earlier Thor films can be summed up in one moment: the use of Led Zeppelin for the opening fight.

I love this film a lot. Objectively, there’s an argument that it shouldn’t work: that there are two quite different narratives – the one on Sakaar, and the one involving Hela – and putting them together is pretty weird. But it totally works: partly because of flashing between the two of them, and partly because Thor himself is always fixated on getting out of Sakaar, so the viewer never loses sight of the big picture.

Hemsworth and Hiddleston are, again, excellent in this film. Thor is definitely more relaxed and more enjoyable to watch than in previous iterations. And Loki is still wavering between heroic and villainous and I love how he walks that line. The interactions between the brothers are the most honest, and most heartfelt, of any of the films, for my money; also the ‘get help’ discussion is hilarious.

I’ll be honest, though: I’m mostly here for the secondary characters in this film.

Is Hela a secondary character? I guess so, but hands up who would watch a whole film about her? That’s not even a question for me. I think Blanchett is brilliant, and I love everything about her attitude and her snark and her arrogance. Also the costuming, which is outrageous and awesome. Speaking of, Valkyrie is also outrageous and awesome in attitude and snark: her interactions with Topaz (whom I also love), and with Hulk; pretty much everything about her attitude towards Thor (his comment about her drinking too much, and her withering ‘I’m not going to stop drinking‘: perfection): MORE VALKYRIE PLEASE. I understand she is in the next Thor film, so that makes me happy.

And then there’s the fellas. Jeff Goldblum is, of course, an everything. … There’s nothing else I can say about him. Karl Urban is fantastic as Skurge, a character who goes from naming his guns Des and Troy to sacrificing his life to save his people. Korg makes me happy every moment he’s on screen (I tried to start a revolution, but I didn’t print enough pamphlets…). And then there’s that little play-within-a-play, and it tells you something about the MCU that they got Matt Damon and Sam Neill (who really is perfect as the Anthony Hopkins stand-in!), and of course Liam Hemsworth, to do those tiny parts. The Hulk is pretty good, too.

So yeh. This film. I love the cinematography, I love the colour, I love the soundtrack.

Anthropocene Rag

This book is an absolute trip.

I should preface my comments here with the reminder that I’m Australian. While cultural imperialism means I have a better knowledge of American culture than is probably appropriate, I don’t know all the ins and outs of American myth: I have heard of Paul Bunyan and Babe, for instance, but I have zero knowledge of their context, or what purpose they served, and so on. There is undoubtedly nuance that I missed, here, as a result; clever puns or narrative twists that passed me by.

Having said that, this is still a really fun and weird and clever book.

In case you haven’t come across it ‘anthropocene’ is a proposed name for the geological epoch in which we currently live: the time when humans are having a significant impact on Earth’s systems. The ‘rag’ in the title is mostly the musical version of the word.

The narrative takes place across an America that has been completely taken over by nanotech – the Boom. This tech is somewhat driven by a consciousness, but not entirely. What it is driven by is a fascination with story. And it will go to great lengths to recreate stories and historical moments – up to and including completely remaking places… and people. So there’s a whole new level of danger in living in America, never quite knowing whether the person over there is biological or a construct, and whether they might coopt you into their narrative.

The story itself centres around six individuals who have received Golden Tickets from… someone… to enter Monument City, which may or may not actually exist but if it does, it’s connected to the Boom. And at this point hopefully you, like me, are thinking: wait, wasn’t Roald Dahl English?? Yes he was, but I can only assume that Irvine is going with the idea of Willy Wonka having been so completely Hollywood-ised that he’s basically been subsumed into the American cultural myth. Anyway: essentially this is a set of road trips that showcase the weird things that have happened to America thanks to the Boom, and allow Irvine to explore American mythology.

Anthropocene Rag is a lot of fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, it does have some lovely lyrical moments, and its range of characters were always entertaining.

Black Panther (MCU 16)

This film.

Really.

Everything about this film is wonderful.

I firmly believe T’Challa is one of the greatest MCU heroes. He is confident, without being cocky. He is humble when appropriate – in the face of Shuri’s genius, for example – and he is righteous; he wants the best for his people and he is willing to change when he’s shown a better option. He is a better man than Tony, or Thor, or even Steve (maybe he’s excused for having been wrenched 70 years into the future). I am devastated there will be no future Boseman Black Panther.

Of course, a great hero doesn’t automatically make a great film. Happily, everything else about this film is also excellent. Including – contrary to some other MCU films – Killmonger/ Eric Stevens, who is an amazing antagonist. He has an entirely appropriate personal reason to be furious at T’Challa and his family… and it’s tied in to an entirely understandable political reason, which makes everything that much more devastating. I think the notion of Wakanda never having intervened throughout history is troubling, and should be troubling. Eric’s bitter ‘bury me in the sea with my ancestors’ is a powerful strike at Wakandan serenity; at the idea they are righteous to have isolated themselves. Eric is one of the great opponents of the MCU because he is a genuine reflection of T’Challa: a product of his upbringing, a fearless warrior, passionate about what he believes is right… and he’s not wrong, about wanting to support oppressed peoples. Frame this slightly differently and Eric becomes the hero. And that helps make this film amazing.

Other things that make this film amazing: M’Baku. I love everything about him. Shuri, and Nakia, and Okoye, and Ramonda – fabulous characters, who exist in their own right. Shuri is probably my favourite; she’s a fearless Q-style character who knows exactly who she is and how she wants to be and I love her attitude. General Okoye is also fantastic; her loyalty to her nation and her fearlessness and her disgust with that wig. Plus, it was only on this viewing that I realised: the queen’s headdresses, but especially the one when T’Challa comes home, must be based on the Nefertiti bust now in Berlin. It’s glorious.

I love the costuming and the music and everything about the visual appearance of the film, too. Honestly if I had to choose between this and Captain Marvel… I would be in trouble.

The one problem I have with the film is that it promotes the idea of ‘might is right’. That’s the sole reason for fighting for the right to be king. Yes yes, you need to be a warrior to be the Black Panther… but it’s still a problematic way to confirm your ruler.

Also some of the fights are too long, but that’s not a surprise any more.

Doctor Strange (MCU 15)

(We chose to skip Spiderman; I don’t think it adds much to the MCU.)

This film is very, very silly.

Firstly, Benedict Cumberbatch’s accent. Very silly.

Secondly, the CG. It’s a bit too in love with some of the effects. And they just get a bit… kiddy-kaleidoscopic.

Mostly, I think it feels uncomfortable with the mystical nature of what it’s trying to do. With the exception of the Thor movies, the MCU is resolutely science fiction – it’s drugs or radiation or tech. Even the Thor movies kind of try to skip over the fantastical elements of being gods – I know they use the Bifrost and so on, but Thor himself tells Jane that what she’s talking about (Einstein-Rosen bridges etc) is just another word for… . What Thor can do is just an ability, not so much being a god. Here… while, yes, there’s a bit of vague handwaving about the multiverse, this is trying to be all mystical while simultaneously (it seems to me) being a bit embarrassed about that.

The movie isn’t a complete loss. It has Chiwetel Ejiofor. And Benedict Wong. And Mads Mikkelsen as an entirely acceptable villain.

I do not, though, like Steven Strange. He’s an arrogant twat without Tony Stark’s redeeming features of a) a good line in snark, b) attempts to genuinely do better, c) Pepper, d) Mickey Rourke (ok, that might be rectified in the sequel), and e) tin suits rather than an uppity cloak. Also, his facial hair is ridiculous.

The cloak is actually another thing that’s ok about the film. But there’s a bit too much playing up its ?sentience, which as a result got old faster than it should have.

I don’t mind Tilda Swinton in the role as the Ancient One, considering the position in isolation. I do have a problem with the fact that the film made the character “Celtic” (whatever that means) rather than from [somewhere in the Himalayas], as the comics portray her (him) – given the initiate school is actually in Kathmandu, that seems a bit off.

The film is necessary within the context of the “Infinity Saga” – we need to know what the Time Stone can do, and that it’s protected. I feel like it could have had a better vehicle than this.