Thursday, 30 April 2015

"The Untouchable" by Stephen A. Kallis

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

From: Analog, December 1960

This is a fun little story. There's not a whole lot to it, and it's quite short, but as a bit of page-filler, it's quite enjoyable. I can find little about the author, except that as of 2000, he wrote a webpage about secret decoder rings on a website about old-timey radio.

Of course, it centers around the idea that the military really wants a certain new technology, and while everyone in the story seems to agree, I, for one, am quite happy that they can't have it. Of course a new and wonderful technology should be given right to the government for its future wars. Eep.

At any rate, an army general calls in an old scientist friend, wanting him to figure something out for him. The story he tells seems a little like he's gone round the bend - the other night, an insubstantial figure walked through the walls of his office. But far from Marley's ghost, this was a real person, the best friend of another scientist who had recently died. The best friend is a writer who knows nothing about science, but was given the task of delivering the experiment to the military.

It's a miraculous device that makes its wearer intangible, and impervious to harm, as both radiation and force pass right through. There's some science doublespeak about how you can still walk on the floor and not pass right through, but I'm fine with that. My worldview depends on Kitty Pryde being able to walk through solid matter, so I'm not going to push that aspect too hard.

Hilariously, the reason that no one knows how it works or how to duplicate it, without taking the original apart, is that apparently the scientist who invented it had "a childlike fear of putting anything into writing that had not been experimentally verified.”  

I am pretty sure that is not how you science.

Notes, man, they're invaluable. For pretty much every experiment.

So the kicker to this story, where the author brings in his classical allusion about what this is really about is that the writer friend who was delivering it to the general tosses it carelessly onto the desk and the switch flips...and now the desk and the device are intangible, and it'll never run out of power because science.

The General gets to sit there and contemplate his intangible desk and how he'll never have the next great weapon for making intangible soldiers. Which, quite frankly, is how I prefer the military. His friend says he's pretty much fucked, and compares him to Tantalus. And he didn't even kill and cook his own son, unless you're extending the metaphor to the soldiers under his command. Which, hey, would make this even more subversive, but I think the author is referring to the punishment and not the sin.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert

This is a weird review to write. Let's start by saying that I liked this book a lot, then digress a little to why it's a weird review to write. I debated whether or not to start this way, but then again, I often use my reviews to talk about the experience of reading, if it seems relevant and/or interesting. Like my Gone Girl review that's largely about reading the last page near the beginning.

So, why is this a little weird? Well, because it's the first time ever I've gotten an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) from a publisher. I got a very nice tweet from Simon & Schuster Canada, and that led to someone there saying they had a book they thought I might like, and could they send it to me?

Now, I've never gone after ARCs - it seemed like a lot of hassle for books I'd get to eventually anyway, and there are lots of previously published books screaming at me to be read. However, it was damned flattering to be asked, and if someone comes to me and is an honest-to-goodness real publisher, I'm in! A week later, an exciting package containing TWO books appeared in my mailbox (I haven't gotten to the second one yet, but I will), and I settled down to read Kate Walbert's The Sunken Cathedral.

Every book I sit down with I hope I like. While a good snarky review cleanses the palate every once in a while, I would really prefer to read awesome books. And so it was with a great sense of relief that I discovered that the first ARC I'd ever gotten contained a book that I quite enjoyed.

And yet, I'm quite sure it's not for everyone.

Let's talk about what it's not before going on to what it is, and what themes I responded to most strongly. It's not big on plot. If you're looking for a strong throughline of stuff happening, this is not going to be for you. If you have little patience for meandering or meditative prose, I'm guessing ou may want to take a pass.

If, on the other hand, you like character-based books, where exactly what happens is not as important as how and to whom it happens, I would recommend this book. It's set in New York City, among four women, (or five - the back of the book talks about four, but there's another one who I thought had about as much of the book devoted to her as the other four), none of whom are young, and two of whom are quite old indeed.

Stories jump back and forth in time, trying to situate who these women are and how they got where they are, and I enjoyed both the prose and the interweaving of disconnected lives. There are ways in which I suspect it does not, in the final assessment, hang together perfectly as a work of art, but at the time, I was so strongly moved by it that that niggling feeling didn't really matter.

One of the best things about The Sunken Cathedral is that it's one of those books that welcomes readers bringing their own experiences to it. I suspect other people would find different parts resonating than I did. What was strongest for me were the themes of life continuing with absences, and the misinterpretation of our lives by others. The two older women are widows. A school principal has a daughter who doesn't talk to her. Most have children to whom they are no longer essential.

Although this book is perhaps melancholy, it isn't pessimistic. These women feel out how to live their lives, sometimes well, sometimes poorly, in the midst of people who care about how they are doing or don't. Connections are made. Connections fracture. People you had counted on being there forever are suddenly gone.

Yet life doesn't end when absences occur. They hurt and they alter, but it isn't over. There are still romances, still hope, still searches and stories. None of this is done in a linear fashion. As I said, there isn't a driving narrative. It's an impressionistic exploration, and it's not perfect. But it is provocative, and I was moved by it. I likely would never have read this book under other circumstances, but I'm glad that I did. It's taken me over a week to sit down to write this review and the book still lingers.

(An ARC of this book was provided by Simon & Schuster Canada in exchange for an honest review)

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Week in Stories - April 28

Seven Stars of Atlantis

The only game I played last week was also the very last session of our pulp game, The Seven Stars of Atlantis. At the end of the previous episode, we'd been drawn into a Hollow Earth (not our Earth, to the best of our knowledge), where the Atlanteans lived, waiting for worlds they'd seeded to be technologically advanced enough to bother plundering.

Quick reminder: I play Margot, a rich, spoiled cat burglar.

Other characters are:
Teddy, a "Custodian" for the Atlanteans and Margot's fiance,
Rex Powell, dashing famed explorer, and
Song Su Li, master detective and Daughter of the Dragon.

We managed to implode the Hollow Earth at the end, and personal matters came to a head in a bunch of cases. As the temple spun back to Earth, a void opened up, and not knowing which was the right way to go to stay alive, Teddy and Margot held hands and walked out into the void, while Su Li and Rex stayed with the temple. As it turned out, that meant Su Li and Rex got back to Earth, and started a long trek to Shambhala, while Teddy and Margot ended up on another planet. Teddy intends to support them with storytelling, while Margot's pretty sure she can supplement that with the cat burglary she's so good at.

So, personal matters. Su Li and Margot went to set an explosive in one of the other temples. Rex had just confessed some feelings for Su Li (I was upstairs pilling the cat while this was happening, so I'm not sure exactly what was said), but on the way to the temple, Su Li assured Margot that what was going on between her and Rex was "purely sexual." Which completely confused Margot at the time.

That got a lot clearer on the way back from blowing up the temple, when Su Li asked whether or not Margot forgave her for the apparent betrayal, and Margot said she wasn't sure. Then Su Li sandbagged Margot by likening it to Margot lying to Teddy - hurting someone you loved to protect them. Margot didn't get it at first, but then the penny finally dropped, about all that Su Li had done to save Margot's life, and a bunch of other things, and...oh.

I wish we'd had more time to play with this twist! I thought it reframed things in a very interesting manner - Margot and Su Li had each always been very concerned about what the other thought of them. And it gives Su Li a bit of a tragic arc - Margot was so crazy about Teddy that it's not like she was going to requite Su Li, but still, it would have and did change things in interesting ways. And now they're on different planets.

Which brings me to how hard it is to get everything in before the end, in almost every roleplaying game! And it's often the personal stuff, which is in someways the most important, but by the end, the plot is probably rolling rapidly to conclusion, and it's hard to balance. While I think it's a good idea not to draw things out, this is why having an epilogue in Sunset Empire worked well. I don't know how to find that balance, and there will probably always be things left undone. In this case, given the likely permanence of the separation of Teddy and Margot from the others (unless Shambhala has some interesting technology tucked away, I guess), an epilogue would not have helped.

One other thing that happened was that I went into the last session going for broke. Margot was going to save Teddy from being a Custodian for the Atlanteans, or die trying. Which probably hit its high point when she told Dr. Song, Su Li's father, that she'd sacrifice everyone on Earth to save Teddy. (My husband later said "you realize that makes her not a very good person." Which, yeah. But she wants what she wants, and would never sacrifice Teddy to save others.)

That ended up working, through the expedient of using Atlantean technology to drain all his blood and replace it with un-nanited blood. Thankfully. But that's not really what I'm here to talk about. I'm here to talk about the draft....

Sorry. Drifted into Alice's Restaurant there a bit.

What I'm really here to talk about is about having something your character wants. In my various groups, we've been drifting more and more to systems-light systems, and that's great. I love it. But without the mechanical pressure, I think it's even more important for the players to be bringing their own pressure to the situation. Sometimes, though, it seems like we get into scenes without wanting anything, just to see what happens. That can be great. But sometimes it's just meandering.

I think there's a simple, non-mechanical way to kick that sort of thing into high gear. The terminology I like to use is "essential action," from A Practical Handbook for the Actor. It's the thing your character wants out of the scene. They may not get it, the tools they use to get it will vary, the tactics they choose. Every scene, no matter how small, is deeply enriched if both characters want something. More specifically, want something that has its proof in the other person.

(There's a whole list of things that make up a good essential action, including that it must not presuppose an emotional state in the actor or the scene partner, it must not be trying to get a specific emotion out of the other person, although you can be wanting a specific action: for example, you can't want to make them feel so bad they cry, but you can want an apology from them. There are more, and they're a good bullet point list.)

But it all comes down to this: when you go into a scene wanting something, drama happens much more easily and organically. The stakes are higher. (It doesn't, and shouldn't, always be in the key of angst.) It's more interesting. It'll play better to the other people at the table.

Of course, when you're acting, you can come up with essential actions during all the homework you do in advance. It's harder to do on the fly in a game. So here's what I'm going to try to do for the next little while, and I'll report back on how it goes. I'm going to try to think of one or two essential actions for each other player (or major NPC) going into the game, being fully ready to alter or discard them as the situation changes. That may mean that halfway through the session, I'll have exhausted my essential actions and will have to go on the fly, but I think it likely that by then, new wants will have arisen. And if not, I'll at least have gotten some scenes on the table where, dammit, I wanted something badly.

(Bill and I were talking about this over coffee on the weekend, and spun the conversation out into how to tell if what you're wanting to do is playing to others, and he came up with an idea for a minigame within a game (this would be purely for a oneshot), where before you start a scene, you write down your essential action and place it facedown on the table, and then after the scene, everyone guesses what it was. I think that might be fun to do once, to help get a better sense of what's coming across and what isn't.)

At any rate, with Teddy and Margot, they'd gotten back to each other and were now engaged, and I wasn't sure where to go next. So I decided that come hell or high water, she was getting him out of the finale alive, and went for that one with all my heart. And I enjoyed it.

So that's my personal experiment for the next little while, creating essential actions for my characters and recording the outcome. I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein

What happens when you combine one-way time travel with suspended animation? In this case, an old-fashioned Heinlein novel, which would not have been old-fashioned while he was writing it. From the vantage point of his entire oeuvre, it fits in nicely in the middle, not quite one of his juveniles, but not yet the wilder flights of science fiction he would drift toward.

Because he's pretty much incapable of writing something boring, this was enjoyable. I've written before about how I enjoy Heinlein's books while often feeling just a little weird about it. But I'm not about to let differences in politics keep me from reading him - a message that (ahem!) certain other jackasses in science fiction could learn today, with the recent hijacking of the Hugo nominations to make sure that those damn progressive, female, or non-white authors don't get recognized.

In The Door Into Summer, Dan is an engineer who cares less about making all the money than he does about being his own boss and making just the things he wants to make, with no one hanging over his shoulder or cost-cutting. Unfortunately, his best friend and business partner, combined with his secretary/fiance, do not agree. Together (and the secretary/fiancee is by far painted as the more responsible of the two, in the classic but slightly irritating "man duped by a dame" scenario) they rip Dan off for his entire company and try to hire him back, firmly under their thumb.

Dan and his cat are not about to take this. (And the cat is probably the best part of the book.) He signs up for cold sleep, waking up in 30 years, and tries to get back on top of engineering. Except, oddly, some of the new gadgets look like, well, they look like he'd designed them himself.

If there's a dirty dame, you know there's got to be a lily-white virgin, in this case Dan's best friend's stepdaughter, only 12 when he knows her, but due to other juggling, will be about 23 in 30 years. For a while, I was kind of hoping that she'd designed the new gadgets - I know Heinlein has written about female engineers - inspired by Dan's designs. But no. It's twistier than that.

The twistier comes about when Dan discovers a professor who knows how to send someone 30 years in time - in one direction or another, no guarantee as to which. And no way to return. Dan's made some discoveries that make him determined to go back and do some certain things that I won't give away.

He ends up on a nudist colony, and is taken under the wing of an entirely trustworthy nudist lawyer (no, I'm serious.) It's that and the plot with the young lady and the conniving dame that take this out of juvenile territory. He's only got a limited amount of time to get certain things done, and maybe I won't spoil it anymore.

There's not a lot deep here - if the later Heinleins are weirder, they've also got more to chew on. Neither are the paradoxes particularly mind-bending. Interesting, but not complicated. Still, the writing was entertaining, as it almost always is.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Spring Flowers, Spring Frost by Ismail Kadare

This may be the first book I've read by an Albanian writer. In some ways, it reminds me of Milan Kundera, but I like it more than I do Kundera's books. There isn't that pervasive detachment, the insistence that people cannot make connections under a fascist state. The setting, although not the specific country, is familiar, a state where surveillance could be anywhere, and people can disappear without warning.

Indeed, one of the colleagues of Mark, the main character, has recently disappeared, and no one investigates too closely. There is not even a moral dilemma about whether or not to do so - it's just accepted as something that happens.

This is not just an Albania that is priding itself on modernizing (and in this smaller mountain town, even that is debatable). It's also one where old stories and legends are still around - most prominently in the legend of a book that details every blood feud in the Albanian hills, those settled and those still outstanding. In a world where the disappearances seem antiseptic, a messier kind of erasure looms.

This book flips back and forth every other chapter (approximately) between Mark's life and a story or fable or legend he has thought about briefly in the preceding chapter, including one of a young woman who was happily married to a snake. The juxtaposition of folklore with the main story is very evocative, and the legends entirely new to me. (Presuming they haven't been made up wholesale for this book.)

Instead of everyone cheating on everyone, as often happens in a Kundera book, the romantic and sexual side of Mark come out in his relationship with his younger girlfriend. Neither is attached to anyone else, although he suspects her of having cheated on him on her trip to the capitol. They can't show their relationship in public, and the reasons for this are never quite clear. (I suspect they would be to someone who knew the social and political milieu better than I.)

There are also stories of a secret archive hidden in the mountains, to which the new absolute leader of the country came on the eve of assuming power, and left looking ashen. There is much here about the sins, past and present, of those in power, and the assumption of power as the assumption of all future guilt - that while you may not have committed atrocities yet, you will.

In this mix of autocratic state and swirling maelstrom of folk belief, Mark attempts to make art and stay under the radar. But neither will entirely go away, even if he can shield himself from the worst effects of either. They will affect those around him, and there is no barrier of stories or secrets tall enough.

It's an odd book, different from most of what I read, and intriguing as such. The inclusion of folklore is, of course, right up my alley.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

"The Long Voyage" by Carl Jacobi

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

From: Fantastic Universe, September 1955

There are some plotholes in this story, but other than that, it's a pretty good one. Except that the women characters get shafted. That's not surprising, but what is is how many women are supposed to be on board this ship, and how very little they actually get to do. And, of course, we're given no indication that any of the crew on this "Long Voyage" are anything but white and heterosexual. Which is to say that it's a science fiction story written in the 1950s.

At any rate, Norris, one half of a famed inventor duo, is recruiting young couples, 18 of them to be exact, to undertake a perilous space journey outside the solar system, in search of a new world to colonize. Those fuddy-duddies at the "Space-Time Commission" won't like it, but who cares about those stick-in-the-muds?

He's got weird rules, and this is where the plothole kind of comes in. It's established he doesn't know what will happen when the spaceship travels, and absolutely established that he cannot possibly have tested it before the entire crew gets on board, or he wouldn't have been there to pick them up. But he's got all these weird rules so that they won't do things that he has no way of knowing would be an issue.

So, these young men and women have landed on several successive planets, ostensibly for colonization, they take samples, find there is no animal life on the planet, and Norris insists they move on. One of the young men decides this is silly - even with only the plant life available, they could certainly colonize one of these planets! He foments dissent.

But the dissent doesn't come to much - instead, he discovers that Norris has a dead guy in his bunk. The dead guy is the other half of the famed inventor duo, who had never told Norris how to make the endurable substance that made them rich. Norris is certain that the clue is hidden on his body - and indeed it is, as we discover over the course of the story. What's not clear is what Norris thought this spaceflight was going to do to help solve the problem.

The nice twist here, though, is that it is revealed that they've been travelling not through space but through time, forward in huge jumps to older versions of the planet Earth. That's where the precautions Norris takes to keep the group from realizing it's Earth (namely, being back indoors by dark, so they can't see the constellations) don't make sense - he can't have known it would be a jump forward in time until he'd done it, and since it seems to be one-way, he can't have tested it.

At any rate, it's a good reveal, and I may be spoiling things if I tell you that eventually the other occupants of the ship manage to find how to reveal the secret in the body of the other inventor, and that somehow knowing how to make Indurate lets them travel back in time to where they started.

I'm not all that sure of the logic on that one, but okay. The twist is good enough that I'll be forgiving.

What does get me, though, is that Norris packs a ship full of 36 people, and half of them are effectively useless. All the science, all the anything, seems to be carried out by the men. The women are literally there so that the dissenter's wife can be trapped by a fire, causing him to cut through into Norris' bunk and discover the body. That's the sole purpose - potential victim.

Why this gets me is that not six years later than this was published, Heinlein's Stranger in the Strange Land will come out, meaning it was being written in the years previous. And Heinlein gets it in a way Jacobi doesn't. When you only have a limited number of seats, you can't have half the people be useless. You need everyone to be a specialist of some sort or another, and probably to multi-class at that. In Stranger, the mission to Mars is made up of married couples, but everyone on that ship, women as well as men, is super competent at more than one thing. (I mean, this is part of the small section that happens around the mission to Mars, but it's important.)

Heinlein gets that one gender can't merely be brought along as ballast. Jacobi does not.

So the women here are victims, and maybe get told about the dissent, but that's about it. One woman gets led out coughing from a room on fire. And because within just a few years, someone will get this right where this does not, it bothers me.

So, in the long run, gender politics are wonky, everyone's white, but darn it, that twist is good, even if it doesn't really hold up to scrutiny.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Dark Jenny by Alex Bledsoe





You know, when I started the book, I was wondering if the medieval sword-and-sorcery crossed with hard-boiled noir was going to wear thin. I have enjoyed the first two books in the series a lot, but has I seen all I was going to see? Would sword jockey Eddie LaCrosse start to become less engaging, the deliberately anachronistic names and patterns of speech annoying?

The answer is no. It's particularly no because you don't have to get very far into this book to figure out that it's a humourous noir riff on Arthurian legend, and I am a sucker for anything that has to do with Arthuriana. Sure, here it's Bob Kay, and Dave Agravaine. But despite that tone, the story is a faithful but interestingly different adaptation, with a suitably noir twist thrown in for good measure.

(A little weird having the Morgan le Fay equivalent be given my first name, but hey. I can remember the days when finding someone named Megan was a rare thing. I was named Megan a few years before the Irish name craze, and at the time, it was uncommon. Then it became a thing for a while, with all the added letters to make it look more Irish. It's actually Welsh. But I digress.)

King Mark Drake has created quite the kingdom, with his wife Jennifer by his side. Someone (I wonder who, she asked disingenuously) tries to shatter the peace by framing the queen for murder. Unfortunately for Eddie LaCrosse, he gets caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and those who don't want to believe the queen guilty are more than willing to believe it's that foreigner sword jockey over there.

Rumours have abounded for years about the relationship between Jennifer and Drake's most accomplished knight, and the loving portrait of her in the entryway to his home hasn't exactly stilled any tongues. LaCrosse is sent to retrieve that knight to fight for the queen's honour, and discovers that there's more going on than one might think.

We also pay a visit to this version of Merlin, a very high semi-nudist with big dreams and bigger regrets about what those dreams had wrought. Bledsoe weaves in the darkest aspects of the Arthur legend, and I shall not say anything more than that.

Did I mention the dame? Eddie falls hard for the beautiful doctor who patches him up after he punches Agravaine right in the jaw (deservedly so). But like all beautiful dames in noir, can she really be trusted?

Framing this as a story Eddie is telling years later is a device that I'm not sure adds a ton to the story, although I guess, given that Eddie has now settled down with Liz, gives Bledsoe a way to still introduce a new sultry female complication into Eddie's life.

So yeah, I still like this series. A lot. Bringing in Arthur and his court at this point in the series was a very smart move.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

The Week in Stories - April 2015

In the last week, I've got to game twice, as well as continued work on one ongoing project. So, what happened?

Shakespeare, VA

In my PTA version of this Drama System pitch, the actors continue to rehearse for their production of Macbeth.  It was only the second episode, although it was the third sitting, and it had been almost two months since we'd sat down to play, so there was some initial distraction, but after I yelled (well, not yelled, but said that if we were going to play, we'd better start), people settled down and got right back into character.

Two episodes in, I'm still making creepy things happen without necessary knowing what's behind those creepy things - that's my new job this next week. Why were Arthur and Tetra attacked by a bear? What does the new spiral carved on Arthur's wrist mean? Why was Trevor divebombed by a hawk at night? Why does someone or something seem to be trying to tempt Matthew into murdering the director?

I'm good at setting that stuff up. I'm less good at nailing it down, and now I need to, at least for the aspects I've put on the table, so I can give satisfying answers, and/or continue to direct these things in a more planned fashion. Also, I have to figure out what the local eccentric can do to help. Or a reason she can't.

What I'm saying with all this is that, at heart, I'm a by-the-seat-of-my-pants GM, and for the most part it works for me. But I then need to take the off-the-cuff decisions I made and ground them better. 

On the other hand, it's Amanda's character Tetra's spotlight episode next time. She's playing a character who never got up the nerve to move away and actually try to be a professional actor. I was quite pleased that Amanda was bemoaning the fact that she really quite likes her professional rival. I did good there - anything I throw at her is going to be made more difficult by that.

Unnamed Superhero University Project

Having finished Paper Dolls, my biweekly group with Colin and Melissa is going to be starting a superheroes at university game, but we're taking the slow way. We're taking a week for each of us to develop backstory and side characters, so that we can each be playing several characters. We started last night with a modified version of Ribbon Drive, on the road trip driving to a new university with five high school friends and/or acquaintances. Colin only played one character, because that's his PC, while Melissa and I took on two characters each.

We stopped early because we had set up good conflicts to carry on into the game, and so I think it can be called a success. Colin's character is a very awkward high school graduate with a huge crush on the adorable cool girl (who may end up being a supervillain.) Powers haven't been revealed yet, but hinted at. His female best friend has a huge crush on him, Willow-from-Buffy style. The other two in the car were a totally schmoopy couple who are nuts about each other and sneak off to have sex all the time. (For definitions of sneak that involve no stealth.)  It became apparent (and had not been thought of beforehand) that the adorable cool girl was herself becoming aware that her own type might not be the awkward nerd. It might be the perky blonde girl who's seriously nuts about her huge blonde boyfriend.

Part of the reason we went out of our way to establish that couple as over-the-top physically affectionate is that Melissa and I came up with the idea that their powers, when they come, might be of that distressing Rogue-style camp of powers that will mean they can't touch each other anymore. Also that it would be interesting if the totally good guy boyfriend gets the kind of powers that you associate with supervillains, and how you deal with being stuck with that sort of thing when you're a good person.

Also, for Colin's PC, Kevin, his powers apparently first manifested in childhood, and resulted in him being told he had a heart condition and has to take pills many times a day. But now he's going off to university, and will probably forget.

It came up with some interesting stuff. We could play a game just with these five characters. But I think we'll go on and explore character ideas for Melissa and I, and that will end up meaning we'll have a lot of NPCs to play with, some of whom will fade into the background, and some of whom may even meet unfortunate ends. It's promising.

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Escapists by Brian K. Vaughan

This review is brought to you courtesy of Melissa, who has taken full advantage of my declaration that putting a physical book into my hands would put it on my immediate reading list. With two copies of this, she loaned one to me, one to our friend Colin, and then I took it home and read it.

I was particularly glad to do so because of how much I had loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which I'm not sure she has read, having come to it as a huge fan of Brian K. Vaughn. I am a moderate Brian K. Vaughn fan (Saga is amazing, I can take or leave Y: The Last Man,) but loved the book it's riffing on.

We kicked it off with a short story by Michael Chabon, about how a young unathletic Brian K. Vaughn met Sam Clay by accident in a hotel, and that sparked his love of Kavalier and Clay's The Escapist comics. That was delightful.

Then we delve into full comic territory, as a young man in the present dreams of being a comic book writer, and is particularly attached to The Escapist. Hebuys the rights to launch it for a new generation, with the help of a talented and attractive young artist he helps get out of a stuck elevator, and his athletic best friend, who has been into lettering forever.

As the best friend dons the Escapist costume for a publicity stunt as they launch their indie comic, however, things start to take more serious turns.

What I liked about this the most was the melding of story and comic, as we get snippets of the new Escapist comic, but often with the dialogue of the characters who are writing it, juxtaposing a comic book background with more mundane dialogue. The different visual styles, and the idea of mixing fiction with, well, a deeper layer of fiction on the page is really quite brilliant, and the melding of the stories within the Escapist comic and those happening to the people creating it is amazingly well done.

We can go to comics for escape, something that Chabon defends in his novel, but Brian K. Vaughn has made them intertwine with the day-to-day life of the fictional creators of the new comic in such interesting ways. I really loved this.

I also feel like talking about it is convoluted, while on the page it's quite effortless. And the final message of the entire thing is kind of beautiful. Making your own art while still loving your source material strikes me as something that is right in tune with Chabon's book, and this is a worthy tribute to that.

Friday, 17 April 2015

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Yet again, I prove that I often go about things ass-backwards. Of course the first James Joyce book I tried was Ulysses. Of course, I spent months and months getting through it, with the help of a handy guide to help me make sense of it all. Of course, I both enjoyed and felt like there were large swathes of it I was getting not at all.  And of course, I thought Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man would be just as difficult. I was game, however. I girded my loins, got it out of the library, was surprised by its slimness, and sat down to read.

All that mental preparation and determination and reassuring myself that I could go through it slowly, there was no need to hurry? About a chapter in, I realized how very unnecessary that was. Why, this book was easy! (Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, though, that's taking me a while.) It didn't break my brain at all! The prose was straightforward, the story easy to follow, the school tales of Joyce's alter-ego entertaining and occasionally enlightening. What is this parallel world I have fallen into? Isn't James Joyce supposed to be riddles and long sentences and every style of writing known to man up to the point he wrote?

So...yeah. Apparently I should have started here, and then tackled Ulysses. It's interesting having read them this way around, comparing what I thought this book would be to what it was, and the sheer pleasure I took in reading it in three days.

Stephen Dedalus, born to a father on the verge of financial ruin, struggles through his early life to eventually discover himself as the titular artist. His schooldays occupy most of the pages, and Dedalus is overly conscientious and upset when others don't follow the rules they set down - particularly when those in power are arbitrary about the application of such rules. I felt a certain sympathy for this.

As he gets to puberty, he is beset by sexual desire, and loathes himself for carrying it out. This causes a whole-hearted turn to Catholicism, and a flirtation with the priesthood. It's strong, and convincing - the whole book is beautiful to read, the insight quite magnificent.

Then comes the moment that heralds his birth as an artist, where he is neither ashamed of the world, nor apart from it, but finds himself, in a moment, wholly, intensely, of it. And yet not of it, with a drive to write something that is true, with all the isolation that entails.

This book is long on incident, but short on plot. And that is just fine with me. The writing is clear and easy, and his moments of wrestling with himself, or discovering his place in the world swept me away with a beautiful intensity.

Also, it's much easier than Ulysses. But it makes me want to go back and read Ulysses again. Not for a few years - I'm in no hurry. But eventually.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

"Tight Squeeze" by Dean C. Ing

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

From: Astounding Science Fiction, 1955

First of all, the picture that goes along with this is weirdly troubling. Is it just me, or does it look like there's a decapitated astronaut's head bobbing along there in zero gravity? Except for the disembodied head, though, it's a good picture for the story. This is not science fiction with aliens or interplanetary rocket ships.

What it actually is is a very pragmatic story about a manned rocket having trouble as it goes to rendezvous with a space station. A lot of it seemed to me to be prescient shades of Apollo 13. Something goes wrong in space, a small mechanical linkage, and they have to try to fix it.

Because it's 1955, that gives us an interesting look at what 1955 thought the space program would like, and what Ing thought the nitty gritty of problems in space would look like. (Ing is still around, wikipedia tells me writing "technothrillers," but he also an aerospace engineer and a Communications Theory Ph.D.)

This is not going to be a review that is trying to catch him out - I hate that kind of "that science was later proven to be wrong so this is bad science fiction!" dismissal of old SF. (Although I do admit to poking a bit of fun when the answer is always pseudo-mystical "vibrations.")  It's not that. It's how this very practical look at space exploration thought astronauts would operate, and perhaps why. In other words, what things became apparent as they actually built things that could make it out into space that could not have been anticipated before they actually happened.

Most of the engineering stuff sounds very good to this layperson. It's not overly dramatized (in the long run, perhaps a weakness, but fine in a short story), and goes step-by-step. It's interesting that Ing was predicting that they'd be sending mechanics into space instead of fighter pilots, for the most part, given early assumptions about the space program. It's not a bad guess.

One thing jumps out at me, though, in the midst of this very down-to-earth story. (That I actually liked quite a lot - although I should note that I'm not surprised that in 1955, Ing would assume all astronauts would be white men. I'm pretty sure most were making that assumption, so it's not an accusation. Just an observation.)  And that is the idea that one man, one mechanic, could know the entire rocket so well that he could make repairs from memory in the middle of a space flight.

Of the three who went up, the one who is the engineer is entirely in charge of fixing things when they go wrong. Not only does he personally inspect the entire rocket just before he gets suited up to fly, he's practically built the thing. Knowing how much NASA drills its astronauts in every possible occurrence and then still gives them checklists to follow for virtually every procedure, trying to eliminate making one simple mistake in such an unforgiving environment, I was most startled by the end of the story.

Over the course of the story, we find out that the mechanic on the flight has recorded verbal instructions on how to do everything to play back to make sure he won't miss any steps. (Written seems more useful, as it doesn't presume a pace, but fine.) But he finds it so irritating that the story ends by him saying he'll jettison the tapes, as they weren't useful, and just rely on knowing what to do next time.

Again, this isn't that Ing is wrong as that it's indicative of how vastly complex space flight was once they got into it, how little it can be all held in the head of one man, and how much they learned about not relying on human memory alone in the case of emergency.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

I feel a little strange reviewing this. I mean, it's been out forever, I've read it more times than I care to count, own the movie, and everyone and their sister has read the book, and I'm sure the number of reviews number in the thousands. It came up as a reread for me recently, and so I'll take a crack.

Let's start off by saying that I worked in a bookstore when this book came out, and I remember it clearly. The Harry Potter books had been gaining steam as a phenomenon in the months leading up to it, but this was the first new release that was An Event. (These, of course, would go on to be more and more Big Events, but this was the first one.) At the time, I had no idea what the hype was, except that we were moving more and more of these books.

My husband read them first, and then read me the first one out loud, and let me tell you, his Hagrid voice is something you want to hear. One of my biggest regrets about this series is that I was too impatient to let him read me any of the others - I plowed through each as soon as I could get them home.

So we were on the Harry Potter bandwagon fairly early. Rereading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was like slipping back into a pair of comfortable pajamas. It's the book right before the deaths start happening, although we're getting eased into how difficult the endings of some of the future books will be already. The end of the book dwells in great detail on the murders of Harry's parents, and the betrayals that led up to them.

It was the first sentence that reminded me how much I like these books - much has been justifiably made of Rowling's tight plotting over the series, but I'd also like to note that that woman can rock an opening sentence. The rest of the book unfolded just as I remembered it, only marred by the fact that the binding is disintegrating on my hardcover, and part of the experience of rereading it was juggling to keep the pages together.

I don't know what else I have to say. It's the first appearance of Sirius, who is such a wonderful character. And Lupin, which, ditto. It's hard to separate them in my head now from the actors who took on the roles in the movies, but they were both great choices, so I'm happy with that. Details laid down books before pay off, like the reason behind having a Whomping Willow on campus.

Finally, they actually get to play through a Quidditch cup. This so rarely happens.

My husband is working on a Fate: Accelerated Harry Potter hack at the moment, and that's not why I went back and picked this one up again, but it has been a great experience. There are those books that you can pick up and slip right back into and enjoy every moment, and I am pleased to say that I haven't found a Harry Potter book about which that isn't true.

Read many times, but once as part of the BBC Big Read
It was also one of the Hugo Nominees 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Week in Stories - April 14

I'm not really feeling like my tiny little recaps of TV shows are turning out the way I wanted - I'm not sure how to write reviews of TV shows the same way I do of books. On the other hand, having a space to discuss the roleplaying of the previous week has given me some food for thought.

So, I think I'm going to make that the focus of this weekly post. Feel free to skip Tuesdays if you couldn't care less what I'm doing around the table (or on the couch, as the case may be.)

Paper Dolls

We sat down last week, knowing we were drawing near the end of this story, but not expecting it to wrap up that very night. However, a couple of major relationships resolved, and it became apparent that if we pushed a little, we could reach end points for pretty much every relationship on the table. So, weirdly, we're done our little three-alternate-worlds game.

In the long view, this was all about relationships. There wasn't much of a plot, and that was what it was. We're trying to think of ways we can put more plot drive (for contrast if nothing else) into the next game, while still retaining the GM-less style. I'll let you know how that turns out! We batted around ideas at the end of the evening a bit, and came up with an idea that we'll explore the next few sessions - each take a week as the spotlight character, filling out backstory for each one, with the other two people taking on NPCs. If we all find ideas we're enthusiastic to play, then we take those three characters, and throw them together (as superheroes at university) and see what happens from there. If it doesn't work, we go back to the drawing board.

But back to Paper Dolls. In the long run, it wasn't just about relationships, it ended up being about taking troubled relationships and trying to figure out ways to make them work that were adult and healthy. Some didn't work, but strangely, most did.

Of my three characters, my damaged hippie character worked through her tendency to run when she feared being abandoned, and settled down into stable relationships with her husband and her girlfriend.

My more cyberpunk character and her girlfriend worked through some pretty intense issues around cheating and possessiveness. I'm not sure they're ultimately going to be okay, but they're working on it.

And my very rich, head of the Censor Board, mostly complete bitch, got given an ultimatum by her best friend about what she needed to do to stay in her best friend's life, and couldn't do it. That was one of the only relationships that utterly crumbled, but she still couldn't admit that her values were screwed up, or that she was wrong. Or that she was drinking too much. That was definitely the saddest of my three endings.

Monster of the Week

My husband was too sick to run the end of our pulp game, so I decided to run a one-shot of Monster of the Week, which is a *-World variant about monster hunters, in the tone of Buffy, Supernatural, or the X-Files. My players got sent to a small town in the Pacific Northwest where people were showing up drained of blood. When they found the evil demon fungus that was behind it all, the picture was disturbing enough that I got vocal reactions, so go me.

All in all, I think it worked pretty well as a one-shot. Having worked through the rules for developing a mystery, I like them. However, the sheer number and kinds of Hard Moves available when people rolled failures kept me feeling like I was missing major parts of the system - I just couldn't keep it all in my head.

I'm pleased with how it went. From my perspective, it was fun, but would be more fun once I knew the rules better and wasn't trying to remember which bloody table I should be looking at (I'm not really a tables-heavy sort of GM anyway). Also, once I knew the characters, I could easily see how future mysteries could be tailored to hit their buttons specifically, and yield some interesting arcs to play.

On the other hand, Monster of the Week pretty much abandons what I think is one of the biggest selling points of the *-World games - that the GM has very little prep to do. In most of them (and certainly in Monster Hearts, which is the only one I've run,) the GM is very reactive, and can't do much work ahead of time. Instead, you play as a fan of the characters finding interesting and intense things to do to them based on what's happening RIGHT. NOW. Monster of the Week gives you good tools to be flexible, but there are so many of them, and the mystery demands so much prep that it gets away from that sweet spot in favour of a more traditional GM role. In my book, that's too bad.

Still, it was fun, and the giant bleeding tooth fungus was burned to the ground, so I guess I can't ask for a whole lot more from a one-shot.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Glasshouse by Charles Stross




I have had such a complicated relationships with Charles Stross books, in that I have often wanted to like them more than I actually have. A few of his most out-there post-human Singularity books I have enjoyed, while understanding very little of them. The Atrocity Archives was the first book of his that I enjoyed, start to finish.

And now there's Glasshouse. This one, my friends, this one is both post-human and entirely understandable. Plus, it's creepy as fuck, and packs in a lot of present-day and recent-past gender politics in ways that made it actively uncomfortable to read, in the very best possible way. It's strange to say that that's a compliment, but it is. He manages to break down mid-to-late 20th century sexist attitudes without ever glorifying them or having any wistful nostalgia. It's disturbing, but also deeply satisfying, that Stross nailed them so elegantly.

Robin, the main character, in a male body (designated ortho male, which means no elaborate modifications to the basic structure of the human body), has just come out of a memory erasure, so he's not too sure who he used to be. He starts a relationship that is immediately more serious than it should be, just before he gets recruited into a giant psychology experiment, billed as a way to recover attitudes from the late 20th century.

Human settlement, however, is recovering from a war that no one quite remembers all of - someone infected the A-gates with a virus that systematically eradicated certain thoughts as people were reconstructed by them. (If I understand correctly, T-gates move things from place to place, A-gates reconstruct things on a molecular level.) Including who started the war. Robin, he eventually discovers, was part of the resistance that eventually broke humanity free from this memory scourge.  (or should I say she? On the experimental world, he's in an ortho female body. It's confusing, it should be, and I was delighted.)

The idea of thoughts that can't be thought, and brain viruses, creepy enough, right? Just wait. The experimental world tries to replicate 1950s gender norms, and Stross is inexorable in cataloguing them, as well as the insidious ways in which they are self-regulated and spread. There are artificial ways of promoting them in the experimental society, but he also draws attention to the ways in which these resemble the ways in which patriarchy has been so pernicious a social construct, and upheld by both men and women.

The longer Robin goes in the experiment, the more of his previous memories he recovers, and the more the new place he is seems very, very wrong. Including some returns to the worst forms of human violent expression. It's a difficult book, and the subject matter is not glossed over. Again, it was uncomfortable to read, but in a good way. This is the sort of thing that should be faced head on, in all its ugliness. To try to pretend that it doesn't exist is, well, then you end up with something like Cherie Priest's books that insist her alt-Civil War isn't about race.

More than that, I understood the whole damn book. I didn't flounder like I did in Accelerando or Singularity Sky. Maybe I'm getting used to his style, maybe he's finding ways to make his prose more accessible, but either way, I like this book a ton.

Booklinks:

I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Friday, 10 April 2015

Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

Three books seems to be about the amount I need to decide whether or not I'm going to continue to read an author's books, unless they do something right away to piss me off. This is the third Cherie Priest book I've read. Unless something major happens, it's also likely to be the last. I'm just not getting enough out of them, and there are things that nag.

Also, I feel like the actual important events that happened in this book could have been condensed down into a couple of chapters in a different novel, rather than being stretched out over the length they were. I have not much patience for novels that are about a journey, that take pages and pages, but end up with the person merely having finished their physical journey, and not really taken an emotional one at all.

If, when you get off the train across the country that has taken hundreds of pages, and you're the same person you were when you got on, there's a problem. When all that has happened in the plot is that you've discovered that the evil drug-fueled menace we saw in the beginning is an evil drug-fueled menace that the army wants to exploit? Maybe that could happen in less space.

Not enough incident, I'm afraid, stretched out far too long.

So there's that. Really, though, what's making me put these down is the continued unease with Cherie Priest's insistence that her Civil War (which goes on much longer than the real one) has nothing to do with race. Every southerner we meet has no problem with Black people. Every northerner we meet is genteely racist. (It would be perfectly fair to make the point that people in the North were racist too, but you can't take something like the Civil War and try to make it okay to write about the South as your heroes by trying to erase race and slavery from the equation.) States rights, sure. But let's not forget that the specific states right they were fighting for was the right to own slaves.

It's disturbing, and it bugs me every time it comes up. Real people died. Real people were enslaved, suffered racism, war, deprivation, death. Trying to erase that from history, even if it's a fantasy version of history? It's not okay. Not even a little bit. You don't want to incorporate uncomfortable aspects of race in 19th century America into your book? Don't write about a fictional version of the Civil War.

In this one, Mercy, a nurse for the South, travels to the Pacific Northwest, to the territory of Boneshaker, to find her dying father. On the way, she must travel with Northerners and get attacked a whole bunch because these naughty Northerners are transporting something the South doesn't want them to have. Because the whole book is pretty much spent with the North, it means that, again, we get a heaping dose of how the North is just as bad, while at the same time, continually making excuses for the South.

It's frustrating, and I'm done. I might have stuck it out a bit longer if the story had been good, or the characters, but they weren't either, and I'm calling it quits.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

"The Door Into Infinity" by Edmond Hamilton

 Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

From: Weird Tales, August/September 1936

Just look at this cover. I mean, look at it. All the things I've been talking about, about covers, about gender, about race, and in this case, weird pseudopodinous cities that devour humans. Okay, that last one is new. Other than that, this cover so encapsulates a lot of things about old science fiction.

Also, having read no Lovecraft at all, but having played my fair share of Call of Cthulhu until I realized how upsetting I find that world to be, my first reaction to the story was go to downstairs to my husband, describe the plot, and ask if this Hamilton guy would have been ripping Lovecraft off. Bill explained about the whole group who wrote Mythos stuff. On some surface research, while Hamilton doesn't seem to have been formally part of this group, he was certainly around them, and was one of the main contributors to Weird Tales at the time.

Back to that cover. It's interesting, not so much because it shows a sinister Indian man (spelled "Hindoo" in the story, because of course) sexually assaulting a scared white woman while her clothes are torn. What's more interesting is that that's not how the story goes, at all. Which is not to say this a bastion of progressive fiction - the Hindu man is definitely the evil sinister bad guy, and the pure white woman is definitely the sacrifice the stalwart white male heroes are trying to rescue. What's wrong is the sexual predation. I mean, maybe those pseudopods that come out of the portal have illicit designs on this woman, but the humans don't seem to.

The other part, where gender comes in even more, is that she is actually in a hypnotic trance through the whole story until the last three paragraphs. So there would be no recoiling. Or tearing of clothes. She's a zombie, until she wakes up enough to murmur her husband's name. That is all she gets to do in this story.

But to the plot. A young man comes to the police in England, looking for his missing wife. The police inspector says that a lot of people disappear around this time of year in England, and he knows just the Hindoo who is behind it. (*sigh* Racial profiling always works in fiction that wants to prove that it works, just like torture always gets accurate information on 24.)

They track him down, and chase him on boats, and finally make their way to an underground cavern, where there is a door to another universe, which they open every year and give a whole bunch of humans to a slimy green city with pseudopods on the other side, in return for hidden knowledge. (I swear to god, my first reaction was "Cthulhu is actually the Emerald City?")

Our heroes interrupt the horrifying ceremony, rescue the one guy's wife, abandon the rest of the sacrifices to their doom, pull out a pocket watch that is filled with "the most concentrated high-explosive known," and proceed to blow the living shit out of the cavern, collapsing it beneath the waves forever.

The part that kind of gets me, and I realize this is a weird part to get stuck on, is the part where this evil portal to another dimension is in England, and every year, since the dawn of history, these evil men (mostly non-white) have travelled to England to perform this rite. I mean, how did they discover it? And how did they travel there every year before planes and boats? India's not exactly around the corner. We couldn't have English men be the bad guys, right?

So, there's that. The story is well written, as far as it goes, but chock full of disturbing racism, racial profiling, and women who get delegated to being the victim who needs rescuing. The unconscious victim who needs rescuing. I'm not surprised, I'm just pointing it out.

But hey, slimy green city that eats people!

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

I had, it must be admitted, a hard time getting into this one. I'd pick it up and read a bit, but not make much real headway. Partly it's because other books that people had on hold at the library came in, or I needed to blast something through to be ready for my book club. These external factors, however, weren't all of it. Once I finally did get into the book, I really enjoyed it.

I think some of it was because one of the core concepts of the book is just so ugly that it was hard to raise any enthusiasm about it. It was handled well, and was justifiably chilling, but the very idea turned my stomach and it took a while to come to grips with that. (This would be the state of slavery known as Focus. I'm not going to say anything more than that.)

It was the Spiders that kept bringing me back, even while the humans were driving me away. Vinge does a good job of creating an interesting alien species, and even giving good reasons why our perceptions of them are coloured by anthropomorphism.

In orbit around a star that regularly turns on for 50 years and off for about 200, a fleet of Traders who help hold together knowledge in all of Human space get there at the same time as the Emergent, an isolated human settlement with terrifying new technology. Initially working together to study the inhabitants of the orbiting planet as they are about to come out of another 200-year hibernation, the Emergent try a double-cross, which ends up with them in control but badly crippled, stuck hiding in the asteroid belt until the Spiders invent space flight. Which they are closer to doing than you might expect.

One member of the crew is actually over 2000 objective years old, much of it spent in suspended animation between stars. He was present at the founding of the Trader dynasties, and knows secrets in the ships that no one else does. So he spends decades planning a revolution, while posing as a blowhard.

Meanwhile, on the planet, the one brilliant scientist who has both made major discoveries and founded a university that brings together the best and brightest Spiders, is upsetting the status quo. He was the first to figure out that with nuclear power, perhaps only being awake 50 out of every 250+ years doesn't need to be the norm. As such, the practice of having children right before the Dark and only right before the Dark will be obsolete, and he and his wife produce six precocious offspring as proof.

This causes ripples all over the planet, particularly in a rival nation ruled by a religious leader who believes these children have no souls. It's an interesting way of looking at how biology shapes belief, and how practices can get engrained in different ways. As the next Darkness looms, which side will defeat the other? And how will the humans intervene?

This is a very good book, and once I was engrossed, I plowed through the last 200 pages in a day. It took a while to build up that head of steam, though. There are bits that are distinctly uncomfortable to read. And I wasn't thrilled at the end by the neat heterosexual pairing off of just about everyone, based on what seemed like specious reasoning. I've never been a fan of "she's been in love with you all this time, so...what's the problem?" as a reason for a new relationship, when I'm not convinced these characters have a real connection.

It's a small quibble. Certainly not one that should dissuade anyone from the book as a whole.

Booklinks:

I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

The Week in Stories - April 7

I'm coming at this from a week hiatus again - last Monday night, I barely slept, and so was in no shape to write anything coherent Tuesday morning. I really should try to write some of this ahead of time, as I do my reviews, but as much as I keep thinking that, I've been very bad about actually fitting it into my routine.

TV

The Flash - "Rogue Time" and "Tricksters"

The follow-up to the whole Barry-goes-back-in-time was quite satisfying. The character who died didn't, thankfully, but there were new complications, and a nice reworking of some of the same dialogue in an eerily similar scene that didn't end with murder. I also liked the impact of having missed those days on Iris - Barry moved too fast, she hadn't been through them, and things are messy again. I'm not sure I love the Iris love interest - Linda was frankly, more interesting. But I do like the complications here.

Which leads us into the second episode, and had me momentarily wondering if there was some weird mind-sharing going on with Dr. Wells, something like Firestorm. But nope. Now it's even sadder, knowing what happened to Dr. Wells. Also creepier. It was also nice to see Mark Hamill, doing his best not-quite-the-Joker.

Agents of SHIELD - "Love in the Time of Hydra" and "One Door Closes"

These were both quite good episodes, although I think my enjoyment of the second was hampered by the fact that I was severely underslept and not tracking so well. We get a Ward-centric episode. Interesting. He's still creepy.

We also find out about the pseudo-SHIELD that Mockingbird is working for, and it's good enough to make us see why Bobbi has loyalties to the second SHIELD, although it's obvious she's wrong. Poor Bobbi. Also, Gemma has such a wonderful moment in it that I did not see coming. Always nice to see Charlie from Fringe, too!

Arrow - "Suicidal Tendencies" and "Public Enemy"

Interesting. Very interesting. I think Thea will be more than a little pissed off at the end of the most recent episode. I mean, did Roy even check in with her first? Actually, both episodes have been about relationships going through stress tests - Diggle and Lyla get married, and then immediately embark on a mission that has a satisfying twist to it. Ray goes after the Arrow, and has to decide whether to trust Felicity. Then Felicity has to decide whether or not she really cares about Ray.

And Oliver tries to find a way out from under Ra's Al-Ghul's thumb. This has been a good season.

Movies

Witness for the Prosecution

 This came on Turner Classic Movies the other night, and Bill and I settled in to watch it, and enjoyed it most thoroughly. I did guess the main twist fairly early on, although there was a twist to the twist that I didn't see coming. Charles Laughton is amazingly good, and I enjoyed watching Marlene Dietrich. I don't think I've ever seen either of them in a movie before. Psychological courtroom thrillers - it possibly doesn't get any better than this.

Gaming

Seven Stars of Atlantis

Only one game the last two weeks, which might account for some of the grumpiness I've been experiencing. The penultimate session of our pulp game run by my husband! The whole gang is finally back together, with Su Li joining forces with Margot, Teddy, and Rex again. Margot and Su Li had a chance to talk while under enemy fire, and that relationship isn't fixed, but it certainly wasn't hurt by Su Li calling Margot magnificent. Margot's been so anxious that compliments definitely work.

Of course, Margot flaunted her engagement ring in Su Li's face as soon as possible, so she's still a spoiled rich girl.

Other than that, from my perspective? It was interesting how much being in Antarctica and finding Teddy's ancestral home worried Margot. She thought he might decide to stay, but was even more worried about how he might be sacrificed. She was entirely willing to shove an old man into the machine instead, to save Teddy's life, but didn't get the chance.

However, near the end, I was struck by an awful idea - Margot's already proved she'll do something that makes Teddy hate her, if it'll save his life. I think she'd do it again, if necessary. He's told her in no uncertain terms never to do that again. I mentioned this to Bill, and he got an evil grin on his face. Never mention things to the GM.

Poor Margot. She may be headed for a tragic ending. I'd like to see a happy one, but this time, I'm not sure. Also, I would be dramatically satisfied by a sadder ending, although it wouldn't perhaps be my first choice.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

This was the book Alison selected for our book club last month, and when we got to the meeting, she'd almost finished it. I asked if she'd gotten to the big surprise in the last chapter, and she thought for a second and said "Maybe?" I said that meant she hadn't. If she had, she would know. So there were some spoilers that night, although I'll try to avoid spoilers as I write this.

Boy, Snow, Bird is a riff on the tale of Snow White, about the three women named in the title - Boy, the daughter of an abusive ratcatcher in New York, who runs away to a small town and eventually marries a widower there. He has a beautiful fair daughter named Snow. But when Boy has a child, Bird, her skin is much darker, revealing that Boy's husband and his family have been passing for white in the North for years.

Given that that is the premise, this book is actually less focused on race than I expected. Oyeyemi makes the point before Boy is even married, let alone pregnant, that she doesn't "see race." She invites the three black teenagers in the town who hang out at the bookstore where she works to her birthday party, and is shocked when they won't attend. It feels like this is there so that when Bird is born, it can be asserted that how Boy reacts to Snow isn't at all rooted in racism. I am not entirely convinced by this. Given the set-up of the book, although I would be made uncomfortable by more overt racism than appears, it would also bring another level of complexity to the relationships between mothers and daughters.

Bringing in another story from my book club, one of my friends was saying that he was bothered by how much racism there was in the book, while I replied that I actually thought that was surprisingly little. Most of what happens are microaggressions, and they're drawn very well. There is surprisingly little more overt racism. Which, even given that it's the Northern U.S., feels a little unrealistic. Black people I know here in Canada have had to deal with more overt manifestations of racism in the 21st century than we're seeing here in Connecticut in the 1950s.  It would have made the book much uglier to dwell upon it, and I get that an author may want to make the book about something else - but again, given the premise...it just feels a little odd.

This is not a book to read if you demand that everything become clear, but that's actually something I like about it. Boy's reactions to Snow are seen, but never entirely, internally, explained, even though two thirds of the book are from Boy's perspective. Boy herself doesn't entirely understand, and I think that works very well.

It is an interesting choice that, given that the book is divided into three sections, Snow never gets a section to speak from her point of view. The closest we get are letters she writes to her sister, Bird. In my book club, the middle section, from Bird's point of view, was the least favourite. Which is odd, because I really didn't find it offputting at all. I was really quite enjoying watching a girl trying to make sense of her world, knowing that there are things that are off about it, like a sister she has never seen, and grandparents who can barely stand to look at her.

That the Snow White equivalent has no voice in the book is a very interesting choice, and one that I think works. We get hints, but not conclusive answers, and indeed, that seems to be something that Oyeyemi avoids altogether.

As I hinted in the first paragraph, there is a revelation near the end that puts the consideration of this book about passing into an entirely different light, but to breathe a word of it would be just plain mean, so I won't. It is worth pushing through to, though, even if you find the middle section a slog. Whether or not you like it, it is interesting.

So, to sum up...there are ways that this book seems to avoid its own premise, which is odd, but in general, I liked the complexity, the multiple narrators, the complicated motives, and the refusal to really give definitive answers. Still, I didn't love the book. I admire it with a more distant affection.

Friday, 3 April 2015

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

I finished this book a week ago, and I've been trying to figure out what to write in the review ever since. First of all, where do I slot it in among the three other Mitchell books I've read? These are books that have gotten me very close to being able to declare that I'm a fangirl of his work. It's not as good as Cloud Atlas, but that's merely saying it's very good instead of a masterpiece. Do I like it more than Ghostwritten or less? Does a ranking really matter?

I think maybe it does because although I liked The Bone Clocks a whole damn lot, I had some of the same issues with the ending as I did with Ghostwritten, which is seeming like a David Mitchell thing. Both books are so wonderful and so heady and so in love with people. Then their ends are so depressing, that while they may be valid, it takes a bit of the wind out of my sails. It's hard to be as enthusiastic. (I am not, note, looking for a perfectly happy ending. It's just that at the ends of his books he can get so damn bleak that it feels somewhat dissonant from what has gone before.)

Then again, Mitchell is all about dissonance, about blending genres and tones, and it's what I love. It's that it's that note at the end, always at the end.

I have another quibble, but this time it's with reviewers and critics, not with David Mitchell. It is this: There. Are. No. Damn. Wizards. In. This. Book.  So many reviews, "I liked it until the wizards, the wizards threw everything off, the wizards blahblahblah." No wizards! I heard that and assumed that people were being dumb about Mitchell switching genres and we'd end up in a fantasy land at some point. But there are no wizards! And while there is some genre-jumping, it's much more subtle than some of his other books.

It's a book about the life cycle, people as bone clocks, the passing of one, the emergence of another. There are those who are bound to the wheel in an entirely different way, through reincarnation and the ability to move souls to different bodies. Being one of those beings, dear children, does not make one a wizard. Even the twisted ones who sacrifice other people to extend their own lives in some bizarre Satanic-type ritual if Satanism really worked, that's not really wizardry. If you're going to get huffy about genre, get it the fuck right. Seriously.

So I kept looking for wizards, and being puzzled. That's got nothing to do with David Mitchell. It's just that when you find out in detail about the opposing forces who exist behind the scenes of human life, some people find it a moment much like the frogs in the movie Magnolia - it's either a beautiful moment where it all comes together, or it completely throws some people out of the story.

Although it isn't immediately apparent, it's the story of one normal human life that gets mixed up in these centuries-long battles, that of Holly Sykes, whom we first meet as an English teenager running away from home, and follow her, sometimes through the stories of other people in her life, through all the ups and downs. Paired with that, although he only emerges once or twice, is Hugo Lamb, a character from Black Swan Green. (Mo from Ghostwritten also makes an appearance.)

Each chapter has a little clock running down in the margins, which created a lovely sense of tension. We check in with her or with people around her over the course of a lifetime, with all the death and birth that entails. Her path occasionally intersects with those who don't know why they keep coming back, but they do. It's about accepting mortality, for those for whom it is inescapable, and learning how best to be immortal, for those for whom that is equally so.

I enjoyed this book a great deal. One hundred pages in, I had that comfortable feeling you get when you're in the hands of the master storyteller. You know the story may be distressing, but also that the writer knows where he's going and what he's doing, and you can relax and be dragged along. By the flow of time, in this case.

And even the ending is good, and probably a needed warning of where Mitchell worries we might end up. It's not quite as dire as I may have made it sound. There's such love here, and it comes out in the worst of circumstances. Who can you save from the inevitability of death?

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Lives of the Circus Animals by Christopher Bram



Starting this book was very confusing to me, and it took me a while to figure out why. One of the main characters, a playwright, is famous for having written a celebrated stage adaptation of a short story, Venus in Furs. Of course, Venus in Fur has been the hot play of the last few years, written by David Ives. In fact, I think one of my sisters was the stage manager for the Canadian premiere of the show. (I couldn't be thinking of another play, but I think I have the right one.)

So why, I wondered, would this author use a fictional playwright, but include a real play? Eventually, I looked at dates, and realized that the book came out years before the David Ives play, and so, it was just a weird sense of timing, not a choice made to stretch the boundaries of the fourth wall.

It was a confusion caused by happenstance, but once I got it sorted out, I was much happier. It was nagging at me.

This is a story about the theatre scene in New York circa the turn of the century (as in, the start of the 21st century), it is largely, although not exclusively, about gay men, and the narcissism of the artist. It also claims that no one hangs around the stage doors on Broadway for autographs anymore, and maybe that's true, but my Facebook page from last week, when a friend was in New York going to all the shows, would tell another tale.

At any rate, we have people who are dissatisfied with the theatre and all the politics that it entails, those who want to be in the theatre but have no discernible talent to get them there, those who have been doing it for so long that they can phone it in, those who are just starting out who are talented but raw, and those who have found that the muse has deserted them.

One thing that nagged at me was this insistence that being intelligent is antithetical to being a good actor. Jessie, the sister of the playwright, sometimes dating the guy who is disillusioned by the theatrical world despite being a good director, can't be an actor because she's too smart. I hate this trope. With a fiery passion.

Look, when you are actually acting, there is a certain amount of truth that you have to turn off the inner censors, and just trust that all the homework you've done (and that homework is greatly aided by being smart, in my experience) is there, and let the performance happen. Learning to turn off that part of your brain that would impede a good performance is not easy, but it is a teachable skill. And it is not antithetical to being smart.

I don't act very much anymore, unless it's at the gaming table, but let me tell you, I'm not terrible. I'm also pretty smart. It has been an asset, not a liability. So I kind of hate it when people spout that being smart is the same as not being able to be mindful onstage. I call bullshit.

Okay, digression over. Other than that, these people weave in and out of each other's lives, hurting each other with sex, and with emotion, keeping people at a distance and letting them in. And then the critic in their midst finds an unexpected adversary.

This isn't a plot heavy book, but the characters are interesting, and I'm almost always willing to read something about the theatre. Even if they rely on lazy stereotypes about actors needing to be not that smart.