I watched 2Fast, 2Furious

The story so far. Curious about how a bloated film franchise spawned, I watched the first Fast and Furious movie, having never watched any of the films before. The initial film is an odd beast, partly based on an article in Vibe magazine entitled Racer X (https://www.vibe.com/2015/03/racer-x-rafael-estevez-kenneth-li-fast-and-furious-inspiration-may-1998 ). That article makes its own interesting connection with popular culture:

‘As a kid growing up in Washington heights, Estevez remembers being transfixed every week by TV’s The Dukes of Hazzard. “The Dukes pulled a lot of stunts, soared through the air, and were always getting chased by cops,” he recalls. “The best part was they would always get away.”’

There’s a long history of car movies (and in the above example, TV show) where the heroes are drivers and they have an antagonistic relationship with the police. I suppose that’s inevitable given the inherent public menace of driving really, really quickly on public roads but the connection is more free floating than that. 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit has the hero using his car to help a truck smuggling crates of Coor’s beer or, to step away from the American south, 1969’s The Italian Job is overtly a crime caper film that features Mini Coopers as part of a complex getaway plan after a gold heist. This second example was loosely remade in 2003 by F Gary Gray, the same year as 2Fast 2Furious was released and notably included Jason Statham in the cast.

I’ll contend that there’s a shitty-libertarian aesthetic to the car movie. Driving is posed as heroic and in opposition to authority, the police are antagonists (not always the main antagonist) or at the very least in an ambiguous role (as Paul Walker’s character is in the first Fast & Furious film). However, given the inevitable chaos and destruction that necessarily gets depicted (often bloodlessly but still extensive) there is no sense in which laws against driving really, really fast on public streets look like a bad idea. The drivers are people fighting for their freedom (in one sense) but they aren’t fighting against injustices necessarily (nor consistently depicted as doing so).

In the first film Vin Diesel’s Dominic character gets to personify this muddled ethic/aesthetic. He’d rather die than go back to prison and he commits violent crime (hijacking lorries) to fund the one experience that makes him feel free — illegal street racing. It is the pursuit of happiness in chrome and fuelled by nitrous oxide. Paul Walker’s Brian is unconvincing as a police officer in the first film and inevitably let’s Dominic escape at the end of the film.

The sequel is, I think, the film that first vaguely nudged my notice with it’s cute-but-corney sequel title. If you had asked me a couple of weeks ago, I’d have said the title was 2Fast, 2Furious: Tokyo Drift because that kind of absurd sequel title is what had permeated into online culture. It isn’t a good film by an stretch of the imagination but it is a much better film than the first.

Brian O’Conner is now living in Miami as an illegal street racer having abandoned being a cop (or being sacked or he’s on the run — it’s a little unclear) after the events of the first film. After being caught racing, he is recruited by FBI Agent Bilkins from the first film to join an undercover operation against a South American drug lord. That whole scenario retains the very 1980s feel that was in the first film.

This isn’t quite a heist film but it is more like one than the first film. That original film was still trying to do a kind of slice-of-life examination of a sub-culture (and failing) that reflected some aspects of the original article. The sequel is more clearly living in the land of fiction. Yet surprisingly, the sequel feels like it has a lot more racing in it.

The film starts with an extended racing sequence which is a lot more fun to watch than the first film’s races. I was genuinely surprised by how much better it was. That certainly wasn’t due to realism because I have exactly zero experience with cars other than as a passenger. However, I’ve played my own share of racing video games and even if your only experience was with Mario Kart, the aesthetic connection between this first race and games is clear.

There’s no Vin Diesel in this film, so the male bonding aspect comes in the form of Tyrese Gibson, who plays a boyhood friend of O’Conner’s called Roman Pearce. The stakes are established by the FBI promising to clear the criminal records of both O’Conner and Pearce if they help take down the drug lord.

At this point the plot doesn’t make any sense. There are plans and betrayals and twists but quite what anybody is trying to achieve is unclear. The schemes of the police, customs, FBI and the drug lord are mainly pretexts for situations where people have to drive really fast. O’Conner and Pearce need a second set of cars? Problem solved! They’ll race a couple of side characters and win their cars! Yup, it is a video-game style quest and the film uses video game plotting to move O’Conner from one driving sequence to another.

The plot doesn’t withstand any close examination but neither did the plot of the first film. What it does do is move the characters quickly to new action sequences and in each sequence there is a clearly explained (if very localised) set of stakes. Race here to collect a package to prove you can drive quickly enough to get the job with the drug lord. Race now to win two extra racing cars that your FBI/Customs handlers don’t know about.

Everything moves towards an epic all-the-police-cars style car chase sequence with a heist-move-like we-planned-all-this-earlier sequence and a final showdown with a baddy. That showdown, involving launching a car into the air to crash onto a boat, gets an overt Dukes of Hazard reference from one of the main characters.

This film knows that it is ridiculous which gives it a major advantage to the original. It avoids the confused ethics of the first which tries to cast Dominic as a heroic character who just wants to live a quiet life exceeding the speed limit and beating up lorry drivers by adding in a stock movie villain character in the form of evil-south-American drug lord. It also knows that people want to see absurd car stunts but to its credit when the heroes do crash land their car on top of a boat they are shown as being badly stunned by the experience.

A Cat Reads Hyperion by Dan Simmons

[September 25, 2019, Felapton Towers]
Good evening everybody, it is I, Timothy the Talking Cat, speaking to you from the magnificent library within my palatial home in Bortsworth, in the green, pleasant and European Union free kingdom of England. God bless her and all who sail upon her.

Today I have mostly been reading Hyperion by Dan Simmons. How much do I love Dan Simmons? I love him a LOT. I love him so very much. Sure, sure, it was only a few weeks ago that I picked up one of his books and flicked through a few pages and I was like “Jezz-louise, where are the ray guns and all the explosions and what’s with all these hoity-toity literary references. This guys is one of them there literati types with their big New York pent-up houses and a butler called Snifflington” and I got all mad and ran around the house three times and then hid in a cupboard and wouldn’t come out. But later, when old Kamchatka Flugelhorn was trying to coax me out for dinner he asked me why I was upset and I explained that Dan Simmons had an audacious lack of rocket ships in the book I was looking at and it had me so, so very mad.

“Judging by claw marks,” said Camerashop Fettlehouse, “you were looking at my copy of The Terror?”

“That’s the very one!” I shouted back (very loudly because I was hiding under a jumper inside the cupboard), “Not a single rocket ship! Not a single space battle!”

“It’s a supernatural horror set on a Victorian British sailing ship. I really don’t know why you would expect rocket ships. It has a giant supernatural polar bear monster in it, if that helps?”

I can tell you now that did not help. Nor did Cattlegrid Fentanyl’s lurid explanation of the plot. Now I was not merely outraged about the blatant incursion of literature into my beloved genre but I was also mortally terrified that I was being stalked by a malovelent spirit in the form of a polar bear. Do you know how many cats get eaten by polar bears each year? Me neither. Which only goes to show that SOMEBODY is hiding the truth. “Probably Greta Thunberg” I said. Of course, silly Camisole Fruitcake couldn’t follow a simple chain of reasoning and expressed some puzzlement about my “outburst”.

I am a patient cat. I suffer fools. I do not suffer them gladly but I do suffer them, for the universe keeps throwing them in my path. I explained in terms a three year old could understand that Ms Thunberg was from polar bear land and so was obviously in on the whole plan to set polar bear ninja ghost assassins after me.

“Dan Simmons is not part of a shadowy cabal run by Greta Thunberg that is plotting to have you eaten by polar bears!” he said. I snorted in disdain, having already laid out the logical proof of my conclusions. “No, seriously. Look, everybody got mad at Dan Simmons for being rude about Greta Thunberg.” Now this was a much better argument than Camelback Flutesection had used earlier (e.g. “Polar bear land is not the name of a country and even if it was it wouldn’t be Sweden.”)

“Really?” I asked, looking out from the cupboard — ready at a moments notice to retreat at the first sign of any spectral ursus maritimus.

“Yes, really. The guy has really reactionary views.” explained the human. Well, that changes thing. If there is one thing I will take a stand on it is my unswerving opposition to cancel culture! Yes, a lesser man would cower in fear at the thought of Twitter mobs but not a fearless and outspoken cat like myself. Pausing only to eat a large dinner of smoked salmon with kibble crusting and then pausing a bit longer for an extended nap by the electric heater, I leapt into action! I rushed to my Facebook page and informed my many followers that Dan Simmons was my favourite author now and also what books I should read by my favourite author (with a specific note that I’m under strict medical advice not to consume any media containing polar bears). Straw Puppy said I should read Hyperion because I would “like the main character – he’s very prickly”.

Well so far I’ve only read a few pages and look at this:

“Whether they seek to control just Hyperion for the Time Tombs or whether this is an all-out attack on the Worldweb remains to be seen. In the meantime, a full FORCE:space battle fleet complete with a forecaster construction battalions has spun up from the Camn System to join the evacuation task force”

From the Prologue, Hyperion by Dan Simmons

That’s what I’m talking about! Time tombs! Space battle fleet! All-out attacks by a sinister group of invaders! I’m a simple cat with simple pleasures and there are the things I want from my reading. Give me stuff like this! Future space action on weird planets! That’s what my now favourite author Dan Simmons is offering! Good for him. I’m glad I found a book that avoids the pretentious topics of the literati set with their obsession with stuff like Chaucer or early nineteenth century poets swooning to death in Rome or whatever. Simple clean narratives is what a red-blooded cat needs to relax and not over-complicated non-linear narratives, pretentious symbolism or inconclusive ends. I’m sure this book is going to be great!


Afterword by Camestros Felapton

Timothy began reading Hyperion by Dan Simmons a year ago on Thursday. I promised to post his review as soon as he had finished it. The book was last seen being used to wedge open a rusted filing cabinet in Timothy’s “war room”.

I watched The Fast and the Furious for the first time

There appear to be a lot of films in the Fast and the Furious franchise and only a global pandemic has paused their proliferation. There is a point where natural curiosity overcomes my overall lack of interest in cars. So if I have to start somewhere then it makes sense to start at the first film.

Before hand I knew that the film was about a cop infiltrating a gang of street racers who are involved in robberies. If that sounds a bit like the film Point Break with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze and “surfers” swapped out for “street racers” then, well, I haven’t watched Point Break either. I also know that the star of the film died much later in the franchise and that didn’t stop the films somehow evolving later into an action thriller with Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham.

Released in 2001 the film looks and sounds like a product of at least the previous decade and at times feels like it belongs in the 1980s or even the 1950s. The title, of course, is literally borrowed from a 1954 film but there is a definite 1950s pulp book feel to the way story frames the central street racing gang as all a bit scandalous and dangerous. It’s a macho culture and aside from two characters, women are portrayed primarily as sexual rewards. The first exception to that is Michelle Rodriguez’s character Letty, who is the girlfriend of gang leader Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) but also an equal member of the close knit gang and an adept driver. The second exception is Dominic Toretto’s sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) who is the primary love interest but still sort of falls into an ‘innocent young woman caught up in a criminal subculture’ archetype. Both women are definied in terms of the relationship to Dominic but that is sort of true of the whole movie. Vin Diesel gets to be centre of everything and only Paul Walker’s cop character Brian O’Conner ever gets to be defined in terms of any other relationships.

The street racing sequences are surprisingly quite dull. Each race is basically down a straight road between two cars. In the first race between Walker and Diesel they even have a kind of trippy visual effect when the characters press a go-faster button, as if they engaged warp speed. The more exciting actions sequences are confined to the first heist (which opens the film) and the second (which begins the final stage of the film).

Diesel and Rodriguez are the most convincing in their roles. Walker, not so much. The plot makes it obvious he’s a cop even before the surprise reveal but at the same time he’s never convincingly a cop even when talking to his boss and the FBI. His undercover role makes little sense and the obvious route for busting Dominic Toretto’s criminal operation is tax fraud, as he clearly is spending a lot more money than his garage could generate.

The four street racing factions we meet are split on ethnic lines with the Vietnamese Johnny Tran (Rick Yune) being the main bad guy. Despite his gang frequently shooting at cars and people on motorbikes, the police are less interested in that and focused on the lorry hijacking scheme. Aside from that the ethnic divisions don’t play a role in the plot.

I wouldn’t have guessed this was a franchise spawning film if I didn’t already know. Walker is wooden, the car sequences are OK but it’s not Mad Max. The writing is weak: Dominic and Brian bond because the plot says so, Mia and Brian fall in love because the plot says so. The characters feel like action figures being moved around. The lorry heist plans makes no sense and the surprise the gang faces when the lorry drivers start packing shotguns really shouldn’t have been a surprise.

I’m going to watch the rest. I’m genuinely curious now.

Timothy and I Watch Patriotic Submarines

[Garbled but extensive spoilers for “Hunter Killer” 2018]

[Scene: the palatial personal movie theatre underneath Felapton Towers (remodelled from the second wine cellar). Timothy the Talking Cat and his amanuensis Camelback Freshwater are sitting down for Movie Night.]

  • Camestros: I feel that after we introduced “Movie Afternoons”, we may have watched too many crappy movies.
    • Timothy: It was “Movie Breakfasts” that really made the difference.
  • Camestros: There is literally nothing I want to watch here…
    • Timothy: We could…
  • Camestros: No, no, we are not watching Cats again. Look, maybe it’s time to go outside?
    • Timothy: No way! It’s a hellscape out there! A seething dystopian nightmare! Woke mobs are cancelling cats for not wearing masks! It’s EU commissioners herding us inside our borders and stealing our holiday homes in the South of France and forcing us to use metric! It’s Attack on Titan but with giant buck naked Boris Johnsons eating people! There are SCOTTISH people about!
  • Camestros: Could you not just stick to one wildly inflated conspiracy theory at a time?
    • Timothy: Oh, that’s EXACTLY what THEY want us to do!
  • Camestros: OK, ok…how about this then. Hunter Killer starring Gerard Butler and Gary Oldman.
    • Timothy: Oh I like Gerard Butler. He was very Spartan in that film Oh Look At Us Big Manly Spartans! Will he be wearing a shirt this time? Oh, will he be a CGI cat this time? Will he? Will he be a big manly Spartan cat with CGI fur? Will he be a be a big manly Spartan cat with CGI fur but he is in an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical about the battle of Thermotherapy?
  • Camestros: 1. Thermopylae and 2. no and 3. please stop singing “This is Sparta” to the tune of Rum Tum Tugger. It doesn’t even scan right.
    • Timothy: Look, look Camerawarehouse! It has submarines in it!
  • Camestros: Well now it has my interest! Submarine films are the best!
    • Timothy: Better than Star Trek films?
  • Camestros: Star Trek films ARE submarine films! Wrath of Khan in particular! Submarine films are all science fiction films even the ones that aren’t science fiction. You could shoot a documentary on a submarine and it would still be science fiction. That’s just how genres work.
    • Timothy: Hoorah! We found a film! Submarines for you and jingoistic American militarism for me!
  • Camestros: You know Gerard Butler isn’t American right?
    • Timothy: Obviously. He’s Spartan not American…but America is the modern day Sparta. That is why Americans eschew all luxuries and wear only loin cloths and bandoliers.

[The film starts]

dive! Dive! Dive!

I finished the Wolf Hall trilogy

I need a rest from books for a bit.

There’s no mystery why Hilary Mantel’s first two novels in the series won a Booker prize. The Mirror and The Light carries on what is essentially one giant novel, chronicling Thomas Cromwell’s life from his attempt to help Cardinal Wolsey extract King Henry VIII from his marriage to Catharine of Aragon, through to Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, her execution, Henry’s third marriage to Jane Seymour, her subsequent death (complications from child birth), and finally (for Cromwell if not for Henry) the King’s failed marriage to Anne of Cleves (aka Anna von Kleve).

The Tudor period looms large in English national mythology of greatness and Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I are two of the most fictionalised and dramatised British monarchs (Queen Victoria being the third but Elizabeth II is getting higher in the charts I’d imagine). Although I often read Booker prize winners, when Wolf Hall won I was originally uninterested. Another book about Henry and Anne Boleyn? Is there seriously anything new to say about all that? Turns out there was a lot of new things to say about it, and by employing a story people know at least in sketch form, Mantel could focus on an aspect that makes the Tudor period fascinating.

Mantel’s version of Cromwell is a modern man, not a good man or a virtuous man but a character who would fit directly into a story about an ambitious corporate manager aiming to be the COO of a major multinational. That he is trapped in a world in which Popes and feudal rules still matter and where he must navigate the whims of the vain and self-obsessed Henry only highlights the kind of corporate absurdity in which he exists. The tasks he sets himself are essentially impossible:

  • Ensure Henry VIII has a male heir.
  • Keep England’s finances secure.
  • Shift England from Catholicism to Protestantism.
  • Avoid either the French or the Spanish/Holy Roman Empire invading.
  • Avoid being burned to death as a heretic.
  • Keep the powerful English noble families in line.
  • Stay in power (to do all of the above) without getting executed as a traitor

He does, in the end, manage some of this. England doesn’t get invaded, mainly because Spain and France have better things to do. He does get his head chopped off, but even that is a bit of a win given that he wasn’t of noble birth and also given that being burned alive was always a likely option. His son Gregory did not fall out of royal favour when Thomas was executed. His nephew and protege Richard Cromwell also survived unscathed from Thomas’s fall from favour and Richard’s grandson Oliver returned the favour and had a king’s head chopped off.

So Thomas Cromwell acts as a kind of metaphor for the growing power and wealth of a non-aristocratic class in Tudor England. Mantel’s version of Cromwell casts him as a survivor of a violent, bullying father amid the poverty of south-west London and from there advancing himself as a soldier in Europe, then a banker’s servant in Italy and then a merchant in the Netherlands before returning, already wealthier, to London. In the first book he is already the scheming right-hand man of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey by the end of the final book he is the most effectively powerful man in England and ennobled as an Earl.

It is a hideous and cruel circus performance of spinning plates and diplomatic half-truths. Mantel portrays him as largely trying to find ways around having people executed but even here Cromwell seems more motivated by concern that Henry will regret later having people killed. As his great-grand nephew might say, this is a “warts and all” depiction but also a deeply humanising one. Mantel shifts even within paragraphs between first-person and third-person perspectives as if the whole story is Cromwell himself narrating but unsure of his own role as narrator. Time jumps back to past events in his life as events cause him to recall moments from his childhood, youth or his rise to wealth, creating a non-linear biography of the time before the events in the book.

I listened to the book as an audiobook and it was easily the best adaptation to an audio book I’ve listened to so far. Narrated by the actor Ben Miles, who had played Cromwell in the RSC theatre adaptation of Wolf Hall, it was in many ways closer to an audio play rather than a simple book reading. What it also brought out was the wit and humour in Mantel’s writing. Obviously, the jokes that arise are somewhat dark given half the time it is a question of who is going to be dragged away to the Tower.

Even so, it is an exhausting story. Masterfully written and creates a (misleading obviously) sense of intimacy with a historical figure, which is such a deep characterisation that you feel Mantel could drop Cromwell into any fictional setting and have him size up the situation and take control.

Review: The Last Emperox by John Scalzi

I listened to audio-book of the final instalment of John Scalzi’s Interdependency series. I found it to be the most entertaining of the three, partly because I’d warmed more to the key characters but also I think I really wasn’t sure what sort of series this was going to be. Serious space-opera? Snarky parody? Neither of those entirely but for a series involving murder and social collapse, it is strong on humour and genre-savvy sarcasm.

Emperox Greyland II has survived assassination attempts, coup attempts and the hostility of the noble families of the Interdependency. However, the awful reality of the slow collapse of interstellar travel is becoming clear. With most humans living in space habitats or in subterranean complexes on otherwise uninhabitable planets, all eyes are on the one terrestrial planet in the system known as End. There a civil war is in progress but the grim reality is that there are far more people in the Interdependency than can be evacuated to End. Meanwhile, the noble house monopolies (created to not just enrich the aristocracy but also to make civil wars very bad for business) guarantee that an economic collapse will happen long before every human system is cut off from each other. It’s a clever set-up and Scalzi has used the previous books to gradually introduce the multiple elements of the politics and economics of this mercantile empire.

What surprises me is that this was the final book rather than the big cliffhanger episode of a four book series. It would be churlish to complain, in fact it is creditable that rather than spin this out further, the author focused on the key plot elements and brought the whole thing to a clever and satisfying resolution. There is obviously plenty of room for a sequel but even given that the story as presented had plenty of room for expansion. Given the opening of the book, I expected to read more about the civil war on End and the main plot teases a potential epic space battle. Of course, add that in and you’d either have got a much longer final book or a four-part book series. As is, there is a very clear point where this book could have just stopped and left everybody on the seat of their pants waiting for the final book. Instead, we get to the endgame very quickly.

The timeliness of the plot still functions. Although the Emperox herself is competent, the theme of powerful people being too busy looking out for their own interests and petty squabbles to deal with broader existential threats is one that works well with our current condition. I’m not suggesting there is a deep analysis here or that the whole thing is a satire on waning American power — if anything the eventual resolution rests on the dangerous desire in chaotic times to just have somebody really, really powerful take control of everything (fine in a space opera but let’s not ever actually try that).

Entertaining and nicely pitched balance of serious space opera and humour, my only (and highly limited) complaint was that this series was over at that point were I’d shifted from “this sort of good” to “I’m really enjoying this and would like more”. I’m tempted to re-read the series again, as I suspect the first two books will have magically improved now that I’ve got myself in sync with the arc of the story.

Dark Season 3 (short review)

I’ve finished watching the final season of Netflix’s German produced small-town mystery/bizarre-time-triangle show. I will do a longer looker back at the whole series at some point but I wanted to get some thoughts out first. Reviews of Season 1 (plus some spoilery thoughts) and Season 2 are linked in this sentence.

I am avoiding spoilers for Season 3 in this post but I may hit some spoilers for previous seasons after this paragraph (e.g. returning characters who were dead — although given the premise of the series that’s not surprising). However, the central question is whether the show manages to pull itself together and have a decent ending. Overall, I think the answer is a definite yes. Was everything explained without pulling some rabbits out of hats or reversing characterisations? No but…the knotted time travel paradox of the show strongly implied that the events and characters we have met had been looping around (and occasionally bifurcating) indefinitely. Consequently, some actions by some characters were things they did became things they were manoeuvred into doing by time-travellers (sometimes themselves) trying to ensure that particular events occurred again because…Let’s just say EVERYTHING was a f_cking mess in the small town of Winden.

sic mundus

Review: The City We Became by N K Jemisin

NK Jemisin’s 2016 short story The City Born Great (https://www.tor.com/2016/09/28/the-city-born-great/ ) is the prologue and launchpad to her most recent novel The City We Became. The original story is amended at the end so that the cataclysmic conflict at the end of the short story ends less decisively, with graffiti artist protagonist severely injured after fighting the unnamed enemy. The novel presents a new complication to the premise of the short story: New York is transforming into a living entity but rather than just a single avatar, the struggle has resulted in the creation of five additional avatars, one for each borough of New York. [For those, like me with a very fractured sense of New York geography: Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and the oft-forgotten Staten Island.]

If you are immediately thinking of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, then that’s not unreasonable but whereas Gaiman’s London is narrow, weird, convoluted and Victorian, Jemisin’s New York is loud, colourful and in your face. Whereas Neverwhere is a rabbit warren of a mystery, The City We Became owes more to superheroes, a genre that is as New York as they come. I can’t claim Jemisin has grasped that same sense of place as Gaiman did with London because I don’t know New York except through it’s own fictional depictions but it feels like it does.

The superhero comparison is not a shallow one. This is very much a story about a group of New Yorkers who each gain unique powers and who must find a way to fight a supernatural evil…and in the process lots of things get smashed including a fight between a kind-of King Kong and an eldritch subway train. The story does aim often at subtlety, the tools of the enemy include racist cops, dude-bro alt-right artists, gentrification, predatory real estate and at least one guy with nazi tattoos and ranged against these forces are an ethnically diverse group of people of different ages and sexualities. Again, the brushstrokes here are big and broad and unapologetic. The main characters get backgrounds rather than deep character arcs as they are plunged head first into a trans-dimensional battle for New York.

Jemisin saves the deeper character work for the odd one out of the bunch: Staten Island. The avatar of the least metropolitan of the boroughs, Aislyn has to face her own life and upbringing as well as the machinations of the enemy. Likewise, the personification of the forces working against the city, the Women in White allows Jemisin to show off her capacity to write about evil in a way that captures the sense of influence and self-deception. This horror dimension to the novel is repeatedly name-checked in terms of HP Lovecraft both as a pop-culture reference for characters trying to make sense of events but also later in terms of the underlying threat. However, as a work of horror this is not so much a commentary on Lovecraft as a story that plays on Stephen King riffs. In particular, it shares King’s use of psychological and personal ethical flaws as a gateway for evil forces.

The story has a definite end but with some significant plot lines and character arcs unresolved. There’s also several indications that the situation with cities transforming into semi-sentient entities is far less than an unalloyed good than was suggested in the original story. Despite the horror elements (or maybe because of it, as it makes the morality simpler) this is a much less emotionally dark work than the Broken Earth series. There are personal conflicts and something sinister in Manhattan’s past (of course, because he’s Manhattan…) but this is a story about good people trying to be good in the face of a very manifest evil.

Fun and I’m keen for a sequel.

Review: Space Force (Netflix)

Netflix’s Steve Carrell led comedy leaps on the absurdity of the Trump administration’s announcement of a new branch of America’s armed forces and then sort of loses track of the absurdity. The show falls neatly into the sub-genre of bureaucratic comedies that include The Office (both versions) or The Thick of It and then throws a budget and stars at it. Carrell, Lisa Kudrow and more surprisingly John Malkovich add a lot of comedic weight to the show which then doesn’t quite do anything with it.

There are some funny moments, there are some interesting characters and interesting character arcs but…no particularly funny episodes or particularly insightful episodes or particularly touching episodes. Carrell’s General Naird is too nice and too competent. The jokes about the US military and internal rivalries are too tame. Even the digs at the absurdity of Trump (unnamed) are underplayed. So the show just occasionally plays into its own ridiculousness and then back pedals. Carrell and Malkovich are funnier when they are antagonistic (Malkovich plays the chief scientist for the newly formed Space Force)…so the show keeps giving them arcs where he and the general learn to work together better and be friends. I mean, I can see how that could be a neat subversion of comedic expectations but practically it forces the show into an arc of moderate likeability rather than funny.

There is some excellent writing in places and nice performances from the less famous members of the cast but the show never hits any heights. It’s not terrible. I did watch all the currently available episodes. It’s not exactly propaganda for how great the US military is but then it is not a searing satire of it either and hence (circling back) actually very much is propaganda for the US military (as endearing goof-balls, which…nah, no thanks). It is sadly, a bit bland and quite how it manages to make Jon Malkovich bland is a mystery. At each turn the show insists that no matter what the Space Force organisation sort of has to be the plucky underdog good guys who will come out on top in the end by being basically decent…which might work as an idea for a Disney movie about a kid’s sports team but which sits very badly with a branch of the US military.

Murderbot: Network Effect

[Spoliers avoided in the post but I will post spoilers in the comments. So avoid the comments if you don’t want spoilers.]

I sort of gave up reviewing Murderbot a few novellas ago. There is a sense that actually the plot really doesn’t matter and the simplest explanation of an instalment is that its a Murderbot story and the reader either knows the formula or doesn’t and if they don’t then see earlier reviews. However, that belies how much I enjoy each and every one of Martha Wells’s brilliant episodes of Murderbot’s continuing adventures.

The essence of the formula is the juxtaposition of this incredibly vulnerable highly competent killing machine. Murderbot has been shot and blasted and zapped but the struggles with their own sense of self and connections with other people pulls you in.

The novel-length Network Effect works in much the same way as the novellas but extended to novel length by splitting the action into a series of dramatic acts in different locations. There’s an underlying mystery but even that is familiar (corporate shenanigans around an abandoned terraforming colony and alien technology). The story is intended to be a stand-alone so the broader plot around GrayCris and Preservation aren’t the main focus (although discussed). The Asshole Research Transport aka ART is back but…well, spoilers.

What we do get and what each of the novellas have provided is this intentionally slow and deliberate character arc for Murderbot. Their gradual experience with building personal relationships and connections with other people or minds is a feature of the stories. Murderbot coming to understand themselves better and dealing with people better is what drives the stories and pushes them beyond a series of exciting set piece action sequences.

So again, I’m not really reviewing Network Effect. Poke at the world-building of the Corporate Rim and it still doesn’t really make sense and that really doesn’t matter (and also, what we get is Murderbot’s account of how he thinks all of this works and while they are never deceitful they aren’t wholly reliable either). The action is exciting, Murderbot commentary on it is both funny & moving, and there are some warm and fuzzy parts.