Category: Reviews

Review: Binti: Home (novella)

Nnedi Okorafor’s young protagonist gets another adventure in her journey. Suffering from the aftermath of the first novella, Binti carries the trauma of a massacre, acquired alien DNA and a degree of celebrity she isn’t prepared for. She takes the only step she can to put her life back in balance and decides to (temporarily) leave the Oomza Uni and travel back to Earth and home. She decides as well to bring Okwu, her friend, with her but Okwu is also a member of the aggressive Meduse…

It’s not a flaw for the central character to be somewhat annoying in this kind of story. Binti is a multitalented young woman who has both natural talents and who has been caught up in extraordinary events. Growing as a person requires flaws and Binti’s are those that follow somebody who achieves academic success and fame early – including a degree of both arrogance and self-doubt. Even so, I found Binti generally less likeable in this instalment.

But maybe that’s just the nature of this particular step in her journey. This is very much a transitionary story. It starts in the aftermath of the previous novella and ends on a cliffhanger. While Binti learns some things about her family, her people and the hidden history of her land, she doesn’t change much as a person (yet). I think this will work better as part of the whole story sandwhiched between the first and third novella but as a story in itself it didn’t really gel for me.

Advertisements

Review: Solo – A Star Wars Story

I admit that from its announcement, I didn’t see much point to this film. The curse of the prequel trilogy was a need to fill in the vague elements of backstory, often forgetting that the original film worked by creating a sense of a deeper history and a bigger galaxy than we actually saw. So a Young Han Solo movie didn’t interest me — it would inevitably be a stringing together elements like winning the Millenium Falcon, completing the Kessel Run in X number of incorrect units, meeting Chewbacca, etc and we’d all expect to go ‘ooh’ when something like that happened.

I once went on a Beatles Tour of Liverpool with a friend who loved the Beatles. It was a weird experience as Liverpool is a city I know quite well. The tour guide treated every stop with a kind of chirpy reverence as if each semi-detached house or park gate was a holy relic. People took excited photographs and I felt really odd. It took me awhile to get over the cynical detachment and enjoy the tour for what it was: something fun.

Oddly, Solo does indulge itself in exactly that way even down to a pause-for-weighty-significance when Solo gets his blaster. It’s no spoiler to say that Solo will play cards with Lando for the Falcon, that he will meet Chewbacca, and that the film is peppered with references to almost every trait and famous line and significant object you can think of for the character of Han Solo.

But I say “oddly”.

The odd part is that this really didn’t become annoying. Instead, Solo manages to be fun, clever and exciting. Not the best Star Wars film but certainly far from the worse and an enjoyable space-opera/heist-movie/western in its own right. Yes, it has a lot of that tour-around-Solo’s-youth elements but it knows it has to be fun and exciting and carry some emotional oomph in places.

Cleverly it picks up elements and themes from other Star Wars films that have taken a secondary role to the main thrust of the dark-v-light side of the force and the saga of the Skywalker family. The Jedi and the Sith don’t get a mention (the Sith get a visual reference near the end with a fun surprise) and the nearest we get to a Skywalker is a reference to Tatooine.

Instead, we get to see life under the Empire from the perspective of its criminal underclass and network of gangsters. Life under the Empire is one of war and criminality often working hand-in-hand. Han has been living for years as a part of the gang of child thieves on a shipbuilding world and as a young man is ready to escape. The first part of the film follows him off the planet and (briefly) into military service with the Empire before he falls in with a different group of criminals. Here the main story takes hold as quest to steal starship fuel entangles Han into a series of events that involve a sinister criminal conspiracy and a rival gang of mauraders led by the mysterious Enfys Nest.

The cast is excellent. Alden Ehrenreich as Solo isn’t the strongest actor in the group but he is more than good enough and it’s a tough job to follow Harrison Ford. He manages to give the character enough street smarts and attitude to feel like Han Solo but also enough naivety and vulnerability to be more than a impression. Donald Glover as Lando is dripping in charisma. Woody Harrelson and Paul Bettany play cynical criminality in quite different but effective ways. Thandie Newton is under utilised. Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Lando’s revolutionary robot pilot steals most of the scenes she is in from the rest of the cast. Emelia Clarke manages to plausibly convey both a hardened cynicism about the world she is in with an equivalent vulnerability to Solo as a character.

Lots of big, great looking set pieces. Some space battles and utter space nonsense that is gloriously stupidly fun. Some genuine suprises and twists. Betrayals, counter-betrayals, stand-offs and robot uprisings.

Take it for what it is and have fun.

Loved Books: Introduction to Logic by Irving Copi

This is a famous textbook on logic but I didn’t know that when I bought it…

I found it on a shelf of withdrawn-from-lending books in a public library somewhere in Humberside (almost certainly the main public library in Hull but I’ve a vague memory it was somewhere more weird than that).

To be honest I just thought it looked cool with its green cover and minimal title.

It cost 25 pence and I bought it in 1989 it seems. The cut out page was done by the library when they removed the record of when it had been lent out.

This is my second favourite withdrawn library book that I own. It is also a really decent text book on logic.

Review: Deadpool 2

Not a lot to say. Funny in places but not as funny as the first film. Whether the dead-wives theme for both Deadpool and Cable was meant to be a comic deconstruction of the ‘fridging’ trope or just a straight instance of it, I’m not sure but as a joke it didn’t work.

Julian Dennison (the kid from Hunt for the Wilderpeople) puts in a good performance as the young mutant bent on revenge. Zazie Beetz is good as Domino. Josh Brolin provides a handy excuse for fourth wall jokes for Deadpool.

It’s largely funny but at times feels forced.

Having said all that, the in-credits scenes are very funny.

Loved Books: Sacred Mathematics – Japanese Temple Geometry

I don’t own books that you could call coffee table books (also I prefer coffee in cups rather than tables) but this one has the glossiest paper and a cover that looks like it has been gift wrapped.

This is a book about Sangaku (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sangaku) – a topic about which I knew nothing. Reading about it briefly for the first time, I had one of those ‘how did I not already know about this!’ moments. I also, coincidentally, had money to spend on books! So I bought this as a present to myself.

The concept is/was that geometry problems or solutions to problems as a temple offering. How delightful is that! It’s symbolic but also requires personal effort, so it has many aspects of a kind of ritual sacrifice or penance (to cast in Western religious terms) but also very meaningful in other ways.

The idea of mathematics as belonging primarily with the sciences and materialist domains is a relatively new one. Sangaku is just one example of how mathematics often intersects with spiritual aspect of human inquiry as well as aesthetic ones.

Hugo Ballot 2018: Short Story

It doesn’t feel that long ago that the talk was whether the SF short story was dead or close to death. The impact of Sad Puppy campaigns and Rabid Puppy vandalism hit the short story category hard. And what an emblematic category it had been for the Hugo Awards and science fiction! American style science fiction had grown out of the short story style and some of the greats of SF were intimately connected with shorter form fiction. Ray Bradbury especially but also Issac Asimov – The Foundation Trilogy being one of many SF classics that grew from connected shorts.

The Hugo finalists this year are a set of entertaining and varied reads. There’s not one theme or style and there are elements of fantasy and science-fiction as well as some classic twists.

It is too early in the process to rank them I think and a couple I only read recently. I’d like to gestate on them a bit longer but I’m also mindful that if I don’t put my thoughts down now then I will have to do a whole bunch of things in a rush. So, some mini-reviews and thoughts but no rankings. I do have an unsurprising favourite but I may shift rankings later. Overall though I enjoyed them all.

Reminder: you don’t need to wait for the packet to read the Hugo Short Stories as they are all available free online. JJ collected the relevant links here http://file770.com/?p=41534 and I repeat them below.

Best Short Story

▪ “Carnival Nine“, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)

The story works both in terms of its own world building (with a few unanswered questions) and also as a metaphor about life, parenthood, chronic illness, and death. The setting is a world that might be a house or a bedroom in which small clockwork people live. Each one is wound each night but their mechanisms can only be wound up so much (and some people’s more than others). Eventually they fall prey to entropy as their mainspring becomes unwindable.

The story follows the life of one character from late childhood to bringing up a child and her relationship with an absent mother who lives in a carnival on (or carried by) a train.

Poignant and wistful, the story does a lot of work in a short period introducing a world but also creating deep emotional engagement with a set of characters. It could have easily become overly twee and sentimental but I think it avoids becoming either.

▪ “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand“, by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)

The least conventionally story like of the set. A guided tour through a museum (or is it?) of curiosities. Disturbing images and ideas – the curiosities are the voyeuristic medical views of people as ‘freaks’ of body or behaviour. The story attempts to reverse the gaze of the curious and the dehumanising. A story best read rather than described that uses setting rather than narrative to create an effective horror story.

▪ “Fandom for Robots“, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, Sep-Oct 2017)

Elsewhere Murderbot is doling its best to mix genre consumption with themes about Artificial Intelligence but here we have a different style of robot interact with genre fiction.

Computron lives a dull life as an aging exhibit in a museum of robot history. Clunky and classically unemotional, Computron has little to do other than a short performance for visitors. By chance the robot begins to take an interest in a TV show which also features a rather boxy robot as a main character. This in turn leads Computron into the world of fan fiction and a new life.

Nice and engaging but I did feel it more faded out at the end rather than deliver a distinct conclusion.

▪ “The Martian Obelisk“, by Linda Nagata (Tor.com, July 19, 2017)

The world has gone to shit and humanity’s attempt to colonise other parts of the solar system has failed. With little hope for a better future an architect controls machines remotely from Earth to build a quixotic monument to humanity on Mars. But is everybody really dead on the Red Planet?

More whistful than depressing but not a jolly story to put sunshine in your step. Even so there’s a stronger theme of hope in the story and the importance of doing what is right over grandiose self-indulgence.

▪ “Sun, Moon, Dust“, by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny, May-Jun 2017)

There is gardening (well, farming) and there is a cranky old woman (briefly) as signatures for an Ursula Vernon story but this is a different style than Jackalope Wives.

Allpa receives a magic sword from his grandmother who had been a famous warrior in her youth. Trapped in the sword are three spirits of legendary fighters: Sun, Moon and Dust. Unfortunately for each of them Allpa’s main concern is his potatoes.

It’s a simple story that subverts the reluctant hero trope. Allpa genuinely would rather farm his land than seek out a hidden destiny as a warrior. The story follows this idea but in a way that feels like you are reading a familiar folk tale of some antiquity.

I was a fan of Ursula Vernon’s writing before I started this blog and this story only reinforces my high estimation of her writing. The story looks simple and effortless but of the six people mentioned (one only very briefly) you are left with a sense of fully formed characters of depth. I guess that is an illusion given we don’t know really know very much about any of them but it is rather like an artist who uses a single brush stroke to imply the more complex features of a face. There is also a sense of a bigger wider world as well as brief details that give Allpa’s world more sense of place.

The story doesn’t have a twist as such, indeed in one sense it has the opposite. The ending feels obvious and natural when you reach it, even though it sits exactly opposite to the initial premise of the story (a young man is given a magic sword). Calling it a subversion is misleading – it just goes where it wants to go rather than where genre conventions demand that it should.

It is masterful in the sense of showing mastery of the form. I really liked it.

▪ “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™“, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, Aug 2017)

What is it like to be somebody else? A neat question and one of those philosophical queries that science fiction can explore through imagined technology. Here a use of mind immersive virtual technology allows people to experience the lives of others.

Told (sensibly and appropriately) in the second person “you” are a Native American who works for a company that provides people with “authentic” immersive experiences. In your case these experiences are corny vision quests in which eager tourists keen to connect with their spiritual side engage with a fantasy of Native American culture. That fantasy contrast with the realities of life and work and relationships.

But one day an encounter goes off track and…well spoilers follow.

This is both original in scope but also a classic style of twisty story in the tradition of the Twilight Zone. Mixing questions of personal identity in the setting of virtual reality with wider questions of cultural identity and personal connections. As with the other finalists, I am amazed at how Rebecca Roanhorse packs in so much into a short text.


Currently Sun, Moon and Dust and Carnival Nine are my favourites and probably Fandom for Robots is my least favourite but it’s a tough choice and I quite like Fandom for Robots!