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Recent reading (#SFWApro)

1434019Several weeks worth, actually … OUT OF SPACE AND TIME is the first half of a reprinted Best Of Clark Ashton Smith collection that Smith picked himself back in the 1940s. This half includes several Averoigne tales, plus Poseidonis, Zothique and several modern set (though frequently sliding into other realms). A good collection, with “A Night in Malneant” particularly effective—I don’t know if Smith intended it as a metaphor for losing one’s wife, but now that I have one to lose, it sure feels like i. A shame I don’t have Vol. 2 (all rights to cover image with current holder)

THE MERMAN’S CHILDREN by Poul Anderson reminds me a lot of The Broken Sword in it’s bleak, Scandinavian, doom-laden tone: the protagonists are half-human, half-merfolk, scattered from their home as Christianity grinds away at the world of faerie, setting them hunting for a place to call home in a world increasingly unfriendly to magic. Surprisingly, the ending is upbeat for everyone, and not implausibly so—I guess Anderson meant it when he said he couldn’t have written Broken Sword as an older writer.

It’s been a while since I read Peter Wimsey, but I’m back on track—GAUDY NIGHT by Dorothy Sayers actually focuses on Peter’s dream girl Harriet Vane, as her college asks Harriet to discreetly investigate who’s been sending poison-pen letters to the staff and targeting them with other cruel pranks (as a writer I must say that destroying someone’s corrected proofs is particularly nasty). Inevitably, she has to call in Lord Peter, which requires dealing with their complicated, awkward relationship. Unfortunately much like Nine Tailors, Sayers isn’t as interested in the mystery as the college (she’s an Oxford grad herself) so get lots of long, tedious discussions about academic life, whatever-became-of-, friendship, and an educated woman’s place in the world . It’s not as bad as Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin but it is a low point for the series.

UNBOUND: Book Three of Magic Ex Libris by Jim Hines is another disappointment (I liked both Libriomancer and Codex Born). It start of well with Isaac shell-shocked and depressed due to the outcome of Book Two, plus a spectacular heist sequence (robbing a vampire blood-bank in orbit!), but before long it’s just drawing-room fantasy—people sitting around, talking about what to do, talking about how to stop the bad guy, talking, talking, talking … and while Isaac is powerless here, when he has two top-flight sorcerers covering his butt, the tension is actually less. However I will give Hines top marks for not crapping out on the release of magic in the world at the end of Codex Born and following up on that here—the SF con discussing what this means for fantasy fiction was a hoot.

THE PAST IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY by David Lowenthal looks at the various ways we relate to the past (as a guide to our present-day lives; as a source of rules for How Things Should Be; as a barbaric era we’ve risen above), how those have changed over time or been debated within a given time (is Great Classic Art a millstone around our necks or a shining beacon of inspiration?), how we preserve relics of the past and ultimately what we’re to make of it (“As we see different historical eras as distinctive, we also lose the sense of a grand sweep of history leading to the present.”). I picked this up mostly for a discussion of time travel and different reasons to visit the past (change history, gain wisdom, exploit your future knowledge etc.); in its own right, good and interesting but very dry.

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A couple of interesting links (#SFWApro)

A history of Jesus imagery and how he got to be sexy.

•Roswell 70 years after the aliens.

•When breeding chinchillas was the path to wealth.

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Plus a Couple More (#SFWApro)

MV5BMTg0OTEzNTI4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjI2NTYyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_AL_The Polish BLIND CHANCE (1988) is a film in the Sliding Doors mode that explores three different timelines, all springing from a students’ different interactions with a beer drinker in a bar. As a result, the protagonist becomes a Communist Party member, reform activist or apolitical, though unusually he comes to a bad end in all three. Uninspired. “My mother was so proud when she saw my Party card, she cried.”

LOST IN SPACE (1998) was one I expected would be marginal (a last-minute time travel bit) but the time-travel element (one of the characters twenty years in the future trying to fix everything) is substantial enough it goes in the body of the book, not the appendix. In its own right, this reworking of the sixties TV show is dull despite a cast that includes William Hurt, Gary Oldman, Matt leBlanc and other capable actors; it’s very episodic (the need to save the world sort of fades into the background), with a dull monster (looks too much like a knockoff of Stargate: SG-1‘s Replicators) and the family drama (trying to save Earth, dad has neglected his son, who suffers so much with dad’s love!) feels stock. “Monsters live to devour little boys—I know because I’m one of them.”

(All rights to image reside with current holder)

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And also comics! (#SFWApro)

GREEN LANTERN: Wrath of the First Lantern is an overlapping volume with Geoff Johns’ final work on GL, The End. Here we learn how the Green Lantern Corps, the Red Lantern Corps and the New Guardians battled along with Hal and Sinestro against Volthoom, the emotion-manipulating First Lantern. Unfortunately Volthoom is a completely stock villain who feeds on human emotion and suffering and has no personality to compensate, so this was a big, heavy waste of time.

19539419 BLACK WIDOW: The Finely Woven Thread by Nathan Edmonson and Phil Noto (cover by Noto, all rights to current holder) has Natasha atoning for her past spy crimes by taking on new missions as a mercenary to raise money for charity. I’m not entirely sure why she needs so much atonement (Bucky did plenty of nasty as the Winter Soldier and he’s made his peace with it) but that said, this was readable, but less fun than Velvet.

BATMAN, THE DARK KNIGHT: Mad by Gregg Hurwitz and Ethan Van Sciver shows the same flaws as Hurwitz’ earlier Cycle of Violence, only worse, turning one of Batman’s villains into a mass murderer with no regard for personality or goals. In this case the Mad Hatter gets to kill one woman with an iron and gouge out the eyes of people who displease him, all part of his plan to work out some gender issues dating back to high school. It’s one thing to make Bat-villains even more homicidal, it’s quite another to make them generically homicidal (this has nothing to do with the Hatter’s usual MO). Oh, and we have Bruce falling so madly in love with the woman of the issue that he’s ready to give up his career and live with her (I can’t see why)—only no, the Mad Hatter kills her! The gloves are coming off now! As classic an example of “fridging” a supporting character as you can ask for, and it’s not as if Batman is a character in need of angst to motivate him.

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And the other time travel movies … (#SFWApro)

BEN 10: Race Against Time (2007) was a live-action adaptation of the cartoon series, in which Ben (the kid who can turn into super-powered aliens) finds himself up against the time-traveling alien Eon who plans to pull his people out of their doomed world to Earth’s present, but needs Ben’s omnitrix to do it. Like a number of children’s films I’ve watched for this book, it’s hard for me to get into the emotional arc here—the big finish isn’t Ben beating Eon but performing in the school talent show, for instance. But it’s not their fault I’m no longer a child. Robert Picardo and Lee Majors are among the cast “I’m sorry about that detention—I didn’t want to blow my cover.”

SHREK FOREVER AFTER (2010) has Shrek beginning to wonder if he’s cut out for a life of changing diapers, friends constantly intruding and being held up as a celebrity rather than a terrifying monster—all of which makes it easy for Rumpelstiltskin to trick Shrek into erasing himself from existence (“The day you took from me was the day I was born, right?”). This tries to milk the usual humor from the alt.versions of the characters (Fat Puss In Boots!) and the usual Why Do You Say YouKnow Me? confusion, but the series formula is clearly as played out here as in Goldmember. As typical for a parallel-world/alternate personal history story, the moral is that you have a wonderful life so stop thinking the grass is greener somewhere else. “How’s that for a metaphysical paradox?’

MV5BMTY0MTc3MzMzNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDE4MjE0NA@@._V1_SX214_AL_SOURCE CODE (2011) has Jake Gyllenhaal trying to figure out how he went from being a downed soldier in Afghanistan to a commuter flirting with Michelle Monaghan and dying over and over when a bomb destroys their train. The answer, he learns, is that he’s being used in a mad science experiment to identify the terrorist responsible by entering a quantum alternate reality created by one victim’s dying memories. As you may be able to tell the science here is specious even for time-travel, but I like the film (though the end of the ending didn’t work). Former Quantum Leaper Scott Bakula makes a voice cameo as Gyllenhaal’s father. All rights to image with current copyright holder. “I’m going to press redial, your phone is going to ring, and I’m going to shoot you.”

STAR TREK: First Contact (1996) has the Enterprise discover resistance really is futile when a Borg attack on Earth turns out to be an attack through time, leaving Earth with a population of nine billion Borg and nothing else. So it’s back to the apocalyptic ruin of the mid-21st century where James Cromwell is unwittingly about to make first contact with Vulcan, unless the Borg stop him first. Very good as Picard deals with his own past history with the Borg, but the introduction of the Borg Queen (Alice Krige) never worked for me—I prefer the Borg as a completely uniform hive-mind because it’s so much more alien. With the regular Next Generation cast, plus Robert Picardo as a holo-doctor (“According to Starfleet medical research, Borg implants can cause extreme skin irritation.”). “And you people are all astronauts on … some kind of star trek?


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Remake vs. original: Four time-travel films (#SFWApro)

Rewatching LA JETEE (1963) I found I appreciated the wistful, romantic mood better than I did the first time as a post WW III government forces the protagonist to test an experimental time-travel method. He finds himself drawn to a woman he saw years ago at the Orly Airport, falls in love, but runs up against a last-minute twist which still seems to be me too Twilight Zone. “To wake up in another time is to be born again as an adult.”

That French short inspired 12 MONKEYS (1995) in which the apocalypse is a 1997 pandemic. A few decades later, the technocratic government of what remains of humanity sends Bruce Willis into the past in the hopes of recovering a sample fo the original bioweapon used by the “Army of the 12 Monkeys”—not to change history but so that the scientists can develop a vaccine. This Terry Gilliam film is interesting, but I can’t say it’s enjoyable: Bruce Willis is a good actor, but Willis playing crazy for 90 minutes of the film just isn’t entertaining. Another problem is that instead of the gentle romance of the original, this has Willis kidnap psychiatrist Madeleine Stowe, who then falls madly in love with him—something that seems more Stockholm Syndrome than romantic. With Christopher Plummer and David Morse as virologists and Brad Pitt as another loonie; some version of this will appear on SyFy as a TV series (next year, I believe). “Science isn’t an exact science with these clowns.”

IL MARE (2000) is a Korean time-travel fantasy in which two young people discover that despite living two years apart, the mailbox at their mutual waterfront home manages to transmit letters back and forth (an interesting example of how logic works in time travel films). Very charming, even though the ending, as I mentioned this week, doesn’t make sense. “The fact that I cannot be close to you even now must mean we are not meant to be.”

Despite being the same length, THE LAKE HOUSE (2006) squeezes in considerably more subplot, such as Keanu Reaves’ awkward relationship with his genius father (Christopher Plummer again) and Sandra Bullock’s fear of commitment (which we’re told explains her interest in Reaves rather than here-and-now boyfriend Dylan Walsh). The time-travel plot diverges from the original quite a bit: while both films have a tragic fate for the male lead (at least in one timeline), this has it happen at the start; there’s also a prolonged romantic encounter thanks to Reaves contriving to meet Bullock before (from her perspective) they’ve begun their correspondence). On the whole, I don’t think the changes add much (I’d definitely have dropped the meeting) and more generally the young lovers of the Korean original just seem to fit the tone better than the two fortysomethings here. “Did you eat a clown this morning?”


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And then the other stuff (#SFWApro)

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014) is the second Marvel team to bear that name, an oddball group of SF characters that together turned into a hit comic and now movie. Chris Pratt plays Star Lord (“Who?”) a human interplanetary thief and mercenary reluctantly forced to turn hero to stop Kree fanatic Ronan (Lee Pace of Pushing Daises) from exterminating the peaceful world of Xander (run by Glenn Close as Nova Prime). Can forging a team out of tree-man Groot, genetic misfit Rocket Raccoon, brutal warrior Drax (Dave Bautista) and super-assassin Gamora (Zooey Saldana) stop Ronan and his sidekick Nebula (Karen Gillan of Doctor Who)? A very entertaining film in its own right, more so if you know enough comics to catch some of the names dropped along the way. For anyone who’s interested, Atomic Anxiety provides more in-depth analysis, and Brian Cronin looks at their comic-book roots in detail here. “I have lived my life among enemies—I will be happy to die among friends.”
MEN WITH GUNS (1997) is John Sayles’ drama about a Latin American doctor who decides to drop in on the students he sent out to treat the poor several years ago only to discover the ones who weren’t shot as collaborators by the military were killed as government stooges by the insurgents. Filmed entirely in Spanish (except for some native Indian dialect), this is grimly effective, even though I can see where it’s going. Mandy Patinkin and Maggie Renzi play tourists. “I was a soldier, but now I don’t wear a uniform—does that mean I haven’t killed anyone?”

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