Review: The Last Colony

John Scalzi’s The Last Colony is many things. It’s what one has come to expect from the OMW series and all that entails*. It is also two stories crammed together, one of them is about establishing a human colony on a new planet and the other is following up on the geopolitics set up in the previous book. While these stories fall under the greater narrative of the book and involve the same characters, the two stories are left truncated. This leaves the weight of the story to fall upon the characters, which are able to do so with mixed results. Let’s not waste any time and jump in.

The viewpoint character for this book is the same as Old Man’s War, John Perry. This is a double-edged sword. While Perry is likeable enough and reads well enough, he’s also boring and largely ignorant of the greater situation. This problem is highlighted by the fact that he is surrounded by characters that are much more interesting. It could have been Jane, as someone who is trying to understand what it means to be human and knows something about the Conclave, or Zoe, the teenager with Obin bodyguards and is considered a living god. While the story is structured in such a way to make Perry important, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s dull.

Speaking of the story, I mentioned how it’s really two stories smashed together. The first one, is about establishing the colony of Roanoke and the politics surrounding the mission. This plot is essentially ended halfway through, after a dramatic climax with fallout never resolved in the story. The story than shifts to one of galactic politics where the Colonial Union is reaffirmed as a terrible government and Scalzi takes practically every measure to make it unambiguous. This isn’t terribly interesting as it makes the characters less relatable. While there is established motivation, it just feels distant. All of this is further compounded by Saviriti repeatedly calling out the CU, albeit with vague language. Not only that, but it leaves the characters feeling disempowered, they’re closer to disaster movie protagonists trying to survive instead of action heroes trying to win.

Both of these problems culminate in the book’s actual finale. Perry is able to emerge victorious through the off-screen help of his daughter in a matter that smacks of deus ex machine in a fight that has a token causality, who was an asshole anyway**. The book then ends on a happy ending as galaxy altering actions have happened with no pay off. It’s a rather dichotomous approach. On one hand, the characters are too engaged with the politics for them to be a backdrop for their own personal struggle. On the other hand, they don’t have the agency to actually do much about it. I would have vastly preferred it if was harder in one direction.

The book is fine and fun like its predecessors, but there are bigger problems than is predecessors on technical, structural level. Next week I”ll be reviewing Ernest Clines’ Ready Player One. Till next time.

 

*Although a minor character is a lesbian, so at least it’s not as heteronormative.

**One of the things I liked about Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades is how death was a fairy common occurrence for the protagonists. I agree with David Weber who has said, “War which is always heroic, in which only bad guys (who obviously had it coming, anyway) get killed, in which people hit by high-powered weapons either die instantly and painlessly or receive “only a flesh wound,” in which there are no mental or moral or spiritual casualties, is splatter porn. It trivializes and all too often it desensitizes, allows us to walk away from the hard questions and the moral wrestling with conscience, threats, and costs which should always be part of our understanding of what war really is.”

Advertisements

Review: the Ghost Brigades

John Scalzi’s The Ghost Brigades, the sequel to Old Man’s War, is a fine book. Scalzi is easy to read and technically proficient in the craft. The book is fun, military scifi in the vein of Henlien’s Starship Troopers. But it’s hard to say that this is a good book.

Part of the problem is in expectations. While it is set in the Old Man’s War universe and has some of the same characters, the book is ultimately telling a rather different story than its predecessor. Some of this is a matter of different themes. OMW was focused on world-building, technology and presenting an unambiguous picture from people in the trenches. TGB on the other hand, uses the set up of the previous book to question ‘what is a human?” as well expand the scope out of the trenches. It does the former a lot better than the latter.

The attempt at widening the scale of perspective doesn’t go over as well. It uses new information that is revealed awkwardly and ends up deflating the characters’ actions. It also creates a feeling of ‘middle installment do nothing’ where there’s all set up and no pay off. Given that this is a sequel and many of the fundamentals such as Scalzi’s writing style and the setting, are unchanged; this isn’t the worst. Finally, the new perspective changes the entire reading of the setting, which may or may not be to your liking, but given the aforementioned problem of all set up, is hard to judge this book on by itself.

Trigger warnings: Sex, Violence, Death

 

That’s my nonspoiler review of the book. But having reading the book, I have spoiler filled thoughts and commentary. So let’s not waste any time and jump into it.

Beware of Spoilers ye who enter

 

One of the things that made Old Man’s War easily readable was how relatable its initial set up. Earth, and the people on it, hadn’t radically changed in between now and the future of the book. In actuality this means that the book is positively relatable by a certain subsection; many of society’s evils are still present. While misogyny seems to be a thing of the past, structural inequality is still present, ableism is erased and heteronormativity is alive and well. Now you could argue that these problems started in OMW, but I read that years ago while watching a game of Diplomacy in college and didn’t have the same priorities as I do now. Also I’m talking about TGB, in which some of these problems are looked at a bit more.

The structural inequality is explained by the Colonial Union keeping Earth in stasis in order to farm it for a constant stream of soldiers and colonists. Soldiers come from developed countries and colonists from everywhere else. Perry’s first person, newcomer perspective coupled with the possibility of Scalzi fleshing out the world means that this didn’t come up in OMW. This demarcation plays out further as the more developed colonies were settled by Western countries along with the CDF being run by Westerners who are fine with this arrangement. A pointed emphasized by Boutin mocking the naming conventions of Special Forces. This is a terrifying, yet plausible future, in which current structures of inequality are perpetuated into space.

I’m of two minds with this revelation. On one hand, it makes enough sense, both in and out of universe, that’s certainly buyable. On the other hand, having these problems and then just chalking them up to a government conspiracy feels cheap. Any problem can just be explained away by society being locked in a state of arrested development. It does show a level of self awareness that the current state of affairs is bad but is still a relatable framework. Also it stretches my suspension of disbelief given the timescale.

Now an interstellar government engaging in a shadowy conspiracy in order to essentially grow people so they can engage in a go wide strategy in a game of Galactic Civilization is one thing. Said interstellar government being set on stopping another Civ from getting a diplomatic victory and being a pariah state is another. This is essentially the extent of any reasoning that we receive. All of this information is revealed in the book’s climax by an unreliable source, and then confirmed in the resolution; which doesn’t really make for a good twist.

This isn’t a problem for our protagonists though. As the text points out, they’re brainwashed child slave soldiers. They find out about this and reject the information out of hand as they continue on their mission. Jared as a blank slate to contrast Special Forces with regular CDF is fine; Jared as a somewhat more confrontational blank slate is less fine. The plot contrives to make their rejection to Charles automatic.

Of course, Boutin has a point, but his plan would involve killing millions of people. This is a trope that I’m so tired of, and I’m aware that this book came out before other examples that I can think of, where the villain has a point about the systemic injustice that our heroes represent and defend, but the villain is gonna kill lots of people so the injust system stays as is. At this point I’m left wondering why should I care? The setting worked as a Hobbesian nightmare of everyone against everyone else and you can write off the evil stuff that the CU does as realpolitik, it’s a lot less interesting when the nuance makes one side a lot worse.

I mentioned ableism above not because of anything specific, but because the CU has such a strange fixation on baseline humans, except when it comes to the CDF and the long term plan of turning everyone into a Gameran. There are so many questions about the technology that go beyond consciousness transfer that don’t belong in this book; it’s not the story that Scalzi wants to tell. But they are questions that indicate disabled erasure.

Heteronormativity on the other hand, is in full prominent force. All we see are hetero relationships; all we see is hetero sex. Special Forces apparently celebrate missions by having an orgy, which is totally voluntary but the only Jane skips out on. Not because she’s asexual, but because of some sort of relationship with Perry or Captain Not Appearing in this Book. There isn’t anything else to say, it’s just patently absurd nonsense that throttles the diversity of actual human experience. Or it’s a case of the CU altering the genome of Special Forces to wire them all this way; which isn’t substantiated anywhere in the text but headcanons exist by and large to subvert.

     TGB is a fine book, it has problems but they’re universally insurmountable to make the book unreadable. Next week I’ll be reviewing Pokemon X &Y. Till then.

And the Future Looks So Bleak: the Lack of Optimistic Scifi on TV

The Golden Age of TV, the Television Renaissance, or whatever you want to call the upsurge in quality for the better part of the past decade has been marked by several common denominators, grittiness being at the top of the list. This works well enough in shows that are striving for verisimilitude or some approximation of reality as it enables non-traditional stories to be told. There is a different effect on science fiction however, while other genres are able to tell more stories, it narrows the narratives that can be told.

Shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘Orange is the New Black’ have received part of their critical acclaim due to their use of societal issues that wouldn’t come up in more traditional media; toxic masculinity in the case of the ‘Breaking Bad’ and intersectional feminism in the case of ‘Orange is the New Black’. These shows are that way because traditional narratives about the real world don’t permit these things to be acknowledged. Science fiction may have its own host of traditional narratives, but they’re not tied to the modern day in the same way. It can raise topics in a way that other shows can’t, but they don’t. Instead, they have also embraced being gritty.

So what exactly am I talking about? Think about the scifi shows on television today. Now exclude the ones set in the modern day such as ‘Person of Interest’ and what does that leave? By my count, there’s ‘Defiance’, ‘The 100’, ‘Dominion’ and ‘Doctor Who’. I’ll be ignoring ‘Who’ on the grounds of not knowing much about it. All of these shows are post-apocalyptic. ‘Defiance’ wants to be a space western meets ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘The 100’ is downright fatalistic and ‘Dominion’ is about angels trying to murder humanity. If you take a more historical look, it doesn’t get much better. NuBSG started out as keying in on the zeitgeist of post 9/11 America, turning into an argument for maltheism. Stargate as a franchise became darker and edgier as it went on. ‘Star Trek: Enterprise’ may have had its problems, but being Star Trek in name only wasn’t one of them. Yet at the same time, in order to find a mainstream scifi show that wasn’t epressing on some level went off the air a decade ago. Why?

There are a number of reasons for this shift. Part of this is a general backlash against Star Trek and wanting to tell different stories. Another part is a general disinterest in that kind of aesthetic and a desire for more varied sets and special effects.. This general move also matched the zeitgeist. On one hand, we’ve become more inclusive. On the other hand, there are countless structural problems that make any outlook on the future bleak. It leaves our capacity to think of a better future underdeveloped and leaves us thinking that all roads lead to the apocalypse. Utopian science fiction, even optimistic science fiction is something that can be done, so the question becomes how?

The seemingly obvious answer to this is to make another Star Trek series. As the rights for the shows and the movies are split between Paramount and CBS; there’s no reason why a TV series set in the original timeline, after the Dominion War, can’t happen. This split is also the only conceivable way that an optimistic Star Trek series could be made given the directions of the new movies, but that’s a different discussion. I find this answer to be unsatisfying though. Star Trek has built up a number of idiosyncrasies that make the franchise special, but also mean it’s not what I want when we’re trying to revive the idea of optimistic science fiction.

Star Trek has a lot of continuity built up, and while that continuity was developed on the fly, there is a level of cohesion that makes it hard to write in. The best example of this is are the Klingons. It’s one thing for them to be an analogy for the Soviet Union, it’s quite another for them to space Vikings, devoid of any meaningful real world analogy. And it’s Star Trek, how are you not going to use Klingons, or Vulcans or any other iconic species? While the timeline could be jumped a few hundred years and an Enterprise is exploring a new part of space, it would eventually have continuity problems in that Star Trek doesn’t really map well to the current zeitgeist.

The idea that the Federation is paradise is accepted, but looking at the Federation as presented means that paradise has a lot of asterisks. Star Trek is firmly bioconservative, a ban on genetic augmentation on one hand and the Borg on the other show this. Such a show would be hamstrung in addressing one of, if not the biggest, trends in scifi today. Not only that, but it’s idea of growth and spreading paradise is disturbing as it assimilates everyone in its path, erasing cultures outside of quirks. Ideas about paradise and diversity have grown beyond a homogenizing force as you’re subsumed into a paradise that reads as an ideal liberal America. Which isn’t to say that I’m against the idea of another Star Trek series, but such a series would be uniquely Star Trek, its existence wouldn’t magically fix the problem. Nor should it, there are a multitude of quality TV shows out there, why can’t optimistic scifi have even half as many takes as post-apocalyptic gritty scifi?

So do I want, in broad strokes at least? Diversity of human characters, aliens are fine, but they’re no substitute for actual human representation. Not only that, but this diversity can’t be tokenism or left hanging in the background. If a character isn’t straight or nonwhite or disabled then it shouldn’t be the focus of a very special episode or tokenism; it should be normalized and apparent. It should be about good people doing good things. Those two things as a basis and there are lot of directions you can go and a lot of ways to fill in the blanks.

The future may look bleak, but it doesn’t have to. Till next time.

 

Ableism in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is one of the most memorable sci-fi shows of the 90s and more than 20 years after it first aired it’s still being discussed. Despite its flaws, DS9 is engaging with its deep setting and characters that still merit discussion. One of these flaws is the show’s ableism, or what would be generally described as the show’s disabled erasure.  Now granted, most shows have this problem; what makes DS9 stand out is that it is a part of the Star Trek franchise and Star Trek is socially progressive utopian scifi so this ableism and disabled erasure is far more important.

So if there are no disabled characters in the main cast, then this naturally raises the question of what is this post going to talk about? While there is a disabled character with Gen. Martok, a single supporting character with a purely cosmetic disability presumably as the result of combat isn’t terribly supportive. Also the fact that Geordi, a single character, existed on a show in the same franchise aired at the same time doesn’t count for anything in this discussion. Instead, it would be far more helpful to look at specific episodes: 2×06 -“Melora”, 5×16 “Dr. Bashir, I Presume?”, 6×09 “Statistical Possibilities” and 7×05 “Chrysalis”. So if you haven’t seen the show, or are in the process of watching the show, these are the big spoiler points and you have been warned. At the same time I’m going to assume some familiarity with the characters for the sake of brevity. I’ll cover the first two episodes this week and the second half next week.  Let’s jump into it.

Melora

Doctor Bashir ends up falling in love with a new officer when he develops a way for her to function in a high gravity environment. Meanwhile, Quark receives a death threat from one of his former associates. Memory Alpha summary

Plot Summary: This episode is a Very Special Episode about the disabled and wastes no time in establishing that as Dr. Bashir’s voice over talks about how Melora is the first of her species to join Starfleet and requires special accommodations due to her growing up on a low gravity planet, as we then cut to Bashir and Dax tinkering with a wheelchair. As they go to meet her they encounter O’Brien as the three of them discuss the difficulties that Melora will have in navigating the station. O’Brien asks why they can’t just transport her everywhere, and we are informed that Melora didn’t use anything other than the basic accommodations and that this is extraordinary. Bashir, being Bashir is clearly smitten with the idea of Melora that he has gained from reading records.

Our first shot of Melora is her struggling to make it out of the landing pad and is greeted by Bashir and Dax. They exchange greetings and Melora doesn’t put up with infantilizing crap as she takes the wheelchair, heads to her quarters and we get the opening credits.

The next scene is rehashing much of the previous scene, only with Sisko in the loop until Melora appears. And the conversation continues, which can mostly be summarized as Melora not taking any of their crap and Dax being assigned to go with Melora.

Bashir, still being Bashir, decides to check in on Melora off the clock. Melora apologizes for her speech and Bashir responds by being a patronizing ass, claiming that “all of these broad shots you fire. They’re your way of keeping the rest of the universe on the defensive, has to be.” This somehow has an effect on Melora and they go out for dinner. Melora again shows her assertiveness by getting into argument, in Klingon, over the quality of the food after Julian had ordered.

The next morning, Dax goes to Melora’s quarters and no one is there. It turns out  that Melora had fallen while retrieving additional supplies. Melora is taken to the infirmary where we get another conversation between her and Julian about Melora’s drive to independent and how “we all have to depend on one another in space” as it’s important that being able to count on one another is a two-way street. They leave the infirmary and we see where most of the effects budget for this episode went as they float in Melora’s chambers and become closer.

What follows is a sequence of Bashir figuring out a way for Melora to be able to function in normal gravity in a fine example of Star Trek’s technobabble, that eventually has Melora be stricken by second doubts about the procedure as it radically change her life and make her an outcast from home.

I’ve been neglecting to mention the B Plot with Quark as it isn’t terribly relevant to the discussion at hand and it’s fairly generic. Fallit ends up taking Quark, Dax and Melora hostage with the situation being resolved by Melora turning off the gravity and using it to her advantage. The episode ends with Melora and Bashi having a heart to heart as she decides to not take the treatment while Klingon opera in the background.

Analysis:  This episode is about disability and the way in which it is set up has to be addressed before anything else. While using an alien species to convey the isolation that the disabled feel from society has a certain logical appeal to it, this approach is also offensive. Using a fake disability instead of a real one just furthers the Othering of the disabled and reduces any sort of meaningful commentary that this could have to be toothless and abstract. In the future, disabled people aren’t an accepted part of the human experience, they’re relegated to an alien analogy. The ultimately meaningless nature of this allegory is reinforced by the circumstances of Melora’s ‘disability’ being the product of her species means that the entire plot of ‘curing’ her is packed with ramifications that a real disabled person wouldn’t face in a similar situation. While the premise is flawed and problematic, it’s not the only noteworthy thing in the episode.

Melora as a character is compelling; she’s as competent as any member of Starfleet and doesn’t take any of the patronizing nonsense that the other characters say with every other line. While this is acknowledged on some level, Melora points out “the truth is there is no ‘Melora’ problem until people create one”. Yet, this callout is not registered by the other characters as they keep engaging in that behavior. In fact, Melora’s outspoken behavior, despite the perfectly logical reasoning “sometimes they make me feel like a carnival attraction, so usually I prefer to keep everyone out” is completely ignored. Bashir getting through that exterior and having her warm up is supposed to show what? Bashir is a nice guy? Melora should just accept the everyday infantilization that she experiences as no big deal? That said behavior from others is fine because they mean well? There’s no good answer to this as the premise itself is bad.

A lot of the dialogue that the regulars are given is patronizing, and it’s not really worth really worth recounting as it is little more than mundane microaggressions. Bashir’s line about how extraordinary it is that Melora eschews anything but the basic accommodations required.  There’s nothing extraordinary or inspirational, it’s called living your life. The only way in which such a lifestyle is extraordinary is if you assume that people, especially the disabled, are lazy leeches who choose to live with their handicaps. This is brought up in response to O’Brien asking why she doesn’t just use the transporter to move around, which raises the perfectly reasonable counterpoint of why doesn’t the Chief use the transporter to move around the station? The question is ridiculous.

All in all, this episode is not good. It starts from bad but well-meaning assumptions and doesn’t question them. Melora is convincing as a disabled character to a large degree but that seems to be by virtue of Melora being given all the words that a disabled person would say, but zero understanding of those words. Any virtue it has in spite of itself and at the end of the day doesn’t do anything more than make the abled feel better about themselves. The nicest thing I can say is that it not a complete blueprint of what not to do. While this is the only episode about the disabled in such an explicit manner; it is not the only episode that touches upon the disabled and ableism.

Dr. Bashir, I Presume

Doctor Lewis Zimmerman arrives on Deep Space Nine to use Bashir as the model for his new Long-term Medical Hologram, but his past could unveil a dark secret which Bashir has carried since childhood.-Memory Alpha summary

Plot Highlights:  Bashir and O’Brien are playing darts when they are approached by Dr. Zimmerman, who wants to use Bashir as the model for the next generation of the EMH. In order to develop an accurate model, Dr. Zimmerman seeks to conduct a series of in-depth interviews with the people in Bashir’s life. Bashir makes a point of asking Zimmerman to not interview his parents, which is ignored in the name of the project.  Julian is unhappy bbut civil about the violation in front of the rest of the crew.

Once they are alone however, it is clear that there is an issue about a ‘little secret’ that has caused this gulf of resentment.  A secret that is conveniently stated to the Bashir hologram while O’Brien and Zimmerman are off to the side, Bashir is genetically enhanced. Bashir and O’Brien have a heart to heart over this revelation. O’Brien concerned about the violation of trust and the official repercussions while Bashir reveals a part of his self-loathing as well the circumstances surrounding his augmentation.   Bashir was severely developmentally challenged, “unable to tell a dog from a cat or a house from a tree” as well as physical problems prompted his parents to have “accelerated critical neuropathway formation” as a new Bashir was made. His issues aren’t just the stigma of being an Augment but also how he’s a new person. Julian is convinced that he’ll be removed from Starfleet.

Bashir’s father is insistent upon coming up with a proactive plan of dealing with this while Julian is resigned to his fate. He’s convinced that’s a fraud and that his parents replaced him, without giving him a chance. His parents, on the other hand, did it out of love and frustration that they couldn’t do anything to help their struggling son.

An agreement is reached, Bashir’s father is sent to prison in exchange for Julian being able to stay in Starfleet. The justification for genetic augmentation being illegal is given as,

200 years ago we tried to improve the human species through DNA resquencing. And what did we get for our troubles? The Eugenics Wars. For every Julian Bashir that can be created there’s a Khan Singh waiting in the wings, whose ambition and thirst for power along with this intellect. the law against genetic engineering provides a firewall against such men

The last scene is a reconciliation of sorts between Julian and his parents while the episode ends with O’Brien and Julian playing darts.

            Analysis:  Bashir secretly being an Augment is a good example of allegorical scifi. The show never tries to map being an Augment to anything in particular. Instead, it’s about being closeted, an idea that isn’t just limited to sexuality but also invisible disabilities.  This idea gives the episode some emotional weight, just enough resonance so that Alexander Siddig’s performance in this episode hits all the right notes.

I often describe Star Trek as the product of Gene Roddenberry being a strange hippy and the bioconservatism is one of the things that come to mind. This episode tries to deal with the idea of genetic augmentation, an idea introduced in the original series, and play around with it. Transhumanism, bioconservatism and disability is a complicated issue and this episode does the best given the context. The fact that Bashir was only augmented because of his unspecified developmental issues makes it instantly sympathetic. The vagueness of Julian’s condition avoids any real world discussion of eugenics but also makes it hard to create an understanding of what is allowed. The fact that genetic enhancement is permitted in the case of serious birth defects, raises the following questions of what constitutes a serious birth defect and if Julian didn’t have a birth defect, what was his condition?  If it is a birth defect, then what is serious enough? If it isn’t a birth defect, then it’s some other problem and who cares? A disability being a birth defect compared to something else shouldn’t make a difference. Instead, there’s an arbitrary line drawn in the sand and if your disability is on the wrong side, then you get some tech and are told to deal with it. This answer is less than satisfactory.

In context, this is justified by the fear of another Khan Singh, a man worse than Hitler, In order to understand Star Trek, it’s important to understand that a lot of Federation culture, or at least human culture, is a result of cultural posturing and collective cultural trauma from humanity’s history of Khan and the Eugenics War/WWIII. It’s somewhat strange, and the bioconservatism is patronizing, but it is part of the setting. This episode could have been better, but those ways would have been ultimately minor. ‘Dr. Bashir, I Presume’ works on a fundamental level that ‘Melora’ did not, the basic story and character interactions hold up.

Next week, I’ll keep talking about ableism, and Augments, in Deep Space Nine with the episodes ‘Statistical Possibilities’ and ‘Chrysalis’. Till next time.

Review: Snowpiercer

Netflix did a shuffle up their streaming selection recently and one of the new films got my attention, Snowpiercer. I’ve heard a few vaguely positive things about it and the summary was interesting enough that I gave it a shot. That turned out to be a good decision as Snowpiercer is a very good film, so let’s jump into it.

The set up is pretty straightforward. Humanity has recognized the threat that global warming presents and has come up with a solution. The only problem is that the solution worked too well and it’s heralded a new Ice Age. The remnants of humanity still exist on a train with a highly stratified class structure. Our protagonist belongs to the lowest class and seeks to rectify this injustice. The film is a superb example of allegorical science fiction with excellent visuals that I highly recommend.

With me so far? Cool, let’s get into the gritty, spoiler-laced details. If you care about spoilers and are interested in watching this film, I suggest you stop reading this and go watch it. If you don’t care about spoilers or have already seen it, keep reading.

 

This film is unabashedly leftist in orientation. The conflict is class conflict and revolution. Most of the film is rather self explanatory on this part, there’s little to be said beyond a proletarian revolution. The climax however is what makes it stand out. The introduction of possibility of leaving the system, as well as the inherent corruption of the system gives the film much of its weight. In a lot of ways it’s similar to V for Vendetta, the difference between authoritarianism that is keeping people alive versus anarchism and seemingly certain possibility of extinction. The main difference is that the conflict is far more resonant*.

Another part of the beauty is how simple the allegory is. While there are certainly layers to the film, the main points are fairly simple. This eliminates the distraction of getting tied up in the specifics of the situation and applies a certain degree of universality to the situation. A universality that is rather easy to achieve given it’s commentary on late capitalism.

The characters aren’t exactly the most three dimensional, but there is a certain level of depth that can be appreciated. The only exception to this is the main enemy fighter, whose name I don’t believe is ever actually given in the film, as he acts more as a force of nature to keep conflict happening. A bit of characterization, or at least a name would have been appreciated. Even though at the same time you can argue that he’s meant to symbolize those who fight to preserve the system.

Speaking of conflict, the fight scenes in this film are very entertaining. It uses the setting of the train and humanity’s scarcity to create some interesting set pieces that are well executed. This is about all I can ask for, so no complaints.

The visuals in general are well done. Again, the train creates some novel sights. My one complaint was the two times that seeing something outside of the train was important to the plot: the Revolt of the Seven and the plane at Yekaterina Bridge, you really have to squint in order to see what they’re talking about. While this does tie into the aesthetic, it could’ve have been weakened for clarity. Also, the surrender or die tattoo gag is probably one of my favorite visual gags in recent memory.

The sound is fine. All of the sound effects work like you expect them to and the music didn’t stand out to me. As I normally don’t notice music in films unless it’s either really good or really bad, this is again, fine.

Again, I would highly recommend this film and give it a 4/5 stars. Till next time

 

*This includes the graphic novel

 

 

Review: On Basilisk Station

David Weber’s Honor Harrington series is one of the biggest and still running scifi book series that I”m aware of.  For those who are unaware, Honor Harrington is essentially Horatio Hornblower meets hard scifi and a dose of space opera for good measure. It’s been going on for twenty years now with no sign of stopping. Since the first book is free, via Baen’s ebook library, and I wanted something new to read, I decided to check it out.

Overall, the book is not good. It’s mired in a tedious plot that the reader has no investment in with characters who are by and large, dull. However there is just enough good stuff in the book, and it’s short enough, that it’s not a slog to get through. If you want a straight up or down recommendation, then I’d say try it.  IF you want a more in-depth view then read on.

Spoiler space

spoiler space

spoiler space

The good: Weber showcases two things that he’s very good at that I care about and one thing that I’m ambivalent towards. His worldbuilding for the most part, is top notch and engaging. What we’re told about Manticore and the rest of the galaxy is clearly thought out and unique enough that it keeps my attention. Second, the space battle sequence that serves as the book’s climax is legitimately awesome and engaging, even though the outcome is more or less known at the outset. Lastly, while I can certainly appreciate the effort of making this scientifically plausible on an abstract level, as a reader I don’t care.

The okay: All of the characters are just okay. They’re fairly two dimensional and their career problems, which make up a decent portion of the book, are not riveting in the slightest. The main plot of Haven’s plot to take over Basilisk is equally okay, it’s there to keep the book moving but when so much of it just happens instead of being the result of actions of characters the reader is invested in, it’s hard to care. Overall, Weber’s writing style is very workman-like, serviceable more than great; which in many ways is exactly what’d you described of Baen as a whole, so there’s that.

 

The bad: The politics are,so, so, incredibly stupid to read in every manifestation. Haven being nothing more than a two dimensional villain that’s an attack on the welfare state*, to Manticore’s parties being resoundingly incompetent and stupid to the naval politics to Harrington’s feud with Hauptman. The more overarching problem is that everyone who isn’t a good guy is incompetent. That’s boring to read, protagonist succeeding through writer fiat by virtue of the opposition being too stupid to do anything effective isn’t compelling reading.

Taken as a whole, this was a book that I slogged through more by virtue of word of mouth saying it got better than it actually being good. Having actually read the second book, Honor of the Queen, I’m inclined to agree with that statement. Which will most likely be the subject of next’s week post. Feel free to comment, otherwise till next time.

*Yes I’m aware that Haven is supposed to Napoleonic era France, no that doesn’t invalidate actual passages from the text which make it a failed welfare state or that’s it’s a heavy handed way to set up an ancien regime analog.

Looking Back at Season 1 of Defiance

Defiance, the scifi Western show from the same people as new BSG and Farscape, that Syfy was advertising heavily this year has just ended its first season. The show had a lot riding on it, Syfy has had some financial difficulties in recent years and invested heavily in promoting the show as well as the game. The good news is that it didn’t crash and burn, the bad news is that it is still a first season with all the associated warts and bumps. So let’s break down each element of the show and see how it carried itself.

Now I could sit on this and mull over how I feel about the show, but this isn’t a thought provoking show. By that I mean it’s not really complicated in terms of plot nor is it a show that I have to really process how I feel about it. Instead I’d rather get this out now while everyone is thinking about it.

BEWARE YE WHO CONTINUE READING FOR SPOILERS

Characters: By and large I like the main characters: Nolan, Irisa, Yewll, Rafe, the Tarrs and Tommy. Just about everyone else is forgettable, dull or too shrouded in mystery for me to have an opinion on them. The one exception to this is that there is 1 character I actively dislike, that being Kenya, mainly because she’s kind of an idiot and it’s a plot point that keeps coming up. The guest stars also weren’t that bad as a whole with a few of them being quite good. It would have been nice to see Christie and Alak together, for in the case of Christie at all, after their wedding as well.  The characters are like many other things on this show, decent to solid with room for improvement.

Visuals: This is the kind of stuff that you expect from Syfy TV shows; which is to say very well. It doesn’t have anything like BSG’s visuals, it’s very much like Eureka, and they’re solid with a few stand outs.

Music: The music is by Bear McCreary means I’m already predisposed to liking it. He does good work. Every episode ending with a cover is less than stellar in my opinion with the songs being used hit or miss. Moving forward I really want more Votan/post Pale Wars stuff like the snippet heard in the first episode at the Need/Want.

Backstory: At first it is admittedly somewhat overwhelming, tying the beginning of the show to the game was really not the best move since it left me feeling disjointed. It also doesn’t bother with much in story exposition, which increases the verisimilitude of the whole thing. Instead viewers are expected to look it up themselves or piece it together and roll with it.  I’m not inherently against such a method, but the show starts off really rough in this regard. At first I thought that the backstory was cluttered with how many different species there in comparison to the ones that get used, but it’s a rather silly. The status quo also makes sense when you consider the behind scene issues in costumes and prosthetics. It gets better once it establishes itself though. Now I just hope there isn’t too much stuff that’s actually important tied up in the game.

Episodes: The first four episodes really aren’t that great, five is half good and six is pretty good , seven is a drop in quality and then the rest of the season is really starting to pick up. It’s also once you pass that four episode mark that the show really starts to establish its own identity. This could be influenced by the fact that I’m currently rewatching Babylon Five but it very much feels like it’s trying ot emulate it in certain regards, the good filler isn’t really filler but is setting things up sort of way.

Overarching Plots: Like any good scifi show there is of course more than overarching plot holding this together and their quality varies.

  1. Nolan and Irisa’s heist in San Fran: I expect this to be wrapped up on the grounds of more important stuff is happening and am only listing it for the sake of being thorough. About as good as any other way to start the show and introduce some tension but that’s it.
  2. The Kaziri: This is really annoying because of how little we know. My opinion of this dropped when it turned that it isn’t related to some powerful terraforming equipment but rather it’s basically a Votan nuke….maybe probably. What pieces we are given of it are good in building up interest in mystery except the show also likes to scream OMINIOUS HAPPENINGS.
  3. Pale Wars 2.0: It would’ve been nice if the Votanis Collective hadn’t been pushed aside almost entirely from the show. Although I expect they’ll feature prominent in season two and in resolving the cliffhanger we’re left with.
  4. Earth Republic annexing Defiance: Specifically this part of the cliffhanger, since supposedly Datak still has connections in the Votanis Collective, and they have to know something about the Kaziri. Even if they are in Brazil the Votanis Collective isn’t going to do nothing, and neither are the people of Defiance.
  5. Kenya:  Is being held by Stahma but given everything else going on is really the least important plot right now by a wide margin. The fact that I don’t care for her character only compounds my apathy here. Or she might be dead, I honestly wasn’t paying that much attention; in which case it’s the fallout of her death that we have to see.
  6. Datak and Stahma: are being confronted by Earth Republic forces last we saw them.
  7.  Irathient Religion/Irdu: Can we just forget this whole pseudo-Native American shtick they have? The only reason why I’m listing this is the off chance that mystical forces will actually play a role in the show. It’s dumb, and aside from Sukar’s original premonitions can all be attributed to Votan tech doing stuff.
  8.  Nolan is being kept alive by Votan tech: We know that Votan tech can bring back the dead, so there’s just the question of how this is going to play out.
  9.  Irisa’s Technicolor stuff: I’m not really sure what else to call this beyond some machine induced hallucination presented itself as a God and basically told Irisa to jump into the light.
  10.  Quentin looking for his mom: I really don’t care about this, it seemed like Quentin’s main function was holding onto the Kaziri for half the season.
  11.  Volge/Gulagee: This mainly exists in the backstory right now but there’s still a bunch of questions about what is up with these two races.  If this never gets resolved then it plummets the value of the pilot and some of the setting’s draw.

Other thoughts: the two Votan cultures we see aren’t really flattering: Castihans are just dicks and Irathients are as already stated pseudo-Native Americans.

Overall: Defiance had a decent first season, I’d recommend watching it and I’m looking forward to season two. I’m also going to be expecting a lot more from it in season two, the writers got the chance to find their bearings, now they have to deliver.