Weekend Links: July 4, 2015

Funko is releasing Fifth Element Pop! Figures

David Bowie is Sci Fi and Fantasy Personified

Entertainment Weekly interviews Supergirl Melissa Benoist

A Neuroscientist’s Perspective on Inside Out

Zadie Smith is going to be writing a sci-fi movie

The New York Times asks “Do Genre Labels Matter Anymore?”

io9 talks about eight books you need to know about to understand this year’s Hugo Awards controversy

We’ve also got our first image of Bruce Campbell’s return as Ash from Ash vs. Evil Dead:

 

 

The Humble Weekly Bundle is Leading Ladies 2, looks awesome.

HumbleBundleLeadingLadies2So, I just bought this, mostly to get access to Sunset, which looks amazing. Gravity Ghost, Trine 2, and Lumino City are all gorgeous to look at. Hack ‘n’ Slash is an interesting concept, although I have some concerns about the execution. I’m not super excited about A City Sleeps or The Marvelous Mistake, but you get them if you pay enough for Gravity Ghost and Sunset.

All in all, it’s a solid bundle, and I really think it’s going to be worth $12 just for Sunset. Also, this bundle is supporting the Girls Make Games scholarship fund, which is a great cause.

Buy it here.

If you’re still not sure about it, watch the trailer for Sunset and then go buy it.

Inside Out is Pixar at its tear-jerking best

I knew that Inside Out was going to be a special film all the way back when it first announced, but I wasn’t at all prepared for what I saw when I finally got to the theater to see the finished product. The promotion for the film, including trailers, was deliberately vague on plot and focused til the very end on selling the concept, which is admittedly, well, not weird, but definitely unusual, especially for a children’s movie. It was a little bit of a frustrating tactic for me since I kind of love having as much info as possible before I see a movie, but in the end I was very happy that there were so many surprises in store for me–because they were all wonderful.

The framing of the film is simple: Riley moves with her parents from Minnesota to San Francisco, and she’s got feelings about it. The real story, of course, is inside Riley’s head, where Joy has been in charge for almost twelve years and doesn’t know how to handle things when Riley’s other emotions–Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness–start to overpower her. Early on, we learn that most of what Joy does is try and manage Sadness, whose purpose she doesn’t really understand. Joy and Sadness are sucked out of Headquarters (get it?!) together, and the bulk of the movie is their journey back.

And it’s a pretty epic journey, when it’s presented the way Pixar has done here.

Visually, Inside Out is stunning, which is to be expected in any Pixar movie, but the attention to detail and the sheer amount of love and care poured into the work here is incredible. To create the mind of a child as a landscape is a task that could easily have turned hokey, but they’ve really nailed it here, building a place in Riley’s head that is both fanciful and grounded deeply in reality. I know that there are all kinds of experts praising the movie for its accurate portrayal of the interplay between Riley’s emotions, but I think the real achievement is in a depiction of a child’s inner life that feels intuitively correct and relatable for the average viewer. It’s not that things in Inside Out are real, but they feel like they might be, or maybe like they ought to be, from the islands of Riley’s personality to the enormous complex of memory shelves that wind around in a way that, when viewed from above, is vaguely reminiscent of actual brain matter.

The character design is excellent. The emotions are, in my opinion, perfectly realized, and I love how none of them are really quite solid. Rather, they seem to be made of millions of tiny, shifting dots mixed with glitter, granting them all a sort of ethereal presence. The characters that Joy and Sadness encounter on their journey are similarly well-drawn, and the use of textures is just amazing in general. The wide array of people that Riley interacts with seems purposefully intended to reflect the diversity of San Francisco in the real world, which is also nice.

All of the voice actors are well-suited to their roles. Amy Poehler (Joy) and Phyllis Smith (Sadness) are lovely together as these sort of polar opposite characters. I can’t imagine anyone but Lewis Black in the role of Anger, and Mindy Kaling and Bill Hader were wisely cast as Disgust and Fear. However, Richard Kind steals the whole show as Riley’s imaginary friend, who helps Joy and Sadness along their way.

Inside Out is one of those rare films that I really think everyone ought to see. It’s so much more than just a children’s movie; in fact, I would say that its prime audience will be ages ten and up. While little ones may enjoy the colors and the funny voices, the majority of Inside Out‘s ideas will go right over their heads. It’s a movie about growing up, laser-focused on looking at the particular moments in which we transition from being children to being adolescents, which makes it useful and informative for anyone going through that change right now and heart-wrenching for those of us who remember going through it.

Personally, I was crying within the first five minutes of the movie, and I’m not sure I quite stopped until the credits rolled. If you see only one movie this summer, make it Inside Out. If you have a tween-aged kid in your life, be sure to take them with you. Then, be sure to talk about it afterwards.

The second episode of Killjoys feels like the second half of a first episode

“The Sugar Point Run” still feels a lot like Firefly, but I do think we’re already starting to see Killjoys distinguishing itself a bit from its predecessor.

Unfortunately, to me, this episode feels almost more like a pilot episode than the first one did. There’s still a lot of verbal exposition going on, some of which is repeated from last week, and I would have liked the situation with Dutch, Johnny, and Dav to have ended up last week where it is at the end of this episode. Because of course that’s what has to happen in order for there to be a story here.

Nothing says “dystopia” like some skulls on spikes in a devastated, wartorn warehouse district in Toronto.

There’s a lot of good stuff going on in “The Sugar Point Run,” though. It takes us deeper into the Company-run dystopia the characters are inhabiting, and there are some neat things happening there. I definitely came away from this episode with a better understanding of the politics of the Quad and what the killjoys’ role in things is supposed to be. I’m not completely sold on it all yet, but it’s still interesting enough to keep me watching. I’m hoping, though, that we’re coming to the end of this heavy handed info dumping so we can get on with learning more about the characters and seeing a real story play out.

Because the characters have a ton of potential. “The Sugar Point Run” shows us more of Dutch’s training as a child assassin, which is actually pretty harrowing, and we also see that D’avin is still having PTSD dreams, which isn’t explored at all. A big part of this episode was Dutch and D’Avin doing stuff together, which I liked, although I don’t like that it looks as if they’re headed for will-they-or-won’t-they sexual tension town. They have nice chemistry, as beautiful people often do, but that’s just such a tired trope that I could really do without it, maybe, just this once.

Repairs aren’t going smoothly when you have to pull out a gun.

The other half the episode is Johnny hanging out with the ship, Lucy. We get to see Johnny being competent, which is good to establish, although he still feels a little too much like a comic relief character to me. While he’s repairing the ship, he does make a discovery that starts him to questioning Dutch, though, which introduces some more tension into their relationship.

I’m actually more interested in Lucy, though. We’ve seen a good amount of the human characters’ interactions with the ship, and it looks like they are definitely going to be developing the ship herself as a character. I’m not generally a fan of sentient ships, although I do think they can be done well. So far, Lucy has gotten some of the show’s best lines, but I think that’s a testament more to the overall weakness of the scripts than it is of how well the ship is being utilized as a character. Like the other main characters, though, Lucy definitely shows some potential.

All things considered, I am still enjoying Killjoys quite a bit, and I’ll almost certainly be sticking out the rest of this season. If the writers can move away from info dumping, get the series arc moving, and give the characters a bit more depth, I think it could be be a great show. And it could be that my impression of this episode as a second half of our introduction to the world and characters is exactly what the writers intended. If so, it’s not how I would have done it, personally, but it would mean that things will start getting really good this week with episode three. Here’s hoping.

Book Review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeerAnnihilation is something else.

That said, I wouldn’t say that it was weird, exactly, as it has so much in common with traditional genre work.

It’s science fiction in the sense that it’s about science; in fact, it’s told from the first person point of view of a biologist, ostensibly on a scientific expedition. There’s a lot of scientific-sounding observations and a lot of scientific terminology tossed around. However, most of what the biologist encounters is decidedly not scientific, is indeed almost certainly supernatural or alien in nature, moving Annihilation firmly into the realm of the fantastical.

The biologist might have the mind of a scientist, but she has the soul of a poet. The descriptions of Area X’s environs are full of lush imagery and gorgeous turns of phrase that grant the whole book a sort of dreamlike quality. At times it even slips into what feels like nothing more than stream of consciousness narration, liberal interspersed with the biologists memories from before the expedition and an entire secondary story nestled in there about the biologist’s marriage, a tragic romance if there ever was one.

It’s a mystery in the sense that the reader doesn’t quite know what’s going on, but there’s no explanation in the end, and the biologist (and therefore the reader) finds far more new questions than answers over the course of the book. While reading, I generally felt like I was getting more and more information, but I was left somewhat frustrated at the end even though I felt like the biologist’s story ended in a way that felt just right for her.

Probably the thing Annihilation is most like is the works of Lovecraft and his copycats, but it’s not really horror, either. While there are some horror elements, especially of the psychological kind, I found the book to be more melancholy than anything else, and the biologist’s very detached, clinical style of narration rather dissected her feelings of horror more than it projected them to the reader. I felt like I was reading about horror, not experiencing it.

I suppose I would call Annihilation a work of literary surrealism, which definitely earns it a place under the SF umbrella, but aside from the common comparisons of it to Lovecraft (and those comparisons aren’t truly apt), I’d say it defies ordinary genre classification.

I can’t say that I particularly liked Annihilation, but there are things I loved about it. Its lovely prose and well-though-out structure show the meticulous craft that went into its creation. I don’t think I will be reading the rest of the trilogy, though. Annihilation left me wanting to know more about Area X, but it just wasn’t a very enjoyable read for me. Not enough to make me want to read another two books like it.

The SF Bluestocking 2015 Summer Reading List

I feel like breaking my foot in May derailed everything I’d planned for the summer, and I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump ever since that wasn’t helped by dealing with Game of Thrones and a nice bout of straight up depression that has left me just constantly exhausted. However, I think that’s mostly over now. The cast should be coming off my foot soon, I’m mostly recovered from Game of Thrones, and I’m ready to get back to some of what I had planned to accomplish.

This is still a slightly tentative list that might change order or expand if I get through things faster than expected, but here’s what I’ve got in my queue right now.

Annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeerAnnihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
I finished this one today, so it’s not technically “in the queue” I suppose. A proper review will be incoming in the next day or two. Annihilation won the Nebula for Best Novel a few weeks ago, so it’s definitely worth checking out if you follow awards. I’m not sure exactly what I expected when I sat down to read it, but it’s definitely something special.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
I just got approved for an ARC of The Heart Goes Last from NetGalley, and I’m super stoked about it. I love Margaret Atwood with a deep and abiding passion, but I never did get around to reading her Positron shorts on Byliner before it went bust. This is apparently those, but rewritten and with more. However, I’ve got til its release date (Sept 29) to read and review it, so I’m not in a huge rush. I figure it will end up filling in sometime this summer when I’m in between other things.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tabir
I’ve mostly gotten away from reading much YA stuff, but this book has gotten a good deal of positive buzz. It’s apparently a standalone novel, although I see that there is a sequel in the works. I’m hoping to burn through it in a day or two so I can move along to some of the more exciting new releases that are coming up.

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton
Jo Walton’s The Just City was one of the first books I read this year, so I’ve been eagerly anticipating its sequel since January. It comes out tomorrow, but I probably won’t reasonably get started on it until the weekend. Apparently there is also a third book planned in this series, which has me all aflutter, even though there’s no cover or release date for it yet.

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older
This is the second of the very few YA works I intend to read this year, and it’s another book that has been getting a ton of advance praise. Urban fantasy isn’t my usual thing, and I’m a little skeptical of anything that is being so heavily compared to Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments, but I try not to put too much stock in that sort of thing. Promising Caribbean magic in Brooklyn and with an absolutely gorgeous cover, there’s basically no way that I ever wasn’t going to read this book. It comes out tomorrow along with The Philosopher Kings, which means I have a tough decision to make about which to read first.

The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
I had a hell of a time dealing with the ridiculous name of the heroine (“Kelsea”) in The Queen of the Tearling, but I ended up rather liking the book in the end. I won’t say I’m particularly excited to dive back into this series, but I have a hard time leaving any series unfinished. I figure this will also be a nice, easy read in between some of the more difficult stuff on this list.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven won the Arthur C. Clarke and was a 2014 National Book Award finalist. It also comes highly recommended by George R.R. Martin. It’s got a ridiculously long description on Goodreads, which would normally make me think that it’s either going to be big and beautiful and complex or an overambitious mess. With its awards nominations and general critical success, though, my expectation is very much that it will be the former.

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
Speaking of Arthur C. Clarke, I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while. As part of my general wanting to become more well read in the genre, I’ve begun sort of slowly working through the SF and Fantasy Masterworks collections. While my progress in this has really been very slow, Childhood’s End became a priority when SyFy announced their miniseries adaptation of it. While there’s no air date yet for the show, I want to be sure to finish the book before then, so I can’t put it off too much longer.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
I’ve been putting off reading this series for years, mostly because I, frankly, haven’t been that excited about it in spite of all the attention it’s gotten. It just sounds like a hipper, edgier Harry Potter for adults. I’m a little old to have ever really gotten into the Harry Potter phenomenon, so that’s always been more unappealing than otherwise to me. However, this is another book that’s being adapted for television (SyFy again!), and the first trailer looks pretty good.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
I liked Never Let Me Go quite a bit, and I find it fascinating when more mainstream literary authors dabble in genre fiction. As a longtime fan of Arthuriana, I’m also very interested in the post-Arthurian premise for the story.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
I read this self-published gem earlier this year already, but I loved it so much that I’d like to reread it and give it a proper review in time for the hardcover release of it on August 13. I still can’t decide if I love or hate the new cover, though. It’s very pretty, but it looks so serious for a book that is actually quite funny. I really think I prefer the sort of pulpy charm of the original’s spaceship illustration, but the book is so great that I’m mostly just happy to see it getting a bigger release.

The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán
This book has a knight riding a dinosaur on the cover, and it’s a medieval fantasy based on 14th century Europe. It’s a book by a man who is known for writing libertarian science fiction, which would normally be a huge turn off for me. However, there is no universe in which I’m not going to always read a medieval fantasy called The Dinosaur Lords with a dinosaur-riding knight on the cover, because that is rad as hell. If you agree about the total radness of this cover and the book’s premise, it comes out on July 28.

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
I feel like I’ve been waiting for this book forever, even though it’s probably only been a year. N.K. Jemisin has been one of my favorite authors since I first read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and I can’t wait to see what she’s got for us this time around. Just judging from the book description, it sounds pretty epic. The Fifth Season hits shelves on August 4.

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu
I really liked The Three-Body Problem, so of course I will be reading the second book in the trilogy. I don’t read much translated fiction, and The Dark Forest has a different translator than the first book did so I’m curious to see how much difference that makes. I’m also looking forward to the promise of more action in The Dark Forest as that’s basically the one thing The Three-Body Problem could be said to lack. The Dark Forest will be available on August 11.

The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
I think I read something that Aliette de Bodard wrote a couple of years ago, but I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. So I was thrilled to rediscover her this year when I read her fantastic On a Red Station Drifting. I followed that up with her Obsidian and Blood trilogy, a sort of noir detective story in 16th century Mexica, which was a ton of fun and a really refreshingly original setting. I’m very excited about The House of Shattered Wings, which will  be released on August 20.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Recap: “The Education of a Magician”

vlcsnap-2015-06-28-11h33m17s49I always watch an episode at least twice before writing about it, and I’m very glad I did in this case. “The Education of a Magician” is definitely a piece of work that improves upon better acquaintance. On first viewing, I was disappointed at some of the liberties taken from the source material, but the second time around I was impressed with how well the adaptation is bringing to life the spirit of the novel, if not every single detail that I want to see on screen.

This episode contains, essentially, three stories: Jonathan Strange’s experiences in the Peninsular War, Mr. Norrell and how he deals with his pupil’s absence, and the advancement of Arabella Strange and Lady Pole’s friendship. We also start to see the increasing entwinement of the fates of Stephen, Arabella, and Lady Pole as well as the beginning of a huge gulf forming between Strange and Norrell as both of them cross some lines that they probably ought not (even though, at the end of this episode they seem as close as ever).

vlcsnap-2015-06-28-11h39m36s3
Lady Pole at work.

Interestingly, “The Education of a Magician” doesn’t open with Jonathan Strange, even though that might seem like the most exciting place to begin. Instead, the episode starts with Lady Pole waking up and having a new idea for how to tell Arabella about her predicament. She gets out of bed quickly and starts ripping up her dress to make a tapestry. Lady Pole’s tapestry is a somewhat interesting departure from the book, as it continues the show’s trend of expanding Lady Pole’s role and granting her somewhat more agency than she had in the novel. It’s nice to see, because I think Lady Pole is a tricky character who could easily have been flattened into a handful of unpleasant tropes or made into a simple damsel in distress. Instead, this adaptation actually improves upon the source material, giving us a Lady Pole who is clever and resourceful and never gives up trying to take back control of her life.

As Lady Pole is working out new ways of communicating, Childermass is, at Norrell’s instruction, intercepting letters to prevent Arabella from telling her husband anything that Norrell might disapprove of. Also sandwiched in here is a pretty much straight-from-the-book conversation between Arabella and Drawlight that I was happy to see included.

In Portugal, Jonathan Strange gets off to a rocky start with his military career, and Lord Wellington is downright dismissive of him. It seems to the two magicians have so far done more harm than good for the war effort, and Strange can’t provide what Wellington wants–men and arms–and is therefore useless. Strange is left quite at loose ends, with no magic to do and struggling to find a way to make himself useful in the war effort.

Honeyfoot and Segundus at Starecross.
Honeyfoot and Segundus at Starecross.

Meanwhile, back in England, Childermass is also busy making sure that no one in England besides Norrell does anything resembling magic. He rides out to Starecross, which Segundus and Honeyfoot are turning into a school for magicians and advises them to stop this plan before Norrell finds out. In exchange for their going into another sort of business, Childermass offers to send clients their way when he gets the chance.

In London, Arabella continues her visits with Lady Pole, who is continuing to work on a tapestry illustrating Lost Hope. She shows the tapestry to Arabella, who doesn’t understand at all, which I found a little frustrating to watch, if I’m honest. For one thing, it’s not entirely clear quite how Lady Pole is not only able to make this tapestry but also to talk rather at length about it to Arabella. And in light of how much Lady Pole is able to say in this manner about her and Stephen’s enchantment, I’m honestly just not sure how Arabella manages to not see what her friend is getting at. I’m also not sure why Arabella doesn’t recognize the Gentleman in the tapestry, since he’s been creeping on her for a good while now.

For all that I’m not entirely happy with the way this is playing out, this visit with Lady Pole has one of my favorite speeches in the show so far. Arabella tries to cheer up her friend by basically advising Lady Pole to count her blessings, among them Sir Walter’s love, Lady Pole will have none of it and even turns it around on Arabella, asking what good Mr. Strange’s love ever did her.

Jonathan Strange creates a road.
Jonathan Strange creates a road.

On the continent, Jonathan Strange finally figures out a way to contribute when a soldier complains to him about the poor roads destroying boots. Strange presents a plan to Lord Wellington whereby he will use magic to make roads the troops can march down more easily. This is quickly done and earns Strange Wellington’s gratitude and, against his protestations that it’s not respectable, the nickname “Merlin.”

For a nice bit of foreshadowing, Strange’s dinner with Wellington and the officers includes Jonathan Strange’s rather famous line from the book. When Wellington asks if a magician can kill a man by magic, Strange replies:

“A magician might, sir, but a gentleman never would.”

At which point every even mildly astute viewer groaned a little inside. Because, obviously, we’ll see about that. I think my issue here is that sometimes a great line in a book only ends up being really obvious when it’s delivered with such deliberate nonchalance in a screen adaptation. I suppose it beats having to see the line delivered with melodramatic significance, but I think perhaps they went a little too far in the opposite direction from that here.

Lady Pole's tapestry.
Lady Pole’s tapestry.

In England again, Childermass is having some misgivings about stealing all the Stranges’ mail and says so to Norrell. Norrell is characteristically evasive, but manages to assure Childermass that it’s for the best. Norrell then sends Childermass on an errand, which turns out to be breaking into the Poles’ house and stealing Lady Pole’s tapestry, which he does.

Robbed of her tapestry–effectively having her voice stolen–a distraught Lady Pole attempts to kill herself, only to learn from Mr. Norrell that she cannot die. Not for another seventy-odd years, anyway. This scene is, frankly, absolutely chilling: Lady Pole in her nightdress, strapped to a small bed in an empty room, with Norrell standing over her. Norrell giving her the bad news and then physically trying to silence her anger, frustration and despair. And, finally, Norrell going to Sir Walter, lying about Lady Pole’s condition and then advising Sir Walter to separate Lady Pole from Arabella.

And this is all edited together with more of Strange’s escapades in the war, which on the one hand is perhaps a good thing–to break up these scenes so it’s not just one long sequence of Norrell’s terrible treatment of Lady Pole–but is made into something much less than comfortable when we see what Strange is up to, which isn’t much good. Indeed, Strange is being shaped into someone rather frightening himself.

First, Wellington wants Strange to move an entire forest, which brings up an interesting conversation about how that might be done. Unfortunately, Wellington isn’t interested in Strange’s musings about talking to trees, because I would have loved to hear more about it. When Strange goes to move the forest, he and the men he’s with find themselves under attack. Strange can’t get the forest to move, and while Strange does manage to save the lives of most of the men, Strange’s servant, Jeremy, is hit by cannon fire and dies. Also lost are all of the books that Strange has brought with him to work from.

The dead Neapolitans.
The dead Neapolitans.

This is a significant problem when it comes to Strange’s next task, which is to find out where some Neapolitan soldiers have taken a bunch of cannons they stole. Strange is without any books, the army has no live Neapolitans to question, and scrying in water just shows trees and grass that could be anywhere in the countryside. However, it turns out that they do have some Neapolitan corpses, which Strange brings to life and grants speech to, in an interesting counterpoint to Norrell’s silencing of Lady Pole.

Unfortunately, Strange is no more successful than Norrell with this sort of magic. While Norrell only managed to give Lady Pole half a life, leaving her quite absent from the real world, Strange’s Neapolitans are all to real and persistently alive-ish. And rotting. And begging to be allowed to return to their families.

The burning mill.
The Neapolitans’ fate.

It’s very shortly obvious that Jonathan Strange has done something pretty messed up here and doesn’t have any idea how to undo it. In another parallel to Mr. Norrell, Strange is also lauded as a sort of hero for what is pretty much exactly the sort of magic that he doesn’t want to do at all. This is not modern magic. However, Strange seems consoled as he rides away into a beautiful new dawn while the unlucky undead Neapolitans are burned behind him.

It feels very telling to me how much alike Strange and Norrell seem when Strange finally returns to England. For all their differences in temperament, age, appearance, and experience, they seem very nearly equals now.

Lady Pole comes for Mr. Norrell.
Lady Pole comes for Mr. Norrell.

The episode ends, of course, with Lady Pole’s attempt on Mr. Norrell’s life, in which she misses her mark but succeeds only in shooting Childermass instead.

It’s a great ending to a very busy episode that covered a lot of ground. I still think the show struggles with conveying the passage of time–it’s not at all clear that Jonathan Strange has been gone for some three years, for example–but the pacing of this episode felt just right and the interweaving of the various story lines  was masterfully done. So far, the mini-series is faithful to the book without being a slave to it, and the changes that have been made are mostly smart ones that I think enhance the material rather than otherwise.

Sci-fi and Fantasy books, tv, films, and feminism