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Book Review: Annihilation

To be honest I might never have picked up this were it not for the science fiction book club I belong to via Meetup. I had never heard of Jeff VanderMeer and didn’t know a thing about this book before I started reading, and that was probably a good thing.

annihilation

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

That is a very long blurb for a book that’s barely over 200 pages. Also, that last paragraph makes the story sound way more thriller-esque than it actually is. And that cover is just awful!

When I started reading this book, I assumed it had been published in the 1960s or 70s – that cover doesn’t help much either. The style was reminiscent of that era, in that the narration was exclusively ‘tell’ with absolutely no ‘show.’ The reason for this is that the story is actually one long journal entry written by the biologist. This just didn’t work for me. I felt nothing for the characters and found the main character – who describes herself as detached and emotionally withdrawn – impossible to relate to. Consequently, I didn’t care at all what happened to her or the rest of the team. What kept me turning the pages was the premise – there’s not really a plot – and wanting to know what Area X was and how it had come to be.

Despite only being 200 pages, this book felt long especially since there isn’t really much plot, more like a character meandering, trying to understand both the external landscape and her own internal one. This was where the story became more interesting for me and to a large extent, I felt that the story was an allegory: the biologist wasn’t researching an alien landscape so much as trying to understand herself and why her marriage had fallen apart, coming to terms with aspects of a troubled childhood etc. As a metaphor, the story is layered and nuanced, but the last chapter seems to undermine this idea when the biologist has a sudden revelation about what Area X is and how it might’ve come to be. I think the story would’ve been much better with a less literal interpretation.

I enjoyed this book for its unashamed weirdness and am still curious about what Area X really is and what’s happening in the background regarding the institute that keeps sending in these research expeditions. I do think, however, that this would’ve worked so much better as a longer short story. Despite being a short novel, it just meandered too much and became repetitive although never quite boring, just a little tedious. Had I known the writer was a Nebula winner and Hugo nominee, and that this book was published in 2014, I might’ve had higher expectations and been a little less impressed. Since I only discovered that after the fact though, I’m not going to let it affect my rating of the novel.

If you enjoy report-style science fiction that ventures into the absurd then you will probably like this book very much. While I’m not in a hurry to read more in this series, I am definitely keen to read other works by this author. It gets 3.5/5 ink splats from me.

3.5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on March 3, 2015 in Reviews

 

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Film Review: The Maze Runner

Firstly, I know this film was based on a beloved book and I have not read that book, so this review is based purely on the movie version. Also, there are going to be a lot of spoilers…

maze runner

*Warning: There be Spoilers!*

 

Despite having not read the books, I admit that it was knowing this film was based on a dystopian YA series that made me want to watch the film in the first place, because I’m a total sucker for these stories.

The Maze Runner starts off strong with NO VOICE-OVER!! (does the happy dance). I braced myself for the voice-over prologue explaining the way the world worked, but it never came and I was immediately more intrigued because of this. The film throws us right into the action where our teenage MC wakes up to find himself in a cage, shipped off to a mysterious glade populated by other adolescent males. This has the potential to be all very Lord of the Flies-ish and I anticipated the story to head in that direction. But not so much…

We discover that the boys who wake up in the glade have no memories of their life beyond the walls of their rather picturesque prison except for remembering their name. Convenient and I’m not sure this can be credibly medically explained but okay, I’ll go with it. Second, we discover that the boys have established a mostly self-sufficient community that is extremely well-structured and ordered despite being run and populated by hormonal teenage boys. These boys are prisoners in the glade and have tried just about everything to fine their way out of the surrounding maze. The kicker is that this maze is only open during the day and the huge, imposing gates close every night to keep mysterious nasties out of the glade and curious boys in it. So ‘maze runners’ spend the daylight hours trying to run and map the maze in the hopes of one day getting out. It’s not that simple though, obviously.

Thomas, our MC who remembers a little more than just his name but can’t really make sense of it, being a curious lad starts to question everything in the glade as he should. The answers to his questions boil down to: we’ve tried everything else, the only way out of the maze is through. This is problematic because despite being able to build fairly sophisticated housing structures, including watch towers and trees houses, these boys never think to build scaffolding to help them scale the walls of the maze and approach the problem with an aerial view. The reason for this? The vines only go half way up the walls (please consult the above image which was an official movie poster and take note of the vine placement.) Okay, movie, you clearly want these boys to have to run through the maze. Fine. But I do think they could’ve come up with a better reason for it. Anyway…

Thomas, possessing all the qualities of an intrepid YA hero, starts challenging the status quo and things start going wrong in the glade. At this point, the film really wanted to be a zombie movie but didn’t quite get there. Apparently, the nasty creatures which inhabit the maze at night are suddenly active during the day. A sting from one of these creatures turns the unlucky stingee into a rabid, zombie-esque monster and of course panic ensues. I anticipated a lot more Lord of the Flies like divisiveness in the camp when their leader gets stung and there are a few minor dust-ups – some pushing and shoving – but nothing more than that, and I didn’t buy it one little bit. These are teenage boys in a highly stressful environment, not zen masters! I also wanted to see more of that moral grayness that arises when good people do bad things for potentially the right reasons, but our MC is almost boring he’s so good and decent about everything – even accepting punishment for basically being brave from the jerk of the group far too good-naturedly. To be honest, I found Thomas a tad dull and lifeless. More bad stuff happens and Thomas proves he’s a hero by selflessly putting himself in harms way, running into the maze as it’s closing for the night to help his friend. Fine, but then a terrifying flight from the scorpion-like, semi-organic, mostly robotic creatures ensues and it is shown repeatedly that these creatures can scale the walls – so why have they never scaled the walls at night and terrorized the glade? If they’re programmed not to hurt the boys, why the sudden change in MO? WHY IS ANY OF THIS HAPPENING!? I actually might’ve been grateful for a voice-over explaining some of this to me.

Also, considering this is a camp full of boys, some of whom have been there for years, there is absolutely no discussion about sex or sexuality. It was conspicuous by its absence and was made even more conspicuous by its absence when a girl arrives in their midst.

It’s abundantly clear from the get go that there are external forces controlling the situation and manipulating the boys’ circumstances in the glade, so what person (presuming the external forces are human of course) sends a girl into the midst of an all boy camp? What on earth were they hoping to achieve? With the arrival of the girl, I expected a lot of chest bashing, awkwardness, maybe some lewd looks or comments, or at least some comments about the fact that there was now a girl in their midst but nope, the boys are as passive as ever. After three years of this sort of isolation with no memories of a previous life including no memories of morality or societal norms, I just don’t buy the almost genteel way in which this situation was handled. It’s all very disappointing and unbelievable. I couldn’t help but think back to that fabulous New Zealand-made series called The Tribe where teenagers are left to rule the world and the type of society that becomes. That felt authentic. This glade business? Not so much.

At least the girl’s presence seems to be the catalyst for change and one night, the gates don’t close, meaning the big bad nasties get to tear loose through the camp, which is the final straw for Thomas and crew to find their way out of the maze once and for all. Suffice it to say, they do in a somewhat improbable way, but okay. The explanation they’re given when they reach the control center presumably set up to monitor the glade and manipulate the goings-on, is that the sun has scorched the earth and people are dying. With the future of humanity in jeopardy, the best solution the government could come up with was to stick a bunch of boys together in a glade and conduct increasingly brutal psychological experiments on them, hoping these kids would somehow prove themselves strong enough to survive, thereby proving there was hope for humanity. What the what? So, we’re running low on people and our solution is to systematically maim and murder our future generation because if kids can’t defend themselves against giant robot scorpions with a zombie sting, you’re right, the world is totally screwed. I just couldn’t even at this point, but wait… presumably government agents swoop in at exactly the right time to save these kids from the institution – now defunct considering all the people controlling the glade are dead, thanks to those same goons now swooping in to rescue the kids. Confused yet? I was! How about those government dudes go save the kids still trapped in the glade considering they have flipping HELICOPTERS and could easily have landed AT ANY TIME within the glade to airlift these kids to safety. Also, what’s with the morbid fascination with watching kids die or killing each other in gruesome ways (I’m looking at you Hunger Games).

But the real kicker comes at the very end as Thomas and crew – minus a few members, because of course we needed Thomas to shed a few tears to prove he’s human despite his apparent dissociation from everything that’s happening to him – fly off in the chopper to apparent safety. The film ends with a scene showing the maze mastermind – who we saw murdered a few moments ago – hale and hearty and planning to move the escapees onto the second phase of the trials. Trials for what? Given the amount of sand, I’m guessing the sun did cook the Earth, or perhaps we’re in the Sahara? But if all that was true about the sun and the imminent demise of humanity, why is the government killing children!?!?

This film was incredibly well done – the CGI was fantastic and the cinematography wonderful. It was visually appealing and the soundtrack was great too. The acting wasn’t bad, even if the actor playing Thomas wasn’t terribly exciting. He might’ve doing a great job of recreating the character from the book, but he came across as almost apathetic in the film. What failed most miserably for me was the premise, so basically the entire story. A few weeks after watching this movie, I’m still trying to figure out the why of it all, and without that I don’t know if I should care. Also, where were the rest of the girls? What was the point of having an all boy group, other than to make the story a ‘boy’ story? I just don’t get it. Maybe I missed something. Maybe the movie failed utterly to adapt a brilliant book, but judging the film as it stands, I’m really not impressed. 1.5/5 ink splats from me.

1.5 splats

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2015 in Reviews

 

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Film Review: X-Men Days of Future Past

The X-Men. These are some seriously awesome comics featuring a diverse range of characters – I was particularly ecstatic to see the inclusion of LGBT characters in the series and in such an un-apologetically romantic light too. But those are the comics, and film adaptations often don’t do the source material justice. While there wasn’t the same amount of diversity in the original trilogy, I’ve got to admit I really enjoyed the films. I enjoyed the Wolverine Origins film even more, which had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Taylor Kitsch as Gambit – nope, not at all – and I adored the First Class film, which of course had absolutely nothing to do with James McAvoy. (I’m going to pretend that the abomination that is The Wolverine just doesn’t exist and never happened to this otherwise kickass franchise). After the trilogy and wicked-cool origin movies, it was with mingling excitement and trepidation that I sat down to watch Days of Future Past.

*Spoilers ahead – you’ve been warned*

x_men__days_of_future_past___poster__update__by_superdude001-d6sbixc

Firstly, I adored First Class. The story was epic, the music was epic, Jennifer Lawrence in body paint was epic, James McAvoy even without the beard was epic – there wasn’t much I didn’t love about the movie. I can’t quite believe I’m going to say it, but I think Days of Future Past might’ve actually been a little bit more epic, although that’s not to say it didn’t have any flaws.

Sadly, the film opened with voice-over exposition, which is my pet peeve, and that did not bode well. However, the narration was short lived and the film kicked off with some intense action sequences. While I’m not entirely sure of the timeline and how the future turned so bleak so quickly – it seems to have happened over night since Bobby looks as baby-faced as ever – it was the sort of cyberpunkish dystopia I love. Couple that with new characters like Warpath (Booboo Stewart sure grew up) and the portal girl (coolest power ever although how does this power come from a genetic mutation, pray tell?) who deserves a far more kickass name than Blink, and I was in serious fangirl territory. Then Ellen Page rocked up and I just couldn’t even any more. Things were off to a good start!

I like Wolverine, I do, but to be honest, I’m little sick of him. I really wish they could’ve given the spotlight to another mutant in this film. The reason why it’s Logan is apparently because few other X-Men were around in 1973 and even fewer could survive being constantly ripped about by the various forces exerted on the time traveler, so Logan it is. But then James McAvoy enters the mix and steals the show, so I actually can’t complain too much about Wolverine’s presence. Right, so the basic premise is that the future has gone to s**t and Logan is sent back fifty years to delightfully retro 1973 to get Xavier and Magneto to work things out so that Mystique doesn’t chart a course toward the apocalypse. This is a great premise with one major, giant, toe-curling problem. If their plan succeeds, it completely nullifies the original trilogy and basically pokes a huge whole in the canon. Let’s ignore that for now and return to the awesomeness that is James McAvoy’s beard…

james

As I said before, James McAvoy steals the show and delivers a great performance as the mentally unstable, possibly PTSD-suffering Xavier. I wish the film had spent more time on his psychological development but there were giant robots to fight and special effects to exploit so, sadly, we got less character development and more CGI. The best new addition to the cast was undoubtedly Quicksilver played by Evan Peters. I can’t really look at this actor without seeing deranged Tate from American Horror Story, but Peters was wonderful as Quicksilver, lending some levity to a rather dark storyline. That said, it was an absolute sin of the director/producers to only have Quicksilver on screen for a handful of minutes. I want to see more of this character and would love to see his origin film because he’s witty and fun and seems a lot less broken than many of the other tortured hero types proliferating the X-Men universe.

The rest of the film unfolded as expected with no twists to the plot whatsoever except that according to the new timeline, the first trilogy could never have happened. This brings me to the biggest flaw in this film: the whole concept of time travel and changing history. Very few sci-fi films get time travel right because it is a notoriously complex concept – ask your local quantum physicist to explain – and any attempt to change the past immediately obliterates the future unless you’re in a separate time stream (as attempted by the short lived series Terra Nova). But ‘because science’ Logan goes back in time and achieves the impossible by giving the middle finger to physics and I’m mildly okay with that because the film was extremely entertaining and, to be fair, comic books in general have a tenuous relationship with the laws of physics.

Like all Marvel movies there’s a final scene that comes after the credits. Like all Marvel movies this final scene is almost completely meaningless except to those uber geeks au fait with the franchise. The final scene was creepy cool but I didn’t understand the relevance until I googled it. Now I understand the title of the next X-Men movie – X-Men: Apocalypse.

So Days of Future Past presented dubious science and destroyed their own canon, but they did so with kickass awesomeness and I loved every minute of this film. Days of Future Past scores 4.5/5 ink splats for me. It lost half a splat because of that unnecessary voice over at the beginning and for under-utilizing Quicksilver.

4.5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2015 in Reviews

 

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The Giver vs The Giver

giver book

The Giver is a highly influential work, which laid the foundation for modern YA dystopian literature, but – to be honest – I only picked up this novel after seeing the trailer for the film version. When I eventually got around to reading this sci-fi classic, I saw many parallels in world-building with some of the most popular current YA books (cough Divergent cough cough). My reaction to this rather short novel was a little mixed.

I found the book thought-provoking and highly engaging, but the ending left me completely dissatisfied. Bear in mind, however, I’ve only read book 1 of the quadrology so perhaps my many questions will be answered in the sequels. Still, the first book has a lot going for it especially when taken less literally and more allegorically as I think the story was perhaps intended. This is not hard sci-fi and many aspects of the world simply are. One has to suspend disbelief a fair amount, but that’s part of the beauty of the novel. Metaphors abound, and the poignancy and power of the story lies in peeling away those parable-like layers to uncover the simple truth at the core of the story.

Suffice it to say, given my expectations for the story after seeing the movie trailer, I was a little disappointed. Looking at the book and ignoring what I thought I glimpsed of the film, I enjoyed the book and can see why it has become such a beloved and seminal work in the genre.

giver

Fast forward eight months and I finally got around to seeing the movie. Had I known Taylor Swift was in it, I might have been less enthusiastic about the film, however, I can promise you that any Taylor Swiftness on posters and in promo is all a marketing ploy. She has a tiny – if important – role in the film and has very little screen time. The real star of the show is Brenton Thwaites as Jonas and he’s really quite lovely in his role as the compassionate and curious Receiver.

The Giver film is competing against franchises like The Hunger Games, Divergent and even The Maze Runner. In order to give The Giver more teen appeal and to capture The Hunger Games/Divergent audience, the movie tried to be a lot that the book was not. The movie – despite being adapted from the predecessor of the modern dystopian trend – feels a little too familiar and cliche because it tries a little too hard to fit in aesthetically and tonally with the other YA adaptations. I wish the film had foregone the shiny technology additions and stuck with the utilitarian world-building of the book. I can also understand why the film producers chose to up the age of the protagonists and up the angst as well, but I’m not sure it really added all that much to the overall story except making it feel like another teen movie when it should’ve been so much more than that.

Where the film did excel was in the cinematography and use of black&white and colour. This is described well in the book, but the visual medium of film really brought this to life. I do think they could’ve done even more with that, although I think they were trying to stay true to the book here. I was also hoping for more of an emotional impact from the memories in the film. Some of those memory sharing scenes in the book are brutal and really broke my heart for Jonas. It didn’t have quite the same impact for me in the film – perhaps because the character was older.

The ending of the book disappointed me but the film managed to deliver a very similar ending in a way that stayed true to the book while also providing a greater sense of closure. Where I think the book meandered into allegory, the movie developed the plot and made a more compelling story overall, even if some of the ‘science’ of how all this was possible is dubious at best.

A major highlight from the film for me was seeing the usually uber sexy and seductive Alexander Skarsgård playing a nurturing father figure who worked in the nursery with newborns while his wife – played by the petite Katie Holmes – was involved in politics. Seeing 6’4 Eric Northman – sorry, Alex Skarsgård – so tenderly caring for tiny babies really highlighted the gender dynamics and theme of equality in the book. It was a very clever casting choice.

So… The Giver as both book and film is thought provoking and definitely worth experiencing. I would say it is a must-read/must-see for anyone who is a fan of modern dystopian YA. I think both book and movie score equally for me. I give them 3.5/5 ink splats each.

3.5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2015 in Reviews

 

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Film Review: Mr Nobody

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to post a review about what is likely my favourite science fiction film ever, so here it is…

*There be mild spoilers ahead*

mr_nobody This movie took my breath away, and continues to do so every time I watch it, which isn’t nearly as often as I would like given it’s almost three-hour run time. The entire film hinges on a single existential concept, that of choice and that in the moment before we make a choice, everything is possible. Nemo – our protagonist – is introduced to us as a very old man on his death bed in a futuristic city where he is a fascination being the last human being to die of old age. Through a series of interview questions, Nemo gradually starts to relieve and reveal his complicated life story, which hinges on a single moment in his childhood. As a kid, Nemo is presented with an impossible choice – to stay with his father or go with his mother when his parents split (a horrific choice no parent should force a child to make) – and because he is unable to choose, everything becomes possible. This is where the movie spins out into the tangential and convoluted, dipping into quantum theory and various structuralist and deconstructionist philosophies as we follow the various paths Nemo’s life might’ve, could’ve, did and didn’t take. Some lead to happy marriage, others to emotional instability, disfigurement and even homelessness, yet another leads Nemo to Mars! I knew Jared Leto could act after seeing him in Requiem for a Dream and as Mark Chapman in Chapter 27 (this all prior to his Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club), but he excels in Mr Nobody by playing not one version of the character, but no less than 12 unique iterations. It is a wonder to watch the actor realize each version of Nemo as life choices mold and shape who he becomes. Of course, these various life trajectories becoming increasingly complicated and interwoven, becoming entangled with each other as Nemo’s choices continue to change and distort reality. If you’re looking for an action-orientated sci-fi flick, look elsewhere. This film is higher grade, requiring constant concentration – and it is not a short film – and probably a second or third viewing to catch all the subtleties and nuances present not only in the obvious story, but happening in the background thanks to some truly fantastic cinematography. This movie is at times contemporary romance, YA love story, sci-fi action (with some amazing scenes on Mars), sci-fi thriller, high drama and family saga. All these threads weave together to create an epic tapestry that is difficult to digest all at once. I strongly suggest multiple viewings of this film. It’s so beautiful with a stunning soundtrack, and so sincerely acted by Leto who transforms physically and psychologically between the roles so effortlessly, that I don’t think setting aside three hours for this film more than once is such a tall order. Mr Nobody is quite easily my favorite film of all time and I strongly recommend it to those who enjoy sophisticated science fiction, which delves beyond the superficial aesthetic of a dystopian future. 5/5 ink splats for this one of course! 5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on January 6, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Book Review: My Chemical Mountain

Sometime last year, I read a little known YA novel called My Chemical Mountain. To be honest, the title caught my attention because of its similarity to the band name My Chemical Romance. I wasn’t quite sold given the blurb below, but I loved the cover so thought I’d give it a try anyway.

mountain

Rocked by his father’s recent death and his mother’s sudden compulsion to overeat, Jason lashes out by breaking into the abandoned mills and factories that plague his run-down town. Always by his side are his two best friends, Charlie, a fearless thrill junkie, and Cornpup, a geek inventor whose back is covered with cysts. The boys rage against the noxious pollution that suffocates their town and despise those responsible for it; at the same time, they embrace the danger of their industrial wasteland and boast about living on the edge. 

   Then on a night the boys vandalize one of the mills,  Jason makes a costly mistake–and unwittingly becomes a catalyst for change. In a town like his, change should be a good thing. There’s only one problem: change is what Jason fears most of all.

While I have read many disaster-apocalypse novels and a good few dystopians, this was first foray into ‘ecopunk,’ in that the book explores the consequences of pollution, corporate indifference and the effects of industrial waste on the environment. This story has stuck with me not least of all because of the grim, gritty, dark world the story is set in. This is neither a true post-apocalyptic nor a real dystopian story, but rather portrays the reality for many existing industrial towns right now. This is a very scary reality indeed, albeit exaggerated for the sake of fiction, and in many ways reminded me of the Chernobyl disaster and how the surrounding area was and is still affected by radiation today. Oh how I’d love to read a novel set in that vicinity!

What I truly loved about this story, and found so refreshing, was the all-boy main cast when having a strong, female lead is usually prerequisite for any YA novel. Along with the all-male cast, the emphasis in this novel is most certainly on male friendship instead of romance, which is also rare in YA. While I did appreciate this different approach, I must admit that at times this book felt more MG than YA because it was lacking certain tropes I’ve come to expect from YA. I think this novel might appeal more to younger readers, especially boys around the 10-13 age, but can be enjoyed by adults as well. Not that who the target audience should be really matters given how engaging these characters are. There was something so charming about Charlie’s reckless confidence, something endearing about Cornpup’s righteousness and something just undeniably lovable about Jason’s compassion – these are all characters I’ll definitely have a hard time forgetting. While the plot is rather straight forward without many twists or turns, I found the boys’ struggle against their toxic environment and the corporations that govern their lives totally compelling and alarming.

If you’re looking for a short, sci-fi light read with a refreshing focus on boys, friendship and the power one individual can have against a tyrant, then I strongly recommend this book! My Chemical Mountain gets 4/5 ink splats from me.

4 inksplats

 
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Posted by on November 25, 2014 in Reviews

 

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Book Review: Unwrapped Sky

My first love will forever be epic fantasy. I grew up devouring books by Tolkien, Terry Brooks and Ursula K. Le Guin, and although I don’t read that much adult fantasy any more, when I do, I usually find myself utterly entranced by the likes of Elizabeth Bear and Martha Wells. It had been a while since I’d read a really good high fantasy novel though when I spotted Unwrapped Sky by Rjurik Davidson. I immediately added it to my to-be-read list and promptly forgot all about it until several months later when I bumped into the author at a convention in Finland and then again in London.

unwrapped

I actually met the Aussie author at two separate cons over the summer of 2014, and was rather delighted to discover that he too was an expat living and writing in Finland! After having met him in person and getting to hang out with him on a panel, I couldn’t wait to dive into his book.

Given the Goodreads description, I started reading Unwrapped Sky with certain expectations: 1) Minotaurs 2) epic fantasy. This book didn’t quite meet my expectations on point 1 and thoroughly exceeded them on point 2.

This is not a book about minotaurs. Minotaurs are part of the world, but they’re not quite the major presence I anticipated and that left me a little disappointed, to be honest. Also, I guess sex with a minotaur isn’t technically bestiality, but it still kinda creeped me out. I really wish we’d been given more of a chance to get to know these creatures, but the minotaurs are quickly relegated to minor subplot – at least in book 1.

Onto point 2. This book is epic fantasy and then some. The world is a rich tapestry of magic, technology and steampunk elements. This is where the book truly deserves 5 stars. The settings are original and vivid to the point where I could smell Caeli-Amur and hear the sounds of the market-place. I loved the blend of technology and more typical fantasy elements, although I can see how this book that straddles the science-fantasy genre might leave science fiction fans wanting more tech and fantasy fans annoyed by the very presence of tech. The only comparison I can draw is perhaps Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy in terms of the tech + fantastic/magic themes.

Onto the characters. I’ll admit I wasn’t a huge fan of the three separate POVs and seemingly disconnected story threads but of course, the author weaves these three narratives together, and in the end I wanted to spend more time with each character, characters who were all morally ambiguous. There are no clear cut heroes here, so if you’re expecting to find a Jamie Fraser, Richard Cypher or similar love interest-come-swashbuckling hero, you might want to look elsewhere for a book boyfriend. What this book does deliver is complex characters – male and female – foregoing many of the usual fantasy tropes while avoiding a lot of the medievalish mindset, especially regarding women’s rights, which I found particularly refreshing given the slew of fantasy novels that retreat to the middle ages.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am looking forward to future installments in this genre-defying series, but it wasn’t quite a five star read for me. Unwrapped Sky scores 4/5 ink splats.

4 inksplats

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2014 in Reviews

 

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TV Show Review: Forever

I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for procedurals. JAG, CSI, Lie to Me, House, Castle, Criminal Minds, Mentalist, Bones, Elementary, White Collar… – I have watched and loved them all! Give me a procedural with a speculative aspect and I am in my uber happy place. Shows like Blood Ties, Moonlight and even Tru Calling really did it for me. So I was delighted to discover the brand new TV show due to air this Autumn on ABC. It’s called Forever and stars Ioan Gruffudd, an actor I had a mega crush on when I was a kid and addicted to the Hornblower series. Gruffudd’s soulful eyes and accent aside, Forever made me all kinds of excited and it certainly wasn’t because of the IMDB description:

A 200-year-old man works in the New York City Morgue trying to find a key to unlock the curse of his immortality.

Forever

When I first read that rather dry one-liner, I went ‘nah’ and moved on to the next new series of Fall 2015, but then reviews started dribbling onto the net and I saw some promo pics and I realized that there was a hell of a lot more to this story. See, that 200-year-old man, Henry Morgan (Gruffudd), isn’t some creepy janitor mopping the mortuary floors and getting cozy with the corpses, he’s the NYPD’s medical examiner! He’s a highly intelligent doctor with a savant-like eye for detail, a somewhat brooding countenance and a dry wit to boot, and his days aren’t spent pondering his immortality so much as they are running around New York City with an ultra slick female Latina detective, Jo Martinez, who is as badass as she is beautiful. She’s a strong, independent female character in a male dominated field who could give Kate Beckett a run for her money and I find her an interesting and compelling character, if not quite as interesting as Mr Immortal. So, the show’s description probably should’ve read something like this:

A 200-year-old man works as a crime-solving ME in New York City while trying to unlock the secret of his immortality before a know-it-all stranger threatens to destroy his carefully constructed world.

Now that sounds exciting and is far closer to the gist of this story, which is equal parts police procedural and sci-fi mystery – yup, there’s a whole immortal sub-plot lurking in the background and I know it’s going to be unnerving and awesome! I thoroughly enjoyed the pilot and have remained captivated through the other episodes that have aired. This is due in part to Ioan Gruffudd owning the screen with his portrayal of a sometimes arrogant, often endearingly naive, always quirky character as he navigates the modern era with his sexagenarian side-kick who provides comic relief and food for thought. While certain aspects of the show seem a little familiar – hard to avoid given that this is a police procedural after all – there is enough of an emphasis on the science fiction aspect – or arguably fantasy aspect, we’re not sure yet – to make this series seem fresh and unique when compared to the bevy of other procedurals currently on air.

My biggest gripe about this show? The bloody voice-overs! I point my fingers at the CW for turning this into a trend. Voice-overs have always been a lazy, but easy way of conveying exposition to an audience, be it words scrolling on the screen or the main character dictating a screed of ‘stuff you need to know.’ I have NEVER been a fan of this trick so pervasive in SF/F film, and I’m even less of a fan with it on the small screen. Shows like Arrow, The Tomorrow People and now The Flash are all guilty of it and the whole ‘my name is’ formula is getting old fast. While I could forgive the voice-over in the pilot of Forever as a way to set the scene and explain the main SF concept to those perhaps expecting a more mundane crime show, I am fast losing my tolerance for it in subsequent episodes. Thank goodness they seem to be sticking to an intro voice-over and an end of episode wrap-up comment with a slightly philosophical tone. Any more than that and I think I might put my fist through the screen. Still, this is a trend I wish would die a sudden death!

In conclusion, Forever is great for fans of procedurals with a sci-fi bent who enjoy quirky characters, more thinking/less action, and slower pacing for subplots. If it weren’t for those damn voice-overs, this might’ve scored 5 ink splats from me because this show has just about everything I look for in smart, entertaining TV. Alas, it only gets 4.5 splats.

4.5 inksplats

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2014 in Guest Reviews, Reviews

 

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Film Review: Space Station 76

sq_space_station_sevensixDescription from Amazon: Welcome to a 1970s’ version of the future, where the pants are wide, the music is groovy, and the new frontier is interplanetary. When a new assistant captain (Liv Tyler) arrives on the Omega 76, tensions spark, and more than asteroids collide. This smart and quirky film-festival favorite stars Patrick Wilson, Jerry O’Connell and Matt Bomer. Take a journey on an out-of-this-world adventure.

Looking at reviews and IMDB ratings of this film paint a pretty bleak picture. It has not been well received and that is absolutely the fault of how this film has been marketed. Erroneously described as a ‘spoof’ of 1970’s sci-fi, initial press for this film raised certain expectations, expectations of camp hilarity, which were somewhat reiterated in the trailer. Honestly, the trailer manages to cram in just about all the funny bits of the film – and a few scenes that didn’t even make the final cut – in a two minute teaser that completely ignores context and undermines what makes this film both smart and poignant.

Like so many others, I went in expecting comedy – which is a genre I rarely enjoy and usually avoid, endured here only because it was a) science fiction and b) starred Matt Bomer who was breath-taking in The Normal Heart. Given my distaste for comedy, this movie was a wonderfully pleasant surprise because I didn’t find Space Station 76 funny at all. Instead, this film is quite tragic, a soap-opera allegory with scattered moments of pitch-black humor. Oddly, this type of wry, even off-colour humour, appealed to me a lot more than the type of comedy the trailer and promos led me to believe were in the film.

Back to the bit about it being an allegory. This is where the film shows off that ‘smart and quirky’ personality, delving into the trials and tribulations of upper middle-class suburban life aboard a space station floating through a region of the galaxy devoid of any other ships, inhabited planets or signs of life. It’s this pervasive sense of isolation that becomes a recurring theme as we meet the motley crew of characters, each suffering some sort of emotional disconnect, not only from the rest of the station’s crew, but from themselves as well. The themes present in this film are universal and relevant today despite the retro setting, which is used to highlight the disintegration of the ‘American’ dream. Although this is set in space, the film presents itself like a slice of American apple-pie life: good-looking on the surface but rotten to the core.

These characters broke my heart, but none more so the leading trio of the captain, lieutenant and Ted played by Patrick Wilson, Liv Tyler and Matt Bomer respectively. Wilson’s role in particular was as morbidly amusing as it was incredibly sad as his character struggles with issues of identity and the complication of trying to love someone when you hate yourself. Liv Tyler plays the strong female character threatening Wilson’s already compromised captaincy with her estrogen and new ideas for running the station. She in turn catches the eye of the other males onboard and the scorn of their wives, struggling to make friends while maintaining her independence in a psychological paradigm where women should be subordinate nurturers, not career-driven astronauts! And of course Matt Bomer shines no matter what role he’s given. His portrayal of Ted the welder comes across as extremely authentic with many raw moments on screen – especially between him and his character’s young daughter. Ted highlights the lack of emotional integrity in those around him, overcoming the sometimes gauche elements of the film.

While I did enjoy the movie, I found the ending a little abrupt and disappointing, as if they’d made their point and decided to leave it there instead of providing some sort of thematic resolution. I think the writers/director could’ve dug a little deeper, but I guess the 90 minute mark rolled around and they had to yell cut. So be it. Rather leave me wanting more than wishing the movie was an hour shorter!

So… Don’t watch Space Station 76 expecting a slick, CGI-tastic sci-fi movie – although the same team who did the effects for the original Star Wars films, worked on the set of this one! Similarly, don’t go in expecting a raucously funny Austin Powers-esque romp. This movie is neither and so much more. It’s a study of human nature and family drama, the secrets we keep from our loved ones and the lies we tell ourselves in order to survive the daily grind of existence. This scores 4/5 ink splats!

4 inksplats

 
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Posted by on October 14, 2014 in Guest Reviews, Reviews

 

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Anthology Review: AfroSF – Science Fiction by African Writers (edited by Ivor Hartmann)

I’m sure you’ve all seen the posts I did for this anthology – an interview with Ivor and three posts spotlighting the authors who had stories published in in (post 1, post 2 and post 3), and now, finally, here’s my review! Just in time for the paperback edition, which is available! 🙂

It goes without saying that I will refrain from saying anything about my story in the anthology, other than I’m lucky that I have one in it. 🙂 Let’s get into the review, shall we?

AfroSF is an awesome look at the talent of African Futurists and Fantasists; one might expect to be subjected to preaching in this anthology, perhaps focused on what Colonialism did to Africa, perhaps regarding the lengths to which the developed West seems to want to keep Africans uneducated and labour ready. But that’s not what this anthology is about – it abounds with optimism, ingenuity, fresh looks at SF tropes we’ve come to take for granted. It looks at many subjects – the bonds of a family, extremism, exploitation, how important community and respect is, how easy it is to give up everything we cherish for a quick fix. It takes the reader and pushes them into situations they will probably never face but which echo, nonetheless, and more importantly  force the reader to wonder and ask questions.

‘Moom!’ by Nnedi Okorafor is a wonderful, bitter-sweet tail revolving around the experiences of a swordfish; it’s a tale that echoes the many experiences mankind has had with industry and the pain of these interactions. She captures beautifully the cycling emotional turmoil of fear, anger, resolute action, understanding, revelation – it’s a short tail, but one beautifully told, the ideas beautifully expressed. 🙂

‘Home Affairs’ by Sarah Lotz is a sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek, and scarily believable tale that examines the bureaucracy of a government department – in Sarah’s tale, the emotionless, uncaring civil servants have been replaced, with terrifying and comic consequences; definitely a tale that will resonate with anyone who’s ever hated standing in a que while waiting for a bored civil servant to get to them. Which is everyone. 🙂

Tendai Huchu’s ‘The Sale’ is actually a damned scary tale – a look at what the world might be like in a decade or two, when Corporations -massing more money than any government on the planet- run everything. How far will we go, the story seems to ask, to ensure that our lives are peaceful and productive?

‘Five Sets of Hands’ by Cristy Zinn is a tale that will resonate with many students of history, especially people who have studied slavery and its various incarnations – and it also asks the question: “When we spread out onto new planets and create new colonies, when we find strange new faces looking at us, will we find something new for humanity to explore or will we be forced to face every dark aspect of ourselves?”

‘New Mzansi’ by Ashley Jacobs was one of my favourite tales, a story that fans of Lauren Beukes’ ‘Moxyland’ will definitely enjoy, too; it follows one man’s quest to make sure that his friend, Lion, get’s the medication he needs; it’s filled with amazing and yet useless technology (much the same as the tech we use today – I mean, we can’t feed ourselves wirelessly, van we?), a country that seems to be suffocating under the pressure of its history – I wouldn’t at all mind reading an entire novel, or series, set in this future South Africa.

‘Azania’ by Nick Wood is pure SF gold – great, conflicted and memorable characters, a limited and contained setting (which adds to the tension that permeates the tale), and a plot for the characters that will define not only their lives but ensure the continuation thereof; excellent story!

‘Notes from Gethsemane’ by Tade Thompson is a look at the loyalty between brothers, how any government wanting to keep people out of a place will fail, and how something strange and beautiful can hide in plain sight – excellent SF!

Sally Partridge’s ‘Planet X’ is an excellent look at how  the people we almost never meet in SF tales -those walking the streets, waiting at the traffic signals, working in the kitchens of fast-food joints, living in shacks and taking taxis to work, how these people might experience something world- and life-changing, like the discovery of a a new planet in our solar system, and how that discovery might affect a society that struggles daily with xenophobia…

‘The Gift of Touch’ by Chinelo Onwualo can best be described by what I said to Chinelo on Facebook just after I finished reading the story – if Firefly ever returns to our screens, Chinelo should write some of the episodes. 🙂 I definitely want more of these characters! Excellent, funny and a real adventure in space. 🙂

The Foreigner by Uko Bendi Udo tells a tale of belonging and the right to have rights; here we have an asylum-seeker who is very young and stubborn, and you’ll probably cheer as I did at the end of the tale. 🙂

‘The Rare Earth’ by Biram Mboob is excellent – not many SF tales can pull off an injection of religion, but Biram manages to do it very well; it’s intense and thoroughly thought-provoking, with a messianic man at the story’s centre who is also the leader of an insurgent group. It’s tense, action-packed, and a tale that lingers.

‘Terms and Conditions’ by Sally-Ann Murray is a tale that looks at what could happen if Big Pharma was in charge of everything; it’s a melancholic  affecting tale, an exploration of the many answers to the question, “What might you do to survive? To live?” Very good!

‘Heresy’ by Mandisi Nkomo is one of my favourites in the collection – as close to proper South African SF as it comes; satirical, thoughtful, funny, it also pokes fun at the government and a particular former Youth League leader, while also poking fun at  science and religion at the same time. Excellent! 🙂

‘Closing Time’ by Liam Kruger is an excellent time-travel tale, and trust me, Liam’s tale is unique – no-one has ever travelled the way the main character does!  It’s not only strangely cautionary but sparsely, beautifully written, too. 🙂

‘Masquerade Stories’ by Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu is an excellent exploration of tribal customs and their origins; just how might the tribe be affected if the origin wasn’t African, or even earthly…?

‘The Trial’ by Joan De La Haye is thoroughly terrifying – being a writer or a poet in Joan’s world might just cost you your life! It’s a dark look at a South Africa that has fallen to leaders bereft of the gift of imagination and empathy, tensely written with a hard ending – excellent!

‘Brandy City’ by Mia Arderne is a dark tale, a tale of car-modification, a new and oddly intriguing form of prostitution, how alcohol can come to be the answer to everything, and the end. Memorable, especially in the way the characters swirl together toward’s the tale’s hectic climax!

‘Ofe!’ by Rafeeat Aliyu is probably the best example I’ve ever read of what African superheroes might be like – flavours of exploitation and oppression abound in this tale of a dangerous weapon and a targeted minority, and though it does seem to end a bit abruptly it’s still entertaining. 🙂

‘Claws and Savages’ by Martin Stokes is an excellent tale that looks at a problem many African countries face – that of infinitely richer tourists hunting for sport, but takes it off-world and introduces the reader to a bastard; thoroughly engaging!

‘To Gaze at the Sun’ by Clifton Gachagua was a tale of the price of war and survival, the pain of parents releasing their children into the world, and the exploitation and misunderstanding that occurs when we lose sight of the humanity of others; affecting and sadly beautiful.

‘Proposition 23’ by Efe Okogu deserves all the praise it has already received and will receive – practically an epic in it’s own right, it’s the tale of freedom fighters, infiltrators, martyrs, those who are curious enough to become caught in their own traps, and the simple yet deeper pleasure of disconnection – excellent!

This anthology is truly ground-breaking and excellent, taking the reader beyond our solar system, backwards and forwards into time, on journeys towards distant stars and planets, putting the reader in the minds and behind the eyes of warriors, dreamers, prophets, mothers, fathers, children… Entertaining and vibrant, it announces the African Futurists and Fantasists are every bit as good as their world-wide counterparts, and I’m sure it’ll put many new writers on the radar of SF fans everywhere! It goes without saying -yet I’ll say it anyway- that I’m damned proud to be associated with this excellent anthology! 🙂

9 / 10

AFROSFa

 

To order AfroSF, click here (Kindle Edition) and here (paperback) for Amazon US, here (Kindle Edition) and here (paperback) for Amazon UK, and for readers in South Africa, order your copies from Kalahari.com. 🙂 If you’re on Facebook, check out the publisher’s page at Story Time, and you can also interact with the authors and with Ivor at the AfroSF page. AfroSF Volume 2 has already been announced – check out this page for details!

Thanks to Ivor and all the contributors for such an excellent anthology! 🙂

Until next time,

Be EPIC!

 
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Posted by on April 9, 2013 in Reviews

 

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