Review of The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

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This work is a short novel/novella, published by Tachyon Publications on June 12, 2018. It’s science fiction about space exploration and runs 192 pages. Watts is a multi-award winner and in 2010 received the Hugo Award for Best Novelette for “The Island.” This story takes place in the same ship, but apparently at an earlier time. This review may contain spoilers.

Eriophora is a black hole starship. It resembles an asteroid with a singularity in its belly, and it’s operated by an AI called Chimp. It has a human crew of 30K people carried in a state of suspended animation. The ship’s mission is to explore the galaxy, find acceptable locations for wormhole gates and then to build the gates. The mission is expected to extend until the ship runs out of resources, billions of years into the future, so Mission Control has set up safeguards for different eventualities. The AI Chimp has limited capabilities and reanimates human crew units for short periods of time when it needs higher intellectual capability or human judgement. This means the crew does not age except when they are on deck to deal with problems, and drain on life support resources is minimal. Several billion years into the mission, crewmember Lian Wei has a crisis of faith and begins to feel the human crew are only slaves to the AI. She fakes her own death, hides in the oxygen-producing forest, and begins to recruit revolutionaries to break free. One of these recruits is Sunday Ahzmundin. Sunday has a special relationship with Chimp, so she is conflicted about undermining the AI, but she ultimately agrees with Lian that humans need to be in charge of the mission. Over a period of thousands of years, about 30 revolutionaries leave encrypted messages for one another, learn to track Chimp’s movements around the ship and come up with a plan to destroy it. The plan fails, and Sunday realizes that Chimp is not what it seems. Is there a way forward?

So, this is pretty brilliant. I see the book advertised as hard SF, and it does have that feel. In the acknowledgements, Watts notes that anything this far in the future is basically “handwavium,” but that he made serious efforts at research to make it sound like it was real science. He’s made that rare effort, real projection of what humanity might be up to millions of years into the future, and actually managed to produce the traditionalist’s sense of wonder about the vastness of Spacetime. The characters and setting here are well-developed, and the plot has a lot of depth. Item of note, Eri is an Africa group of the Igbo people, and their founder was supposed to come to earth in a spacecraft to teach civilization to the people.

On the negative side, Watts doesn’t describe his narrator until he’s 1/4 of the way through, meaning I’ve squandered a lot of imagination making up the wrong mental picture. Also, this work assumes an affinity for science, and basic understanding of space exploration and singularities. Watts sketches in the basics, but doesn’t explain, which will likely put off a lot of readers. Unfortunately, that’s the risk of writing awesome hard SF.

Five stars.

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Conservative vs. Liberal in the SFF Community

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Following up on the last blog, why do liberals/progressives feel like they have to force change? Why does N.K. Jemisin, for example, feel like she has to stand up in front of the WorldCon audience and accuse the SFF community of grudging acceptance of minorities (i.e. racism)? Is she right? And once she’s been privately called “graceless” because of this, why do some members of the community feel they have to leap to her defense?

I’d like to suggest this is because liberals remain in a distinct minority within the community, and the fact that liberals remain a minority means they have to try harder to be heard. Minority status for liberals in the SFF community somewhat defies conventional wisdom. There’s been quite a split in the community in recent years along political lines. I’ve seen a ton of articles about how the community is now more progressive because it’s inclusive of minorities and women. Supposedly there has been a big swing in publishing toward works these members read and write. Meanwhile, the big seller this year was classed as hard SF, Andy Weir won the Dragon Award, and I met an engineer last night who asked me for a list of authors who wrote books he might like.

So, have the demographics actually changed that much? Since there aren’t a lot of studies about readership in the SFF community, I’ll have to look at general demographics. In the US Gallup says conservatives and moderates heavily outnumber liberals; about 42% of the population identify as conservative, 35% as moderate and 20% as liberal, with 3% other. If you assume the SFF community also breaks out this way, then liberals are actually a huge minority. Even if the community has a much bigger liberal faction than the general population, this still likely leaves this group well into minority status. The Daily Dot recently identified WorldCom as a conservative organization. Because of all noise about diversity in the Hugo Awards, this may seem a little surprising, but maybe it’s not, after all.

Jemisin vs. Silverberg: Defining Culture and Race

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Since I discussed ethnicity and culture in the last Daredevil post, maybe this is a good time to go back to the Silverberg/Jemisin issue that played out after the events of WorldCon 2018. For anyone who’s been under a rock and missed the whole thing, Silverberg was displeased by Jemisin’s acceptance speech for her 3rd Best Novel win. In a discussion group he thought was private, he commented that he thought her conduct at the ceremony had been graceless and offensively political. He was immediately attacked as a sexist and racist. He made various attempts to defend himself against these charges, which were labeled just more evidence that he didn’t recognize his own shortcomings.

This is a fairly common occurrence these days, where someone makes a comment they think is a reasonable opinion, or even a private one in this case, and then is mercilessly attacked. I’ve commented before that the accuracy of the charges doesn’t really seem to be a question, only that it’s taken as an opportunity to attack, generally by the enforcers of a particular political agenda. I’m not going to fall into the trap of trying to say who’s right in the Silverberg/Jemisin fuss. What I want to look at is the cultural conflict that’s playing out behind this kind of conversation.

Because cultural norms and expectations are permanently in the process of negotiation, researchers consider them to be a contested zone. Culture is something that moves and changes, sometimes very quickly and sometimes hardly at all. It can be based on specific locale, with different norms just a few miles down the road, or it can be based on group membership, when a person’s expectations about how other people should behave is defined by social groupings within their culture. This means that when Silverberg, a past award winner, complained about Jemisin’s speech at the Hugo Awards ceremony, it meant she hadn’t met his expectations about how an award winner ought to behave. In particular, he seemed to be complaining about the political content of her speech.

Presumably if Jemisin had said something supportive of the SFF community’s history and values, praised its elders, etc., everything would have been just fine. However, she apparently considers herself a political activist and uses her speaking opportunities to attack institutions for their shortcomings, rather than saying things that show her support of the group—in this case she accused the SFF community of grudging acceptance of minority aspirations, i.e. racism. This tactic is meant to be provocative, as Jemisin is calling attention to the fact that the community doesn’t meet her standards. Her comments did trigger a conversation of sorts, but basically a disruptive one that generated hard feelings all around.

Actually, the reception for Jemisin’s speech seemed to be fairly warm at the time, and folks like Silverberg who were offended remained polite about it. It was only later when he thought he was in a private venue that he revealed his offense. So, were her comments appropriate? There’s where the question of culture and the “contested zone” comes in. It’s been fairly common in recent years for award winners to take an opportunity for political statements. See the Academy Awards, for example. However, there is always a backlash. This tactic is a matter of trying to force cultural change, rather than encouraging it. Why not have a conversation about solidarity instead?

Review of Netflix’s Daredevil Season 3

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This MCU show premiered on Netflix in October of 2018, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, with Erik Oleson as the showrunner. Principal stars include Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin and Wilson Bethel as Poindexter/Bullseye. This review contains spoilers.

Daredevil is thought to have been killed in a building collapse (see The Defenders review), but a badly injured Matt washes out of the city storm sewer and is found by a passer-by. He refuses to be taken to the hospital, and takes sanctuary at Clinton Church, where Father Lantom places him with Sister Maggie, back in the orphanage where Matt grew up. He makes a slow recovery, emotionally, physically and spiritually, and eventually starts going out as a vigilante again. Results are poor at first, but as he gets stronger, he finds that Fisk is gaining power again as an organized crime boss. Convincing the FBI he is a valuable informant, Fisk has moved into a penthouse apartment in Manhattan where he gives out enough information to eliminate other crime bosses, while working to establish a new protection racket. He subverts the agents guarding him, including Nadeem and the psychopathic Poindexter. Meanwhile, Foggy Nelson is still working at his job with a new firm and Karen Page has taken a position as a reporter for The Bulletin. The two of them continue to pay the rent on Matt’s apartment, but they are losing hope that he’s still alive. After Fisk’s release hits the papers, Foggy is surprised by a sudden encounter with Matt, who steals his wallet and uses the IDs to gain entrance to Fisk’s prison. He is identified and manages to escape, but is intercepted by a taxi driven by Fisk’s man and plunged off a dock into the river. He escapes there, too, and when Fisk sends the FBI to get him, they find only wet clothes in a pile on the floor of Matt’s apartment. Foggy and Karen insist that they need to work through the law, and Matt joins them to try to find witnesses to turn on Fisk. The stakes continue to rise, as Fisk gains more power and outfits Poindexter with a fake Daredevil suit to make trouble for the trio. Eventually Matt decides that the law won’t prevail, and that he needs to kill Fisk. He misses once because Fisk has Page cornered at the church, but with Karen safe, he crashes Fisk’s wedding with his love Vanessa in order to try again. Confronted with the dark Daredevil, Matt has to make a final decision about how his life will go.

So, this season is absolutely brilliant. Completely reduced by events, Matt Murdock has to totally rebuild his life from nothing. He lurks around in a parka and a baseball cap, and he’s back to basic black for his vigilante work. He’s got no friends, no ID, no money, and depends on charity at the church to eat. He’s haunted by his father’s ghost, his missing mother, an ephemeral Fisk, and a fake, sneering, evil Daredevil that’s exactly what he could become. However, he’s shed Matt’s disability, too—now he’s just himself. In this season, the black of his mask is relieved by a touch of white lining, though at the end we see a red edge peeking out from under his tee-shirt. On the action side, Matt’s escape from the prison is pretty awesome, and all shot in one take. Plus, in the unrelieved grimness of the series so far, suddenly this season presents some completely hilarious moments.

Check it out on Netflix. Five stars.

Review of Netflix’s Daredevil Season 2

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This MVU show premiered on Netflix in March of 2016, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, with Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez serving as showrunners. Principal stars are Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Élodie Yung as Elektra Natchios, Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle/Punisher, Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin. This review contains spoilers.

The Kingpin’s fall has left a vacuum, and local crime escalates in Hell’s Kitchen as various gangs and new vigilantes fight for turf. Confronting one of the vigilantes, Matt is shot in the head. His Daredevil helmet saves his life, but he is down and out for a while until his hearing recovers. When Matt encounters the vigilante again, the Punisher captures him and ties him up, offers him the chance to either kill an informant or Castle himself. Matt chooses to escape instead. Castle kills his informant, but eventually turns himself in to the police through the firm Nelson and Murdock. Matt starts a budding romance with Karen, but his nighttime activities have attracted the attention of his old martial arts instructor Stick and his old college flame Elektra Natchios. They both turn up and try to draft him into a war against a nebulous Japanese cult called the Hand (Hand of Darkness in Japanese) bent on reanimating corpses and taking over large swaths of Manhattan for unknown purposes. Castle refuses the plea deal Nelson and Murdock negotiate for him and they have to go to trial. Matt has a ragged attendance and Foggy and Karen do most of the work, almost swaying the jury, but Castle admits to his crimes on the witness stand and is sentenced to prison, where he makes a deal with Fisk to get at the man who killed his family and then escape. Foggy uses the exposure he’s gotten at the Castle trial to find a high-paid job at another law firm, leaving Nelson and Murdock. At a final great battle against the Hand, Daredevil and Elektra are faced with overwhelming odds. She dies, but with Frank Castle’s help, Matt and Stick prevail. Unknown to them, the Hand steals her body to resurrect her. Unwilling to lie to Karen any longer, Matt reveals to her that he is Daredevil.

This season has a lot of moving parts, with Castle, Elektra, the Hand and the Iron Fist legion of ninja warriors taking up huge amounts of air time. Matt’s life pretty much falls apart, as he is unable to keep up with his job as an attorney while fighting in the war Elektra and Stick have going on with the Hand. The constant siege on his moral system provides the main theme here, as Castle, Elektra and Stick try to use Daredevil as a weapon, encouraging him to kill, while Foggy still insists on the rule of law. Elektra, especially, is a huge temptation to Matt, as she enjoys killing, and in fact, seems to be the great champion the dark Hand is expecting. In the final episode, Matt tells Elektra that the experience he’s living has freed him, and he’s willing to leave his old life to go with her—effectively giving up on his belief system. When she dies, he is left in a sort of emotional limbo.

I consider this the weakest of the three seasons, although the action crowd will likely prefer it because it launches the Punisher and Iron Fist shows and provides a lot of amazing stunt work in the battles with the Hand. Minor annoyance: all the native English speakers mispronounce yakuza, while all the native Japanese speakers get it right. Couldn’t they have gotten together on this somehow? Events that set up the plot in season 3: Fisk’s deal with Castle in the prison leaves Fisk in control of it. Looking for information, Matt visits Fisk/Kingpin in prison, where Fisk attacks him. Fisk is a really big man who kills people with his bare hands, but once he’s had his hands on Matt, he knows there’s something wrong. This is going to mean trouble down the road.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Netflix’s Daredevil Season 1

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This MCU show premiered on Netflix in April of 2015, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, DeKnight Productions and Goddard Textiles. Steven S. DeKnight served as the showrunner. Principal stars are Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin. This review contains spoilers.

Matt Murdock is the blind, orphan son of a dead boxer in Hell’s Kitchen, NYC, and Foggy Nelson is the son of a local butcher. Matt and Foggy graduate from law school together, form a partnership and set up a law practice on their old home turf. One of their first cases is defending a woman named Karen Page from murder charges, as she has been found in her apartment covered with blood, leaning over a dead co-worker. They are later approached by a man named Wesley to defend another questionable client, and with info from this case and from Karen about bookkeeping at the company Union Allied, they start to make connections about local organized crime. They hire Page as an office manager/legal assistant and begin investigating. Matt was blinded by a toxic waste spill in a car accident when he was a child, and after his father was killed by organized crime, the orphanage staff brought in an old martial arts expert, also blind, to help him cope. Matt learned how to compensate with unusually sharp senses, and unknown to Foggy and Karen, starts to work as a vigilante at night to take care of problems the law can’t reach. Local residents begin calling him the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. When Foggy finds out about the extralegal activity, the two have a huge fight that endangers the practice, but they manage to bring down crime boss Fisk regardless.

The strongest of Marvel’s superheroes are that way because of how Marvel creators connect with the murky symbolism of the ID. That’s one of the things that makes Daredevil hard to carry off, but also makes it resonate. Matt’s blindness and his search for a moral compass in a complex world where good and evil intertwine is the heart of this show. He channels his rage at the world’s injustice into his nightly endeavors, while seeking the counsel of his local priest by day.

This show looks expensive because it is—the creators have been given artistic license. It spends huge amounts of time in character development and suspense, as we watch Fisk linger over his morning omelet and follow Matt’s difficult childhood. There is also a constant stream of imagery featuring blood, fire, hell and the devil. The award-winning opening sequence paints blind justice, the city and Daredevil’s mask all with red. Matt is constantly scarred and bloodied by his encounters with the world’s realities; the yakuza call him “fire demon,” and he sees the world in burning flames instead of black. His priest Father Lantom provides us with philosophical discussions about the nature of Satan and how good and evil reside within all of us—trying to help Matt sort it out.

The show isn’t for the faint of heart because of the violence, and it may seem to move slowly for the action-oriented because of the time spent in suspense and character development. Matt wore black for most of his nightly activities in this season. The Daredevil costume debuted toward the end of it and was criticized as pretty ugly. The first season made the show 7th most popular on TV, and it was nominated for a slew of awards. Cox was honored for his portrayal of the blind Matt Murdock at the American Foundation for the Blind’s 19th Annual Helen Keller Achievement Awards. He deserved the honor.

Highly recommended. Four and a half stars.

Netflix Daredevil Cancelled

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So, I had meant to comment this week on the Jemisin, Silverberg, Worldcon fight, but at the risk of lost relevance, I’ve decided to put it off in favor of something more interesting. Last week Netflix cancelled its highly successful MCU Daredevil show. This was in spite of the serial ranking 4th in viewer demand for original programming on the Netflix platform, or about 30 million requests during the week it was cancelled. We’re left with three seasons of the show intact, which reportedly will remain available at Netflix, but otherwise the characters are now in limbo. So, why would Netflix cancel something this successful?

They didn’t offer anything much in the way of explanation. Reportedly this blindsided the cast, the writers and the show runner Erik Oleson, plus various Marvel executives, all of whom felt secure in their ratings and had season 4 already mapped out and ready to go. A little reading on the web suggests the problem is a snarl of business decisions, plus maybe the expense of the show. It’s a great production because Netflix poured a lot of money into it, even though they didn’t really own much in the way of rights. Now Disney is launching its own streaming service Disney+, and suddenly it’s not looking like such a great idea for Netflix to fund the show the way they have been. They tried to negotiate for fewer episodes, but when Marvel held firm on the boundaries, they cancelled.

So, will Daredevil now go to Disney+? Probably not. Disney is dedicated to family-rated programming, and this show is rated MA for mature audiences, mostly because of a lot of gratuitous violence. It’s produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, so Marvel films and ABC TV are other options. Considering the success of dark shows like The Blacklist on network TV, Daredevil might find a place in ABC’s programming with a few content adjustments. Marvel issued a statement that we would be seeing the characters again, indicating their support for the show and the cast that has made it so successful. However, io9 reports that there is a non-competition clause to the Netflix contract that extends 2 years after cancellation.

There is, of course, a fan movement website to support the show. Here’s a petition. You can also monitor and comment on Twitter at @SaveDaredevil, @RenewDaredevil and similar fan accounts.

Daredevil is an iconic Marvel character, but tough to get right so this is worth watching. It turns out most fans wait until the end of the seasons and then binge the show. If you’ve not seen it, you can sign up for a free month at Netflix without any obligation and watch on phone, tablet, PC or smart TV. Highly recommended.

Next, individual reviews of Daredevil Seasons 1, 2 and 3.

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