Review of Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

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Rogue Protocol is a novella, the third in the Murderbot Diaries series, following All Systems Red and Artificial Condition. It was released by Tor/McMillan in August 2018. Exit Strategy, the last installment of this series, is due in October 2018.

Finished with investigating its half-memories of a massacre at Ganaka mining pit, Murderbot hitches a ride on a passenger transport this time, planning to look into the activities of the GrayCris Corporation that attempted to assassinate Dr. Mensah’s team. Because it’s representing itself as a security consultant, it has to endure and mediate the conflicts the human passengers on this trip, but finally makes it to the transit station for Milu. It appears that GrayCris is illegally mining alien artifacts, and Milu is an abandoned terraforming operation that could easily have been used as a cover. The facility’s new owners have sent a team for assessment, and Murderbot catches a ride to the venue with their human security team. The security team has ulterior motives and the facility is hazardous, so problems quickly develop. Can Murderbot rescue the assessment team? Can it find evidence against GrayCris to help Dr. Mensah with her charges against the corporation? Stay tuned.

This installment of the story has many of the same good points as the original novella, including great characters and lots of strategy and action. This installment also makes more sense in the overall arc of the series than Artificial Condition did, as Murderbot has a specific objective related to Dr. Mensah and GrayCris.

It appears that Murderbot is getting more comfortable in the human world, and it’s starting to feel confined in small storage lockers. I’m not sure if this is evolution of the character or just that somehow it’s crossing over the line and becoming a little too human. The industrial machine quality of its personality is part of its charm, and I’ve not been thrilled with its emotional issues. Whatever, we seem to be working through those.

For a novella, this installment is still not worth the price, but almost (total cost of 4 e-book versions will be about USD$35). As a full-length novel, I’m thinking the series arc will be episodic, something like a TV mini-series that has to entertain weekly, but still make sense on a larger scale. This quality makes it hard to implement character development and world building, and I think both are suffering a bit from the structure of the work. It would be great if Wells could provide us a more in-depth adventure for the same characters.

Four stars.

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WorldCon’s Voting Problem

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WorldCon has considered itself a bastion of the progressive in the face of the recent Sad/Rabid Puppy traditionalist siege, so the recent programming crisis has blindsided a lot of people. For anyone who’s missed it, some of the high points played out on Twitter like this:

  • Bogi Takács complains about errors representing their name and gender in the WorldCon bio.
  • After responses from the WorldCon team, the staff is accused of lying about the errors.
  • Some guests complain about bios and photos being taken from their private accounts.
  • The programming schedule is issued and several Hugo Award nominees are not represented, although some members of the staff are listed on multiple panels.
  • WorldCon issues an explanation about programming as follows: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.”
  • JY Yang calls out WorldCon staff for not providing program space for #ownvoices (later amended to not a good enough space).
  • Management continues to apologize and promises to rework the schedule.

A lot of this likely has to do with standard inefficiency and delegating the work to clueless but enthusiastic volunteers way down the food chain. Dealing with the nominees and panel applicants also looks like a matter of herding cats, where potential guests, in time-honored fashion, totally fail to RSVP. However, there are a couple of interesting issues that showed up in the discussion about this at File 770.

The first is the revelation that out of 4630 attendees to the con, 2000 of them applied for positions on the program. This is 43%, or almost half. This suggests that these 2000 are either industry professionals with something to promote, or else they consider themselves professional fans with an opinion worth listening to. Of course, this means the staff in charge of programming have a huge pile of applications to wade through, trying to sort out who might be interesting to the larger body of attendees.

The real mind-bender from the above, of course, is that comment: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Since this comment was not well considered, I think we can assume it represents an unfiltered assessment of the situation from someone on the programming staff who is struggling to sort out those 2000 applicants. The reason it’s not well considered, of course, is that it strongly implies the WorldCon attendees either haven’t read or don’t much care about the work of the Hugo finalists.

This is a huge crisis of faith. At File 770, it led to questions about the reliability of the new EPH voting system installed last year, which was meant to ensure “diversity” by reducing the impact of slate voting. But actually, this isn’t a problem in reliability of the nomination and voting system, or even a question of cheating. I talked to a WorldCon member who told me what she does. Because she’s very busy, she doesn’t really have time to read ahead of the vote, so she just checks lists of recommendations and chooses prominent minorities and women for the ballot. I’d like to suggest this is why the WorldCon membership isn’t really excited about the work of this years’ finalists. They were chosen for who they are rather than for what they wrote.

At this point, I hope this isn’t a surprise to anybody. After all, isn’t that why people put up those biographies that describe their minority status in such detail?

Identity politics bullies versus SFF Con management 2018

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At the end of July, WorldCon became another in the list of SFF conventions that experienced partisan conflict this year about programming, guests or treatment of guests. Special interest groups have apparently moved on from insisting on strict Codes of Conduct for the conventions to insisting on excluding certain guests and demanding particular programming as part of the same agenda. The complaints flying around are the same ones honed for use in the Code of Conduct campaign, words like “unsafe,” “disrespected” and “harassment.” These loaded words are apparently based on such ordinary things as fiction releases and errors in biographies. It seems mostly a problem on the progressive left, but after conservative author Jon Del Arroz didn’t get what he wanted from a kerfluffle at BayCon, he filed suit for defamation—an indication of how far people will go to get their way.

Most of this problem is just victim/identity politics, where people maneuver for advantage through bullying tactics. If you’re a minority and want recognition, then the best way to do it these days is to make noise about being victimized and disrespected and otherwise causing a stink. Progressives are trained to respond with abject apologies and to jump to make adjustments that give you what you want. Because the cons have limited resources and can’t afford massive disturbances and bad press, most have folded to demands. This has led to complaints from other groups harmed by the changes, such as conservatives or older writers. This must have been a particularly aggressive group of activist bullies at WorldCon. See Mary Robinette Kowal comments on trying to work with them. The only failure of this strategy so far seems to have been DragonCon, which ignored guest withdrawals and fired agitators from their positions on staff.

Whatever, WorldCon management busily tried to accommodate the complaints and save their reputation as progressive. There was quite a scramble going on in the last weeks before the con, where the staff completely tore apart the programming and started over. Sensitive guests withdrew to make room for minorities. Teams were called in to help. But, the truth is, they can’t satisfy the demands because it’s not just about appearing on a panel. The progressive ground has moved out from WorldCon members’ feet. An article in the Daily Dot actually classifies their standard demographic as “overlapping” with the Sad Puppies. Who would have thought?

Next, interesting questions about the Hugo voting that emerged in the crisis.

Review of Ant Man and the Wasp

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This film was written by the team of Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari and directed by Peyton Reed. It was produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, released to theaters on 6 July 2018. It is the second in this series, a sequel to the 2015 Ant-Man, and stars Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne and Michael Douglas.

After the events of Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang is under house arrest. He works hard at being a better father to his daughter, hoping to successfully finish up his sentence and take a fuller role in the X-Con security business he’s founded with his buddies Luis, Dave and Kurt. Just a few days before the house arrest is due to end, Hank Pym and his daughter Hope, while hiding out from the FBI, manage to open a tunnel to the quantum realm. Janet van Dyne contacts Scott. Against his better judgement, he calls Pym, thus getting himself involved in a new mission to rescue Janet. Hope kidnaps Lang from his house and tries to buy parts from black market dealer Sonny Burch, but is attacked by quantum ghost Ava Starr, who makes off with Pym’s portable lab. Pym contacts his old enemy Bill Foster for help in finding the lab, but Foster turns out to be helping Ava. He’s hoping they can use Janet’s quantum energy to stabilize Ava’s existence. The FBI is in hot pursuit. Can Hank rescue Janet? Can Bill fix Ava? Can Scott evade the FBI? Can the X-Con security startup get off the ground?

This is a fairly complex plot with lots of moving parts. Rescuing Janet is a serious long shot, and Hank and Hope are heavily invested in getting her back. As the obstacles and complications build up, the action gets more and more intense. On top of that, this is a great comedy team. It took a while for the first Ant-Man film to hit its stride, and they were about half way through before the comedy really jelled. For this film, they’ve already got a smooth-working unit, and it’s clear the script is filled with material for them to work with. Peña, Park and Lang especially stand out, and Douglas, Lilly and Fishburne cooperate as great straight guys. Reed makes maximum use of the talent he’s got in the cast, turning one of Marvel’s only so-so characters into a fun, goofy romp through different realities.

The special effects are worth a mention here. For anyone who’s missed the origin story, Pym is a master of scale. Ant-Man and the Wasp have suits that will make them instantaneously larger or smaller. Scott’s suit isn’t working that well in this film, but Hope’s works great. This makes the fight scenes and car chases an eye-popping sequence of strategies with scale. There are various animated ants marauding about, too.

This film isn’t terribly thoughtful, but it is highly entertaining. It’s also got that old touch-of-wonder that manages to romanticize quantum physics. There’s a final post-credits scene that ties it to The Avengers: Infinity War.

Four stars.

Review of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

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This film is the fifth installment in this franchise. It was directed by J.A. Bayona and written by Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly and released 22 June 2018 by Universal Pictures, It stars Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, B. D. Wong and Jeff Goldblum. Like most of the Jurrasic films, it’s been very successful at the box office.

DNA pirates on a stealth mission to the island park provide fodder for the local fauna. It turns out a volcano is about to destroy the island and kill all the dinosaurs. Dr. Malcolm speaks to a Congressional committee and recommends they let nature take its course, but Claire, who is running a non-profit to preserve the animals, gets a call from Eli Mills, now running Lockwood’s corporation that originally cloned the dinosaurs. Mills offers a new sanctuary and shows a special interest in Velociraptor Blue, who was successfully trained by Owen in the last film. Claire finds Owen, and with her assistants Zia and Franklin, sets out to locate and save the dinosaurs. The four of them are double-crossed and face dangerous hazards. They manage to stow away on Mills’ ship carrying a few rescued dinosaurs away from the island, but eventually get captured. Meanwhile, Lockwood’s young granddaughter Maisie overhears Mills and auctioneer Gunnar Eversol planning to auction the reptiles off to highest bidders with nefarious plans. Dr. Henry Wu wants Blue’s blood to create a new genetically engineered Indoraptor. Can Maisie help Claire and her friends save the dinosaurs? What then?

This is a fairly simple plot, mainly consisting of action sequences interspersed with heart-warming moments and scenes of the bad guys getting a comeuppance. The whole thing, of course, is an excuse for dinosaurs to stomp around and chomp on people. It carries this off admirably, if not very realistically. Claire and Owen are suitably decorative, somehow avoiding any muss to their hair or makeup, Zia and Franklin are entertaining, and Maisie is appropriately scared and vulnerable. The results here weren’t really a surprise, considering all the greed and irresponsible behavior going around. We’ll have to wait for the next movie to see how the team deals with things.

Decent action film. Cloning issues. Brief statement about global warming. Three stars.

Review of Solo: A Star Wars Story

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This film was directed by Ron Howard, written by Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan and stars Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson and Emilia Clarke. It was produced by Lucasfilm and released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures in July 2018.

Han and Qi’ra are orphaned children trying to escape indenture to a crime boss on the planet Corellia. They make up a plan to get away, but Qi’ra is caught just on the threshold of freedom. Han escapes and signs up for military service, hoping to become a pilot, but he deserts when this doesn’t work out. He takes up with a band of freelance thieves led by a man named Beckett, who introduces him to Chewbacca the Wookie in the worst possible way. Beckett is trying to steal coaxium fuel for Dryden Vos, a crime boss of the Crimson Dawn syndicate. When they arrive at his penthouse, Han finds that Qi’ra has escaped Corellia by taking employment with Vos. She introduces him to smuggler Lando Calrissian, and on his second try at sabacc, Han catches Lando cheating and wins his ship the Millennium Falcon. Rebels capture the coaxium, causing mayhem. Can Qi’ra and Han get out alive? Can they rebuild their relationship? Can Han make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs?

So, Howard has done a workmanlike job of incorporating everything that had to go into this film. Because Han, Chewbacca and Lando are well-known characters with established histories, the film had to go back and provide scenes and details that were already described. Even with generous actions scenes, it’s not that exciting, moving from point to point like a checklist.

There was a controversy before the film even got to theaters, as director Howard was hired to replace Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were fired for “creative differences.” A lot of the film was then reshot, at considerable expense. Box office receipts were dismal, the first real failure of a Star Wars film in the history of the franchise. This may have been about poor word-of-mouth, but it was more likely a boycott by fans unhappy about the Disney-controlled films and especially annoyed by The Last Jedi. The result has been mutterings from Disney about maybe not making any more Star Wars films. Is this a demo of how to kill a cash cow?

The biggest problem with this film, of course, was Alden Ehrenreich trying to step into Harrison Ford’s shoes. Ehrenreich did a workmanlike job with the character, but workmanlike just isn’t Han Solo. Donald Glover as Calrissian got glowing reviews, but it was really the charismatic Woody Harrelson as Beckett who lights up the film—an understated, low key performance notwithstanding. Also prominent was Lando’s annoying co-pilot L3-37, an animated character fighting against the slavery of droids, who got quickly squashed. Was this a message about SJWs?

The casting issue brings up another question. Why isn’t Disney investing in flashier talent for these movies? I think some of the Marvel films have had the same issue, where it looks like they went down to the local acting school and hired a bunch of young kids and then suppressed whatever talent and individuality they might have. Even weeks of promotional hype about what stars they are doesn’t make up for their lack of presence on the screen. Howard did a good job making his cast carry their weight here, but really, why is Disney so hell-bent on mediocrity?

Average film. Three stars.

Review of Deadpool 2

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This Marvel superhero film is the second in the series, following Deadpool (2016). It’s directed by David Leitch and stars Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Julian Dennison and Morena Baccarin. It was released into theaters 18 May 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Since the events of the last film, Deadpool (a.k.a. Wade Wilson) has been touring the world, fighting ninjas, yakuza, and whoever else, looking for what meaning might be left in his life. He loses his girlfriend. He tries a stint as an X-man trainee, but it doesn’t work out. However, as a result of this, he ends up becoming the hero of a young boy with dangerous supernatural abilities. He tries to reject this role, but eventually brings together an X-Force team to rescue the boy from the evil, time-traveling cyborg Cable. Can he pull this off? Can he get his girlfriend back? Can he fix Ryan Reynolds’career mistakes?

We have to wait a while to get to the heart of this film, while Wade searches around for the theme. However, once he’s focused on doing the right thing, then we can get on with the plot. The remaining space is taken up with social commentary and jokes that make this pretty much a satire of superhero franchises. The gags go by fast, so pay attention.

The movie did get criticism for the “fridging” of Wade’s girlfriend Vanessa. For anyone who’s not familiar with the term, it refers to threatening, injuring or killing a superhero’s girlfriend to provide motive for the plot. That leaves the woman with a very limited role. Writers and producers agreed they had engaged in this gimmick, and suggested fridging Deadpool in a different movie. Turn about.

This film is all highly creative, of course, and the writing/directing crew doesn’t really care that they pierce the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. They’re also testing a few boundaries as far as offensiveness goes. I see that Ryan Reynolds is listed on the writing team this time, so I’m wondering how much he has to do with the comedy and commentary. He’s certainly found his niche as the bad guy anti-superhero. Although this film isn’t as impressive as the first one, it carries on the tradition well enough. His X-Force team turns out to be surprisingly attractive, too, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of them.

One other thing that merits mention is the choreography and gymnastics stunts in these films. There was only one instance of the gymnastics here, but same as the last film, it was breathtaking air ballet from a real person. Well, okay—I just like gorgeous stunts.

Four stars.

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