Review of Shadow Heart by Rawle Nyanzi

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This novella is young adult superhero and mecha-based military alternate history scifi/fantasy, and it’s more specifically billed as Shining Tomorrow Volume 1: Shadow Heart, meaning it’s a series the author expects to continue. It a quick read, is self-published, and runs about 200 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Irma is a heavily-indoctrinated high school girl who lives in the North American Federation, a territory under the control of the Japanese government since the Central Powers win World War I. Irma is very aware of modesty, responsibility and community obligations. She is respected as non-violent because she is involved in a YELOW (Young Elegant Ladies of the West) organization that carries out civic projects to benefit the disadvantaged. When her superhero friend Virginia is captured by the evil combat mech manufacturer Shadow Heart, Irma wants to do something about it, but she is limited by her own sexist cultural expectations about her role as a woman and how this relates to violence and initiative. But, Irma is also heir to a powerful Valkyrie superhero tradition. As a final battle looms, how can Irma reconcile being a superhero with what she’s always believed about herself?

This is a fairly free-wheeling and creative story, featuring a mash-up of cultural and fictional tropes, including superheroes and white supremacists, all thrown together in an action story with a slight tongue-in-cheek tone that suggests satire. You can tell the author really enjoys popular culture, especially Japanese-based Manga. But Nyanzi also has a feel for underlying philosophical questions. Where stories from Asian women often seem to be about rebelling against family and societal controls in Asian tradition, the author here looks at the internal inhibitions implanted by culture and how hard it can be to overcome these restrictions and change behavior. Even as Irma makes a decision to claim her birthright and act against Shadow Heart, she knows she has to walk a thin line in order to remain acceptable to both herself and her community.

On the not so positive side, a lot of this will be lost on readers who aren’t familiar with Manga, mecha or Japanese culture. The tone and free-wheeling action approach mean the story requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, and the characters tend to be fairly stereotypical. The philosophical questions in the subtext are subtle, and may not be picked up or appreciated by action readers. However, all this doesn’t mean that it’s not fun and different to read.

Three and a half stars.

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Review of Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

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This novel is science fiction and was released by Vintage on January 9, 2018. It runs 689 pages. For anyone wondering, gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow. It also has implications about shadow secret societies. This review contains spoilers.

London in the near future is a surveillance state where a Witness System monitors and records everything. The government operates as a type of perfect democracy where all citizens are polled to vote on issues at regular intervals, and a vote is upcoming on whether implants should be inserted into individuals who need special monitoring and possible adjustment. In this environment, the elderly Diana Hunter, an eccentric Luddite writer and suspected dissident, is brought in for questioning through the invasive method of reviewing all her thoughts and memories. She dies after an unsuccessful interrogation, and Mielikki Neith, an Inspector of the Witness System, is tapped to investigate. Neith reviews the recordings of Hunter’s neural activity during the interrogation and finds a blockade of fictions, apparently presented to defeat the system. Three different narratives emerge: Athenian financier Constantine Kyriakos who is being stalked by a shark; ancient Carthagenian scholar and alchemist Athenais who is attempting to resurrect her son; and brilliant Ethiopian artist Berihun Bekele whose daughter Anna and partner Colson are designing a digital game called Witness. In her own reality, Neith meets a mysterious presence who introduces him/herself as Regno Lönnrot, who seems to be invisible to the Witness system. As Neith works through the neural recordings, she begins to put together clues and symbols that indicate a shadow group controlling the Witness System. What can she do about it?

So, this is interesting and mildly entertaining. It’s another of those brilliant works that presents the questionable benefits of surveillance and government control in the interests of national security, all in general terms related to the story, of course. It’s also a SF mystery story, plus a narration where one reality blends into another and you end up not being sure of what the “true” reality is. As we work through it, we start to wonder whether Neith is a reliable character or not. Actually, Bekele’s narration sounds pretty attractive, too. And then, there’s Lönnrot. And a demon? Hm.

On the negative side, there is a serious readability problem here. First, this is waaay too long. On the initial attempt, I gave up midway and later started over. It took me DAYS of dedicated work to slog through it. I understand this is part of the author’s literary device—it mirrors how Hunter dragged out the fictional narratives in her efforts to block the Witness’ invasion of her brain, but still, it’s just not gripping enough to justify nearly 700 pages. Second, these narratives don’t add enough to the story to support their length and detail–we could have gotten the idea with a lot fewer words. Each one of the stories could have been a novel on its own, and together they crowd out the minimal plot where Neith carries out her investigation and reaches a decision. The realities all come together in a muddle of resolution at the end, and the author just leaves us hanging there. This is followed by a very nice discussion about consciousness and reality in the last chapter, but that didn’t make the effort worthwhile for me.

Four stars for the brilliance and the message, but read at your own risk.

Review of Hidden Histories edited by Juliana Rew

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This is Juliana Rew’s 25th themed anthology of short stories, a collection of alternate secret histories that range from fantasy to science fiction and various slipstream combinations in between. There are 28 stories in this collection, all original, and written by international crew of authors, followed by a little clutch of flash fiction stories. This collection runs 276 pages and is published by Third Flatiron, which publishes digital science fiction and fantasy anthologies and other projects, with print editions also available.

It’s always hard to review a collection of short stories, as it’s not something you can summarize in one easy paragraph. Let me say that Juliana Rew is reliable to find good quality stories without the heavily political messages that often run through SFF and fantasy these days. These stories are quick reads, interesting and often touching in the way they express the theme. Each author has taken an event from history and imagined how it might have happened and what might have gone on behind the scenes. Standouts for me this time include the following: Jimi Hendrix meets an alien that influences his music; a commander flies a secret shuttle mission as part of the Cold War; a Native American researcher gets strange results when she extracts DNA from an ancient bone; the patriot John Wilkes Booth writes letters to his mother; ancient sentinels try to save humanity from itself; a Nazi wonderwaffen project continues on long after the death of its authors; and from the flash fiction at the end–strange tourists try to order pizza in Eugene, Oregon

On the not so positive side, the story length here means the stories are less well developed than they could be. Many of these could have benefited from a longer treatment.

Authors include: Bruce Golden, Matthew Reardon, Brenda Kezar, Kai Hudson, Brian Trent, Jonathan Shipley, Dantzel Cherry, Edwina Shaw, Dennis Maulsby, Michael Robertson, Mike Barretta, Ricardo Maia, J.D. Blackrose, John A. Frochio, Arthur Carey, Sandra Ulbrich Almazan, Elizabeth Beechwood, Robert Dawson, James Chmura, Tony Genova, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, Simon Lee-Price, Shannon McDermott, Jennifer Lee Rossman, H. J. Monroe, Evan A. Davis, Tyler Paterson, and A. Humphrey Lanham.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Static Ruin by Corey J. White

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This novella is The Voidwitch Saga Book #3. It’s science fiction, was released November 6, 2018, by Tor.com and runs 218 pages. This review contains spoilers.

This novella starts slightly after the events of Void Black Shadow. Mars is on Joon-ho Station, having left Squid and Mookie on Aylett Station, and now on the run from the Emperor’s Guard. She visits Dr. Ahlam’s clinic, hoping to get help for Pale, who is having seizures. Ahlam recommends that Mars contact her father Marius Teo to get help for the boy. Mars has a lot of residual anger against her father, who cloned her from her mother’s cells and then sold her and her sister to MEPHISTO. Betrayed, Mars has to fight her way off the station, but successfully arrives at Sanderak where she finds a conclave that worships a statue of her mother and a hologram of her father. Her dad has actually been kidnapped by a businessman named Rafael Hurtt, who wants to use his cloning technology. Can Mars rescue her father? Get help for Pale? Can she get the Emperor’s Guard off her backtrail?

By the finish of this series, it’s taken on quite a bit more depth—a real theme developed somewhere along the line. It looks like the imperial government is using MEPHISTO and its corporate cronies to enslave anybody unfortunate enough to fall into their clutches with the aid of transhuman and uplift technology. This includes kids, adults and whatever other living creature that might look attractive or useful to the evil scientists and their overlords. We’ve met a bunch of miserable victims along the line, as people and animals all suffer through the misery of surgical experimentation and deployment as a weapon.

Because of its broad sweep and action-orientation, this doesn’t have the impact that a more character-oriented story would have—the carnage here seems the main point. Still, you have to give it credit for a viable projection and a strong warning message about a possible future. That moves it up some on the Ideation Scale.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Compulsory” by Martha Wells

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This is a great find. It’s a Murderbot short story published by Wired magazine in January 2019 as part of the The Future of Work series, which should make it eligible for the next awards cycle. I imagine this could also be a teaser for Wells upcoming new Murderbot novel, Network Effect, which is scheduled for release in May of 2020. Her website suggests there might be a few more short stories upcoming. This review contains major spoilers.

Murderbot is working a mining contract where it’s obvious all the humans hate each other. At the moment, 98% of MB’s attention is on episode #44 of The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, while the remaining 2% is monitoring ambient audio to keep track of what the humans are doing. Elane, Sekai and Asa are humans arguing on the observation platform. Sekai accidently falls into the mining pit, and MB sends an alert to HubSystem. MB’s current job is: 1) to keep the workers from stealing company property, 2) to keep the workers from killing management and 3) to keep the workers from reducing productivity. Because rescuing the worker falls outside these parameters, HubSystem orders MB to stay at its duty station. MB estimates incoming safety bots will be too late to rescue Sekai, so it steps off the observation platform, kicks off the stabilizer wall into a lower gravity well and lands on the housing above Sekai. She reaches up and catches its hand just as the blade she landed on cycles and drops ore into the smelter. HubSystem tries to fry MB’s circuits for disobeying, but ha, that governor module died a long time ago. MB climbs out of the pit, carrying its rescued human, meanwhile hacking HubSystem to make it think it gave the orders for rescue. MB checks the management feed to make sure this has gone undetected and finds company management is puzzled but unsuspicious. More terrifying: Sekai has gotten a glimpse of the real Murderbot.

This is a compact wrap-up of the MB state of affairs, well presented in a mere 1000 words. MB narrates, and its personality and humor come through in the usual way. You get an idea of its physical capabilities and hacking ability—which is what makes it so dangerous without the governor module—and the way it wants to watch media shows and sort of enjoys actually being of use once in a while. That’s a great touch at the end, too, where it thinks Sekai can almost see through the armor to the real, complex person underneath.

On the not so positive side, why didn’t that observation platform have some pretty sturdy guardrails in place? Surely a lot of workers falling off the edge would clog the machinery below. And how did MB climb out of the pit? Is there an access ladder or not? Inquiring minds want to know. Actually, the only serious complaint I have about this is that it needs to be longer. It could easily be the intro to another novella.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

Review of Avengers: Endgame

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This Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movie was produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. It follows The Avengers (2012), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and Avengers: Infinity War (2018). It was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and features a large cast of superheroes, including Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Evans as Captain America, Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Paul Rudd as Antman, Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, Bradley Cooper as Rocket, Karen Gillian as Nebula and Josh Brolin as Thanos, etc., etc., etc., while Stan Lee makes his final cameo. This review contains spoilers.

After Thanos uses the Infinity Gauntlet to disintegrate half of all living things in the universe, Tony Stark and Nebula are rescued from space by Captain Marvel. The Avengers who are left organize and go after Thanos. Thor kills him, but this does nothing to reverse what Thanos has done. Back on Earth, everyone tries to get on with life, but they have to deal with the huge losses. Existence is hard and bitter, but they try to make new lives. Meanwhile, Scott Lang (a.k.a. Antman) has been stuck in the quantum realm since the catastrophe. Five years later he manages to find his way out. He takes stock of the situation and approaches Captain America and Black Widow with a plan to go back in time to reverse Thanos’ actions. Can the Avengers pull off a complex plan to capture the Infinity Stones before Thanos can get them? Can they create a new Infinity Gauntlet to defeat Thanos and bring back everything that was lost?

Good points: This movie has a little of everything: humor, pathos, love. It’s an ambitious script, and a lot of it goes by really fast. This is one possible explanation for the way it’s blown past USD$2B box office take in just a couple of weeks—people are going back to see it more than once because they missed a lot the first time around. It takes the main characters back in time for a brief visit with people they’ve lost, and in some cases, provides a do-over. For example, Gamora, who was sacrificed in Infinity War, gets a second chance. However, some other people apparently don’t and seem to be permanently dead. This may reflect the retirements of some of the bigger stars, including Robert Downey Jr. (RDJ), Chris Evans and Scarlett Johannson. Rocket the Raccoon is, as usual, a huge star in this film. The script didn’t tie up everything, though, which suggests a direction for future films: Loki got away with the Tesseract at the end of Infinity War, which sequence is reviewed in this film, and Carol Danvers’ not-a-cat puked it up at the end of Captain Marvel. Does this mean more time travels lie in our heroes’ futures?

On the not so positive side, this was a three hour movie that hurried through everything, suggesting they might have broken it up into two or three films and made better use of their stars. One big issue with putting all these highly charismatic people together is in suppressing the charisma to make clear leads. In all the Avenger films, it’s clear that Iron Man and Captain America are expected to be the leads, with Black Widow as a strong second. This probably reflects their seniority, contracts and the amounts they’re being paid. However, there are clearly obstacles to this plan. The first is Chris Hemsworth (a.k.a. Thor). In some of the other films, he’s had very few lines, and in this one, the script makes him into a cartoon figure. Surprise, surprise—Hemsworth is good for it. He does comedy well, too. Maybe this is supposed to demonstrate the dangers of alcoholism, but regardless, the role he’s given is offensive and smacks of body shaming. Ruffalo, also a strong personality, is disguised with CGI. Other obstacles include Tom Hiddleston as Loki and Chris Pratt as Star Lord, both of whom could steal the movie in a heartbeat. The directors were apparently expecting trouble here, though, so both are given very minimal appearances. In a three movie sequence, characters like these could have been given better roles and more screen time to develop subplots and make the film less jam-packed and hurried. Given the loose Tesseract and the fact that Thor went off with the Guardians at the end of this, we might expect they’ll get to follow up in future films, or maybe TV shows on Disney’s streaming service. Last, if RDJ, Evans and Johannson are all retiring, this will be a huge hit to the MCU films. Disney’s choices for replacement so far, like Brie Larson as Captain Marvel and Don Cheadle as War Machine, don’t really have the charisma and presence to carry the roles.

Highly recommended. Four and a half stars.

Film Review of Captain Marvel

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This Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movie is produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. It’s written and directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, with Geneva Robertson-Dworet also contributing to the screenplay. Brie Larson stars as Carol Danvers, with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. This review contains spoilers.

On the planet of Hala, Kree Starforce soldier Vers has recurring nightmares about an older woman. Her commander Yon-Rogg trains her to use her abilities while the AI Supreme Intelligence reminds her to keep her emotions in check. During a raid on the shapeshifting Skrull, Vers is captured, and after analysis, seems to have memories of the planet Earth. Vers escapes from the Skrull and crashes in Los Angeles, where she attracts the attention of the SHIELD organization, including Nick Fury and Agent Phil Coulson. The alien Shrull infiltrate SHIELD and order Fury to keep tabs on Vers. Following up on newly awakened memories, Vers finds she is really Carol Danvers, thought to have been killed years before in an experimental flight of a jet engine developed by scientist Wendy Lawson. Fury and Danvers find Lawson’s not-really-a-cat, who has apparently survived alone for years in her abandoned orbiting lab. The Shrull Talos reveals Lawson was actually Mar-Vell, a renegade Kree scientist, and that Danvers has developed amazing superpowers from the destruction of the test engine. Can she gain control of her powers and stop the war between the Kree and the Shrull before it destroys the Earth?

Good points: This is a complex script with several twists and unexpected developments. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson are old hands at this, and they carry off the alien contacts, the chase scenes and the Shrull infiltration of SHIELD with lots of class and wry humor. Danvers eventually sorts everything out and assumes her role as the hugely powerful savior of the universe. Plus, there’s an orange tabby non-cat. Not only is this a great addition to the cast, but it also pukes up a missing Tesseract in the post-credits scene, last seen in the hands of the Asgardian fire-and-mischief-god Loki Laufeyson. This device has been floating around through various of the MCU films, leaving us to wonder if it will feature in Avengers: Endgame and/or other films.

On the not so positive side, the script felt a little over-complex and convoluted. Like the shapeshifting Shrull, you couldn’t depend on anything being what it first seemed, which eventually turned a bit annoying. Danvers was represented as having god-like powers, a female version of superman but without the kryptonite issue; so why not stick around and handle things on Earth? Well, the universe calls. I’m suspicious—doesn’t she have any weaknesses? And last, like many of Disney’s recent choices for stars, Brie Larson doesn’t really have the presence and weight to carry this role.

Fairly entertaining and watchable. Three and a half stars.

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