Read: Convergence, by C.J. Cherryh

Eagerly anticipated Convergence is the 18th instalment in the Foreigner series, and while Cherryh has run out of -er words imagination has not.

Convergence is two parallel stories but bot starting with Bren, the dowager and Cajeiri as they return to the atevi earth after the kyo encounter. One story is Bren’s, the other Cajeiri’s, and Bren’s is, in some ways, rather in the background.

Circumstances has Bren and his aishid going to Mospheira, to present the human population and their representatives with both the kyo agreement and with Tabini’s demands on removal of the Reunion group from Alpha station. This story is not centre of interest for the book, though: that honour goes to Cajeiri and his solo trip to Tirnamardi – a gesture to show that the aiji still stands with the Atageini, despite a rather unfortunate turn of events in the search for a new Ajuri clan lord.

Convergence sees a upping of the tempo, but also a more concise prose. Some books back (Deceiver, Betrayer, and thereabouts) each of these two stories could well had taken up several books, and now they are both packed into this unusually short text.

This is not a bad thing, all in all. We get to see how the heir has grown up, despite his still young age, and how he comes to understand his role and responsibilities, and maybe, just maybe, a shift in focus from Bren, who is now a rather established personality whose journey is coming to an end, developmentally speaking, while Cajeiri is just taking off.

My only complaint is that the book is too short, not to mention the cliffhanger ending. As no. 18 it is the concluding book in the 6th 3-book Foreigner story arch but it leaves off at a place were you expect to turn the page and find out what’s next… and next up is another year in the future.

I think I need to pick up some other Foreigner book, in the interim, to ameliorate the abstinence.

Advertisements

Watched: Rouge One: A Star Wars Story

As a kid I loved Star Wars. My dad took me to the cinema to watch the original Star Wars movie, later to be renamed and renumbered into “Star Wars IV, A New Hope”, when it came to Sweden, and I loved it.

As I grew older I also grew more ambivalent to it. Like the Lord of the Rings books Star Wars was important to me during my formative years, in the late 70’s/early 80’s. But back then watching films again and again wasn’t something one could do easily, and so Star Wars floated to the back.

In the late 90’s I bought the VHS box set of the revised original trilogy, and I still own it, despite no longer having easy access to a VHS player. By that time I had become part of the Trek crowd, though, and while I still watched the films every now and again I felt the story to be shallow, and not very honest. I never was interested in watching the prequels at the cinema and I have to admit – while I have later endured Phantom Menace I never got through Attack of the Clones… and that’s it.

Since then our son became an avid Star Wars fan. He jokingly says that he’s a master of Starwarsology. Well before he could read we watched the films off my special edition VHS box set together, with me reading the dialogue/subtitles for him. As a consequence I know the original revised films down to the inflection of the Emperor. I have played Lego Star Wars with him for more hours than I care to remember. I have, however, drawn the line at Star Wars Battlefront because honestly I suck at the PS hand controls (I’m fairly good at Wii, though, and am mean with a keyboard).

I did enjoy The Force Awakens, even though I recognised several of Abrams’ mannerisms and despite the less than stellar acting. And Trek is still my Universe.

Watching Rouge One: A Star Wars Story I am finally able to put in words what’s chafing.

The movie was, as a film experience, acceptable. It balanced drama, humour and action, and while the acting was part good, part stiff (especially on behalf of the actors that were chosen for likeness to original characters rather than for their acting skills: I honestly thought that Tarkin was computer generated – the droid K-2SO was more believable), I was never bored. I might even watch it again, as a diversion, if I get a cold and a fever and has to stay in bed.

So, to get back to what chafes: Leaving the theatre I couldn’t stop thinking that the authors, and Disney, has to be exceedingly out of touch with world politics to present this film to the world.

Rogue One is the logical prologue to what used to be the first Star Wars movie. It is also an ongoing manifestation of the naivety of originator George Lucas. His simple swine herd in space story has snowballed into something bigger than even Lucas’ could ever have imagined, and Disney hasn’t exactly sat down and examined the actual content of what they bought and so instead of reining it in they have allowed it to run amok.

At first it was a story about Good versus Evil. It worked well as a one off.  But as so many before me has pointed out the presumably Good Jedi and their rebellion friends aren’t particularly good.  They manipulate, use terror instead of legal or democratic routes to achieve their goals, and they deceive to get people on their side. Of course, in real life nothing is entirely clear-cut, so why should a movie be?

The big difference is the script. Real life isn’t scripted. We stumble through, doing as well as we can. Some people have an astute moral compass but most of us has unintentionally caused harm and hurt to other people along the way.

A script, on the other hand, is a way of telling a story. Stories can be of varying kinds. They can be used to disseminate human relationships, like the endless mother-daughter, father-son dramas that litter popular culture.  They can be historical dramas, they can be adventurous and exploring. They can be used as a means to present us to different ways to handle various situations, and they can try to present optimistic or pessimistic visions of the future of humankind. They can be used to analyse and disseminate present day events, systems, and cultural norms.

Star Wars has always cared less than zero about collateral damage. In Star Wars it is acceptable to kill and maim or set people up, as long as it gets you were you think you need to be.

As the first Death Star blows up presumable hundreds of thousands of people who only do their paid jobs, as cleaners, cooks, mechanics, gets killed. At that point, back in 1977, we all believed that this was justified, for the greater good. I wasn’t old enough to analyse it, I just thought it was cool. But the pattern continues and in film after film, in series after series, violence is presented as the best way to solve a conflict, and damn the innocent. No introspection. No questioning of means and objectives and relative costs, or of the conflicts between what you say you want and how you endeavour to get there.

No thought on what story you are really telling, what morals and methods you are endorsing.

With Rouge One Disney had a chance to change that pattern. But instead what they do is to present some kind of justification for the likes of the Brussels bombers. Rouge One tells you, the audience, that democracy is nothing and that militias are justified. At one point the protagonists could had chosen to not go with outright violence and certain death for most, if not all, in the party. They could had connived a covert plot to get the schematics. They could had been smart.

Instead they used brute force, and everyone died. Even the cooks and the cleaners and the kids that we don’t get to see. And all glory to the ones who willingly sacrifices their lives for the Cause.

The rebellion did get the schematics, death was justified, and the rebellion is just as Evil as the Empire. It chafes.

And to think that Rouge One is seen as valid entertainment while films like V for Vendetta gets blasted for being too political, too anti-establishment. But that is what happens when one is openly political while the other is more a result of no one stopping to analyse what it is that they really are doing. Or so I guess.

To be honest I don’t think it is intentional. At least I don’t hope so.

But it still chafes. And I’m still ambivalent.

Watched again: V for Vendetta (film version)

A long time ago in a galaxy far away I watched the film adaption of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. My memory tells me that I did enjoy it, back then, but that I felt it to be flamboyantly lightweight: all glitz and low on content.

Today, in this galaxy, instead of empty it is eerily current.

On weekend evenings we often watch films or series together. For a long time we watched  a couple of episodes of Dr Who every Friday and Saturday evening. When we ran up against what Netflix Sweden had to offer in that regard we switched back to films. As son gets the final word we have watched some of the Harry Potter and Jurassic Park movies enough times for some of us to get (more than) a bit bored, but we have also watched most of the MCU – Marvel Cinematic Universe – and at times we try to introduce him to various SF classics. He doesn’t always take the bait, but thus evenings of Alien and Aliens, for example. This past Saturday we ended up watching V for Vendetta with him.

While watching it I at times debated the choice. In the deep fall of 2016 V for Vendetta felt like a prophecy come true: the disinformation campaigns, the fabricated fake news; the thinly veiled threats and terror directed at anyone who don’t conform to frankly medieval morals; the construed and staged threats to society, used to whip up fear and hate; the total disrespect for the individual human being. Wasn’t this a bit much for a  13 yo kid? Yet he sat glued to the screen, not even striking up a discussion over bad special effects, plot holes and discrepancies – something he’s otherwise very keen on. His only comment mid-movie was “Trump ought to watch this” (to which I felt a need to answer that “he’d only black-list it”).

Afterwards we talked a bit about what we had just watched – about reigning by terror, about the importance of not allowing people to threaten you into silence, and about the importance to stand up for those who gets silenced and/or threatened, for those who get dehumanised.

He mentioned how this was a more interesting film than the various didactic WWII holocaust stories they have had to watch in school: how the parallels between Nazi Germany and V for Vendetta was glaringly obvious, but that the film made the issues real instead of a staid retelling of some faraway thing that had once happened (and was unlikely to ever happen again, because we all know we’re smarter now… right?).

In short V for Vendetta made it obvious that fear, hate and institutionalised terror is not a thing of the past. It is a real threat, wherever there are humans. And we’re living on the brink of it.

The issues I have with the movie pales in comparison with this. If the film can make people rethink and re-evaluate their roles and responsibilities in regard to society that is a value in itself, regardless of what I personally think of the politics, the methods, or the cheap references (such as to Emma Goldman’s “a revolution without dancing is not at revolution worth having”).

Especially today, with various anti-democratic regimes rising through-out the western world; with the backlash against people who are perceived as “other”; with widespread nostalgia and anti-intellectualism spreading like a cloud out of Mordor anything that highlights empathy and compassion is needed.

It is highly unlikely that V for Vendetta will ever be used as a discussion piece in school. Too many parents would call it out for its violence, all the while their kids are playing Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed, and its anti-authoritarian message while they on a daily basis deride their own elected government.

But if we care about equal rights, if we believe that gender or sexual identity, skin colour or heritage or inheritance should not affect either opportunities afforded or obligations demanded by and of the individual – then V for Vendetta is nothing to be afraid of.

Because at this time, in this galaxy, not running with the fear-mongers is important.

Watch it, if you haven’t done so already.

Read: Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor

Binti is of a tribe and family that is protective of its own – their customs, their heritage, and their Otherness. She is also a prodigy at mathematics, with her future as her father’s successor in the family business already decided for. When she receives a stipend to attend the most prestigious university in the known galaxy she stealthily chooses to go against her whole family, none of which has ever travelled outside the planet and some not even outside the village, yet purporting to know everything about the world outside.

She doesn’t make a conflict about it – she just prepares without telling anyone and then slips away in the night to catch the shuttle to the space port, knowing that she by this will be rejected by her culture, never allowed to come back.

In many ways Binti – the novella, not the person – is an anthropological journey, echoing of Ursula K LeGuin and her work. I’m reminded of novellas such as the ones collected in Worlds of Exile and Illusion, but also LeGuin’s work as a whole – exploring and examining cultural and societal constructs, from the perspective  of the Other.

The person Binti – who is a Himba of the Namib, looked down on by the Khoush people that holds power over the economy and institutions on her Earth – is both perceived as Other and encounters the Other, both the known other, the other from allied but alien planets, and the Other with whom they are at war with.

The story is intriguing, and a fast read, but in the end I think it would had benefited from getting more meat on it’s bones. As now it felt much like a story outline, which was good up until the resolution. Until then the format worked well: the story is told in tight first person, in snippets but well crafted and holding together, a credible telling of a series of events. The resolution continued in that style but the ease with which a disoriented minority teen manages to resolve a long standing conflict simply by being able to talk to both parties stretches my belief a wee bit too far. A bit like those detective stories aimed at preteens were two smart kids who seemingly never goes to school and whose parents are conspicuously absent manages to outsmart both the villains and the professional police investigators.

I did like the tone and style in which Okorafor tells the story. Despite, or perhaps because of, the short length of the story she manages to instil empathy for a girl whose cultural veneer is very different from my own, conveying the idea that humaneness is intrinsic, and maybe not even exclusive to humankind. An idea examined by many authors before her but not less honourable an endeavour for that.

Despite the slightly disappointing ending I am going to seek out more of Nnedi Okorafor‘s works, and should you find Binti on a shelf close to you – don’t hesitate to read it. At 89 pages it will not take a lot of your time.

Read: The Casual Angel, by Hannu Rajaniemi

The Casual Thief has been lurking in my TBR-pile ever since I first pre-ordered and then fetched it from the SF Bookshop, two years ago. There are, of course, multiple reasons for this delay, but I really did want to understand what was going on in that faraway version of our future universe populated with the Sobornost, the zokus, Jean de Flambeur, and Mieli, in The Quantum Thief and The Fractal Prince books, so though late I did recently began to read it.

It was, from the start, as splintered – post-modern, if you so wish – as the previous installations. Rajaniemi has a brilliant imagination.  He has peppered his tale with references to contemporary pop culture and ancient mythologies galore, and armed with those images one can easily conjure explosive, florescent, fractal, visuals to go with a tale, and it is told in shards – sometimes having to wait for things to make sense. The Thief  – Jean – is on a quest that neither he nor the reader fully understand the ramifications of, to find the Kaminari jewel, but is he a tool, and for whom, or is he self-determined? Mieli, wandering the universe to find her lost lover. Is she a tool (too)? Is this a game? Do I care? Am I made to care?

Am I compelled to read beyond the first pages?

Yes.

As I once more dived into the fantastical imaginary world that he built, and as I kept adding his world-specific concepts and their labels to my mental dictionary, the pace slowly but surely picked up. And surely soon everything would come to a conclusion, surely soon everything would start to make sense? But as  I kept turning pages, searching for content and meaning, the more I felt left floundering in the void, hope for sense and conclusion diminishing as the number of pages left to convincingly pull the trick dwindled.

The visuals and imagination is both daring and stunning, as is the world-building. But beyond that at least I need something more than one more fantastical set of props and toys, more than what if fireworks. More than a creeping revelation that everything is a game, and relative.

I found it difficult to engage with the characters, to feel for them. At times it felt a bit like I was in the middle of a Skylanders challenge, or dropped on a Minecraft plain. Cunningly designed to keep your attention, but impersonal. It is possible to smile at the odd Harry Potter reference; at the gesture of showing how storytelling creeps into our reality. But still – impersonal.

There are other authors – like the late Iain M Banks, whose Culture universe is as post-human as this one – who manages to pull it off with more conviction, adding depth beyond wonder, despite veering off on personal rants against (or for) this or that.

I do think the trilogy would benefit from being read as one book, in one sequence, as I imagine that will make the experience an easier one. Maybe then one would be able to empathise with Jean, with Mieli. As it is I didn’t feel the experience worth the effort to start it all over again, just to test this hypothesis.

Kudos though  to Rajaniemi for the trilogy being well crafted, imaginative, and consistent; I imagine that a lot of people will enjoy reading it, as did I, as long as it lasted. Fireworks can be fun. Our stories do make us who we are. Just not a once more into the breach-experience for this one.

Watched: Doctor Strange (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

So. I don’t normally do film reviews, and especially not when I’ve watched the film just once. Films are such fickle beings, greatly using sound and visuals to stun the wits out of the watcher. Beautiful films cleverly disguise their vacuity behind stunning imagery, and many are the films that look rather flat when stripped of off their sound-track.

Doctor Strange is, in some ways, one of those. With the volume cranked up to ear-wrenching, and with effects bending the laws of physics even more than what you’ve come to expect from a super hero movie, I went in expecting something quite… flat. Something that would not last beyond the glitzy veneer. A Bulgari jewel. Boisterous but empty of value to anyone who want something more elaborate, delicate, multi-layered.

And yes, it is a rather derivative hero origin story, starting off by telling us who the incumbent hero began as (brilliant but self-centred neurosurgeon), the downfall (nearly fatal accident, total loss of everything that defined him, in his own eyes), the search for healing, coming into new meaning (reluctant spiritual journey), complete with seemingly out-of-this-world powerful adversary/villain (Master Kaecilius, follower of the Lord of the Dark Dimension) challenging the hero before he’s.

But. Part of the success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is that the studio for some – not all – of their heroes have found an actor with the ability to imbue their given cartoon character with credibility.

I balk a bit at saying that about Cumberbatch’s version of Strange. The risk of being put aside as a swooning fangirl, not to be taken seriously, is almost too big. But – he manages to take this cartoon hero, (dis)placed in a psychedelic new age parallel version of our universe, and make him into a believable human being. Cloak of Levitation, astral bodies and rearranging of atoms aside. Or – despite all of that, if you’re like me and more than a little bit scientifically minded.

That is no mean feat.

Because let’s face it. This is , like all MCU films, a comic book fantasy. A cartoon. Of this world, and not. But, and this is another reason for the success: the Marvel Cinematic Universe is, in many ways, filling the role of the Greek pantheon of gods; inhabited by half-human, half-gods, with their faults and virtues – their greed and vanity; their loyalties, empathy and morals. It opens up an arena for telling stories about us humans – our society, our short-comings, the consequences of our actions. A mirror. But it has also the ability to simply entertain us.

And now Doctor Strange, the arrogant bastard, by way of a visually stunning magical system and some tight acting and choreography, is inaugurated into that pantheon, onto that arena, adding another dimension. I find I rather like that dimension, what with its swash-buckling wielding of flaming magic and mind-bending quantum physics.

It gives hope to us misfits that there’s a place for us, too, somewhere. Even if it’s just a fantasy.

Just the kind of boost that I needed, right now.

(Added afterwards: It feels unjust to only mention the main character when Chiwetel Ejiofor also was worth watching, as was Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams and, despite the extreme stereotyping – Mads Mikkelsen. Felt a bit let down by Tilda Swinton, but that might be my high expectations.)

Read: Visitor, by C.J. Cherryh

Book no. 17 in the Foreigner series. You’d think it would slow down, or peter out, or, well, just plain diminish in quality. Thankfully for us who follow the adventures of Bren and his aishid the opposite is true: Visitor is not only a good addition to the series but a very good one.

The Visitor picks up the thread just as the kyo – mysterious and secretive space-faring, and, in general terms, neighbours; neighbours who are engaged in war with another neighbour, as yet unseen – are approaching Alpha station. Bren spends his time worrying over his ability to communicate with the kyo, much the same way we all every now and then worry ourselves senseless at living up to expectations, and suddenly the Other are over the doorstep, pursuing an agenda no one knows about and everyone suspects… I’ll not delve on specifics; the spoilers would be too great. Suffice to say that one of the “what if’s” that I have been entertaining actually came true, and the resulting drama is simultaneously forthright and subtle, if such a thing is possible. But I really want to save that particular surprise for anyone who have yet to read the book.

Instead I will talk about the general.

The Foreigner series balances between sitcom and drama, in written form. At times it touches on interpersonal relations, political intrigue, personal feelings and insecurities… all the ordinary stuff. But looking not at one part at a time but at the over-all story you can see broader themes, such as the interplay between language and culture, or the debilitating effects of fear of the foreign.

In many ways the series offers a looking glass through which we can observe ourselves through the Other, from the outside; a means of analysing the cultural constructs and societally predicated behavioural norms that in/forms our everyday interactions. That can be a very uncomfortable place to be but Cherryh manages to masquerade it behind a screen of ordinariness, making it look like suspense rather than societal critique (which I’m not even sure she’s consciously offering – it’s in the eye of the beholder).

To me both aspects are enjoyable but it also means that you the reader has to analyse and interpret on your own. There’s no large writings on the wall telling you how to think. The many layers lets you chose what layer of the story that captures your personal interest.

Not everyone is up for that.

I, however, can’t wait for the next instalment, or for, well, anything from Cherryh’s pen and imagination!