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.)

Considering: Some science fiction and fantasy books that made my brain

Two years ago I came across the request “Which Science fiction or Fantasy book will make anyone smarter“, and as I considered what people had added to the list so far I found myself nodding – and sometimes shaking my head in disbelief, but hey, we’re all different – starting to think how some of these books had affected me.

As the list went on I also started to mentally add to it. And as I am rather bad at censoring myself the few ideas soon became a list of its own, and that list then became the backbone of this post.

Then it went into hibernation, courtesy of fatal illness and more in my immediate family. Then today, as Bob Dylan was announced as recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2016, I again – and not for the first time – thought about important books and authors.

So, finally, here it is – my list of SF/F books that made me the person I am. It is impossible to grade them – some would probably not even make it to a “best books read”-list – so instead I chose “order in which I first read them” –

Lord of the Rings, J.R.R Tolkien
If memory serves me right my father started to read The Fellowship of the Ring aloud for me when I was eight years old. Getting to the end took a mighty long time but it all ended with me reading LoTR, again and again, until I was about eleven or twelve.
However, that was not the only book that I read. And as I raided the local library of anything remotely readable I soon ran out of options, remembering a box of books in the cellar. It turned out to be my dad’s 50’s imported pulp paperback SF, and I realised that I had to start to read in English.
So, at 13 I borrowed the library’s original language edition (I can still remember the librarian warning me off – she thought it would be too difficult for me), thinking that if I read a book that I knew intimately I could focus on language instead of on story: my personal learning strategy (I was quite bad at English in school).
Definitely a monumental decision, at that time, as I had probably not proceeded to read the rest of the books mentioned here if not for this.

Space Cadet, Robert Heinlein
I first met with Heinlein’s YA fiction with the help of the municipality’s head librarian. I remember being highly suspicious of the book but I was running out of options at the library, plus he was class mate’s dad, which was a bit intimidating, so when he suggested it to me I grudgingly brought it home rather than saying no. I was already a kind of space freak, I had loved watching Space 1999 when it aired on Swedish television, and spent a lot of time watching the moon and the winter skies through my dad’s binoculars. All the SF that I had read that far had adult protagonists so while the kids in this one were older than me suddenly space was within my reach. And so the story became more engaging, on a personal level.
I went on to read almost all of Heinlein’s books, some of which I will admit went straight over my head back then. And later on I realised I have many objections to his way of depicting society (and maybe more importantly – gender). But – Space Cadet made space achievable for me, even if in my head only.

Childhood’s End, Arthur C Clarke
Of all Clarke’s book this is the one that stands out. As a kid I loved the quirkiness of The Sands of Mars (which I found among my dad’s boxed up books), or the seriousness of Fountains of Paradise (hunted down by inter-library loan), or his short story collections, but Childhood’s End is, in my personal opinion, his masterpiece. At a time when most SF that I had encountered could be considered space opera and optimistic about the what lay ahead of humankind this novel challenged not only my preconceptions of the future but of the place of humanity in the universe as a whole. Mind-bending.
After having read Childhood’s End I found the Rama books… insipid. Even as a young’un.

The Earthsea Trilogy, Ursula K Le Guin
As I remember it I first encountered Sparrowhawk in an anthology used at school – I think I might have been 14 or so – and I immediately got hold of the whole trilogy at the library. What I love about the trilogy has changed with the years, however.
Originally it was the goat herd turned Archmage story that got to me, and then the idea that a way with words might make you powerful. But as I grew older still what stayed with me was the message that we can’t win by running from what we fear; the only way to conquer what hunts you is to turn around, to face it, or you’ll have to run, afraid, for the rest of our life.
As I struggled with the experienced mismatch between who I was and what society thought a girl or young woman should be or not be I found great strength in Ged’s story – to be brave and face the fear and to grow into myself.
Later yet I returned to the idea of words and language as a key to power. So – seemingly an innocuous story of youthful adventure but in reality a tale of great impact.

Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
Used as I was to stories that challenged society as we know it I never caught on to how provocative the concept of gender Le Guin presented in this tightly written tale about friendship, alienation, and power. Only when I lent my copy to a co-worker, and he returned it, slightly disgusted (this was in the early 90’s, and a truly techie-engineering white-male environment), did I realise that the fluid gender identities depicted could be perceived as threatening. But, while this book didn’t have a big impact on my own analytical models or on my world-view it certainly reinforced my personal values and I still think it is one of the most important SF books written. Ever.
Also, she’s one if the most important authors, ever, if I get a word in. Starting with LHoD it is possible to read almost all her works, long or short (even though I personally recommend the three short story collections Worlds of Exile and Illusion, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, and The Birthday of the World).

Neuromancer, William Gibson
The moment I stumbled over Neuromancer, finding the cyberpunk movement, was defining. Here was someone who didn’t depict a swash-buckling future ensconced in present-time ideals or ideas but the believable real life apocalypse of the present system. It is hard to remember this, it was such a long time ago, but this book, and its sequels, added a new dimension to the way SF was told, challenging what the collective do with the power that we have. Or not.
For me personally it started a long run of leaving all the traditional SF that I had read behind, breaking roads into new ways to understand and interpret society and the humans (or not?) that it’s made of.

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
At the eve of the internet revolution, of the modern networked world, Snow Crash entered my life. The virtual, the power of meme’s – no one had seen Facebook yet, far in the future, or the power of the ever-changing plethora of social media. This was the first book that I was able to discuss with co-workers – a sign perhaps of where the world was headed, even if we were all in the incipient IT/web-business, just ahead of the boom. Those discussions led the way to more books, mainly factual ones retelling the history of computing, of the internet, and of gaming.
It was truly educational as well as inspirational, and all of it because a book of fiction.
Oh behold the power of words!

Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson
It is possible to have many objections against Stephenson and his writing. Among other things he is in dire need of an editor. Another valid objection is against his apparent interest in ideas and likewise disinterest in individuals. Those two combined leads to several of his books to have badly conceived endings, and long-winded discourses on matters only tangential to the story. The latter I first encountered in this book, which was the first book in recorded history which I actually just skipped a (large) number of pages. I still enjoyed it, very much so – the way it weaved an intertwined story, mixing timelines, revealing interconnection at the end. The impact was not so much the book in itself, though, as the interest it sparked: first, some reading up on the science of cryptography and crypt-analysis, and then, after having gifted my dad with a copy and getting pointers from him on were Stephenson had actually used real life events in his story, reading up on WWII history, on Enigma, and more. Again, educational – and I live to learn :-)

Cyteen, C.J Cherryh
I have no real memory of which of C.J’s books that I read first but I do think that it might have been Cyteen – it was either this, or Foreigner books 1-8, and then I got onto Cyteen while waiting for more Foreigner books (as they are written in 3-book arcs I wanted to have #9 in paperback, just as the previous – from #10 and on they’re first edition hardbacks). Either way it is a grand epic in societal design bleeding into engineering human(oid)s, viewed from the perspective of the individual/s, all the while questioning ethics, loyalties, and responsibility, not to mention cause and effect. The book wasn’t just good in and of itself, though. It opened up to the rest of her Alliance-Union Universe, with all its insightful stories depicting the impact of big politics on us small humans and our behaviour and the conditions under which we are forced to live our lives, many of them very different from each other and each offering a different perspective, from a different viewpoint, sometimes on the same events, and thus questioning “truth” as a definite concept.
The book – or books, I got on to read rather the lot of them – also signifies my move into the realm of internet friendship, in some ways. It was, together with a lot of books that came after, and both books next on this list, suggested to me by friends that I had never met but with whom I forged a connection none-the-less. In a real life were many looked with disdain and a raised eyebrow on my choice in reading material, thinking it childish and anti-intellectual (oh! those are probably the ones falling over themselves in sudden praise of Svenska Akademin’s choice of Bob Dylan: behold the hypocrisy!) that was worth the world. Many thanks to the Green Dragon crowd on LibraryThing, and the Shejidani, of the Cherryh fan-site Shejidan for that.

The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy G Kay
There aren’t many works in the fantasy genre on any list I’ll ever conceive but thanks to a Green Dragon group read many years ago Kay’s Al-Rassan epic story about power, belief, and humaneness will always be up there. Kay’s language is exact and his prose stylistically self-conscious, almost verging on being purple – it is his skill that makes any of his books fly. Or not. Because he is also father to several books that I find barely endurable (such as Last Light of the Sun). This specific story, though, set in a fictional twin to the Iberian peninsula during the end of Moorish power, managed to capture my interest, and then some.
Even before reading this tale I had an interest in the Moors, in the impact the Moors has had on the formation of modern Europe, and thus having visited many of the key sites in Al-Andalus/modern Andalucía. Reading Lions got me searching for even more, looking deeper into historical detail than in the sweeping picture, deepening my understanding of the long-term effects of the Reconquista, and making me think. Which is a good thing.

Use of Weapons, Ian M Banks
It is not the Culture book that I love the most – that badge goes to Surface Detail; nor it is the best – that honour goes to Player of Games. And many of his books are gorier than this one, or weirder. But Use of Weapons is an utterly disturbing tale that, in retrospect, has made me think and rethink on how I judge and perceive the good or the bad, and how the perceived bad can, or not, redeem themselves – in their own eyes and in the eyes of the beholder.
At the heart of many of Banks’ Culture novels (I have not read his crime stories) resides the eternal question of what is human, of what features define humanity and what defines in/un/non humanity. Can a machine be more human than a two-legged carbon-based civilization-building entity from Tellus? Or not? Why? Is it even important?
Given the present-day seemingly world-wide chasm between people who want to feel more worthy and valuable than the rest and to achieve that build constructs of identity and race the question has actuality still. And probably up until and beyond humankind manages to implode on itself. Or not.

Until then, tales and stories that challenges set concepts and views, that inspires the seeking of knowledge, that interprets the world, is worth pursuing.

In hope of many more such tales, and in knowledge that many worthy works could had been included in this list.

Read: The Exiled Blade, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

The Exiled Blade, the last book in Jon Courtenay Grimwood‘s Assassini trilogy, was published about a year ago, in April 2013. I had it on pre-order, like all of Grimwood’s books, but for reasons previously mentioned didn’t get around to read it until now.

The trilogy is set up to tell the tale of how classical vampires came to be, and how they came to the particular corner of Europe they are associated with in particular, and start when, as told in The Fallen Blade, a nameless boy-creature arrives in Venice. The boy is soon given the name Tycho and is recruited into the Assassini – the secret police, if you so will, of post-Marco Polo Venice – and is soon embroiled in court politics. The story continues in The Outcast Blade.

I was sceptic on the outset. Vampires and the supernatural and fantastical is not high on my list – rather it is an exception when I enjoy such tales.

The two first instalments surprised me – I really did enjoy reading them, and also I felt Grimwood had matured somewhat as an author: I love much of his work but many of the books are a bit to speculative, I feel, and he has had a tendency to repeat imagery and scenes. With the Assassini trilogy he has continued working with an alternate history setting but this time working with the far past rather than with alternate endings of the latest world war, and with good result. At least in the two first instalments.

Sadly I don’t feel it kept up in the last part. Up until The Exiled Blade interest and emotional investment in the main characters drove the story but with this last part he needed to tell a story, not develop characters. The result is a tale that in parts dragged, in parts were so festooned with fantastical deux ex machina turning points that I soon lost belief in the credibility of the story. The main event, in many ways, is when the half-realised vampire-creature that Tycho is are more or less pressed into making a pact with the actual devil, albeit a pre-Christian one – a pact that essentially makes him into a Dracula creature, and placing him in a castle/fortress high up in the Balkan mountains. The price he pays to keep the heir to the Venetian throne, and the heir’s mother, the love of Tyhco’s life, alive is to live forever, but without her.

The trilogy is not badly written. If you enjoy vampire stories and stories of the supernatural and fantastical, and of 15th century Venice and court plot, all in one package – then this is definitely a trilogy I’d recommend. For me, though, it didn’t entirely cut it.

On to other books!

Reread: Bilbo, by J.R.R Tolkien

I never really enjoyed Bilbo. To me, as a kid, Lord of the Rings was the real stuff, which I devoured again and again and again – dad had the series in a reviewers edition, translated to Swedish, three beautiful books now totally ruined by the pre-teen me sleeping with them under my pillow and then taping the covers together.

Renewed tries at the book did not alter my judgement.

Then an online acquaintance of mine, from the Green Dragon, posted a chapter by chapter analysis of the book. It was fascinating to see how much she could write about each chapter, in an interesting way, and I decided that maybe I should pick it up again but this time in the original English – I do have an Unwin paperback gracing my shelves.

And so I did.

The first half of the book is narrated as it is an oral tale, making use of the oral way of expressing what is happening. I am of course no expert in the English language, far from it, but to my ears the language of the first half is poetic, in a fun, rhyming, way. After the company pass through the Mirkwood the language starts to get more  prosaic, and some of the flow of the text vanishes. At the same time Bilbo changes from a soft naive to being stealthily smart, in his own way, somewhat thanks to the Ring but also because he doesn’t strive for the big things, the gold, the treasure, or the heroism. The good things are the small things, like the smell of bacon and a cosy bed. The rest is only trouble. A kind of back to the roots nostalgia, which I dislike.

Despite this I can say that the original English is, while not great literature, certainly worth reading. The total opposite of the Swedish original translation, made by Britt G Hallqvist, which lack the poetry of the original text, even as it tries to copy it.

There is a new translation out but I can’t comment on it – the book is not good enough for me to own three different versions of it ;-)

Considering: Life as an Instagram

It is the middle of the Swedish summer vacation period and my Facebook feed is overflowing with instagrammed photos. Every single one shows archetypal vacation imagery – kids in swimwear, strawberry cakes, red lilac-framed cabins basking in sun, plates with pickled herring, sour cream an potatoes, endless glasses of wine, sunsets, verandahs, barbecues… – and almost everyone imitates the faded colours of childhood prints.

Why is this so?

In my mind these instagrammed  moments of life inhabits the same niche as frilled curtains – an conscious or unconscious longing for the simple and therefore happy life, free from worries over money, health, environment, and governmental idiocies. Using artefacts – furniture, curtains, cushions, a vacation experience, the kids – to build an image of happiness hoped to come true through sheer force of stubbornness. It is a proclamation to life – “look how happy I am with my clever beautiful friends/family”.

It is a powerful self-deception and in times of economic recession and political chaos an understandable one. People want to feel like they are successful because just being content with life is not enough – looking good on Facebook is just as important.

And I would have no issues with it if it wasn’t for the consequences. Because we are building a virtual world conforming to a fantasy, far from the real world of flesh, bones, and money. We project an image were our kids are always well-behaved, where food materializes without someone having to do the cooking. The lawn never needs mowing, the water is always warm enough for a bath and chores are unheard of.

It should be no surprise that some people actually panics when they think only their kids are grumpy; that they are the only ones who drown under the ultimate chore of creating the perfect image; that they are alone in not being in possession of a cabin, not having money enough for all those fantastic vacations abroad (not to mention the frustration of seemingly being the only person hating waiting at airports, jetlagged as hell). And of course all restaurants are value for money, and it never rains…

No wonder people are frustrated.

Next time you are posting something consider if you post to project an image or to actually report/share from everyday life.

And if you find that you are in the process of projecting an image, think about how your behaviour affects the world. Do you want to build the fantasy, or do you want to build a society were people can feel like being just who you are is good enough?

Do you prefer tolerance, or do you champion perfection?

Me, I always strive for perfection but I value tolerance. Waking up with a headache is human, and I want a culture and a society where being human – and having the occasional headache – is OK.

How about you?

Reread: Unseen Academicals, Going Postal, and Night Watch, and Read: Snuff, all by Terry Pratchett

Coinciding with the start of the Uefa Euro 2012 Finals I decided to give Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals a second try. I didn’t like it very much the first time around but even back then I thought part of that might be because of the format – I chose to listen to it, rather than read it.

So, it was with some trepidation I opened it up for the first chapter. And instantly I realised that I remembered absolutely nothing of the book – nothing.  This was no loss because of all the Discworld world novels that I’ve read – which is practically everyone – this is definitely one of the weakest.

Normally I have no problems with multiple viewpoints but in this case the end result is a  lot of chop and no real storyline, as far as I can discern. A bit of fun for the football pieces and a bit of message regarding tolerance and human value/rights (or orc rights), nothing more.

Despite this I felt it had been a long time since I last read some good Discworld, and as I’ve reread the earlier ones multiple times already I decided to reread something that I hadn’t already reread before.

This, and the fact that I have since gained some insight into the Swedish Post, made me chose Going Postal.

I remember not being too fond of it but this time around I found it rather fun, even if quaint. Now, in 2012, the issue is not so much the internet versus the old letter-carrying post but rather the other theme; that of robber capitalism and its disregard for humans and for long term businesses. The arch-capitalist Reacher Gilt of Going Postal may be a parody but as most good parodies there’s a core of truth in there – a con man, through and through.

A much more funny book than Unseen Academicals, even if not top notch Pratchett either. And in search for the Fun in Discworld I read yet another one, this time a much reread favourite – Night Watch.

Did it hold up to time?

Yes, and no. The book is darker than those that had come before it, but it also heralded something new – a change in tone; a grittier Discworld. The story uses the Time Machine Ploy, albeit sans machine as such, to take us to a pre-Vetinari Ankh-Morpork where we meet the effects a paranoid and brutal leader has on society. Sent back 30 years in time Sam Vimes is forced to masquerade as “John Keel” as a younger version of himself is already there. To be able to go back he needs to ride out a historic event that saw the original Keel dead. Will he manage? (Of course he will, there’s never any real doubt!)

A highlight, to me, is meeting the young Vetinari, his aunt, and future Guild leaders. Verdict? I still like the book but somehow the story feels kind of empty of real meaning.

Which takes me to Snuff, which I purchased lately. The books following Night Watch persuaded me to give up on Discworld; I did not like Monstrous Regiment, I thought the politics too in your face, Thud! was a dud, the others so and so. Unseen Academicals was the final nail in the coffin – I haven’t touched anything Discworld for many years. Too many books out there, waiting to get read, to spend time reading things you don’t enjoy.

But. I confess. I made the wrong decision. Snuff is GOOD! Overt politics, yes (about slavery, and about not bending to your “superiors”, because they aren’t) but also better written and better told than Unseen Academicals. We get to meet /yet another/ race subject to exploitation – the goblins – as Sam Vimes is grudgingly sent on vacation at his, or rather his wife’s, ancestral rural estate. I guess there’s many a thing I miss out on, here, as I suspect the story is richly salted with scenes or almost-scenes from the British literary canon. For some reason I think Jane Austen but as I haven’t read any I really can’t know… but you get the idea, surely. It is wittily written, with the odd glimpse of old Discworld bizarre inserted, here and there, and so feels a bit like back to the old school.

Absolutely recommend it – both message AND fun!

However. Considering how Discworld have evolved over time it is possible to perceive a shift. Initially the characters were quirky and cartoonish. This fitted the format well – cartoonish is a good way to make fun and deliver a message at the same time. Many personas featuring in the classic revue is just that – caricatures illustrating the bizarre or weird of the commonplace or present-day “common sense”.

But by now in Discworld-verse some of the people that we meet have left the power of the author and started to form their own independent lives. Copper Vimes is a family father, Vetinari is losing his thoughts over a musical performance, Ridcully is smart. Step by step allegory and comic effect has been put aside, in favour of a written sitcom where we, book by book, revisit old acquaintances rather than get a look in the mirror. The sitcom might be political, or at least topical, but still more of a cosy than a releasing laugh over the idiocies or our time.

Perhaps this is just me, perhaps it reflects the author’s relationship with his characters,perhaps it illustrates how the fantasy genre has changed over time. But good or bad the quirkiness that was the hallmark of Discworld is gone.

I guess it wasn’t possible to sustain it, and perhaps the mess that is Unseen Academicals is a showcase for why it shouldn’t even be tried. In that case, R.I.P., and thanks for all those good times.

Review: The Outcast Blade, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Gritty, stinking, decaying, romantic 16th century almost-Venice – a violent place, brimming over with inbred scheming nobility. Add magic, vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beings and voilà – The Outcast Blade, the second act in Jon Courtenay Grimwood‘s Assassini trilogy.

Meet Tycho, misunderstood by everyone including himself, who finds himself involved in a high-stakes game for the power over Venice. Just because he fell in love with the “wrong” girl. Also meet the girl’s scheming aunt and uncle – the dowager Duchess of Venice and her brother-in-law Prince Alonzo, Regent of Venice – and the game is on.

In so many ways this is standard fantasy fare but the way it is told make it something more – a pre-history to Dracula, it seems, and perhaps a writing exercise for the author; a way to show how vampire teenage angst can be written as literature rather than as fast-food fluff. In this the Assassini books reminds me of Guy G Kay‘s Fionavar trilogy, which in so many ways tried to show how a proper high fantasy trilogy should be done – a polemic work, in all its splendour, and thus with it’s downside; a hectoring tone follows the reader throughout.

Not so, in my opinion, with the two Assassini books.

Grimwood’s prose and his devotion to the texture and smell of the places he describe lift The Outcast Blade above the rhetoric level, making the city and its inhabitants show as on the silver screen before the inner eye, in both affected grandeur and desperate decay, gilded velveteen and utmost poverty.

I definitely liked it and I look forward to act three, which should be out in a year or so.