Monday, April 23, 2018

TV Musings: Winter 2017-2018

In this series of posts, I’m discussing science fiction and fantasy television I’ve watched recently. There are far too many interesting shows out there for me to keep up, so I tend to have some time lag in the ones I’m watching. Today, I want to talk about two shows that have just gotten started via their first season, and two that have been canceled. I have linked where the shows can be watched online.

Starting Shows

Mars (National Geographic Channel, Season 1): This one is a half-drama/half-documentary about the colonization of Mars.  On the documentary side, there’s a lot of neat information on the recent history of space programs. For instance, I enjoyed seeing interviews with people involved in SpaceX and the efforts to make reusable rockets.  The drama side was sometimes a little dry, but also an interesting exploration of what it might be like for humanity to attempt to build a sustainable habitat on Mars. The planned second season will jump forward in time, to follow the imagined future development of the Mars colony.

The Gifted (Fox, Season 1, free to view): I am a big fan of the X-Men, so I had high hopes for this show.  So far, it appears to be the X-Men show I always wanted.  In this future, the Brotherhood and the X-Men have vanished, and the government has cracked down on mutants.  The viewer is introduced to the world through the Strucker family, who have been privileged enough to never have to care about the ethics of their government’s policies about mutants. This all changes when the two Strucker children display mutant abilities. The Struckers join the mutant underground, a group struggling to help mutants survive (or, according to the government, a “terrorist group”).  The show has an excellent ensemble cast, the special effects are well done, and the writers seem to be very aware of the political environment in which their show will be viewed. I’m looking forward to the second season of this one, and it was my favorite show of the winter.

Ending Shows

Dark Matter (Syfy, Season 3, also available to stream on Netflix): Dark Matter is the story of a crew that woke up one day on their spaceship with no memories.  They reforged bonds with one another and reconstructed their identities, even as they sought to learn who they were before. The show has been canceled after its third season, and finale doesn’t provide much in the way of a conclusion.  I enjoyed watching the show, though its story never quite seemed to find solid footing. The characters felt stronger after the backstory episodes of season two, but the overall plot still lacked a throughline. Is it about a corporate war? Is it about an alien invasion?  Is it about the definition of consciousness? Is it about a Japanese empire’s succession? It’s about all of these things and more, changing from one moment to the next. Each short story was pretty interesting, but they never seemed to come together into a coherent whole. Still, I’m sad that we won’t get to see this one through to a conclusion.

Extinct (BYUtv, Season 1, free to view): Extinct was a science fiction show from Brigham Young TV, but it does not appear to be explicitly Mormon. The show takes place hundreds of years after the human race was wiped out during an alien invasion.  A mysterious benefactor has recorded the biological and mental forms of a collection of humans, and it is recreating them to revive human civilization. Three people--Ezra, Abram and Feena--are awakened to find an emptied settlement and a tribe of humans controlled by alien parasites. They must put the pieces together to find out what has happened to humans who were awakened before them.  I enjoyed how the mystery is slowly revealed over the course of the season, and how the characters are slowly built up through flashbacks to the invasion and their current choices. This show was canceled after a single season, but I would say that the it provides a story with a satisfying conclusion.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Review: Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone

Four Roads Cross by Max Gladstone
Published: Tor, 2016
Series: Book 5 of the Craft Sequence

The Book:

“After helping to save Kos Everburning, Tara has remained in the town of Alt Coulomb as a Craftswoman advisor to the church.  Soon, she finds herself in the center of a new crisis. Kos’s love, the moon goddess Seril, was thought to have been killed in the God Wars.  However, Seril Undying has returned, as have her gargoyle children.

The people of Alt Coulomb know Seril only as a scary story to frighten children, so they are not going to easily welcome her return with open hearts.  Her lack of followers makes Seril weak, and Kos’s love for her makes her a liability. Those who do business with Kos point to her as an undisclosed financial risk, and some are using her in a legal battle to overturn Kos’s power. Tara and her friends will need to find a way to protect Seril, Kos and the city from disaster.”~Allie

This is the fifth book in the Craft Sequence that I’ve read, and I intend to keep reading them.  I just recently bought book six, A Ruin of Angels, and Gladstone has shown no sign of leaving the series anytime soon.   

My Thoughts:

On Gladstone’s website, I’ve read that this book is intended to be a finale novel for the “first season” of the Craft Sequence.  It is also the first book of the series that I would call a strict sequel, and it ties together the stories and characters of most of the other Craft books so far. Because of this, I’d recommend that readers check out the other books (at least Three Parts Dead, and ideally also Last First Snow and Two Serpents Rise) before digging into this one.  The story follows up the events in Alt Coulomb of Three Parts Dead, and characters and places from the other two novels also make an appearance.  Full Fathom Five, though, happens chronologically after Four Roads Cross, and thus can be read afterward.  Four Roads Cross doesn’t do a lot of hand-holding with respect to remembering what has come before.  If you’re like me, and it’s been years since you read the first book of the series, it might help to give yourself a quick refresher before starting.

With so many recurring and even some new characters, Four Roads Cross is bursting with different subplots, all going on in parallel.  I read the book slowly, occasionally interrupted by life-related stuff, so it sometimes got hard juggling so many characters and narrative threads. I think it would have flowed better if I’d read the novel at a quicker pace. It may have also made it more difficult that the various subplots were so different in tone.  There was a quiet, domestic story about faith and family, a cop thriller, a crisis of faith in church hierarchy, a quest, and more. All of the plotlines were focused on the same crisis and shared some thematic similarities, but I felt like they never fully merged. However, I enjoyed the commonalities in the stories, such as the exploration of the role religious faith plays in the lives of different kinds of people.

Gladstone’s world is as vibrant and quirky as ever, and his incisive and often hilarious writing style keeps things moving along at a brisk pace.  In some ways, his style is similar to Terry Pratchett, in that humor and references to the fantastical sit comfortably alongside more serious observations about human nature.  For instance, here are the thoughts of the protagonist Tara, addressing the rejection one can find returning one’s hometown with new and unpopular ideas:

“A year ago she stood in a graveyard beneath a starry sky, and the people of her hometown approached her with pitchforks and knives and torches and murder in their mind, all because she’d tried to show them the world was bigger than they thought.  

Admittedly, there might have been a way to show them that didn’t involve zombies.” ~p. 25
Tara is one of my favorite characters in the series, for her intelligence and resourcefulness, as well as for the fallibility of her judgment (as evidenced by the zombie incident).  Her story is also very post-grad, dealing with student loans, the fallout from having a predatory academic advisor, and having to choose between pursuing academia or industry-- or in this case, church advising or craft firms.  As someone not too long out of grad-school myself, it is very easy to sympathize with her and her problems. Though I’m focusing on Tara here, plenty of other fascinating characters return in this novel, such as the former-addict Cat, the vampire pirate Raz, the gargoyles, and the skeletal Craftsman The King in Red, among others.  On the more ordinary side, we also get a peek into the lives of a handful of people who sell at the local market. All of these characters have an important role to play in the crisis coming to Alt Coulomb, and it was a lot of fun to see how each story came to a conclusion.

My Rating: 4/5

Four Roads Cross is a direct sequel to Three Parts Dead, and it also incorporates characters and places from the other books of the series.  The novel concerns the return of the goddess Seril, Kos’s love, and the crisis that her current weakness may bring about for the city of Alt Coulomb.  It features a lot of familiar characters (Tara, Cat, Raz, Abelard, Caleb, etc…) as well as some new faces. Different sets of characters are involved in a variety of plotlines, each of which feels different in tone, though they all address the same crisis.  There’s a ton going on in this novel, and plenty of characters to keep straight. It’s worth the effort, though, and I enjoyed the time I have spent in Gladstone’s unusual world of economics, faith, and magic. Overall, it felt like a fitting finale for the story that began in Three Parts Dead, and I am happy to know that it isn’t going to be the final novel of the Craft Sequence.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Short Fiction: December 2017

For my final post on 2017 short fiction, I’d like to recommend two interesting fantasy novelettes from Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  Both are from authors that are new to me!

Low Bridge! Or The Dark Obstructions by M. Bennardo (Novelette, BCS): This story left the “Erie Canal Song” stuck in my head for days, but that’s not the only reason it stayed in my mind. It follows the journey of a newly married couple on the Erie Canal, while both of them are still finding their way in their new relationship.  It doesn’t help the situation when an obnoxious passenger gets on the wrong side of the young wife. The story is only very mildly fantasy, but belief in the supernatural is a topic of conversation. I really enjoyed the interesting characters and the vivid historical setting.

Trette’s Bones by Grace Seybold (Novelette, BCS): The main character in this story lives in a town that feels like something out of a dream.  “Normal” life to the people there is extremely strange--at various times in their lives they sacrifice their own bones at the Ossuary, receiving “ghostflesh” in exchange.  There are also rules about the patterns formed by buildings and roads, and they have strict ways of dealing with outsiders. Trette is the one who pushes the logic of their town farther than others are willing to go, and who therefore brings about unexpected consequences.  The setting and the atmosphere were major strengths of the story, and this is not one where all the questions are answered in the end.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Review: A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge
Published: 1999 (Tor Books)
Series: Book 2 of Zones of Thought
Awards Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke, Locus SF, and Nebula Awards
Awards Won: Campbell, Hugo, and Prometheus Awards

The Book:

“Representatives of two human civilizations have come to explore the system of the mysterious “OnOff star”, which rekindles for only 35 of every 250 years.  The first are the Qeng Ho, a far-flung and loose-knit starfaring society of traders. The second are the Emergents, an empire whose power rests on the backs of the “focused”, humans whose minds and bodies are enslaved to serve the higher castes.  They both see the planet orbiting the OnOff star as a source of potential wealth, so cooperation between two groups with such drastically different ideologies may be impossible.

The other players in this tale are the inhabitants of the planet--a sentient spider-like species that goes dormant for each long darkness of their sun.  Their society develops as the humans lurk out of sight, and what role they might play is the least predictable element in human schemes many decades in the making.” ~Allie

I chose to read this book because I generally like Vernor Vinge, it received many awards, and I also enjoyed A Shadow Upon the Deep (which I read before I began this blog).

My Thoughts:

It’s a really big coincidence that I ended up reading two books about sentient spider civilizations relatively close together (this one and Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time), especially given my strong aversion to spiders. However, the two books take very different approaches to spider civilization.  Tchaikovsky developed his spider civilization based on non-sentient spider behavior and the strengths and limitations of their biology.  Vinge, on the other hand, heavily anthropomorphized his spiders (explicitly so, through the translation of the human characters). The first approach highlights the differences and natural revulsion between humans and spiders, while the second approach aims to make the spiders seem approachable and familiar.  The one way this backfired for me was just that the spiders didn’t initially feel very alien--and I like societies that feel alien--so it didn’t catch my interest right away.  On the other hand, it also made it a lot easier to build emotional attachment to the spider characters.

As the story progresses, the reader sees more of the spider culture and how it is shaped by their environment.  The activity of the OnOff star makes for an unusual planet, where every living thing has to go dormant for hundreds of years on each off-cycle.  It was interesting to see the significance their culture attached to the cycles, and to see how the particular challenges of their world would influence the direction of their scientific progress.  I really like seeing fictional societies develop science, so this part of the story was a lot of fun. On the other side, there are also two unusual spacefaring human societies to learn about. This part played more or less like horror for me, since we were seeing a clash between a society that valued human rights, and one that was built on a foundation of slavery and mind control.

The spiders’ story seemed to move at a pretty rapid pace, but the human story was a tense and claustrophobic game of intrigue that played out slowly.  Both groups had a lot to gain and a lot to lose, and both were planning to get their way through careful manipulation. This long game also allowed for time to develop and explore the main characters and their histories, and I enjoyed learning about them and seeing parts of Qeng Ho history they’d lived through. There were some bits of the story that were really disturbing to read (violence, sexual violence, the idea of focus), but these parts were always portrayed as horrific.  All in all, it was a story with very clear good guys and bad guys, and I was satisfied with how everything came out in the end.

My Rating: 4.5/5

A Deepness in the Sky is an exciting far-future story of space-faring human civilizations as well as an interesting arachnid-like alien culture.  The story involves the technological development of the arachnid society on a planet that revolves a star which mysteriously turns on and off within a regular 250 cycle.   The represented human societies include one that values free trade, and another that values mind control and slavery, so it is always obvious which side is the ‘bad guys’. The spiders’ story was one of scientific discovery and adventure, while the human story was one of fear, careful schemes, and long-term manipulation.  Everything comes together very well in the end, making this yet another Vinge novel that I have enjoyed reading.