Spectral Cafe: Books! Science Fiction I Have Read

While my blogging has been sporadic, doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading stuff. Here are three different but related visions of the future:

 

PERSONA by Genevieve Valentine 

I became a big fan of Valentine because of her first published novel Mechanique, an absolutely beautifully written book that skillfully blended violent action, steampunk and suspense with meditations on art, love, loss and death. Persona has that Valentine touch but it’s a different type of story with a style that is more straightforward, less poetic, more brainy spy thriller. The novel is set in the near future when technology has advanced in various areas, notably surveillance, and global issues dominate. Countries, including some new ones on the scene, negotiate it out in a fishbowl of diplomats who are mostly just used as celebrities in the world reality show, called Faces. There are official journalists and black market journalists (snaps.) The novel centers on Suyana Sapaki, a third rate Face for the newer United Amazon Rainforest Confederation angling for a better deal for her struggling young country, and secondly on Daniel Park, a former journalist on the run, trying to become a snap, who happens to interrupt a mysterious assassination attempt on Sapaki. Everybody is hiding lots of secrets that are likely to get them killed by one group or another. The paranoia is ramped up to eleven, and it’s wonderful. It’s a crisp, punchy novel about a future that, while a few things might not fully hold up, has some scary parallels to what’s going on today and how they could be worse. I enjoyed it a lot and am looking forward to reading the sequel that came out this year, Icon.

ZEROES by Chuck Wendig

I’ve also been a fan of Chuck Wendig’s Miriam Black series, which are contemporary fantasy thrillers. (He is better known now as the guy who is doing the funky new Star Wars tie-in bestsellers.) In Zeroes he turns to science fiction in the contemporary to near future time range. In the novel, the tech involved is of the cyber variety and also has a lot of stuff about surveillance. Wendig sets up the classic hackers story: five disparate types of criminal hackers are grabbed by the U.S. government and forced to work at a secret complex as cyber spies to avoid federal prison for the rest of their lives. And of course there are conspiracies within conspiracies that the thrown together group are forced to deal with in order to survive. But from there, things get weirder and weirder, because that’s how Wendig rolls. He also has a brilliant ability to take a stereotype frame and play with it, turning them into buyable and fleshed out characters, and has interesting side characters as well. While I didn’t enjoy the novel as much as the Miriam Black books, I did very much like the combo of extrapolating where cybernetics might go with Dirty Dozen face-offs and chases. There is a sequel/spin-off that involves ants just out called Invasive. I don’t even want to think what Wendig might do with ants.

TERMS OF ENLISTMENT by Marko Kloos

Everybody started talking about newcomer Marko Kloos and so I got around to reading his first novel, the start of the Frontline series. The novel is set in a farther away future that is bleakly dystopian. The Earth is overpopulated, trashed and food shorted, with tons of poor folk kept trapped in giant city camps — pretty much a standard scenario. Some try to escape it by joining the military, with the hopes that if you survive service, you’ll get a pension and maybe the ability to settle on more breathable colonies out on other planets. That’s what the novel’s protagonist, Andrew Grayson, decides to do. The tech here is military, also involves methods of surveillance, and some of it is interesting. The novel is really two stories together. The first involves Grayson’s training and service on Earth where they put down “threats” both foreign and domestic as hated enforcers. The second part has Grayson going up into space on a military patrol vessel that encounters a totally new threat to humans. Kloos makes a bit of a first-timers mistake in the first part, for me, of believing that detailed descriptions of military training and procedures are both fascinating and totally unfamiliar to his reading audience. So the first part doesn’t move along quite as well as the second part, though it gets more exciting as it goes. The second part of the novel offers us more of a new world, better pacing and Kloos’ aliens are neat. Overall, it’s a bit of an uneven book that is nonetheless free of bombast, has lots of action and knows its military hardware. And has a protagonist who isn’t a total saint but does have a strong emotional core. So I’m interested to read the next one in the series and see what Kloos does with his wider landscape.

 

 

 

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That Was a Summer That Was

So I had another gap, because family stuff this summer got a bit crazy. Not always in a bad way, mind, and I got to go on vacation, which was 95% part pleasant (I may have gotten a little food poisoned.) And returned to Trump and white supremacists parading around, and the fainter echo of bigoted nonsense going on with planning for the World Fantasy Convention and at the recent WorldCon. (The good news being that MidCon II, which hosted WorldCon, apparently rocked at announcing and enforcing their code of conduct, having access for all, and generally prepping stuff. Which is really quite a bit of progress. And was achieved by people being pushy, loud and undeterred about bringing up the issue so that people couldn’t pretend it wasn’t an issue anymore.)

But I really, really don’t want to spend all my days ranting about this stuff. (Although I did some ranting at Whatever and Jim Hines’ blog if you want to go read that.) So next post will be about books. In the meantime, enjoy Scott Bakula being totally silly in a Quantum Leap sketch with Stephen Colbert on Colbert’s show:

(I just remembered the sketch makes a lot of fun of Trump with a very good kid actor. Oh well, but it’s not me specifically ranting. Technicality counts.)

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Tired of This

No, not the other bigger political and life stuff, though I’m more than tired of that too. I’m tired of the nitpicky stuff. I’m tired of Hollywood and western film white supremacy and how deeply ingrained it is.

Also not so long ago, I read the best-selling SF novel The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey. The novel is a post-apocalyptic zombie novel, set in the ruins of Britain, and it takes the time-honored SF approach of evolution, kind of like the original I Am Legend novel by Richard Matheson. It’s a well-written book with some interesting dynamics, although it feels a bit like what would normally be a novella dragged out to be longer. The novel centers around an unusual girl named Melanie and other children kept at a bunkered school where a woman named Helen Justineau is their teacher.

The novel has been made into a film in a joint UK/US production. (Don’t know if they changed the setting to the U.S. or not.) It’s starring Sennia Nanua as Melanie and Gemma Arterton as Ms. Justineau. The movie is scheduled to come out this year in September, which means I missed it in my round-up of women-led films and such for 2016, but you know, yay for another one!

In the book, Melanie’s exact appearance is a bit unclear. It seems like she is somewhat pale but also has kind of golden toned skin, so she might be a white girl or a black Briton or have Mediterranean or South Asian ethnicity. So any young actress might have played her and Sennia Nanua is a black actress. But also in the book it is quite clear that Helen Justineau is a black woman. It is in fact a key undercurrent in the story, related to some of the themes of the story. I like Gemma Arterton quite a lot, but that didn’t change the fact that it was ridiculous that she was playing a Persian princess in the game-based movie The Prince of Persia, and it doesn’t change the deliberateness of this switch here in The Girl with all the Gifts.

Now the filmmakers and the studios I’m sure can claim that they are just shifting things around, since they took a main character, Kieran, a soldier who in the book is a red-haired Irishman, and instead are having him played by black actor Fisayo Akinade. They also took another minor character who is indicated as South Asian in ethnicity and have her being played by black actress Dominique Tipper. But Kieran is mainly a sidekick character, so essentially it’s just having the black actor play support to the four leads, who except for Melanie, are played by white actors. Helen Justineau is a main hero/focus of the story. She is its questioning moral center. And what the film is putting forth is that such a hero role needs to be played by a white woman, not a black woman.

Add to that fact that Melanie, played by a young black girl in the film, spends the first part of the story strapped to a mobile chair with a mask on her face, controlled mainly by white people, and it gets more than a little symbolically problematic. You could say that it’s meant to function as a symbol of historic slavery related to the story, but so is switching out a black role for a white actress. The very strong possibility is that having decided to cast Nanua as Melanie because they liked her for the role, the filmmakers probably felt that they could not have two black acting leads in their movie. Because that’s how this kind of thinking works as well. Justineau also in the book has something of a romance with another lead character, a white British military commander played in the movie by Paddy Considine. While films have had inter-racial romances and it might not have been an additional factor, it does again contribute to the regular Hollywood approach of having only two white people bonding together as leads.

The reality is that white people play 80% of the roles in film, even though that’s not near their percentage of the population. It’s hard enough for actors of colors to get on screen at all, even when filmmakers are willing occasionally to racially change a white character in an adapted work. When lead and key roles in adaptations or that fit ethnically for non-white people are then given to white actors, it continues an industry-wide discrimination that visually helps fuel discrimination in the wider world, certainly in the Western world.

The logic that filmmakers use to apply to these things has slightly improved (trickle, trickle,) after lots of screaming, but they still regularly switch heroic roles, major and minor, of non-white characters to white actors and will now switch out other non-white roles of one ethnicity or race for another for seemingly strange reasons.

Take the film adaptation of the best-selling novel The Martian by Andy Weir. The film was a good adaptation of the novel overall and had a number of non-white actors playing key roles. But one very pivotal supporting role, Mindy Park, the technician who spots that the protagonist astronaut is still alive on Mars and who is one of his main contacts, would seem by her name and slight indications in the story to be Korean American and instead in the film is played by a white actress, Mackenzie Davis. Again, I like Davis as an actress, but it’s hard not to see this as switching the heroic role to a white actress to be on the safe side.

On the slightly brighter side, the character of Venkat Kapoor, her supervisor, a South Asian American, was replaced, but by a black actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor. But that may have been because the filmmakers decided that they had too many Asian characters — the chief engineer played by Benedict Wong and several Chinese characters who help NASA, to have another Asian actor in a main role, and that they figured a white actor couldn’t pull off the last name of Kapoor (the character’s first name was changed to the less South Asian moniker of Vincent.) So yay, that increased the presence of black actors in the movie, but only because they didn’t want the number of Asian actors to outshine the number of white ones who play most of the leading roles.

The author of the novel, Andy Weir, pointed out that he doesn’t do a lot of physical character descriptions or had prescribed notions of their appearances, including of his protagonist astronaut, so technically Mindy Park could be a white American and “Vincent” Kapoor could be a black American, though he had thought of Park as Korean American. But if that’s the case, then the lead astronaut didn’t need to be played by a white actor like Matt Damon either. Mark Watney could have been a black man, multi-racial or any variety of ethnicity. But that would have made some people quite upset — that the character wasn’t a square-jawed white guy as they no doubt imagined him to be because they’ve been trained to imagine the hero as white, even when there are no physical descriptions.

This is not a problem that is going to be easily solved, given the old, ingrained myths by which we treat each other (see the anger at The Hunger Games movie having black actors play heroic characters who were described as black people in the book, by those with poor reading comprehension who assumed such heroes had to be white children.) Hollywood is deeply uncertain about whether they can get away with giving the global audience a regular diet of non-white leads, given that they’ve force fed us white leads from the beginning of film’s existence. And despite ample evidence to the contrary, they have clung to white and mainly male leads like a security blanket, even though numerous movies with such leads tank and the income stats are actually better for women leads and lead actors of color. It is, again, partly a social status issue for industry bosses as well.

Regardless, it has in recent years taken a good chunk of enjoyment out of certain films for me when they do this stuff and has influenced my movie watching choices. I love old movies. I mean, I really love them. I’ve grown up on them. I’ve seen probably thousands of movies in my life. But the white supremacy can go now, as quickly as possible. And a good start would be to take characters who are already not white people in the original material and not turn them into white people for current and future films.

Because we don’t need them. We really don’t. Much as I like many white actors, they aren’t the only ones I like, and they don’t always need to be the heroes or the majority group in an ensemble movie. And that’s my big sigh for today.

 

 

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A Passel of Web Series

Greetings new followers! I’ll try to have actual content for you.

Recently I got introduced to some web series work by actress, writer and producer Joanne Gaskell that I believe one could call geekerrific. (Don’t hurt me.)

The biggest, best known one is Standard Action, a satirical fantasy series that takes place in a world that is D&D-ish, down to characters talking about experience points and charisma scores, makes fun of its own low budget by using light-based special effectgs and puppets with remarkable effectiveness, and throws in reference points from everything from The Princess Bride to Doctor Who. The first season follows the formation of an adventuring party of outcasts that set about on a rescue effort. The second season involves what happens when the adventurers meet the entity behind what happened in the first season, and the last, third season (so far,) ventures into a multi-verse. There may also be an online comic attached to the series. Here’s the first episode of the first season:

 

The second web series is One Hit Die. It is similar to Standard Action, and can be said to take place in the same universe, but the style is a little different as the series breaks the fourth wall and has the characters periodically talk to the camera about their thoughts, like a reality show or fake documentary shows like The Office. One Hit Die has a short, introductory first season, an additional two part short called Crushmas and then a longer second season entitled One Hit Die: Legend of the Lich Lord. Here’s the first episode of season one:

And lastly, Gaskell was part of producing a three-part short story for The Gamers web series, a series which has been going on for some time now. The short entry is called The Gamers: Natural One, and involves a non-gamer put to the test by his girlfriend’s family. Here’s the first episode:

Not every joke is a hit or a great choice, but they are creative, fun, with enjoyable characters and a good attitude. Enjoy!

 

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This is All I Have Today

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Women in Film, 2015-2016, Part 2 – 2016 Analysis

Note to self: Get film analyses done before the chaotic month of May, especially as the “summer” season now officially starts in mid-March. Actually, with new strategies in releasing animated and thriller movies and such, you could say that it’s kind of summer all year round now. So while I was getting my ducks in a row once again, what has been happening/may be happening in 2016 for women in film?

While it is not likely that 2016 is going to be as seismic a year for actresses as 2015 or 2012, nor are the media likely to pay quite as much attention (they get bored, the dears,) there’s a definite shift going on that 2016 is busily helping push forward. Big action franchises looking to expand into global media empires, led by Marvel/Disney and DC Comics/Warner, are making use of women to further expand their tentacles. There are an enormous number of movies coming out, including women-led pictures that continue trends we’ve been seeing for the past six years or so.

The actresses hit the ground running first with SF YA movie The 5th Wave, based on the bestselling book, starring Kickass star Chloe Moretz and looking to pick up some of The Hunger Games and Divergent audiences. The alien invasion movie was cheap to make, and since it did well overseas, it made nearly $110 million, turning a very nice profit and possibly green-lighting sequels. Also early on, the horror movie The Boy, starring Lauren Cohan, took in nearly $65 million on a tiny budget, and other women-led horror movies The Forrest and The Witch (I sense a title trend here,) took in nice profits on low budgets. Sadly, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, adapted from the mash-up novel, finally came out with limited distribution, but it was late in the game and it did not succeed. Let’s hope it becomes a cult film.

The action kicked up in March with animated film Zootopia, starring Ginnifer Goodwin as a female rabbit cop who enlists a fox con artist to help solve a perplexing case. The kids movie was a massive hit, with over $993 million in world box office and still climbing towards a billion. 10 Cloverfield Lane, a loose sequel/concurrent film to J.J. Abrams’ cult horror movie Cloverfield, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead holding her own against John Goodman and aliens, was done on a small budget and earned over $100 million in box office. The third title in the Divergent series, Divergent: Allegiant, starring Shailene Woodley, did experience some mid-series fatigue but made over $176 at the box office, paving the way for the fourth and last film.

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Women In Film Take the Stage – Part 1, 2015 Review

It’s time (finally!) for Women in Film, where we take a look at the state of women actors in tackling the serious Hollywood box office – the “summer” blockbusters, tent pole special effects movies, high octane action films, suspense thrillers, horror flicks, big buzz dramas, children’s and animated major features and comedy adventure films. In this first part, we’ll take a look at the past year of 2015. In Women in Film, Part Two, we’ll take a look at what’s been happening so far and what’s still to come in 2016 (and a little about 2017 and beyond.)

I will admit that I did not, going in, have particularly high expectations for the movies in 2015 when it came to the “lady actors.” I thought, from the look of those revamped big boy franchises for that year, that 2015 would be something of a placeholder year , like 2013 and 2014 – a year that didn’t particularly lose the trickle, trickle gains for women set off in 2012, since it would have some women leads in films and women in major supporting roles in big ensembles, but didn’t dramatically advance them either, since the machismo looked to be coming out the ears of the summer and winter line-ups.

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