A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine

Arkady Martine has written another excellent book. A Desolation Called Peace branches out from the space covered in A Memory Called Empire, and while I know there’s more that could be squeezed from the first book’s subject matter I think this evolution serves the story (and the reader) well. And don’t worry, Martine doesn’t abandon anything she built before. Instead, she calls forward elements which had been waiting in the wings; it’s more of a shift of focus than a dismissal of the old.

Specifically, where the first book asked “what does it mean to be human, or a person? Who draws the line, and where?” as a running background theme, this book puts that front and center. And I love that. Those questions are important at any time, but they’re integral elements of a totalizing imperial worldview, and as such they’re critical to this story and setting. Honestly, those questions are part of what I love about science fiction in general, and they’re a big part of what I love about this series in particular.

Now, this book felt a little slower to me, more gradual or less heart-in-throat until nearer to the end. But it’s no less fraught. In many ways, the excruciatingly complicated fusion of the personal and political feels more poignant here, even as the book and that fusion explore new themes. And yes, Martine is still good at digging into the ways hegemony wraps itself around everything, strangling like a ligature until conformity (or death) is achieved.

Now, about this book feeling slower… I wasn’t sucked in head first the same way that I was for the first book, not until further into the book than last time. I’ve had a hard time telling how much of that comes from different reading circumstances, like changes in the time I set aside for reading, versus how much comes from differences between the two books. Either way, I’m pretty sure it took me much longer to read A Desolation Called Peace than it took me to read A Memory Called Empire

But the magic that Martine conjures in the first book is still present. A Desolation Called Peace is still full of heartfelt complicatedness, and confusing wants and desires and struggles, and its *really good*. The conflicts brought to the surface here are wonderful. I like seeing them on the page. I haven’t seen them in other books any time recently, and it feels really good to see Martine explore the ways in which hegemony and empire worm their fingers into everything, no matter how intimate or pedestrian.

Unlike with some other series (e.g. Becky Chambers’ books), order matters here; you should absolutely read A Memory Called Empire before you read this one. If the first book wasn’t to your liking, I’m afraid this one probably won’t be either. But if you’re not a light reader, and if you want good intrigue, ethical dilemmas, questions of humanity, interestingly alien aliens, and the baggage of empire… this is your deal.

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Arkady Martine absolutely knocks this one out of the park. 

A Memory Called Empire is a lot of things, but at its heart is a bittersweet tension of love, admiration, and despair for a culture and civilization which will destroy one’s own. It’s about being caught on the outside, stuck as an outsider despite so much work done to fit in. And it’s a thriller about loyalty and betrayal, both expected and not, from without and within.

It’s an excellent book, as I said when I mentioned it a couple weeks ago.

I’ve struggled to write anything more here, and thrown out a few hundred words that might spoil the book for you. Exploring what Arkady Martine does so well without giving away her story is… challenging for me.

She’s managed to write a compelling culture, one in which I can see traces of several historical imperial courts and practices, and held it up for us the readers as a deep and multi-layered thing tantalizingly out of reach of our own comprehension. The fraught weight of meaning is present and palpable, but just enough is lost in translation for us to experience it mostly as our narrator does, unable to be a full part of it as anything but barbarians.

Speaking as someone who studied linguistics, and specialized in the production of ideology and ideological identity through political speech, this book is a delight. Speaking as someone who loves studying political science, international relations, history, and the rise, fall, and gradual mutations of empire, this book is marvelous. And as someone who deeply appreciates heartfelt stories juxtaposed with intrigue and danger—wow.

I’m trying not to ruin anything for you. Please just go ahead and read the book. It’s really good.

The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night had been on my to-watch list since it came out last year. I finally watched it Monday, early in the morning after my body decided three and a half hours of sleep was all I would get.

This movie was damn good.

These sorts of stories—stories with the feelings evoked by The Vast of Night—are usually pegged as horror movies. But most horror movies fail to deliver them well. Those movies are too caught up in the scare, in the burst of adrenaline and the heart-pumping thrill of being prey. Not so with The Vast of Night.

It is, at its heart, a mystery.

It’s about two young people, people who yearn for some way out of their small New Mexico town, discovering something odd and trying to chase down the truth behind it before it disappears. And it feels more like the slower paced, unsettling investigations sometimes found in The Twilight Zone or The X-Files than like any other horror movie I’ve seen in ages. I mean, damn, the movie even opens with an implied framing narrative as an episode of something like The Twilight Zone, right down to the Rod Serling-esque intro voiceover.

It’s been ages since I’ve been this captivated by watching people sit and talk to each other about things that aren’t happening on screen.

You may think that’s a joke, but seriously, I both loved it and didn’t understand it. Reflecting on the movie immediately after watching it, I couldn’t figure it out why I found that so rewarding. And yet, I did. Heck, there’s even the incredibly bold choice to simply hold on a black screen for a while, while we listen to someone speak, and it’s GOOD.

As you might expect from all that, this movie is low key. It’s grounded, both metaphorically and literally. The camera work very intentionally stays at or below shoulder height the vast majority of the time, leaving us just as stuck in this town as the main characters. There’s even a long low shot (that baffled me until I dug up more about it) which does an incredible job of tying the whole space of the town together.

There’s only one scene I can think of that really pulls out the stops and delivers the scares you might have expected from a movie listed as a sci-fi mystery thriller, and even then it’s incredibly subdued by thriller movie standards.

Instead, the movie hones its craft on a low-effects presentation that focuses more on the uncanny, the strange, and the wondrous, and it does this well. Extremely well.

A few other good notes that I must mention…

The sound design and music are great. I recommend watching the movie with a good sound system, or good set of headphones if you’re watching it alone. It’s worth it just to be sure you get all the details of everyone’s lines, all the richness of their voices.

And the consistent technical skill of the actors interacting with their props! That was really good. I don’t know if you feel the same way, but there’s something special for me about seeing characters on screen interacting with complicated machines in a way that brings both the machine and the character to life. That’s most true when the interactions are physical, and requires them to be internally consistent; that combination gives the character a feeling of expertise, and tells me more about them as a person. Part of what I appreciate about that internal consistency is that I know it’s not easy to create on set: you rarely get any of the feedback from a prop that you’d get from the actual device, so the appearance of fluid ease and competence (and the internal consistency of use that lets you learn how the machine works as they go) means that the actor put a lot of time into either learning the actual use of the machine or developing a legible acting language of use.

I could keep nerding about how much I like that for ages, but I’ll just say that it’s present in this movie and did a lot for my feeling of immersion and belief in the characters.

So. If you like investigative mysteries and the uncanny or strange, indulge yourself with The Vast of Night.

Overlord

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Overlord is a pulpy, terrifying thrill ride of a B-movie. It feels like an over-the-top World War 2 Delta Green scenario, and an homage to a genre I learned to love through John Carpenter’s films. Having read more about the movie, and learned more about the practical effects used, I’m even more impressed.

As a B-movie it’s quite good, though it rang a bit hollow for me. I think there might have been a little more to the character development arc for Jovan Adepo’s Boyce that didn’t survive to the theatrical cut I saw, and I would have loved to see that. But it’s probably okay: high tension Nazi-killing historical science fiction B-movies aren’t best known for their character development.

I initially wasn’t sure whether to feel happy or miffed about the movie’s portrayal of the 101st Airborne as an integrated force when it was not. Here’s Wikipedia’s article on racial segregation in the US armed forces.

The happy side has won. It’s very easy to explain.

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Flash Fiction: Bart Luther, Freelance Exorcist (3/4)

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Ok, I know that’s Keanu Reeves as Constantine, but it felt appropriate.

This Monday I’ve got more flash fiction for you, my response to Chuck Wendig’s Part 3 of 4 challenge that he posted last Friday.  I’ve collected the two previous pieces in one place here, with my addition to the story at the end, so you can read the whole thing in order.  The first two parts are great and you should totally go check out the sites of the original authors, which can be found here (for Josh, the original creator of the piece), and here (for Pavowski, the author of part two).  There are asterisks marking the breaks between each section.

Ready for a good story? Continue reading

Brilliance, by Marcus Sakey

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In my case, Lee Child’s cover blurb is highly inaccurate.  Assuming that he includes himself in the group he describes, I’d guess Lee Child hasn’t read many superhero stories; he certainly should be familiar with a number of the other elements involved in Sakey‘s Brilliance.  The book is an excellent combination of superhero fiction, “spy” thriller, and semi-dystopian intrigue, and while I haven’t read many books that combine all of those elements at once, I’m certainly familiar with each of them individually.  That familiarity leaves me well positioned to appreciate the skill with which Sakey unwinds his plot.

The story is set in a world in which some people (1% of the population, more or less) are extremely capable at pattern recognition, generally focusing on a specific subset of their environment.  Our protagonist, for example, is able to read people’s immediate intent through their body language, making him fabulously good at telling where people are going to move within the next few seconds, and at telling whether or not someone believes what they are saying to be true.  This basis for superpowers is simultaneously remarkably constrained and very wide-ranging.  It doesn’t make people superhuman in immediately noticeable ways, and Sakey does an excellent job of keeping to his original concept without breaking the plausibility of the setting.

This is a fast and fun book, and an easy read.  The main character is a quintessential representation of The Man, and the story offers pulpy action goodness, with a thick helping of intrigue, implicit duplicity, and lies.  If you enjoy quick reads that deal with a moderately dystopian alternate present filled with superhumans who are indistinguishable from the rest of us, and all the problems that entails, then I suggest you pick up this book.  You may want to pick it up even if those keywords don’t set your Must Read alarms buzzing, but I’ll save any more description for after the break, where I keep all my spoilers.

Also, just to warn you, this book definitely deals with racism and the abuse of authority.  I think it does it decently, you may think differently.  I don’t think you’d mind it, Stephanie, but I also don’t know that you’d identify with the narrator at all.

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Arctic Rising, by Tobias Buckell

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Tobias Buckell has made me very happy indeed.  I can’t decide whether I prefer Arctic Rising to Hurricane Fever, and I really liked Hurricane Fever (seriously, read my review).  It’s rare that I have the pleasure of reading a fast paced high-tension thriller set in a brilliantly developed near-future, let alone reading two of them back to back.  Buckell’s world-building is a tremendous draw for me.  It’s quality shines through in the ease with which he introduces the near-future to the reader; he keeps his obvious enthusiasm for the world he’s created tightly leashed, only revealing it in dribs and drabs, more often than not as an in-character rumination or observation that feels entirely appropriate.  Better yet, I didn’t find any gaping implausibilities.  I’ll admit that I didn’t take a fine-toothed comb to the books and their established background, but they hold together well enough to offer a compelling (and somewhat distressing) view of an imminent future.  If you want to treat yourself to a jaunt down “doesn’t this seem likely…” lane, and you want some hair-raising hijinks in the bargain, try either of these books.  If you don’t want to be spoiled for either book before you read it, be sure to read Arctic Rising first, though I did it in the opposite order and still enjoyed myself immensely.

Why did I enjoy it so much?  Well…

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Hurricane Fever, By Tobias S. Buckell

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I first heard about this book through Scalzi’s Big Idea feature on his blog.  I was captivated by Buckell‘s premise, a spy novel set in the Caribbean with a protagonist who actually lived and grew up there instead of simply going there to vacation, infiltrate, or establish a villainous lair.  It pays special attention to what it’s like to have your home relegated to the status of a playground for the wealthy, and how a pan-Caribbean federation might look in the near future.  Hurricane Fever is a fast paced delight that delivers on its premise and offers the best Bond movie I’ve read in years.  It’s a violent and active spy-thriller, and one in which the main character is more often mistaken for a member of the waitstaff than a tourist.  I found it both engaging and refreshing, and now I want to read Buckell’s other work.

Read on for more detail.  Don’t worry, I’ll protect you from undue spoilers.

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Orphan Black

Deeply watchable.  That’s what I have to say about Orphan Black.

I should amend that: deeply watchable and a bit confusing.  You could easily argue that those are both understatements.

Please bear in mind that this is strictly from the point of view of having watched the first episode, but I’m very excited to watch the rest of the show now.  Let me tell you more.

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Aliens: A Love Letter to Ripley

What a masterpiece.  Aliens is one of those few movies that I can watch again and again, an exceptionally good high-tension thriller in which you will learn to hate some of the humans even more than you fear the ostensible monsters.  That’s not to say that the monsters aren’t scary; they are often terrifying.  But no matter how disturbing they look or how frightening their eventual appearance is, it’s the way in which we come to dread their inevitable appearance that sets this movie apart from its peers.

Time and again, Aliens refuses to completely show us the fearsome foe that everyone knows will show up.  This is typical thriller-fare, but Aliens stands out in its ability to build anticipation and fear of what is yet to come.  I mean, Aliens is really good at this: when I watched it again with my friends last Friday, I was surprised to find how tense I was.  I knew the movie, and we were forced to pause several times due to bathroom breaks or problems with our disk, but every time the movie stopped I could still feel the tension in my body.  Even though I knew what was coming and even though the building tension was interrupted multiple times, I could still feel the pressure of my anxiety increasing.  Where many other thrillers fall apart if you interrupt them, Aliens still delivers.

Part of this, I think, is because Aliens uses the maxim of “less is more” with incredible effectiveness.  I’ll mention this again later, but it will be full of spoilers.

Instead, let’s talk about immersion.  The sound design is a real marvel, with both the music and the effects offering a great deal.  The music is evocative and sparse, creating a pervasive sense of isolation and threat despite the apparent strength of the heroes.  And sometimes, in the really tense moments, it drops away into silence and lets us stew in the tension of what is happening on screen.  The sound effects are similarly impressive, from the repetitive and increasingly stressful click of the marines’ motion detectors to the dull pounding of the sentry guns as they fire offscreen, several bulkheads away.  Better yet, it’s clear that there were scenes that were specifically included for the fear and anxiety that their sound design would create.  Witness those desperate moments of trying to get people’s attention through soundproofed glass.

Another element which I only realized after re-watching the movie on Friday is that almost all of the technology in the movie has its own distinctive sound.  Or, more accurately, almost all of the technology has a a sound cue.  Whether it’s the whirr and beep of the movie’s computers or the hydraulics of the power loader, everything has a very audible presence in the world.

This goes hand in hand with the excellent job that they did in designing technology for the movie.  Despite looking very much like the future of the 80’s, complete with classic dot matrix printer paper with little holes running down the sides, everything looks very solid, real, and believable.  Maybe this is a generational thing, and people who grew up in the 2000’s won’t feel able to accept this as futuristic technology.  But I felt like the chunky, tough and utilitarian machines all have a certain appeal of their own, and they certainly pull me deep into believing the setting of the film.

Speaking of believing the film, I’m incredibly glad that Aliens wasn’t made with awkward early CGI.  Lately, every time that I’ve seen old CGI I’ve been pulled out of the film; I’m glad that my immersion in Aliens isn’t spoiled by something like that.  Furthermore, I’ve been amazed by how well the effects that they did use have aged.  Despite being almost 30 years old, the film’s visuals still feel convincing.  I think part of this, again, has to do with “less is more”: because the film doesn’t ever try to show more than just enough to increase tension, it almost never tries to create things that look unconvincing in retrospect.  H.R. Giger’s terrifying alien and environment design helps too.

Oh, and let’s not forget one of the very best parts of the movie.  Sigourney Weaver‘s Ellen Ripley is definitely my favorite movie heroine, and without doubt one of my favorite movie heroes of all time.  She is a grimly realistic survivor instead of a stupidly overcompetent action hero, and yet despite not fitting the action-hero mould she is still incredibly strong and impressive.  In many ways, Aliens feels like a love letter to Ripley’s indomitable determination despite obviously impossible odds.  And that doesn’t feel unreasonable.  There’s a very good reason why Sigourney Weaver’s performance in Aliens was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Ok, time for a few spoilers.  I hope that you’ve already seen the movie, but if you haven’t, you should avoid this section.

*SPOILERS*

Back to “less is more”; the fact is, we don’t really see very much of the aliens until the very end of the movie.  What we see instead is the mental breakdown of the commanding officer, the collapse of the squad of badass marines as they’re torn to pieces after their commander hamstrings them.  But we see those collapses through the very same fuzzy team video channels that the commander is watching; we only get hints and bits of the horrible experience that these people are going through, and that’s far more frightening than seeing everything in its entirety as it happens.

This comes up again with the sentry guns a little later in the film.  Instead of watching the guns blowing apart aliens, we watch the marines as they stare at the sentry guns’ ammunition counters, falling precipitously as they chew through their last precious rounds.  Listening to the sentry guns’ firing as the ammo counters on screen blaze downwards is chilling, and seeing the tense expressions on the marines’ faces at the same time is even better.  We see only a brief glimpse of the aliens in that whole scene, and we don’t actually need to see any more.  In fact, the most tense part of the entire scene comes when we cut back and forth between the guns, one smoking and empty while the other fires sporadically, and the ammo counters, showing the last few rounds as they dip towards zero.

*END OF SPOILERS*

So yes, I do love this movie.  If you haven’t watched it, give it a try.  If you’re paying attention, maybe you’ll see all the little pieces of the film that have inspired so much other media that has been made since.

 

p.s. It’s refreshing to find an action-thriller that doesn’t shy away from having powerful and strong female characters fulfilling the same roles as their male counterparts.  I love seeing that.