Tommy Ingram's Eclectic Variety Show

How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down.

Category: Respectable

Review: The Hobbit, part 1

Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation has always struck me as one of the most smooth transitions from the page to the screen. He captures the essential spirit of the books but is ruthless about anything unimportant, difficult to dramatize, or stupid in them. I’ve not seen Return of the King, but the first two, at least, can satisfy even the most exacting Tolkienians while still entertaining a general audience.

The Hobbit, on the other hand, has looked more like a potential disaster the more we’ve heard about it. First Guillermo del Toro was set to direct, an exciting move that would give the project some much-needed independence from the main franchise while still keeping it under the auspices of Peter Jackson. That didn’t work out. Shortly after that, we heard the news that what was planned as a single film would have to be split up into three instalments, which strongly implied that they’d got The Hobbit all wrong.

Now filming has finished, as I understand it, and the first instalment has hit theatres. At the very least the movie is not terrible, but it has its problems and Tolkienians may be a little hesitant to give it the gesture of benediction. Read the rest of this entry »

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Review: Consider Phlebas

Iain M. Banks’s first science fiction novel, Consider Phlebas, opens on a forceful, mythic note. An intelligent warship flees its pursuers and, at great risk, jettisons its Mind, an unfathomable super-intelligent computer, to a protected planet. Across the galaxy, a shapeshifting Changer is being executed by the Gerontocracy of Sorpen in their unique way: they lock him in a septic tank and hold a massive banquet. This sounds funny, but it doesn’t read that way at all. The first thirty pages or so are some of the most intense science fiction I have ever read.

During this stretch, the principal factions are introduced. There are the Changers, a minor species of humans, all but extinct, with the ability to shapeshift and a host of weaponized body parts such as poisoned nails and acid sweat. The hero is the aforementioned drowning Changer, Bora Horza Gobuchul. The Changers are allied with the Idirans, which are a good approximation of what an actual race of warrior-aliens would look like. The Idirans are at war with the Culture, an advanced post-Singularity human society whose driving force is the need to feel useful. The series that grew from this novel focuses on the Culture, and with good reason. They are a fascinating creation, a society where humanity is largely superseded by super-intelligent machines and is now free to live in hedonism, but great feats are still accomplished out of simple boredom.

Horza is rescued by the Idirans and hired to go to the protected planet and retrieve the Mind, which would be a military and intelligence coup for the marginally less advanced species against the Culture. The book takes a strange turn shortly after all this, however. Horza gets into some shenanigans involving space mercenaries, and the story’s momentum never quite recovers. At first it is Foundation streamlined and blown up, but it develops into reheated Firefly. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Black Corridor

Michael Moorcock is an author who thinks a lot about fascism. He famously wrote an essay censuring The Lord of the Rings for its politics, and has been critical of the often baffling ideologies espoused by his contemporaries. Yet his portrayal of it in 1969’s The Black Corridor is remarkably unsophisticated and suggests that, politically speaking, he might be full of shit.

The book depicts a future where rioting mobs in Britain have turned on “the aliens”, vaguely defined as “the men—and women…who are different.” There are of course no real aliens at all, and the whole thing is a transparent ploy to demonize anyone who disagrees with or expresses the slightest reservations about the ideas of the “Patriots”. This explodes into worldwide ultra-nationalism, which causes closed borders, fragmented nations, and international and eventually civil wars.

Amid all this, Ryan, the owner of a toy factory, sees himself as one of the few sane people left in the world. He considers himself a pragmatist, and does a number of morally questionable and downright despicable things for the sake of political expediency. He fires his top manager, who he suspects to be a Welshman, to avoid the wrath of the Patriots. He eventually begins manufacturing ammunition and radio equipment instead of toys to help the war effort. Toward the end, he collects his clique of relatives and close friends, holes up in his apartment, and makes plans to escape to another world on a rocket that had been prepared for launch in the days when such international cooperation was still possible, and had since been forgotten.

En route to their new home, Ryan’s friends and relatives are kept in stasis while he stays awake and maintains the ship during its five-year journey. After three years with only a computer for companionship, the loneliness starts to get to him in the form of hallucinations and flashbacks. Or, at least, that is apparently the case. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Windup Girl, Part 2

Previously…

All right, now that that’s over with, we can discuss the elephant in the room. Bacigalupi has been criticized, sometimes quite harshly, for his depiction of Thailand and his handling of gender issues (particularly with respect to Emiko). I didn’t know about these criticisms before I bought the book (which I knew almost nothing about at the time), and hearing about them before reading the book predisposed me not to like it. While The Windup Girl is too good to dismiss out of hand, but the critics are right on pretty much every count and it would be irresponsible to write a review without addressing their issues.

So here’s an overview of the problematic aspects of The Windup Girl. I will try to avoid much personal comment, since there are some issues on which I’m so hopelessly uninformed that there’s no point attempting to defend a position. In several of these cases it’s not clear to me where the line between valid plot device and racism lies, and in those cases I’m just going to describe facts about the book and point out my concerns. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Windup Girl, part 1

Every so often the question comes up: how do we evaluate works that are, in whole or in part, morally problematic? It just won’t do to fall back on some kind of naive formalism that takes nothing but the words into account—not the author’s situation, not the work’s context. The virulent racism of Birth of a Nation detracts from its goodness as a film in a rather obvious way, and to simply admire the editing in the absence of any discussion of the racism is disingenuous. On the other hand, it is desirable to keep the discussion focused on artistic merit if we’re not talking specifically about whatever moral defect is at issue. And it’s not an obvious contradiction to have a film, book, or piece of music that is both morally defective and aesthetically good—Wagner, Gesualdo, Conrad, Riefenstahl, Polanski, and others come to mind.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is set in a future Thailand. Using Thailand in particular opens up all sorts of unappealing possibilities including racism, xenophobia, and sexism, and some have argued that The Windup Girl hits on all of these. It would be dishonest to write a review that didn’t discuss these, but I don’t want to make it the main issue. I am concerned about the various social justice causes, but I am not interested in writing about them because, as someone without much knowledge or even an interesting perspective, there’s nothing I can bring to the table. To the extent that I have an audience, they’re not here to read about such things, which they can get in a much better form elsewhere. So I am going to do a two-part review of The Windup Girl: the first part will focus on plot, character, style, and all that fun stuff, and the second part will discuss the moral defects involving racism, xenophobia, and sexism.

So, on to the actual book. Bacigalupi’s novel is more about exploring its setting, a semi-apocalyptic future world, than its people or their struggles. In The Windup Girl, genetic engineering run rampant has ravaged crops. Global warming has pushed the sea level so high that parts of Thailand are threatened by floods if the levees fail. Food is in short supply and at constant risk from rapidly evolving diseases. A handful of midwestern American agricultural companies have a near monopoly on crop seeds designed to be resistant to the diseases—some of which are released by the companies themselves. These “calorie companies” circle like playground drug-dealers around troubled nations, trying to import their goods and get the populace hooked. Thailand resists, using their seedbank and a rogue genetic engineer bought off from the Americans to stay just ahead of the diseases.

While the Environment Ministry attempts to keep the country on this course, thwarting smugglers and driving away representatives of the calorie companies, they face opposition from the Minister of Trade, an ambitious politician whose star is on the rise. He wants to open the country to American imports, with potentially disastrous results. The Environment ministry people must also deal with internal corruption and infiltration from Trade. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Snuff

A series is a troublesome thing. They have a nasty tendency to drop off in quality as they move along, and it’s very rare that a good series is consistent through its run. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, which are really a collection of overlapping series, have their lulls, but on average he’s managed to keep things to a high standard over almost forty books and thirty years. The City Watch books have long been the flagship Discworld sub-series, and it’s easy to see why: they include some of his most memorable characters and encompass two of the greatest things he ever wrote, Night Watch and Men at Arms. 2005’s Thud looked like it would be the end of the Watch, because some long-running threads were beginning to wrap up and the city of Ankh-Morpork appeared to be settling down a bit.

Apparently that’s not the case. The latest City Watch book, Snuff, came out late last year and sold in astonishing quantities. Opening it, I was a bit apprehensive, because I thought the characters and setting had already been taken as far as they will go. The other trend for a series is to get bigger and wider in scope until it’s unsustainable and devolves into sprawling incoherence, like Buffy. So the first pages contain a certain amount of promise: Watch commander Sam Vimes is going on vacation for the first time in his long career, and something is not quite right about the way people behave on the idyllic countryside estate where he’s staying. When a series gets out of control, you have two options: either reset to zero by writing tight small-scale drama or double down and send the hero into space.

Pratchett made the right choice on that count, but it quickly becomes clear that Snuff will not be up to par with the earlier Watch books. They’ve always had somewhat elliptical characterization, particularly for the villains, but here it’s just ridiculous. The villain’s henchman, Stratford, is more of a type than a person; he hardly appears at all and feels like a composite of various other, more interesting villains from the previous books. There are a few new supporting characters who show up so infrequently, it feels like we’re supposed to puzzle out who they are by pattern-matching them to earlier Discworld characters. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Perdido Street Station

Kraken was a fun (if overlong) book, and it showed off China Mieville’s considerable stylistic talent, imagination, and eclectic sensibility. It’s a standalone that has pretty much nothing to do with anything he’s written before, but even in a throwaway silly novel Mieville writes with such a fresh voice that he demands further exploration. For my first foray into his “real” novels, I picked Perdido Street Station, the first of a trilogy and the winner of the Clarke Award.

In the first two hundred pages, Mieville moves all his pieces into place—here’s Isaac, an avant-garde scientist, and his semi-secret girlfriend Lin, a khepri artist. The khepri are a race whose females have a human body but a large beetle instead of a head (the males are just the beetle, and it’s socially acceptable to squish them). The two of them live and work in New Crobuzon, a sci-fantasy steampunk city-state populated by dozens of different races, humanoid and otherwise, and governed by an oppressive dictatorship. People hate the government in a genial sort of way, but mostly they just go about their business. The number of actual rebels is so small that the police bother with them only to make examples.

Here we run into the first problem. While Mieville’s world is drawn in incredible detail, nothing happens in the first third of the book. Sure, the main plot is set up, but it could have been done equally well in a fraction of the space. Since this is such a huge chunk of the book, it throws everything out of balance, pulling a bait-and-switch with the main plot almost halfway through and causing the underwhelming ending to be crammed into a handful of pages. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

OK, so 2009’s Sherlock Holmes had a somewhat more actiony tone than Doyle’s original stories, but nothing was invented ex nihilo—just exaggerated. Most of the people who criticized it clearly were not familiar with the source material. The adaptation could have been more faithful, but director Guy Ritchie struck a good balance between the demands of Hollywood and Baker Street. The sequel is pretty much more of the same. If you liked the first Sherlock Holmes, you’ll probably like this one, and if you didn’t, you’ll almost certainly hate this one even more. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Captain America

It seems that superhero movies have been trending badly lately. This could just be Sturgeon’s Law–as more of them are made, there’s bound to be more bad ones, but it seems like there hasn’t been a decent one since The Dark Knight, and that’s a long time ago now. The effects get layed on thick and the writers seem to get so caught up in the origin story and the idea of the hero that they forget they’re supposed to be writing a story. So it was a pleasant surprise to see that the Captain America movie was not that bad. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Death Cloud

Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories never reveal much about Sherlock Holmes as a person. We only know what we see, plus a few oblique references here and there. Part of the appeal of the character is that he’s an enigma as tantalizing as the mysteries he solves. There’s been plenty of expansion on the Holmes mythos since Doyle’s death, connecting him with personages as diverse as Sigmund Freud and Cthulhu, but there hasn’t been much exploration of Holmes himself.

Andrew Lane’s Young Sherlock Holmes series changes that, going back into Holmes’s childhood, the biggest blank spot in his past, and explaining how he came to be the Holmes we know and love. Read the rest of this entry »