Made to Kill is the perfect example for the warning about not judging a book by its cover: although being aware of its existence, I never looked beyond the unappealing (for me) exterior appearance of the book, to inquire what it was about. That is, until the very positive review from a fellow blogger, whose comments piqued my interest.
This book is a curious mix between a classic noir novel and science fiction: Raymond Electromatic (the first name a clear nod toward Raymond Chandler) is a robot, the only one remaining after humanity decided to dispense with mechanical helpers, and he’s a self-employed private investigator – with a side activity as a hired killer. No one could image a more dispassionate, detached murderer than a mechanical creature, and Raymond fulfills this requirement most admirably, also thanks to his peculiar structure, one that requires a daily power recharge and the installation of a new memory spool. This 24-hour limit on Raymond’s storage capacity means he starts afresh every day as a new man – ok, robot – with no recollection of what previously transpired: no guilt, no danger of exposing one’s clients, plausible deniability.
Here is where Ray’s manager comes into play: Ada is a complex computer array tasked with running the office, taking care of the mechanical P.I., finding clients and managing finances. She is quite a character, and another nod toward the chandler-esque typical perky secretary acting as a buffer between her employer and the public. Apart from the human-like noises she emits – mostly puffing on cigarettes or swiveling on creaky office chairs – she’s graced by a quirky sense of humor and a sharp tongue, not to mention a keen business sense that is never clouded by emotional considerations of any kind. Ada’s voice came through from the book’s pages much more clearly than Raymond’s for me: I enjoyed quite a bit her world-savvy practical approach to everything and the way she manipulates Ray who appears like very pliable putty in her capable hands, or circuits if you want.
The two move in a world that, despite some technological developments like robots, seems still very much anchored in the period between the ‘40s and the ‘50s – or at least this is the “flavor” I perceived from the book, that shares many of the tropes one could expect from a noir story from Chandler himself: dark ladies and shady characters move around in a Los Angeles still very much concerned with the Hollywood star system, and there’s a dastardly plot to be uncovered and neutralized, as Raymond runs through the city in search for clues. Spies, night-clubs where dubious dealings go on while the music plays and alcohol flows, government agents and undercover operatives – they all make an appearance while Raymond applies his deductive skills to the complicated situation, and the whole scenario makes for a fast, entertaining reading.
My initial enthusiasm for this uncommon story did however flag a little past the book’s midpoint: while my interest remained the same about the story – after all I wanted to know what was behind it all and how the various threads would be resolved – the characters lost a little of their sparkle because of repetition.
For example, one of Raymond’s quirks concerns facial expressions: as a metal automaton, he does not possess a mobile face, of course, so from the very beginning of the novel we are told that all of his facial reactions happen on the inside – the first few times this information makes you smile, as do the offered similitudes for his attempts at a laugh or a cough or any human noise, but after a while and after reading about it a few times too much, the smile slowly fades and is supplanted by mild irritation. The same goes for Ada puffing on cigarettes or the other behavioral traits she fakes when she wants to sound human. For me, these details are like a nice joke: once or twice it’s ok, but by the n-th time one hears it, it has lost its charm…
Another disappointing element came from the antagonists: even though I understand this story is modeled on period movies and books, I did not like the fact that the chief villain tends to laugh wickedly as he lays down his plans to a captive Raymond: I always wondered why the bad guys have this burning need to explain in full details their dastardly plots to a soon-to-be-killed prisoner. Need for recognition? Childhood traumas? Whatever it is, it always sounded phony to my ears, and here we have that in spades, mixed with that same villain’s endless laugh as he contemplates the upcoming success of world domination.
While I understand these are nothing more than personal pet peeves, I’m sorry that they detracted a little from the enjoyment of this unconventional and amusing book, that nonetheless was a very welcome change from my usual fare and is definitely worth a try.
With its companion Dark Matter, this show is part of SyFy’s summer “offering” to a science-fiction-starved audience, and in my opinion it was a success: with main ingredients as fast-paced action, politics, secrets and conspiracies and a fascinating, well thought-out background it could not be otherwise.
One of the most attractive features in Killjoys is the quick delivery of information with little or no explanation, a choice that requires the viewers’ total attention: I must confess that I watched the first episode when I was particularly tired (and also nodding in front of the TV) so that I missed several details and the show did non make a significant impact on me. On re-watching it, though, I understood that this is the kind of story that makes your brain work, doing its best not to offer you easy answers: exactly the kind of story I enjoy. Once I recognized this, I was hooked.
The show rests quite firmly on background and characterization: let’s examine the former first.
The Quad is a four-body planetary system: the main planet, Qresh, was the first to be colonized and then expansion led the inhabitants to place footholds on the planet’s three moons. The first attempt was made on Arkyn, the smallest one, but something went horribly wrong and the fate of the colony and its inhabitants is shrouded in mystery. The colonization of Westerly went far better, so that the largest moon in the system is also the most densely inhabited: unfortunately, the thoughtless harvesting of resources has played havoc with environment and general living conditions. With Leith, the Company – the shady entity running everything in the Quad – used more cautious methods, so that it’s a sort of agricultural paradise – that is, for the middle class inhabiting it, not for the indentured workers slaving in its fields.
With these premises it’s not surprising that the Quad is administered through a rigid class system that leads to social injustice: the elite lives on Qresh, and the lesser nobility rules on Leith, while Westerly is the refuge for those without means and for the workforce in the planet’s many industries. It’s even less surprising that such overcrowding and generally poor living conditions would lead to high levels of crime, hence the creation of an organization of bounty hunters, or Reclamation Agents – the titular Killjoys. They owe allegiance to no one, simply offering their contracted services: the Killjoys motto is “The Warrant is All”.
And here characterization comes into play: the team formed by Dutch (an ass-kicking lady with a shady past) and John Jaqobi (wingman and tech expert) is quite a successful one, although at some point the winning dynamic is altered by the appearance of John’s brother, D’avin, a former soldier with something worse than PTSD. What I love about these characters is the strong bond between Dutch and John, a collaboration born of shared dangers and humor, an intense sense of family that does not need any romantic overtones to work. The best moments are those when the two exchange rapid-fire quips, usually during hairy situations: the beauty of these exchanges is that they feel very natural, not at all contrived or cheesy. If you add into this mix the personality of Lucy, their ship’s A.I., and one with a temper, you get an intriguing package.
For this reason the appearance of D’avin and the unavoidable romantic entanglement with Dutch felt as unnecessary as the apostrophe in the man’s name: even though the situation takes a different route quite soon, the disturbance was there, placing the wonderful interaction between Dutch and John on the back burner, so to speak. There is enough on the table to keep a viewer’s attention riveted: the frequent flash-backs into Dutch’s past and her training as an assassin, the re-appearance of her mentor and the shady goals he’s pursuing, the political currents moving underneath and involving both the Company and the Qresh nobility, give enough material to carry this story forward on its own power. But that’s just a very personal point of view, of course…
What really matters here is that Killjoys seems to mark a return to a Firefly-like kind of space opera: the well detailed world-building hints at layers on layers of information and depth – social commentary and political maneuvering or the dangers of expansion and terraforming being among the most explored ones, but also more personal topics like freedom of choice against conditioning or the role of hope when there is nothing else to cling to. The beauty of it all is that it’s built in increments: even in the episodes that look like stand-alones, there is always some small piece of information that will come to the fore in later segments. I’ve always been partial to story-arc shows, and Killjoys delivered an intriguing progression in its too-brief run of 10 episodes, ending with a cliffhanger that I can only hope will find a satisfactory solution in the next season.
Something I definitely look forward to…
It’s become difficult for me, in recent times, to find a science fiction novel I can truly enjoy: there are exceptions of course, like the works of undiscussed masters as Iain M. Banks (just to name one), or more recent space opera series like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War or James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse, but on the whole, new works I’ve come across are either slanted toward military sf (not my cup of tea), or rely heavily on the more romantic aspects of a story – something that holds little interest for me.
So when I came across Ian McDonald’s Luna, I was delighted to find so many of the elements I appreciate in the genre, combined in such a way as to make this novel as close to perfection as possible. The main attraction in this story is the definite sense of life in an environment that, despite technological advances, remains dangerous and hostile: to quote Heinlein’s famous title, the Moon is indeed a harsh mistress, one that requires constant vigilance and lies patiently in wait for the tiniest moment of distraction to pounce and take your life. On top of that, it changes you: microgravity affects human physiology in such a way that Earth-born individuals can live on the Moon only for short time periods before the physical alterations become irreversible, marooning them forever on its barren surface, while those who are born there don’t even have this kind of choice, since the gravity of the mother world would kill them without mercy.
These physical modifications go hand in hand with the alterations in social structure, which are nothing short of fascinating: wealth is still important in lunar society, but only as far as it ensures possession of the four elementals at the basis of everyday life – air, water, carbon and data. The first three allow you to live, and the fourth connects you to all levels of everyday interaction, from transportation to buying food: every permanent resident is fitted with a familiar, a sort of computerized avatar managing any kind of transaction, and with an eye implant monitoring the elementals’ levels. A low reading of air, for example, means you must breathe less, or run the risk or not breathing at all. Permanently. Death, in one fashion or another, is always lurking behind your back…
If on Earth the affluent can afford to live above the rest of the world, on the Moon the reverse is true, since the closest you are to the surface, the higher are the radiation levels unfiltered by the absence of an atmosphere. And radiation, together with the damages inflicted by microgravity, can also affect the bearing of children, entrusted by those with means to surrogate mothers – or madrinhas – enrolled among the newcomers, who still possess the strongest bones and more adaptable physique of the Earth born.
On this fascinating background moves a number of very compelling characters: the Moon is ruled by five influential dynasties – or Dragons – forever locked in financial combat, made more complex by political marriages whose main purpose of creating ties between the various factions is ultimately defeated by resentment and mutual hate that run too deep to be ignored or overcome. It’s a complex and fascinating situation that in a way reminded me of the dynastic relationships in Frank Herbert’s Dune: the main focus here is on the Cortas, the relative newcomers to the Moon’s high and mighty, ruled by matriarch Adriana who handles business and family with the iron fist that’s also part of her surname. Corta Helio made its fortune by mining the precious Helium3 that provides energy and light to a resource-starved Earth, but in so doing created a powerful antagonist in Mackenzie Metals, the Cortas’ arch-enemies.
The narration alternates between present developments, that run their inevitable course toward a terrifying showdown, and Adriana’s recollections of her past life and ascent to power as the Fifth Dragon: I found myself absorbing it all through compulsive reading, the changes of scenery and point of view carrying the story forward in leaps and bounds – not unlike those of a human moving in the Moon’s feeble gravity. Adriana’s offspring are equally interesting individuals, all of them somewhat marred by their mother’s powerful presence in their lives, and at the same time strong where it counts, and ruthless as required by circumstances. The counterpoint is given by Marina Calzaghe, a new arrival (or Jo Moonbeam, as the recent immigrants are called) and the most vivid secondary character in the book: she goes from an elemental-starved individual living at the edges of society and barely surviving by the skin of her teeth, to a prestigious position in the Corta household, where she learns that you can be mortally afraid even when you know your next breath and meal are secured.
There is so much richness in Luna, New Moon, that I find it difficult to sum it up without spoiling the contents: background and characterization are of course the supporting pillars of the story, but there is also the strong sense of a frontier world that despite its modern contrivances is still very much in the throes of evolution, and as such is not immune from some savage streak that contrasts quite strongly with the air of refinement of its outward appearance. There is no law on the Moon, and any dispute is more liable to be settled by a knife duel rather than in what passes for a court ruling, and to survive one must be as ruthless and unforgiving as this world. This is why I was taken so much by this book, because it can blend without effort the sense of wonder of old with a more modern concept of societal evolution, economic warfare and personal conflict: I found it as compelling and mesmerizing as is the Moon itself every time I see it in the sky, and I think it quite serendipitous that I read the last pages as a full moon was on…
The only flaw? The novel ended far too soon on a massive cliffhanger. One that I hope will not entail a long wait for the next book in the series.
As this will be my last book review for 2015, I can safely say I’m closing the year with a bang, indeed…
Fresh from the vision of this much-awaited movie, here are some of my immediate thoughts – rigorously spoiler-free, of course.
All things considered, I truly enjoyed it, even though it was not perfect, mostly because it added nothing new in the way of story-telling but rather seemed to revisit the themes of the original movie with new people in some of the old roles: the main character’s hero’s journey somewhat parallels that of young Luke Skywalker, and the story itself follows the same guidelines as the first Star Wars movie. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course: after all, mythology rests on a few basic concepts that are mixed and recombined in various legends, but still I would have liked to witness some new ideas. On the other hand, these concepts were executed very well, and carried by old and new faces that integrated quite seamlessly into an entertaining and exciting whole, so… no big complaints. As far as the path for this hero’s journey is concerned, it did not disappoint, and I was also fondly amused by the frequent nods to some details from the original trilogy.
That said, the story moves forward at a good pace, aided by stunning visuals and complicated battle choreographies – both on the ground and in space – that at times took my breath away: the balance between real action and CGI-enhanced scenes is excellent and facilitates the immersive experience that any good movie should aspire to. Visuals would be quite poor fare, though, if they were not sustained by believable, well-portrayed characters and strong dialogue, and the movie lacks for neither: on the contrary, characterization is indeed the strongest point of the whole experience, starting with the protagonist, Rey.
She is a true revelation, both as a fictional character and as an actress: Daisy Ridley manages to bring on screen a mixture of strength, courage and human frailness that is as endearing as it is realistic. Times have indeed changed since the original movie, and women don’t need to be princesses in need of a savior, but are rather quite able to save themselves, and others as well. Living like a scavenger rooting for mechanical parts in an unforgiving desert waste, Rey has clearly learned to fend for herself while still harboring a deep pain borne of loneliness and the unexpressed feelings of abandonment – that last detail being the more intriguing part of her mysterious past. Hard-ass heroines often tend to be brittle and aggressive, while Rey walks a fine balance between inner strength and compassion that makes her instantly likable, instantly recognizable as the true hero of the story. If the unsolved puzzle of who she is and how she came to be here represents a strong point of attraction, we don’t really need to know more beyond her willingness to help the weak, be they flesh-and-blood people or funny looking androids, and to resolutely face any challenge. I think the best representation of who she really is, deep down, comes from the scene where, after having consumed a meagre meal, she sits outside her makeshift shelter (the carcass of an old imperial Walker!) and dons an old pilot’s helmet with the shadow of a wistful expression on her face, not unlike a child who plays at being someone else, in a more exciting, better life. I think my heart went out to her in that scene, and remained firmly there.
Her counterpart Finn, played by John Boyega, opens a window on the life of Stormtroopers: for the first time we are allowed to see a flesh-and-blood person inside the hard shell of white armor they all wear, and in this case it’s someone who’s appalled at the mindless destruction the soldiers are ordered to inflict on defenseless people. Learning that Stormtroopers are taken from their families at a very young age, to be trained and conditioned in the unquestioning obedience required from them, adds a dramatic quality to their existence, and through Finn we are finally allowed to understand there are people inside that faceless casing. There is one small scene in which a superior officer orders Finn to put on again the helmet he took off in a moment of suffocating panic: the message is clear – the helmet removes any trace of humanity from the wearer, any personal or distinguishing trait, and automatons cannot afford to be reminded, or to remind others, of that humanity. All this makes Finn’s rejection of his training all the more powerful: when he appears on screen, his body language clearly transmits the anguish and horror of a young man sent – probably for the first time – into actual combat, and his need to put as much distance between himself and the evil he’s been forced to serve. He’s no hero material, that’s clear from the start, but there is a great deal of room for growth in him: he somehow reminds me of a cross between Wizard of Oz’s Lion and Tin Man, someone in search of his courage and his heart, who finds along the way much, much more than he bargained for.
The third new face in the movie is no face at all, since it belongs to a (very cute) android named BB-8: he’s clearly there for some comic relief, but I’m happy to report it’s all done with a light hand and with the right degree of humor that makes the little droid instantly lovable, also thanks to the peculiar, rolling gait due to its form. I was strongly reminded of another beloved mechanical creature, Wall-E: BB-8 possesses the same kind of innocence and openness toward the world, and its child-like attitude in some of the scenes reinforces that impression. This character might have been created with a very young audience in mind, but it can easily reach out to adults too, and that’s a great thing indeed.
Without doubt, part of the expectations for this movie centered on the reappearance on screen of the main players from the original trilogy, and they did not disappoint – even those whose air time was all too brief: I understand with hindsight that their main function was to hand over the proverbial torch to the younger generation, and that this required some bittersweet choices, hard as they are to accept. Nonetheless it was great to see familiar faces, even though they were lined by the passing of time and the inevitable grief life can burden people with: in this respect, Han Solo and Leia are the keenest example, and I liked their interactions that, while rooted in the estrangement that divided them, could still delve into the good memories they built together. There is not much dialogue between them, but somehow the looks they exchange – and the subtext being carried by those looks – are enough to fill the silence. And I liked that very much.
It goes of course without saying that Chewbacca’s appearance was greeted with joyful enthusiasm…
All well and good then? Not quite, unfortunately.
The heroes of any story need good opponents, and the “bad guys” in this movie don’t exactly fit the bill.
In the first place we have once more a power-hungry individual bent on total conquest who uses a doomsday weapon capable of shattering whole planets. Sound familiar, doesn’t it? The only difference is that this new Death-Star-lookalike is crafted out of a whole planet instead of being a mere station, so that, in my opinion, this choice robs the audience of any suspense concerning the outcome. Unfortunately, homage to the core story is one thing, simple repetition of a past pattern is not.
Last but not least, Kylo Ren: the glimpses accorded by trailers hinted at an interesting narrative thread here, while I was disappointed by this character’s very feeble motivations for his actions, especially in light of his origins – which I can’t discuss without entering spoiler territory. Considering who he is and where he comes from, his choice for the “dark side” appears more of a plot device than anything else, as unsubstantial and wavering as his personality – again, knowing where he comes from, there seems to be little reason for the way he turned out, or for his actions. My only hope is that more will be explained in the next movies…
My disappointment with the portrayal of the antagonists is not enough, however, to diminish my enjoyment of the movie: it was not everything I had hoped for, but it was enough to be a reasonably pleasing experience. And enough to warrant a second viewing in the near future 🙂
Peter Hamilton is one of those authors who always intimidated me through the sheer amount of published works combined with the staggering page count of each book: big volumes never scared me, far from it, but from the reviews I read I’ve learned that Hamilton’s Night Dawn trilogy, for example, represents quite a challenge, both in scope and in the quantity of characters and story-lines it contains.
So, when I saw he also published some shorter works, I decided to get my feet wet – so to speak – with something far less daunting before wading into the bigger ocean and this novella seemed like a good starting point. As far as careful approaches go, it was quite positive, and the best way to start on my journey with The 2016 Sci-Fi Experience, an event hosted by Carl V. Anderson over at Stainless Steel Droppings (follow the links to know more!).
Watching Trees Grow is an alternate history tale based on the premise that the Roman Empire never fell, extending its influence all over the known world. The action unfolds over a time period from 1832 to 2038, presenting some intriguing juxtaposition – like a turning dial, Bakelite telephone existing at the same time as battery-powered cars – together with quite fast technological progress that, by the end of the story, has brought mankind away from Earth in an expanding colonization effort throughout the galaxy.
The novella opens with the murder of a brilliant young student in Oxford: as a family representative, Edward Raleigh is called in to investigate the crime, but despite his best efforts he’s unable to find the perpetrator. This does not faze him, though, because the Empire has found a way to prolong its citizens’ lives and Edward knows time and scientific progress are on his side, so he keeps investigating the collected evidence through ever-improving means, with a relentless focus paired with the certainty he will ultimately succeed.
In the end the murder investigation is only the means through which Hamilton explores this alternate world, one where, for example, space exploration coexists with the Church’s heavy-handed influence on moral standards – there’s a running thread about the Borgias still ruling in Rome despite the general consensus about them having long overstayed their welcome. The result is interesting, even though in places the dialogues appear somewhat stilted: Edward Raleigh and the people he deals with still retain a kind of old-fashioned speech pattern that’s somewhat reminiscent of the Victorian era, and that I found at odds with the evolving times and technology; there’s also a certain amount on explanatory exposition that looks back to the era in which the story begins, and tends to slow the narrative flow a little.
Despite these small ‘hiccups’ the novella remains appealing and it encouraged me to try something more from Peter Hamilton, especially other short stories I’ve found that should work as introduction to the universe where the author spent most of his time and craft. So far, what I’ve encountered looks more than promising, and I’ll be back shortly with updates on my progress…