Boneshaker

A surprisingly intimate story about a mother and son in an alternative universe Seattle.  I loved their rough as guts relationship that is nevertheless built on a quiet respect for what each other puts up with.  The lead characters are written really well and believably – and what a relief to have a teen boy written like a teen boy without being a needlessly obnoxious stereotype.

The peripheral characters all had somewhat of a generic texture, but at least that texture felt like a turn of the century Seattle with applicable ethnic range.

The difficulty with this story is usual expectations from mainstream fantasy / sci fi, which tends towards the epic / space opera — being that the story should make some kind of grand sweeping statement about all humanity while solving major world dilemmas via assorted macguffins.  This is not that story; this is a story about a relatively ordinary-complex mother-son relationship amped up by zombies and deadly blight.  The end revelation is an intensely personal one for the small family, not a worldchanging one, and all it does is reveal more about the complexity of the husband-wife relationship which predates the story.  This tale could have been set in a range of high risk settings, but there’s definitely nothing wrong with the steampunk setting and it certainly adds a bit of relevatory interest along the way.

I liked it and will follow the series, but it wasn’t one of those stories which changed my world view.

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Last Cab to Darwin

This was hard to watch.  There is something horrendously pathetic and painful about depictions of old Australian men.

The film does the usual Australian thing of too much overt schmaltz and bathos, which suddenly swings back to a very subtle empathy and pathos.  It’s a weird tactic which makes me always doubt how these films make me feel.  It uses cultural cliche after cliche, but then somehow sets up some scenes such that I remember the reason why these things are cliche is because we actually do this.  I find a lot of Australian films difficult to watch, because they really throw our cultural ridiculousness back into our faces sometimes entirely without meaning to.  This film feels like it does this consciously – but not for laughs – which is refreshing.

I appreciated the way this film was about a person, and didn’t become a euthanasia debate film. The tension between the doctor (who needed this story to become a euthanasia debate) and the lead (who owned the story) was quite key in maintaining a sense of story towards the end.

Old Man’s War

The back blurb comments made reference to Scalzi writing so closely to Heinlein that the book may as well have been written by Heinlein.  (As if that’s a compliment??) For reference, the only Heinlein books I’ve read are Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough for Love, and I couldn’t see the similarity.  Maybe the reviewers meant Starship Troopers, which, from the Wikipedia description, seems to follow the same plot structure – new recruit, learning about life as a murderer of alien beings, framework for the same discussions about morality and ethics and virtue.

Which is where my biggest criticism lies: this well written, well structured and entertaining story felt like every other story just like it, with the one major distinction being that it didn’t go out of its way to insult or exclude me for being female, ethnic, etc etc etc.  This is a terrible reason to like a story: hey, I read something written from the POV of a man about a traditionally masculine/parochial/prejudiced cultural institution and it didn’t make me rageful enough to throw the book across the room!  Yay!

So, the strength of the book is in its peripheral characters?  The texture of its surrounds?  The way that, my goodness, someone can finally envisage a future for earth which doesn’t endlessly repeat the same contemporary political framework?  (At least there was no mention of monarchy…)  But the book continues to repeat these structures, the military structure, the colonial structure, despite the superficial diversity of its cast.  (Remember: Avatar also had a superficially diverse cast.)  The moral and ethical questions are exactly the same as the ones asked now, even if it is set in a war with random aliens.  One lot of aliens, under invasion, even have a conversation exactly like a bunch of humans (more superficial diversity).  The gimmick of a 75 year old being recruited into a war rapidly becomes nothing more than a gimmick.  Seriously, a 75 year old reacts no differently to war than an 18 year old?  And considering the greater proficiency of the Ghost Brigades, what is the economic benefit in transferring the brain of a 75 year old?  Why not just clone the DNA of everyone on earth multiple times over and have a boundless army?  It’s not like any of them can return to earth.  What is restraining the ethics (or resources) of the CDF such that they only take volunteers, then promptly train any ethical consideration out of them, as out of place in the brutality of colonial war?

The BrainPal was mildly interesting, except it’s far too much like a brain-implanted iPhone to seem like anything more than an inevitability. The Consu were interesting as an alien race representing something somewhat different from human morality and motivation, but were never explored.  The transferred consciousness never went anywhere.  The new bodies never went anywhere.  The undercurrent themes and messages said nothing new.  The skip drive concept, explained only towards the end, is fascinating, but the consequences never explored.

I’d recommend this book to someone who likes space military stories, but for me it was just a bland, inoffensive, likeable, and generic war story that could have been set anywhere.  I was harder hit because of how many good reviews this series gets, but I have very high expectations for my sci fi, particularly when the book is clearly trying to focus on some moral undercurrent message which should apply to ‘all’ (cue wild laughter: the first and biggest mistake).  Stranger in a Strange Land did something completely different in questioning the foundations of human belief without actually moving to a conclusion except to keep moving; Old Man’s War only appears to reaffirm the foundations of human belief, in a very static way, and ends in that most traditional of motifs, reaffirming the value and virtue of marriage even across a body and consciousness transfer.  (The DNA remembers.  Cough.)  The thing is, most sci fi these days is so badly adulterated pap that this book stands out miles about the crowd: this IS a good story, it’s just nothing new.  I can’t even tag it with my usual “could have been more”, because it is exactly what it is.

After a quick scan of the summaries of next books in the series, I do not think I will read, seeing as the very next book seems to be an entire plot device just to give the newly re-wed sterile clone couple a child.

Those Happy Years / Anni Felici

This was a captivating view into Italian patriarchy and the horrendous shame struggle it perpetuates between men and women.  Towards the end I kept laughing – OMG this is exactly what Italian men are like, why do Italian men do this, look at her blackmailing away, I could not STAND to live in a relationship based on mutual disrespect, distrust and constant manipulation but apparently it is accepted as normal???, etc.

I started watching without much hope, because it looked like the film was going to follow the usual path of focusing on the dude’s struggles and tribulations without much meaning.  To my surprise, the film totally balanced itself between the father and mother’s story — or more appropriately, the husband and wife’s story, as the children are practically invisible to their lives until they either assert themselves, or become pawns in this endless power/emotional/blackmail style struggle by either the male or the female members of the family in trying to inflict shame on the opposite gender.  Even the grandparents get into it.  The whole framework results in this strange overreactive auto-defence mechanism on the part of the dad/husband where a compliment to his son is interpreted as a slight to him – an intensely defensive style of narcissism which feels enculturated rather than psychological.

The twist is the era – the 1970s – with feminism making movements into Italy, and the wife’s realisation of her own right to personhood.  The consequences of this does not necessarily make for a happier marriage, but it makes for happier individuals, and the eldest child (the narrator) acknowledges this with his verbal postscript.  It’s such a different take on the usual Italian farcial romances, I really enjoyed this.

 

Morphopolis

In the vein of Amarita Studio’s Botanicula and Machinarium.  By comparison, Morphopolis suffered from a much less intuitive interface.  When I get stuck, not on the puzzle itself, but on working out how to exit from the puzzle screen, there are interface issues.

The art style is lovely and music appealing, but the interface is just overwhelmingly annoying for an experience which is supposed to be immersive.  The background is much less interactive than Botanicula’s whimsy.

Gravilon

Gotta love the minimalist interface and the way the ‘levels’ are all always present – it’s the camera’s focus that foregrounds or backgrounds.  I also like the way they tied in the title sequence to this.

The concept and motion physics is also quite good.  Unfortunately, I have a very limited attention span these days for puzzle games which rely solely on keyboard dexterity for success.  The difficulty also ramps up a lot, very quickly, making anything beyond about level 3-5 questionable in keeping my attention.

Papers, Please

This game is like being at work, every day, and I despise it.

Unless you’re on easy mode, you have to make constant sacrifices.  Corruption and bribery starts to look good because it’s the only real way to get ahead.  And still the endless grind, grind, grind…

It is an exceptionally good and original game.  I can see how people love it so much.  But someone like me (useless at roleplay) can’t play it.  I can’t take a bribe.  I can’t detach from the familiarity of a working day long enough to make myself take a bribe.  It’s terrible.  This game is the opposite of escapism.  This is the horror of the mundane.  It is locks me back in that box of daily fear of poverty and struggle and constantly being subject to greater powers with no moral way to get ahead, and the pressure of surrounding people always trying to make me take the unethical route.

All I do in this game is play it straight and get punished for it.  I am hopeless.  Kudos to the maker, Lucas Pope, for something so evocative: other works here.

Django Unchained

Better than I thought it would be.  Although the random addition of Australians made no sense.

It had an interesting development of mutual respect between the two leads.  A solid story although it felt like the pacing dragged – lots of setup for the final confrontation but seemed to take forever to get there.  The premise for the last setup was also flawed.  If they actually had up to $12k cash in hand, why wouldn’t the German have simply approached Candie, said he knew Candie had a German speaking slave that he wanted to buy, and was willing to pay more than she was worth because she was the only German speaking slave he had heard of in all his time in America and he really wanted to speak his mothertongue again?  But of course that would have been far too simple, they had to try to scam Broomhilde’s purchase instead.

Still, I liked the two leads and was interested enough to keep watching.

Neither a positive or a negative, everyone was a recognisable caricature and seemingly a repeat of past QT caricatures.  There was an uncomplicated (and hence annoying) divide between white American sadists and noble black victims (and the enlightened European).  The trouble is, I’m not American and this history (and related film genres of blaxploitation etc) are very distant to me.  I kept feeling like this plot, this story, the struggles of these characters (including the German’s last stand for decency, even considering his brutal profession) teetered right on the edge of being a deeply different story of longlasting value — if only the QT trademarks were toned down.  A setup in which QT could have done something different, not more of the same.

Except it turns out that making the film meaningful was the opposite of what QT wanted to do: “…movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they’re genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it, and other countries don’t really deal with because they don’t feel they have the right to.”[4]

But the whole subject of the plot is a big issue, so how do you represent it as a non-issue?  Apparently by lacing the imagery with caricatures and ceaseless genre film references, which is an entire weird pastiche which really felt in conflict with Django’s story, which has a really raw truth to it which should have taken centre stage.

I also kept thinking how this film would have played out if made in the 1930s or 1950s with oldschool Hollywood star types.

Dracula Untold

Yet another film where the overly competent dude’s descent into bestial atrocity is made to seem inevitable, thanks to the unrealistic expectations of a patriarchal world view.  And those who suffer?  His dependents, of course.  This paradigm is so gutlessly tiring.

If only he’d simply stopped making stupid promises about things over which he had no control.  And then feeling like he had to uphold them.

That said, there was a lot to like about this.  The texture of the background scenes.  The priests, barely a line among them, yet I could imagine their stories of this story passing into myth and legend.  The grey filter (or whatever it is that gives that gritty faded texture; I know nothing of cameras).  Dracula’s pre-history (yes, there is a pre-history to this pre-history movie!) as the Impaler; his twisted logic.  The BAMF hilarity of single handedly killing an entire army.

I kept oscillating between being interested and being bored.  The end scene, in modern day, was the most interesting part of the whole movie.  I thought, ah, NOW the story starts — and of course it cuts to credits.