Monday, September 4, 2017

Complain of Thrones

Here there be Spoilers!

For the last few years, after the season finale of Game of Thrones has aired, I have usually written a post to this blog complaining about the quality of the most recent season (read Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!, When Good Television Goes Mediocre, and Why I’m Done With Game of Thrones (On Television Anyway)), and calling into question whether or not I will watch the next. This post will carry on with part of that tradition, as I am here to complain about some of the flaws of season seven, but I will not pretend that I have any intention to skip over season eight, the series’ last. In this far, I may as well go to the end.

It was never certain that I would watch season seven of Game of Thrones, not as it aired anyway, but I had already subscribed to Sling TV earlier in the year in order to watch Fargo and Better Call Saul, and figured I’d just extend my channel lineup for a couple of months to include HBO. That would also give me chance to check out WestWorld. And more important, it would allow me to again watch Game of Thrones on Sunday nights.

Season seven is probably the worst season of Game of Thrones. It is also, paradoxically, one of the most entertaining. The so-called Loot Train Attack was something of a cinematic masterpiece. But much of the rest of the season seems to have been about checking off boxes. Stark reunion 1. Check. Stark reunion 2. Check. Finish off Dorne story-line. Check. Finish off Tyrell story-line. Check. Stark meets Targaryen. Check. The fate of Littlefinger. Check. Let’s just get all of this shit out of the way so we can focus on the end. The more boxes they routinely checked off, the more muted the impact of each of these resolutions became. Not that it wasn’t satisfying to see Littlefinger get his throat cut, but the drama leading up to it was manipulative and trite, and his end was hardly worthy of his Machiavellian genius.

Other characters didn’t fare much better. Tyrion hasn’t been a fraction as interesting as he was when they were writing scripts from the source material, even if Peter Dinklage continues to put in a great performance. Daenerys alternated between channeling her father, Mad King Aerys, and swooning over Jon Snow, with only brief moments of queenly behavior. And Snow, nothing if not consistent, was as blandly honorable as ever. He also did a lot of stupid things without consequence, at least to himself. Between them, Jon and Daenerys proved very useful to the Night King, delivering the dragon he needed to destroy the Wall.

Of course, it is impossible to ignore the various flaws in the storytelling, Euron Greyjoy’s perfect ambush of Yara’s fleet, the chess game precision of Lannister armies abandoning Casterly Rock and arriving at Highgarden, the supersonic speeds of ravens and dragons and Gendry. The US military rarely delivers air power as absurdly quickly as Dany’s dragons appeared beyond the wall. And then there is the whole Wight Dragon problem. It seems the Night King set a trap, but how did he know Jon Snow would venture beyond the wall, or that Daenerys would mount a rescue mission? How many events did he manipulate to ensure that Dany and her dragons would be in Westeros in order for him to kill and turn one? Did he have any plan to get past the Wall in the event his spear missed its mark? I’m sure the dragon vs. dragon fights in season eight will be spectacular, but I have a feeling that the writers haven’t really thought this through as well as they should have.

I can’t say that I didn’t see this coming, the continued deterioration of what was once an excellent program. I wrote three whole posts about it after all. But I guess the quality of those early seasons keeps me coming back, even in the face of such overwhelming mediocrity. I want to know who will survive, who will die and if anyone in a place as fucked up as Westeros is ever going to get a happy ending.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Hey, HBO!

So, it was recently announced that HBO, and Game of Thrones show-runners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, would follow-up their spectacular run of medieval fantasy with an alternate history/reality series titled Confederate. No doubt inspired by Amazon’s successful The Man in the High Castle, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel about an Axis victory in World War II, Confederate will take place in a reality where the Confederate States of America won the Civil War. And, oh yeah, institutionalized slavery still exists. Of course, depending on how it is executed such a series could be a nuanced and insightful exploration of race relations in America. But many have wondered whether or not it will just be an exercise in white supremacists wish fulfillment. The fact that two of the project’s producers are African American (Nichelle Tramble Spellman, Malcolm Spellman) has not convinced detractors that the show is a good idea, and the hashtag #NoConfederate recently trended on Twitter during an airing of Game of Thrones.

But maybe HBO should just drop the whole Confederate idea (the South wins the Civil War has been done before) for something more original and interesting, an adaptation of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2002 novel The Years of Rice and Salt. Robinson’s novel is also an alternate history, taking place in a world where the Black Death in 14th century Europe didn’t kill a mere third of the population but 99 percent, effectively removing European influence from history. The empires that rise and fall in Robinson’s world are Muslim and Chinese. Asians, Africans and the aboriginal peoples of the Americas and Australia still face colonialism, imperialism and war as they navigate a history that is different only in the details. There is even a 67-year World War, which alone would make for an interesting series. A much more interesting series than yet another rehash of the Civil War, and one that would avoid TV’s tendencies toward Eurocentrism.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Book Review: Say Nothing by Brad Parks

Say Nothing, Brad Parks' first standalone novel outside of the Carter Ross mystery series, is a fast paced, compelling thriller that delivers an unexpected emotional impact. The novel starts with the kidnapping of the twin children of Federal Judge Scott Sampson, a crime orchestrated to force a particular verdict in a particular case. After Sampson performs as requested on a test case, his son is released, but his daughter remains in the hands of the kidnappers, leverage for a ruling on a case involving a pharmaceutical breakthrough. As Sampson and his wife Allison try to maintain a façade of normalcy, they start looking closely at the people around them. No one is above suspicion, not even each other.

Say Nothing is set in southeastern Virginia, in locations ranging from the Middle Peninsula to downtown Norfolk. Parks handles the setting effectively, but never really evokes a sense of the place. The novel isn’t afraid to stretch credibility, sometimes to the breaking point, and like many modern novelist, Parks likes to throw one or two more obstacles into the path of his protagonist than are strictly necessary for the story. He also interrupts a strong first-person narrative with short one-to-two page third-person chapters focusing on the kidnappers, which really don’t add anything substantive. We get all the terror we need from the scenario through the messages and ‘gifts’ sent by the kidnappers. In spite of these minor flaws, Say Nothing offers a well written narrative, compelling characters, and a satisfying resolution. B

Sunday, June 11, 2017

An Oft Neglected Blog

The last time that I posted anything to this blog, Barack Obama was still the president of the United States. That was only a few short months ago, although it seems like the longest few short months in the history of the republic. While I don’t think I can directly blame the current administration (or lack thereof) for my inactivity, watching your own civilization teeter toward self-immolation certainly doesn’t inspire great bouts of creativity. Or perhaps it should. Great art often comes from dark times. 

Blogging, of course, as a thing, has become somewhat passé. Facebook displaced much of the social functioning of blogs; and Microblogging through Twitter, and photo and video blogging through Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube meet most internet users online sharing needs. But there is something to be said for the length of expression allowed by blogging, the capacity to write more than a few words about any given topic. The key is having something to say, and to say it regularly enough to keep the blog’s readers interested.

Of course, I have never been that consistent a blogger. Some months I might make two or three posts. Other months, or block of months, I might post absolutely nothing at all. I don’t know that in the future I will do that much better, but however long the bouts of silence, I do plan to continue blogging here. Look for posts in July on villains in comic book movies, reviews of the latest seasons of Better Call Saul and Fargo, and maybe a new post on political institutions as portrayed in science fiction. Yeah, in July. Or August at the latest.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Movie Review: Hidden Figures

Of all the unsung heroes of America’s heroic efforts to win the space race in the 1960’s, few are as unsung as the African-American women who did the math that computers were not yet ready to do, calculating the trajectories and orbits of space capsules. With the publication of Margot Lee Shetterly's Hidden Figures, and now the release of Theodore Melfi’s eponymous film, the extraordinary story of the vital role these women played in launching American astronauts into orbit and toward the moon has finally been told.

Hidden Figures focuses on three of these women, each of whom would go on to long and distinguished careers with NASA, Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), a math prodigy from an early age, Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), an unrecognized supervisor who becomes a computer expert, and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), a young woman with the then unheard of ambition (for an African American woman) to become an engineer. Of course, in addition to actually doing the hard work required to get these jobs done, these women had to deal with the racism and sexism that was still a pervasive feature of American society in the 60’s. Johnson is the primary protagonist, and we follow as she is assigned to a work group that is trying to calculate the trajectory that will allow John Glenn to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Working with a group of people who barely recognize her existence, she manages to create the math that allows Glenn to succeed.

Hidden Figures has a rather light tone, which works well in telling a story about the triumph of intellect and hard work over prejudice, and highlighting the absurdity of rules that segregated restrooms and coffeepots. The performances are in line with the tone, but uniformly excellent. The leads have great chemistry, and Kevin Coster, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons and Mahershala Ali all excel in supporting roles. Although never heavy handed, Hidden Figures deals honestly with the American legacy of racism and oppression, and shows how talented and capable individuals overcame that legacy to achieve great things. A-

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Starship of State: Governing the Future: Introduction

Politics in Pop Culture Science Fiction

Death and taxes. According to the old saying there are few things as certain as death and taxes. The first represents the inevitably of mortality, that all living things die. The second represents the inevitability of government, that all societies larger than a few individuals require some kind of order. In early hunter-gatherer tribes, it may have amounted to no more than a certain fluid division of labor. Hunters hunt, gatherers gather, everyone contributes to the good of the tribe. As societies grew more complex, so did the institutions required to govern them, giving rise to tribal confederations, city-states, empires, nations and republics. These units of organization require citizens to contribute something to the common good, usually through taxes, to keep society functioning. If they fail, the result is a state of anarchy that may be more taxing than the taxes were.

In fiction, death is often the focus of the plot. Literary works often use the stress of death to wring emotion out of characters, and some story genres, such as thrillers and mysteries, often start with the death of a character or require the threat of death as the primary source of tension. Certainly, there are genres and subgenres of fiction that also deal with taxes, and the governments that collect them. The police detective in the mystery novel is paid by a municipal government to investigate crimes and enforce laws. The spy in the thriller can waste tons of tax revenues on fancy machinegun-armed sports cars. The stoplight in the romance novel that makes the heiress late for her yoga lesson was presumably bought with somebody’s tax dollars. You can’t build a Death Star if you don’t have the money, and the organizational skills, to do so. So even in fictions where these institutions do not play a vital role, plausibility suggests that they are a vital part of the underlying society that the characters live in.

In science fiction, writers and film producers have the luxury of reimagining these institutions. The fantastic settings allow them to have characters that live under governments totally different from those that exist in the real world, either currently or historically. Of course, some stories are more dependent on these details than others. The Empire was vital to George’s Lucas’ Star Wars saga, since it was the rebellion against the imperial government, and the struggle to destroy its Death Star, that propelled so much of the story. The Federation featured in Star Trek may be more in the background, but regulations such as the Prime Directive reveal things about the political foundations of that society. And though the platoon of marines we see in Aliens suggest the presence of a government institution, the influence wielded by Burke and his ilk suggest the true power may be vested in a corporate oligarchy. Each of these film/television series, and a dozen others that have been created in the last 50 years, have made predictions about how the future (or in Star Wars case a long time ago) would be governed.

To many people the subject of politics can be deadly dull. They are happy to ignore all of the invisible work done by governments to support their daily lives, or to complain about the taxes they have to pay to support that work, but they are in no way interested in the minutiae of political or government activity. For these people, the series of blog posts I’m planning on the politics of the future, exploring the governing systems described in pop culture science fiction may not be that interesting. Showing senatorial trade route debates in the prequel episodes of the Star Wars saga was not well received by fans or critics. But if the political aspects of science fiction world building interest you, I will be posting at least seven or eight of these essays on the politics and government of the fictional future, exploring everything from Star Wars’ Republic and Empire to the feudal system seen in Dune. How do these institutions work? How do they compare with real-world equivalent systems? What are creators and producers trying to say with their portrait of governance? These are some of the questions I will explore over the next few weeks.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Movie Review: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

With the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the third coming of the Star Wars saga has broken the prequel curse placed on the franchise by creator George Lucas. And although none of the marketing for this movie ever used the P-word to describe it, the chronological setting, in advance of the events of the original Star Wars (later subtitled A New Hope), does indeed make the film a prequel. While this film does not reclaim the high-water mark Star Wars established with The Empire Strikes Back, it does prove that the new crop of producers are not likely to sink to the depths of Episodes One through Three.

Rogue One is the story of a McGuffin, those original Death Star plans that Princess Leia sent down to Tatooine inside the memory banks of R2D2 at the beginning of Star Wars, an event that pulled a farm boy named Luke and a retired Jedi named Obi Wan into the rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire. This film tells the story of how those plans were stolen in the first place. Jyn Erso (Felicty Jones), a criminal of some sort who was separated from her parents at a young age (when her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), was forcefully recruited into the Empire’s Death Star project), is sprung from an imperial prison by the rebels and recruited into a mission to find her father. The rebels want some information on a rumored new super-weapon that the Empire is about to deploy. Some of them also want Galen dead for his role in the development of this weapon, but they don’t tell Jyn that. The path to the plans lead through a rebel extremist (and Jyn’s former guardian) named Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker), a rain soaked Imperial Base, and finally a planet that looks like Hawaii. We know somewhat how the story will end, because Star Wars.

Rogue One has the redeeming quality of being fairly smart for a Star Wars movie, much smarter than last year’s The Force Awakens, which treated the concepts of both space and time with singular contempt. Sure, it is still a space fantasy, but at least it all makes sense within the context of the Star Wars universe. Rogue One focuses more on the war aspect of Star Wars, and features harrowing sequences of ground, air, and space combat. The film introduces us to a whole cast of new characters, but fails to develop them significantly. For all of the dumbness and repetition, at least The Force Awakens had heart. There is a lot of fan service in Rogue One, and some of it may be pointless, but it wouldn’t have been a problem if the characters had been developed better. But for anyone who is a fan of the series, or just enjoys a good science fiction adventure, Rogue One provides plenty of entertainment. B