26 June 2019

Hugos 2019: Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

Trade paperback, 294 pages
Published 2018

Acquired April 2019
Read May 2019
Space Opera by Catherynne Valente

I was really looking forward to this book: the premise of Eurovision in space seemed like exactly the kind of thing the often grim genre of sf could use more of. Well, if you want Eurovision in space, you don't get it until page 169 of 294, when the main characters finally get where they are going after page upon page of overwritten, unfunny, sub-Douglas Adams backstory. Valente dumps tons of galactic history on you, but the overly cute narrative voice it's told in quickly grates on the reader and it just becomes exhausting.

I also think it's weird that a woman who wrote a book criticizing the women-in-refrigerators trope wrote a book about two men, whose character motivations entirely spring from the dead (Manic Pixie Dream Girl) woman in their backstory.

What's here is just so thin, stretched out to novel length. I suspect this would have been a great short story, or a good novelette, or a solid novella, but instead it's an interminably mediocre novel. (Incidentally, there is already a Doctor Who story with the premise of Eurovision in space, the audio drama Bang-Bang-a-Boom! It's not great, but it is better than this.)

25 June 2019

Review: Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 6 by Jim Shooter, Curt Swan, George Klein, et al.

Comic hardcover, 221 pages
Published 1997 (contents: 1966-67)
Acquired March 2016
Read December 2017
Legion of Super-Heroes Archives, Volume 6

Writers: E. Nelson Bridwell, Jim Shooter, Otto Binder
Pencillers: Curt Swan, George Papp
Inkers: George Klein, George Papp
Letterer: Milton Snapinn

This volume sees one of the first attempts at an ongoing story for the Legion. The Fatal Five are introduced as deadly enemies for the Legion, recruited in a Suicide Squad-esque thingy where the Legion needs the help of the worst of the worst to defeat a Sun-Eater on its way to the Earth. Famously, it kills Ferro Lad; I might have cared if Ferro Lad had every done anything other than get killed. Unfortunately, he was introduced in volume 5, which I don't have, so he seems pretty much like a nobody here. The Fatal Five is potentially interesting, but like a lot of 1960s Legion concepts, I think later writers will do more with it than its originators do themselves.

Outside of Ferro Lad, it's the usual stupid Legion hijinks. The famous "adult Legion" story comes in this volume, which should really be famous for Cosmic Boy's hairline, and the fact that apparently the marker of adulthood in the 1960s was pipe-smoking:
Cosmic Man's hair loss is matched only by my scan's gutter loss.
from Adventure Comics vol. 1 #354 (script & layouts by Jim Shooter, art by Curt Swan & George Klein)

There's also a story where five of the Legionnaires end up as babies, who get adopted by parents from a planet with sterile inhabitants. Even by Legion standards, it's contrived.

But of course!
from Adventure Comics vol. 1 #356 (script by E. Nelson Bridwell, art by Curt Swan & George Klein)

I don't really get how Jim Shooter got a reputation as a great Legion writer based on this stuff. I mean, it's great for a thirteen-year-old, and it's okay for the 1960s Legion, but that doesn't mean I'd hire him at age 57 in 2008 to make a new, more appealing version of the Legion, yet DC did so for some reason. Curt Swan and George Klein draw the hell out of the Legion, though, especially its pretty ladies, so there's that.

Dream Girl, Insect Girl, Princess Projectra, and the Emerald Empress. (The last is not a Legionnaire, I know.)
from Adventure Comics vol. 1 #355, 352, and 353 (scripts by Otto Binder and Jim Shooter, art by Curt Swan & George Klein)
Next Week: More of the Legion, in Archives, Volume 7!

24 June 2019

Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Hardcover, 492 pages
Published 2016

Acquired December 2016
Read June 2019
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is a re-telling of Pride and Prejudice, but that's not why I read it; I read it as part of a mission to read novels set in my hometown of Cincinnati. Sittenfeld grew up in Hyde Park, and even though she hasn't lived there in her adult life, her brother PG Sittenfeld is a member of city council. The local color is pretty good: Darcy and Liz bump into each other at Skyline, people are always making out-of-towners try Graeter's raspberry chip, and the Bennets size up a sister's potential by asking where he went to high school. It's much more East Side than the Cincinnati I grew up in, but Sittenfeld gets the vibe of the richer-than-you East Side families pretty good. (As snobs, they are of course offended when someone from a coastal state like Darcy is snobby to them.) The mother in particular felt like a real Hyde Park woman, with he slightly concealed casual racism. So that was fun, although the last quarter of the novel largely abandons the Cincinnati setting.

As a novel otherwise, it's okay. Its cardinal sin is that I don't think the antagonism between Liz and Darcy comes across like it ought; he's an outright asshole to her in scene one, but from then on he's behaves so mildly toward her it's hard to see why she's made. And I think that's the point (I haven't reread Pride and Prejudice since early my M.A., so my memory is foggy), but Sittenfeld doesn't convince you that Liz would be so negative toward him. Whereas he kinda feels like he's barely there! There's a lot of good tie-ins to contemporary issues, but the way reality tv takes over the plot in the final quarter feels very implausible and out there. I also felt there was a lot of clunky exposition in the beginning, and contrived circumstances, designed to get the reader up to speed on why five unmarried women would still be living with their parents.

I did really laugh loudly at the epilogue, though, so there's that.

21 June 2019

"But just keep it comin'": The Spy Who Loved Me

Some of the Roger Moore James Bond films are just ridiculous, and go for it utterly: Moonraker or Live and Let Die. I don't think either of those are good films, but at least you can see what they're trying to do. Others try to balance the serious with the ridiculous. Sometimes this actually works: For Your Eyes Only goes straight from brutal assassination to comedy car chase, and it's Roger Moore's best film, and one of the top-tier Bond films overall. But often it does not; I think A View to a Kill and The Spy Who Loved Me were trying to do the same thing, and it just doesn't take off. We get the occasional intense scene-- tons of sailors being machine-gunned down in the climax-- but then the movie will turn goofy. Sometimes in a fun way-- Bond's Union Jack parachute is amazing-- but too often you just roll your eyes-- the bad guys try to take Bond down with a motorcycle where the whole sidecar is a missile.

The more Roger Moore films I watch, the more I'm convinced he's just not a very good James Bond. Especially as someone coming to Bond (now at least, if not initially) via books, Bond is best when he's charming, sexy, and dangerous. There should be this contained sense of jeopardy beneath his flirtations. Sean Connery and Daniel Craig both do a great job at this, and you believe women would want to be with their Bonds. (Other Bond actors are still forthcoming in our Bond journey; George Lazenby's sole outing is actually next.) Roger Moore just comes across as this boor that has to make a sexual comment at every woman he sees. Like, c'mon dude, why do you got to make a comment about the breasts of the hotel employee who comes to your room to give you a note? I can't imagine the book Bond doing that, and Moore just comes across as sleazy in those scenes.

C'mon, Bond, show some class.

What's striking given Bond's reputation for charm is that Bond has four sexual/romantic partners in this film-- and all four are faking it and/or doing it under duress! At the film's opening, Bond is sleeping with a woman in a mountain cabin, but then it turn out that she's working with the KGB to kill him. Then when he visits an Arab sheikh / college chum for information in Egypt, the guy gives Bond one of his women to sleep with. Then Bond goes to see another guy for information, but finds a woman who is part of a trap set for him; she kisses him to distract him (and gets killed anyway). And then he puts the moves on the KGB agent he's competing with, and I rolled my eyes because how quickly she went for it wasn't convincing at all... but it turns out she was tricking him! Bond is much more convinced of his charms than I am. Later, of course, he seduces her for real, but it doesn't really make him seem sexy when four out of five encounters are not actually about him, and in fact, does just the opposite. This guy can only get women to sleep with him under duress; how un-sexy must he be!

Speaking of that KGB agent, she was one of the best and worst parts of the movie. The film opens with both a Soviet and British nuclear submarine disappearing; both powers send their best agent to figure it out. Agent XXX (eye roll), Major Anya Amasova, is introduced in a nice fake-out scene: there's a man and a woman sleeping together, and the guy kind of looks James Bond-y so you figure he's the Soviet agent, but it turns out he's a lover she's leaving behind for a mission! I knew about Agent XXX going in, so I wasn't fooled, but my wife was. The problem with her is that she alternates between hyper-competence and hyper-incompetence. I really liked it when she lets Bond think he seduced her, then knocks him out, steals his stuff, and runs off, and she occasionally demonstrates that she has more knowledge about things, including cars (though first we have to suffer through a lot of women driver cracks from Bond, of course), plus she can usually hold her own in a fight. But at other times, especially once she's not competing with Bond, but working with him, she just sits there, going "Oh, James!" whenever danger is approaching. What happened to the KBG's best agent?

I was about to criticize her for impractical desert spywear, but I suppose a tuxedo doesn't make much more sense.

The film was lifted by its villain. Though Moonraker is essentially this movie right over again (millionaire villain wants to depopulate Earth and start over, just with a space colony instead of an underwater one), I really liked Curt Jurgens's performance as Karl Stromberg, which was slightly off in the way that a good Bond villain should be. I loved the scene where he plays classical music while his treacherous assistant is eaten by sharks. His performance is aided by the special effects, in that the grandeur of his scheme is very apparent because it all looks grand. His underwater base is amazingly, improbably huge, and the supertanker that can swallow submarines also looks fantastic. In fact the whole movie has an above-average visual sense. I particularly liked the way the Egyptian landmarks were used; both the Sphinx/pyramids and desert temple locations look great, and make for great fights.

I love when Bond uses one of the turn signals underwater.

And there are times the ridiculousness works. Like a lot of Roger Moore movies, there's a goofy form of transportation. The chase with his new car starts kind of boring, but becomes amazing when the car he's in reveals it can transform into an underwater submersible! Sublime. On the whole, this was a promising movie that went in unpromising directions, a weaker Bond film of the middle tier, I would say.

Other Notes:
  • This is the third Roger Moore film where there is skiing: A View to a Kill and For Your Eyes Only both had it. (And wasn't there water-skiing in Live and Let Die?) Plus, if On Her Majesty's Secret Service (which I've read but not yet watched) is at all faithful to the novel, there will be skiing in that too. Was skiing just really popular in the 1970s and '80s?
  • When Bond's car drives out of the water onto the beach, I commented that like the other Bond films where he drives something goofy (e.g., the hover-gondola in Moonraker), there's always a guy who does a double-take. But then when I read Wikipedia, I learned that it's actually the same guy in all three movies!
  • The Spy Who Loved Me basically owes nothing to the book, which is a first-person narrative by a young woman who gets in criminal trouble that a passing Bond rescues her from; he's only in about a third of it. The one exception is that in the book there's a criminal named Sol "Horror" Horowitz, who has steel-capped teeth, who is seemingly the inspiration for Jaws. Horowitz's are just normal teeth, though; he can't chew through metal! It's weird watching Spy Who Loved Me after Moonraker, because Jaws here is a menacing, almost vampiric figure, a cold-blooded killer... then in Moonraker we're meant to cheer as he gets a happily ever after send-off!
  • A few thoughts on (re)casting:
    • Robert Brown appears as Vice Admiral Hargreaves; he would play M from Octopussy through License to Kill, and some figure that his M is Hargreaves.
    • Desmond Llewellyn's Q is called "Major Boothroyd" here, the only time this happens. (The only other time his name was used is Dr. No, when he was played by Peter Burton.)
    • Having already seen A View to a Kill, I kind of wonder if Pola Ivanova, the KGB agent that Bond has a preexisting romantic relationship with, was originally meant to be Anya, instead of a new character.
  • In the book, the "spy who loved me" is James Bond... but here I feel like it actually refers to Anya.
  • Why do Bond villains always have a thing for sharks? So far: this movie, Live and Let Die, Thunderball, and For Your Eyes Only have all featured shark battles.

Film Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. Dr. No
  3. From Russia with Love
  4. For Your Eyes Only 
  5. Thunderball
  6. Goldfinger
  7. The Spy Who Loved Me
  8. Moonraker
  9. Never Say Never Again
  10. A View to a Kill
  11. Live and Let Die 
  12. Diamonds Are Forever

19 June 2019

Hugos 2019: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

It begins again! This is the third year in a row I'm voting in the Hugo Awards; I'll be writing up detailed reviews of the books I (or my wife) own on Wednesdays, starting this week. All the others I'll be covering in a series of recap posts at the end of the voting period.

Hardcover, 531 pages
Published 2018

Borrowed from my wife
Read April 2019
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

This was the first 2019 Hugo finalist I read (excepting those I read before the finalists were announced, and excepting the fact that the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book is "not a Hugo"). My wife and her book club had read it not long after it came out, and I knew from their discussions that it was influenced by Avatar: The Last Airbender. If I'd not known that I wonder if I would have recognized the parallels, but they were incredibly, frustratingly obvious once they were pointed out. Except that Children of Blood and Bone is nowhere near as good as Avatar.

Adeyemi never made me care about any of these characters or their relationships; the one innovation over the set-up of Avatar is that the main characters end up adventuring with the sister of the Zuko-analog, but even though she's one of the book's three first-person narrators, she ends up feeling the sketchiest. She's done this huge thing in throwing away her family, but you have almost no sense of her as a person for some reason. There's a lot of will-they-won't-they between different combinations of (all straight) couples, but it all kind of comes down to the male characters noticing the female characters' "curves" again and again.

The novel is written in the present tense, which normally I don't mind, but based on this book, I have to conclude that it just does not work for epic fantasy. (A few weeks after finishing this book, I read Ursula Le Guin's Conversations on Writing, where she claims that present tense is good for "high suspense, high drama, cut-to-the-chase writing" but not "a big, long story," especially one engaged with history-- as epic fantasy in general and CBB in specific are.) Adeyemi also way overuses the one-sentence paragraph in an effort to make things seem dramatic, and soon the book's constant dire pronouncements become comedic.

Bits of the novel-- often key scenes-- just seemed poorly written. There's a bit where Our Heroes participate in an arena battle between ships. Somehow these battles happen every day and feature dozens of ships, each of which has to be crewed by dozens of slaves... and no one survives most of the battles! How do they not run out of slaves and ships so quickly as to make it unprofitable? The battle itself features the main character underwater, but the way Adeyemi writes, it never really feels as if she's underwater, because she can always tell what's going on on the surface... and she can even speak in order to create her spells. Or there's another scene where the main characters pause their epic quest to prevent genocide which has a deadline of days away in order to go to a really rocking party. It's hella contrived.

At 500+ pages, this book quickly wore out its welcome to me, but I persevered to the end. I am unsurprised to learn it was optioned for a movie before it came out; it feels like a novel written with the movie in mind. I am also unsurpised but disappointed that this is what people think the best of YA sf&f is, generic knock-offs with a thin veneer of innovation. I get that there is little epic YA fantasy with African influences... but you have to do something with those influences other than produce a generic piece of epic YA fantasy, otherwise what's the point?

18 June 2019

Review: The James Bond Omnibus, Volume 001 by John McLusky, et al.

Comic trade paperback, 303 pages
Published 2009 (contents: 1958-62)
Acquired and read June 2019
The James Bond Omnibus, Volume 001

Adapted by Anthony Hern, Peter O'Connell & Henry Gammidge
Art by John McLusky

Alongside my reading of James Bond novels, watching of James Bond films, and listening to James Bond radio dramas, I've also been reading James Bond comics. This volume collects the installments of the James Bond comic strip that ran in the Daily Express from 1958 to 1962, adapting the plots of Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds are Forever, From Russia with Love, Dr No, Goldfinger, "Risico," "From a View to a Kill," "For Your Eyes Only," and Thunderball into strips of 2-4 panels; each novel gets condensed into about 125 strips.

They're heavy on the narration and the recapping; I wouldn't say the writing of the adaptations is any great achievement. Except for Thunderball, which is massively cut down (once SPECTRE steals the plane, Bond defeats them in six strips!), the plots are pretty much intact, with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies. Because so little plot is cut, the opening of Goldfinger goes on too long just as it does in the novel; the need to communicate so much means that most conversations are disjointed and expressed in narration. In the first couple stories, the narration is in the third person, then it switches to first person from Bond for a couple, then it goes back to third for the rest. I did think the short stories from For Your Eyes Only really shone at this length; I think they have less compression, and don't feel as drawn out. They become cracking little action pieces, especially "For Your Eyes Only." I did note that these are the only Bond adaptations to maintain Fleming's careful inventories of Bond's meals; on the other hand, they change the third ingredient in the vesper from Kina Lillet to vermouth!

The art is great, though. Sharp black-and-white stuff that suits the mood of Fleming's stories admirably. John McLusky does his best with landscapes and creatures; Bond battling the occasional sea creature also looked great. His villains are grotesque, his women stylish, and his Bond cruel. I don't know that I really recommend sitting down and reading them all through in a couple days as I did, but if you're a Bond devotee (and maybe I am?), they're worth investigating.

Next Week: I'm caught up on James Bond reviews, so I'll be switching gears to catch up on my Legion of Super-Heroes comics!

17 June 2019

Review: The Expanse: Drive by James S.A. Corey

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2017 (originally 2012)

Read March 2019
The Expanse: Drive
by James S.A. Corey

Drive is an ebook of a short story set in the world of The Expanse, covering the somewhat accidental and somewhat tragic creation of the Epstein drive, the highly efficient propulsion system that makes the quick intrasystem travel depicted in the series possible. It's a decent story, well told, alternating between Epstein's final flight and his life leading up to that point, but I doubt anyone would have taken much notice of it if it wasn't set in the world of a bestselling novel series. There's an episode of the tv show that covers the same content much more efficiently and about as effectively.

14 June 2019

"Nights could be long and sweet": Never Say Never Again

Famously, due to complicated rights things, Thunderball was adapted into a film twice, the second time in 1983. At this point, Roger Moore had appeared in six Bond films, and would go on to appear in one more, but Never Say Never Again brought back Sean Connery for the first time since 1971.

I spent some time puzzling out how this movie fit into continuity. I mean, obviously continuity in Bond is always loose at best, and obviously that's even more true in this film, but I felt like it posited an alternate world where Connery never stopped being Bond, and so by 1983, he was a dinosaur in a world that was leaving him behind, to the extent that the 00 section is shut down for budgetary reasons by M; the film's Bond is clearly an experienced old hand who is out of step with how things are being done these days. This seems to imply to me that some of the old films had happened, so that Bond has an actual history--- but of course Thunderball itself could not have happened, because no one in this movie ever goes, "Hang on, haven't we seen this all before?"

Anyway, it's okay, better than I thought it would be in some parts, worse than Thunderball in others. Fitting in with what had happened in the Bond films over the past decade, it makes things bigger than in the original; instead of confining itself to the Bahamas, the film moves from there to France and then Ethiopia, which doesn't feel grafted on, and gives the movie a nice sense of scope. I liked the setting of the final battle, an ancient Muslim temple in an underwater oasis.

On the other hand, a lot of the changes are clearly mistakes. Changing the casino showdown between Bond and Largo from blackjack to a cheesy world domination computer game that sends electric shocks to the loser... I know it was the 1980s, but surely this played poorly even then? Nice is a great location for some chase scenes, but that it all ends with Fatima Blush (the replacement character for the awesome Fiona Vulpe in the earlier film) trying to get Bond to sign a declaration that she was the best sexual partner he ever had... lol wut? And though the setting of the final battle is great, the whole thing feels oddly anticlimactic, maybe just because of the nature of underwater fights.

On the whole, it's clear the screenwriters consistently looked at the script for the original film and asked, "How can we do this again, but bigger and more?" I like the increased scope, but a lot of the changes are just answers in search of a problem that doesn't exist; the original isn't a top-tier Bond film, but it was fine as is.

Other Notes:
  • The recasting of some key Bond roles is one of the most successful elements of the film. Pamela Salem is of course charming as Moneypenny; in her 30s at a point where Lois Maxwell was in her 50s, she's much more in line with the idea of the character, too. Bernie Casey is probably one of the better Felix Leiters, managing to demonstrate some actual competence and charisma. But the best bit of new casting was Alec McCowen as Q who might be-- is this sacrilege?-- funnier than Desmond Llewellyn.
  • On the other hand, Rowan Atkinson is in this movie for some reason. I guess why not?
  • Given that this movie was standalone and I don't think (am I wrong?) they expected to make a sequel, it seems odd to cast someone of Max von Sydow's caliber as Blofeld and then not have him receive any kind of comeuppance at the end. If Blofeld gets away at the end of a normal Bond movie, you know Bond will be back to track him down... but Bond retires at the end of this one!

Film Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. Dr. No
  3. From Russia with Love
  4. For Your Eyes Only 
  5. Thunderball
  6. Goldfinger 
  7. Moonraker
  8. Never Say Never Again
  9. A View to a Kill
  10. Live and Let Die 
  11. Diamonds Are Forever

13 June 2019

Audio Catch-up!

At some point, I slipped on cross-posting my reviews of audio dramas over at Unreality SF to this blog, so here is a giant catch-up post, for anyone out there who cares(???).
Uh, that was more than I thought!

    11 June 2019

    Review: On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming

    Mass market paperback, 326 pages
    Published 2006 (originally 1963)
    Acquired April 2019
    Read May 2019
    On Her Majesty's Secret Service by Ian Fleming

    This was really good. After the events of Thunderball (allowing for Bond's American vacation in The Spy Who Loved Me), Bond has been tracking down Blofeld, but to little avail, and he feels like he's being wasted on detective work. Driving back from a mission, he meets Tracy, a damaged woman who captivates him, and he ends up helping her feel wanted for the first time in a long while, and her father-- leader of the Corsican underworld-- tries to get him to settle down with her. Then, following a lead, Bond ends up infiltrating an alpine Swiss resort where it seems Blofeld might be hiding; Blofeld's given himself away by writing to the College of Arms to get himself a title.

    Fleming is firing on all cylinders here. Even though the book's two plots could feel only tenuously connected, they interact much more organically than the way books like Goldfinger or Thunderball open. Tracy is a convincing love interest for Bond; one can imagine that he would settle down with her because they clearly love each other for who they are, damage and all, rather than wanting each other to change.

    The parts with Bond infiltrating Blofeld's clinic are good; Fleming's focus on pedantic detail serves him well when writing about heraldry, and when focusing on Bond as an infiltrator. I like how there's a countdown of sorts once the Secret Service agent from Station Z is captured by SPECTRE, and  Bond must work quickly and efficiently but unobtrusively to find a way out of the situation. The way Blofeld's plot slowly reveals itself is well-handled, and the action sequences are excellent, some of the most tense in the series, as Bond must make two escapes down a mountain, one via skis, the other via bobsled. Fleming makes you feel the intensity and the struggle of these escapes. As always, things are difficult and grueling for the literary Bond. The only thing I don't like is that Blofeld's plan feels like a reduction of stakes after the previous book, less grand and less interesting, while it should be bigger and bolder.

    The very end is famous-- I knew what was coming even though I've never read the book or seen the film-- and it works, even if it's obvious. It really is devastating. Overall, this is probably the best Bond book, except for maybe the first one.

    Some other notes: Bond using the phrase "Sucks to you" was not a thing I expected, nor was him being familiar with the St. Trinian's films. There is a nice callback to Casino Royale at the beginning (we are reminded how much Bond cared for Vesper), which sets up the more emotionally vulnerable Bond of this novel. This was the first Bond novel to be written after the film series began, and Fleming explains why Bond has a Scottish accent on screen by explaining that Bond's father was a Scot, something previously not mentioned. He also debuts the (real) motto of the (real) Bond family, "The world is not enough," which would give its name to a Pierce Brosnan film. The weirdest reference to the films, though, is that Bond sees Ursula Andress, who played Honey Ryder in Dr. No, in Blofeld's clinic!

    Next Week: One last James Bond book, but not a novel-- I hit up some 007 comics!

    Book Rankings (So Far):
    1. Casino Royale
    2. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
    3. Dr No
    4. Thunderball
    5. Moonraker
    6. For Your Eyes Only
    7. From Russia with Love
    8. The Spy Who Loved Me
    9. Live and Let Die
    10. Goldfinger
    11. Diamonds are Forever