Novel: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

It’s only February, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014) ends up being my favorite read of the year. This literary science fiction novel about the end of modern civilization is insightful, compelling, profoundly haunting, and heart-breakingly beautiful.

A fast-spreading, worldwide epidemic called the Georgia Flu quickly and ruthlessly wipes out most of the world’s population. The story temporally orbits a night of theater at the outbreak’s North American ground zero, Toronto, where world-famous movie star Arthur Leander is wrapping up a run as King Lear. Arthur’s last performance proves to be the fulcrum for the complex narrative, which reaches into the past to examine the time leading up to the collapse, and probes into the future to depict the epidemic’s dark aftermath. In the latter track, young actress Kirsten Raymonde – who, as a child, shared a stage with Arthur on that fateful, final night – performs in a traveling theater troupe that tours the primitive settlements of Michigan. From this bleak future, Mandel weaves an intricate tale that ties together the pre- and post-collapse storylines, cycling back to a vividly realized transitional period when the world shockingly, fascinatingly comes unraveled.

Station Eleven has a lyrical, literary sensibility, but stirs in plenty of thought-provoking science fictional thinking; Mandel is clearly comfortable with both mainstream and genre protocols. Her prose manages to blend clear, concise story-telling with finely wrought turns of phrase and moments of devastating beauty. Her characters are real and sympathetic and deftly interconnected by events. The story is structurally breathtaking, but also thematically rich, thrusting the reader into wrenching, eye-opening insights about the marvels of the world by imagining a future where those very marvels have all tragically fallen away. It’s a stunning novel, and one I won’t soon forget.

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Film: Wreck-It Ralph

What a pleasant surprise to discover Wreck-It Ralph (2012), an animated gem that leverages decades of video game lore to funny, quirky effect. Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the destructive villain of an old-school arcade game called Fix-It Felix, doomed to forever be the bad guy in a hopelessly programmed existence while his nemesis Felix (Jack McBrayer) reaps all the accolades. Ralph wants more out of life, and to that end he infiltrates another game in order to win a medal and become a hero. But Ralph’s quest for respectability has unexpected consequences when it takes a random turn into the racing game Sugar Rush. There his goals become entangled with those of Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman)…and, in a complicated chain of events, threatens to destroy the game-o-sphere.

Wreck-It Ralph does so many things right, and not just in the expected ways: the gorgeous animation, the sight gags, the perfect voice casting (especially from Reilly, Silverman, McBrayer, and Jane Lynch), the sense of humor, and the zany sensibility that welcomes newcomers even as it rewards seasoned, older gamers with amusing easter eggs. Even the product placement is clever. But most impressive to me was the surprising complexity of the story, which is rife with intricate subplotting and multiple resonating themes. The characters are winning, and their interactions are both fraught and affecting. Centrally, the friendship between Ralph and Vanellope is epic. And look, Mom, no sexism!

Somehow this film skated right past my radar when it came out, but it’s well worth watching: inventive, involved, funny, and surprisingly moving.

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TV: The Bletchley Circle (Season 2)

BletchleySeason two of The Bletchley Circle more or less matches the quality of the first, but never quite elevates the game. I come away from the series – which has, alas, been canceled – only modestly a fan, feeling that perhaps its execution never quite lived up to its premise. But it’s still a respectable period mystery, engaging and attractive, with strong female leads and terrific production values.

The show revolves around a quartet of brilliant women whose meaningful work as codebreakers and analysts at Bletchley Park during World War II proves to be a career highpoint difficult to match in their post-war lives. As the season begins, they’re still struggling with the peacetime patriarchy, but with a serial murder case under their belts they’re more than ready to tackle a new mystery when a fifth Bletchley colleague, Alice (Hattie Morahan), is implicated in a murder she seems unwilling to challenge, even though her guilt seems unikely. Alice’s situation proves to be the first of two double-episode mysteries that comprise the season, and also introduces her as a full-fledged member of the team for the second case, in which Millie (Rachael Stirling) gets mixed up in black market trafficking – and falls afoul of a Maltese smuggling ring.

Of the two stories, I found the second more engaging, but neither quite hits it out of the park. Unfortunately, the writing on the series never quite raises itself to the level of brilliance required of the characters and premise. Fortunately the show has other attributes – refreshing gender politics, likeable and sympathetic characters, a superb look – to distract from this problem. But ultimately, a crime-solving show involving ingenius detectives calls for ingenius plotting, and The Bletchley Circle generally falls a few twists short. I’m glad to have watched it, and sad to see it go – but not, alas, surprised.

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Milestones

Many years ago, when Jenn and I started our writing careers, in different parts of the country and different lifetimes, there were two flagship magazines to which all new science fiction and fantasy writers aspired: Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Our careers took different paths through different cities, different Clarions, with different ups and downs, but recently, just within a few months of each other, we each cracked one of these illustrious markets.

So, you know, we framed it…because SQUEEEEE!Covers

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A Year of Many Changes

Portland Trees

Well, we’re a month and a half into 2015, and you may have noticed I’m slightly off my usual blistering blogging pace. That’s because January and February have been chock full of furious activity and major life decisions. Everything is changing!

In early January, Jenn and I ventured north on what we considered a “reconnaisance mission” to the Pacific Northwest. We’ve been discussing leaving Los Angeles for years, and last year we decided that in 2015 we would “explore the possibility” of relocating. We’ve both been feeling the northern pull for a while now, so we arranged a one-week vacation to get our feet on the ground in Portland and Seattle to see which one felt right.

I’d be lying if I said part of me wasn’t hoping that the trip would convince us that we were fine in Los Angeles. That we wouldn’t have to do all the crazy hard work that moving would entail. That we would learn, instead, that we could be just as happy in our current circumstances as in some hypothetical elsewhere.

But that didn’t happen. Oregon and Washington…they just felt so right. I felt it the second we stepped out of the airport in Seattle. The cool air, the rain, the green, the water and mountains and trees. I could breathe. We drove down to Portland first and the drive south was magical, cruising along beautiful, fog-enshrouded hills while 1940s jazz played in the background. I was instantly enchanted by the geography, and nothing we experienced in Portland or Seattle disabused me of that initial impression. We visited neighborhood after neighborhood, meeting up with friends and interviewing them relentlessly about life up there: the food culture, the job market, real estate prices, public transportation, neighborhoods we should check out, and on and on. We gathered tons of information, but the data point that really hit home to me was that everyone we spoke to loved living up there, and thought that we would too.

In the end, we decided to move to Portland. It seemed the best of both worlds, retaining the urban vibrancy that we love about Los Angeles, but subtracting many of the things we dislike: the dryness, the absurd traffic, the smog, the vast distances, the unrelenting heat. Portland felt like the home we want to make.

So that’s been 2015, so far: we have been neck-deep in The Move. Contractors fixed up our condo, we put it on the market, and sold it. Most of our belongings are packed up in storage, ready for delivery. Many items we didn’t want have been donated, disposed of, or given away. We’ve got a new apartment lined up. I gave my notice at work, and will soon be looking for work in a new city. All of this was done within a month of getting back from our trip. It’s all happening so fast!

But it’s time for a change, and we’re jumping in with both feet. I’m excited to try something new, and to build a new life in a new place. Wish us luck!

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Novel: Billy Moon by Douglas Lain

Reading Douglas Lain’s Billy Moon (2013) is like stepping into a weird dream. It’s a quirky, surreal alternate history that reimagines the past of Christopher Milne (aka “Billy Moon”), the son of author A.A. Milne and the basis for Christopher Robin in the Winnie the Pooh books. In the fifties and sixties, Christopher has grown up to resent his father’s co-opting of his childhood – so much so that he tries not to carry the Pooh books in his own bookshop. Christopher’s simple English life is ultimately disrupted when a radical French student named Gerrard, who possesses the strange ability to see into the past and the future, invites him to Paris in the spring of 1968. Christopher arrives just in time to witness, and participate in, the civic unrest surrounding protest of the de Gaulle regime, a volatile period that transformed French history.

Reading a novel often feels like immersing oneself in another person’s passions, and I felt that particularly strongly while reading Billy Moon: an amusing, dreamlike reimagination of a past about which I knew very little. While the plot is slow to develop, the individual scenes and sentences carried me through, full of Lain’s trademark comic vision and left-turns into the unexpected. And eventually the storylines of Christopher, Gerrard, and another French student, Natalie, converge in the explosive upheavals of May 1968. It’s here that the story comes together thematically, as Christopher’s quiet desire for simple comforts comes into conflict with the revolutionary discontent of the protest movement in Paris. This seems the crux of Lain’s interest, for while the novel is a surreal entertainment on one level – sort of like reading a baffling but charming French New Wave film – it’s also a political novel that uses its obscure subject matter as a window onto contemporary complacency in the face of need for change that never seems to come.

Lain’s short fiction has often delighted me for its humor, inventiveness, and unpredictability, but Billy Moon was even more unexpected: an ambitious, thoughtful, and peculiar literary fantasy. Its quiet narrative meanders and explores, but ultimately adds up to something that resonates beyond the page.

 

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Spy 100, #5: Our Man In Havana

Now this is the stuff. From writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed – the same winning team of The Third Man – comes Our Man in Havana (1959), an irresistable blend of classic filmmaking, spy intrigue, and dark comedy. The titular character is Jim Wormold (the great Alec Guinness), just a run of the mill British expatriate vacuum cleaner salesman living in Cuba before the communist revolution. Much to his amusement, Wormold is approached by a British spook named Hawthorne (Noel Coward), who recruits Wormold into his new Caribbean network. Wormold is no spy, and can’t imagine how he can be of any use, but Hawthorne won’t take no for an answer…and Wormold, whose frivolous daughter Milly (Jo Morrow) has expensive tastes, changes his tune once he sees the color of the British government’s money. The only problem: he possesses no intelligence. So, playfully, he begins making it up: inventing agents, fabricating reports, even generating his own top secret blueprints. It’s all harmless fun until one of his lies lands too close to the truth, a turn that spins his lark of a career in dark directions.

Can a movie be number five on a best-of list and still be underrated? Our Man In Havana is a wonderful film, an amusing comedy of errors that takes a dark turn into scathing critique of intelligence-world meddling. Guinness is delightful in an energetic, playful role, morphing convincingly from a cynically light-hearted opportunist into a repentant, actual player in the spy world’s dark alleys, working to engineer a valid endgame to the mess he’s made. Greene’s script is tight, funny, and doesn’t pander, while Reed builds the world with gritty black-and-white artistry. This one’s got everything I love in a good spy movie, with the added bonus of an incisive, whip-smart sense of humor. Very highly recommended.

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Film: In Your Eyes

For much of its run, In Your Eyes (2014) is a premise in search of a story. A fantasy romance from an early script by Joss Whedon, it’s about star-crossed lovers who share a mysterious psychic link that enables them to see through each other’s eyes and share emotional experiences. In small-town New Hampshire is Rebecca (Zoe Kazan), the troubled wife of a doctor, while Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) is an intelligent ne’er-do-well in rural New Mexico with a criminal past . Neither of their lives is going well, when their link suddenly comes into sharp relief, giving them each an instantly reachable confidant with whom to interact. Their obsessive connection creates problems in their separate lives, but also inexorably brings them together.

An earnest, indie production, In Your Eyes is, alas, not a particularly good film. It spends a considerable percentage of its running time establishing its fantastical premise, but fails to realize that premise with any visual gusto; the one time it attempts to depict the characters seeing through each others’ eyes, the effect is weak, and the rest of the time their conversations basically play out like phone calls. The premise also handcuffs the stars with the challenging task of interacting, and falling in love, without actually being in the same place. Stahl-David manages this trick better than Kazan, but neither truly shines.

Eventually the couple’s rapport achieves some depth, and conflict enters the picture, and a story develops; the film is not completely without interest. But overall it’s an unimpressive slog, definitely a disappointment by Whedon’s usual standard.

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TV: The Honourable Woman

Honourable Woman

The eight-episode BBC miniseries The Honourable Woman (2014) may well be a spy fiction masterpiece. And the only reason I say “may” is that it’s so profoundly complex I’m feeling awestruck, which makes me distrust my first impression. Even so, I’m certain of one thing: this is must-see spy TV, a series I will surely watch again.

Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the Anglo-Israeli head of a telecommunications company with an ambitious vision: a joint Israeli-Palestinian project to lay data cable in the West Bank. She’s an idealist whose quest to improve literal communication in the Middle East has taken on symbolic importance, serving as a beacon of hope in a troubled region. But Nessa also has a dark, troubled past. Eight years previously, she and her translator Atika (Lubna Azabal) were kidnapped and held for ransom during a risky journey into Gaza. They made it out, but why did they go, what happened while they were there, and how did they get out? This mysterious backstory is gradually revealed in flashback even as new intrigues play out in the present. With the third phase of the cable project about to begin, the Palestinian contractor the Steins hired to undertake the work dies. A replacement is needed, but finding one is a politically fraught process, and it’s just the tip of the intrigue iceberg. Various interests secretly clash over the project, each looking to leverage it to their own ends. With the best of intentions, Nessa is caught in the middle, slowly and inexorably torn apart by her ideals, even as she refuses to stop standing up for them.

The series is written, produced, and directed by Hugo Blick, and it definitely has the consistent tone and vision of an auteur project. The story is dense, patient, and unforgivingly convoluted, but ultimately comes into sharp focus. The direction is artful, taut, and brimming with suspense. It’s less an episodic series than a visual novel broken up into eight chapters, and if the title invokes John le Carré, it earns the comparison. Meanwhile, in terms of its visual story-telling techniques, it conjures the bleak artistry of Breaking Bad, scenes loaded with nerve-wracking tension, raw emotion, and explosive violence.

The acting is uniformly superb, especially from Gyllenhaal, whose nuanced, shellshocked performance as Nessa is fearless and powerful. I was also impressed with Azabal, who is convincing as Nessa’s tough, mysterious confidant. Meanwhile, there’s an intricate swirl of interplay between the various intelligence agencies looking to leverage the situation: Israeli, Palestinian, American, and especially British interests figure prominently. Here, the outwardly bumbling but quietly competent Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle (Stephen Rea), head of MI6’s Middle East desk, serves as the clever outsider, piecing together the puzzle as we watch over his shoulder. Hayden-Hoyle is a Smileyesque figure, whose subtly charismatic turn is both amusing and rallying. The supporting cast bursts with talent: Andrew Buchan, Tobias Menzies, Igal Naor, Katherine Parkinson, Janet McTeer, Eve Best, and Genevieve O’Reilly all hold the stage well in support. If that seems like an unusually high number of major female characters, it should; on top of all its other considerable assets, this series presents an excellent roster of female characters, most of whom figure just as prominently in the story as the men, if not moreso. Hollywood would do well to study this series, as I think you’d probably have to pick through ten to fifteen American spy movies to find this many strong female roles.

Upshot: The Honourable Woman is gripping, polished, enjoyably challenging stuff. It’s certainly a must-see show for spy buffs, if not also simply for lovers of exceptional television.

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Every Episode of Mission: Impossible, Ranked

mi

It’s probably blasphemy for a science fiction writer to admit this, but I’ve never been a Star Trek fan. While many of my SF writer friends were immersed in that universe, I was busy watching (and re-watching, and re-re-watching) the original Mission: Impossible, thereby ensuring that, somehow, I was out of step even with my own tribe.

That said, I have to say I was impressed by Jordan Hoffman’s article at Playboy ranking every Star Trek episode ever made. Not enough to actually read the reviews, mind you; that, I think, is an exercise for the converted. But the very audacity of tackling such a project spoke to the obsessive completist in me. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, if my favorite television show had a similar list?

So, of course, I made one.

The original Mission: Impossible ran from 1966-1973 on CBS, and in light of all the amazing television that’s been produced since then, one would be hard pressed to call it one of the best shows of all time. But I do think, in its own clandestine way, it’s one of TV’s most influential series, and not just on the spy shows that followed in its wake. (Television history’s mission-of-the-week landscape is littered with popular shows that owe a debt to Mission, everything from cagey, comedic imitators like The A-Team and Leverage to sprawling, serialized spy dramas like 24 and Alias.) It’s influential TV in general; it changed the way television was made, bringing cinematic techniques to the small screen. Especially compared to the stagy, talky fare of its era, Mission was a mini-movie every week, full of rapid cuts, insert shots, dialogue-free visual storytelling, complex, dovetailing storylines, and innovative sound editing, all backed by the iconic music of the legendary Lalo Schifrin, among others. Nothing else looked, sounded, or felt like it.

I still recall staying up until midnight to watch the reruns every night as a teenager, and the theme song used to raise the hackles on the back of my neck. Watching it was ritualistic, and for good or ill, its influence is stamped indelibly on me. Yes, it’s dated. Yes, many of its episodes are flawed, unrealistic, even flat-out terrible. But Mission: Impossible matters to me, and I’ve loved it ever since I first saw the lighting of the match. 

In keeping with Hoffman’s piece, I’ve established my own set of rules. 1 – The movies don’t count. 2 – The 1980s revival series doesn’t count.  3 – Two- or three-part episodes count as one episode. That’s it. In short, I’ve limited myself to the real deal, the original series only. Perhaps not as impressive as Hoffman’s enterprise – pun intended – but hey, the Mission: Impossible franchise has a smaller cultural footprint than Star Trek. (Which, if you ask me, is just how “the Secretary” would have wanted it.)

So without further ado…visit Every Episode of Mission: Impossible, Ranked!

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