Worldcon 2015

I have a sketchy, sporadic and awkward history with science fiction conventions. My first was in Niagara Falls, a Contradiction my dad took me to as a teenager. It’s hazy in my memory…I recall feeling a certain awestruck excitement when Nancy Kress boarded my elevator, and when I watched George R.R. Martin describe, in dispiriting, soul-crushing detail, his experiences in Hollywood to date. (I expect he’s feeling a little better about that nowadays!) Not much else sticks in my mind from that long-ago trip.

Since then I’ve been to twenty-odd conventions, generally with decreasing enthusiasm, as the proximity of so much brilliance, creativity, and success threw my slow-going, disappointing career into ever sharper relief. I found conventions so deflating, in fact, that by the time I went to the Anaheim Worldcon in 2006, I’d gotten into the habit of deliberately obscuring my name badge…partially in the irrational fear that some Futurismic hopeful would punch me in the face, but mostly just to stave off the indifferent expressions of people finding out who I wasn’t. Indeed, I was on the verge of throwing in the towel on writing completely at that convention. On the penultimate night, I made a last-ditch effort to be social, a fateful decision. A slow-moving Harlan Ellison, fresh from his onstage molestation of Connie Willis, nearly frustrated my path to the Strange Horizons party where I would go on to meet my future life partner. (Thank goodness Jenn figuratively turned my name badge around – my own personal darkest timeline, averted!)

Fast forward nine years to last Wednesday. Jenn and I set off along Interstate 84 on the six-hour drive from Portland to Spokane . It was our first vacation together in years, and our first Worldcon since we met.  We were determined to make the most of it – the trip out was leisurely, stopping to make detours along the way to view the beautiful waterfalls on historic Highway 30. Our expectations for the trip were modest: relax and enjoy some time away, occasionally, perhaps, in the company of a friend or two.

The road carried us from the clear beauty of western Oregon to the smoky wildfire apocalypse of eastern Washington. A pall of eerie, blood-red smoke from nearby blazes blanketed the landscape as we reached Spokane at sunset. We herky-jerked through unfamiliar streets to the Davenport Tower, which is a spiffy combination of luxury hotel and jungle-themed porno set. Jenn and I checked in and raced up to what I’d already categorized as our “introversion sanctuary.” We unpacked, threw the curtains open – and found ourselves staring at the top level of a dingy parking garage, fenders backed right up against our windows.

After a disgusted groan, we made a what-the-hell decision. I raced down to the front desk and secured the corner suite they’d unsuccessfully tried to upsell us at check-in. Five minutes and twelve stories later, we found ourselves in a massive double-sized room on the seventeenth floor. It had an expansive view, a massive jacuzzi, and a fireplace, among other indulgences, and it improved our moods immeasurably.

For me, this decision kind of set the tone for the convention. What the hell? Why not? Yes, please. Sure!

I decided to embrace the vacation-y-ness of the vacation, and for whatever reason my social inhibitors evaporated. After anticipating hours of hiding in my room recovering from social overload and impostor syndrome, I ended up spending most of the convention striding around introducing or re-introducing myself or reconnecting with the various genre folks who have come to be part of my extended online family over the last twenty years. For every awkward exchange – and there are always a few – there were at least three or four friendly, energetic conversations with smart, funny, talented, generally awesome science fiction folks. I saw Clarion buddies and Taos pals, Futurismic connections, and people I knew only as Twitter handles and Facebook feeds. I rekindled old friendships and made a few new ones, and for the first time ever at a con, totally forgot my social anxiety. What a liberating relief!

The wildfires kicked into another gear on Friday, turning Spokane into Mordor. By afternoon the streets were thick and hazy with smoke, and everything smelled like a bonfire. I’ll always remember this convention as the one where you could actually see the “con crud” coming for you. But oh well, I was having too much fun to get out of its way. I’m paying for that now. I can still taste Spokane.

But it was worth it. By Saturday evening, the air had cleared enough that we were able to enjoy an outdoor dinner at a tavern near the convention center. That night, a dramatic Hugo ceremony unfolded, but rather than brave the crowds, we colonized a terrace in the hotel bar nearby and entertained ourselves with drinks and Twitter reports, a satisfyingly low-key alternative to the festivities. I won’t publicize the Hugo saboteurs further by uttering their names, but happily they left the event empty-handed…no doubt claiming an unearned victory for the forces of evil. The science fiction community did us proud that night; it was a good night to be a part of it. The post-Hugo celebrations were spirited and fun.

Exhausted and starting to feel the effects of the smoke, we finally drove away on Sunday, a fraught trip featuring a dead car battery, a nerve-wracking shortage of strategically situated gas stations, and a massive traffic jam. It felt a little like the convention didn’t want us to make it home. But we did, and I return to reality full of creative spirit and fond memories. Thanks to all the great people in Spokane who made this con such a special and memorable one. Hope to see you all again soon!

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TV: Orphan Black (Season 3)

OrphanBlack_S3_DVDIn my last review of this series I was concerned an over-reliance on structural complexity and shock value might be doing it a disservice. Alas, I was right: like many lore-heavy, twist-filled dramas, Orphan Black does struggle in its third season to continue delivering manic intensity and jaw-dropping surprise…at the expense of a coherent narrative. Some later episodes show signs of the old flare, but much of this season feels like a show spinning its wheels creatively.

As the year begins, Sarah, Cosima, Helena, and Alison (all played by the remarkable Tatiana Maslany) remain embroiled in their complex struggle with the conspiratorial forces of the Dyad Corporation (with whom they share a tenuous alliance), “Topside” (not so much), and a secret military cadre looking to weaponize clone science (um, really not so much). A major reveal from the end of season two provides this season’s core conflict-driver: the existence of a connected line of male clones (played by Ari Millen) who are similarly bogged down in secret wars to redefine the future of humanity. Sarah and the Leda clones continue to dig into the mystery of their origin, as well as the origin of the male “Castor clones,” whose fate seems intertwined with their own.

Alas, much of the first half of the season struggles to generate coherent friction between the Clone Club and the various warring factions on the show’s crowded chessboard. Maslany, as ever, makes it worth watching, but by and large the season feels aimless and uncentered. One major flaw is that the male clones aren’t particularly interesting, and are poorly delineated from one another. This is at least partly a flaw of the writing, which doesn’t seem to have a strong grasp on what to do with them; but it’s also simply that Ari Millen is no Tatiana Maslany. It’s a major stumbling block, combined with minor ones, like the show’s desperate determination to make us care about played-out characters like Paul (Dylan Bruce) or inessential ones like Gracie (Zoé De Grand Maison). Meanwhile, a spirited but contrived Breaking Bad-ish side plot involving Alison and Donnie (Kristian Bruun) tries a little too hard to generate laughs and fan service.

As the year winds down there are some flashes of the old glory, delivering trademark cleverness and tension, and by season’s end, my faith was partially restored. Maslany’s multifaceted performance, the pitch perfect support of Jordan Gavaris, and the overall strength of the concept and production are still enough to hold my allegiance. But hopefully the writers are cracking their heads together, plotting the arcs and endgames that will get the show back on track for the satisfying finale the series deserves.

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Novel: Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Carolyn Ives Gilman’s science fiction tends to invent and explore fascinating new cultures. Dark Orbit (2015) is no exception, an ambitious, challenging new novel set in her Twenty Planets universe. Sara Callicot is an exoethnologist who specializes in first-contact missions. A twist of fate lands her on a peculiar mission out of her comfort zone: a trip to the planet Iris, where her mission is to keep an eye on Thora Lassiter, an emissary who’s been banished to the far reaches of space. It’s a simple enough assignment, but grows far more complicated when Iris turns out to have hidden facets. The planet’s inexplicable scientific mysteries lead to startling new discoveries, which could revolutionize all of human-settled space – provided the expedition survives its mission.

Characterized by smooth, clear prose, nicely realized characters, and insightful themes, Dark Orbit is a subdued but engrossing novel. The cosmic mystery at its core presents some unique narrative challenges, but Gilman is up to them, untangling a difficult-to-depict scenario with uncommon skill. It’s also, like most of Gilman’s work, thematically rich and conceptually thought-provoking, confronting conventional genre science-versus-faith arguments with an open mind and a fresh new angle. An intelligent and intriguing read.

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Film: Child 44

Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace team up again in Child 44 (2014), a grim historical mystery that brings Soviet-era Russia to chilling life. In mid-fifties Moscow, Leo Demidov (Hardy) is a war hero whose exploits have elevated him to the higher ranks of the Soviet military police. With his beautiful wife Raisa (Rapace) and a position of power and privilege, Leo has it all until a grudge from an old rival strips away the flimsy façade to reveal the lies and corruption underlying his success. Exiled to a remote outpost, Leo, with Raisa’s help, undertakes a mission of redemption: solving a series of connected child murders along the vast Russian railway system.

With its rich period detail and dark, brutal setting, Child 44 is a polished production full of solid acting, especially from Hardy, whose range continues to impress. The film has a peculiar structure, front-loading its running time with world-building and rushing its ending; the focus seems less on the specifics of the mystery, and more on the officiousness of the Soviet backdrop. How do you solve a murder in a police state where the very bureaucracy claims that murder doesn’t exist? In a way, the movie is more successful in embodying such a setting than in telling a compelling story within it. But for fans of Hardy, Rapace, and the chameleonic Gary Oldman, it’s worth a watch, especially if the viewer possesses an added interest in the geopolitical history.

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Collection: Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories by Lucius Shepard

Ever since encountering “R&R” in an early Asimov’s I’ve considered Lucius Shepard an important early favorite, but compared to his classic collections, Barnacle Bill the Spacer and Other Stories (1997) falls short. It opens and closes with powerhouse pieces, but the five stories in between are middling.

The Hugo-winning novella “Barnacle Bill the Spacer” leads the way, an eloquent and insightful piece of core SF about a power struggle on a space station. Shepard’s depiction of a sociopathic movement called “the Strange Magnificence” is harrowingly prescient of the downward slope of American politics in the years since its publication. It sets a bleak, incisive tone for the collection which continues through to the stunning closer, “Beast of the Heartland,” in which an aging boxer nearing the end of his career faces one last vicious challenge, leading to a startling revelation. I have virtually no interest in boxing, but Shepard’s riveting depiction of his protagonist’s mental and physical struggles had me glued to the page.

Alas, the collection’s midsection felt a bit flabby and indulgent; unmemorable by Shepard standards. Best of these is perhaps “Sports in America,” a gritty crime tale that contributes most to the thematic core of the book in its critique of over-competitive, macho American attitude. “Human History” is an overlong post-collapse western about survivors venturing beyond the boundaries of their isolated village; some interesting elements here, but ultimately a bit tiresome. I rather liked, without quite getting, “All the Perfumes of Araby,” an evocative piece of slipstreamy futurism about a smuggler who takes on a risky job in Egypt. But the final two stories I’ll mention simply didn’t connect: convoluted language gets in the way of “A Little Night Music,” an oddly uninvolving tale of jazz music and the undead, while “The Sun Spider,” a more traditional SF tale involving scientific intrigue on a solar research station, starts interestingly but doesn’t sing through to a satisfying payoff.

The title story and especially “Beast of the Heartland” make this a worthwhile read on points, but overall a disappointing collection by the usual high standards of this author.

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Film: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

A quirky premise and Rinko Kikuchi aren’t enough to rescue Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014), a somber, distancing snore. Kumiko (Kikuchi) is a 29-year-old secretary, moldering in the dismal patriarchy of corporate Tokyo. An outcast suffering under a horrible boss and the stultifying expectations of her mother, Kumiko dreams of a life-changing quest, which develops into a deeply peculiar obsession: locating the money hidden by Steve Buscemi’s character in the movie Fargo, which she thinks is real.

While Kikuchi is good and there’s a certain visual grace to the film, there isn’t much else to recommend Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a plodding feminist allegory that makes its point effectively, but not particularly interestingly. The execution is sluggish and predictable, mitigating the impact of an earnest message.  An intriguing idea, but ultimately its lack of energy and surprise was fatal to my interest.

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TV: Rectify (Seasons 1 & 2)

rectify1-covAt its best, the understated story-telling rhythms of Rectify are mesmerizingly beautiful. This is a somber, compelling, and morally complex drama that isn’t always easy to watch, but rewards patient, thoughtful viewing.

At eighteen years old, Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend. Nineteen years later, after several stays of execution, he’s released from death row when DNA tests conclude he didn’t commit the rape – evidence that throws his under-duress confession into question. After two decades in prison with limited human interaction, Daniel returns to his hometown of Paulie, Georgia like a man emerging from a time machine, exploring a future he doesn’t quite comprehend. But the events of the past loom over his every move, and not just for his conflicted family. The murder of Daniel’s girlfriend still casts long shadows over Paulie, a small town where everybody knows everybody. The opinions of random strangers make Daniel everything from a pariah, to a celebrity, to a political football for the crooked senator, Roland Foulkes (Michael O’Neill), who built his career on Daniel’s conviction. Armed with little more than years of reading in his cell, Daniel moves into his new life in a state of traumatized confusion, balancing the new joys of freedom with the difficult conflicts his release has fomented – and the dark memories his years of meditative seclusion have suppressed.

Rectify, particularly in its first season, is an extraordinary accomplishment, anchored by Young’s nuanced performance as a walking enigma around whom all the small-town drama swirls. Outwardly a man pushing middle age, Young brings an impressive touch of the innocent, arrested teenager to his performance that etches his troubled history into every scene. I was particularly impressed by the way early episodes painted his mundane activities – shopping at a convenience store, wandering through a Target – as science fictional experiences. It throws into sharp relief how much of the world Daniel missed while he was away, and how little of his life he’d manged to live before everything tragically changed. Occasionally his book-learned observations and musings emerge as poetic dialogue the likes of which I haven’t heard since Deadwood.

Rectify_S2The mysteries at the core of the story, both on its surface and at its heart, are masterfully handled; in this respect it reminded a little of Bloodline, a show which possesses striking similarities. For most of the first two seasons, Daniel’s guilt or innocence is left in question, his unwillingness to come clean contributing to the controversy surrounding him. I expected to grow irritated with this coyness, but instead it had the effect of strengthening the fascinating moral and philosophical dilemmas at the core of the narrative. How much suffering is too much? Why do we feel justified in choosing sides and passing judgement on things that have no direct bearing on our lives? What is justice? What is forgiveness and when is it warranted? The ambiguity of Daniel’s actions affords room to explore these issues and investigate complicated emotional reactions. Ultimately the mystery comes further and further into focus, but without ever becoming too clear to rob the drama of its thought-provoking questions.

It’s a quietly confident show, unflashy but well produced, and full of terrific acting, especially from Young. But the great supporting cast also includes Abigail Spencer (as Daniel’s steadfast, cranky sister Amantha), J. Smith-Cameron (as Daniel’s devoted mother), Clayne Crawford (as Teddy, Daniel’s stepbrother and nemesis), and Adelaide Clemens (as Teddy’s wife, and Daniel’s encouraging new friend). Contributing greatly to the power of the series are flashbacks to Daniel’s death-row experiences. His deep connection with neighboring inmate Kerwin (Johnny Ray Gill) may be one of the most beautiful friendships ever committed to screen.

If there’s a flaw to the series, it’s perhaps an unrelenting bleakness – season two especially lacks the uplifting rays of hope that make the tragedy of the situation bearable. This makes the series somewhat less marathonable as it moves through its second year. But Rectify is otherwise an emotionally rich, thematically robust drama, well worth watching.

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Film: Spring

springEvery now and then an independent film like Spring (2014) comes along and make me nostalgic for the edgy, anything-goes filmmaking of the 1970s. This one is all over the map, and not entirely successful, but it’s wonderfully unpredictable in a way that Hollywood, with its ruthlessly finessed and screen-tested products, never manages any more.

When Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) loses his mother to cancer, and then his job, he uses inheritance money on an impulsive holiday to Italy. His travels land him in an idyllic, seaside resort town where he spontaneously pursues work as a farmhand. He also meets Louise (Nadia Hilker), a beautiful young scientist who may well be the love of his life – but who also harbors an astonishing, terrifying secret.

Spring is several different movies, playing out in jagged sequence; fortunately, most of them are compellingly executed. Evan’s story starts as a tale of Southern California slacker aimlessness, then morphs into a pictureseque European travelogue, before landing in an entirely unexpected zone of science fictional horror. These contextual left turns consistently shift the narrative into new gears, leading to more than one WTF revelation. Alas, once the creepy mystery is explained, the story veers into a final act that’s just as unexpected and interesting, but not quite as gripping, which leads to a somewhat anticlimactic ending.

Even so, Spring has a lot to recommend it, especially for fans of weird cinema  in the vein of Nicolas Roeg, David Lynch, or Under the Skin. Pucci and Hilker’s easy chemistry, stunning Italian scenery, and a refreshing structural restlessness make it a rewarding watch for fans of surreal horror and authentic, indie cinema.

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Film: Coherence

The quality of Coherence (2013) vacillates wildly throughout, but ultimately it’s a worthwhile watch. This low-budget, independent SF film gets off to a rocky start before building its mystique, then stepping on that mystique, and then finishing strong.

On the night that a comet streaks past the Earth, eight friends gather for a dinner party at the home of Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and Lee (Lorene Scafaria). The affair begins innocently enough, but then strange phenomena start to occur – shattered smartphones, power outages, and inexplicable mysteries surrounding a spooky house up the street. As the night turns freakishly weird, the group works to analyze what’s going on – led by Em (Emily Foxler), the first to put to the pieces together. But for all their brainstorming, their lives may never be the same again.

The first twenty minutes of Coherence is clumsy, a semi-improvisational stretch of shaky cam, quasi-found footage as it introduces its characters and sets the scene. As this Twilight Zone bottle show progresses, however, the mystery builds and a nicely chilly atmosphere develops. The acting isn’t spectacular – Foxler, Maury Sterling, and at times Brendon stand out in an otherwise merely adequate group. And there are times when their bickering attempts to solve the piece’s “what’s going on?” premise grow tiresome. But in the end the deployed clues fit together cleverly , and the understated climax is truly eerie and effective. It’s several significant flaws short of greatness, but in light of its limited means it’s an earnest and interesting effort.

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Film: The Drop

The latest Dennis Lehane adaptation to cross my path is The Drop (2014), a taut, compact mystery fueled by a Tom Hardy’s immersive starring performance. Hardy plays Bob Saginowski, a low-key, rather dim bartender who’s spent his life working for his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini). Marv’s a has-been wiseguy who boosts his income by doing favors for the Chechen mob. When Bob rescues a pit bull from the garbage can of Nadia (Noomi Rapace), a sweet, mild-mannered romance blooms – that also puts Bob at odds with Nadia’s abusive ex Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts). A hold-up at the bar threatens Marv’s tenuous relationship with the mob just as Bob and Deeds’ rivalry slowly starts to develop, leading to tangled complications that threaten to turn simmering tension into an explosive conflict.

Taut with suspense and well engineered menace, The Drop is an atmospheric and confidently performed mystery. It’s a small, engrossing mystery, thanks largely to Hardy’s weirdly likable turn as an inscrutable average joe. His unconventional chemistry with Rapace is charming, and the script generates steady tension by subtly jeopardizing their relationship throughout. The intricate weave of story elements leads to a finely crafted climax, and an intriguing, loaded denouement. A solid, well crafted little thriller.

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