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Fantasy, Science Fiction, Television

TV: The Twilight Zone (Season 1)

June 18, 2017

Several months ago, it struck me that my knowledge of The Twilight Zone — which is surely one of the most influential science fiction shows in television history — may in fact be inadequate. Indeed, it’s impossible to read SF TV criticism today without bumping into comparisons to this classic series. Yet I’ve always known it more by reputation than direct experience, so I decided to bone up, and while it’s not quite compelling enough to truly marathon, I’ve been working my way gradually through it with multiple mini-binges. By turns, the effort has proven exciting, disappointing, and illuminating.

The Twilight Zone is an anthology show, each installment focusing on a different character in a different scenario, always with a fantastic or science fictional premise. The episodes often have an eerie, unsettling ambience, and frequently end with a chilling twist. The series launched way back in 1959, and it’s impossible to view it outside that historical context. On the content level, for example, the seasoned SF fan in me couldn’t help but notice the simplistic and unsophisticated manner in which the science fictional ideas are often handled. Alas, the concepts that were mindblowing in 1959 have rather lost their capacity for surprise and wonder since then. It takes a certain effort of will, therefore, to place yourself in the era for which the stories were intended, an appreciate them for the ground they broke at the time. Then there’s the production level, which the film buff in me enjoyed immensely, as the Hollywood stars of yesteryear — some at the tail ends of their careers, others getting an early break — randomly turn up for a spin on the show’s spooky dance floor. With production values often one step removed from those of a stage play, the special effects and filmmaking techniques are quite limited and rudimentary — and yet, ironically, the limits of the medium are often stretched to powerful effect, as creative sound and visual design elevate the material and contribute to the atmosphere. Finally there’s the level of sociopolitical subtext, which is where The Twilight Zone has aged the most poorly. The show very much feels like the product of the Mad Men era, rampant with malecentric story-telling and frightfully casual misogyny. It’s a fascinating, and at times shockingly disappointing, window onto the norms of an earlier era.

What this all adds up to, then, is a series that is often difficult to appreciate by modern standards, but just as often impressive when examined as an important ancestor to modern television. The quality rollercoasters wildly. In order to get to “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” a chilling Red Scare metaphor about an alien invasion, you have to suffer through “The Lonely,” in which a prisoner on an asteroid is given a lifelike female robot companion. To enjoy the creepy skiffy fable of “People Are Alike All Over,” you have to put up with the silly, male wish-fulfillment fantasy of “A World of His Own.” And then there are the episodes that give you both ends of the spectrum at once, like the famous “Time Enough at Last,” a nuclear paranoia tale that serves up an unnerving, radiated apocalypse, but not before painting its protagonist with unconsciously misogynystic chracteristics that make him difficult to care about.

For all its problems, the show’s reputation for mystique is completely warranted. A major factor contributing to this is the high quality of the narration, which is consistent throughout. For all his flaws, Rod Serling can write and deliver eloquent turns of phrase with the best of them, and his stylized intros and outros are almost uniformly brilliant — both at establishing the series’ dark tone, and distilling each episode’s message with insight that manages to be simultaneously penetrating and elliptical. Even when the episodes don’t work, Serling’s little monologues often elevate the experience. This lends a certain charm to the simple mysteries of “A Stop at Willoughby” (in which James Daly escapes the daily rat-race by visiting a town that doesn’t exist on his commute home) or “The Hitch-Hiker” (in which Vera Miles’ cross-country drive is haunted by a creepy drifter who continually outruns her progress). And it adds a playful frame to light-hearted fare like “Mr. Bevis,” about a peculiar, hard-luck fellow (Orson Bean) whose guardian angels delivers an unexpected gift. Then there are episodes that just aim for good old-fashioned creepout effects, like “The After Hours,” which sends the bemused Anne Francis to an otherworldly level of a department store that nobody else can visit.

By and large, I suspect to the modern viewer The Twilight Zone will fall down a little more frequently than it holds up. But even with its problems and dated aspects, one can see how it’s an essential step in the development of the medium. Revisiting it is a worthwhile exercise, rewarding particularly for its stand-out moments and episodes.


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TV: The OA (Season 1)

June 11, 2017

For reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, I went into The OA (Netflix, 2016) with a degree of internal resistance. Is there something too New-Agey about it? Is it too artsy-fartsy? Does its wiggly genre content occasionally feel silly? Possibly all of these are true, but ultimately I didn’t care: I quite liked this unusual series.

Brit Marling stars as Prairie Johnson, a young blind woman who resurfaces after a seven-year disappearance with her sight miraculously restored. Returned to the custody of her baffled parents (Alice Krige and Scott Wilson), Prairie reacclimates, becoming a controversial new figure in her sleepy midwestern town. The mystery of Prairie’s lost years eludes her parents and the FBI, but she does lure in a new inner circle of misfits to whom she can tell her story: violent drug-dealing Steve (Patrick Gibson), stoner Jesse (Brendan Meyer), meek transgender boy Buck (Ian Alexander), poor straight-A student Alfonso (Brandon Perea), and unhappy schoolteacher Betty (Phyllis Smith). They gather regularly in an abandoned house, where Prairie spins a wild tale involving near-death experiences, alternate dimensions, and reality-warping superpowers. Because of their own personal struggles, the group relates to Prairie, which helps them to overcome their skepticism to become believers in her tale. And ultimately they join her in a mission to save her fellow captives, including the young man, Homer (Emory Cohen), with whom she fell in love while in captivity.

The OA isn’t exactly flawless science fantasy, occasionally coming across like a literary writer’s attempt at exploring SFnal ideas for the first time. Indeed, the script is at its least convincing when directly addressing the specifics of its skiffy concepts. But what The OA does get right is its emotional content, and I found this more than enough to carry the narrative. Prairie’s experience is fraught with emotional abuse, a traumatic prolonged captivity that the narrative explores with sensitivity and insight. Will it resonate with actual sufferers or PTSD, or people who have undergone difficult experiences? I can’t speak to that; it did strike me that it might be interpreted by some to sensationalize the suffering of its characters. But from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like it has its heart in the right place.

Meanwhile, its deliberate, mesmerizing direction is quite compelling. Director Zal Batmanglij — a frequent collaborator with Marling, with whom he co-wrote the series — does effective work, particularly in the way he conveys a haunting, melancholic character to the bleak subdivision where Prairie’s story unfolds. The pace will surely be too slow for some, but I found it effective for the material, and the structural ricochets from present to past and back again are seamless and effective. So are the visual shifts from mundane reality to eye-popping flights of fancy. And by and large the acting is solid from everyone, especially Jason Isaacs, who couldn’t be more perfectly cast in a nuanced “mad scientist” role, and brings next-level credibility to what could have been a cartoonish villain.

I have reservations about giving this one a blanket recommendation. I’m not schooled enough in trauma and disability to know how well those aspects were handled; it may be problematic for certain viewers. From time to time the script trips over itself, trying to be eloquent. But it’s also a show with some truly powerful and beautiful moments, and the way it gradually reveals its mystery is wholly engrossing. Best is the inspiring way its invests you in the struggles of two different created families, in two different timelines, simultaneously. The emotionally satisfying climax risks looking ludicrous, but somehow manages to work. This one may well be polarizing, but I found it earnest, unusual, and emotionally affecting.

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TV: Sense8 (Season 2)

May 30, 2017

Throughout the second season of Netflix’s remarkable Sense8, I repeatedly marveled over its brilliant opening credit sequence, which may be one of the most powerful in television history. Watch it with the sound turned down, and it presents as a wild, frenetic celebration of the world in all its diversity, but once you add the music — a pulsing, ominous escalation — suddenly that wonderful world is facing dire threat. It’s a work of art, really, and it couldn’t be more appropriate for our times: the rivalry of tolerance and blind hate, hope and fear, sense and nonsense that dominates our sorry political discourse. It symbolizes the strong, mindful messaging that makes Sense8 essential TV in an era of increasingly stiff competition.

Sense8 chronicles, in complex, mosaic fashion, the lives of eight individuals across the world who happen to be telepathically linked. They are “sensates,” a connected cluster of metahumans whose individual lives are challenging enough, but become even more complicated when it becomes clear they’re mysteriously connected. Season one explored this robust premise by gradually bringing the cluster together; season two builds on the group’s legacy as they work together to stay free and survive, despite the efforts of a nefarious group called the Biologic Preservation Organization. BPO’s mission is to track down and scientifically exploit the world’s sensates, which — as it turns out — are more numerous than our heroes were aware. Indeed, our heroes encounter other clusters this season, full of sensates just as paranoid and frightened of BPO and its chief headhunter, Whispers (Terence Mann). With knowledge of their situation growing, and their comfort level with their sensate powers increasing, the cluster continues its struggle to support each other in the face of ruthless forces working against them.

Structurally, Sense8 is all over the map, and even the most enthusiastic viewer will most likely notice the show’s rough edges. Frenetic cross-cutting alternates with indulgent slow-motion. Eloquent speeches give way to clunky exposition. Touching sentiment clashes with exploitative violence. And the show’s depiction of international culture remains on the cliched side. Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to watch this show without tripping over imperfections. And yet, somehow the show just works, even when it’s not working. Perhaps because it paints on such a broad, metaphorical canvas, its flaws feel organic to the scenario. The world is flawed, is it not? I find it easy to forgive Sense8 its missteps because they feel true to message. In a big, beautiful, messy world, why shouldn’t we have a show that is equally big, beautiful, and messy?

If season two lacks the inaugural year’s joys of discovery, it still manages to conjure magic moments with stunning regularity, even as its many plot threads vary wildly in quality. This season’s episodes lean too much on some uninspired storylines: the daddy issues of Chicago cop Will Gorski (Brian T. Smith), a good girl/bad boy romance between sensates Kala (Tina Desai) and Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), and some expected fugitive hacker episodes for Nomi (Jamie Clayton) and Amanita (Freema Agyeman). It also struggles to find a role for Icelandic DJ Riley (Tuppence Middleton). But it’s also got inspiring sequences for Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), whose acting career takes dramatic turns, and Capheus (Toby Onwumere), whose notoreity in Kenya steers him unexpectedly into politics. Kala’s science and her awkward arranged marriage to Rajan (Purab Kohli) finally start to factor into things a bit, and then there’s Sun (Doona Bae), who spends the year in the show’s most linear, action-packed subplot, wherein she tries to wriggle out of a murder frame and exact her revenge. Sun’s story is like an over-the-top, ultraviolent martial arts film in the midst of all the science fictional intrigue, and while it contains some of the season’s biggest reaches, it’s also thrilling and emotional stuff.

All these crazy, disparate threads are woven together in a matter that shouldn’t always work, and probably doesn’t entirely, and yet the fact that it works at all is so logistically impressive that it doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter that with the exception of Lito, the sensate cluster is more full of types than actual characters. Somehow even that works, because as something of a telepathic gestalt being, they’re really all different aspects of one character. As those aspects interact, you find yourself cheering for them collectively as much as individually. One sensate’s triumph or tragedy is every sensate’s triumph or tragedy, and those moments of connection, commiseration, and celebration feel somehow universal, a coming together of disparate points of view in a common cause. Considering how fractured and polarized and tribalist the world has become, the notion that there are people all across the globe who can care about each other, despite great distances and cultural barriers, is intensely powerful. Sense8 doesn’t get everything right, but I’ll forgive it just about anything provided it keeps sending that much-needed message. We need it now more than ever.

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New Review in the May 2017 Lightspeed

May 1, 2017

The May 2017 Lightspeed is out and it’s got another stellar line-up of genre fiction talent, including Tobias S. Buckell, Amal El-Mohtar, Bruce McAllister, and Seanan McGuire. Amidst these luminaries, there’s also another contribution from me, this time in collaboration with Jenn: a conversational review of the underrated CW science fiction show The 100. This one’s a little different from my usual review, a hot-typewriter discussion of this oft-overlooked post-apocalypse serial, from a couple who can’t always agree on what to watch together!

The review will be posted later this month, but as usual you can support Lightspeed by purchasing the whole issue today.

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TV: Fortitude (Season 2)

April 24, 2017

The first season of Fortitude was a glorious achievement in genre television, so it’s unsurprising that its sequel year doesn’t quite match up. Even so, it does shift the series in new and different directions, and ultimately remains impressive, providing a superb mix of small-town mayhem, science-based mystery, and gruesome horror.

As the year begins, Fortitude is still recovering from its recent traumas, and it’s an epic struggle. The island’s erstwhile sheriff, Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer), has gone AWOL, leaving the tiny police force in the hands of inept deputy Eric Odegard (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson). The government in Norway, in a vote of no-confidence, has saddled governor Hildur Odegard (Sofie Gråbøl) with a scheming new advisor, Erling Monk (Ken Stott). Meanwhile, key members of the community are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, handling the loss and turmoil of the recent past in numerous unhealthy ways. With nerves on edge, limited law enforcement resources, and Monk’s officious interference, Fortitude is woefully ill-equipped to handle a new, rapidly escalating crisis: a series of brutal murders that may or may not be tied into ancient spiritual rituals, a bizarre drug subculture, nefarious goings-on at the science research center, or a complex combination of the above.

One of the masterful aspects of Fortitude’s first year was the way it walked the line between the scientific and the supernatural; as the gripping mystery unfolds, it keeps the viewer guessing as to the true source of town’s terrifying evils. Since the question appears definitively resolved by season’s end, I was surprised to see this edgy ambiguity successfully restored in season two. It keeps Fortitude squarely in Twin Peaks/X-Files territory, which is an effective and compelling space for it. On the other hand, it thrusts the series toward new extremes of gorey, shocking violence, leaning heavily into more standard horror tropes and tactics. This adds plenty of suspense and surprise, but also elevates the camp factor, somewhat to the show’s detriment.

It also lacks the structural finesse of season one, weaving a more complex web of subplots. It’s a bit of a kludge, but it’s certainly a fascinating kludge. One thread involves a down-on-his-luck crab fisherman named Michael Lennox (Dennis Quaid), battling financial worries and concern for his wife Freya (Game of Thrones’s Michelle Fairley), who is slowly dying of an incurable disease. Another involves Hildur’s political jousting with Monk, which finds her investigating a scientific mystery that dates back to World War II, and puts her on the scent of a diabolical new conspiracy. Yet another involves an inscrutable new scientist at the research station, Dr. S Khatri (Parminder Nagra). And then, of course, there’s the primary murder mystery, in which the police struggle to make sense of a new string of horrific killings. Somehow, all these disparate threads weave together, and it does add up to something complex and engaging, if not quite as refined and neat.

Still, gripes aside, I suspect fans of the first season will find it eminently watchable, and engrossing for all its rough edges. It still has the stunning cinematography, memorable vistas, and unique international flavor. It still has the compelling intrigue, unsettling ambience, and nerve-tingling suspense. The cast, anchored by an increasingly demonic Dormer and increasingly sympathetic Gråbøl, is rock solid, and many of the first season’s survivors stand out thanks to the show’s unflinching look at the after-effects of trauma. Particularly noteworthy characters are romance-under-fire scientists Natalie Yelburton (Sienna Guillory) and Vincent Rattrey (Luke Treadaway), and earnest, overwhelmed constables Ingrid Witrey (Mia Jexen) and Petra Bergen (Alexandra Moen). The newcomers add plenty of new dramatic fireworks, with Ken Stott’s bloviating bureacrat Monk often stealing the show. Quaid struck me as odd casting at first, but eventually integrates nicely into the ensemble, while Nagra elevates a necessarily cryptic character with riveting presence.

All things considered, Fortitude’s second season only falls short when held up against its own rigorous standard. It’s still a remarkable show, addictive, intense, and absolutely unique. Brutal as the island is, I hope we get to see more of it.


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Novella: The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow

April 3, 2017

The best satire succeeds by getting at certain truths. Perhaps nobody working in the genre has a better grip on this notion than James Morrow, who’s made a career of irreverently skewering the foibles of humanity. His forthcoming novella The Asylum of Dr. Caligari (Tachyon Publications, June 2017) is the latest ingenious example of his work, an inventive historical fantasy that layers slick, intelligent humor over a bedrock of serious antiwar critique.

In the summer of 1914, American artist Francis Wyndham takes a job as an art therapist at Träumenchen, an asylum in the fictional western European country of Weizenstaat. As it turns out, the man running the asylum, Dr. Alessandro Caligari, is an artist in his own right — and also a sorceror, callously capitalizing on the martial fervor of early twentieth century Europe. One of his paintings has the power to brainwash soldiers into a feverish lust for battle, a “service” Caligari soon begins selling to both sides in the Great War. Wyndham quickly falls for one of his art students, Ilona Wessels, who displays similar talents for magic. Together with the other patients and employees of the asylum, they hatch a conspiracy to destroy Caligari and hopefully put an end to the War to End All Wars.

The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is a fast, funny book, which might make it easy to mistake for disposable entertainment. But under its zany surface, Morrow has seeded a sad, heartfelt message about the “transcendently meaningless” cost of war, perfectly situated against the backdrop of World War I. The art-magic worldbuilding is creative and well rendered, and those familiar with the era will enjoy the guessing game of determining whether the novella is a secret history or an alternate one. Brilliantly walking the line, its zippy energy camouflages a surprisingly powerful resonance. It’s yet another seriocomic triumph from one of the genre’s best satirists.

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Film: Spectral

April 2, 2017

Netflix original film Spectral (2016) possesses a veneer of respectability, but ultimately it’s disposable, the kind of movie you only half-watch. Blending science fantasy, horror, and military action, it’s reasonably well produced and professionally acted, but mostly a bland, familiar-feeling melange.

During a future conflict in Moldova, a brilliant DARPA engineer named Clyne (the underrated James Badge Dale) is sent into the warzone to help the military make sense of the strange apparitions being picked up on the vision-enhancing goggles he invented. The locals think it’s the spirits of the dead, haunting the war-torn landscape; CIA officer Fran Madison (Emily Mortimer) thinks it’s a new enemy cloaking technology. Clyne refuses to pick a theory, determined instead to gather scientific evidence and reveal the truth. To that end, he and Madison embed with a military patrol to put themselves in the path of the spectral entitities and figure out what they are — if they can survive.

Spectral certainly looks okay, with reasonably good special effects, geographic verisimilitude, and convincing futuristic tech. Better is the acting, led by the capable Dale and Mortimer, and classed up even further by the likes of Clayne Crawford, Bruce Greenwood, and Stephen Root. But make no mistake, Spectral is a Sy-Fy movie on a Netflix budget. The mediocre action-adventure script is clearly elevated by the performers, especially Dale, who can play the smartest guy in the room with the best of them. Mortimer, meanwhile, possesses an assured presence, not to mention a spotless American accent. Alas, the story is simplistic A-to-B action, and the tone is super-serious, suggesting profundity unwarranted by the material. It’s distractingly unconvincing that Clyne, a civilian, should enter this high-stakes situation and immediately show himself to be more capable, resourceful, and cool under file than the experienced soldiers and intelligence agents in his midst. Not helping matters at all is the fact that for a film set in the future, Spectral is sociopolitically stuck in the past, with only one female character and a homogenously male military. An earnest effort, on some levels, but ultimately it works best as background noise for household chores.

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TV: The Returned

March 27, 2017

Slow-building supernatural mysteries can be a double-edged sword: explain too little and there’s no payoff, explain too much and the intrigue is demystified. The French series The Returned (Les Revenants) (2012, 2015) is an effective example of how to walk that line, a brooding and atmospheric ensemble piece that powerfully blends potboiling horror with spiritual allegory.

It takes place in a small alpine town riddled with tragic history, including a school bus accident that claimed the lives of many local children. The drama begins when one of that accident’s victims, Camille (Yara Pilartz), turns up on her family’s doorstep ten years later, miraculously back to life at the same age she died. Camille’s family — mother Claire (Anne Consigny), father Jérôme (Frédéric Pierrot), and older sister Léna (Jenna Thiam) — are shocked, of course, but Camille is just as confused, with no memory of her death, and no understanding of what has happened to her. She turns out to the be tip of an iceberg, however, as other “returned” start showing up to haunt the town’s citizens. Among them are suicides, the murdered victims of a cannibalistic serial killer, and the many, many dead of a massive dam collapse thirty-five years in the past. It’s a vast, inexplicable mystery that comes to consume the entire town, living and dead alike, and it seems to revolve around an inscrutable, haunted little boy named Victor (Swann Nambotin).

Considering the glut of zombie show on television these days, The Returned may seem like one too many for some viewers, especially considering its glacial pacing. But it’s a quiet, almost literary take on the concept, more invested in thematic subtext than grizzly horror tropes. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a potently creepy atmosphere throughout, and indeed it’s punctuated by moments of graphic terror. But these genre components are deployed sparingly in favor of subdued human (and undead) drama. The first season in particular builds a masterful, compelling ambience, raising intriguing questions and delivering ambiguous but strangely satisfying answers. The finale delivers some epic imagery and resonates powerfully past its final moments.

The momentum slows considerably in season two, unfortunately, when the strain of sustaining the complexly spun supernatural lore starts to show. Indeed, the second season is, on some levels, unfavorably reminiscent of Lost, another series that gripped its viewers with early mysteries it couldn’t hope to successfully resolve. Even so, its season (and most likely series) finale does a commendable job tying together the narrative threads in a thematically satisfying package.

By then, perhaps some of the shine has worn off, but in my view the emotional philosophizing of the final hour is really the one logical way for the story to have played out. It’s executed in a classy, satisfying manner that leaves just enough ambiguity to provoke thought. Ultimately, The Returned is another worthy descendant of Twin Peaks, a compelling ensemble drama where the geography is the creepiest character. In my view it doesn’t quite match up to Fortitude or The Kettering Incident, but it is effectively of a piece with them, if not an influence. Fans of this kind of show likely won’t be disappointed with The Returned.

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Collection: Slipping by Lauren Beukes

March 21, 2017

Single-author collections can sometimes feel like side projects, perhaps merely of ancillary interest in an author’s oeuvre. This isn’t the case with Lauren Beukes’ Slipping: Stories, Essays & Other Writing (2016), a bold, impressive record of her work’s unique energy and versatility.

Over the course of four novels, Beukes has developed a reputation for shifting effortlessly into new and different gears, her genre work running the gamut from post-cyberpunk SF to gritty urban fantasy to horror-tinged police procedural. Slipping reveals even more modes, a blend of traditional and experimental pieces that span multiple genres. Those early futuristic chops shine through in tales like “Branded,” which depicts a future in which corporate sponshorship mashes up with body modification, and the slick, prescient cyberjournalism tale “Riding with the Dream Patrol.” “Confirm/Ignore” is a sort of contemporary fiction that riffs on the notion of social media as vehicle for generating alternate realities, a before-its-time spin on the notion of Internet complicity in post-truthism. Just as engrossing are the more traditional SF stories like “The Green,” a vividly imagined colony world scenario, or “Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs,” an inventive, manga-inspired adventure with a humorous, stream-of-consciousness feel.

The non-SFnal tales are sociopolitically charged. The funny, fantastical “Princess” is a saucy, feminist reimagining of “The Princess and the Pea,” while more scathing glimpses of gender issues tinge the biting horror of “My Insect Skin” and the quietly creepy stalking plotline of “Parking.” Then there’s “Dear Mariana,” a clever epistolary of relationship horror that deploys a playful formal conceit.

Most of Beukes’ work brandishes the sharp edge of critique, targeting social injustice, gender inequality, and media manipulation, among other topics. When late in the volume the content switches over to non-fiction, the underpinnings of the author’s worldview come more into focus, while also illuminating her approach to fiction. Most striking of these is “Adventures in Journalism,” which paints a picture of Beukes’ journalistic roots and how they inform her creative process. There are also powerful pieces regarding her novel research: “All the Pretty Corpses” (The Shining Girls) and “Inner City” (Zoo City). The non-fiction selections are an effective touch to end the collection, highlighting the uniquely effective power of Beukes’ varied prose: her non-fiction effortlessly elevates real-life scenarios to the feel of heightened-reality legend, a reversal of the way so much of her fiction seems to be digging at a larger truth. I knew going in that Beukes was a powerfully talented wordsmith; Slipping broadened my appreciation more than I was expecting. Very highly recommended.

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New Review in the February 2017 Lightspeed

February 1, 2017

It’s the first of the month, which means a new issue of Lightspeed is out! This month’s stellar lineup includes fiction by Ian R. MacLeod, Jack Skillingstead, Seanan McGuire, and Kelly Barnhill, among others. My contribution is a review of the brilliant science fiction TV show Black Mirror. (If you haven’t watched this show yet, you should, especially since we’ve all been living in an episode since the election.)

My review will be available for free online later this month, but there’s nothing keeping you from buying an ebook copy now — or better yet, subscribing to support this excellent magazine.

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TV: The Good Place (Season 1)

January 23, 2017

The era of Peak TV may be dominated by dark visions, but fortunately there’s still room for upbeat fare like The Good Place, an unusual, smart, and effervescent genre comedy about the afterlife. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) awakens in Heaven, which turns out to be a bright, relentlessly pleasant neighborhood full of pristine people with spotless track records from their former lives. As the village’s architect Michael (Ted Danson) explains, only the very best people get to go to the Good Place, where they’re paired with their soul mates to live out eternity in perpetual happiness. Everything would be great, except that the Good Place seems to have confused Eleanor with someone else. She’s actually a pretty terrible person who totally doesn’t belong in Heaven, a fact that starts to unravel the very fabric of the afterlife.

In some respects a conventional sitcom, The Good Place has a unique feel thanks to playful fantasy worldbuilding. Anything can happen in this malfunctioning, malleable corner of the afterlife, and so of course it does, quite unpredictably. Unlike creator Michael Schur’s other work like Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the show doesn’t generate laugh-out-loud moments so much as sustain a pleasant, happy grin. Its twenty-odd minutes go by very quickly thanks to a speedy pace and jam-packed plotting, which culminates in an ingenious finale. Kristen Bell is terrific in the lead; indeed, this may be the perfect vehicle for her. But she’s matched step for step by William Jackson Harper, who plays her frustrated ethics professor soul mate Chidi, and Danson, whose sitcom timing is as strong as ever. Jameela Jamil, D’arcy Carden, and Manny Jacinta provide consistently amusing support. Great show that deserves a lot more eyeballs, and hopefully a renewal. We could use a few more insightful shows about ethics these days.

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Collection: Collected Fiction by Hannu Rajaniemi

January 23, 2017

Hannu Rajaniemi is a remarkable writer. Even at his most difficult — for sometimes, indeed, he’s a tricky writer to process — he’s certainly one of the field’s most inventive and interesting voices. Collected Fiction (2015) is a vibrant mix of his various genre stories, uneven in quality, but breathtaking in range and scope. The pieces don’t always connect but when they do, it’s stunning, and even when they don’t, it’s difficult to deny the author’s relentless creativity.

Rajaniemi is known primarily for complex futuristic SF full of brain-twisting ideas and quirky neologisms, so for me one of the surprises of Collected Fiction is that it shows his signature style to be just one of many. Indeed, he writes effectively in more conventional modes: more traditional SF, contemporary fantasy, even the tinge of dark horror. Most successful of these, I think, are “Fisher of Men,” an evocative contemporary fantasy about a man who encounters sirens and sea gods along the coast of Finland, and “Paris, In Love,” a charming, fantastical short-short about requited love between a man and a city. “Satan’s Typist” is a snarly, clever horror short, and there are other intriguing experiments on display, like the Twitter microfictions of “Unused Tomorrows and Other Stories” and a text iteration of “Snow White Is Dead,” one of several possible results of a “choose-your-own-adventure” fiction piece designed to react to human brainwaves while read with a brain-machine interface.

But Rajaniemi is at his most impressive when inventing truly visionary science fictional futures, which at times he does with such effortless, future-shocky disorientation that it almost feels like the work of an SF writer from the future, working from an advanced science fictional playbook. One of his earliest stories, “Shibuya No Love” — which I had the good fortune of sifting out of the Futurismic slushpile when I was an editor — shows glimpses of the future worldbuilding brilliance that would turn up in stories like “Deus Ex Hominie,” “His Master’s Voice,” “Elegy for a Young Elk,” and “The Jugaad Cathedral.” These stories defy easy synopsis, but dazzle with colorful language, eye-popping visuals, and more ideas per page than most writers pack into an entire novel.

In its comprehensiveness, Collected Fiction has its share of weaker, merely good entries, and to be fair it loses some steam late in the volume. But it’s still an impressive record of one of the field’s most distinctive, ambitious, and restlessly creative voices.

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