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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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Fantasy, Science Fiction, Television

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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Fiction, Science Fiction

Novel: The Moon and the Other by John Kessel

June 8, 2017

In the early 2000s, John Kessel wrote a series of stories about the Society of Cousins, a matriarchal Moon colony established as an alternative to humanity’s history of male-dominated governance. He returns to this setting in his epic novel The Moon and the Other (2017), and it couldn’t be more timely, a confident and engrossing blend of hard science fiction, character-driven drama, and sociopolitical thought experiment.

In the Society of Cousins, men have reduced political power but a uniquely open lifestyle that permits them to channel their more aggressive energies into sex, sport, or whatever other pursuits strike their fancy. Women, meanwhile, have the vote, run the government, and generally maintain the Society’s alternative lifestyle. Despite a system designed to coddle and encourage them, many of the Society’s men — along with some of its women — feel that the Cousins’ inverted hiearchy is unjust, leading to a vocal movement to extend the vote to men. This movement draws the attention of the Organization of Lunar States, as the Society is already a controversial place — a colony closed to outsiders, with a mystique both fascinating and disquieting to the more traditional lunar settlements. Rumors of dissent only sew new interest.

Through the eyes of several strongly developed protagonists, the novel depicts a series of turning-point events in the Society’s history. Most prominent of the viewpoint characters is Erno, a former citizen of the Society of Cousins who was exiled many years previously for his activities in association with a legendary men’s rights provacateur. In his years since leaving the Society, Erno has seen an eyeful of much worse injustice in the Moon’s more traditional patriarchies, which gives him a unique perspective when he returns to the Society as a member of a lunar task force that’s been sent to study and report on the Cousins’ treatment of men. Alas, the committee’s various members possess a litany of conflicting agendas, which is about to turn the Society into the battleground of a political proxy war — and possibly change it forever.

The Moon and the Other is an intelligent, thought-provoking science fiction novel that infuses its traditional sense-of-wonder setting with an uncommonly astute and topical examination of gender politics. It’s easy to see why Kessel chose to write so much about the Society of Cousins: it’s a rich, thoroughly imagined setting, full of vivid science fictional detail. But it’s also a distinctly human, politically charged drama that shines insightful light on the problems of the present. Alas, the complex weave of largely negative reactions to this matriarchal social experiment seems all too plausible. But there’s also hope embedded in the characters’ struggles to make this unique society work, even with the inexorable forces of greed, tradition, and historical prejudice aligned against them. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The Moon and the Other has a memorable cast, a masterfully executed plot, smart worldbuiling, and a thoughtful, heartfelt message — the whole package. Highly recommended.

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Film, Science Fiction

Film: The Girl with All the Gifts

June 5, 2017

Even in my fairly lukewarm response to M.R. Carey’s novel The Girl with All the Gifts (2016), I noted it would probably make a sensational horror film. Sure enough, it does; in fact, I think I preferred the film, as it feels more like the story’s natural medium.

The eponymous character is Melanie (the wonderful Sennia Nanua), a bright young girl who lives like a prisoner in an underground bunker, where she’s ordered about by officious, gun-wielding soldiers. But there’s a bright spot in her life: Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), the teacher who spends each day instructing Melanie and the other children. Melanie seems like a perfectly normal girl, if not an exceptionally intelligent and pleasant one. But there’s a reason her militant jailers are scared to death of her: she’s infected with a fungus that turns most humans into flesh-eating zombies. Unlike most “hungries,” Melanie and the other children in the bunker present as normal, only showing their zombie-like behaviors when then need to eat. Dr. Caldwell (Glenn Close) therefore sees them as key to developing a vaccine to the hungry virus. When the research facility’s security breaks down, Melanie, Helen, Caldwell, and others are forced to flee for their lives, and despite their fear, begin to see Melanie as the remarkable person she is.

The Girl with All the Gifts isn’t a particularly innovative story, slotting quite comfortably into the glut of zombie apocalypse tales of the past decade or so. Fans of The Last of Us video game or 28 Days Later will find the trappings quite familiar. But like the novel, the film is a triumph of execution: nicely developed characters, a chilling and thoroughly imagined scenario, terrifying suspense sequences, and a satisfying escalation from skiffy mystery into harrowing survival tale. Why the primary two characters, Melanie and Helen , were race-swapped is surely matter for debate; it’s nearly forgiveable as it gives us Sennia Nanua in the lead role, and she is terrific. Arterton and Paddy Considine are solid, while Glenn Close is especially convincing as the hard-nosed Dr. Caldwell. Fans of horror and zombie tales in particular will find plenty to love here.

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Fantasy, Science Fiction, Television

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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Fiction, Science Fiction

Novel: Archangel by Marguerite Reed

May 9, 2017

It’s difficult not to ponder the end of the Earth these days. That sentiment subtly infuses Marguerite Reed’s remarkable debut novel Archangel, which inverts contemporary environmental musings by chronicling the cautious early days of a possible Earth replacement: Ubastis. The viewpoint character is Dr. Vashti Loren, a xenobiologist charged with studying the planet, both to confirm its suitability for human life and to ensure that colonization will not disrupt its underexamined ecosystem. Vashti is also a notorious figure: the widow of a tragically murdered hero, an unenhanced human in an era of rampant genetic modification, and a rare individual who possesses the capacity for killing in a future where violence has largely been programmed out of humanity. In fact, violence is so passe that it is left to “Beasts” — cloned soldiers, designed as a necessary evil. When one of Vashti’s friends smuggles a Beast to Ubastis, Vashti is forced to confront the repressed tragedies of her past, even as she’s propelled headlong into a tangled drama to chart the future of the planet.

Archangel builds slowly at first, but ultimately is a gripping, immersive read. Its most striking asset is rich, vivid world-building, which depicts a complex, space-faring future humanity that manages to be both relatable and convincingly alien. The same is true for Ubastis, a rough-edged frontier world with its own nascent culture and environmental mystique. This thoroughly envisioned setting is explored through an equally rich protagonist; Vashti is a complicated, layered hero, fierce and smart, stubborn and tortured. She serves as a captivating window onto the planet’s burgeoning intrigues, which I hope will continue into a sequel. A superb debut.


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Fantasy, Science Fiction, Television

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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Fantasy, Science Fiction, Television

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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Fantasy, Film, Science Fiction

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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Fantasy, Fiction, Science Fiction

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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Novel: Impersonations by Walter Jon Williams

March 20, 2017

Typically space opera isn’t wheelhouse reading for me, but when Walter Jon Williams is involved, I’m always game. Impersonations (2016) is a standalone sequel to the Dread Empire’s Fall trilogy of the early 2000s, and it’s an intriguing, fast-paced follow-up.

The original trilogy depicted a future interstellar empire composed of multiple species, conquered by a powerful alien race called the Shaa, who ruled their domain by a stringent set of guidelines known as the Praxis. The death of the last living Shaa led to civil war when a race called the Naxids attempted to fill the power void. Carolina Sula is a hero of the war whose command helped quash the Naxid rebellion. The only problem: she won the war through her own resourcefulness and ingenuity, rather than following the script of her stodgy higher-ups. As Impersonations begins, Sula has been “rewarded” for her success with a backwater command, running the shipyards of a now-insignificant planet called Earth. Fortunately, Sula is a history buff, and looks to make the best of her situation by delving into the ruins of humanity’s past. But her quiet posting is jeopardized when an old friend turns up whose presence could expose the darkest secrets of her checkered past. And this is just the first complication in a slowly escalating intrigue that ultimately proves explosive.

I loved the Dread Empire’s Fall series, and I suspect fans of the original trilogy will relish this return to its universe, even though the space opera trappings are scaled back slightly to focus on one familiar and yet strikingly different planet. While prior knowledge surely enhances the enjoyment, the story does stand alone, and the worldbuilding delivers a timely focus on alternative governance, which resonates interestingly in light of current events. Sula is a compelling and capable protagonist, and while the plot starts quietly, it builds nicely toward an exciting home stretch that delivers satisfying reveals that could point toward further adventures in the series. A bracing science fictional thriller.

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