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Monthly Archives: October 2013

Saturday Supplemental: Why I Won’t Watch Ender’s Game, and Neither Should You

Sigh.

I really haven’t been looking forward to this. I wanted these reviews to be apolitical. Basic rules and possibilities of storytelling are not dictated by yours, or the author’s, voting habits.

But now I’m kind of in a bind: because one of the main events of the season, one which I imagine lots of people have been looking forward to, is the release of the film adaptation of Ender’s Game, the science fiction masterwork of Orson Scott Card.

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In a future where humanity has twice been attacked and thwarted an implacable insectoid horde from beyond the stars, Ender Wiggin, a six-year-old boy, is taken from his family to begin the Spartan-esque training for a new generation of ultimate space warriors. He’s put through the school of military indoctrination I tend to think of as the ‘post-Vietnam-era’ style of training: a rigorous, not to say brutal regime which instills soldiers with aggression, domination and machismo and conspicuously omits anything so lily-livered as courage, esprit de corps or honour.

Ender, in his innocence, learns the ways of this school, and begins to realize that Battle School is being puppeteered by its instructor, Major Graff, specifically to groom him as the ideal commander for the next, and imminent, clash with the so-called ’buggers’ (commence snickering, I certainly did). He faces the challenges of the training and conflicts put in front of him as well as the struggle to fathom the plots of which he is the object, all the while hanging grimly onto his humanity, the one thing the school seems determined to strip away at the same time as it is his saving grace.

The story is a profound one of the contest between humanity’s struggle to survive and to still remain itself, of children and their true worth. The movie looks epic and visually stunning, with a cast including justly honoured actors Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley.

Unfortunately, I found all of that out after I learned that Orson Scott Card has distinguished himself in breathtaking statements of bigotry against the Gay and Lesbian community. While I am not a member of one of the initials in LGBTQI or however you choose to arrange them, enough of my friends are for this to make me angry even if I didn’t consider it blatantly unfair and unkind to de-legitimate and degrade my fellow human beings based on who they consensually fall in love with.

Okay, can o’ worms time over here. I’m not going to bother making a case for marriage equality because roughly twice the population of the planet Earth has beaten me there already. Let me lay down the law here on just a few salient matters:

In and of itself, the political leanings of a writer do not dictate the quality or worthiness of their work. Roald Dahl, author of such beloved childrens’ stories as the BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a candid anti-Semite. Even if, like me, you have objections to the Catholic Church’s stance on social justice, I would hardly think it rational to condemn or boycott J.R.R. Tolkien’s works simply because he was Catholic. To do so would be a manifestation of the same kind of silencing and bigotry I intend to rail against. Besides, it’d be bloody silly.

However, the problem we have with Mr. Scott Card is twofold: one, unlike Dahl or Tolkien, he’s still alive and carries no small weight among science fiction fan communities.

Two, while as far as I know Dahl merely shot his mouth off, Orson Scott Card used to sit on the American National Organization for Marriage, a principle bastion of the “gays are out to get you” lobby created to support California‘s Proposition 8. He stepped down this year, and one could be forgiven for thinking this was a political expedient timed to distance the much-anticipated movie from his politics.

Which brings me back to the first point: even if Dahl’s obnoxious views had been reflected by his membership in some anti-Jewish organization or other (it wasn’t as far as I am aware) the fact remains that he’s dead. Given Card’s frankly dehumanizing remarks about gay people and his known affiliations, buying his books or, now, buying a ticket to see the movie, I submit, very probably funnels funds through him to organizations dedicated to the oppression and contempt of our LGBT brothers and sisters.

Which is why, with a heavy heart, I have to join those who are boycotting the Ender’s Game movie. I’ve only ever been ticked off enough to boycott one other movie, M. Night Shyamalan’s atrocious adaptation of Avatar: the Last Airbender, and most everyone agrees it was rubbish even without the racism.

For what it’s worth, though, I didn’t even like Ender’s Game as a book that much anyway. The story is grim, that one expects, but what staggers me is that at no point does Ender get his desired triumph over the brutal and manipulative system he is subjected to. There’s no success for him in the long run, and not much in the way of relief on the way. The story’s like the last Hunger Games novel: constant decline into misery and darkness with no sense of hope. Ender figures out how to play the system and excel within it, when a system like this cries out for its own subversion. To balance the books (see what I did there?), let me say that the Hunger Games had it right because as terrible as the choice was, Katniss chooses in the first book to take control of the game away from her puppeteers. Ender never does. Gratifyingly, his humanity is the thing that keeps him together through all this, but there‘s no payoff for him or the reader. If I’d been where he was through the book, I’d have been about ready to switch sides – not to SPOIL but, in a way, he kind of does, if only in the epilogue.

To the book’s credit Ender’s puppet masters are counting on his human goodness, and are built up as the kind of heartless chessmasters that President Snow in the Hunger Games seemed to think he was. That said, I was never completely sold on the idea that this little kid was the answer to all Earth’s hopes. I mean, this program of training has been going on for some time, it seems. You’d think an adult would be better trained for longer by the time they needed him.

The given reason is that they needed a child’s flexible thinking, which is fair enough. Just one problem, and it’s one that amazes me more people don’t point out. Ender goes from six to eleven through the story, and his brother and sister are just on the cusp of their teens at the end. Generally none of his fellow characters except the officers are over fourteen. But neither Ender nor his siblings nor any of the others act, think, or talk like children. Some of that can be explained by the psychopathy that almost all of them have for some reason but even after that they don’t talk like kids and they have way deeper grasp of psychology than any kid. Heck, they talk like David Weber characters: pedantic, political and detached. Ender’s brother and sister basically take over the government via the Internet when they’re about twelve! It’s this more than anything else that blows the whole thing out of the water for me because these kids’ actual ages make them too young to believably deal with the kinds of situations they’re in, and just making them teens would have mostly solved the problem. Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth understood that and their books’ characters fundamentally make more sense as a result.

I may be being overly harsh on the book since I rushed through it and am more than a little irate about the conduct of the man behind the proverbial curtain. Also there are a number of sequels so presumably there’s more to this. From a storytelling standpoint, it’s dreary and unpleasant if well-constructed, if you’re into that.

For me, though, I feel similarly about reading a book by Orson Scott Card as I would watching a Roman Polanski movie. I hasten to affirm that Card has done nothing illegal but my disgust at his treatment of his fellow beings is such that I don’t feel I can in good conscience offer him any material support by buying into his intellectual properties. I get why lots of people don’t want to think about it; I’m facing the wearying possibility that, to stay consistent with my convictions I’ll have to start doing informal background checks on all the movies I watch. Whether or not I ever walk the walk as far as that, I feel obliged to use the information in my hands here and now.

So I invite my readership, if you’re still out there after this diatribe, to turn aside from the drama and explosions, and spend your admission fee in nobler places. I live in parts rural but if anybody else is in a major city, some alternative events where you can donate to pro-equality groups are on the books for November 1st.

There’s nothing to hate but hate itself.

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Posted by on October 26, 2013 in Book, Movie, Saturday Supplemental

 

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The Dresden Files: Noir Mystery, Noir Magic, Noir Comedy

Sometimes I look forward to a new blog post less than other times, especially when things are shades of grey (though fewer than fifty – not going there) or if it’s a disappointing negative review. Other times, though, it gives me that most golden of opportunities: the chance to legitimately gush about something I like.

I keep banging on about how I tend to aver from long, epic novel series (there’s a reason I’ve never reviewed Game of Thrones) and yet there are two exceptions. As established, the Honor Harrington Series is one of them. The other is Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, the 14th and most recent of which, Cold Days, I lately finished.

 

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My favourite, but one of many!

The Dresden Files are named for their main character: Harry Dresden, a wizard who runs a private detective service in Chicago. Called upon to take cases involving occult mysteries of all sorts ranging from curses to black magic to possession, and clients ranging from shellshocked spouses to troubled teens to the Queen of Winter herself. Harry’s tenacious and cavalier style rubs him up the wrong way against the White Council, the aloof, often cold and officious rulership of wizards, and against such forces as vampires, spirits of the seasons and the mysterious Black Council, a hidden organization whose hand is behind much of the chaos aggrieving Chicago and our hero and his friends.

I made a passing remark that the Mortal Instruments that it’s one of few examples in vogue these days of urban fantasy – that is, stories of the fantastical and supernatural that also use the modern city rather than the forests, meadows and castles on hilltops the word ‘fantasy’ traditionally implies. Jim Butcher clearly knows and loves Chicago and its streets and set pieces form a wonderful variety of backdrops for the books.

Chicago is just the kind of town for this sort of thing, glamour and gungy bits in just the right proportions: up until book seven or so, the novels are styled after noir crime novels, where the long-suffering detective has a funny customer come in and ask them to look into something. Although the ‘funny customer’ is sometimes, for example, a vampire as in Dead Beat. He starts following the trail in a determined, focused, somewhat thickheaded persistent way, hits up his contacts on the force and the underworld, and finds himself up to his neck into something way bigger than he bargained for. In Dead Beat for instance, a massive necromantic summoning plotted by the cult of an infamous sorcerer.

Since Proven Guilty or so, the stories have changed tone, with Harry moving into a different role as guardian, father figure to his apprentice, and the progression of his pals and contacts to becoming truly dear to him; the plotting goes from a detective and his band of brothers (and sisters) to more of a ‘created family’ dynamic, a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is in aid of a raising of the stakes and the transition from semi-episodic style to a bigger scope, much the same as Honor Harrington or, to be more on point, the Laundry Files.

It has been said that every so often, one discovers a story that fundamentally clicks with you. The writing style, the characters, or something about it just makes it work. The Dresden Files and the Laundry Files, for me, are those stories. Thinking about it, I’m not sure there’s a single fictional character I’ve personally related to as much as I have Harry Dresden. He’s impatient, knowledgable but not a particularly profound thinker, who goes at problems head-on, has a strong sense of right and wrong and a complete lack of tact or guile when it comes to the latter. He’s a rescue the innocents, blast the bad guy to pieces kind of a guy. He’s also shortsighted, a wise guy, given to self-reproach and shouldering absolutely astonishing amounts of guilt. And he has, by his own admission, some rather chauvinistic if good-hearted ideas about how to treat women. In short, this is what a real guy like him would be like, if he also happened to be a wizard.

The stories themselves introduce you to the world of magic a little bit at a time. It’s very much in the tradition of the “all legends are true” style, where Queen Mab, Titania, Kris Kringle, the Archangels, vampires, werewolves, dragons and many others exist and are as complex and formidable as the stories that have grown up around them. Butcher clearly knows his folklore and doesn’t play the ‘modern’ versions of these ideas the way, say, the Mortal Instruments or Buffy tended to do.

Speaking of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the thing that cinches the deal for me is that the Dresden Files are hilarious. I mentioned that Harry is a wisecracker extraordinare. His internal monologues are consistently hilarious and his banter with his porn-loving spirit assistant, Bob the Skull, is always good value.

“‘Then why is it that you stare at naked girls every chance you get,” I said, “but not naked men?’
‘It’s an aesthetic choice,’ Bob said loftily. ‘As a gender, women exist on a plane far beyond men when it comes to the artistic appreciation of external beauty.’
‘And they have boobs,’ I said.
‘And they have boobs!’”
-from Turn Coat

As in the Laundry novels, the juxtaposition of all this magic and sorcery with banal everyday life or one’s expectations (such as Harry getting into a punch-up with Father Christmas or bribing pixies with pizza) is a great source of comedy.

And, putting a cherry on it all, Butcher has the nerdiest sense of humour ever! The texts are peppered with references to all sorts of fandoms. Dresden verifies his identity to his apprentice in Ghost Story by telling her she’s to go to the Dagobah System and learn from Yoda. Once there was a reference to the Princess Bride and to Firefly in the same paragraph! Bliss! Factor in Star Trek, the Lord of the Rings, the Evil Overlord List…it’s gloriously funny.

The Dresden Files aren’t the heaviest read in the world, usually. As with most mystery stories I have to read them more than once sometimes to get my head around them. I also have trouble remembering what happens in which books. As fun as they are, they all sort of bleed together for me. Maybe it’s because, while it’s one of the few I can really get into, the Dresden Files are written in first person.

As is usually the case, the change in style as the scope of the stories has widened might lose some readers. I was also getting the feeling, around the time of Changes, that the sheer amount of angst, pain and difficulty Harry’s life has subjected him to was getting to a point of overload, but for my money Butcher knows just when to let something really good happen to let the pressure off a bit. The pacing had a bit of a jumpy period between Proven Guilty and Changes, I felt, as the stakes of each book would soar pretty high before going back to something about level with the status quo. Changes in particular might have seemed like an ending, and yet we continue. Given all the crazy, fate-defying things he’s done, one wonders how Dresden’s story could possibly be brought to a satisfactory and fulfilling conclusion at this point. This is why I distrust these long runners: they weave themselves ever more intricate and you start to wonder how it could possibly live up in the end to the buildup it’s been having. Plus, for all the trauma and emotional turmoil Harry experiences, the terrible things that happen only seem to really affect him when the plot needs them to. Otherwise, given the horrible battles he’s been in, you wonder how he could still be functional after all this time.

All of these are mostly open questions, for the moment anyway. They’re not as intellectually profound as the Laundry Files, but they are funny, geeky, exciting, melodramatic, gritty, and enthralling. Jim Butcher and Charles Stross, very much brothers in their trade, are probably my two favourite writers active today, after Sir Terry Pratchett, of whom both are demonstrably big fans. I heartily recommend any of the first six books to get your feet wet and see if you want to dive in, ‘cause it’s endless fun.

“’No,’ I thought ‘It’s Harry Dresden the, uh, lizard! Harry Dresden the wizard is one door down.’”
Storm Front

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2013 in Book

 

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Luna: A Story of the North

There’s no getting around it: culture in the West today, and indeed in a lot of other places, is dominated by trends set by the United States. Whatever your feelings on the subject, it is the order of things.

Mind you, plenty of it’s good stuff. Still, it’s nice, once in a while, when you stumble across something made elsewhere, especially if it’s an elsewhere you’re from.

That’s why I like shows like the 90s vampire series Forever Knight, and more recently, Flashpoint. Because lots of movies are made in Toronto (look closely during the traffic shots in Blade Trinity; you’ll see a CityTV van whiz by) but those two had the distinction of being Canadian-made shows that freely admitted they were set in Toronto.

That kind of content is hard to find, if only because it’s hard to spot in the vast expanses of TV-land. Circumstance dropped a sample of Canadian production in my lap the other day when CTV showed the movie Luna: Spirit of the Whale.

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This review is a bit problematic because the fact that I saw it was a complete fluke and I frankly don’t know how anybody reading this will be able to chase it down for themselves. In case you can find it, online or through your library, though, I wanted to draw attention to it.

The setting is Nootka Sound, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Our hero is Mike, of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation. He’s returning home after leaving to kick his drinking problem and build a new life. Having achieved these things, he’s now returned for his father’s funeral. His father was hereditary chief of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht and his mother hopes he’ll take up the mantle in his turn. Mike, however, is uncomfortable with the idea.

However, he starts helping out around the community, including taking a delinquent youth under his wing. Things go really strange for him when, having organized the kids to clean, repair and take out two traditional canoes, they encounter a solitary Orca who seems extremely keen to spend time with them. Mowachaht/Muchalaht lore dictates that chiefs reincarnate as either wolves or whales.

The community at large sees this as a positive sign and it raises the spirits of the disaffected young man Mike has been informally mentoring. Unfortunately, the government, run ragged by the number of people going to interact with the whale, and the nuisance it’s causing the local fishing business, decides to relocate Luna, to use the whale’s given name. The First Nation will have none of it, and Mike is caught between worlds trying to find a solution.

Now, luckily I long ago deleted any detailed memory of Free Willy so I went in with a more or less clean slate. Still, for a movie made in 2007 there’s something intensely 90s about this movie. The personable wild animal, the reluctant hero with a troubled background, the sympathetic wildlife expert overshadowed by a thick-headed bureaucrat, plucky attempt to stand up to the Man in an emotional showdown. It also plays the old ‘based on a true story’ card, which is guaranteed to bring melodramatic angst and everyman David-on-Goliath conflict for the ride. It also glosses over the tragic fate of the real Luna by leaving things at a point where it can have a saccharine snatched-from-the-jaws-of-defeat happy ending.

So narratively it’s a bit cheesy. I will give it this, though, near as I can figure, it doesn’t paint the morality black-and-white.

On the one hand, the government man is doing what he thinks is right. He’s close-minded, merely humoring the First Nation in its insistence on having a say, and cares most about the bottom line and the political look of things. However, he follows the letter, if not the spirit of the law, and the people he brings in to handle things genuinely want to help Luna. Significantly, the inequities of the political system are demonstrated, but the movie shows restraint and realism by making him merely a stubborn politician without also making him, for example, an overt racist just to bash the point home.

On the other hand, the point of view of the First Nation side isn’t portrayed in a totally positive light. It’s common in tradition vs. progress type stories, especially where Native Americans are involved, to portray a kind of starry-eyed spirituality that is inherently superior and always right in the face of big, bad modernity. I gave Captain Planet and the Planeteers a lot of guff about this too, because it does First Nations a disservice as much as a negative portrayal. Mike’s traditionalist foil, Bill, believes firmly in Luna’s nature as a reincarnation of their chief and takes the opposite extreme to our government interloper, thinking of the whale is if it were a human being. If you’re going to anthropomorphize an animal, the highly intelligent Orca makes more sense than most, but doesn’t necessarily make it wise.

Mike, meanwhile, is middle-of-the-road. Bill anthropomorphizes to one extreme, and the government agent figures that the regulations contain all he needs to know about nature on the other. Mike takes the moderate view that nature ought to be left alone and Luna should be given as open-ended a chance as he can. He repeatedly tries to lead Luna out to sea to see what his nature compels him to do, giving him the choice. He comes to find the belief in Luna’s spiritual significance compelling, but doesn’t forget that this is a wild animal running by nature’s rules. He also bucked my expectations of the ‘returning home’ story in that his reluctance is bred from his own internal insecurities. His memories of his father are mostly positive, he loves his mother to bits and takes a genuine interest in the wellbeing of his childhood home.

The movie boasts plentiful Canadian talent: Mike is played by Adam Beach (also in Windtalkers and Cowboys and Aliens) and veteran actor Graham Greene (Dances with Wolves, Thunderheart) plays Bill. As a bonus it shares a producer in common with Flashpoint: Anne Marie la Traverse.

So, if you can get a hold of it, Luna: Spirit of the Whale is pretty good. The story’s a bit cheesy but thematically resonant. It tells a story of Canada’s First Nations without fetishizing the idea of native people and achieves a decent level of moral ambiguity. The special effects are bit behind the times (it is very easy to see when the whale has been digitally added to the shot) but has a great cast and landscape to make it up.

“They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains/the hottest blood of all.”
Whales Weep Not! By D.H. Lawrence

 

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2013 in Movie

 

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