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Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Annihilation Score: Not Quite the Crescendo

I’ve intimated in past posts that I’m skeptical of long-running series. I’ve borne with a couple of them – Honor Harrington, the Dresden Files, and enjoyed both. But stringing them out eventually reduces them to echoes.

And I’m a little worried that another favourite series might be heading the same way. But I’ve not given it up, or I’d not still be here.

I was pleased to welcome back Charles Stross’ Laundry Files: the exploits of the British secret department in charge of preventing incursions by supernatural alien intelligences and the humans enthralled to them.

After the last two books, I was getting a little annoyed about how the bigger context of the impending cosmic alignment disaster – known in-story as CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN – kept getting stalled in the interest of telling smaller-scale stories that seemed to be sideshows both for characters and for the main mythology events.

While a certain amount of this is true for the new book, the Annihilation Score, it manages to have a lot of interesting stuff going on all the same. Not least because, quite unexpectedly, the point-of-view character is no longer Bob, the geeky computer sorcerer. It’s his wife.

Dominique O’Brien – Mo to most people – a philosopher, violinist and combat epistemologist has been, since the second Laundry book, the custodian of a sinister violin. Molded from human bone and empowered by the agonies of the victims sacrificed to build it, it is nevertheless a powerful weapon for the Laundry to drive back the creeping horrors from beyond. However, the cost to her sanity and the changes wrought on Bob by the events of previous books have, combined with the incredible stress and trauma of their duties, severely damaged their marriage.

At the same time as she copes with this, Mo is thrust into a new challenge. The effects of the sea change in the fabric of reality are becoming impossible to conceal from the general public. In particular, a lot of people are showing signs of unusual powers – superpowers, in fact. And keeping the lid on it is out of the question as a result. But, rather than operate openly, the Board of the Laundry puts Mo in charge of a front organization in charge of recruiting superheroes to aid the police, or to deal with the ones who won’t. Thrown together with some persons who have had entanglements with her husband, and a dashing police chief, Mo’s greater enemies, more than any wannabe supervillain, are her own trauma and psychological damage, the violin tempting her further into darkness, and a dastardly conspiracy within the British…

Oh, no, not again.

See, the perennial problem with the Laundry Files lately is that they keep reverting to the ‘enemy in our own ranks’ plot. Four of the books and two of the novellas have already done this in one form or another. It’s getting to the point where it seems like Britain is in more danger from itself than from Nyarlathotep.

At the same time as it keeps repeating itself, the novels are also wandering from what made them so effective. Evoking the Lovecraftian mythos, speaking of alien intellects and the ghosts of civilizations millions of years old, lurking at the edges of reality, made the books seriously scary. But the buildup of that mythos – a ‘hierarchy of horrors’ to use a phrase from the Fuller Memorandum – sort of plateaued out during the Apocalypse Codex. Ever since then it seems like the threat remains small groups of supernaturally-enhanced people. People just aren’t scary the way cosmic alien deities are scary, simple as that.

If it weren’t for that, it wouldn’t matter so much that the books also aren’t as funny as they used to be. Stross writes very witty dialogue, but seen through Bob’s or Mo’s deteriorating mental health, the collision of supernatural weirdness and workaday procedure and form-filling just isn’t very funny anymore either.

Having said all that, I could scarcely put this book down. The Cosmic Horror element is preserved somewhat by the violin – Lecter, as Mo calls it – getting inside her head like a combination of Cthulhu and the One Ring. The problem is that the main mystery gets put on hold for a long time while Mo deals with personal trauma and on-the-job stress, so the ambience of chill creepiness has to be built up very quickly in the run-up to the climax.

That’s not to say that Mo’s personal trials aren’t good reading: her PTSD, flashbacks, nightmares and workaholism are very persuasive and sympathetic. At the same time, her strength and professionalism in the midst of it makes her an admirable character. Her anger and resentment at the way the Laundry runs people ragged and the way she and other professional women are treated is intense and moving – a bit more feminist propaganda to add to the heap, one hopes. There’s a certain amount of humour surrounding public relations, superhero tropes and office politics, though not an awful lot.

It’s kind of interesting the way that Mo is put in charge of a primarily female team – there’s even a mention of the Bechdel Test in dialogue – in a way that suggests a theme about the tribulations of professional women. Mo’s tribulations aren’t over yet, although there’s a promise of her work expanding in scope in stories to come. Hope is also lent for hers and Bob’s relationship as she starts reaching a level on par with what he reached. Too soon to know for sure though.

I quite enjoyed the Annihilation Score – it made good use of groundwork laid in previous books, gave us something new and a fresh perspective by putting Mo front and centre. That said, I feel like the personal/political drama and the Cosmic Horror story keep jockeying for space against each other, so that it isn’t clear which is the A or B plot. Still, nothing deal-breaking has happened. And as I’ve said in the past, the Laundry Files tend to demand a few re-reads before you can make sense of them, so my first impression may improve.

So, like Mo, I’ll keep calm and carry on.

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Posted by on July 28, 2015 in Book

 

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Tomorrowland: Not a Moment Too Soon

The benefit of having low expectations is that when they are defied, the feeling is of being greatly uplifted.

It doesn’t happen to me often; it did with Sucker Punch, and with Mad Max: Fury Road, and I was lucky enough for it to happen again this past week.

I went into the local cinema to see the movie Tomorrowland yesterday. I was curious but not optimistic: the trailer looked cool but it also seemed to consist of the entire first half of the movie. Spread pretty thin, then? It’s based on a Disney fairground ride, which doesn’t seem like a promising start. Then again, so is Pirates of the Caribbean and that turned out alright. And it had George Clooney in it – an excellent actor but noticeably willing to go way down market from time to time. In all honesty, my main interest was in going to see a movie that isn’t a ripoff of something I watched when I was six.

In the near future, idealistic young Casey Newton is feeling ground down by the doom and gloom attitudes of those around her. All she ever learns about at school is the imminent menaces of climate change, nuclear war, and dystopia-style politics. Then she goes home to face the closing down of her father’s job, as an engineer on the decomissioned NASA launch platform at Cape Canaveral.

After having gone the rebellious teenaged genius route of sabotaging the demolition of the platform, she’s caught. But in collecting her effects after being bailed out, she’s presented with a pin, ostensibly a relic from the famous 1964 World’s Fair. But when she touches it, she’s shown a vision of a city, a remarkable new world where all the potential of science and human imagination has been let loose, a utopia of achievement and idealism. Stricken by this vision, she goes on the road to track down its meaning, and finds Frank Walker. Not budging in the face of his bitterness and reticence, she begins a quest to learn the nature of Tomorrwland, and of the threat that inextricably links this world and that one. A threat which Casey may be able to prevent.

So it’s a standard pro-idealism semi-messianic story as far as you go. The wild carnival-ride sequences betray the priorities of the source material, and result in a lot of action. The dieselpunk aesthetic and the travelling to idealized other-worlds makes it seem like fluffy-happy BioShock as much as anything else.

Sounds great, but not unconditionally so: the high action level comes at the expense of time that might have been better spent on worldbuilding. As it is, the plot breezes past so quickly that we occasionally find certain questions unanswered: why, precisely, did Walker leave Tomorrowland? What is society there actually like? We don’t actually get a good look at what it’s like to live there, and how the shared threat affected Tomorrowland and its society. The implication is that it has gone from utopia to dystopia, but we don’t actually see that this is the case. Likewise, antagonists and story elements come and go in the race to reach Tomorrowland, so that the tone of the movie and the general plot type seems to change a couple of times.

The design itself sometimes doesn’t seem like it was thought through beyond ‘let’s do something cool.’ If it had been, some more imaginative and less over-the-top scenarios might have arisen, affording more unity to the narrative. It might also have spared us the obliviously, hilariously phallic imagery in the Eiffel Tower sequence.

The ride Tomorrowland is the main inspiration, as are the rides of the 1964 World’s Fair, as mentioned above. The unconditional optimism of that era is inspiration for Casey, for Frank, and for the writers.

Probably the biggest stumbling block of the movie is that the dialogue, particularly Casey’s, is so painfully saccharine and pretentious that her idealism and optimism come right around and starts sounding goofy. There are certain other aspects of this: Frank in his childhood flashbacks, Athena, the serious, perceptive and mysterious little girl – although she’s young enough that she’s probably not an experienced actress; kind of reminds me of Emma Watson in the first Harry Potter movie. The final sequence where a series of new ‘dreamers’ are shown from around the world is so relentlessly multicultural that it seems slightly frantic, reminding me of the thoroughly but artlessly inclusionary spirit of Captain Planet.

Obviously, including people from all cultures and countries is entirely correct for them to do, especially as a counterbalance to the dark side of the upbeat 1960s we started with – this was, after all, also the era of ‘No Colored’ signs in business front windows. It occurs to me that really what they should have done is cast Casey as a woman of colour, but that’s Hollywood for you: willing to send any message as long as they don’t have to actually exert their imagination meaningfully to do it. As it is the fact that she bears a suspicious resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence shows that Hollywood is still better at talking the talk than anything substantial.

Fundamentally, the movie has a positive message and wants to push optimism and activism in a cynical age, but it can’t quite get away from the long-standing stereotype that you can’t have those things without making them look foolish and silly to at least some extent.

You know what, though? For all its disappointing and disjointed tone and pacing, this was the movie I really, really needed it to be. I’d just been reading over at a neighbouring blog an articulation of my own feelings of how pop and geek culture seems to revel in unrelenting bleakness and misery – Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, the Hunger Games. Geek culture, the birthplace of Star Trek and the mad man with a blue box, where Bilbo Baggins found his courage and Queen Lucy’s belief saved Narnia, has sunk into a state where anything less than a freaking nightmare isn’t considered believable or seemingly, even desirable.

But Tomorrowland cloaks itself in the old ways. The sky’s-the-limit optimism of the Sixties – birthplace of Star Trek – is hearkened back to from the word go. There a lot of visual gags and other classic geeky references in the movie. The soundtrack is trying – a touch desperately – to be a continual homage to Star Wars. It struck me that Tomorrowland itself bears an uncanny resemblance to the ‘city of the future’ portrayed briefly in the episode ‘the World Set Free’ from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos series – a connection which would have been a non-white protagonist all the more on point, incidentally.

When the script afforded Hugh Laurie’s character a chance to call out the cynical culture of geeks and people in general, I very nearly cheered, because he eloquently calls out the very thing that gives this movie applicability. Subtle it ain’t, but then again Hugh Laurie could make your credit card statement sound like the most important thing you’ve ever heard.

So Tomorrowland is a bit graceless and most definitely a B-movie. But it’s a Fun Movie and has the virtue of taking a big ball of symbolism and subtext and blasting it into our faces like a reviving bucket of cold water. The soundtrack is superb, the special effects and design first-rate, the acting really above the call of duty for the script, and if it’s a bit slapdash, it at least did a slapdash job of something worth doing.

We can still make it, people!

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2015 in Movie

 

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