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Monthly Archives: August 2016

The Nightmare Stacks: Fresh Laundry

I am, as I’ve said on numerous occasions, wary of long-running franchises. There are a few I persist in following anyway, like the Dresden Files and Honor Harrington, that nevertheless exhibit clear signs of eventually stagnating or losing their way.

Still, these have earned some benefit of the doubt from me, and another one of them has been the Laundry novels by Charles Stross, about the exploits of the British secret service in charge of defending the country and the world from occult menaces from beyond.

I’ve commented in my articles on the previous three books that the series has seemed to be stalling out somewhat. The Apocalypse Codex seemed to come around for another go at the same scenario as the book before, the Fuller Memorandum. The Rhesus Chart and the Annihilation¬†Score meanwhile suffered from continually reusing the same plot point of rooting out an enemy within which the series had already done to death. And the sense of escalation toward unknowable menaces from beyond space and time seemed to plateau out in favour of smaller campaigns against half-related threats.

In addition, the series wandered from its main character, the geeky and sardonic Bob Howard, to other point of view characters, and gave the villains point-of-view chapters, which rather undermined the effect of Bob’s comic voice on the one hand and undermined the shadowy horror of the enemy on the other hand.

But Bob was in oversight in Apocalypse Codex and Rhesus Chart, and his wife Mo was the main character of the Armageddon Score. But in the new book, the Nightmare Stacks, Bob doesn’t appear at all.

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In the Nightmare Stacks, the main character is Alex Schwartz, a top-flight computer whiz recruited by the Laundry in the Rhesus Chart after becoming the victim of a daemonic possession called PHANG Syndrome. By the Laundry novels’ definition, he’s a vampire. Along with other members of the Laundry, including several friends of Bob’s, he’s involved in the cleanup efforts after the Laundry was gutted by its various moles. In the process, he’s being brought further into the Laundry’s tangled web, and learning more of their secrets.

The particular one that haunts him as it does the rest of the Laundry is CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the code name for when, as H.P. Lovecraft would have it, “the stars are right” and reality begins a period of distortion and accessibility to cosmic intelligences of alien malice.

However, we learn, there is a whole slew of CASE NIGHTMARE scenarios, and another one, CASE NIGHTMARE RED, has arisen – invasion by alien civilization.

Seizing on an opportunity presented by the breaking down of cosmic barriers, the survivors of the Morningstar Empire, an alien-fey civilization, determine to leave their dying world, laid waste by some of the cosmic horrors mentioned above, and invade ours, conquering it to forestall their own extinction.
The All-Highest leader of the Empire sends his daughter, his spymaster, to assume a human identity and infiltrate the leadership. In the end, she ends up enticing Alex, but in so doing she finds that her assignment may also be her only chance to survive out from under the shackles of the geas spells that bind everyone in her society.

Fundamentally, the problem I’m increasingly having with the Laundry novels is a sense that Stross started this escalation of cosmic menace – what the third book called ‘a hierarchy of horrors’ – but that he (or more probably, his editors) decided that the escalation was happening faster than they wanted, and now he’s making up new spinoff plots to draw this out longer. The introduction of CASE NIGHTMARE RED annoyed me, because of its sense of ‘wait, forget about that thing we’ve been building up for book after book, look at this instead!’

That said, the book also overcame a lot of my other complaints. It isn’t following the plot of finding a mole – one of the main characters, Cassie the spy, is trying to become one, but it doesn’t pan out that way. Moreover, despite losing both Bob and Mo at this point, the supporting characters that are sticking around are ones I like, and I like Alex. And not just because we share a name. His story of trying to find purpose in life and his self-hatred over his condition makes for an engaging read. In a strange way, the scene featuring his family drama was touching and supported a theme of human goodness, as contrasted against Cassie’s origins, as well as the pettier side of humanity as shown, somewhat, by his parents. On a larger canonical note, it’s kind of interesting that, whenever Bob is mentioned (having moved up the ladder of the organization) Alex’s reaction is a lot like Bob’s reaction to his boss Angleton in the early books.

I am also, as I’ve occasionally hinted in the past, a sucker for redemption stories, and Cassie goes through a very persuasive one which I really enjoyed. She’s quite a charming character – her little tic of answering “Yesyes” instead of just “yes” is weirdly cute and she and Alex make a sweet supernatural couple. At the same time, she’s no damsel and is the one to finalize the solution to the crisis.

On the flipside, the Morningstar Empire is very disturbing. In the classic Laundry fashion, they’re a crossover of modern technology and mysticism. They are essentially alien elves, with many of the more sinister of the tropes of the Fair Folk. It kinds of reminds me of the elves in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching Discworld sub-series. They have ‘dragons’ and ‘horses’ which are merely conventional names for something much scarier, and the brutal system of subjugation-by-magic they employ is genuinely scary as well as repugnant. While in the past books giving point-of-view time to the villains reduced their scariness, the buildup to the invasion and its progress is chilling, suspenseful and heartbreaking as we skip to innocent people – airline pilots, police, cosplayers at an anime convention notably – being wiped out by the invaders and even our occult defenses misfiring.

Okay, so in summary this is a good book, no doubt. While the series at large has begun to try my patience, and this continues with the book’s cliffhanger ending, it has a feel-good element I appreciated, good characters and makes use of events of past books to build this one. I haven’t heard a peep out of the Dresden Files or Honor Harrington series for a while, but in the meantime, the third of my favourite long-runners triumvirate is soldiering on.

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Posted by on August 26, 2016 in Book

 

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Suicide Squad: Still Breathing

As a kid watching comic-based animated universes, my loyalties always leaned slightly more to DC than to Marvel. Mainly, it was down to the DC cartoons being better produced and less subject to meddling censors, I think.

In the Cinematic Universe department, however, I’ve rather felt my sympathies sliding the other way. Marvel has consistently demonstrated its ability to tell meaningful stories with complex characters like Tony Stark, Loki, and Black Widow.

By contrast, DC’s Cinematic Universe was kicked off by Man of Steel, which told a by-the-numbers, rather grim tale of what has traditionally been one of the most spectacular and starry-eyed characters in comic book canon. It was, in a sense, an early symptom of the general bleak pessmissm of a lot of popular fiction these days, as if the showrunners didn’t believe that Superman was actually a marketable character, so they just tried to make Batman Begins again.

I honestly completely missed the Batman vs. Superman movie, out of a sense, from Man of Steel that I was going to watch, dark, stoic Batman butting heads with a dark, stoic Superman. Contrast makes interesting conflict and I just didn’t see there being any.

And yet, I nevertheless was intrigued by the next installment after that, Suicide Squad. There’s no counterpart in the Marvel Universe that I know of, where you have an ensemble of villain protagonists. It promised to bring forward some more colourful and clashing characters than DC had managed up to now.

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Oddly enough Joker probably has the least screentime of anyone, but are you going to tell him different?

In the wake of the events of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, the United States government is reeling from the rising threat of aggressive ‘metahumans.’

Amanda Waller, a covert ops planning specialist, gains leverage on a group of metahumans and criminal masterminds and forms them into a secret task force to throw at extraordinary, high risk situations. In exchange for considerations like reduced sentences and nicer cells, they undertake nearly-suicidal black ops with government deniability. Included among them are the master assassin Deadshot, the ex-gangster pacifist pyrokinetic El Diablo, eccentric Australian bank robber Captain Boomerang (seriously), and Harley Quinn, the deranged counterpart to the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker.

Under special ops soldier Flagg, they must go in against a former member of Waller’s team, the Enchantress, an ancient magical entity which, regrettably, has possessed Flagg’s beloved.

The overwhelming impression you have with Suicide Squad is that it’s a rush job. The members of the squad – and there are seven of them altogether – are introduced in a montage over Waller describing them to some generals, except for Katana, who appears out of nowhere at the end of the first act. In practice, Flagg, Deadshot and Harley are the only ones who get more than a simple backstory. The Joker, in pursuit of Harley, comes and goes as if the writers periodically forget that he’s there. I’m certainly intrigued by the new interpretation of him by Jared Leto. I remember when I first saw his picture in character,¬†I thought it was a Marilyn Manson album cover. But he isn’t characterized deeply enough to have either the bleakly funny quality that Mark Hamill or Heath Ledger provide, nor the airs of a figure that even other villains are terrified of.

The characters are fun but shallow. Will Smith makes Deadshot the heart of the piece, but his backstory is your old family-man-with-an-evil-job cliche; Harley’s insanity doesn’t seem real, just a quirky weirdo who switches occasionally from insightful to broken to just random. Her characterization in the 90s Batman Animated Series was certainly quirky, but somehow the tragedy of her character doesn’t come across as much as I might prefer. But then again, I’m a sucker for Harley Quinn redemption fanfiction, to the point of having written one myself. The tone wavers, as if a gritty, humanizing story was the plan but the writers couldn’t quite believe in comic book characters as anything other than silly. Batman’s brief appearances in particular have a subtle element of the absurd, which, when the bar is set by the Dark Knight trilogy at him being a force of shadowy dread, makes him fall flat.

It also falls victim to the same misstep I observed in Man of Steel. X-Men Apocalypse did something similar as well, and it again speaks to rushing things: the heroes confront the bad guy and save the world…except they kind of don’t. See, something the Marvel Cinematic Universe is pretty good at is creating the sense that our heroes triumph by preventing terrible things from happening, containing the carnage as much as possible. In the DC movies (and Apocalypse), they try to big up the scariness of the villain by having them defeated after the carnage is already underway! Sure, Enchantress is foiled but then again, she covered half the world with her power for a while, amongst other things, slicing an aircraft carrier in half! The city she’s operating in is evacuated and trashed. As with the damage to Metropolis in Man of Steel, or Cairo and the world in Apocalypse, by the time the villain is defeated, it feels like it’s too late. What’s the point of a deniable Suicide Squad if what’s going on is that blisteringly obvious?

Despite all of the above, I feel very much as if the movie has been treated more harshly than necessary. It has many of the hallmarks of the ensemble heist film – an old favourite genre of mine – and however artless the plotting may be, the dialogue is actually quite good. The action is perfectly enjoyable and Deadshot, Flagg and Harley between them really carry the story with their performances. Aptly, since this is another Zack Snyder production, the emotive characters, sense of character bonding, surreal aesthetic and exciting action bits successfully evoke my old friend Sucker Punch. The whole production has a certain je ne se quois that maintains its charm. Set and costume design are top notch, and the choice of licensed music certainly beats Guardians of the Galaxy. The comic relief actually did make me laugh, and as I alluded to earlier, whatever failures in the presentation, the acting closes much of the gap. I look forward to the exploits of the new Batman in particular.

So, on balance, I rate Suicide Squad as a Fun Movie. It isn’t up to the MCU or the Dark Knight Trilogy’s standards, but I think it has potential. My main advice to DC would be: take a deep breath, don’t worry about playing catch-up to Marvel and focus on the story you want to tell. But given how much ground Suicide Squad managed to skim over, I think that possibility is very real. So I’ll stay tuned for now.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2016 in Movie