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Today I’m making the leap from the literary categories, starting with what is essentially the television category. It’s interesting to me the way in which this category is systematically dominated by a particular geek show: Twenty years ago it was Babylon 5. Ten years ago it was Buffy. The Retro 1939 Hugo nominations are dominated by Mercury Theater broadcasts. And today it’s basically a loud huzzah for all things Doctor Who.

7. Doctor Who: “The Name of the Doctor”, written by Steven Moffatt, directed by Saul Metzstein.

I honestly don’t understand how this absolutely dreadful hour of television got nominated. Beyond the fan service, there’s absolutely nothing to like about this episode. Moffat rips himself off to create the Whisper Men. When faced with the fact that the entire hook of the episode was complete and utter nonsense, Moffat responded by making a Blu-Ray special in an effort to explain it (but actually just ended up contradicting the episode itself). The bulk of the episode serves mainly to remind us that the Great Intelligence was never actually established as a coherent villain during series 7 (and does nothing to grant him coherency now).

The Name of the DoctorThe end of the episode, of course, culminates in yet another “alternate universe created by an assassination attempt on the Doctor that threatens to destroy the universe, but is averted because… deus ex machina”. Which marks the third straight season finale in a row that Moffat used that plot. (Although, to be fair, the season 5′s alternate universe created by an assassination attempt on the Doctor that threatened to destroy the universe did not require a deus ex machina in order to be averted.)

Bonus points to this episode, however, for hinging the deus ex machina on the stakes of Clara being totally dead if she jumps into the scar… and then just saying “fuck it” 30 seconds later and using another deus ex machina in order to save her. Extra bonus points for the deus ex machina used to save her having been established as being impossible, but then simply ignoring that with another deus ex machina. Moffat apparently can’t be satisfied until he’s got deus ex mahcina in his deus ex machina in his deus ex machina.

(The fact that it took two whole episodes before Moffat retconned this entire episode out of existence — with another deus ex machina, ‘natch — really makes the whole package extra impressive.)

To be fair, I suppose it can be said that “Name of the Doctor” is an admirable representation of just how utterly terrible the seventh series of Doctor Who was.

6. NO AWARD

5. The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, written & directed by Peter Davison.

The Five(ish) Doctors RebootThis is a remarkable tribute of love for Doctor Who and I was ecstatic to see it’s release as part of the 50th Anniversary festivities. If you’re a fan of Doctor Who and you haven’t seen it yet, please seek it out with the greatest possible alacrity.

With that being said, this is not a piece which, IMO, transcends its immediate fandom. I’m not even sure it significantly transcends this particular moment in time. So while I’ve watched it multiple times myself and giggled with glee each time, I still think ranking it here is the right place for it.

4. An Adventure in Time and Space, written by Mark Gatiss, directed by Terry McDonough.

An Adventure in Time and SpaceQuite possibly the best thing Mark Gatiss has ever written: An Adventure in Time and Space dramatizes the creation of Doctor Who and focuses a particularly fascinating lens on the life of William Hartness (as portrayed impeccably by David Bradley).

Its only real flaw, IMO, is the moment of gratuitous fan service which mars its finale. I’ve seen several historical dramas lately which have provided “happy” endings for their protagonists by suggesting that they had some sort of non-historical catharsis often featuring some sort of prescience that their legacy would endure. I find it vaguely cheap and rather disrespectful to the actual person.

3. Game of Thrones: “The Rains of Castamere”, written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, directed by David Nutter.

I’m actually not a huge fan of the Game of Thrones TV series.

I don’t hate it or anything (and the books are quite wonderful); I just haven’t gotten into it.

The Red Wedding, however, is such a memetically powerful event that the importance and effectiveness of this episode really can’t be questioned.

It is very award worthy.

2. Orphan Black: “Variations Under Domestication”, written by Will Pascoe, directed by John Fawcett.

Orphan BlackI really wish that Orphan Black was just a little bit more intelligent. The main characters all seem to have been hit over the head a few too many times with the idiot ball. (If you want to protect your daughter at all costs, why the fuck are you needlessly carrying her address with you when you decide to break into the bad guys’ home base? And what the fuck? You just got done saying that your apartment isn’t safe, why the fuck are you sending her there as if it were a safe house? … to cite just a couple of the show’s many, many examples.)

With that being said, Tatiana Maslany’s ability to just completely transform herself into different characters is simply unbelievable. (And it becomes even more unbelievable when she plays one of her characters pretending to be another of her character’s and somehow both characters simultaneously shine through.) And the series as a whole is totally addictive while just being one notch away from achieving true mind-blowing proportions (which is why I so desperately want it to be a little smarter). “Variations Under Domestication” is a particularly clever example of what the show is capable of achieving: Farcical techniques of mistaken identity are escalated in a beautiful spiral of comedy and drama.

1. Doctor Who: “The Day of the Doctor”, written by Steven Moffat, directed by Nick Hurran.

Doctor Who: The Day of the DoctorAs absolutely dreadful as “The Name of the Doctor” and the rest Doctor Who‘s seventh series was, “The Day of the Doctor” was simply magnificent: Clever and compelling and endlessly fun, with healthy doses of fan service expertly deployed in order to improve the story rather than distract from it. It was a completely joyous reminder of the greatness that Moffat is capable of achieving as a writer. (Even if that only leaves you scratching your head when you consider the absolutely dreadful dreck it was surrounded by in “The Name of the Doctor” and “The Time of the Doctor”.)

My only quibble with “The Day of the Doctor” is Moffat’s rather anemic understanding and portrayal of the Time War, but that’s not enough to detract from everything else that makes this my #1 pick for science fiction drama in the last year.

 

 Go to Part 1

Hugo Awards - 2014Moving up the list of literary length, I’m transitioning from the Hugo-nominated novelettes to the Hugo-nominated novellas. Let’s start at the bottom:

6. “The Chaplain’s Legacy” by Brad Torgersen.

This is an astonishingly bad story.

It literally opens with multiple pages of hamfisted “As you know, Bob” exposition. My favorite part of this incredibly lengthy sequence is, “As you know, Bob, you’re the one who brokered the original cease-fire with the horrible aliens.” I was really hoping the response to that would be, “Well, gosh, I’d plumb forgot that, Bobette! Thank goodness you reminded me!” Instead, the actual response is, “As you know, Bobette, I managed to convince the aliens that human religion was such a fascinating mystery that they shouldn’t wipe us out until they understood it.”

And thus we come to the central premise of the story: The aliens are genetically incapable of experiencing “faith” in anything they can’t directly observe or scientifically prove. (There are several problems with that, but let’s ignore them.) During the previous war, a human prisoner of war (our main character) realized that the alien scientists studying them were really interested in the concept of “religion” and managed to negotiate a ceasefire in exchange for teaching them about it. (This is fairly flimsy and is never really locked down with the kind of specificity required to make it seem in any way believable, but let’s ignore that, too.)

Where the story completely falls apart into silliness is when it’s revealed that the aliens refuse to talk to anyone about religion except the main character: Scholars and religious leaders and actual experts are offered, but the aliens refuse to talk to them. Okay, I’ll assume there’s some sort of hand-wavey “this is the way of the aliens” thing going on (although Torgersen never bothers to perform the hand-wave), but it gets even worse when it’s revealed that humanity itself has completely ignored this guy — the linchpin of human survival — for decades. And then it gets completely absurd when we learn that this guy is pretty much completely ignorant about religion and refuses to educate himself about religion in any way.

This final point might, in some way, be defensible if this was a story about this guy’s bullheaded stubbornness and ignorance. But, incredibly, that’s not the story: Instead we’re told repeatedly (and ad nauseum) that this guy will “do anything to finish the job, even if it means disobeying orders.” Apparently “anything” doesn’t include doing the one thing that might let you succeed at your job.

While this incredible sequence of baffling exposition is tumbling out through turgid and repetitive prose (the second scene literally consists of the exact same exposition as the first scene being delivered through a slightly different set of characters exchanging “as you know, Bob” witticisms), the actual plot of the story is slowly unfolding. And it is equally hilarious: The humans have managed to reverse engineer some of the alien technology and have rebuilt some of their infrastructure from the previous war. If they have enough time they might be able to level the playing field, but they know that if fresh hostilities break out that they’re seriously, seriously screwed.

So the humans decide it would be a great idea to start the war themselves by assassinating the alien leader at a peace conference.

You might think that would be the nadir of the story, but no: You still haven’t gotten to the part where the main characters try to outrun spaceships on foot.

Grade: F

5. “Wakulla Springs” by Andy Durance and Ellen Klages.

Wakulla Springs - Andy Duncan and Ellen KlagesThis is a tough one.

“Wakulla Springs” is a beautiful, haunting, multi-generational story rich in atmosphere and character and subtle drama. It is easily the best-written and possibly the most entertaining novella nominated for the Hugo Award this year.

It also isn’t speculative fiction.

So while I highly recommend that everyone reading this take some time out of their day to read it over at Tor.com; to savor all of its rich complexities; to luxuriate in its soft warmth; to swim through its crystal clear prose; to twist painfully in its easy evocation of a primitive and savage age… Ultimately I’m constrained by the same standard I confronted with “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” in the short story category: This story fundamentally doesn’t qualify for the award, and therefore I’m forced to rank it here.

Grade: A

4. NO AWARD

3.”Six-Gun Snow White” by Catherynne M. Valente

Six-Gun Snow White - Catherynne ValenteWhile reading “Six-Gun Snow White” I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the story to reveal some incredibly clever (and hidden) dimension which would transform it into a mind-blowing experience. But… the shoe never drops. This is a story which fundamentally asks, “What if Snow White was a Native American girl who… I dunno… had a gun?” And then reveals that the answer is, “She would be a Native American girl who has a gun.”

There’s just something lacking in it.

This simplistic reading of the story, however, does it a fair share of disservice. The reason I was waiting to have my mind blown is because Valente’s storytelling is incredibly complex, her prose is richly compelling, her fantastical imagery is richly evocative, and her exploration of character is heart-wrenching. Valente is also doing some really fascinating deconstruction work on the underlying fairy tale and using it to inject immense depth and breadth into her characters.

In short, it’s a great story and it is told with precision and skill. It just never quite reaches the point of critical mass necessary for the scintillating fission it holds out with a tantalizing and yet ultimately unfulfilled promise.

Grade: B-

2. “Equoid” by Charles Stross

Equoid - Charles StrossCharles Stross writes great and imaginative stuff and he writes it faster than I can keep up with it.

“Equoid” is part of his Laundry series, featuring a mid-level employee of the British intelligence service dedicated to dealing with the hidden realities of the Mythos. Previous entries in the series generally take a fascinating and original spin on the Lovecraftian Mythos and hybridize it with a satire or homage of a popular thriller or spy novelist (Len Deighton in The Atrocity Archive; Ian Fleming with The Jennifer Morgue; and so forth).

“Equoid” follows the same model by unveiling an incredibly clever and utterly creepy Lovecraftian interpretation of unicorns and then crosses that with a satire of… H.P. Lovecraft.

And that combination doesn’t quite work. Partly for the same reason that Woody Allen’s Casino Royale or Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers fall flat (trying to satirize a creator with their own work is problematic at best), but also because it seems somewhat mean-spirited to write a series of bestselling novels on the foundation of Lovecraft’s work and then write a story where you literally call him a hack. When you’re standing on the shoulders of giants you shouldn’t unzip your trousers and start pissing on the giants.

I don’t even really think that Stross intends for the story to come off this way, but I’ve read it twice now and the bad vibe it has really takes the shine off.

With that being said, Stross’ conception of the unicorn is awesome. And the plot races forward in a careless careen of headlong excitement. So I still recommend it.

Grade: B

1. “The Butcher of Khardov” by Dan Wells

The Butcher of Khardov - Dan WellsWhen I first scanned the list of nominees for Best Novella, I’ll admit that the WarMachine tie-in fiction was the last story I expected to top my list. But here it is.

And the reason it’s here is because “The Butcher of Khardov” is just a fantastic piece of fantasy fiction: Wells centers his story around the biography of a strong central character and then presents the tightly plotted arc of the character through a cleverly constructed non-linear narrative that cranks up the dramatic stakes.

It should be noted, perhaps, that I am not personally well acquainted with the WarMachine universe, so the milieu of this story really had to live or die on its own merits. And it thrives. The fantasy elements are interesting, the depth of the setting is leveraged to also create a sense of distance within the character’s own timeline, and the day-to-day life of the inhabitants is vividly transmitted through the page.

Grade: B+

 Hugo Reviews 2014 – Part 4: Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form)

Go to Part 1

Continuing my review Hugo nominees this year, I’m tackling the novelettes today. Ranking them, once again, in reverse order:

6. “Opera Vita Aeterna” by Vox Day.

Easily one of the worst pieces of fiction I’ve read lately. The “world-building” consists of thinly veiling the Catholic Church by inconsistently swapping out the names and terminology and then slapping in some magic-wielding elves. (You might think that magic-wielding elves would have some sort of meaningful impact on the beliefs or teachings of the Church, but they don’t.) The “plot” would be stretched thin on a very short story, but it takes a truly prodigious amount of “talent” to stretch it over the length of a novelette: An elf shows up at a not-Catholic monastery and says, “I killed your missionary. Now I’d like to stay here and study your God.” He decides to stay for several decades while he single-handedly illuminates an entire copy of the not-Bible by himself. This is interrupted by a single scene in which he asks the head of the monastery a question about his religious faith, prompting the head of the monastery to respond by literally cribbing Thomas Aquinas at interminable length. No one in the monastery has their faith or their lives remotely affected by the elf. The elf leaves for a bit and everyone in the monastery is brutally killed by some other elves. Then the elf yells at a statue of not-Jesus Christ.

It’s not so much a story as it is a train wreck of bad writing, bad plotting, bad world-building, and bad characterization.

Grade: F

5. NO AWARD

4. “The Exchange Officers” by Brad Torgersen.

The premise of this story is that cartoon Chinese Communists from 1950s propaganda pamphlets are brought to life, travel through time to the 2030s, and assume control of the future Chinese People’s Republic. Zany hilarity ensues.

… okay, not really. It is, however, the only way I can explain how the anachronistic cartoon Chinese Communists ended up in this story.

If you can look past that bit of nonsense, however, the rest of the story is a decent little bit of pulp adventure: Military space-jockeys with remote control exo-suits have to defend the red, white, and blue of their All-American Space Station(TM) from the terrible scourge of Cartoon Communists.

This clears the “No Award” threshold for me, but just barely. (And I’m having second thoughts about that even as I type this.) It would have benefited tremendously from the solution to the Cartoon Communists being in any way clever or thoughtful or unique.

Grade: C

3. “The Waiting Stars” by Alietta de Bodard.

It was really hard to rank the top three stories in this category. “The Waiting Stars” is a beautiful tone poem of transhumanism mixed with a pleasing tinge of space opera. Of all the Hugo stories I’ve read so far this year, this had the strongest and most interesting and most nuanced handling of its characters. In fact, I think the story would have benefited tremendously from giving the characters a little more room to breathe: A bit too much of the story was pushed into a past-tense summary. I would have preferred to actually experience the growth of the characters instead of being so frequently told about it.

The story was also injured for me because one of its central speculative conceits didn’t quite make enough sense. (Keeping things fairly vague in an effort to avoid explicit spoilers: I buy a culture believing that they would benefit from having their AIs go through that experience. But I’m unclear on why they would build them so large as to be dangerous and painful.)

Those quibbles aside, however, I do recommend this story. And it can be read freely on Alietta de Bodard’s website, so you have no excuse not to!

Grade: B+

2. “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal.

Another well-crafted character piece with strongly woven themes. Kowal uses alternate history to evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia and then uses that nostalgia to create a strong empathetic bond between the reader and her protagonist. She then capitalizes on that bond by forcing her character to make tough, complicated choices that Kowal refuses to simplify or trivialize in any way.

Also freely available online.

Grade: B+

1. “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” by Ted Chiang.

My one quibble with “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is that I feel it would benefit from more fully developing its central character arc with the great success that, for example, Kowal does in “The Lady Astronaut of Mars”. The reason it edges out “The Lady Astronaut” to receive my #1 ranking, however, is that Chiang expertly invokes an immensely complicated psychological depth around a near-future technology. What I initially thought was going to be simply a polemical text suddenly drops away into a stunningly fractal depth of expression and thought.

“The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” is a modern day version of True Names (a fantastic short novel from Vernor Vinge which I’ve reviewed here). But whereas Vinge fired a bold cannon of transhumanism into the heart of the industry, Chiang works subtly within a well-developed theme and pulls out something that feels powerfully and transcendentally real. Reading this story feels like stepping into your life circa 2025. There’s a fervent power to that kind of clear, speculative vision when it is executed with such effortless belief.

And it is also freely available online.

Grade: B+

 Hugo Reviews 2014 – Part 3: Novellas

 

Hugo AwardNot sure how many of these I’ll get to this year before the July 31st voting deadline, but for the first time ever I’m a member of the World Science Fiction Convention and, therefore, eligible to vote on the Hugo Awards. I’m taking this fairly seriously and making an effort to actually survey all of the nominees before casting my ballot. And I thought I’d also take the opportunity to share my thoughts with you.

We’re going to start with the short stories. Reviewing short stories is a tough gig because it’s really hard to comment meaningfully upon them without spoiling them entirely, but I’ll do the best I can to walk the tightrope here. Without further ado, here’s my voting slate for the Short Story category in reverse order:

5. “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky.

Despite the use of the word “dinosaur” in the title (and its frequent use throughout the text), this is not actually a work of speculative fiction. I’m not really sure the story is award worthy even if it were speculative fiction (it’s a decent little “shocker” story with a twist reveal, but while the prose builds nicely the twist is more of a straight line and there’s nothing of real substance here), but since I consider the Hugo Award to be something exclusively for speculative fiction I’m definitely forced to rank this one below…

4. NO AWARD

3. “The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere” by John Chu.

This story starts out really strong, but then somehow ends up in the same place that Swirsky’s story does: It really stops being an SF story and simply becomes a really good piece of character fiction.

The central conceit of the story is found in its title: One day the world changes and every time you tell a lie a bunch of water falls on you. The general implications of this suddenly universal truth detector are lightly touched on (with occasionally inconsistent metaphysics), but Chu’s primary interest in the first chunk of the story is exploring how this dynamic would completely transform interpersonal relationships. And he does a very, very good job of it: It’s one of the rare pleasures of SF to see fantastic character dramas that are impossible in the real world. (The exploration of the alien in human form often makes me reflect on the bizarre fantasies the dramas of our contemporary lives would be to someone living in, say, Elizabethan England.)

Unfortunately, the back half of the story largely falls apart: The titular water becomes functionally meaningless and the character drama resolves into the sort of cliche I would expect to see in a freshmen composition course. Particularly crippling is that the story structures itself entirely around a challenge faced by the main character… which turns out not to be a challenge at all. (He faces no internal conflict; his external conflict turns out to have literally no ability to oppose him; and the ideology he thought was opposing him is revealed to have never existed in the first place.)

This one is worth reading, although the failure to live up to its promise is crushingly disappointing.

2. “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” by Thomas Olde Heuvelt.

This pleasant little romp is a Thai version of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood with a fantasy twist.

That particular blend of imagery may be too esoteric for anyone but me to really appreciate, but it’s actually quite difficult to talk about “The Ink Readers” without spoiling it. What I can say is that I was very pleased to see Heuvelt not only posit an interesting conceit for his speculative fiction, but to then develop the consequences of that conceit in multiple, creative, and increasingly speculative ways. (The revelation of what the titular Ink Readers were was the moment when the story won me over.)

With that being said, the story strives to achieve mysticism through incoherence and that’s not a genre technique that I’m particularly fond of. The plot of the entire story also depends almost entirely upon a glaringly huge continuity error, which I have occasionally gathered to be an acceptable foible in the sort of magical realism which Heuvelt appears to be pursuing but which I find intolerable. Although I , once again, recommend the story these reservations knock it back a pace for me.

1. “Selkie Stories Are For Losers” by Sofia Samatar.

I’ll be honest in saying that “Selkie Stories Are For Losers” did not blow me away: But it takes a singular conceit and uses it to transform interpersonal relationships like Chu’s “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere” (but follows it through to the end of the story). It uses a speculative conceit as metaphor for character growth and pain like Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” (but doesn’t leave the metaphor strictly as metaphor). And it also takes its conceit and improvises on it like a jazz theme (albeit not to the same richness or cleverness as Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”).

It’s a complete package and I’m comfortable saying that it should win the award this year.

 Hugo Reviews 2014 – Part 2: Novelettes

Ex-RPGNet Reviews – Go Wild!

October 17th, 2013

Tagline: A strong card game, reinforcing this line of family-oriented card games which made a name for itself with Twitch.

Go Wild! - Wizards of the CoastLast year Wizards of the Coast released a series of four family-oriented card games (in the tradition of Uno and Skip-Bo): Twitch, Pivot, Alpha Blitz, and Go Wild!. After reading about it in an RPGNet review I picked up Twitch and quickly became completely addicted to its fast-pace play style. On the strength of Twitch I ended up buying the other three games in this abbreviated line and have been slowly playing my way through them (in addition to Twitch I have also reviewed Pivot here on RPGNet – a review of Alpha Blitz will pop up whenever I get around to playing it).

So far I have been heartily impressed, and the games have readily taken their place alongside other family favorites, such as the aforementioned Uno and Skip-Bo.

Go Wild! is a trick-based game (like Hearts or Spades) designed for 2-6 players. There are six suits of cards – five colors and the wild cards. Each player is dealt twelve cards, which forms their hand. The game is played in a series of rounds, each of which is made up of three tricks. You win a trick by more cards of a particular color — which is determined by whoever leads the trick — than anybody else.

At this point it sounds like a pretty tame, typical game. You might as well pick up a copy of Hoyle’s. But this is where the designers throw you a curveball: You score a variable number of points depending on which trick in the round you win, plus, if you win the first trick of the round, you become the Wild One. Here’s how it works:

If you win the first trick of the round, you score 1 point. In addition, you become the Wild One (there’s a card included that identifies the Wild One). On the second trick you score 2 points, and on the third you score 3.

Here’s the cool bit: Only the Wild One can use wild cards.

In other words, the strategy of the game is not just to win the most tricks – but to choose a specific strategy which allows you to win. Do you toss out as many cards as possible on the first trick of the round in order to secure the Wild One? Or do you gamble a little bit and hope to pick up more points by winning the later tricks?

The most important question to be asked of games like this, however, is: Does the concept actually work in execution? The answer here is: Yes. Absolutely. Go Wild! is an excellent game, exploring a new and interesting variation upon the old trick-based card game concepts. In that sense, Go Wild! continues the strong tradition I found in Twitch and Pivot. Not only are these fun games, but they are extremely innovative.

The only serious problem I had with Go Wild! was the rule for who got to lead the first trick of the game: The youngest player. Okay, fine. Works all right the first time. But when you play two or three games in a row, it becomes a little frustrating for the same guy to always have that advantage.

I was most impressed by the fact that the game proved itself to actually by playable by two players. Most games listing 2-X players are “playable by two players” only in the sense that the rules work – the entire dynamic of playing is skewed by the presence of only two players. Because of the complex tactical consideration of Go Wild!, however, two players can easily challenge one another.

Of the games in this line, Twitch is undoubtedly the best (it’s guaranteed to consume hours and hours of your free time). That being said, Go Wild! will definitely be placed on my To Be Played shelf, and not my Been There, Done That shelf.

Style: 4
Substance: 4

Author: Grezegorz Rejchtman
Company/Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Cost: $6.95
Page Count: n/a
ISBN: 1-57530-601-8

Originally Posted: 1999/10/23

For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.

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