rinue: (Default)
[Crowned: The Sign of the Dragon: Book One - Amazon link]

I first encountered Mary Soon Lee's King Xau poems while working as one of the poetry editors of Strange Horizons, where I had the I'm sure frustrating tendency to reject them at the very last minute with long notes about how much I like them. The problem (if you can call it a problem) is that although most individual poems are pretty good, it's the aggregation that makes them something special. This anthology contains the chronologically first 60 or 70 poems in a linked cycle of hundreds set in a secondary world which reminds me of Avatar and the Dothraki. I don't know anybody else who's doing that.

Lee says in her author's note that she's "been warned repeatedly that Xau is too perfect." It's a fair cop, although I'd say instead that the most forgettable poems are the ones that try to demonstrate how good a king he is by having him do something polite by modern standards and having everyone else be amazed. The more interesting - and more poetic - sections are the descriptions of the world's small details, such as "Wedding Gifts," a sly list of both practical and showy presents that accompany a treaty-securing wedding. It's a surprisingly poignant illustration of the anxiety and relief of a ceremony with an uncertain outcome.

The most outstanding standalone poem is "Interregnum," about young Xau's ascent to the throne after a mountaintop encounter with a fire elemental dragon, originally published in Star*Line. Appropriately, this won the 2014 Rhysling Award. Moments of magic are rare in this book, which makes them thrilling. It's a nice device that horses are loyal to Xau, but not in his direct control; it gives him supernatural power without the classic "well then why can't he use that every time to win every time."

In the early going, which these poems are, battle descriptions are perfunctory, and Xau's military opponent Donal is dull and distractingly of-this-world; it's like watching Mulan go up against somebody pledging a frat who says "fucking" a lot when he's had too many beers. I can say, having read poems from later in the cycle (not yet anthologized) that Lee gets better at this, to the point where eventually her battle (and post battle) scenes are a real pleasure. For now, in book one, they're more prosaic, the work of an author who knows characters have to get from a to b.

The first glimmer of what will eventually become a strength appears late in this book, in a handful of lines in the poem "Help," where Lee describes the horror of someone who sent out a message as quickly as possible after a disaster, only to realize afterward that it would be impossible to send any further messages. Lee doesn't overplay this moment, and it's gutwrenchingly relatable: the agony of having kept a cool head and done exactly the right thing, only to find out that all the rules have changed and you've possibly doomed yourself.

In any case, I recommend the book, although I think only 100 copies were printed and it is likely hard to find. And I recommend continuing to keep an eye out for future anthologies. In the meantime, join the hunt for new poems as they show up in Star*Line, Ideomancer, Dreams and Nightmares, and elsewhere, as a thread that has already brought together a dozen diverse SF magazines as participants in a single epic.

Snowpiercer

Aug. 8th, 2014 11:15 am
rinue: (inception train)
Saw Snowpiercer last night at the Somverville Theater, which I recommend. (Both the movie and seeing the movie in a good theater; it lends itself to both big-screen viewing and viewing as part of an anonymous crowd. I don't object to VOD, but this movie's an odd choice for it if you have the alternative.) It has third act problems, but that's equally true of a lot of the stories I like; it's a hazard of weird, ambitious fiction, particularly if there's an episodic element. (See also Twin Peaks, Fullmetal Alchemist...)

When I say third act problems, I'm talking about themes; I'm not bothered by the things that seem to bother other people, not just in Snowpiercer but in SF film generally. I cut films a lot of slack, by which I mean I understand what they are.

For example, film is a medium with its own grammar and limits,

which means that if it's important to understand what a character is thinking, he has to just sit down and say it, either to another character or in voiceover. Try and think of another way to do this. Usually your alternatives are either to decide you don't care whether the audience knows what that character is thinking (which reduces film to abstracted people running and shooting), or to add a lot of extra scenes to "show don't tell" which would cost you untold millions of dollars and double the runtime of the movie.

Obviously, there are more and less awkwardly written monologues, and better and worse performances. But if a film is competently made, I'm not going to ding it for having a talking scene just before the big confrontation. By the same token, when a film compresses or expands time, I'm untroubled; that's just something film does. (See also: Nitpicking Inception.)

Another thing that doesn't bother me is when speculative fiction is speculative. It's about saying "what if." If you don't like the premise, that's fine, but that doesn't make it a plot hole. If the Matrix runs on people instead of a more efficient source of power, it does. If the Empire decided a Death Star was a better weapon than a similarly-priced fleet of warships, fine. If there's a train with an engine that can run forever with energy left over for rave parties, great.

Honestly, I could say the same thing about fiction in general. If you're not willing to suspend disbelief, you're not going to get anything out of it. I can be annoyed that Woody Allen movies are constantly pairing young starlets with grizzled old men, and in fact am annoyed. But if I'm watching one I'm not going to spend the whole time saying "she'd never be attracted to him." The movie says she is. Not a plot hole. Not a plot hole when a character feels different things than I would in that situation.

starts to get spoliery )
rinue: (Cathedral)
The thing I like about Paul Thomas Anderson's films is that they make me excited about fiction in general. The characters are rounded and human in a way that is normally complimented using the term "literary," but Anderson's films are firmly films, and tell stories using interposed images. Interposed and carefully composed; I never get the sense he is using a shot simply to cover the action. The distance of the camera from the actor and the way the actor moves or does not move through the frame is meaningful and intentional in a way more often associated with Kubrick but without Kubrick's emotional distance; nobody would accuse Anderson of caring more about photographs than people. Not even when he is shooting in gorgeous 65mm.
rinue: (Default)
Finally saw The Cabin in the Woods and was underwhelmed. Richard Jenkins was (As always) excellent, but the movie felt like fan service signifying nothing. When most of my enjoyment is expected to come from simply recognizing other properties, I'm mildly insulted; I'm too smart to pat myself on the back for being able to remember brand names. But I'm on record as finding pastiche intolerable.

Nick Pinkerton's review in Esquire sums up my larger criticisms, so there's not a point in rehashing them. I will add: oh, the visual muddle.

It would be too much to say I hated it; mainly I felt like I was reading last week's Doonesbury strips. Given the film's ambivalence about its own tone, and its combined hatred of its characters/audience and desire to lionize/flatter them, I was unable to approach the story as anything but meta-commentary; given that the film's meta-commentary was neither subversive nor on-point, my main food for thought has been the movie's overwhelmingly positive critical response.

Does it show most print film reviewers are 40 and older, and not aware of how distant in time many of their formative horror experiences are, and how atypical? Does it indicate a lot of horror doesn't screen for critics? Does it suggest a pronounced shortage of supernatural horror, such that a substantial audience is relieved even to be acknowledged?

Is it a film that needed to be seen in theaters? Was the positive reaction a reflection of dissatisfaction with this summer's film season, which I had thought was one of the strongest in years?

Was this a PR coup, a combination of loyalty to Joss and the pro-feminist idea of Joss (who to his credit makes great efforts to be feminist but to his detriment is too convinced of his own feminism to see the ways he isn't) and press agents standing up before screenings to implore people not to spoil the twist, which primed everyone for the idea that there was a twist and they saw it coming because they were clever rather than because it was telegraphed and not a twist? All of which made them feel like part of a conspiracy and one of the good guys, the first half of which is thematically appropriate to the film although the second half isn't?

Amber, who starred in "Aperture," came very close to playing the lead, and I wish she had. Nothing against the girl in the film. But Amber would have been better.
rinue: (eyecon)
I'm having trouble continuing to watch the Game of Thrones miniseries; the most recent episode has been sitting on my DVR for several days, and not because I don't have time. It's not the boobs; I just roll my eyes at the boobs, which are sometimes given porn-level script justification. ("Ooops, I guess this is the wrong room! And I forgot my shirt!") Instead, what I find unpalatable is the pervasive narrative disempowerment of the female characters, which goes well beyond adding breasts to any scenes where they can be featured.

Obviously, any time you adapt a book for the screen, there are going to be changes, usually in the name of expediency (books are long), streamlining the cast, or externalizing an internal conflict that would otherwise be unexpressed. This . . . is not that. It makes motivations less clear and lowers the dramatic punch of the scenes in question, often while adding to scene length. The only reason you'd do it, as a writer or producer, would be to advance a specific sexual-political agenda, and it's pretty much something you'd have to do consciously. I'll give you some examples.

Danerys, that chick with the white hair who married the horse guy. Raped by her husband in the first episode. In the same scene in the book, she realizes that with this marriage her brother arranged to effectively sell her into slavery, that actually he finally set her free. She rides around on the horse Drogo (her husband) gave her, laughing and jumping over fires, and when she and Drogo have sex, Drogo won't make any move on her if she seems at all upset or recalcitrant, and she's the one who undresses him and decides how the sexual encounter will go, and she has a great time.

In a later episode, there's a scene where one of her handmaidens teaches her to have sex and suggests this will allow her to get what she wants. Unnecessary in the book. She's already taking charge of things and totally empowered and doesn't have to be activated through the classic anti-feminist trope that women have always had power by being seductive. Book Dany gets what she wants when she says she wants it, not because she figures out how to have sex in a way that's more exciting for her male partner. For instance, that order that Viserys (her brother) will have to walk after trying to accost her? In the book, it comes from Dany, not some random guy on a horse while she stands there looking scared. In the book, she also hits Viserys before that guy whips him; in the book, the whip guy is following her lead, not rescuing her.

Cat, Ned Stark's wife (Sean Bean's wife) has been dumbed down a lot too. In the book, she figures out who pushed Bran out of the tower by thinking about who was doing what that day. In the series, she finds a blond hair in a tower. Ok, ok, externalizing a thought process in a way that only happens to make her come to a conclusion based on an emotional reaction to a hair instead of a thinking person's understanding of who might have something to gain or lose. But they continue that "emotional" character idea in other scenes, all of which cast her as family focused to the exclusion of all thought.

Like, did anybody think it was weird in the first episode when Cat's sister sends a sealed message to Cat which she doesn't let anyone read that says various plots are afoot and would Cat look into it, and then Cat freaks out about Ned going to the capital but Ned firmly says he has to? It's weird because in the book it's the reverse; Ned wants to stay in Winterfell, which is his family home that he likes, and not someplace particularly interesting to Cat, and Cat says "you have to go and figure out what is going on for the safety of everyone." None of this "how could you leave the family I'll never forgive you."

By the same token, later when they're talking with Littlefinger (that guy from the Council that hides Cat in the whorehouse), in the series Cat trusts him as a little brother and Ned knows he's bad news the first time he lays eyes on him and has to warn Cat that Littlefinger, who dueled for her and stalked her in the past, might still have some kind of crush on her. (HBO Cat batting eyelashes: "No! I'm sure he's totally over that!") In the book? Cat totally knows Littlefinger's agenda and doesn't trust him except that she thinks he's useful as someone whose biases and drawbacks they at least know.

It extends even to the kids; there's not a lot you can do to write Arya (little girl with sword) as a traditionally feminine character, but they manage to mess with her scenes too, via other characters. That speech Ned gives her in episode three about how Sansa (older sister) lied to protect Joffrey because he's to be her husband and women must stand by their husbands and never contradict their husbands, and so Sansa was doing the right thing? Speech does not exist in the book. Not anywhere in the book from any character, even Sansa. Everybody pretty much agrees that what she did was shit and are only nice about it because she's a kid.

There's no reason to add the speech narratively; the moment doesn't need explaining. It's only useful if that's something you want to be sure to say to the audience, just like you said it by making sure that an unnamed horse guy gives orders instead of main character Dany, and making sure that Ned makes the call to go to the capital instead of bowing to the judgment of his wife. The message is that good, heroic women never tell men what to do, good men never allow themselves to be bossed by women (note how fallen hero Robert is whipped by his wife), and women are irrational emotional people who only care about wanting to be home with family (so that Cat can't dislike Winterfell, Dany can't act out against brother Viserys, and Cat must trust Littlefinger because they grew up in the same house).

To drive the point home further, heroic male characters have been purged of "weak" feminine traits.

Tyrion (the dwarf) - seeks out a room full of hookers the moment he gets to Winterfell (TV) rather than raiding the library (book)

Drogo (horse king guy) - super macho (TV) instead of innocently sweet to Dany (book)

Ned (Sean Bean) - gets to the capitol and stares a dude down for suggesting he might want to do something unmanly like change out of his dirty riding clothes before meeting with the council (TV). In the book, it's Ned who asks for a second to change clothes so he can be appropriately respectful, and who borrows a flash suit from somebody because he hasn't had time to unpack his stuff yet.

As I said, very sinister, often not only unnecessary but counter to the movement of the plot, often requiring extra scenes or characters to explain, when the writers and producers should be trying to reduce both. (Except when it comes to boobs. Extra scenes and characters that add to the boob count are de rigeur.) I find it aggressive and hard to take in passively, especially in an adaptation of a book series notable for its female fan base, perhaps the only major work of epic fantasy that has a female cast almost as large and active as its male cast. The only reason to adapt that series like this is to put women in their proper place, and hope it reprograms the viewer correctly. And that is scary.

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