Tuesday 18 February 2020

"The Light Of Impossible Stars" Shines Brightly

Compulsively readable, The Light Of Impossible Stars is the engaging capstone to Gareth Powell’s
Image via Amazon.com
delightful Embers Of War trilogy.

Following the events of Embers Of War and Fleet of Knives, this concluding novel finds the crew of the Trouble Dog and their allies fleeing from the ancient alien armada they unleashed over the previous two books.

Each sequel in the Embers Of War trilogy takes a hard 90 degree turn from the previous book, both thematically and narratively. The universe changes and lines of conflict are redrawn, providing characters with opportunities to explore loss, grief, and redemption.

The rapid-fire short chapter structure of these novels, along with the breezy first-person narration, continues to provide momentum. Although some point-of-view characters (Nod, Trouble Dog) stand out for their noticeably different voices, there are times when other narrators sound confusingly similar in approach.

More than the previous volumes, The Light Of Impossible Stars seems to oscillate between the military SF subgenre, and the xenoarchaeology subgenre. While the chapters dedicated to Trouble Dog’s crew are largely the former, the introduction of a new setting and a new protagonist, Cordelia Pa, gives Powell the chance to don an Indiana Jones fedora.

One of the most delightful aspects of the Embers Of War trilogy has been revelling in the quirky xenoarchaeology locations and artefacts: The Gallery, The Marble Armada, The Generation Ship “Restless Itch for Foreign Soil.” The chapters featuring Cordelia Pa delve deeper into these ancient aliens and big dumb objects in space, than either previous book does.

Set on a series of artificial metal worlds called “The Plates,” Pa’s adventures (and those of her
Gareth Powell has a reputation for
being one of the nicest people on Twitter.
(Image via Twitter)  
brother) provide welcome details of the now-long-extinct Hearther civilization, and a perspective on what life is like outside of the House of Redemption. It is evident that the author has put a lot of care and thought into the history of this universe. This care pays off in The Light Of Impossible Stars.

There are portions of the novel that seem extraneous to the overall plot; Trouble Dog’s detour to the Druff homeworld seemed irrelevant, and the few chapters dealing with Cordelia Pa’s brother Michael feel a little out-of-place. Thankfully, the short chapters and accessible prose keep the narrative pace up even during these odd detours.

One of the great joys of getting invested in a well-planned and thoughtfully crafted trilogy like this one is seeing the characters grow and evolve over time. Powell has the storytelling maturity and courage to guide readers through character actions with drawn-out consequences that resonate across multiple novels. Easy resolutions to character arcs are avoided, creating tension and moments of drama.

As a trilogy, Embers Of War deserves a place on Hugo ballot for Best Series. Works like this — ones that use the longer-form series arc to craft stories that wouldn’t hold up in in shorter-form works — are exactly the sort of work that should be honoured in that category.

Wednesday 12 February 2020

The Textual and the Intertextual

Are Best Dramatic Presentations celebrated too much for their context, rather than on their text?

In 2018, Westworld’s second season was lifeless, but for those who waded through the robotic acting and pedestrian plotting, the eighth episode of the season “Kiksuya” stood alone as an exploration of loss, grief, and cultural genocide. Kiksuya’s text was excellent, the context sub-par.

Fuelled by nostalgia and avarice, X-Files returned to television screens in 2016 with two new seasons that have been described as bewildering, threadbare, and out-of-touch. But amidst a morass of repetitive and pointless episodes, writer-director Darin Morgan managed to craft a near-perfect parable about the fallibility of human memory with his one-off episode “The Lost Art Of Forehead Sweat.” Again, an excellent text is found in a sub-par context.
One of the weirder episodes of X-Files
aired in 2016, and was better than
anything the show had delivered
in several seasons.
(Image via xfiles-fanclub.blogspot.com)

If an audience had still been paying attention to The X-Files or Westworld, one of those episodes might have garnered awards attention. Conversely, it is hard to imagine works like Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, or “The Family Of Blood” being recognized on their own merits rather than on the strength of the series of which they were a part.

Which raises the question of whether the Hugos for Best Dramatic Presentation are awarded based on the textual or on the intertextual. In essence, many dramatic presentations seem to serve as avatars of their respective Cinematic Universes, rather than being judged strictly on what is in that individual episode or film.

This leads to many excellent one-off works being overlooked in favour of run-of-the-mill entries of popular franchises. With the benefit of hindsight, is Dr. Who’s “Planet Of The Dead” really better than Misfits “Episode Six,” or Sarah Connor Chronicles’ “Adam Raised A Cain”? In our eyes, the answer is a resounding “No.”

Of all TV series, Dr. Who might mean the most to fandom overall because of the weight of 50 years of goodwill built up by stories like "Blink", "Fury From The Deep", "Delta and the Bannerman", and "The Happiness Patrol". It is understandable then, that there is a block of voters for whom Dr. Who will always be on their nominating ballot, because it is first considered on the basis of being Dr. Who, rather than being assessed as whether or not it is absolutely the most sterling example of science fiction.

We would suggest that two of the most egregious examples of honouring a work based on associations that have little to do with the work itself were on the ballot just last year. These were the cacophonous mcguffin quest Avengers: Infinity War and the execrable and racist Batman film that made the Retro Hugo ballot. Batman is clearly a popular franchise with a strong fanbase, but we highly doubt that most Hugo nominators had actually seen the character’s first foray into cinema. Avengers: Infinity War is three hours of visual noise that capitalized on the good will generated by 10 years of good MCU movies.
Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
(image via NME.com)

We have previously argued that annual awards are in some ways the ‘first draft’ of the cultural canon. The shortlisted works are often the standard by which science fiction is judged, and are an important vehicle for continued rediscovery of classic works by future SF fans. With this in mind, imagine how mystifying Avengers: Infinity War might be to someone who watches it 40 years from now, and experiences it without the context of 18 previous movies: Steve Rogers’ reunion with Bucky would fall flat; Peter Parker’s death would be stripped of impact; the revelation that The Red Skull is guarding an Infinity Gem would have little resonance.

In terms of directing, let’s compare the movie that built the emotional weight of Gamora’s relationships to the other characters (Guardians of the Galaxy) with the movie that offers us the “payoff” (Avengers: Infinity War). GoG’s directing provides some thoughtful and interesting camera work (remember those amazing opening shots of a tiny figure dancing in the ruins of an ancient civilisation?), at every turn Infinity War’s directors offer pedestrian tried-and-true techniques like snap-zooms on falling figures and jerky camera work for fights. More importantly, major moments in Avengers: Infinity War (such as the death of Gamora) aren’t meaningful unless the viewer assesses them with knowledge of texts other than Avengers: Infinity War.

In December, the New York Times’ published a list of what they considered the best individual episodes of television to have aired in 2019 — its an interesting list with a lot of hidden gems in it (including a reminder that in an otherwise critically scorned season, Game Of Thrones turned in one excellent episode). Tellingly, there’s very little overlap with a separate article published a few days earlier in which the same critics had selected their list of the best overall series to have aired in 2019. Perhaps it is worth recognizing that there is a difference between what is a ‘best series,’ and ‘best individual episode.’

Some might suggest reorganizing the Best Dramatic Presentation categories into ‘Best Series,’ ‘Best Episode,’ and ‘Best Movie’ … but this risks both adding to the confusion, and could exacerbate the already unmanageable amount of media consumption needed to make informed choices as a Hugo voter.

As with many aspects of Hugo Award voting, we suspect that more discussion of these systemic biases is the way to address these issues.

Tuesday 4 February 2020

The Bookcase Dimension

If you've ever been disoriented by an IKEA’s cavalcade of showrooms and design arrangements,
Cover design by Carl Wiens.
(Image via Tor.com)
you'll feel at home in the pages of Finna, the new anti-captialist portal fantasy from Nino Cipri.

LitenVärld (Swedish for ‘Little World’) is a fictional big-box chain of furniture stores whose flat-pack modular designs are displayed in faked-up little rooms. The problem is that the set-up is so confusing that shoppers occasionally fall through the cracks and into parallel worlds with alternate versions of the store. Some of these worlds are inhabited by carnivorous Poäng knock-off chairs, others by high-ocean adventurers.

Navigating this multiverse are Ava and Jules, two minimum-wage workers at odds with each other over a recent break-up. As they scour the universe for a lost shopper, they are confronted with possibilities, and paths not taken.

We’ve previously argued that the genre needs more stories about workers and workers’ rights, so it often felt like Finna’s clever lampooning of thoughtless corporate decisions and consequence-blind cost-cutting could almost have been tailor-made for this book club.

Not only does Cipri show the consequences of LitenVärld’s cost-cutting decision to eliminate its wormhole-defense department, they satirize mindlessly cheerful company culture through an evil hive-mind version of corporate-drone Swedes. The book is consistently on-point.
 Almost exactly 20 years ago, in his cult classic comic strip
Bob The Angry Flower, cartoonist Stephen Notley imagined
travelling to dangerous alternate universes while shopping
for a bookcase at IKEA. Until now, we’ve never wished
we could have followed Bob through those IKEA wormholes
and gone on multi-dimensional furniture adventures.
(image via AngryFlower.com)

What makes this work particularly well is Cipri’s deft ability to alternate between moments of high drama, low comedy, and fast-paced action. These changing tones give the book a sprightly rhythm, with the weightier elements made more meaningful by the author’s choices. At a slight 120 pages, Finna never overstays its welcome - several members of our book club powered through it in under an afternoon, deeply engaged in the storytelling.

Nino Cipri’s age is evident in how they write, with a tone that can best be described as “millennial.” The dialogue has a breezy levity to it that feels youthful and fresh. The use of they/them pronouns for one of the protagonists feels both meaningful and natural to the narrative (possibly because Cipri uses those pronouns themself.) One of our book club members said she enjoyed reading a book with a, “millennial voice.”

We approached the book with enthusiasm, and were not disappointed. Finna offers a compelling blend of adventure, relationship drama, and corporate criticism. This is an early favourite for our Hugo ballots in 2021.