Friday, July 3, 2015

Snowpiercer

Nothing says "Beat the Houston summer heat" like a snowpocalypse movie! Snowpiercer came out in 2013, and is one I'd hoped but didn't manage to see in the theater before it disappeared. Fortunately, it's not a movie that really requires a big screen, especially since 99% of the film takes place in the interior of a single train.

The movie, starring Chris Evans, starts with a heavy-handed and illogical voiceover explaining that humanity's attempts to "cure" global warming resulted in an instant freeze that killed everyone. Yes, the voice actually says that nobody survived, and then immediately explains that the few who did survive (!) did so by getting aboard a high-tech train that circles the world once each year.

The action itself begins at the back of the train, where people live in squalor and eat protein bars that are delivered at regular intervals by machine-gun-armed guards. Curtis (Evans) is biding his time and planning a revolt, advised by the elderly Gilliam (John Hurt) and accompanied by his young friend Edgar (Jamie Bell). When a swanky representative from the front of the train arrives and takes two children away from tail-dwellers Tanya (Olivia Spencer) and Andrew (Ewen Bremner) under the guise of a "medical examination," they too risk life and limb by joining the uprising instead of staying behind in relative "safety."

(Spoilers ahead) As I'm sure is already obvious, the set-up of this movie is absolutely ludicrous and also quite grim. Yet it somehow worked for me, in exactly the same way as the highly illogical Looper (2012) did. Like most people, I like rooting for the oppressed underdog, and I also enjoy post-disaster set-ups and reluctant heroes with checkered pasts. It was also fun to move through the train with the rebels, seeing the surroundings gradually improve until the decadent opulence of the front-most cars is revealed. There were tons of moments in this movie when I thought "oh, no!" because I could knew exactly what nastiness was about to happen, but there were also moments when the visuals caught me off guard and delighted me. The movie shows no embarrassment about going over the top; for instance there's a meat locker car with hanging carcasses, but no evidence where the live animals are kept until it's time to slaughter them. Since the train cars are in one straight line, well, the rebels would have to have go through the livestock cars too, so where are they? The greenhouse car is almost believable, but I feel like the aquarium car would require Tardis-like technology to exist as shown.

Similarly, some of the acting is over-the-top, particularly Tilda Swinton as Mason, the spokesperson for the reclusive creator of the train, Wilford (Ed Harris). Mason likes to make speeches, wearing ridiculous eyeglasses and prominent false teeth, yet it completely works, and in particular provides a nice contrast to Chris Evans' appropriately understated performance. Oh, and along the way the rebels pick up a man, Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), and his daughter, Yona (Ah-sung Ko) from the prison car, which keeps its prisoners in morgue-like drawers (bathrooms? food?). Curtis bribes this drug-addicted pair to open the "gates," or doors between cars, along the way, but there is more to them than meets the eye. Another absolutely surreal moment is when they arrive at the classroom car, where every child on the train is about the same age, and is taught about the glorious history of Wilford by a Stepford-wife teacher.

(MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD) Predictably, the rebels are gradually winnowed down, ultimately leaving Curtis to face Wilford alone. There'd been a bit of foreshadowing, when Gilliam advised Curtis to cut Wilford's tongue out rather than let him talk, but of course Curtis does let him talk. Wilford explains that he and Gilliam have been in regular communication between the front and back of the train, and that the only way anyone continues to survive is because Wilford allows semi-regular revolts to winnow the population when needed. (So maybe it made sense that all the children are the same age, if they're born in cycles?) This isn't an especially surprising reveal at this point, but audiences also like circular plots, and it's a satisfying revelation.

We also learn that the two seized children have been brought up to the front not as sexual playthings for Wilford, but rather because they're small enough to perform critical functions that keep the train's engine running. Furthermore, Wilford makes an almost unconscious hand motion mimicking what the kidnapped children are now required to do over and over in the bowels of the engine. Mason, too, had earlier made this motion, which implies that both Wilford and Mason's roots -- and their distinct brands of "Crazy" -- originated because they too had been co-opted as children and had spent years in solitary confinement and mind-numbing labor.

At first I thought this was a combination of a Matrix/Dread Pirate Roberts scenario, meaning that 1) the people have been on the train much longer than the 18 years they believe have elapsed, and 2) this Wilford is not the original Wilford, who could not have invented the train if he worked as a child inside its already-functional engine. On the other hand, Curtis specifically remembers that he's been on the train 18 years and knows he has seen the outside world, although he says he chooses not to remember it. On the other other hand, this could easily be a memory planted by Gilliam, and what the train dwellers believe is one "year" could actually be much longer. I myself like the idea that this has all been going on much longer than 18 years, but I'm not sure the movie managed to convincingly "sell" that idea.

The movie ends when Namgoong Minsoo and his daughter manage to blow open the door of the train, which also causes an avalanche that knocks the train off the tracks. I fully expected to see Curtis emerge from the wreckage, and have the movie end on one of those scenes where a few survivors are shown straggling out, implying that they will band together and somehow survive, like when we see people emerging from Manhattan buildings near the end of The Day After Tomorrow (2004). But we only see Yona and Tonya's little boy Timmy (Marcanthonee Reis) appear, wearing convenient Inuit furs (but no mittens). And then we see a polar bear look at them curiously from a distance. I took this as a "it's a new world and there's hope of survival" sign, whereas my husband interpreted this as "Yona and Timmy become polar bear food."

So all that made me start wondering: could they survive? On the one hand, there are lots of fresh dead bodies to provide food for a while. On the other hand, if they're really the only two survivors, well, that's bad. And I'm not sure they still have any means of generating fire -- a big deal is made out of their last match being used to light the fuse to blow the door, so if they can't find a way to ignite things to burn, that's going to be a problem. It's also not clear how many of the derailed train cars are still accessible to them, because some of the cars toppled off at various points on the track and could be down in unreachable mountain crevasses.

In the end, though, as ridiculous as this movie was, I couldn't help but like it. It horrified me, it surprised me at times, and it made me think about it for quite a while after it was over. Again, just like Looper, and also a bit like Edge of Tomorrow (2014).

Plus, you know, Chris Evans, showing that he can play roles quite different from the rigidly upright Captain America. I also recommend his movie Push (2009), in which an adorably tween-aged Dakota Fanning co-stars.
Read more!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Short Fiction - June 2015

Miss Auras by John Lavery

As I continue reading a story a day in 2015, I sometimes find it more difficult to articulate exactly what I like about my favorite stories than to enumerate what I don't like about other stories, but my purpose here is praise rather than criticism. So I really have to work at finding the right words.

Lately I've been finding myself thinking "this is one of my favorite stories this month because . . ." and the best I can come up with is that there's nothing about the story that I would want to change. It may not be the kind of story I would normally read, or there may be something in the story that initially niggles at me, but upon reflection I realize that no, I wouldn't want to change even that one little thing. And this gives me the irrational but pleasant feeling that the author wrote the story specifically for me.

That said, I do recognize some trends in what I like. Although I certainly enjoy stories that are simply entertaining, I really get hooked by SF that packs an emotional punch. It doesn't have to be a message story; it just has to make me really care about the characters, or empathize strongly with the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Since we're halfway through the year, here's a "by the numbers" breakdown: I've read 239 stories so far this year, at least 62 of which were published in 2015. (That number is probably much larger; I have to cross-check my lists, because I forgot to enter the publication year for several of the stories.) I'd like to get to at least 500 stories this year, and up the percentage of current year publications so that I have lots of material to consider when next year's award nominations roll around.

I also looked at the ratings I've given to each story. So far I've rated 36 stories as essentially "below average," 82 as "above average" (with about 30 of those high enough to be considered favorites), and 121 as "average." I don't have any profound insights, but I'm glad to see data indicating that I like what I read more often than not, although I suspect I'm still kind of hard to please. But it's all subjective -- often times when I dislike something in a story, I know very well it's because of some personal "button" of mine that has little to do with the writing itself.

And because I like keeping track of things, I'll go on a tangent here and also mention that writing-wise, I've made 77 submissions this year, with 29 subs currently floating around out there. It's not as impressive as I'd like, because some of those are sim-sub friendly markets and others are reprint subs. But a fair few of them are new stories, and these numbers are far higher than I've ever achieved before, so I'm pretty happy. I'd like to get the subs to 175 for the year if I can. I've had one story published this year, and have four stories that have sold but have not yet appeared.

One more observation before I get to the actual stories. Even if I do hit 500 stories read for the year, it will barely be a drop in the bucket of what's available out there. There is so much good fiction to be discovered.


Favorite Short Stories read in June 2015

(alphabetical by author)



"Hellhound, Free to Good Home" by Gerri Leen

This flash fiction story is told from the point of view of a Hellhound, who is perplexed when he happens upon a woman who not only doesn't fear him, but also seems intent on rescuing him. I happen to know the author is an animal lover -- she's editing an anthology of spec fic animal stories to benefit a rescue shelter, in which one of my stories will appear -- and it shows in this piece. It's less than 750 words long. Isn't it amazing what writers can do in so few words? Read here.

As an aside, I highly recommend subscribing to Daily Science Fiction and Every Day Fiction, both of which are free. DSF publishes a new story every weekday, and Every Day Fiction posts one every single day of the year. Trust me, you'll find some gems this way.


"We Fly" by K.B. Rylander

This story won first place in the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award contest this year, which seeks stories "of no more than 8,000 words, that [show] the near future (no more than about 50-60 years out) of manned space exploration."

Remember what I said about liking stories that pack an emotional punch? This one nails it. It's about a spacecraft probe operated by the uploaded consciousness of a woman named Natasha; for some reason the probe is malfunctioning and this incarnation of Natasha doesn't know why. I don't want to risk ruining the story for anyone so I won't say more. But again with the patterns: this is at least the second story this year about artificial or uploaded intelligence that I've loved (the first was David D. Levine's "Damage" from Tor.com). "We Fly" can be found here.


"Amaryllis" by Carrie Vaughn

Here's another story that pushed all the right buttons for me. It's science fiction, with world-building that I love, yet it's more about standing up for oneself, children paying for the sins of the parents, and trust. The basic premise is that the captain of a fishing boat in a post-environmental-collapse community is being treated unfairly because she herself was born in violation of population controls. I can't remember where I read this remark, but someone somewhere said that they liked this story in part because it shows a positive post-disaster world, where people have learned from history and are very careful about living in a sustainable manner. As someone who composts, pays extra for wind/solar power, and drives a Prius, yes, this!

As dorky as this sounds, I felt like I could practically smell the salt air while reading "Amaryllis". If I ever achieve this kind of subtle world-building as a writer, I'll be very happy indeed. I also loved the character relationships, and the nontraditional and very positive family structure that was portrayed. Read in the June 2010 issue of Lightspeed here.



Other stories read in June 2015:

(alphabetical by author)

- "An Update on the Problem of Maria" by Matthew Belinkie (2007)
- "The Adjunct" by Patricia S. Bowne (2015)
- "Bursk's Cutting Board" by Scott Cheshire (2015)
- "Superiority" by Arthur C. Clarke (1951; reprint 1987)
- "Seated Woman with Child" by Rosemary Clement-Moore (2015)
- "Breaking the 3 Laws" by Trevor Doyle (2015)
- "Crown of May" by Jaine Fenn (year unknown)
- "First Reports on Tardive Dyskinesia Patients in Time Displacement" by Fabio Fernandes (year unknown)
- "Muzak for Prozac" by Jack Gantos (2001)
- "Cool" by Becky Hagenston (2015)
- "Anniversary Project" by Joe Haldeman, (1975; reprint 2000)
- "Athena's Children" by Travis Heermann (2015)
- "Saving Time" by John Hegenberger (2015)
- "An Undercover Haunting" by Kristi Hutson (2015)
- "Ten Wretched Things About Influenza Siderius" by Rachael K. Jones (2014)
- "Voidrunner" by Rachael K. Jones (2015)
- "I’m Alive, I Love You, I’ll See You in Reno" by Vylar Kaftan (2010)
- "An Apocalypse of Her Own, One Day" by Alex Kane (year unknown)
- "The Tear Collector" by Justin C. Key (2015)
- "End Game" by Nancy Kress (2007; reprint 2012)
- "Dreams to Dust" by Jamie Lackey (2015)
- "All the Animals and Me" by Dan Malakin (2015)
- "Carry On" by Amy Morris-Jones (2015)
- "The Dollmaker's Rage" by Mari Ness (2015)
- "Who Else Would Make a World Like This" by Stephen S. Power (2015)
- "The Reflection in Her Eye" by Shawn Scarber (2015)
- "Touring Test" by Holly Schofield (2013)
- "RedChip BlueChip" by Effie Seiberg (2015)
- "I Regret to Inform You That My Wedding to Captain von Trapp has been Canceled" by Melinda Taub (2011)
- "Flash" by Lavie Tidhar (2015)
- "Parable Lost" by Jo Walton (2009)
- "Dinosaurs" by Walter Jon Williams (1987; reprint 2000)


List of the sources from which these stories came:

(alphabetical by anthology title, magazine title, website name, etc.)

- Baen.com
- Battlefields Beyond Tomorrow: Science Fiction War Stories (anthology), edited by Charles G. Waugh and Martin H. Greenberg, 1987
- Black Denim Lit, May 2015
- Crossed Genres, June 2015
- Daily Science Fiction, various dates
- Every Day Fiction, various dates
- Fantasy Scroll Mag, June 2015
- Flapperhouse, May 2015
- Fountain of Age: Stories (collection) by Nancy Kress, 2012
- The Furthest Horizon (anthology), edited by Gardner Dozois, 2000
- Lightspeed, June 2010
- Lone Star Stories, June 2009
- McSweeney's, April 2007; May 2011
- On the Fringe (anthology), edited by Donald R. Gallo, 2001
- One Story, May 2015
- One Teen Story, June 2015
- Perihelion, March 2015; June 2015
- QuarterReads
- Strange Afterlives (anthology), edited by A. Lee Martinez, 2015

Read more!

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Library at Mount Char

Even before I became a librarian, I've always been drawn to books that feature libraries or librarians, especially the ones that are magical (such as the Ex Libris series by Jim C. Hines) or galactic-spanning (such as the one featured in Andreas Eschbach's The Carpet Makers). So I was naturally inclined to be interested in Scott Hawkins' debut novel The Library at Mount Char. Here's a bit from the back cover description of the book's galley:

Carolyn's not so different from the other people around her. She's sure of it. She likes guacamole and cigarettes and steak. She knows how to use a phone. She even remembers what clothes are for.

After all, she was a normal American herself once.

But she and the others aren't really normal. Not anymore. Not since their parents were murdered. Not since Father took them in.

Now, Father is missing -- maybe even dead -- and the Library that holds his secrets stands unguarded.

Although this description is accurate, it gives almost no idea of how strange and unusual this book really is. It also doesn't convey how dark this book is. I wasn't very far in when I realized The Library at Mount Char felt like a horror novel to me, and that's something I don't read very often. Not sure whether to continue, I flipped to the back cover again and re-read the description. Then I noticed one of the blurbs, in which Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Nancy Kress calls the book "The most genuinely original fantasy I've ever read."

Wow. That's quite a statement by an author I admire.

So I kept reading, and after a while I found myself thinking, "Hey, this really is fantasy -- dark fantasy, to be sure, but it's not just horror."

Then I read further, and thought "But wow, this is really dark. And horrible." But I kept reading, because I wanted to find out what happened, and I was certainly never bored, just feeling a little squeamish about some of the dark bits.

And I am so glad I kept going because it turns out that this is one of the most original fantasy books I've ever read. (Thanks, Nancy Kress!)

I don't want to say too much about the plot, but just a little bit more of the set-up: Carolyn is one of twelve children that "Father" has taken in. In return, he has ordered each of them to study a particular "catalog" of knowledge, complete with periodic exams. Carolyn studies languages -- all languages that have ever been, including animal languages. Michael studies the animals themselves, and occasionally goes to live among them. David studies all forms of war and combat. Margaret studies death, while Jennifer studies healing, including the healing of death.

And so on. These children, now grown, have done nothing and still do nothing other than study, study, study. They vaguely refer to everyone outside of their world as "Americans" and cannot really function among them. And they are absolutely forbidden from sharing knowledge with each other from the various catalogs -- in fact, enforcement of this rule is where an important part of the "horror" in this book comes from.

The book isn't perfect, but then again, what is? My main quibble was that there were a couple of sections that brought in minor characters for brief scenes from their points-of-view. These scenes felt intrusive, and it seemed like I could "see" the effort behind the author trying to write, for instance, from the POV of an asshole rap star. There was also a spot, maybe 2/3 or 3/4 of the way through the book, when I thought "Really? The story's not ending here? It seems like it could (or should) end here, so am I going to like the rest of this book, or is it going to drag after this?"

And it turned out that it's everything that happens after that point that makes the book one of the most original fantasies I've ever read. But don't underestimate the stuff up to that point, either, because there's nothing wasted here, not even the rap star scenes that I didn't care for. The climax is set up perfectly. I finished reading this book about three in the morning, and then lay there thinking about how much it had surprised me.

I highly recommend this book, but I also think people should be warned: there are a lot of brutal scenes in it, including rape and torture. They're not gratuitous, but they are disturbing. But even though these are usually things I avoid, I anticipate that I'll be revisiting this book comes next year's awards season.

On a different note, I wanted to mention that I got this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. If you don't know LibraryThing, it's a social book cataloging website that's a bit like GoodReads but better, in my admittedly biased opinion.
Read more!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

An Evening with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Last night my husband and I went to see Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at Jones Hall here in Houston. I'm not sure we've ever paid to hear someone just speak before; the closest was when we paid a small amount to see William Shatner speak for an hour at a convention we were already attending anyway. Neil DeGrasse Tyson tickets cost, shall we say, not a small amount.

And it was completely worth it. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, honestly. Would it be like an episode of Cosmos? Would it be a rant about politicians who refuse to consider evidence that's right in front of their eyes?

Actually, no -- it was more like stand-up comedy for scientifically minded people. The "backbone" of the talk was basically how movies look to NDT: what's right, what's not right but still cool, and what's so scientifically wrong that it's difficult to get past it. Spoiler alert: Armageddon did not fare well, but that wasn't a surprise to me, considering that the husband is an asteroid scientist, and the (to me) well-known Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop apparently uses that film to talk about everything that's wrong with science in Hollywood. (Yes, we do still own a copy of that movie. Science aside, it's a lot more entertaining than it's summer-twin-release, Deep Impact.)

Interspersed with the movie still frames and clips were.... several beer commercials! Probably the most "political" line of the evening was when NDT said, in response to a beer commercial in which primordial creatures don't like the taste of their water and so wait through a zillion years of evolution until Guiness is invented, that it's a sad state of affairs when a beer commercial is more scientifically accurate that some school curricula in this country. (We're looking at you, Southern states!) Apart from that, though, the evening was just a fun look at what movies do and don't get right, and what we can and can't forgive them for getting wrong.

I laughed like crazy. And here were the two best parts of the evening: 1) this man clearly loves science and the wonders of the universe; and 2) the atmosphere at Jones Hall before the talk. NDT fans clearly view this guy as a rock star, and he is. Of science.

And just for fun, off the top of my head, other movies referenced (for both good and bad) included:

  • Back to the Future
  • Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • Contact
  • Gravity
  • Interstellar
  • The Lion King
  • Love Story
  • The Matrix
  • Star Wars (the real one)
  • Titanic
  • West Side Story
  • The Wizard of Oz
If you ever get a chance to hear this man speak, I highly recommend it.

[Edited to add: I should have mentioned that this appearance was put on by the Society of the Performing Arts (SPA) in Houston. Thanks, SPA!] Read more!