Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Few Reviews

I keep meaning to write reviews of the books and films I have read and watched over the past few months, and then get bogged down in other matters, including sketching out a monstrously long review of Swords & Dark Magic that is far from done (and is rapidly becoming some geeky manifesto about sword-and-sorcery). But now the time has come! Let there be kudos and criticisms!

---Swords & Dark Magic (the brief review): While characterized as "[a] truly breathtaking new anthology," I was able to hold on to my breath for most of the stories. The introduction sounds quite promising in its attempt to reinvigorate the idea of sword-and-sorcery as a distinctive offspring of fantasika, but, like a number of the stories, there is little innovation and a lot of rehashing. This is not inherently bad, but I felt that the introduction raised hopes that were mostly unfulfilled in the volume.

The "classic" stories were the ones that I enjoyed the least. While Moorcock's Elric tale was serviceable and well-written, it trod a well-worn path in the cursed albino's saga and offered little new insight into the mythology of the character. Glen Cook's Black Company story similarly seemed like the Same Old Thing, but with a tone that made it feel more like a modern military yarn than sword-and-sorcery. Robert Silverberg's Majipoor tale was more diverting, but light on both the multi-leveled literary action and ornamentation that makes the best tales of this world shine. After an amusing start, the "fully authorized" Dying Earth offering (written not by Jack Vance, but by Michael Shea) just fell into an uninteresting rut that played out like a one-shot D&D adventure.

Some of the more original stories also felt uninspired, despite the talent of their authors. Like Moorcock, Gene Wolfe's story was not poorly written, but seemed to meander in intention and did not fire my imagination. Joe Abercrombie's offering has some good dialogue and earthy characters, but I felt that there was little at stake in the plot and not much tension in the story's progression. Bill Willingham's brief tale was too predictable, with little detail or finesse to divert you from that fact. Even the excellent Greg Keyes' Fool Wolf entry was not very original, despite an intriguing start.

More promising was Steven Erikson's gritty tale of a dead-end town and some weary soldiers. While increasingly predictable, Erikson's story drew you into the lives of the characters deftly, even as the action became increasingly unrealistic, leading to an ending that was very promising until the last few lines, which shattered all that had cared about in the story. Garth Nix's story was a pleasant diversion, and K. J. Parker's "A Rich, Full Week" was both amusing and intriguing. The story by Tim Lebbon was a nice spin on several sword-and-sorcery themes, and kept me guessing until the end. Tanith Lee's allegorical excursion was a lot of fun, even when it felt too self-absorbed.

The standout tales came from two established authors and two newer talents. C. J. Cherryh's "A Wizard in Wiscezan" was holistically satisfying, with characters rendered fully human in a few lines and a story that, while not new, was invigorated by engagement with the characters and by the way in which magic was used. James Enge presented a tale of Morlock the Maker that took the best elements of classical sword-and-sorcery and knocked them ass-over-teacups. Scott Lynch also did a lovely job of twisting some old ideas into vibrantly new shapes. Both of these stories did what I was expecting of this entire collection: inject new life into sword-and-sorcery by drawing on the essential elements of the genre and applying new sensibilities and possibilities to its conventions.

But hands-down the finest tale in the collection was CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan's "The Sea Troll's Daughter." In it she takes one of the most well-worn conventions of sword-and-sorcery and makes it both human and mythic simultaneously. From inversions of gender and status to the upending of the facile simplicities that often plague genre stories, this narrative undermines your expectations while refreshing your vision of what sword-and-sorcery can do in the hands of skillful, sensitive writer. It balances fatalism and frailty, the earthy and the grotesque, and delivers a piece of writing that is both adventure and fable, a rollicking meditation that provokes and entertains.

(And yes, that IS the short review!)

---Lud-in-the-Mist, by Hope Mirrlees: I wasn't sure what to expect of this book, despite having read several reviews. None of them prepared me for the actual experience of reading the book: it was sublime, trippy, eccentric, droll, measured, and fabulous. The writing is sometimes too formal and stilted, but the prose pulls you into the world of Dorimare, where fairy fruit is banned and where the town of Lud-in-the-Mist is about to find out the cost of prohibition. I find it hard to say what the book is about, because there are so many ways to interpret it. It could be an absurd, subversive comedy that comments on bourgeois sensibilities or a mannered yarn about the foibles of convention and the need to acknowledge, not stifle, our inner impulses, or it could be a hallucinogenic meditation on the clash of pastoral and gentrified worldviews. . . the book goes in many directions, some of them more mystified than others. While there are few likable characters, you end up caring about the fate of this world's inhabitants, and the journey that the book takes you on is both absorbing and enchanting. I highly recommend it, and hope that I someday find enough folks who have read it to talk about the experience and make more sense of it.

--- Avatar: I knew going in that this would be a hard film for me to like, after the hype and the dissection of it in countless reviews and blogs, but I wanted to see what James Cameron was trying to accomplish. The result of all his work was a bad movie, all image and no soul. Amazing graphics? Sure. But who cares? The characters were little more than slightly-active scenery, a more complex image than the flora and fauna of Pandora. The movie was all surface and no heart, preachy with nothing to say, and sloppy in its transitions and development.

The story was a morass of cliches, with a pacing that was sublimated to the need to put amazing graphics on the screen frequently. It was hard to believe that this was the same filmmaker who made characters you cared about, who felt human, in films like Aliens and The Abyss. Those films had their problems, but they were not the utter mess of image overload that Avatar is.
I found myself wishing that it had been a faux documentary on the wonders of the planet, rather than a poorly-executed action film, because that format would have accentuated the need for the hyper-detailed visuals and removed a lot of what made the film painful to watch.

---National Geographic: Collapse: Based on the book by Jared Diamond (and featuring him prominently throughout), this documentary uses a science-fictional frame to discuss the possible fall of modern civilization. Moving between a fictional scientific expedition of 2200 CE and civilizations of the past, the film discusses a number of factors that, if not addressed, could (and likely will) result in the catastrophic dissolution of the modern world-system. The documentary looks at what made past systems fail; basically, as one archaeologist puts it, "they overshot."

This line condenses and essentializes the problem of collapse; large human systems plan poorly for the future, and as a result are unprepared when the system encounters one or more large predicaments. As Daniel Gilbert says in the film:"what's so curious about human beings is that we can look deeply into the future, foresee disaster, and still do nothing in the present to stop it." Collapse returns to this idea of looking deeply into the future as a possible solution to our ills, even as it demonstrates that every other large-scale society has failed to do so. While the looking-backwards frame does little more than provide transitions between the litany of problems, it keeps the film moving and also allows the viewer to pretend that there will be a future. Whether that is effective in getting people to think harder, and to act, is uncertain. For me, the film confirmed that without drastic action, without embracing that ability to look deeply into the past and future and access the enormous amounts of information we have to find principled, powerful solutions to our problems, we will follow those other civilizations into ruin.

No comments: