The Causal Angel (2014)

The-Causal-Angel

Third part of a trilogy that heavily depends on having read the previous two volumes to understand what is going on (at all, lots of advanced genre speak with its own inventions liberally thrown around). I really, really liked the previous two books, which were some of the best science fiction novels of recent years that managed to marry complex and dense world-building to equally well-written post-human characters and incredible smart plotting that covered a lot of current topics at the edge where technology and society meets. It’s a rare treat to find a writer so skilled at the hard SF game who also excels as an enthralling word-smith.

And the third part of the trilogy present a thrilling climax in many ways, except…

Well it depends. When it comes to computer games, I’m first and foremost a gamist. When it comes to fluff reading (which is probably more than 80% of all my reading) I’m entirely in the narrativist camp. But when it comes to the ambitious kind of science fiction that comes along only every few years, books like Diaspora or Schismatrix or Blindsight or a handful others, I really prefer the simulationist approach that play the What if game to the extreme. No big villains who have their evil monologue before they fry the heroes, no heroes who somehow turn out to be connected to all the important events in the settings past, connected to all the important movers and shakers.

The Causal Angel falls squarely into the narrativist trap after the previous two books hinted at something more complex. Instead all the smart, well written build-up of the past two books, the beautiful imagined setting, leads nowhere interesting, just a few (imaginative, I admit that) fights with various villains, some personal insights (not about the world at large but merely born out of the narrativist structure of the books) and a boring deus ex machina to save a plot that run out of things to dazzle the reader with. The heroes don’t even win, they just escape before the curtain falls.

I enjoyed it, but I really hoped for something with more substance. With more to it than merely a (very) smart surface.

Ghost in the Shell: SAC 1st GIG (2002-2003)

5022366203746

The plot of the first season of GitS:SA has two major themes, political intrigue and techno-social-philosophical musings, with a third dimension the depiction of a near-future where extensive cyborgization is the norm and informs every aspect of society.

I didn’t care much for the whole emergent social meme of the laughing man itself. Genius hacker who tried to get justice and then his media-personality got co-opted by his enemies and later society at large was interesting plot-wise, but still felt conventional compared to the hunt for the emergent AI of the first GitS movie.

On the other hand, the political intrigue was deftly handled with its complex narrative of medical treatments and the various financial and political interest groups. The socio-political climate Japan is going through in this future is just an added bonus and conveys the rich backstory that has accumulated between now and then and how deeply the technological changes have affected society.

Despite the amount of backstory and set-up, GitS:SA has enough space to convey all its setting and plot information without slowing down much. The show is mostly structured like a procedural with lots of action and many individual cases that are somehow related to the bigger plot. Until it leads to an explosive endgame that has lots of action but doesn’t resolve the way you would expect.

While the focus is on plot, you never get the sense that any of the actors are cardboard. This is a show that concentrates on the work live aspect of its characters, but they are nonetheless fully fleshed personalities. And the glimpse we get into their personal space and the interactions between them show that you can have a show that isn’t driven by the inner lives of the character without throwing characterization overboard.

Purgatory Station (2008)

Purgatory Station

Collection of short stories that take place on a space station with various alien races, among them humans, and a human priest who solves a few cases that pose interesting moral dilemmas and are structured like mystery stories. It’s a nice read and sports the usual compulsively readability by Stackpole, but since there are not that many stories in the first place and the overall settings remains pretty vague, it doesn’t leave a deeper impression character-, setting- or story-wise. Nice distraction, but not a lot of substance.

Justice League: War (2014)

Justice_League-War

Adaptation of the first story arc of the new Justice League in DC’s 52 universe (the second major reboot of the entire DC line). One could argue that superhero comics are basically all about good guys fighting with bad guys, and while that’s not entirely true, it works in a lot of cases to describe what’s going on. Here, the not-yet allied heroes of the young DC 52 universe discover a major threat, none other than Darkseid, rally together and fight him off and in doing so lay the groundwork for the Justice League.

There’s nothing more to it, but as far as these kind of movies go, it’s perfectly executed. The action sequences are thrilling, things seem to go from bad to worse every minutes until the stakes are sky high and seemingly night impossible to beat and the animation is great (everything looks impressively fluid and detailed).

The heroes are pretty heroic and yet all have distinct voices (writing-wise that is), though the only one who feels really different from his pre-52 days is Superman (this brash take is pretty refreshing). Sadly, Wonder Woman got the usual downgrade to simpleton female warrior princess, but what can you expect from DC and their general retrograde attitude. Not the smartest of the DC animated movies, but pretty entertaining and it knows how to make the best of what it has to offer.

Green Lantern: First Flight (2009)

greenlfflight

This animated movie that preceded the big screen movie by two years is everything that the later movie wanted to be, yet wasn’t. It’s the origin story of Hal Jordan’s tenure as Green Lantern and its everything you could hope for in such a movie: compulsively watchable action sequences, a hero who feels larger than life (bravery, brains and cockiness all in one neat package), a big bad who feels like he could win the day (Sinestro really is perfect here and his motivations make, like with the best of villains, sense to some degree) and the movie really manages to bring across how cool the entire concept of the Green Lantern corps is.

Also, apart from a few moments, it takes place entirely in space or on other worlds, as it should be. Lots of aliens, lots of space fights between alien criminals and the green lanterns. And a great climax that really shows how you finish a good action movie.

Two Serpents Rise (2013)

Two Serpents Rise

2nd book in Max Gladstone’s craft sequence, albeit taking place chronologically before Three Parts Dead and with a different set of characters and at another location. The series takes place in a world where human sorcerers have won a decisive war against the gods and mostly replaced them with companies that use magical power as both a power source but also collateral in complex financial contracts, with some very interesting side effects.

Two Serpents Rise takes place in a Las Vegas-like city and the main character is tasked with finding out why the water source is demon-ridden. Things go from bad to worse, with intrigue in the form of company takeovers, albeit due to the nature of the setting with added magical complexities and it all comes down to the question of whether it was good to get rid of the gods in the first place and if the system that replaced them is any better.

TSR is a great read, but is biggest strength is to ask complex moral questions in a setting nearly completely divorced from our world and still manages to make these questions and how the characters go about answering them seem relevant to our world. All packed into an intense, action driven-plot with ambiguous but likable characters on all sides with no clear good vs evil dichotomy in sight.

Son of Batman (2014)

Son-of-Batman-DVD-cover

DC animated movies always either have luck when it comes to their animations budget or they miss out. This one, partly based on a story from Grant Morrison during his tenure on Batman, looks like a cheap TV animation series mixing eastern and western styles with a less than desired outcome. Besides the awful animation, content-wise they took the big idea from Morrison (Batman had a son with Talia, he has a killer mindset, Batman needs to set him on the path of good and righteousness) and butchered all the interesting details.

The overall story feels roughly inspired by Morrisons story, but it lacks all the vitals to make it more than a generic, Batman shows his real son how the world works, story. To be honest, this was boring, simplistic and downright stupid, everything that the source material was not. I can’t imagine what happened here, but the result is just bad.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (2012-2013)

iN7tABy

Miller is one of the few comic artists with more than just a few movie adaptations of his works and in a lot of cases he had lots of luck with them. Take for instance the DC animated movies, which can be hit or miss animations-wise, and both Year One as well is this extravaganza two-part adaptations of Batman: TDKR look splendid and are pretty good when it comes to translating his stuff to the screen. I would go even so far in saying that if you’ve seen this adaptation, you don’t really need to read the source material (no wonder, Miller’s stuff always had a very cinematic style).

It’s an old Bruce Wayne going back to being Batman, saving his city from new criminals and a general lack morals, showing all who is the king, even Superman who is later sent in to stop him (because politicians don’t really like vigilante justice, especially when they are good at it). When I read it as a kid I loved TDKR unquestionably, now I still like it (though it really lacks the same punch as seeing or reading it for the first time). Miller has gone of the deep end in recent years and some signs for that development can be seen in nearly all of his earlier work, but TDKR and others still work quite well despite all that.

There’s eyebrow raising stuff here (most of all the cold war era things feel out of place), but overall pacing, the action and the plot are all fine. On the surface, TDKR became famous because it depicted a grim’n grittier variant of Batman than at that time most of his contemporaries did. But the undiminished allure of it is because it present a version of Batman’s future and final days that feels legitimate. Not an Elseworld story, but the real thing, the perfect ending to Batman’s story, if that would ever be allowed to happen. That hasn’t changed in all these years.

Chimes at Midnight (2013)

chimesmidnight

Seventh and latest in the October Daye series about a fairy-human-halfling who works as a sort of detective/knight and solves cases that most of fairy wouldn’t touch. This time an attempt by October to stop the Goblin fruit drug from getting openly trafficked (a drug deadly only for halflings and humans, last mentioned in the fifth book of the series) backfires when the queen exiles her and she has to expose her claim to the throne as false.

The whole animosity thing between October and the queen was present from the first book, but I didn’t really expect everything to go fubar quite this fast or even this aggressively. I’m not sure if McGuire intended there to have been more back story why the queen hated her (apart from the one thing where October helped her out and said so to everyone), but at least it grew into an intense conflict with an interesting outcome. In terms of overall setup, its a big game changer, since now all the major powers in October’s vicinity are allies or positively disposed to her, which changes a lot of the dynamics. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Hansel_and_Gretel_Witch_Hunters_

The critical reaction to this one last year was pretty dismal, the major reason I didn’t watch it until now, and somehow I wonder what those critics were smoking. As far as action movies go, it’s pretty good. It’s a modern spin on an old fairy tale (which is actually the origin story told in the first few minutes) that together with a few minor changes introduces an entire mythology surrounding evil and good witches, which is the background for the twins of the original story to become major witch hunters equipped with lots of neat steam punk weaponry.

In a welcome departure from most modern action movies, the violence is quite visual and doesn’t hold back: heads get squished and stomped and there’s lots of gore and blood, which really makes me long for the days of old without its PG13 movies. Overall, lots of fun, and I still wonder what crawled up the combined ass of the movie critic scene to give this one so bad reviews.