Adventure Time is the kind of animated TV-show that plays to the particular strengths of the cartoon format. If you’re looking for realistic characters or serious stories, this is obviously the wrong address. If you looking for something completely zany and off-the-wall, this is perfect though. Like most cartoons the world in Adventure Time only relies on physics when its suits the shows goals, and eschews them when it’s the right thing to do (which happens more often than not).
In that regard, it’s actually a better fantasy than what is (in prose fiction at least) usually associated with fantasy. This is not a world with magic and supernatural beings bound by a rule set that rivals hard SF in its rigidity, but a world whose topology and general rules change on a whim. It is stylistically consistent, but doesn’t really make sense when it comes to stuff like biology or physics or geography (things are always as near or far away as the plot demands).
If you would ask me whether this is a kids shows, I probably had a hard time answering. It looks like one, but I think the humor is often more geared toward grown-ups whose inner child is still alive, than real kids. But like so often, even when they don’t get everything about the show, it’s wacky nature should satisfy most kids anyway. One of the best animated shows in recent time.
Ultimate Avengers 2 is in the uncomfortable position that it is better than its awful predecessor, but relies so heavily on the elements from part one, that watching it in isolation is a considerable weaker experience than after watching the first one. That said, while it’s better than the first part, it’s far from perfect. The action and plotting is mostly good, taking the best from the first part and spinning it off into a new direction that had nothing to do with the second volume of the Ultimates comics (the first part was an adaptation or better heavy distortion of the first volume by Millar).
But the soup opera-style characterization, especially every time couples were involved (Wasp/Ant-Man, Banner/Betty), was still pretty bad. So, if you saw the first part and disliked it, you might still try this one. And if you liked the first part (what’s wrong with you?), then this should be perfect.
The Man Who Folded Himself is the sort of time travel book that goes beyond the usual cliche and explores what it really means to travel in time. It’s not about manipulating the past to see its outcome, though that also happens, but about living out of sequence with the rest of the world. Stuff that other time travel books gloss over or conveniently forget, Gerrold examines in depth. The fact that most time travelers will be limited to living in a period near their own time because of language and customs, all the little details of what happens when you do this or that with the time travel device, what happens when you meet yourself, when you change your own past, try to erase prior errors and so on.
Compared to the intricacies of the plot that TMWFH weaves, a movie like Primer feels laughably simple. Oftentimes you will feel like getting multiple knots in your brain when trying to unravel everything. That said, at times I wasn’t sure whether the way TMWFH used time travel was entirely internally consistent. But still, compared to other time travel stories, it’s like the difference between walking and flying at Mach ten. This book easily leaves most of the field behind, blows your mind every second page and manages to offend half it’s readership with the main character fucking himself in different variations (female, male, future or past self, what you want).
TMWFH is among the best time travel books ever written. The only other story that comes close, which probably was a big influence on it, was Heinlein’s All You Zombies. But unlike most stuff by Heinlein, it doesn’t feel dated at all. The book is from 1973, though republished and slightly modernized in 2003 by Gerrold. But for all that the book does so well, I can’t say I like it entirely. The main character was far too self-absorbed for my taste. He had eternity at his fingertips, and all he could see was himself.
The recent Avengers animated TV-show is extraordinary because it manages to capture the same spirit that the early Marvel comics had when unleashed in the 60ties, while updating it enough to not look as ridiculous and dated as some of those comics read now. It’s the perfect fusion of the past and the present, a superhero series that manages to present good guys doing the right thing without looking overly simplistic, anachronistic or dumb in the process.
As for the line-up, the show owns completely. This isn’t like the previous (though also good in its own way) Avengers animated series United They Stand with a secondary line-up, these are the most iconic heroes taking on the most iconic villains. And-Man, Wasp (annoying design), Thor, Hulk (my favorite depiction of him for some time), Black Panther, Captain America, Iron Man and Hawkeye versus Kang the Conqueror, Loki, the Enchantress, Baron Zemo, MODOC, the Leader and Ultron. Classic Avengers stories with the right scale to make everything look grandiose and epic. You probably never see a better animated adaptation of the Avengers than this. And the next season might even bring the classic Kree-Skrull-war.
I’m a big fan of Stephan Martinière’s science fiction and fantasy covers, like so many others. I thought nothing could make go meh on an offering with his stuff inside. That said, I had only a lukewarm reaction to Quantumscapes, the second collection of his artwork.
First, while I love his covers like nothing else, the stuff he did for gaming, like the creature designs, hasn’t the same WOW-factor. It’s competent and very well done, but it’s not like I haven’t see similar stuff from countless other artists. Also, from the ca. 100 pages of the book, only 30 have cover art, which makes this a little too lightweight on the stuff I bought the book for.
Secondly, like everything that is enlarged too much, the cover art actually revealed flaws I hadn’t noticed before. Sometimes the positioning of objects seemed out of whack, sometimes his semi-hyperrealism makes the elements of the cover look downright ugly. It’s not that I went from loving those covers to hating them, it’s just that they didn’t look as impressive as they did before.
And lastly, as odd as it may sound, I hadn’t realized until now what an integral part the rest (everything beyond the art itself) of the cover design was, at least for me. Without the book title, quotes and all the other stuff you generally see, the art itself looked naked and just not as cool. Like movie music that fails to leave the same impression once you hear it uncoupled from the movie itself.
Sym-Bionic Titan, the most recent animated TV-show by Gene Tartakovsky, lasted only one season. While that is regrettable, I think it’s also understandable. If you watch Samurai Jack or his Clone Wars adaptation, you realize one thing: he’s a near-perfect visual storyteller. But while those shows played to his strengths, SBT does it only half the time. And it looks like conventional storytelling isn’t Tartakovsky’s or his stable of writers forte.
Sym-Bionic Titan, which is like a love letter to old-school Japanese animation with kids donning gigantic robots and fighting Gozilla-sized monsters, mixes high-school drama with the giant robot/monster fights. And that requires convincing characterization, well written dialog and so on. Nothing that you’ll find here. Everyone acts like a walking cliche, from the main cast to the secondary characters and the throwaway ones.
The only episodes were Sym-Bionic Titan managed to rise above it’s own dreary content was when it left the school-setting and told flashback episodes on the faraway alien homeworld (Shadows of Youth and Escape from Galaluna). Especially the latter worked toward Tartakovsky’s strengths. It’s basically a twenty-minutes no holds barrel action sequence that has some of the best fighting scenes I’ve seen for some time in animation. It’s incredibly intense and reminded me of why I liked Samurai Jack so much. But it’s also a reminder of what the series could have been, and wasn’t.
The New Space Opera 2/18
Ian McDonald’s story is pretty close to what I consider space opera, though it shares the same problem as the previous entry in tNSP, in having the right scope when it comes to the setting and the backstory but with a plot that doesn’t cover the same scale. Honestly, I think the main problem is size. Space opera is a mode of narration that needs (massive) space, whereupon short stories by their very nature don’t have it. It’s like squaring the circle.
I don’t think you can do space opera well (or at all) with these size limitations, the closest you end up with is a story that is a highly compressed info-dump, which Verthandi’s Ring constitutes. As a story, it reads pretty cold and detached. You don’t really feel any connection to the characters, nor their culture. The best I could muster was little bit of rage at how McDonald presented the whole situation and the solution to the whole conflict.
The depiction of interstellar conflict as something inevitable, something that would have happened anyway, whoever shot the first shot, is pretty debatable, even in the context of the story. To depict life as a struggle in tooth and claw, something beyond morality, an absolute that never changes, isn’t just morally questionable, it’s not even supported by facts. There are no extinctions campaigns in nature, and there’s no need for them among intelligent beings. If they actually arise, they aren’t inevitable, but the consequence of stupidity, arrogance and malice. If a writer sizes this type of argument, I always see it as a cheap short cut to not properly develop the backstory, which in this case brings us back to size. If you have to write space opera at short stories lengths, you have to compress, both the content and the setting. Saying that war between interstellar cultures is a given, is just such a compression artifact.
This might read like I didn’t like the story, but you would be wrong. Despite my qualms with the underpinnings of the story and with solving a problem by dumping genocidal aliens on another universe, I like the scale on which the story operates and the future culture depicted. But it feels too much like there’s a longer novel trying to crawl out of this story, one that could have been much better given the right amount of space to grow and mature.
The New Space Opera 1/18 (the story is online here, looks like the author’s website)
Gwyneth Jones story is a perfect example for the confusion between setting and plot when it comes to space opera. The setting might have the right scale, but the plot itself doesn’t. That said, I actually enjoyed the story immensely. A small scale political intrigue as part of bigger political machinations that in many ways reflect contemporary global Realpolitik and yet told a SF story in its own right. If the rest of the anthology offers the same quality, I probably won’t mind if most of the stories aren’t even space opera.
One thing that actually annoyed me: like in his Year’s Best Of Gardner Dozois always has a small encapsulation of what the story is going to be about after introducing the author. These always read clever and insightful, until you actually read the story and realize how stupid they are. And he does this all the time, which makes me wonder whether he pitches these lines half-asleep, because he can’t be bothered. A better line in this case would have been: Don’t try to anthropomorphize aliens, it will always bite you when you least expect it.
The New Space Opera is a book that doesn’t wait long to completely abandon it’s mission (?! marketing) statement. If you bought the book because you expected to get modern short stories that are part of the space opera sub-genre (like me), you have probably been duped. Though, even if Dozois and Strahan tried to only include space opera, their short history of this sub-genre in the introduction shows that they have only a limited grasp of what space opera is (which I doubt, since they’ve worked in the field for years) or they work with a definition that is so inclusive that it’s completely useless. For them, apparently, everything with space ships in it is space opera.
For me, space opera always operates on a big scale, which means galactic empires most of the time. The solar system alone, with a few exceptions, doesn’t manage to convey the multitude and scale needed to be space operatic. Neither is it enough to have an immense setting, you need to have a plot who actually covers the same distance (e.g. Hyperion isn’t space opera, it’s sequel The Fall of Hyperion is). A planetary romance that takes place in a galactic empire setting isn’t space opera (Dune). And so on.
Though, while I’m forewarned (I just read the introduction) I still hope that there are a few space opera stories inside. Maybe even good ones. But my expectations are severely diminished after reading the introduction. If Gardner/Strahan just wanted to collect “great new stories by some of the best writers working in the field” (and they make it clear the field is science fiction, not space opera), they should have done it with a title reflecting that.
To be continued… (when I’ve finished the anthology)
Alphaland is an okay diversion, if you have 20 minutes to spare. There’s nothing really new here: minimalistic graphics, a narration that is handled via text on the screen, a few (very) simple puzzles and so on. Mainly you go and explore a bit, get to the end of the game while the game itself discovers it’s a game engine and has an existential crisis during the end sequence (though then an epiphany occurs). The platforming elements are also underdeveloped, and while you can die in a few places, that only means you get back a screen or two (often it’s even the same screen).
So difficulty isn’t the goal (which means platform gameplay isn’t either), and neither are graphics (there is minimalism done by someone with artistic skills who does it to express himself better, and then there’s minimalism for a lack of any skill, like here). Exploration could be it, but for that the environments lacks any compelling sights or an interesting level design. It’s not a bad little game, it just swims in the vast ocean of mediocrity, which means in day I will have completely forgotten about it. There’s nothing here to distinguish it from its brethren.