January 24, 2021

Streamin' Meemies: WandaVision Season 1, Episodes 1-3

 


So the WandaVision series is supposedly the start of Marvel's "Phase 4," and the events of this series are reportedly going to tie into the next Dr. Strange movie, Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. (Does that make Disney Plus part of the Streaming Madverse? Maybe I should give that title to these reviews from now on.) However that works out, this series is starting out pretty damn weird. 

The three episodes so far are set in three different decades--the 50s, 60s and 70s--and taking off of sitcoms from each of those decades--I Love Lucy, Bewitched/The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Brady Bunch/The Partridge Family. But there's also a steadily escalating horror thread running throughout, especially in the last minutes of episode 3 when the canned laugh track fades away. We're not sure if the entire setup is the product of Wanda's traumatized, reality-twisting mind, an outside source with the acronym S.W.O.R.D. (with its upside down cross logo seen at the end of episode 1, the colorized toy helicopter in episode 2 and Geraldine/Monica's necklace in episode 3) or both. Another thing to remember is that WandaVision takes place after Avengers: Infinity War/Endgame, and in the latter, Vision was stone cold dead, the Mind Stone ripped from his head. Since he wasn't snapped, he also wasn't resurrected. Yet here he is, in all his redheaded synthezoid glory, even putting on a decades-appropriate human mask when he steps out of the house. 

We shall see. I have Tom King's excellent limited-edition Vision comic series, Little Better Than a Man/Little Worse Than a Beast, but I haven't read any of the older Wanda or Vision comics. But it seems to me Wanda Maximoff was terribly overlooked by the movies for as powerful as she is--I'd say she's at least the equal of Captain Marvel--so it's nice to see her spotlighted here. 

Episode 1: "Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience"

This is the 50's I Love Lucy episode, filmed in black and white with an old-style narrow screen on a single interior stage: Wanda and Vision's kitchen and living room. They have a theme song over credits of the two of them arriving in the town of Westview as supposedly a newly married couple. When we meet them, Wanda displays her powers in the house, and Vision shows his android head and body; but they don't know when or why they came here, how long they've been here, when they got married, or what the circled date on the calendar is. Vision goes to work at a "Computational Services" office and has no idea what he's doing there. All this is brought home later in the episode when the boss, Mr. Hart, and his wife come to the Visions' for dinner. After Wanda uses her powers to whip up the food (although she can't quite manage the four-course dinner the neighbor Agnes sneaks in the back door and changes everything to breakfast materials instead) and the four of them are sitting and eating, Mr. Hart peppers them with questions they can't answer. Then he chokes on something--I suspect Wanda made him do so just to shut him up--and the scene goes super creepy, as Mrs. Hart just looks at him and repeats "Stop it" over and over. Mr. Hart, still struggling to breathe, finally falls on the floor. Wanda looks at Vision and says, in a different, commanding tone of voice, "Vision, help him." Vision does, phasing his hand into Mr. Hart's throat and plucking out the offending chunk of food.  

The episode ends with Wanda and Vision grinning at the camera while the theme song plays and the end credits run. Then the camera pulls back and out of the ancient TV-style monitor to show someone watching, and a piece of paper or notepad bearing that upside-down-cross logo. 

Episode 2: "Don't Touch That Dial"

We now jump to the 60's sitcom model, opening with Wanda and Vision sleeping in twin beds and freaking out over a loud bang outside. They decide it's just branches hitting the window, but Wanda uses her powers to shove the twin beds together and wrap them in a full-size comforter. The two of them then dive under the comforter for a bit of nookie, which will be hugely important later.

The thrust of this episode is Wanda and Vision working up a magic act to perform at the neighborhood talent show "for the children" (another creepy phrase repeated throughout). Wanda gets to wear slacks and flat shoes in this episode, as opposed to the dress and high heels of the first. The first "crack" in her reality appears after Vision leaves to go to the Neighborhood Watch Meeting, and Wanda goes outside to see a toy helicopter caught in a rosebush. This helicopter is a a colorized bright red, sporting the number 57 and the upside down cross logo. We're not given much of a chance to dwell on this, as Wanda's neighbor Agnes shows up to take her to meet the group running the talent show, led by "Queen Bee" Dottie. This consists of white women with one exception: a beehived black woman with straightened hair calling herself "Geraldine" (although there's a split second hesitation when she says the name). After the talent show meeting, Wanda and Dottie have a bit of a confrontation and Dottie accidentally cuts her hand--and she bleeds red as well. At the same time, the radio suddenly sizzles and a man's voice emerges: "Wanda, Wanda, can you read me? Who is doing this to you?"

At Vision's (surprisingly integrated) Neighborhood Watch meeting, he is given a piece of gum to chew (after loudly proclaiming, android-like, he "doesn't eat food" before backtracking to amend, "between meals") and in a neat little animated sequence, the gum goes down his gullet and clogs his gears. This makes him act like he's drunk when he shows up for the talent show (and you can tell Paul Bettany is having a blast playing this). In fact, he keeps doing superhero things like hovering in the air and lifting a piano with one hand, and Wanda has to use her own powers to make it look like everything is a sequence of planned pratfalls. This goes over so well they are given a trophy for 'Comedy Performance of the Year.'

Back home, Wanda says, "It wasn't so hard to fit in after all." She gets off the couch and the camera pans down over a suddenly pregnant stomach. Wanda gasps, "Is this really happening?" There is more banging outside, and Wanda and Vision rush out to see what's going on. It's right here that the subtly building thread of horror comes into full view, as a man in a beekeeper's suit, bees buzzing around him, climbs out of a manhole in the street. Wanda, again in that flat, commanding tone of voice used in episode 1, says "No," and rewinds reality back to the moment she discovers she is pregnant. She says again, "Is this really happening?" meaning the baby, but more starts happening--Vision's head turns read and silver, and color splashes across the screen. 

And once more we hear the man's voice through the radio: "Who's doing this to you, Wanda?" 

Episode 3: "Now In Color"

This is the 70's Brady Bunch/Partridge Family analogue, with opening credits that are very much Brady Bunch. Wanda's hair is long, parted in the middle, and ramrod straight; Vision has collar length hair and jaw length sideburns; and Geraldine is rocking a gorgeous Afro and bright blue eyeshadow. This storyline centers on Wanda's accelerated pregnancy (12 hours) and the birth of her twins. There are more concrete hints about what's going on dropped in this episode, particularly at the end. 

Vision is obviously taking to his new role as a father, as he buys and reads Wanda books, works on breathing exercises with her, and practices speed-changing diapers on a doll. Opening the episode approximately four months along (confirmed by a house-calling doctor who condescendingly mansplains fetal development to the couple), Wanda suddenly pops out to her third trimester. This provides the first indication that the pregnancy is messing with her powers, as the baby kicks and makes the butterfly mobile that Wanda is about to hang over the crib come to life. This is a running gag throughout the episode, as first false labor contractions and then the real contractions makes the faucet spew water, causes pictures to revolve on the walls, ignites the logs in the fireplace, and floods the house when her water breaks. (Wanda summons some wind to dry out the carpet.) She also knocks out the power for the entire neighborhood, which complicates things when the real labor pangs begin and the phone doesn't work (and this being the 70's, cell phones don't exist). Vision speeds off to fetch the doctor, leaving Wanda there alone when Geraldine shows up. Wanda spontaneously generates coats and holds fruit bowls and vases of flowers to hide her bulging belly. Geraldine doesn't leave--she insists on sitting on the couch and regaling Wanda with a long drawn-out tale about her temp job, while Wanda tries to hide her stomach, her contractions, and the stork that popped off the nursery wall and is now walking around the living room. But it's just as well that Geraldine is there, as the baby is coming. Geraldine doesn't bat an eye at Wanda's sudden pregnancy, just laying her down behind the couch and telling her "it's time to push." And indeed it is, as the baby makes his appearance just before Vision returns, carrying Dr. Nielsen piggyback. Dr. Nielsen ushers Geraldine into the kitchen, giving Vision a moment to morph back to his actual synthezoid appearance and meet his son--or rather his 1st son, as the second of two makes his presence known as well.

After both babies are born, the creepiness starts and is ratcheted up beyond the first two episodes. Dr. Nielsen leaves, and Vision asks if he's still going on his trip (he was just about to get in the car when Vision grabbed him). No, says the doctor. "Small towns are so hard to escape."

Outside, Herb from episode #2 and Agnes are talking. They start to warn Vision about Geraldine, and there's clearly something else they want to say, but neither one of them can get it out. Herb tries to say "we're all" something and can't finish the sentence. Meanwhile, inside admiring the twins, Wanda admits she's a twin and she had a brother, Pietro. She then starts singing to the babies in the Solokovian language. Geraldine makes a mistake; she asks Wanda, "He [meaning Pietro] was killed by Ultron, wasn't he?"

This sets all of Wanda's alarm bells off. Not only Geraldine's question, but the fact that she notices Geraldine wearing a necklace with the upside down cross symbol. She demands Geraldine explain herself, and when Geraldine continues to dodge the question, insists she leave. By the time Vision returns from talking to Herb and Agnes, Geraldine is gone. He asks where she went, and Wanda says "she had to rush home."

But as we see, that's not quite what happened. Geraldine is suddenly shown flying through the air through a shimmer that looks like a force field (and this scene is shot in modern screen widths, instead of the compressed early TV ratio of the previous episodes) and lands on the ground. A helicopter hovers in the sky, modern-looking SUVs surround her, and the screen fades to black to the strains of "Daydream Believer."

So. There's quite a mystery here to unwind, whether it's all happening in Wanda's mind or otherwise. But it can't all be in Wanda's mind or generated by her powers, because Geraldine knows what happened to her, and Herb and Agnes are trying to warn Vision of something. There are also "commercials" in each episode dropping further hints: Episode 1 is advertising the ToasterMate 2000 for Stark Industries; Episode 2 shows off a fancy watch by "Strucker"; and episode 3, the most pointed, touts "Hydra Soak" soap: "Escape to a world all your own, when you want to get away but you don't want to go anywhere." This show is unlike anything Marvel has ever done, and I'm down for it.

January 21, 2021

Magazine Roundup: Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 170

Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 170 Clarkesworld Magazine, Issue 170 by Neil Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another very cool cover. In fact, I think I'd buy a print of it if it was available. Story-wise, it had good overall quality, with one outstanding story. 

"The Land of Eternal Jackfruits," Rupsa Dey

This is a bit of a murder mystery, in a futuristic world of robots, here called "processors." It felt pretty slight, and neither the characters or the plot lingered after I read it. 

Grade: C


A poignant little story about a robot caregiver learning from its centenarian charge, and following its patient into death. 

Grade: B


The highlight of this issue, this is a terrific story about space pirates, running a ship powered by a captive star and laden with ghosts, past and future. 

Grade: A


A sad tale of clones and the past, and a family coming apart.

Grade: B

"Niuniu," Baoshu, translated by Andy Dudak

I didn't care for this much. This tale of parents grieving the loss of their daughter and ending up with a robot substitute just seemed overwrought and maudlin.

Grade: D

"The Murders of Jason Hartman," Brady Nelson and Jamie Wahls

This story is cleverly structured in the form of a transcribed interview with the questions missing...but the answers tell you all you need to know. 

Grade: B+


A postapocalyptic horror tale with a whiff of  The Matrix, with machines dragging off survivors to a "processor tower" where they become living circuits. It's told from the viewpoint (in second person, for those who don't like that POV) of the programmer who freed it in return for its providing him with an avatar of his dead love. This is a bleak downer of a story, and creepy as heck.

Grade: B- 


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January 17, 2021

Review: Legendborn

Legendborn Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a modern reworking of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, with a decidedly dark twist. The Knights are monster hunters, protecting humanity from demons who cross over from other dimensions. Each Knight (and also Morgaine) has Lines of descendants who wield that Knight's supernatural powers. There are also Regents, Scions, Vassals and Pages, and a whole complicated organization of Chapters, in America and across the world. The original Knights were magically bound by the original Merlin to the descendants of their Line, and in times of great need they return to the material plane and manifest in the designated Scion of their Line. The greatest need is the War of Camlann, when it is said Arthur himself will return....

This book deals with so many things: losing a parent, coping with your grief, and trying to find out who you are and your place in the world. It's set in the world of the Legendborn, the general term for those who belong to the Round Table. But our protagonist, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews, is an outsider who accidentally gets sucked into the Legendborn world...until she discovers it's not an accident at all. In her search to find out who her family is and what really happened to her mother, she discovers more than she ever bargained for. And as with a great many things in America, the answers are found in the past, in the history of this country's racism and chattel slavery.

This book is beautifully written, with a carefully constructed world and complex characters. I only have two minor knocks against it: the narrative takes place over the span of about three weeks, and there is a major case of insta-love between Bree and the future King, Nick Davis. There also seems to be an attempt to set up one of those dreaded, cliched love triangles with Bree and Nick's Kingsmage, Selwyn Kane. I wish that hadn't been included, because Sel is a fascinating character in his own right. But Bree learns to cope with her grief and accept her role, and the final plot twist, while turning the legend of King Arthur inside out, feels earned and inevitable, and very much something that could have only happened in this country.

This is an exciting, layered, multi-faceted world and story, and I'm definitely looking forward to the sequel.

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January 16, 2021

Magazine Roundup: Fireside Magazine, January 2021

 


The January issue of Fireside Magazine is half the size of previous issues, thanks to a kerfuffle last year involving an unfortunate choice of audio narrator. Due to this, the editorial staff was shaken up and the paperback quarterly edition of the magazine (which I subscribed to) was discontinued. That's too bad, as the paperback was a handsome publication, but I can understand their reasoning. 

So this issue only has two stories in it, one of which is lovely and one of which is....not.

"Mouth & Marsh, Silver & Song," by Wayfarer Ah Ola, falls in the former category, a lyrical tale of a leech monster who is also an oracle and a kingmaker. Princes come to visit her, slash open her flesh with silver weapons she cannot resist, and the mouths of her wounds pour forth songs and give them their crowns. She has no choice in this--until a princess comes to her marsh and asks the monster to make her a queen. 

The contrast is thus drawn, between the men who demand and take and the women who ask and give. The leech monster learns who has the greater worth, and so does the reader. 

(It's also odd that my ebook copy lists the author's name as Wayfarer Ah Ola, but the name is Sloane Leong on the website. I'm going with the one I received; if that's wrong, please let me know.)

Grade: A

“That Time I Found a Phone Booth Where I Can Talk to My (Dead) Dad," by Alisa Alering, starts out strong and kind of dribbles away to nothingness and nonsense in the end. The narrator goes for a walk and finds a Tardis-lite phone booth popping out of nowhere, with a ghost line straight to her dead father, gone for thirty-five years. The longer the protagonist talks to her father, the colder it gets in the booth and the more her recently diagnosed Raynaud's syndrome flares up. Her condition plays into the narrative, along with a huge murder of crows that turns the story into a horror tale at the end. Unfortunately, the sudden change of tone is ill-fitting and disjointed, and the abrupt ending even more so. 

Grade: C-



January 13, 2021

Review: Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America

Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 Well. This book is chillingly prescient, considering the horrifying display of mediocre white men we just witnessed at the US Capitol.

I've read a lot of this before, but here the concepts of white privilege, white male entitlement and toxic masculinity are presented in an easy to read and understand manner, with copious footnotes. What I found interesting is the way the author goes back into history to describe how the various white supremacist systems in this country were implemented, to show they are indeed "working as designed." She draws a direct line in the first chapter from the Native genocide of the 18oo's to Cliven Bundy's rebellion over grazing fees in 2015.

Present-day ranchers like the Bundys are living the Buffalo Bill fantasy of the West: white men, free to do what they please. Ravaging the environment, exploiting and erasing Native people, and pulling a gun on anyone who stands in their way. The idealized American cowboy has been woven through the fabric of American culture, and its impact is keenly felt. the Wild West stage shows morphed into Western movies that glorified the tough and noble white man against racist depictions of Native and Hispanic people. the story of the struggle and victory of white colonizers worked its way into school history books, both erasing the crimes committed against Native people and cementing an idea of American heroism that centered on white male power.

Chapter 4, "Fire the Women," documents how women were lured into the workplace to support the war effort in World War II, then promptly demoted and fired after the war to make room for the returning white soldiers. One of the more interesting chapters, chapter 7, "Go Fucking Play," discusses how "American football, a sport today known for the Black athletes who showcase their physical speed and strength every Sunday, was created to be played by wealthy white men." 

She also points out that the myth of white male supremacy is just as damaging to white men as everyone else:

But I think it's more than just the climb. It's the expectation that many white men have that they shouldn't have to climb, shouldn't have to struggle, as others do. It's the idea not only that they think they have less than others, but that they were supposed to have so much more. When you are denied the power, the success, or even the relationships that you think are your right, you either believe that you are broken or you believe that you have been stolen from. White men who think that they have been stolen from often take that anger out on others. White men who think they are broken take that anger out on themselves. There were 47,173 suicides in 2017. Of those, 70 percent were white men, and the rate of white male suicides is rising. Across the country, people are mourning the losses of sons, fathers, husbands and friends who have chosen this particularly devastating way out.

There is a great deal of work and healing that needs to be done in this nation, but it can't start without the plain and truthful naming of the problem. Books like this are a necessary first step in doing so. 


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January 11, 2021

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek Discovery Season 3 Ep 13, "That Hope is You, Part II"

 


This final episode of the season had a lot to do, which is why it was 61 minutes long. There were some slower scenes, and quite a lot of frantic pew pew action scenes. (I thought the editing was an interesting narrative choice, as the slower Su'Kal scenes were placed at the beginning and for the most part after each commercial break.) Nearly all the narrative guns placed upon the mantle throughout the season were fired, and though I have reservations about some of the final storyline choices--and one in particular--they make in-universe sense.  

However, the highlight was, for me, the scenes inside the Kelpien ship, with Saru (and Culber, to an extent) trying to talk the terrified child-in-an-adult's body Su'Kal into growing up a little, facing his fear, and turning off the holo program (although it was failing anyway). Those scenes were exquisitely acted by Doug Jones (Saru) and Bill Irwin (Su'Kal). We also see the origin of the Scream Heard Across the Galaxy, when Su'Kal's mother died in front of him. It was more than that, however; not only did his mother die, she was the last adult to die, and Su'Kal was now all alone on a cavernous ghost ship, surrounded by bodies. It was no wonder he screamed his head off. (We do get Culber's technobabbly explanation for this, that since Su'Kal was conceived on this planet, genetically he was tied to the abundant dilithium and its subspace properties. When he screamed, the sound vibrated through the subspace dilithium channels, causing the Burn, the destruction of hundreds of starships, and the deaths of millions of people. Saru assured Su'Kal it was not his fault and he could not have known, but I can easily see Su'Kal requiring therapy for years after all this. Oh yeah, and the circumstances of Su'Kal's conception apparently gave him immunity to the planet's radiation, as he survived it for 125 years.)

The other good thing about the Su'Kal sequences is the arrival of Adira--and Gray. Well, I would make that a qualified "good," since it makes no damn sense that Gray is suddenly holo'ed into corporeality. He is one of the previous hosts of Adira's Trill symbiont, which means the reason they can see him is because of said symbiont in their body, projecting his memories into Adira's consciousness. Gray isn't fully integrated and thus has a remaining slice of a separate consciousness, or something. Either way, it's all organic, so how in the hell could a ship's holo program, using holographic matter, even detect his existence, much less give him a body? Elsewhere, I made a snarky remark about Gray being a "Trill Force ghost," which is as plausible as anything else (or not). Nevertheless, what made that plot development touching is a) the appeal of both actors, Ian Alexander and Blu de Barrio; and b) Culber's instant acceptance and support of Gray, vowing to find a way for him to become corporeal again. 

Elsewhere, we have the pew pew action scenes, involving Michael Burnham's and the bridge crew's fight to wrest control of Discovery back from Osyraa. (It's too bad they reverted Osyraa back into a one-note villain again, after the interesting layers given her in the previous episode.) Tilly and the bridge crew's charge doesn't get very far, as Osyraa shuts down life support and starts venting oxygen from the ship's lower decks, threatening to slowly suffocate them. (Also, the poor little Disney Eve robots from Wall-E DOTS, into which the sphere data has downloaded, don't last too long. Which I guess I can understand, as they were spending a LOT of money for CGI for this episode.) Michael plants an idea in Tilly's head of using a "thermochemical bomb" on one of the warp nacelles, temporarily knocking it out of alignment and the ship out of warp. It falls to former deep-sea-diver Joanne Owosekun to complete the mission, as everyone else blacks out due to lack of oxygen. I was rather worried that Owo wasn't going to survive, and was preparing to grumble mightily on CBS' Twitter feed about it, but one of the remaining DOTS drags her to safety. 

Another pew pew action scene is on the far side of ridiculous, namely the fight between Michael, Zareh (a returnee from the second episode, "Far From Home,") and Booker, through the ship's turbolift network. This sequence, I'm sure, is where nearly all of this episode's CGI budget went, and I wish someone with authority had said, "Dial it back, folks." While the concept of the three of them fighting in and on the turbolifts, and in the turbolift shafts, is okay, the execution was ludicrous. Because, as it turns out, there aren't any turbolift shafts on Discovery--instead, there's huge open spaces through which the turbolift cars zoom, which seem to be bigger than the ship itself. It made me wonder if the ship's real name should be TarDis-covery, since obviously it's the forgotten child of Dr. Who. 

(Although those scenes did give us one glorious moment. Zareh had nearly beaten Booker, and as is the habit with hubristic villains who can't keep their mouths shut and kill their opponents, Zareh just had to get in one final dig. He insulted Booker's "fat cat" Grudge. This so enraged Booker that he rose up and dropkicked Zareh out of the turbolift car, and as Booker leaned out the door watching Zareh's body plummet into the endless cavern of Tardis-sy darkness, he screamed, "SHE'S....A.....QUEEN!" One hopes in the future Drudge won't be revealed to be a hidden felinoid queen, re: Gary Seven's black cat in "Assignment: Earth.")

At the end, after Osyraa is dead and Michael comes up with an idea to blast Discovery out of the bowels of the Viridium, we're treated to one final iffy special effects shot: the hoary old idea of ejecting the warp core. In this case, the concept makes a smidgen more sense than most, since Discovery does have another method of propulsion: the spore drive. (Which, ever-so-conveniently, Osyraa's pet scientist Aurelio--who threw in his lot with the Federation after Osyraa threatened him and his family--reveals that he thinks Book's previously established empathy with life forms will allow him to operate. This is okay, I guess, but a life or death situation with mere minutes to make something work is hardly the time to learn an entirely foreign system.) Unfortunately, the actual shot of the warp core ejection looks like a spinning tinkertoy top plummeting down another endless shaft, complete with the thing going off plumb and dragging down the sides. Really? 

(Although I do hope we see Aurelio next season, the actor's health permitting. It's great that as a wheelchair user, he was given this role.)

In the episode's final moments, Sonequa Martin-Green narrates a coda of sorts, evidently some time after the main events. It's there that the final plot twist I have the most reservations about is revealed, because Saru is shown to have taken a leave of absence to return Su'Kal to Kaminar. I can see Saru doing that; he is probably the only person Su'Kal trusts, and naturally the Federation would be extremely leery of letting Su'Kal anywhere near dilithium. But in the meantime Discovery still has to carry out her mission, delivering newly mined dilithium supplies to Federation and non-Federation worlds, and she needs a captain. 

And so, of course, Michael Burnham is promoted into the captain's chair. 

Now, in the real world, I can certainly understand the importance of a Black woman being given this responsibility. (Although to be technical, Captain Carol Freeman of the animated series Lower Decks beat Michael by a few months.) But in-universe, this really didn't set well with me. Saru was shaping up to be an excellent captain, and frankly, he is the show's most interesting character. I can only hope Saru is given another challenging position in Season 4--maybe an ambassadorship or command of a starbase? 

SEASON 3 OVERVIEW

This season was a definite improvement over the first two. Hurtling Discovery 930 years into the future is the best decision the powers-that-be could have made. It freed the show from the TOS prequel constraints and allowed it to chart its own path. I didn't like this finale quite as well as the previous episode, "There Is a Tide," but the ending does open up marvelous storytelling potential. I wouldn't grade this season an "A," but if the showrunners continue down this path, I expect they will get there. 

January 8, 2021

Review: Clarkesworld Magazine October 2020, #169

Clarkesworld Magazine, October 2020, #169 Clarkesworld Magazine, October 2020, #169 by Neil Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one's a keeper. There are some good stories in here.

"Callme and Mink," Brenda Cooper

An apparent post-apocalyptic future where a robot is raising and training puppies to give to humans, to help them survive. It's short, but thoughtful and layered. 

Grade: B+


I've noticed this author's name popping up more and more, as the author of quiet, sometimes sad, reflective stories that are really good. This is one of them. The protagonist, Dora, an older woman, is visiting the countryside after the death of her lover, taking an artificial skin to a farm run by an android caring for a group of sentient harvester robots. There are some compelling themes here, in the robots who love being told stories, who hold a funeral for one of their companions who is irretrievably broken in an accident, and the tragedy of their existence: "smart enough to ask questions about life, but unable to find any answers." 

Grade: A

"Wandering Rocks," Gregory Feeley

This is more on the hard-SF end of the spectrum, with a revolution of artificial intelligences on the moons of Neptune. I didn't think the characterization was very good in this one, and it wasn't really my thing.

Grade: C-

"You and Whose Army?" Greg Egan

This might have been my thing, if I understood the ending. I didn't, even after reading it several times. This tale of four neurally linked brothers who share each other's memories, and what happens when one brother tries to extricate himself from their shadow, unplug from the artificial quadruplet, and strike out on his own, only to fall in with an aging billionaire he allows to share his memories, and (so the other brothers think, as they kidnap him to try to save him) eventually his body as well...there seems to be a more compelling story buried somewhere in here, struggling to get out. And I'm sorry, but that ending just bumfuzzled me. 

Grade: D

"Last Wishes," D.A. Xiaolin Spires

This is an emotional, heartfelt tale of a daughter's tribute to her late mother, the final journey to deposit her mother's ashes, and the unlocking of her mother's final puzzle--an urn festooned with hidden holograms of the daughter. I liked it, but it also seemed to drag in the middle.

Grade: C

"All Living Creation," Xiu Xinyu, translated by Elizabeth Hanlon

A short, nasty science fiction/horror story of a brother hunting down his little sister, who left home, leaked her genes online, and ended up getting cloned the world over, used for all sorts of benevolent and not-so-benevolent purposes. The more you read it, the darker and more twisted this story gets, and you realize the true villain is the brother that hunts his sister down and banishes her to a submarine cruising the bottom of the ocean, imprisoning her against her will to "save" her, even as he unleashes a virus that will murder all her clones. 

Grade: B+

"Ashes Under Uricon," Adrastos Omissi

This is another post-apocalyptic robot story (the theme of this issue, it seems). Lottie is a care robot, wandering the earth after a final war when war robots cause the extinction of the human race--and mindlessly fight on long afterwards, shooting anything (large animals, other robots) that moves. This is a sad, melancholy little tale.

Grade: B+

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January 5, 2021

Heelwork To Music - Freestyle International Winner at Crufts 2020



Well, holy shit. I had no idea such a thing existed as competitive dog dancing, or "heelwork to music." Watch this. It's incredible. 

January 3, 2021

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek Discovery Season 3 Ep 12, "There Is a Tide"

 


This title sounded like a snippet from a poem, so I searched for it. Of course, I came up with a quote from the Bard, from "Julius Caesar." William Shakespeare has a quote for everything.

“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”

In this episode, that could apply to Osyraa, who is "taking the gamble of her life" with the Federation; to Michael Burnham, who is gambling she will be able to fight her way through Discovery, Die Hard-style, to reach Stamets; to the bridge crew, led by Tilly, who are gambling they can take back the ship (and in the show's last scene, get a boost from an unexpected source); and, far back in the Verubin Nebula, to Saru, Culber and Adira, who are gambling that the Discovery can return to them before they die. (They aren't shown, which is just as well; this episode has a lot going on, and it almost felt like it was happening in real time. We'll check back with the nebula next week for the season finale, I'm sure.)

This episode was directed by Jonathan Frakes, and he did a bang-up job with it. There are two contrasting storylines: the efforts of Michael and the bridge crew to escape Osyraa's Regulators and take back the ship, and the negotiation scenes between Osyraa and Admiral Vance. Both storylines are expertly shot and edited, and the tension in the latter is just as high as the former. As a character, Osyraa is given the layers and nuance she previously lacked; she is a murderous despot, as was previously shown, but she is also realistic and pragmatic. She knows that with the Emerald Chain's dilithium running out, her empire is going to fall apart. Her proposal for the Chain and the Federation to join forces isn't as outlandish as it seems, and she makes substantial concessions, as Vance notes after he reads her manifesto. Unfortunately, the one additional thing he asks--that she be tried for the crimes she committed while leading the Chain--is the one thing she cannot give him. That hubris is going to be her downfall. 

Michael and Booker admit they love each other, just before he sends her through Discovery to wreak havoc with Osyraa's forces (hopefully, this will not mean he dies in the season finale, because we do know the showrunners love to torment their star); and Tilly starts to rise to the occasion, leading the efforts of the bridge crew to break out of where they are being held and fight their way to the bridge. The "unexpected source" I mentioned earlier is the sphere data, which downloaded itself into the cute little repair bots (called DOTS-23, although they look suspiciously like Eve from Wall-E). Three of the DOTS meet the bridge crew in the final scene, where they are gathering weapons to prepare for their assault. The lead DOT says, "I am at your service. Shall we take back the ship?" (However, there needs to be rather more than three of them, I think....)

We're also introduced to a new character, the scientist Aurellio who is working for Osyraa, trying to figure out how the spore drive works. As noted elsewhere, the actor, Kenneth Mitchell, has made several appearances on various Star Trek shows, including voice work for Lower Decks. He was diagnosed with ALS two years ago. But the production team has continued to employ him, giving him a role here that mirrors his wheelchair use (although the futuristic chair simply floats). As Aurellio explains to Stamets, Osyraa gave him treatment, a chance and a life, and he feels loyal to her (but we see in the final minutes of the episode that loyalty starting to crumble, especially after Osyraa murders the Andorian Ryn). But as Stamets points out, while Osyraa may be more than she appears to be, she is also exactly who she appears to be--a ruthless tyrant. 

Speaking of Stamets, his character is put through the wringer, and Anthony Rapp knocks it out of the park in his scenes. After Michael makes it to the spore drive room and frees him, he begs her to let him take Discovery back to the Verubin Nebula right there and then to free Culber and Saru. (And Adira, which he didn't know until Michael told him. Earlier, while he was talking to Aurellio, Stamets explicitly claims Adira as his daughter.) He cries, "My whole life in in that nebula!" But Michael can't do it. She knocks him out, surrounds him in an emergency force field--all the while he's throwing guilt at her, saying they only came to the future with her so she wouldn't be alone--and sends him out of the ship to be caught in a Federation tractor beam. 

So now the pieces are in place for a helluva finale. I just hope the season finale carries on the quality of this episode. I had thought episode 4, "Forget Me Not," was the season's best, but this one may have just edged past it. 


December 30, 2020

Review: The Nemesis

The Nemesis The Nemesis by S.J. Kincaid
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the final book of the Diabolic trilogy, after a sizable gap between the second and third books (and the second book ending on a cliffhanger). It was long enough that I had to reread my reviews of books #1 and #2 to remind myself of the major plot points. This is a twisty, far-future tale of greed and deception and megalomania, in the setting of a galactic Empire run by a treacherous, murderous family. In this book's afterward, the author mentions that this was inspired by the book and miniseries I, Claudius. I can't comment on that as I've never read the book or watched the TV show, but I did note in my reviews of the previous Diabolic books that these are some of the most ruthless, unlikable, compelling characters you'll ever meet. 

However, I didn't like this book as much as the other two. The main reason for this is what seems to be plot twists just for the sake of plot twists, not because they make sense in the context of the overall story. I also think that because of the plot doubling and tripling back on itself, the characterization suffers as a result. Specifically, the title character and our protagonist and narrator, Nemesis, the genetically engineered killing machine and former Empress, has her motivations and emotions whipsaw back and forth like a teeter-totter, as she alternately hates and loves her husband, the tyrannical Emperor Tyrus Domitrian. Several times over the course of this book, she wavers between saving him and killing him. I also didn't care for the fact that Tyrus is revealed to have set in motion an exceptionally deep-layered plot of intrigue upon intrigue, designed to bring down the Empire from within--but said plot requires him to manipulate Nemesis into thinking he is her enemy, and he never tells her what he is doing. All because her public hatred of him, and her fight against him which will lead the subjects of the Empire to rise up and overthrow Tyrus as the last Emperor, wouldn't be believable if she knew the truth.

I'm sorry, but that is bullshit. It's the mark of an arrogant, manipulative asshole who doesn't trust the people who love him and won't allow them to make their own choices. Nemesis finally breaks through, discovers the full extent of Tyrus' plans and decides to throw in her lot with him, but that left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. Tyrus' deep-laid plan works in the end, and he and Nemesis ride off into the galaxy together (2,500 years of time dilation later, after she rescues him from the black hole he has been cast into), but that's why I didn't like this book as well as the first two. The plot twists needed to be pared back and some honesty injected into the narrative. But if you like court intrigue and deliciously nasty characters, this is definitely your kind of book. 

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