All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders / *****

512les0yullBefore I write this review, I want to tell you about something I hate, and something I love. (Don’t worry. This is relevant, I promise.)

  • One Thing I Hate: When I was a kid, I hated going to the bookstore and seeing one big section labeled “Science-Fiction and Fantasy.” These were wildly different genres to me (an admitted nerd), and I found it baffling that we shoved them together, considering they had little, if anything, in common, apart from perhaps the perceived audience.
  • One Thing I Love: The more I read, the more I love books that refuse to abide by genre boundaries, and the more in awe of them I am. Writing in a single genre is hard enough, but mixing your genres can be doubly hard, to say nothing of the risk you take in alienating an audience that doesn’t want unexpected shifts. But for me, there’s something exhilarating about books that defy expectations and easy categorization, because to me, that’s what life does.

So, what does all these have to do with All the Birds in the Sky, the debut novel from Charlie Jane Anders? Well, Anders’ novel does that thing I love, and more than that, it would be one of the only books I know that easily would fit in that strange hybrid genre bookstores created, because it’s that rare book that mixes science-fiction and fantasy elements seamlessly, interweaving the two and playing them against each other in rich and satisfying ways. And if that’s not enough for you, it’s a coming of age story, a quiet romance, a YA novel, a dystopian/post-apocalyptic tale, and more, all while completely working in a way you wouldn’t expect from something that ambitious.

So what is this book about? It’s best to go in relatively cold, so I won’t go too much into detail, beyond telling you that the book’s early pages focus on the friendship between Laurence and Patricia, two kids who’d be comfortably labeled as “outcasts” by most of their peers. Both come from dysfunctional homes; both are more talented than they’d first appear; both enjoy the company of the other, who seem to accept them for who they are. But what we know, and Laurence and Patricia don’t come to understand immediately, is that they come from two different worlds. Because while it’s evident from the early going that Laurence is a techno-geek, one who makes two-second time machines and artificial intelligences, Patricia’s talents seem to be more fantastic and supernatural – indeed, they seem to be drawn from the world of witchcraft.

That conflict – between science and magic – makes for fertile ground, and All the Birds in the Sky embraces it, letting that schism and divide drive the novel as it develops in wild an unexpected directions. And every time you think you have a handle on it, it slides away from you and evolves. Oh, you think it’s a YA tale about two friends coming to terms with their destiny? No, that’s only the early going. Oh, it’s something in the vein of The Magicians, with the underground world of magic and how we connect to the real world and ourselves? Nope, it’s not that either, nor is it an easy tale about how science can save the world from our worst impulses. Indeed, one of the great joys of All the Birds is seeing how the book constantly defies expectations, evolving and shifting while remaining true to its characters and its themes, all throughout.

Enough can’t be said about Anders’ craft, which doesn’t just create a lushly imagined and crafted world, but populates it with memorable characters down to the smallest supporting role. More than that, there’s her wonderful command of tone, which can slide from comic hilarity (a casual reveal and apparent side story in the early going about a man at the mall is laugh out loud funny and absurd) to heartbreaking, from wondrous to nightmarish – but every one has the same command of craft and ability. And more than that, there’s the amazing story, which spans years and half the planet, and touches on man’s responsibility to the planet, science ethics, redemption, and more, all while never losing sight of these two characters and their bond. It’s rich, imaginative, wild, and more than anything else, it’s incredibly humane and beautiful in ways that just made me smile. And that, I think, is the best thing about it – the top of a very long list of great things. (Well, that and the fact that this is Anders’ first novel, which hopefully presages a long career to come.)


The Lathe of Heaven, by Ursula K. Le Guin / *****

lathe-of-heavenEven before her recent passing, I’ve known that my lack of experience with the works of Ursula K. Le Guin was a shortcoming I needed to rectify. The only book of hers I’ve read was The Dispossessed, a book I admired a lot while ultimately finding a bit dry and didactic. (It’s also a book I plan on revisiting soon, ideally after reading some more Le Guin and now that I know what to expect, to see if I feel differently about it.) And, as authors paid tribute to the legendary author in the wake of her passing, one novel that I saw mentioned again and again was The Lathe of Heaven, which I knew nothing about.

And, man, am I glad I checked it out. Often viewed as Le Guin’s tribute to the works of Philip K. Dick, The Lathe of Heaven undeniably feels a lot like a Dick novel, with a surreal hook used to explore philosophical questions about reality and who we really are. But as you’d expect from Le Guin, there’s no shortage of more social questions raised here, from the nature of peace to the dangers of global warming, all done within a great narrative that twists and turns underneath you.

The hook is simple enough: there’s a man named George Orr (yes, the half allusion is probably intentional) who is scared to dream, because his dreams become real. But what makes this hard to prove is that his dreams don’t just create reality; they rewrite it, making whatever he dreams not only true, but making it always have been true, so that no one remembers the change but him. That’s true until George goes to court-mandated therapy, where his therapist seems to be aware of the change – and his ability to possibly control George’s ability.

Like she did in The Dispossessed, Le Guin explores any number of ideas about utopias, the role of the individual in society, the question of the greater good, and her concerns about utilitarianism. At what point should the individual give way for society? Where is the cutoff between acceptable sacrifice for the greater good and too much? And what is the responsibility of one person to give it all for the world? But whereas The Dispossessed engaged with these ideas in the forms of detailed discussions, The Lathe of Heaven lets them remain more subtextual, unfolding as a battle of wills between George, his therapist, and a lawyer George brings in to help him. More than that, The Lathe of Heaven unfolds as a bizarre thriller of sorts, with reality constantly bending and shifting underneath us, and Le Guin able to explore the ramifications of so many changes, and what it would take to fix some of the problems in our world.

It all adds up to a great book, one that I really enjoyed. And if it’s a bit derivative of PKD, well, that’s okay, because Le Guin makes it her own, following the political and social ramifications of her conceit, not just the philosophical ones. It’s a book I really enjoyed and absolutely couldn’t put down, and has me eager to dive into more of an author I don’t feel like I ever properly appreciated in her lifetime.


Rustkiller, by Dean F. Wilson / **** ½

34932417I get a lot of requests to review books by various authors, but Dean F. Wilson is one of those that I’m most excited to hear from – when I get a Wilson book, I know I’m going to get solid writing, rich worldbuilding, interesting characters, and just a crackling good story. And that all goes doubly for Wilson’s recent Coilhunter Chronicles series, which takes the steampunk trappings of his Great Iron War series and brings them into the Western genre, with absolutely fantastic results. And, as I’d hoped, Rustkiller (the second book in this series, after introducing the character in The Great Iron War and giving him his own book with Coilhunter) is great – even better than the first, and a just plain great read on every level.

Mind you, it helps that the Coilhunter Chronicles have such a great protagonist – a bounty hunter named Nox, known as the titular “Coilhunter” (“coils” being the currency of Wilson’s post-apocalyptic world). The Coilhunter is a ruthless, take-no-prisoners sort of guy – think a combination of Batman and John Wick, and you might end up with the character Wilson’s created, complete with complex motivations and a yearning for justice that takes its form in lethal bullets and captures.

In other words, you’ve already got a great antihero. And you’ve already got a great world – the unsettled Western frontiers of a war-torn landscape, a place where people go because they’re opting out of a violent world torn apart by war and strife. All you need is a good story, and as usual, Wilson delivers. The plotting here starts out simple enough, with the Coilhunter encountering a young pair of siblings on their own, and trying to help them. Things spiral out from there, and Wilson turns his focus to the Clockwork Commune, a sort of junkyard populated by wound-up, self-running machines which rip apart anything that comes into their realm, all in the hopes of finding some machinery for their self-replicating world.

The result is a ton of fun; Wilson uses his short chapter lengths perfectly, constantly giving you the need to read “just one more” at the end of every one, pulling you along in a cavalcade of tension, suspense, and great action. As usual, the writing is fantastic, evoking that Western drawl despite all of its steampunk and science-fiction trappings, but best of all is the way that Wilson brings his characters to life, as ever. That goes most for Nox, whose fatalistic worldview is tempered by his desire to help those in need, but it’s equally valid in the case of the young siblings, whose motivations, drives, and needs don’t feel like stock “children in peril,” but something more interesting, all the way up to a brutal choice they’re forced to make.

These books, more than anything else, are fun – they’re exciting, inventive, well-written, and just plain great. They’re pulpy but satisfying, action-driven but character-rich, and enjoyable enough that you’ll rocket through them. And they’re all standalone stories, giving you a great sample of Wilson’s work in the hopes you’ll come back for more. And you most definitely should.


Star Wars: The Last Jedi / *****

the-last-jedi-theatrical-blogI should say, at the outset of this review, that while I’ve always enjoyed Star Wars films, I’ve never considered myself a “huge” fan. Maybe that’s because I’ve always measured myself against obsessive fans of the series who’ve consumed the side novels, who’ve argued canon, and so forth, but for me, Star Wars was something I enjoyed, but never truly loved. Going back and watching them with my son over the past few years has been a treat, one that’s reminded me of how good the originals can be (at least, the first two; I have far more mixed feeling about Return of the Jedi) as films, but still, it was something fun for me, little more. And The Force Awakens last year was much the same – I had a blast watching it, and I deeply loved getting to see a new Star Wars movie with my son…but in the end, it was disposable pulp fun – something I am always up for, but never really stuck with me.

All of which is to say, I never felt that any of the Star Wars films were “great” as films. Yes, they were fun, and imaginative, and could be a blast, and were undeniably iconic, but there was never any meat to them, nothing to hold on to. Which, again, is fine – you don’t need every movie to be “about something” – but nonetheless, always left me enjoying them and little more.

Until now. Because now, we have The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson’s bold, striking, visually astonishing entry in the series which manages to be the best of both worlds: it’s exciting and thoughtful, pulpy and philosophical, brisk and smart, all while being a fantastic time at the movies.

It doesn’t hurt that this may be the first time the series has been handed to a truly great director who’s been given the freedom to actually do his job. Lucas is…well, he’s Lucas, with all the good and bad that comes with that; Kershner did his job, but brought little else to the table; and even Abrams didn’t do all that much original. But Johnson, for the first time, brings cinematic craft to the series in astonishing ways, from inventive filming (there’s an homage to an iconic shot from the silent film Wings that made me laugh with joy) to breathtaking use of color (the two standouts: Snoke’s blood-red chamber and the salt-covered, red-sanded planet of the climax). It’s the first time that it feels like someone set out to be ambitious and make a movie that felt like a movie, and wasn’t content to just live in the shadows of its predecessors.

More than that, The Last Jedi wants to be about something. It’s a film about how we grapple with our pasts – how we can define ourselves against them, how we struggle to free ourselves from their shadows, and whether or not we should. “Let the past die,” one of the film’s villains says. “Kill it, if you have to.”

That’s no small thing for a film to say, especially when that film is a long awaited sequel to one of the most iconic films of all time – and one that will be (and already is being) judged by how it holds up against that film. How do we define ourselves against the shadows of the past, especially when those shadows are so large? And how will this film find a place for itself against the looming, dominant shadow of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back?

The Last Jedi struggles with that, as well as questions of self-determination, hope in the face of despair, destiny, and so much more. And in the process, yes, it stands out in the Star Wars canon as the first film that defiantly, firmly refuses to play it safe, going in unexpected directions at every turn, giving us answers that defy expectations, and forging its own path instead of sticking with anything that the series has done before. In doing so, it’s alienated a lot of hardcore fans, who, despite complaining that The Force Awakens was little more than A New Hope redux, are horrified that they have a film that diversifies its cast, gives power to women, rejects the patterns and formulas established by the first films, and defiantly forges a way forward that leaves us completely unsure as to what happens next.

For some, that has led to anger and rejection of the film. But for me, it’s led to the first time I’ve truly loved a Star Wars film. The Last Jedi is pure blockbuster, make no mistake; the action sequences are breathtaking and spectacular, the plotting complex, the characters wonderful, and the humor expertly, wonderfully deployed. (You can count me on Team Porgs Rule, for what it’s worth.) But it’s also a film that grapples with its own purpose, a film that’s about hope and rebellion and what it means to let go. It’s nuanced and thoughtful, exciting and unpredictable, funny and well-performed (I haven’t even gotten to get into how Mark Hamill’s performance is the most fascinating, compelling version of Luke that we’ve ever gotten, nor how Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren evolves here from the moody Darth Vader clone of TFA into a truly rich, tragic villain), and just plain exhilarating. It’s a reminder that just because something is a big-budget action blockbuster, that doesn’t mean it has to be thoughtless. It’s a lesson I hope that more studios can learn, because if all big Hollywood studio hits were this good, we’d be in a great golden age.


Standard Hollywood Depravity, by Adam Christopher / **** ½

31216087Last year, I picked up Adam Christopher’s Made to Kill on a whim, and was delighted I’d done so; marrying the hard-boiled PI stories of Raymond Chandler with science-fiction trappings, Made to Kill was a treat, telling an old-fashioned story in a wholly unique and interesting way. Its protagonist, Ray Electromatic, was the last robot left working after a brief boom in the industry, and now, he was left investigating cases – oh, and murdering for hire, too. It was a great hook for a pulpy tale, and if Made to Kill never really moved beyond its pulpy roots, that’s fine; it was enough fun that it more than justified its existence and then some.

Now comes Standard Hollywood Depravity, a follow-up novella to Made to Kill that finds Ray being brought in for the killing of a young go-go dancer, only to find the club full of very dangerous made men – a situation that makes his life far more complicated, and the job far more complicated. And making things worse is the way that Ray is no longer content to just follow orders and his programming; no, Ray is getting curious about things, and questioning the situations he finds himself in, and feeling a little more reluctant about killing without reason.

In pretty much every way, Standard Hollywood Depravity is an improvement on Made to Kill; the story is more complex and interesting, Ray more complicated as a hero, the writing sharper. But best of all, Christopher seems to have eased into his world more comfortably, digging around in the weird world that he’s been shaping. What’s it like to be a huge robot and not have people surprised to see you? What happens when you’re becoming aware, as a programmed creation, that your coding might be antithetical to your rapidly growing consciousness? Depravity deals with all of this and more, and does so in a tighter narrative – all the more impressive.

There are still a few issues, mind you; it feels like Christopher elides out a pretty significant scene towards the end of the book, but not in a way that would lead to interesting ambiguity; it just feels incomplete and off-balance in a way, and makes it feel like the book gets rushed right at the very end. And that’s a bit of a disappointment, considering how good the rest of it is. But in pretty much every other way, this one is a knockout, and has me even more excited to check out the next entry in the series.

(Side note: Standard Hollywood Depravity also features a short story entitled “Brisk Money,” which serves as a bit of a prequel to the series. “Brisk Money” is a great story; that being said, the story relies so much on Ray not having information about his life that we already have that it doesn’t always entirely work, especially since the story never really makes it clear when it takes place. In other words, it took me most of the story to realize that this was a prequel that takes place before Made to Kill, and sets up the series to come. There’s still a pretty fascinating detail included here, and it’s a good story; it just feels like it would work better if it was clearer when in the series it took place.)


Blade Runner 2049 / *****

blade-runner-2049-posterIt’s been almost a year since I last saw the original Blade Runner (well, the “Final Cut” of the movie, anyway); as a result, I don’t know that I need to spend an inordinate amount of time describing my feelings on the film when you can just read them for yourself. Here’s the simple version: I think the original Blade Runner is an incredible accomplishment; it’s a film that created a world unlike anything else in cinema, and while I have some issues with the film’s plotting (or lack thereof), there’s little denying the way its world lingers with the viewer long after you’ve finished. It’s also a film that I’ve never felt earned its philosophical conversations at times; while the film deals with interesting ideas, it’s never as engaged with them as I wish it was.

All of which brings me to Blade Runner 2049, helmed by Denis Villeneuve (and shot by Roger Deakins), starring Ryan Gosling, set thirty years after the original, and following up on the original story in ways both direct and indirect. Once again, we follow a “Blade Runner” (the film’s term for an LAPD officer tasked with “retiring” rogue androids that are attempting to blend in with “normal” humans), this time an officer named K., as he’s tracking down some remaining Nexus units. Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t follow in the plotting footsteps of the original for long, though; not long into the film, K. makes a discovery that sets him on the path for a far stranger, more complicated mystery, one that gets right to the heart of the philosophical questions so often raised by the original film.


That’s about all of the plot that should be known about Blade Runner 2049 for a new viewer; suffice to say, the film’s plotting is more interesting and more complex than the original film, with more to discuss. And yet, for all of that, Blade Runner 2049 in no way compromises on the moodiness, pacing, and stillness of the original film, using every minute of its lengthy running time to immerse viewers in this saturated, gleaming future. There’s little chance that longtime fans are going to argue that Villeneuve has “betrayed” the original film here; 2049 is of a piece with its predecessor, spending just as much time luxuriating in its scenery and the silence of its lead, and mainstream success be damned.

What’s incredible, then, is that in some ways, Blade Runner 2049 might be even better than the original film, fixing my issues with it and somehow improving on the one thing that seemed unbeatable about the original: the visuals. As helmed by Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049 isn’t just the best-looking film of the year; it’s got to be high in the ranking for most beautiful, astonishing films in recent memory, delivering shot after shot that left my jaw hanging open and nearly in tears. From brilliant framing to incredible shadows to stunning use of colors, Deakins turns in the best work he’s ever done – and when you look at his credits, that’s no small feat. Words genuinely can’t do justice to the look and feel of Blade Runner 2049; suffice to say, if you’re interested in seeing it, and don’t see it on the biggest screen you possibly can, you will be kicking yourself for years to come. (Myself, I paid for an IMAX ticket, and was immediately glad I did within two shots; it only got better from there.) Mixing film-noir shadows with neon-drenched skyscapes with desolate waste lands, Deakins turns every frame of Blade Runner 2049 into a work of art that somehow equals the original.


So, the visuals measure up – welcome news indeed. But what about the film itself? How does the content stack up to a film whose simplicity invited any number of readings? How can Villeneuve grapple with some of the biggest questions of the original – such as whether Deckard is a replicant or not – without ruining the mystery? And can the film manage to not simply retread the plot of its predecessor?

Miraculously, 2049 manages to succeed on every one of those fronts and then some. The thirty years (both in-story and in the real world) since the previous film has only led to deeper, more unsettling questions about the gap between what’s “real” and what’s synthetic, and 2049 deals with these questions more head-on than Scott’s original film, with a plot that drags the film’s subtext into the light, forcing us to grapple with it whether we like it or not. It’s aided by Gosling’s outstanding performance; without getting into too much information, Gosling has a difficult role to pull off, but he does it superbly, letting K. convey so much of his internal monologue with a bare minimum of movement or expression. But he engages deeply with the material, grappling with the philosophical debates of the film in a way that Harrison Ford’s no-nonsense Deckard rarely did.


Which brings us, of course, to Ford, who appears in the film as Deckard, older and still alive. Where he’s been – and why he’s in 2049 – I leave for the viewer to discover. What’s worth discussing is how strong he is in the role, giving us a looser, more vulnerable Deckard who’s not the man he once was. That makes sense, given the nature of the story, but it’s a joy to see Ford reminding you once again that he can be fantastic in films when he’s interested and committed to a role, as opposed to the coasting he’s done in so many recent years. More than that, he makes a superb counterpart to Gosling, as we see what this job can do to those who deal in death for a living.

But as rich as the plot is, as good as the performances are, and as incredible as it looks, none of it would matter if Blade Runner 2049 wasn’t as engaging and rich as it is. In many ways, it’s more loyal to the spirit of author Philip K. Dick than the original was; it’s more thoughtful and complex in its storytelling, yes, but it’s also more interested in dealing with questions of consciousness, of reality, of what it means to truly be “alive” – and how we react when those limits are questioned and overturned. That’s heady stuff, and it’s to the film’s credit that it does all of that while still giving us a gripping – if thoughtful and dreamlike – story. In short, it’s everything a sequel to a beloved cult film should be – faithful to the spirit of the original, while standing on its own and expanding on the ideas of its predecessor in interesting, unexpected ways. It’s brilliant hard science-fiction, astonishing filmmaking, and all in all, an incredible achievement – one of the year’s best films.


Pump Six and Other Stories, by Paolo Bacigalupi / *****

pumpsixandotherstories-paolobacigalupiOne of my favorite little things about picking up a science fiction short story collection by an author I’ve never read is figuring out what kind of sci-fi I’m getting into. Is this going to be the hard, science-focused work of an Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Charles Wilson? The softer, more adventurous style of something like Star Wars or Dean Wilson’s Coilhunter? The darker, slightly satirical cyberpunk worlds of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson? Am I getting steampunk or post-apocalyptic, philosophical or scientific, satirical or exciting? Or, best of all, will I get some weird blend of all of them?

In many ways, that last one is what I got with Pump Six and Other Stories, my first exposure to the work of author Paolo Bacigalupi. There’s no small amount of cyberpunk to this world; in most of these stories, there’s a sense of a world ruled by corporations and technology, one in which the world and society have changed as a result of the two blending together. From the living organic skyscrapers of ”Pocketful of Dharma” to the bioengineered crops of “The Calorie Man,” from the genetic supermen of “The People of Sand and Slag” to the human art projects represented by the title of “The Fluted Girls,” Bacigalupi is fascinated by the directions that technology is taking us, and where it could go if it’s unchecked by humanity or morality.

And really, that’s more where Bacigalupi’s voice comes through. For all of his fantastical (and often nightmarish) visions, Pump Six is ultimately a series of stories about situations in which humans have allowed their morals to be subjugated by the world around them – a theme that makes for a bleak set of stories indeed. Clans grapple with legacies of violence and xenophobia, and a priest is forced to think about what must be done to end it. A man murders his wife and finds that the world moves on just as merrily as it did before. The last thinking man in a city realizes that the world around him has no interest in knowledge, work, or survival, and no one minds. People are treated like commodities, societies are left to starve in the name of corporate profit, genetic engineering makes monsters in the name of progress – but whatever the situation, the world seems to move on without a single worry.

That all makes Pump Six sound like a more overwhelming and crushing experience than it really is. No, this isn’t exactly a collection of rainbows and kittens, but focusing on the bleak themes doesn’t do justice to the sheer life and imagination on display in these stories. Within a narrow window of pages, Bacigalupi doesn’t just manage to tell a story; he creates complex ecosystems, full societies and worlds with their own history and sense of progress. And his characters get no less care, with Bacigalupi bringing them all to life with the careful sketching and outlining of an artist. Look no further than the tragic life of “The Yellow Card Man,” a man struggling to survive a world that he was once on top of, and constantly battling against the indignities and cruelties that fate has dropped on him. What could easily be a portrait of simple misery becomes more compelling and tragic in his hands, becoming as much a story about how this all happened as it this man’s life.

No, you’ll never mistake Bacigalupi for an optimist. But you’ll also realize within a page that you’re in the hands of a master, a man with ambitious, fascinating visions not just about technology, but about people and their relationships with the world around them. More than that, he brings sharp craft, careful prose, and great storytelling to bear. It all makes for a phenomenal collection, and one well worth reading. Just don’t expect a happy ride in the process.