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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Reincarnation Blues, by Michael Poore / *****

51hmlljnwil-_sx327_bo1204203200_A good portion of the books I read are review copies, and while I’ve come to enjoy the chaos and unpredictability of reading books where I have zero expectations, there are definitely times where I’ve considered giving it up. (Why, yes, these times often correspond with long streaks of bad books – how did you know?) All of which goes to say, the joy of reviewing is that sometimes you get a book like Reincarnation Blues that can completely blindside you, coming out of nowhere and blowing you away with its imagination, humor, style, and richness.

Trying to describe Reincarnation Blues is a bit of a rough task; the best I can do is to say that it combines the millennia-spanning reincarnated souls of Cloud Atlas with the untraditional but rich love story of The Time Traveler’s Wife, with a rich sprinkling of humor that’s oh so welcome. But even that description doesn’t really do the book justice – it doesn’t convey the richness of the storytelling, the quiet silliness, and most of all, the pure warmth of the whole experience.

Reincarnation Blues is the story of a soul named Milo, who’s among the oldest souls in the universe – he’s been reincarnated nearly 10,000 times. That’s given Milo an incredible amount of experience and learning, with lives lived in the ancient past, the distant future, and everywhere in between. But Milo’s favorite parts of existence are the parts in between his lives, where he gets the chance to reunite with the love of his “life”: Suzie…also known as Death. And once you add to that the impending threat of oblivion – because any soul that hasn’t achieved enlightenment by incarnation #10,000 doesn’t get another chance – and there’s a lot of pressure on Milo to figure some things out.

And yet, Reincarnation Blues never feels like a high pressure book. Yes, there’s this deadline looming, and yes, there’s this complicated idea of having a romance with the incarnation of Death, but Reincarnation Blues remains focused, both in plot and thematic terms, on the nature of the human experience – on learning to be kind, on listening to other people, on trying to accept the universe for what it is. It’s a book that’s never really about all of Milo’s lives, despite the way it weaves in and out all of them, giving us scenes of combat, of peace, of future science, of primitive tribes, and every possible combination of all of those. It’s about what Milo did and learned in those lives, and the experiences that shaped him into the person he is.

And yet, there’s no denying that Poore’s incredible imagination gives the book a life that’s undeniable, and maybe all the more effective for how he backgrounds it throughout. More than that, the way he weaves all of Milo’s lives into one complex history – with actions in one life being referenced in another – give the sense of a complex mythology behind the book, a carefully planned out reality that we only get glimpses of. Add to that his quietly funny, sometimes silly writing style, and you have a book that succeeds in no small part to the authorial craft on display in every page.

But more than the imagination, more than the humor, what really made Reincarnation Blues work for me was the warmth of the whole novel. This is a book where the stakes revolve around finding a successful relationship and achieving some sort of internal peace and calm with the universe. And to that end, for all of the drama, for all of the stakes in each individual life that Milo leads, the book is more about connecting to other people, about learning the importance of how we relate to each other and the legacies we leave behind. That’s a great message to receive, but also a rich one, one that’s so welcome in days where we feel constantly pushed against each other. And it’s the thing that really sold me on this book – that, and the great writing, and the rich imagination, and the wonderful characters, and the great humor…well, maybe I just loved all of it, and loved it so much.

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Monsters of Venus, by Martin Berman-Gorvine / ***

513gh0jx4ul-_sy344_bo1204203200_Monsters of Venus boasts a pretty great premise – it’s a science fiction tale set on Venus, but one created from the mind of a Polish Jew alive during the rise of the Nazi party. Desperate to escape, her pulp tales took on a life of their own, and she ultimately escaped into the world she had created, along with a couple of other girls – and she can still make changes to this world by writing them on her typewriter and having others read it. But now, others have found their way into this universe, and they have more malicious intentions – and typewriters of their own.

That’s a really cool idea for a book, and at its best moments, Monsters of Venus becomes this wonderful piece of metafiction, with characters literally writing their way out of their predicaments. Mind you, it’s worth noting that Monsters of Venus is actually a follow-up to an earlier book entitled Seven Against Mars, which I hadn’t read, nor did I realize going in; the learning curve here is a bit rocky, although you’ll get the hang of everything eventually. It’s just that Berman-Gorvine doesn’t exactly lay out his premise or things that have already happened in any sort of clear, easy way for a new reader.

Unfortunately, that’s also the case for much of Monsters of Venus, which feels constantly jumbled and unclear, with characters bleeding into each other, overwrought accents, and messy action scenes that left me trying to figure out what was going on. None of which is to say that the big picture of Monsters of Venus isn’t a lot of fun – on the macro level, there’s a neat story here, and a lot of cool ideas. But the execution is less effective, with me often confused as to who was where, why certain actions were taken, or what people’s goals were. Add into that a number of literary allusions that feel fun but ultimately distract from the story (I’m still not quite sure what the point of all the Hamlet allusions is, or what they were supposed to mean; while they end up aligning with a couple of characters, the question of what it matters beyond being cute is unclear), and the result is a great idea, poorly executed.

That seems to be Berman-Gorvine’s M.O., though – I said similar things about his Heroes of Earth, which had great ideas but once again felt overstuffed and cluttered. Still, there’s a lot of interesting stuff here, and some really cool ideas; it just feels like it needs some tightening and polishing to make it work as well as it should.

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Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, by Robert Charles Wilson / ***** 

51enpomf6alHaving read a pretty large swath of Robert Charles Wilson’s bibliography, I feel pretty comfortable in saying that I generally know what to expect from him. Wilson is a big picture kind of author; he takes what could easily be pulp sci-fi conceits – one day, the stars all disappear, all over the world; a series of monuments appear commemorating the future victories of a despotic warlord; aliens arrive at Earth and extend the offer of immortality – and explores them in remarkable depth, watching what would happen to society in the wake of such world-changing events. He explores religious, social, cultural, and even political ramifications, watching how a single moment can change our pictures of ourselves and our society.

And yet, while that aspect of Wilson is completely evident in Julian Comstock – this is, as the novel’s subtitle suggests, a novel of the 22nd century, set in an America that survived after oil ran out by turning back the technological clock, and at the same time, turned itself into a religious theocracy – this is also a wildly different book for him, one that feels more character-driven, more personal, and less sprawling. It’s a story more intimate than any I’ve really seen from Wilson before, and for all of its rich ideas and worldbuilding, at its core, it’s the story of two friends and their lives in this world so clearly inspired by ours, whether for good or for bad.

That different feel is evident as soon as the book’s structure reveals itself as a memoir – and more importantly, the memoir not of our main character, Adam Hazzard, but of his friend, the famous Julian Comstock. It follows our heroes from their unlikely boyhood together, through their times in war, all the way to the source of Julian’s fame – or infamy, depending on who you ask. It’s a humble-feeling book, one that feels like a tribute to a friend, and an effort to humanize an icon. But it’s also a great adventure story, and a coming of age story, as we watch these two boys become men and grapple with their place in the world.

If that sounds more conventional than you might expect from Wilson, well, that’s okay; rest assured, Wilson brings his usual gift for worldbuilding and scope to bear in his setting, as we come to understand more and more not only what 22nd-century America is, but how it came to be. We see how the oil shortages became rebranded as a “Tribulation,” and how the government and church came to unify. We see how the class system shifted, revolving around indentured servitude rather than freedom, and how ideas like science and Darwinism faded from the public conscience – but never went away. And that’s where Wilson finds much of his drama, as Julian becomes a crusader for science and rationalism in a world that doesn’t always welcome it.

All of that would be more than enough for most books, but Wilson brings even more to the book in the voice of our narrator, Adam Hazzard, a sheltered, less rebellious figure who doesn’t always fully appreciate the gap between what he thinks he knows and what’s really going on. (A tip: keep Google Translate handy for any passage of foreign language; the play between what people are saying and what Adam knows is always fun, and sometimes surprisingly illuminating.) Wilson plays with Adam’s naive perspective beautifully, letting him not always pick up on the subtextual relationships between people, or sometimes completely misread a situation – something Wilson never goes out of his way correct. It all works to make Adam a winning, endearing character, one whose sheltered worldview and warm, if naive, perspective give the book a rich flavor all its own.

Julian Comstock may not have the impact or scope of some of Wilson’s best works, but in the end, it may be his richest, warmest, and most accessible book. What he’s gotten away from in scope he’s picked up in characterization and vibrancy, making this one of the first books of his I’ve read that invested me more in the characters and their lives than it did the ideas and impact of its story. It’s a great read from one of the best science-fiction authors working today, and a nice reminder of how great it can be to find those moments when authors step out of their comfort zone to do something different.

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Samurai Jack (Season 5) / *****

samurai-jack-posterI won’t lie to you: my first reaction, as the credits rolled over the last episode of Samurai Jack that we would ever get, was disappointment. Oh, sure, we got an ending, but it was a weak one, tucked into an episode that felt rushed and hurried. No, I didn’t mind the Pyrrhic nature of the victory, and I loved the beautiful, haunting final minutes of the episode. But that final showdown – was that really how it ended? It was…well, it was anticlimactic, and a bit hurried, and just…I dunno. It was a bit of a fizzle.

But then, right after the credits rolled, Adult Swim ran a promo for the marathon they were going to do of this entire final, revived season – a season that we had had no reason to ever expect, a season that gave us closure on a show that I, along with many others, had thought would simply fall between the cracks of time. And as this long promo ran, and recapped the great season, it drove something home to me: to focus too much on the ending of Samurai Jack is to miss the greatness of this final season, and to miss the joys that this show brought me, week in and week out.

See, Samurai Jack was never a show about its story. Nominally, yes, it was the story of a samurai trapped in the future, where the warlord he opposed had become the cruel ruler of the planet. But in reality, it was a show that lived and died by its style, that succeeded not because of what was happened, but how it all happened. This was a show that eschewed dialogue, that let everything be conveyed visually, that wasn’t afraid to embrace dark screens, or stylized animation, or to toss out visual gags when unexpected. But more than anything else, Samurai Jack was a show about style – about the way it told its story. (The example I always fall back on is the episode about the blind archers, in which Jack learns to fight blindfolded – a feat the show conveyed by letting the screen go black, only to have the elements fade in as he heard them and identified them by noise. You can watch the clip here, if you’d like.)

And really, season 5 was no exception to that; it was a triumph of astonishing style, with multiple sequences every week that took my breath away. From the jagged shadows of a bloody Jack being tended to be a wolf to an underground cavern scored to a Morricone-inspired tune, from the haunting and beautiful final images to the oil-style painting that capped the penultimate episode, Samurai Jack made its way by telling a story visually, letting animation do the heavy lifting and letting the voice actors support the images, rather than the other way around.

Nonetheless, season 5 of Samurai Jack told a rich story, following up on a hero whose isolated, lost nature has only become more pronounced and haunting since the last time we met him, with madness settling in around the edges. This is a hero who cannot return home, who cannot protect his family, and who seems destined to forever wander the earth, isolated and alone. And over the course of season 5, we watch as Jack struggles to figure out his purpose, and what his quest even means. We see what first appears to be fan-service cameos, only to realize that what showrunner Genndy Tartakovsky is doing is showing us that Jack has changed this world, and for the better. And best of all, we watch as Jack finds an equal – another outcast – and for the first time, meets a kindred spirit.

And yes, it all built up to a fight that was somewhat anticlimactic. But the longer I’ve thought about that, the more okay I am with that fact. Aku may have been the villain of this story, but he was never Jack’s true nemesis. Indeed, Jack’s greatest nemesis of season 5 may have been himself – a warrior version of himself cast into doubt, into questioning, into a sense of hopelessness – and into a funk where he couldn’t even be sure he was the hero any longer. Tartakovsky drove that question home beautifully, as Jack’s sword, for the first time, began to slice not just robots, but also human beings. That’s heady, complex fare, and Tartakovsky doesn’t give us easy answers to it all, showing both the brutality of the fight and its necessity.

And so, by the time Jack fights Aku, it’s all over but the shouting. Jack has unified himself, found a purpose, pulled himself together, and realized his meaning. Why shouldn’t the fight be fast? This was never about Aku vs. Jack. It was about Jack’s journey, and what it would make of him by the end – a choice that makes the finale’s final moments of quiet and peace all the more effective. For all of the drama, for all of the action, for all of the imagination, the show’s final moments give us closure on Jack itself – and it’s the perfect way to end it.

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