Thursday, July 27, 2017

Wonder Woman: a sense of the superhuman

Wonder Woman achieves something no recent superhero film has managed - a genuine sense of what it is to be superhuman.

This isn't about your origin story or your CGI budget or however much you can blow up in your two hours plus running time.

This is about the presence of The Other.

There's one particular scene in Wonder Woman - the one on that there poster - which demonstrates most of all what I mean. Diana and her party are in the trenches of the WW1 Western Front. She casts off her human disguise and manifests as Wonder Woman - there really is no other word for it. Climbing out into No Mans' Land, she advances towards the German lines, single-handedly deflecting machine gun fire as she goes.

The sequence is a triumph of direction by Patty Jenkins, echoing consciously or no the stories of angels soldiers claimed to see in the skies of the Somme. And while her acting is great throughout the film, Gal Godot's other careers as a soldier and a model also perfectly fit her for this kind of cinema-as-spectacle work.  

The effect is exactly as intended: it's as if a Greek god - a living archetype and something decidely not human - has suddenly been unleashed on the world. It's a real moment of power and awe rare in modern action cinema. And it's one of the things that make Wonder Woman much more interesting, more effective and just plain weirder than many of its competitors. 
Postscript with self-critique

As Ive been typing this up, I've been thinking that I can't really write about Wonder Woman (with the emphasis on Woman) as The Other without some read-across to the concept of othering. Particularly the feminist version in which women are defined in contrast to a male 'norm.' This kind of othering isn't what I meant by this piece per se, but looking at it from this perspective does give rise to two bonus observations.

The first is that being a superhero and a woman in a sexist society is inherently disruptive in a way which having a bloke flying through the sky (especially a white, middle-class bloke, intersectionality fans) isn't. Supergirl, Jessica Jones and Wonder Woman all go about this in different ways as TV shows and films but the overall effect overlays and enhances the 'woah' factor of a character having powers in the first place.

The second is acknowledging the contradication in me describing society and culture as if I stand outside it. Perhaps it's next-to-impossible for me to talk about Wonder Woman as the superhuman Other without also inadvertently othering her as a man. I dare say this tension has been pretty much inherent in the character since her creation, but I don't think I'd be being honest with myself as a writer if I didn't at least acknowedge the validity of the question.

Anyhow, self-critique over. 

A conventional review would end by me remarking that Wonder Woman is an excellent film which even those tired of the DC school of film-making will enjoy, so I'll end on the same note here too.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Hugo-nominated novel ranking update

1. Too Like The Lightning, Ada Palmer
2. All The Birds In The Sky, Charlie Jane Anders
3. Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee
4. A Closed And Common Orbit, Becky Chambers

Gave up reading (but will retry): Death's End, Liu Cixin
Not yet read: The Obelisk Gate, N K Jemisin 

The standout book on the list, at least provisionally, is Too Like The Lightning, for which there will be a review as soon as I can get round to it. Suffice to say for now that it's like no other SF novel I've read in the last few years and that counts for a lot in my world.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

In praise of gateway novels: A Closed And Common Orbit

I've greatly enjoyed both of Becky Chambers' books so far, primarily because of their warmth, their concern with everyday life in an interstellar future, and their concern with human (and non-human) relationships.

And it's no coincidence that A Closed And Common Orbit is the only one of the Hugo-nominated novels I can see being adapted for the big or the little screen, as these are much more common traits of SF film and television than they are of novels and short-stories.
Orbit is a spin-off from its predecessor, The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, following several of its supporting characters: Sidra, a starship's AI now hiding in an illegal android body and Pepper, the gadgeteer acting in loco parentis for her. It follows both Sidra's attempts to find a place for herself in a new and confusing world planetside, while also telling Pepper's backstory as a young refugee from a backwater colony built on genetic manipulation.

So, it's a double Bildungsroman, or less pretentiously, a coming of age story, a YA novel in adult clothing. And I mean that last as a compliment - both Orbit and Planet are about young people making their way in a confusing universe, learning life lessons and looking for somewhere to fit in and belong. 

And while fantasy turns out young adventurers by the score, SF has lost the art of this somewhat in recent years and it's nice to see Chambers do an good job of redressing the balance. Her work is very well suited as a gateway into the wider genre.

So, it's an enjoyable read, but is it the best book on the Hugo shortlist? In a way, Orbit has the opposite problem to Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit, which is hard to truly like but easy to respect. Chambers give us memorable characters, snappy dialogue and moves the plot along smoothly - in short, she gives us fun - but these are all virtues of writerly craft rather than of art. And you've got to have both.

The themes she explores - artitificial intelligence and a genetically modified underclass - aren't particularly new or refreshed either. And the climax of the book is also somewhat underplayed, given how emotionally invested in the outcome the reader should be by that point.

Another way of putting it is that while there is much good in it, even the every good in places, Orbit isn't quite the complete package. For me, it also lacks the uncanny superlative (that Bill and Ted 'Woah' factor) that in different ways characterises the best of both SF and fantasy. 

A Hugo nomination for what is still only Chambers' second novel reflects how far she's already come, however, and I look forward to reading (or indeed watching) more by her in the future.

Hugo Rankings So Far

1. Charlie Jane Anders, All The Birds In The Sky
2. Yoon Ha Lee,  Ninefox Gambit
3. Becky Chambers, A Close And Common Orbit

Monday, July 3, 2017

This review removed for non-compliance with consensus reality: Ninefox Gambit

I've seen a great deal of appreciation in some quarters of the internet for Yoon Ha Lee's Hugo-nominated debut novel Ninefox Gambit. Me, I'm still trying to decide if I actually liked it or not. 

Now, likeability isn't necessarily a sign of a great book, but if it's not aimiable it has to have other things going for it. And what Ninefox Gambit does have is a great idea: that of a totalitarian regime consciously shaping its own consensus reality through control of philosophy, physics and mathematics; right down to the calendar and how time is measured.

This might seem far fetched, until we recall revolutionary France's new calendar which renamed the months and introduced a ten day week, or the Cambodian Year Zero. Control of time, of information, of language is something we are all too familiar with from the last century. 

Lee simply takes this to a logical endpoint. And then goes right over the edge with the idea that mass belief can generate special combat effects like something out of a role-playing game (or the human machine code of Snow Crash, or Julian May's psychic protagonists combining their powers in metaconcert). 

Needless to say, there is something of a tension between the serious and the silly in Ninefox Gambit.

As a story, it plays out as philosophical military SF - a war of competing ideologies, but also of guns and ships powered by those same beliefs. There are scads of space battles, close-quarter fighting and political intrigue here to enjoy. 

My reservations? It's not as sure footed in its storytelling or world-building as it thinks it is, and could do with a wee bit more exposition. Tonally, it's all over the place too, with ill-fitting comic moments not really working in a much grimmer bigger picture.

But having said that, Ninefox Gambit is a novel I'd like to think I would have published had I the opportunity - it may not be likeable but it sure is interesting. It's a calling card for a new talent and I'll certainly read it again, if only to get a better handle on it.