Archive for the ‘Review’ Category
So this is going to be brief, and not just because I am reviewing a book that is four years old.
Monkey Girl is Edward Humes narrative coverage of the landmark Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. In addition to the highlights of the court proceedings, Humes delves into the events leading up to the case and often takes time to cover the background of the key players.
I never intended to pick this one up, I really have much more important things I should be doing. But Kitzmiller v. Dover remains a fascinating legal battle and my copy was a cheap buy at a Borders that was going out of business.
I was put off by the narrative style. Apparently this is a hallmark of Humes’ reporting (he has even won a Pulitzer for it), but I never warmed up to it. Maybe it is the soulless biologist in me, but I prefer details to narrative flourishes. I felt like I was constantly being distracted from the actual matter at hand by being told how “fiery” and “soulful” people were; nor is he often satisfied with letting the chief players simply “say” things. I kind of feel like this was written with a thesaurus in one hand as though simple language would bore his readers. It had the opposite effect on me and several times I found myself scanning large passages for the kernel of actual detail. In favor of this style, it did make for a quick read.
The narrative style also lent itself to the chronological nature of the narrative and facilitated his introduction of characters in a memorable way, I am just not sure it was the only or best way to accomplish this. The text is also plagued with a great many diversions: details of peoples ancestry, local history, and similar conflicts elsewhere that feel a little like padding. Some of them seem valid, such as the tangent on the history of the Discovery Institute and excerpts from Creationism’s Trojan Horse. Which are bound to be useful if this book is your introduction to this controversy. Others, not so much. In this latter group I would count the several sentence tangent that the title comes from. A brief interlude whose only purpose seems to be to justify an eye-catching title, and does absolutely nothing to further the account. It would have been nice if this book about Dover and the Kitzmiller v. Dover court case hadn’t spent approximately a quarter to a third of its narrative elsewhere.
As far as the analysis and fact gathering go, the book does a great job. If you can stomach the style there is actually quite a bit of information within the narrative and the helpful (if a bit sparse) notes section. He seems to have a talent for succinctly and clearly presenting the arguments and motivations of the fairly large group of people involved. I also appreciate that he tracks the conflict back to its origin in the school board meetings rather than just picking up once the suit was filed. This is especially important in this particular case since the perjury committed by several board members about what had happened played a key role in the decision.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. I found it to be an informative look at the events leading up to trial and an interesting overview of the case itself. I do think that the style hurts rather than helps. Humes seems to try to walk the line between informing and entertaining, and it just didn’t work in my opinion. Humes has an excellent eye for noting and including a wealth of detail, yet he seem to have trouble differentiating between relevant and irrelevant details. It is something that probably won’t have a permanent place in my library, but it was definitely worth reading once.
It’s Friday, and Spring Break, so time to focus on something a little less mentally taxing. Namely: anime. Now, with age and taste comes a little less of the geeky obsession I had with it in my highschool and undergraduate years, but certain, select titles still make up a solid twenty percent or so of our DVD collection. Why? Because it is a great vehicle for speculative fiction. By using an animated medium you dodge the cost spikes of practical and computer generated effects and it becomes no more difficult to make breathtaking and bizarre scenes than it does to make mundane ones. You can take an interesting premise or setting and explore it in a manner unconstrained by skyrocketing budgets.
This is exactly what Daphne in the Brilliant Blue fails to do.
Animated by J.C. Staff and produced by Genco, Daphne in the Brilliant Blue is a sci-fi/action story set in a flooded world. Humanity survived the deluge by building underwater cities where they preserved themselves and a great deal of Earth’s animal life. At an appointed time, 100 years before the start of the series, all (but one) of the submerged cities rise to the surface to form floating city states associated with whatever remaining land masses they can find. Society is rebuilt under the watchful gaze of a centralized government, scientific, law-enforcement organization known as the Ocean Agency.
The story opens with our young heroine, Maia Mizuki, completing her application for employment with said agency. Despite receiving top marks she is denied a position with the Ocean Agency, and not having made any alternate plans, winds up frantically looking for work. After a few traumatic incidents and with a bit of luck she finds a job with a rough and tumble company of freelance problem solvers called Nereids. Over the next year with Nereids, Maia grows up and begins to unravel her (apparently requisite in these sorts of series) mysterious past.
I love this premise and setting. Further, it is animated by a great studio. About a week ago, when I saw that this was up on Hulu and realized that my weekend was mostly free, I wound up sitting down to watch it with high hopes. Those hopes were quickly dashed.
The beginning of the first episode seems almost promising. We open on a young girl salvaging a box from a wrecked ship, some friendly ocean life, and a submersible hover bike/jetski. But right after that things begin to go…well, not really bad, but weird. From the second episode on I felt like I had stumbled into a different show: some kind of all-female scantily clad Cowboy Bebop/Firefly knockoff with a bit too much absurdist comedy tossed in for good measure. And things never really circled back until the last one or two episodes of the twenty-four episode series. But by that time I had mostly lost interest and none of the reveals that they were poorly building to seemed that important or surprising (save for the one about the true nature of Maia’s grandfather, that was kind of neat).
I don’t think I have ever been so let down by a show. I was really hoping for at least some sense of curiosity or wonder about this cool world with its strange cities and tech. Where does their food come from? How do the mouthpieces that let the characters breath under water work? What terrestrial life has been preserved and what hasn’t? How do they obtain fresh water? How were these cities constructed? How the hell do those bathing suits even stay on…spirit gum? There is quite a bit to explore here and the setup is so interesting, yet the creators seem to think that the only thing their audience should be interested in is guns and T & A. Which is profoundly disappointing.
This is not a bad show. It’s certainly well animated and I am sure that a number of people will be able to find it passably entertaining. There are even obscene amounts of exploitative fanservice (I will grant that the whole aquatic world concept well justifies putting their characters in swimsuits…but nothing justifies the specific swimsuits they decide to use) for those who are into that. But it is certainly not a good show and really fails to live up to the promise of its setting. I suppose if I want my aquatic cyberpunk fix I will just have to go read Starfish again.
And on the third day of actual posts, I decided to introduce a brief interlude to discuss another thing that this blog is going to be about: Speculative Fiction, specifically what works and what doesn’t. And we are going to start off on a high note because, believe me, the following works. The reason I say that this is a “review kindof” is because the nature of Watts’ writing precludes me from going into much detail on the second and third books of the trilogy without spoiling about three-hundred brilliant plot threads. So what follows only includes as many details on the actual plot as I can give in good conscience:
Peter Watts is a Canadian born, former (or as he puts it “reformed”) marine biologist who has turned to writing speculative fiction. He is the winner of an Aurora Award (“A Niche”) and a Hugo Award (“The Island”), as well as the recipient of numerous nominations for other honours. His works include The Rifters Trilogy (Starfish, Maelstrom, ßehemoth), Blindsight (which looks like it might be getting a follow-up soon), and numerous works of short fiction. He has been featured in the journal Nature twice now (ironically for short fiction rather than any research from his biologist days). He is also a (let us give him the benefit of the doubt and say, wrongly) convicted felon in the United States for a little mishap with US Customs and Border Patrol.
The Rifters Trilogy is a series of three books (although it was actually printed as four physical texts): Starfish, Maelstrom, and ßehemoth. Each book primarily follows a woman named Lenie Clarke in a third person, limited perspective (although numerous interludes do swap out viewpoint characters from time to time to give a more complete view of the world). It is set on Earth in 2050-2056 C.E. The world is a combination of cyberpunk and biopunk pureed together to create an unsettlingly realistic (and in some ways even familiar) dystopia. The entire series is impressively well researched and Watts often takes the chance to show his work and includes discussions and reference lists for the technology and concepts used in each book.
“The abyss should shut you up.
Sunlight hasn’t touched these waters for a million years. Atmospheres accumulate by the hundreds here, the trenches could swallow a dozen Everests without burping. They say life itself got started in the deep sea. Maybe. It can’t have been an easy birth, judging by the life that remains—monstrous things, twisted into nightmare shapes by lightless pressure and sheer chronic starvation.”
So begins Starfish. It sets the tone for the series, even if things do get a little more amphibious later on. Even on dry land this is a series about frontiers, survival in the face of extreme pressure, and the monsters that live in both literal and metaphorical depths. It never really seems to find a solid voice on whether it wants to be a horrific thriller or an action piece, but then, it never really needs to. There are even places where the world Watts has crafted shines with a bizarre beauty (and your mileage may vary, but certain elements in the series almost drip a bit of fetish fuel).
The name of the series comes from the inhabitants of undersea geothermal power stations. These human extremophiles have been modified (all physically, some mentally) to be able to survive in the very depths of the abyss. They live in stations spread across unstable areas of the sea floor and are capable of venturing out in the crushing pressure to do their work for the Grid Authority, a megacorporation the likes of which would make William Gibson proud. The protagonists of Starfish are located on the ridge of the Juan de Fuca Plate, a highly volatile region off of the western coast of the US. Here is a link to Dive & Discover’s 2004 expedition to the Juan de Fuca, just so you can get to know the neighbourhood.
More specifically, they are located in a place called the Channer Vent. There is something special about this particular place. “Here there be dragons”. With a passion that makes the alien landscape of the sea floor come alive, Watts discusses the fauna of Channer vent almost all of it drawn from a study of actual marine life. Almost. Cause there is one new thing in the depths, and it is interfering with the metabolisms of the wildlife. And the ramifications if it finds a nice, squish human-cum-amphibian to take it to dry land are apocalyptic. And the best part? It is almost as biologically plausible as everything else out there.
The characters that people these novels are largely, shockingly sympathetic. It makes no sense that they would be: pedophiles, life-long victims, assassins, psychopaths, sadists, and worse. are presented to the reader in a realistic and believable fashion. In a fashion with which we can empathise. Because they are us. No, not completely, but there are pieces. Possibilities that there, but for the sake of blind chance, go we. After all, we all have the same underlying neurobiology, and if that is subverted…
It should be noted that these are not what you would call happy books. And their content is incredibly violent, shockingly sexual at times, and thoroughly cynical. If you are squeamish, or an optimist, you might want to avoid them (or just grow up and baptise yourself in fire, it will be fun!).
In The Rifters Trilogy, Peter Watts has written some of the smartest, hardest, and most satisfying speculative fiction in existence. Further the fact that he sources his concepts make me giggle with manic, mad scientist glee.
Like all of Mr. Watts’ works, The Rifters Trilogy it is available on his website under the Creative Commons License. Here is a link to Starfish. Get busy reading.