Monthly Archives: August 2010

THE QUANTUM THIEF by Hannu Rajaniemi

After finishing The Quantum Thief, the freshman outing from Finnish SF author Hannu Rajaniemi, I sat in classic fashion in my office, next to a big open window. As I stared off into space the sun set and the moon rose high into the night sky, leaves turned orange and fell from the trees, my children grew old and all of my friends died.

In short, it was a book I felt torn over. Is Rajaniemi a promising yet fledgling first time author, still finding his footing, or is he a brilliant chess master, always five steps ahead of the rest of us? The answer may be that he is, in fact, both.

At its core, The Quantum Thief is really noir dressed up in sci-fi clothing. It centers around master thief Jean Le Flambeur, who’s been locked away inside the Dilemma Prison, a virtual jail in which he’s forced to play deadly games against thousands of copies of himself. Jean’s eventually rescued by a mysterious women named Mieli and her sentient spacecraft, Perhonen. After an action-packed escape from Le Flambeur’s post-human jailers, we’re whisked away to the walking Martian city of Oubliette… and that’s when things get silly.

The book is without a doubt one of the most unique science fiction stories to come along in recent memory. And if that sounds a little ambiguous, it’s because The Quantum Thief can be an ambiguous book. To their credit, authors like Alastair Reynolds or Peter F. Hamilton don’t feel the need to explain every detail about the worlds they’ve created, instead leaving the readers to fill in the gaps for themselves. Rajaniemi definitely falls into that category, but sometimes the lack of explanation can be a double-edged sword. Things go a little too far when the worlds and technology described come across as TOO alien.

Where things become muddled here is when plot details pass you by because you were too busy trying to figure out exactly what gevulot is, or the difference between the Sobornost and the Zoku. More than once I found myself having to go back because I was still trying to sort out the details.

And it’s really those small details that much of the story loses itself in. The plot itself is fairly simplistic. It’s the window dressing that at times can make it seem so foreign and daunting. Rajaniemi’s characters lack a basic humanity which the reader can grab onto as they navigate their way through the world he’s created. Ironically, it’s the detective charged with catching Le Flambeur, and not Le Flambeur himself (who receives star billing in the just about everything you’ll read about the book) who comes across as the most human, and definitely the most interesting of the story’s motley crew. This is a complaint that’s begun cropping up in other reviews, and for everything Rajaniemi’s gotten right, it’s a reminder that he’s still new at this.

As the novel nears its end, the various plot threads come together surprisingly fast, and before you know it it’s all over. It’s a simple climax for characters that live in such a complicated world, and I would have liked to have seen Rajaniemi spend a little more time on it.

In all honesty, a lot of these problems passed me by as I was reading the book. Despite it’s shortcomings, and there are a few, The Quantum Thief is a lot of fun. The details we get about the world’s history are few, but more than enough to draw you in and keep you engaged. It’s obvious that Rajaniemi has got the worldbuilding down, if not the emotional heft.

Rajaniemi has created an incredibly rich and textured world, and while I’d never want to be spoon-fed mountains of exposition, I’d like to see the universe he’s writing in fleshed out a little more. Myself and others may have that wish granted, as the end of the book sets up a sequel, and I believe Rajaniemi’s spoken of a possible trilogy. We’ll have to wait and see.

The Quantum Thief won’t drop in the States until May 2011, but you can preorder the book from right now.


The Big C: What’s my motivation?

Prepare yourselves, people. Showtime’s new series, The Big C, is profound television. It’s touching, it’s devastating, and it’ll make you step back and examine your life and the relationships you have with those around you. How is all this possible, you ask? Engaging storytelling? Is the show something we’ve never seen before? Well, no. But it’s got Laura Linney. And c’mon. She’s got cancer.

Linney plays Cathy Jamison, and Cathy’s story is one TV is showing us more and more these days. Circumstances beyond her control – in this case, an untreatable case of skin cancer – have caused her to make drastic changes in her life. No longer is she content to play the timid, quiet spouse. No longer will she let others walk all over her. From now on, things are gonna change! She’s gonna speak her mind, scream at her neighbors and eat onions, because dammit, you only live once, amirite?

Faced with her own mortality, Cathy’s grabbing life by the balls. Okay. I can understand that. We’ve seen similar things in Breaking Bad and other shows. The problem with The Big C is that the show doesn’t bother to properly set things up so that the changes Cathy’s decided to make make sense. In Breaking Bad, we saw that Walt and Skyler weren’t exactly rolling in the dough. We saw Skyler selling things on eBay to earn extra cash. We saw all the crap Walt was taking at the car wash. Then, when he found out he had cancer and began cooking meth, we understood his reasoning and it made sense.

Things here don’t work like that. We’re supposed to understand that Cathy’s husband is basically an overgrown child because he rides a Vespa to work and likes video games. We’re supposed to understand that Cathy isn’t really in control of her own life because she lets a contractor talk her into getting a hot tub instead of the swimming pool she wanted. And we’re supposed to understand that she constantly eats up everyone’s crap because Gabourey Sidibe gives her some guff after showing up to class late.

But all things considered, and definitely all things we’re shown in the pilot, it doesn’t really seem like Cathy has things that bad. But before we know it she’s doing cartwheels down hallways and cussing out her neighbor. It’s a transformation that I don’t think the show has really earned for itself, and I wonder if it’ll be disorienting for anyone tuning in. Of course, Laura Linney is the star, so there are more than a few people who will be willing to forgive the pilot if the show can pull itself together in later episodes. Still, Linney has her work cut out for her. A capable actress though she is, her performance throughout the pilot is pretty uneven. She’s quirky, she’s flirty, she’s defeated and she’s angry, and not necessarily in that order. At this point, I’m not sure she’s settled on how she wants to play the character.

She comes off best when she’s sarcastic and pissed off. The problem with that is her being sarcastic and pissed off isn’t what the show is ultimately going to be about. Another problem is that sarcastic and pissed off isn’t pissed off and pissed off. In one scene where Cathy confronts a neighbor who’s been nothing but rude to her in the five years they’ve lived next to each other, she really comes off as mean and a little over the top. The show obviously thinks it’s profound, so I wouldn’t expect Linney to go out and start shooting people, but right now she’s taking the character from 0 to 60 in about three seconds, and she’s going to need to find a way to even that out.

Adding to the cast are the aforementioned Sidibe and Oliver Platt, who stars as Linney’s husband. They obviously don’t get as much screentime as she does, but in the end they feel more consistent, and for my money, more entertaining. But despite its shortcomings, I’m more than willing to stick around and see how the show develops. I mean, it is Laura Linney. And she’s got cancer.

Mad Men, “The Good News”: The C-word.

What I especially liked about last year’s season finale was how upbeat it all felt. Despite the fact that Don’s marriage was falling apart, the genesis of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce brought the show a new kind of energy that hadn’t been there before. Jump ahead a year, and that energy is still there, but you’d be hard-pressed to call it upbeat.

By no means is that a knock against the show. Mad Men has always been moody. It’s part of its charm, and if that were to simply go away it wouldn’t be the same show. However, it is nice to see our characters end up on top every now and then, but after this week’s episode I have my doubts as to whether or not we’ll be seeing any of that this year.

It’s been a tough year, so we can hardly fault Don for a taking a little time out on his way to Acapulco to visit Anna. After all, it seems like she’s the sole person Don can truly be himself around. But while we saw Don’s time in California in season 2 as a sort of rebirth, this time felt like just the opposite. Don’s becoming more pathetic by the week. In the premiere we see him getting slapped around by a hooker. Last week he’s making the moves on Allison. And this week he’s hitting on Anna’s niece, Stephanie. I’m not sure, but were men having sex with girls 20 years their junior frowned upon in the 60s? I’ll look into it.

Stephanie had more sense than Allison and shut him down pretty quick, and to add insult to injury, told him that the person he may care about most in the world has terminal cancer — and is completely unaware of it. Don’s transformation from the mild-mannered Dick Whitman when he confronted Anna’s sister over that decision was a thing of beauty. He tried beating her over the head with, when you think about it, all he really has in the world: money. Anna’s sister completely turned things back around on him by saying that he had no right to meddle in the family’s business. He was just an empty shirt with a checkbook. It obviously had some resonance with him and shut him up right quick and in a hurry.

I think Don knows that without Anna he’ll be truly alone in the world. In true Don fashion, he comes back to Manhattan and buries himself in his work, only to find Lane in much the same predicament. Having had her fill with the States, his wife has gone back to England and isn’t planning on coming back. Don tells him that he’s learned the hard way not to give advice in these situations (we all remember the Roger/Jane debacle), but the least he could do is take the guy out, show him a good time.

I guess you could call this part of the episode upbeat, even if it was essentially two guys drowning their sorrows in booze, Godzilla movies and cheap women (seriously, $25 dollars?!). It was hilarious if nothing else, and further cements Lane in his place as my favorite character on the show. I especially liked the words — or non-words — the two shared the morning after. Lane thanks Don for the welcome distraction, and Don gives Lane a slight wink and a nod. He’s a frat boy, giving the nerdy kid a small glimpse of the world he lives in. I can’t say with any surety if this will change their relationship in any fundamental way, but you never know. It would be nice to see Lane as more than just the disapproving parent who complains about the kids spending too much money. As with most things, time will tell.

There was a lot of Joan stuff going on in this week’s episode as well. But after Lane came in and sort of hijacked things, it all seemed a little inconsequential. If she does get pregnant and her husband goes off to Vietnam and is killed, Joan as the single mother could be a really interesting storyline, although it’s way too far into the future to really think about. But the show has made big jumps in time before, so maybe by the end of season 7 it’ll be 1985 and we’ll see Don wearing a denim jacket and driving a Delorean. You make fun but if Matt Weiner did it it’d be edgy and bold.

Other stuff:

  • “Gentlemen, shall we begin 1965?” The look on Don’s face spoke volumes. I think now more than ever before, he realizes he’s going into the future alone.
  • “Joan, please forgive me. Lane.” Priceless.

Between Two Ferns: Steve Carell

For those who haven’t seen it yet. Did you guys know Steve Carell did comedy, too?

Battle: Los Angeles

Battle: Los Angeles is being described as “Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day.” It’s also being described as Kent from So You Think You Can Dance Fights Predator, because if you take a gander at this freshly-released teaser poster, there’s a big effing predator in the background, and Kent realizing that no arabesque or grand jeté is going to help him now, no matter how well executed.

As long as these are the kind of jokes we’re making, I’d also like to see Robert from SYTYCD Gets Ripped Apart by Sharktopus, because, that could be cool.

Mad Men, “Christmas Comes But Once a Year”: Could you bring me my keys? *wink*

Just like the sexy market research lady said, it’s all about what I want versus what’s expected of me. And we saw some of this play out not only with Don but with the entire staff of SCDP. So let’s take everything apart and see what it looks like once we’ve put it back together, hmm?

When the market researcher — Dr. Miller, for those keeping score — handed her tests out to the senior staff, asking them all very personal questions, Don didn’t waste any time coming up with an excuse and hightailing it out of there. Because the episode made it clear that this was a big deal to him, I felt it would resonate more later in the episode. I think we did see Don in a very different place than we’ve ever seen him before, but I found the payoff (if you can call it that) from what was set up earlier to be a little disappointing. In the end, it pretty much came down to Don telling Miller that he didn’t like people prying into his past. Okay. Point taken.

I think the much more important moment came later, when Allison brings Don’s keys to his apartment. What looked like a quick in and out turned into a quick in and out (see what I did there?) when Don comes on to her with those squinty, drunk eyes and his whiskey breath. For three seasons, we’ve seen Don’s philandering, and while we could all admit that it was wrong, I question how many people actually had a problem with it. After all, he’s Don. I know Tony Soprano went around killing people, but he’s in the Mob. What the hell else is he supposed to do? Tonight however, everything felt different. Maybe it’s the fact that Don no longer has a Betty to go home to, just an empty, sad apartment. I think it’s a safe assumption that Don never really expected Betty to leave him. But she has, and the kids are gone, and Don’s finding it harder to cope than he thought he would. Whatever the reason, the entire thing just felt dirty and made Don look pathetic.

There may have been a piece of him that realized as much, and that’s why he chose to go on the next morning as if nothing had happened. Although his attitude made Allison’s Christmas bonus feel that much dirtier. At least he didn’t tell her to get it off his nightstand. So while I felt Don’s story revealed a side to him we hadn’t yet seen, I didn’t think it came together the way the setup would have had us believe.

From beginning to end, I thought Peggy’s story felt much more cohesive. She’s making her bones in a man’s world and I think that in all her future romantic relationships, she’s going to be the dominating personality. Or at least too smart not to let the men she’s with walk all over her. Now, her boyfriend wants to sleep with her and she’s worried that sex could be as debilitating for her as it is for people like Don and Roger. Of course, this isn’t something she can say, so she’s told him that she would rather wait until they get married. It takes some talking with Fred Rumsen, of all people, to change her mind. But still, at the very end, when she and her boy toy are curled up under the sheets, you see the look on her face and know she’s wondering if the dynamics of their relationship have been irreversibly altered in some way.

While it’s always nice to analyze these character pieces, Mad Men has always offered its share of scenes that are just fun, and really bring you into the episode. In this week’s episode, that was the office Christmas party, which was dramatically upscaled once Roger found out that Lee Jr. was in town and was forced to invite him. You could almost hear the gasp of a million fanboys as we saw Joan leading that conga line. You have to wonder how much Lee Jr. knows about the inner workings of SCDP, but  he certainly got his mileage out of them, forcing Roger to play Santa and then standing back and taking pictures of everyone sitting on his knee with the shiny, new Polaroid camera they were nice enough to buy him. He’s obviously still playing the little kid who gets what he wants, although I’m not sure if getting it makes him happy. After looking back on his scuff up with Sal last year, I’m guessing not.

This week’s episode also saw the return of Glen, who’s set his sights on Sally now that he’s realized Betty is forever out of his reach. Seeing this kid on screen keeps me on the edge of my seat every time, because I’m just waiting to see what crazy crap he’ll pull next. When he breaks into the house with his buddy, and the two start throwing food around the kitchen, it took me a moment to realize that he was doing it to help Sally, rather than just acting out in some crazy way. Although, if it had turned out that Betty found half of her underwear stolen after getting home that night, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

Other things:

  • In the two episodes we’ve seen this season, Lane seems to have taken a back seat to things, playing the stern father who has to tell his kids that they don’t have the money to eat at Papa John’s, but if they want to go to CiCi’s, that’s okay. Still, in a lot of ways, he’s my favorite character on the show.
  • I half-expected Roger to tell Lee Jr. where to stick his Santa costume.
  • Speaking of Freddy Rumsen, his return this week was an even bigger surprise than Glen’s.

Rubicon: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

In the post-Lost era, you’d think that vast government conspiracies would be easier targets for serials which are meant to last six or seven seasons. But the few, quickly-canceled series we’ve seen these past few years which have dealt with such hefty subject matter have shown us that these types of shows aren’t always the easiest to pull off. But while, during the pilot episode of AMC’s third original drama, I may have felt like someone was going to rush into the Oval Office and tell the president, “Sir, he’s going to tell them about The Event,” I walked away feeling like they had finally gotten it right. Or that at least they were on the right track.

With Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and now The Walking Dead on the horizon, I can understand how people might look at AMC and think, “They can do no wrong!” The similar-minded amongst you need only turn your attention to Exhibit A to realize that not everything the network puts its name on is going to be a guaranteed hit. And so it may turn out with Rubicon. But assuming the show does stick around, it will definitely be a much different animal than AMC’s current lineup in just about every way imaginable. From the show’s color palette to its acting, Rubicon just about screams low-key.

James Badge Dale plays Will Travers, who works at the American Policy Institute, a think tank which looks for threats based on patterns found in big file folders full of files and books, which also happen to be filled with files. And it turns out they’re not above searching through crossword puzzles, because apparently these groups which secretly control the world are never happy with just controlling the world, they have to drop clues and be so in your face about it.

So yes, you have to admit that for all it has going for it, there are a few things about the show that make you go, “Hmmm.” But in the end I didn’t think that this or the fact that technology seems to have taken a back seat to things detracted from the show in any big way. The world depicted in Rubicon is a dreary one. It’s a world where people talk in quiet, inside voices, look pensive most of the time and buy all their clothes from Banana Republic. It’s as if their world operates under different rules than ours. But while there are some aspects you can tell the writers are stretching just a bit, everything still seems to work.

If you’ve read other reviews of the show, one thing a lot of people are talking about is the show’s pacing, in that it seems to be moving very slow. This wasn’t as big an issue for me. I feel that if we were watching Rubicon on NBC or FOX, we’d mostly be treated to big explosions and people speeding away in dark sedans while being shot at. So I’m happy to watch AMC take a more subdued approach to things.

So while the explosions may be absent, it looks like AMC’s got another solid show on its hands. Well acted and brooding, it’s a kind of drama that’s been absent from television for a long time. And once the show’s had a chance to work out some of it’s kinks, I think it’ll be a welcome addition to those in the market for a smart, thinking man’s (or person’s) show.