Tag Archives: books

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 amazon.co.uk right now.

Advertisements

Justified, “Fire in the Hole”: You make me pull, I put you down.

Seeing Tom Papa talk about how hilarious “The Marriage Ref” is, or watching promos for that game show with the fat chef from the Friday’s commercials makes me sad. Why is there so much bad television these days? But when TLC is greenlighting shows about midgets who fall in love, along comes a show like “Justified,” and all is right with the world.

“Justified,” which made its debut last night on FX, was adapted from a short story by Elmore Leonard and centers around US Marshal Raylan Givens, played by a slightly less brooding Timothy Olyphant. Anyone who shed a tear at the passing of our beloved “Deadwood” back in 2006 should feel right at home here. While “Justified” lacks the Shakespearean flair of that other western, it’s got all the badassery we could ask for, and — hallelujah — a story and cast that looks more than capable of delivering the goods.

Raylan is a 19th-century lawman in a 21st-century world (I’m probably the first person to say that). After shooting and killing a “gun thug” down in Miami, he’s transferred back to his hometown of Harlan County, Kentucky. As you’d expect, he’s not thrilled at the prospect of going home again. In addition to all the usual drug-dealers, white supremacists and killers, he’s now got his father, his ex-wife, and childhood friend Boyd Crowder (played by the insanely good Walton Goggins) to work with. But all of his reservations aside, this is a place better suited to his way of doing things.

Let’s be honest, lawmen/women who don’t like to [gravelyvoice]play by the rules[/gravelyvoice] is a heavily overused television trope, so a show like “Justified” could have a really hard time standing out. But having Olyphant in the lead role already gives it a huge boost. As Raylan talks to his ex-wife toward the end of the pilot, she tells him that he may do a good job hiding it, but he’s one of the angriest men she’s ever known. The look on Raylan’s face after hearing this is priceless and shows the depth Olyphant brings to the character. The “Deadwood” comparisons are unavoidable, but think a few shades lighter than Seth Bullock.

And the show’s done more to set itself apart from the pack. You’d think that Raylan would be another Martin Riggs. He runs around shooting bad guys and every now and then the Chief sits him down and gives him a good yelling at. At first he and Danny Glover don’t like each other, but after Raylan comes over for dinner you know they’re going to be best buds. This isn’t the formula “Justified” looks to be going with. Raylan’s boss, played by Nick Searcy, seems like he’s much more comfortable to sit back and watch as Raylan work the way Raylan likes to work. Situations like this are where the show gets a lot of its comedy from and one of the things that gives it that Elmore Leonard flair.

Of course I’ve only seen the pilot, so things could really go anywhere. The first episode borrowed generously from Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole,” but won’t have that luxury from now on. We’ll have to wait and see if the tone it’s set is something it can stick with. I would like to see a more serialized show but think it might work well as a procedural, even though those types of shows aren’t normally my thing. The pilot was so impressive that I’m willing to stick with it and see where the whole thing takes us. Definitely recommended.

Stuff I liked:

  • The pilot was filmed in areas of Pennsylvania while the rest of the first season was filmed in California. The pilot felt so authentically Southern and I hope that carries over in subsequent episodes.
  • Herc from “Friday Night Lights.”
  • “Man, I don’t understand you.”
  • A bunch of good one-liners that don’t sound trite and stupid. Maybe you’d have to be Timothy Olyphant to pull that off, though.

“Off with her head!”

I had a good chuckle a few weeks ago when comedian Rob Delaney wrote on his Twitter page, “What classic tale will Tim Burton lazily reheat next?” It wasn’t until I was sitting in the movie when I thought to myself, “It’s true!” I understand what it’s like to have an idea that’s so big and has so many different pieces that, once it’s finished, you stand back and realize that what you’ve put together is a big, hot, tranny mess. And when the credits began rolling after Alice in Wonderland, that’s what I felt I had been left with. Enjoyable at moments, but still a mess.

If you’ve ever read Alice in Wonderland or seen the original Disney cartoon, then you already know what happens in Tim Burton’s movie. Sequel. Semi-sequel. At least I think that’s what it is. Some of the characters talk about Alice’s visit to Wonderland when she was a child. Others were there the first time, but walk around acting like they don’t remember. In the end it doesn’t matter, because what happens in the first film is the EXACT SAME THING that happens in this one. The “drink me,” “eat me” stuff. Meeting the Cheshire Cat. The Mad Hatter’s tea party. For some reason Alice goes through the entire thing all over again.

It’s here that you ask yourself why Burton didn’t scrap the sequel idea and just go for a complete remake, like he did with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There’s a point in the movie where the Mad Hatter and Alice are walking through the woods, with the Hatter delivering some very creepy poetry. He looks at Alice with dead eyes and in that moment you realize that this character is truly insane. It was the single scene in the entire movie in which the character showed any real depth, but man, what depth. If Burton had taken that and built the movie around it, he could have really had something. Instead, Johnny Depp slips in and out of a Scottish accent and we’re all left scratching our heads in confusion.

I won’t lie. The movie had its moments. In the beginning we see Alice thirteen years on. She’s a young woman being thrown into the same role taken up by so many English women before her, that of adoring wife. Some guy who looks like an extra from The Addams Family is asking her to marry him. Alice, who’s always been given to strange musings and flights of fancy is understandably unexcited, and just as the poor guy pops the question, she runs away, falls down a rabbit hole and ends up in Wonderland, or Underland, as it’s called now. I would have liked to have seen more of this, as it was the only fresh look we got at the character, with the rest being a tired rehash of the same story passed off as a “sequel.”

The movie does feature some impressive visual designs and effects. It’s all typical Burton so you kind of know what you’re getting yourself into. Some people will really dig it, others might feel that it’s all too much and feels a bit jumbled. There’s enough greenscreen work here to rival the Star Wars prequels. I won’t call it seamless, but some of it is pretty cool, especially with characters like Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

The film also features competent performances from its cast, the most notable being Mia Wasikowska as Alice and of course, Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. Wasikowska comes across as a progressive girl who’s separated herself from reality, viewing the world around her through a pane of glass, and as such she’s completely unfazed by the things she encounters in Underland. The movie’s end suggests that she’s learned something during her time down there, although I’ll be damned if I can remember what that was supposed to be. Johnny Depp is Johnny Depp, and manages to put his own personal stamp on any part he plays. It’s unfortunate that that stamp is centering more and more around crazy makeup and funny voices these days.

I don’t consider myself a diehard Lewis Carroll fan, but I can appreciate why other people are. There’s something in his stories that captivates the eternal child in all of us. The big dreams, the silly games and imaginary adventures. All of this is completely lost on Tim Burton. In the end, the movie seems like nothing more than an excuse the recreate Carroll’s original characters, but you know, all crazy and stuff. The movie is all style, with a few fleeting moments of substance. If you’re looking to see a movie that pays more respect to its source material,  you’re probably better off seeing The Crazies. C

Nerds rejoice! HBO greenlights Game of Thrones!

This is great. Today, HBO gave a greenlight to their television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic, A Game of Thrones. This is going to make a lot of people happy and I’m glad HBO is there to co-opt fantasy and vampires into mainstream pop culture, but I’m wondering where they were when I was in the fifth grade getting dirt thrown in my face and kicked in the pants for liking the same stuff. Oops! I have to go. I’m late for my therapist appointment.

“You’re a rat in a maze.”

Hey, everyone! Did you hear the news? Martin Scorsese finally made a really good movie. All I can say is, it’s about time. But seriously, folks, you would think that after so many hits, Scorsese would be due for a real stinker. A movie that’s so predictable and contrived that you leave wishing you’d spent your hard-earned money on Miley Cyrus in I Want it Back. But no, it just hasn’t happened. Some of you may disagree and claim that Bringing Out the Dead with Nicholas Cage fits into this category. Of course, you’d be wrong.

Shutter Island is an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name. Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo play federal marshals who are sent to investigate the disappearance of an inmate at a secluded psychiatric facility. Once there, they slowly begin to realize that the purpose of their visit may not be what it seems, and dare I say, nefarious?

Leonardo DiCaprio is to Martin Scorsese what Robert De Niro is to Martin Scorsese. This is the fourth movie the two have made together, and it’s really no surprise why Scorsese likes working with him. He’s a good actor. So much so that thinking of how we used to equate him to Jonathan Taylor Thomas back before his Titanic days just seems silly now. His performance as Teddy Daniels leaves you wondering whether or not he’s the one losing his mind all the way to the end of the film. And while the rest of the cast performes admirably, DiCaprio is the film’s shining star.

Mark Ruffalo as DiCaprio’s partner Chuck Aule and Max von Sydow as the mysterious Dr. Naehring are both welcome additions to the cast, but the roles they play don’t exactly allow them to spread their wings and fly. It was nice however to see Ben Kingsley in a good movie again, rather than some of the garbage he’s been in lately.

The film’s got all the hallmarks of other Scorsese greats. Low camera angles and diffused light really bring parts of this picture to life and show DiCaprio coming undone. While several of the film’s loud gotcha! moments fall a little flat, you’re so drawn into things that you don’t notice it much. At almost two and half hours, you won’t find yourself checking your phone to see what time it is. Well, unless you’re one of those bastard kids who always sits in front of me.

I’ve heard people talking about the movie’s ending. If it’s not a surprise, then people say there was a lot of build-up and ultimately no payoff. If it is a surprise, then people say it wasn’t really because they saw it coming from a mile away. Whether or not you — the naive moviegoer — enjoy it will be entirely due to personal preference, so there’s not a lot I can say about it.

What I can say is that Shutter Island is a film that’s got the entire package. You can look at other movies like this month’s Wolfman and point to things that really could have been handled better. And I do think there’s a difference between personal preferences of what you like and dislike and things that truly could have been done differently. There will be people who don’t like this movie’s ending, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t good or that it could have been done any better. If the end of the movie had shown DiCaprio kicking down the doors to Ben Kingsley’s office and saying, “That’s it! We’re shuttering down this island! Hehe! Cuff ’em, Chuck,” then you could say that it could have been better handled. But as it is that isn’t the case. Basically all this distills down to the argument that there are too many people out there who don’t recognize good movies when they see them. Film snobbery? Perhaps. True anyway? Definitely.

Shutter Island is a great blend of noir and psychological thriller. It was a film that I found disturbing and heartwrenching and in the end very appealing. Remember in Gangs of New York, Brendan Gleeson’s big club that he marked notches on every time he smashed someone’s head in? Well, this film is just another notch in Martin Scorsese’s big club, and a testament to what a great director he is. While others lose their fire and do things like launch Indiana Jones through the sky in a refrigerator (seriously, WTF?), he’s still pumping out hits. And if they’re half as good as this one, he can keep them coming. A

FLOOD by Stephen Baxter

In his latest outing, Stephen Baxter’s reeled things in a bit. Instead of the vast blackness of space and all the wonders hidden in it, he brings us to a drowning Earth and gives us ringside seats to a civilization that’s slowly drowning with it.

Flood begins in 2016. Four hostages have just been released by a group of Christian fundamentalists at war with the Spanish government. The four hostages – former Air Force Captain Lily Brooke, British military man Piers Michaelmas, NASA scientist Gary Boyle and Helen Gray – have been released just in time to witness a world at a turning point in its history, as sea levels around the world have begun inexplicably to rise. So far the damage has been relatively minor, but things are slowly getting worse. Before long, millions must be evacuated from Australia. London and New York City are covered by the rising waters. Millions of refugees flee as the last remaining governments go to war over the high ground. And still, the waters are rising.

It’s interesting to measure Baxter’s book against something like, say, Waterworld, that explains away a drowned Earth with a single line of dialogue. “The polar ice caps have melted, covering the Earth with water.” Baxter, by contrast, goes into sometimes chilling detail, giving us a much more realistic portrayal of the lengths people go through to survive the end of civilization. While the rich sink (zing!) their money into grand projects like floating cities and gigantic luxury liners, waves and waves of poor refugees take to the open road. Thousands, millions, heading further inland as the coasts are flooded, then flooded again. On the other side of the world, China and Russia go to war over Central Asia. Word of this spreads slowly, as communication systems all over the world are set back more than a hundred years.

While the science behind some of Baxter’s other books may have you scratching your head, Flood is surprisingly easy to understand. It’s discovered that the ocean’s rise is being caused by giant underground reservoirs that have ruptured and are now spewing their contents into the sea. It’s been hypothesized that this is actually a possible scenario, and that possibility really sucks you into the story.

If you’re a newcomer to Baxter’s work, this is probably a good book to start off with. As said, the science behind the science fiction is easy enough for anyone to understand. And the disaster story, which lies at the heart of Flood, is one we’re all fascinated with. There are a few things some might have problems with. The lack of character development being the biggest (although that’s less of a problem here than it is in Baxter’s other work). There are a few stock characters Baxter tends to reuse. The most prominent in Flood being Nathan Lammockson, the billionaire businessman who arranges for the four hostages to be released in the beginning of the novel. Baxter’s books almost always feature technology that’s years ahead of anything we’ve ever seen, so there’s got to be some rich eccentric who’s looking for an excuse to grease the wheels. Stuff like this may bother some, but it’s a minor quibble and fans of Baxter and the genre will probably consider it par for the course.

Flood is a lot of fun, and a novel that makes you ask how you were able to get through it so quickly. The fact that Baxter chose to bring things back down to Earth lends a certain humanity to the story that some of his others may find a bit lacking. You’ll be hooked all the way through to the book’s last line, which segues perfectly into the second part of Baxter’s duology, Ark. Recommended for both vets and newbies.

“I’ve got a vampire to kill.”

This isn’t a review so much as it is a rant. When I heard that they had started filming New Moon, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities the movie had to my own screenplay, New Moon, in which a group of werewolves go around seducing young girls by showing off their hindquarters. Anyway, when I started production on that film, I was called things like “sick,” and “disgusting.” It just goes to show that some people are in the right place at the right time. So, you win this round Stephanie Meyer. After giving it a lot of thought, I won’t be seeking legal action. I’m just happy that someone’s made pornography for 14-year olds socially acceptable.