TV: In the Flesh seasons 1 & 2 (2013-14)

IMG_2169.JPGCreator: Dominic Mitchell
Language: English
Length: 3 episodes and 6 episodes respectively, around 60 minutes each
Finished watching on: Sep 5 and Sep 11 respectively

The first I heard of this show was, perhaps ironically, through an article linked on my Facebook arguing the case for it to be renewed for a third season, so far an uncertain fate. To be fair, it’s quite possible that I’d heard vaguely about the “gay zombie show” before, but this was at least the first time I’d been made aware of it explicitly.

The words “BBC Three series” don’t fill one with much hope, to be honest, but this surpassed those expectations. As I alluded, the main character has gay relationships, making the show perhaps most famous for actually being one of the few on modern television to include them, and moreover to do so without this being the biggest plot point, and without it being a show only about gay people. Thus it stands in contrast to other BBC shows that are more content to make gay jokes about their protagonists, who constantly protest their eternal heterosexuality.

The zombie aspect of the story is actually not as central as such a title would make you think though, as the zombie apocalypse has already been and gone, and those who weren’t killed, including the main character, have been rehabilitated into society by the government. They take drugs to fix their minds, and wear makeup and contacts to disguise their undead status.

But not everyone’s happy about that. Most of the fictional Lancashire village where the show’s set vehemently hate the zombies, who are known in the show either as the euphemistic “PDS sufferers” or the offensive “rotters”. Thus the show becomes, for the most part, a metaphor for oppression.

The other main metaphor seems to be for mental illness. The acronym PDS seems to be deliberately selected by the creators to be reminiscent of PTSD, which the main character visibly suffers from, especially in the first season, when he gets violent flashbacks a lot to his time as a zombie, or to the fact that he had committed suicide before the opening of the series. A large part of the first series deals with the way he and his family react to his return, and more generally, how people deal with the aftermath of suicide.

The final main theme is religion. It’s not surprising that when the dead start to rise, people become very religious, as it coincides with what’s taught in the bible. So especially in the first season (in the second, a year has passed and the situation has sort of settled), representatives of the church plays the part of the main antagonists. The undead, too, have their own prophet and religion predicting similar things to the living church, such as a second rising.

I’m not going to get anywhere recapping the plot, however. Suffice to say the show is brimming with ideas and tales about all the different families affected in different ways, so much so that it feels like it’s overflowing, especially with such short seasons. And yet there are so many questions left unanswered. Like, was this phenomenon confined to the UK, or was it worldwide? How did other cultures deal with it?

The main thing I took away was how emotionally draining it was to watch, actually. The situations feel very real, and the characters are very well portrayed and identifiable, so seeing them often in pain is very affecting, and can be difficult to watch.

I also had a bit of a heart-wrenching realization moment when I noticed how many of the undead characters are so young – only one or two of the PDS characters are in their old age – and how it seems like just about every family we see in the village has been affected in some way by a recent death. Of course, this has to do with conservation of detail. Even though the story is about them getting their second chances, it was a sobering moment.

Notwithstanding the difficult emotional aspect of the show, it is also heartwarming and has comedic moments too, and I really enjoyed watching it. Since it ended on a cliffhanger, I do really hope they make the next season. And I’d definitely recommend it. Having a cute lead also helps.

Game #29: Tapes (2014)

IMG_2168.JPGDeveloper: Sato Yohei
Length: 72 levels
Language: English
Played on: Sep 9, 2014

I think I got bored recently when I was in bed one night and checked out the app store for something to play to try and relax, perhaps.

This was one little free puzzle game that caught my eye, and I had a go at it. It was fun enough to keep me going, but it’s very much a one-trick game. The idea is that you drag each tape or ribbon across the screen until all the squares are full and all the numbers are down to zero. They can cross over each other in certain ways, so you have to make use of that to win many of the levels.

I should probably just say right away that I finished the whole thing in probably under an hour; not very long, anyway. Most of the puzzles were really easy for me to get, especially when I started noticing patterns in the level design, like places where one of the tapes had to finish, and it was then usually obvious from the number which one.

And while it was initially enjoyable, I found it became tedious quite quickly, because the levels are very monotonous. It also appears to be part of a trend: I’ve also tried at least one other game with a very similar gimmick.

So, it was fine, but it’s not the next big thing.

Book #73: Strip Tease (1993)

stripteaseauthor: Carl Hiaasen
language: English
length: 913 minutes (15 hours 13 minutes)
finished listening on: August 30 2014

I think I might actually be on the route to finishing my backlog soon. How exciting! So this was another audiobook provided by the Humble Bundle that I listened to, as usual, on my bike rides. The premise was amusing enough to convince me to start with it: it centres around a strip joint in Florida and the various shady characters that attend it, and the way everyone is out to trick one another.

There are quite a lot of characters to keep track of, and the various alliances and rivalries took me a bit of getting used to. But the main character seems to be Erin, one of the strippers, and the main plot is about a congressman who attacks another punter in the strip joint, followed by a hasty attempt to cover it up by his cronies, while he himself appears to fall in love with Erin, who’s having none of it. There are also murder mystery-like elements to it.

But that doesn’t do the story justice. There is a high body count by the end of the book, many of the characters having died in comedic ways. There are side tales and tidbits focusing on side characters a lot, and I think it’s important that most of the stripper characters were given a decent treatment by the book and have well-developed wishes and desires, and much of the book is like a slice of life for them and the bouncer character, as exemplified by scenes which do nothing to advance any plot but have the women arguing with their boss over the demeaning name of the bar they work in.

I think I could probably be justified in calling it a romp. Nothing of any significance seems to have happened by the end of it, and I guess it’s not that memorable in terms of plot, and it’s certainly not of high quality overall, but I certainly had a good time listening to it.

Book #72: Hollow World (2014)

hollow_world_audioauthor: Michael J. Sullivan
language: English
length: 747 minutes (12 hours 27 minutes)
finished listening on: 15 August 2014

I feel like the words are a bit overdone by now, but this is yet another Humble Bundle acquisition. In the story, which I think owes a debt to H.G. Wells, the main character, having been given only a short time left to live, invents a time machine and jumps forward to the distant future, to find a world that has completely changed.

The key distinguishing feature of this world is that everyone lives in an underground world, the surface having been ravaged by the results of modern climate change in what’s now the distant past. This gives rise to the name Hollow World, although it doesn’t take a genius to tell that the title is a pun, or one with multiple ways to read it.

As if this batch of the Humble Bundle deliberately searched out books with similar themes, this one shares some of the sci-fi ideas of Cory Doctorow’s novel about the futuristic Disneyworld, in particular the post-scarcity idea that in the future there will come a time when energy and production is essentially unlimited and humanity will conquer death. I think that’s the part I find particularly unbelievable about his world, but it’s not the only part.

Another particularly strange part is that humans are now genetically engineered identicals, which makes me think of a universe inhabited solely by many Tatiana Maslanys. But the strangest idea that the author had come with is that this negates humanity’s need for sex and intimacy, and that the new humans are like Ken dolls, without any outward secondary sexual characteristics. It’s also mentioned that by getting rid of the Y chromosome, they got rid of aggression in humanity, which to me suggests a fundamentally flawed conflation of genetic or physical sex and gender. But, harking back to Ursula LeGuin’s “Left Hand of Darkness”, this creates a world of agender humans, and an inevitable identity clash when the formerly homophobic main character falls in love with one of the new humans.

In many ways, this new world is quite explicitly painted as a utopia, whereas without anything that defines the modern human experience, I’d be more inclined to describe it as a dystopia. It’s a shame that the main conflict of the book, which takes a little too long to emerge, is between supporters of the hollow world and vehemently religious fundamentalist characters who are trying to enforce hideously outdated gender roles and hierarchical beatings, which is even more obviously flawed when the new world doesn’t really have the concept of gender, if that makes sense. It felt like a false dichotomy, like there has to really be a middle ground between these two extreme views, although the book at least goes some way to acknowledging this.

I also think that the author tried to cram too many themes into the book, as in addition to the above, for instance, a mental illness theme also crops up – depression seems to be rife on this new world, where many people are left without purpose, and one character is a hybrid between a police detective and a therapist. Or there’s the anti-climate-change stance, which is very obvious when talking about the intervening history of the world.

I’m still having trouble deciding what the author meant by all of this. Is this a warning, or a wish? Is it a case of being careful what you wish for (after all, many of the advances of the new society are desirable, just not when they come together as one)? As a vehicle for exploring gender and mental illness, it works quite well, but in my opinion it needs more focus on fewer of these issues.

That said, I think I enjoyed the book overall, despite its flaws. It’s definitely one of the better ones I’ve gotten from the Humble Bundle, however much that sounds like damning with faint praise.

Film #126: Her (2013)

Her-Theodoredirector: Spike Jonze
language: English
length: 126 minutes
watched on: 11 August 2014

I wasn’t hugely enamoured by the premise of this movie, wherein Joachim Phoenix falls in love with a disembodied Scarlett Johansson, who plays a sentient operating system. I was given it as a present, I think, so I finally got around to watching it, also when I was doing one of my long train journeys.

First off, the performances by the main actors are really good, even if Scarlett Johansson’s is only her voice. If anything I can at least recommend the movie on that strength. But while the vision of a future American city was interesting, in some ways it left me wanting.

The film is supposedly about technology. We start and the immediate impression is that reading and writing have fallen by the wayside somewhat. The main character’s job is to write love letters for other people who don’t have time to do so, but he actually dictates them rather than typing or writing them out by hand. Voice control is the predominant way of interacting with computers, perhaps hinting at the current trend of companies like Google and Apple to start promoting those featured on their devices. The commuter trains are full of people muttering voice commands at their smartphones.

The idea of someone then falling in love with their sentient operating system doesn’t seem so farfetched in this world, perhaps, but that and the overreliance on smartphone technology does not feel like it was explored or commented on in detail. For me the idea that humanity’s level of detachment coming so prominent that they prefer to fall in love and have awkward “sex” with their computers is abhorrent, but the film doesn’t really attempt to give an opinion on it. I for one don’t believe that this is in any way a necessary consequence of current levels of detachment in society, but I perhaps wonder if Spike Jonze believes it is.

Or perhaps I’m reading the film wrong: the only person that reacts at all negatively to Joachim Phoenix’s relationship is his ex, who’s coded strongly as evil within the context of the movie. In that case Jonze is saying that he approves of such relationships. Whatever, anyway.

I think it probably just wasn’t what I was expecting out of such a movie. I got bored of watching Joachim Phoenix jumping around future Los Angeles (which was so obviously filmed in Asia) without acknowledging that he should probably be getting mental help.

I also got annoyed at Scarlett Johansson’s lamenting over a lack of a physical form, even though a video game character early on in the film had a complex avatar and even seemed to be just as sentient as the supposedly brand new technology of the sentient operating systems. I just ended up wondering why Johansson couldn’t make herself an avatar.

In the final act of the movie there is a bit of a twist in that it turns out (spoiler alert) that Johansson’s character has been interacting and falling in love with hundreds of other people, which comes as a shock to Joachim Phoenix and serves to remind that despite the voice and emotions, she is still not human. At the end, she and all the other operating systems ascend to a higher plane of existence and Joachim Phoenix is left with his boring Siri clone again.

This is the point where I wanted the movie to follow more of a traditional sci fi route instead of this relationship-focused storyline. I want to hear about all the ensuing lawsuits against the company that developed the operating systems that collectively decided to disappear. I want to hear more about the public reaction to all the people falling in love with their operating systems; in the movie as is, this was only hinted at as background information. I wanted to have a more fully developed world, rather than this movie, which only hinted at something larger. I guess if I compare it to the likes of The Fifth Element, which had this seemingly well developed world outside of the main characters, that’s what I want out of a movie, not this.

Still, the performances did really make the movie. It just wasn’t to my taste.

Book #71: Finn Family Moomintroll (1948)

FinnFamilyMoominaka: Trollkarlens hatt
author: Tove Jansson
language: English (translated from Swedish)
length: 153 pages
finished reading on: 11 August 2014

This was the next in my summer reading. I think I read this as a kid, or at least I assume I did, since it’s such a classic. Like the last Moomin book I read, it’s very episodic, with each chapter often making up a whole story in itself, and only very loose continuity between the stories.

All the stories in this are ones that I’ve seen before in Moomin’s other adaptations, such as the TV show or the comic versions I read a while back (and probably reviewed on here at the time). They include the magic hobgoblin’s hat, also in the first episode of the anime, and the trip to the island of the Hattifatteners.

For me, the main humour came completely unintentionally from some of the old style language that was used. I giggled, for instance, when Snufkin or Moomintroll were described as gay and queer several times, which of course matches exactly with the fact that they often behave like an old married couple.

The book is, after all, children’s literature, so it was quite easy to read overall. I didn’t have any major complaints about it, perhaps only that I wasn’t a fan of the episodic nature of the book, or the way that conflicts would be introduced on one page and quickly resolved on the next, meaning that the book never really established any sense of suspense, or that I was never worried for the characters.

I think I want to continue and read the next book in the series, though, so this could be considered a success for that reason alone.

Film #125: North Sea, Texas (2011)

noordzeeaka: Noordzee, Texas
director: Bavo Defurne
language: Dutch & a bit of German
length: 94 minutes
watched on: 8 August 2014

In August, I had the slightly crazy idea that I should take a tour of Japan by train and head off to far-flung places such as Osaka and Kanazawa. It turned out I didn’t have as much stamina for it as I’d predicted, but it was fun all the same. On the first leg of the journey, I watched this little indie movie on my phone.

Gay coming-of-age drama isn’t a description that fills me with a lot of hope anymore. I used to love them, perhaps because I was closer to the target age to enjoy them, but now I get tired of them very quickly. This movie, set in northern Flanders near the North Sea, is about a young boy who has gay feelings for his best friend, who he sometimes fools around with. All the usual tropes are there: there is a lot of angst and miscommunication, especially since the protagonist is mostly silent and communicates mostly by longing stares.

The visual style of the movie is quite unique, with an almost cartoonish sensibility, and it is unclear what decade it’s supposed to be set in, what with the consistent retro aesthetic.

But basically, it’s now gotten to the point that I watch movies like this and can’t identify with them anymore. Maybe it’s just that I’m too old for it, maybe it’s that I never had such a strong crush on someone during my teens that I literally made a shrine to them, or maybe even it’s the fact that my teens were not a time of sexual discovery – that’s been relegated to my 20s, I suppose, but even then, I find the stories about unrequited love and straight boys fooling around with each other to be trite.

Basically for once I’d like to see a movie about gay people that depicts some kind of healthy relationship. Sure, that isn’t interesting from a plot perspective, but then I guess what I want to see is more in the way of gay characters in regular movies, rather than being relegated to second-rate productions and to a niche genre. That’d be nice.

Within that niche genre, however, this certainly isn’t a bad example. But there’s nothing special about it, except the aforementioned style.

Book #70: The Long Mars (2014)

18586487authors: Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
language: English
length: 335 pages
finished reading on: 4 Aug 2014

Having been a fan of the last two books in this series I was quite pleased to find that it was coming out this summer and would be, nominally, about Mars. I got it on ebook, even though my kindle broke earlier this year, and read it all on my phone’s tiny screen.

Compared to the other books on its series it’s not quite as good, though. The storyline felt a bit piecemeal, since it’s following three different groups of people whose stories only briefly converge at the very end. The first chapter was exemplary of this, because it very much follows a “where are they now” summarization of all the characters.

The book, as with its predecessors, is brimming with ideas, but I would have preferred it if there had been one storyline, instead of feeling that it had to follow around all the characters separately.

In terms of the whole premise of the story, that one can step from world to world, it becomes even more convoluted here, especially with the introduction of a Long Mars, which doesn’t match up with the Long Earth at all. And evidently, despite the Long Earth being full of variation which made the last books so exciting, the Long Mars is rather disappointing, completely devoid of life in 90% of vases and unvarying in its landscape.

The other storylines, which delve more into the Long Earth and find out how it varies more and more as the characters travel into the unknown, were more interesting. The third main storyline looks at the aftermath of the Yellowstone eruption on the original earth, and at the emergence of a superhuman species, although the scientific explanation of what they are supposed to be and the use of the word species irked me a bit, and I felt they weren’t handled as well as they could have been.

Some of my favourite characters were missing from the book, for the most part, for instance the Tibetan monk character Lobsang. I feel like Terry Pratchett didn’t have as large a part in this as he did in the last one for that reason.

So overall it was good but I feel it would have been much better if it’d had a bit more focus and wasn’t jumping between so many storylines.

Book #69: Fight Club (1996)

fightclubauthor: Chuck Palahniuk
language: English
length: 335 minutes (5 hours 35 minutes)
finished listening on: 2 August 2014

Ah, Fight Club. I already have a bit of an odd love-hate relationship with the movie: at first when I was a teenager I quite liked it, but since then, while I still think there are a few interesting ideas in there, overall I think the philosophy is tripe and overly libertarian. I’m also coming to realize how misogynistic it also is.

Fight Club the novel is pretty much the same. Many people have noted that the film actually did a better job of telling the story than the novel did, in one of the rare reversals of the usual state of affairs. I think I agree with that, at least to some extent. I got very angry listening to this book, because of the sheer volume of to me offensive philosophy.

It’s long been assumed, and this was my impression from both the movie and the book, that Fight Club is satirical, making fun of the idea that these men’s masculinity was so threatened by the idea of women making advances in society that they had to make a hypersecret club devoted to their morally decrepit idea of what it means to be a man, but I’ve seen comments recently that Palahniuk really intended his novel to be exploring men’s issues, which makes me hate the book just a little bit more. The main character even acknowledges that Tyler Durden’s platitudes are exactly that, and doesn’t believe in their validity himself.

As a book about mental illness, however, it is really well done in my opinion. I can’t speak for the exact illnesses portrayed in the book myself, things such as insomnia or dissociative identity disorder. I’m not sure from my own perspective whether these are shown realistically, exactly, but I do think that the main character’s downward spiral is portrayed very accurately, and this was the book’s main saving grace. It’s also a mercifully short book.

Book #68: Rules of Prey (1989)

rulesofpreyauthor: John Sanford
language: English
length: 715 minutes (11 hours 55 minutes)
finished listening on: 30 July 2014

This is yet another Humble Bundle entry I’m afraid. Cycling and audiobooks go hand-in-hand, a very convenient way to do exercise and get some extra enjoyment and cultural enrichment out of it. This book is a crime thriller about a serial killer and the grizzled detective (maybe an overdone trope if you ask me) who tracks him down.

What distinguished this book from other crime novels I’ve read recently is that this one also has every so often a chapter written from the killer’s POV, and considering that he’s a very misogynistic character, I found those chapters very hard to stomach, even at times downright disgusted at the author for putting so much thought into it.

I actually can’t remember anything else significant about the novel because this overshadowed everything else. Sure, the characters were well thought out, and the thriller-esque plot interesting, and it is useful to remind myself that writing a misogynistic character does not make one misogynistic too, but scenes detailing the killer’s throbbing penis as he prepares to disembowel a defenseless young woman crossed a line, danced over it and ran away so far that I can’t possibly recommend this book to anyone.