Book #131: We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (2016)

author: Dennis E. Taylor
language: English
length: 570 minutes (9 hours 30 minutes)
finished listening on: 10 March 2017

I like science fiction books, and I’ve been through enough of them that most of what Audible recommends me now are sci-fi (that and cheap knock-offs of the Peter Grant books). But sci-fi for me can be hit and miss, and this unwieldily-titled book is for me an almost exact repeat of Ready Player One. It’s compelling enough to finish and has a nice central idea, but doesn’t appeal to me for a number of reasons – and yet has very high reviews on Audible and Amazon, leading me to try it.

The central idea is that the main character Bob signs up for a new cryogenic freezing project, but his consciousness is instead uploaded a hundred years later into a spaceship intended as a Von Neumann probe – a self-replicating deep space explorer. His job is then to go out to the nearest stars and try to find planets where earthlings can colonize, then to replicate himself and send the new replicants out to other planets, and so on.

I think a lot of its appeal to mid-30s men is that it’s full of pop-culture references. The main character often references Star Trek, for example. One of the 22nd century human characters remarks that he has to brush up on his 20th century sci-fi, and I felt the same way. The other thing is that every time Bob replicates himself the new replicant adopts a new name, often taken from pop culture. Things like Riker from Star Trek, or Homer Simpson, or Calvin and Hobbes. So there is a nice element here if you can recognize the names.

The book also borrows heavily from 1984 with its political fragmentation – there’s an American equivalent, a United States of Europe, and China controlling all of East-Asia. It does have a Brazilian Empire, the main antagonists, an African republic, and Australia, so not as simplified, but when Bob wakes up in the 22nd century they’re talking about the Ministry of Truth in the new American theocracy called “F.A.I.T.H.” – with such name changes, it could get difficult at times to remember what the book’s countries were meant to be.

Basically my main problem with the book is it doesn’t have any coherent structure, and it doesn’t have a proper ending, as it ends on a bunch of cliffhangers. I think the author wants to set up a big space opera setting, but it’s a bit tedious. I would have much preferred something that gave closure on some kind of main plot, but as it is, it’s difficult to say which is the main plot. It splits off after the first replication into one character that stays to try and terraform a planet, another who goes back to Earth to try and sort out the political situation there, and several who go on to other planets. The original Bob ends up finding a “primitive” alien civilization and influences them, while a more introverted replicant finds evidence of a larger alien civilization who have strip-mined a solar system – but this is part of the teaser for the next book, it seems.

The other problem is, there’s just one character, and he’s boring and obnoxious. The book goes to pains to distinguish the new Bobs from one another, giving them new names, and in some cases the narrator of the audiobook tries unsuccessfully to give them new voices (but he can’t imitate Homer Simpson, who ends up sounding like a Minnesotan or Canadian). They talk about how their personalities differ… but it’s not enough. It’s a cast of one guy talking to his own clones. I know this could be done effectively – although it’s a different medium, just look at Orphan Black, for instance, where one actress plays upwards of ten completely different characters. Bob is just a bit masculine in an insipid way, and this book is what a lack of diversity looks like. (There’s also a more minor issue that reminded me of Neptune’s Brood, in that the now-robotic character is hard to relate to in a human way.)

I also had major issues with the tribal culture he comes across. They don’t look like humans, but in every other way, they do. They have two genders, the strong males who do the hunting and the weak females who do the childrearing and gathering fruits and berries. The author even speculates that this might be universal. Like, he can do whatever he wants in his own universe, but I’ll never be convinced that aliens follow the American/Western gender binary. On those last two points, I just want to mention The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – in that case, although I was annoyed that the aliens tended to have a gender binary, it was almost always completely different from what we’re used to. And the set of characters didn’t consist of one guy replicated over and over. It was, in a word, more diverse.

OK, I have one more problem, actually. The fight scenes never left me feeling in jeopardy. None of the Bobs actually get killed in a fight until quite near the end. But as soon as they started replicating, I was hoping the author would consider them more disposable and start killing them off to engender a sense of danger when confronting the other characters. They also use the same tactics each battle. I just got bored with these scenes.

I did keep going with the book because I did want to find out what happened next, and I think there is a sense of wit there. It’s just, it’s not what I would hope for in sci fi. The book closes with humans settling on two planets, that our nerd fanboy main character has named after two planets in the Star Trek universe, and the book’s final line (spoilers lol) is “Roddenberry would be proud”, and I completely disagree – Roddenberry’s Star Trek was a character-driven diverse show that tried to break boundaries in society (viz. the first interracial kiss on American TV and the strong gay subtext between Kirk and Spock)… and this book is an idea-driven book about one straight white American dudebro talking to himself for most of the book. I hate to break it down to simplistic labels like that – I don’t think those kinds of arguments necessarily hold water, but “Roddenberry would be proud” is a strong claim.

So if you want flawed but amusing soft sci fi fluff, it’s okay. It does its job. If you’re expecting more, there’s plenty of better stuff out there.


Film #273: King Cobra (2016)

director: Justin Kelly
language: English
length: 92 minutes
watched on: 9 March 2017

I heard about this film late last year and was instantly intrigued – it’s about the gay porn industry, and specifically Brent Corrigan, gay porn’s poster boy for the past twelve years. It’s based on the young porn star’s life as a teenager getting into the porn industry, and then the drama that ensues.

Brent Corrigan’s name will probably be familiar to most gay readers, I think – I guess it’s funny that I don’t think any straight porn stars have the same level of fame. The real Corrigan has since branched out to real acting under his real name, Sean Paul Lockhart – he was in Judas Kiss, for example, which I watched a few years ago.

As seems to be par for the course with biopics (viz. Tickled and a few others), Lockhart has publicly denounced this film and called it exploitative and misrepresentative of the gay porn industry. No doubt, but it’s a fun interpretation of a book written about the Brent Corrigan saga.

The climax (spoilers, by the way!) deals with the eventual murder of Christian Slater’s character, the producer who’d worked with Corrigan and claimed copyright on the name Brent Corrigan, by two rival producers, James Franco’s character and his young lover – who were trying to get Corrigan to work for them. This much is apparently true, although the aftermath was rushed in the film and the real Lockhart has complained about this section in particular.

The other main point in the film is the relatively well-known fact that Lockhart was only 17 when he made his first couple of movies, making the movies illegal child pornography. The fallout from this also seems to be true-to-life.

The film is sexy, and it has a nice colour palette, with a lot of pink and red – it almost reminded me of Pink Narcissus, although that might be too high praise for it. It looks very polished, too, and I thought it was fun to watch. Christian Slater’s and James Franco’s characters are suitably creepy, although the real Lockhart has complained about this too. I noticed they were trying to really go for the mid-2000s as a period, so it was funny to see the amount of flip-phones being used, and the old-style websites. It’s funny that we’re already at the point that we can stereotype that era.

But it’s also exploitative, often treating sex as a joke, and it doesn’t know how to balance tone. James Franco is probably partly culpable here – I find his attitude towards the gay community in general to be exploitative (and there’s an argument to be made that this is his vehicle more than anyone else’s). It’s usually quite funny and playful, but will throw a character’s history of sexual abuse in your face at a moment’s notice. It’s also weird sometimes – as if to try and raise the glamour level of porn, the main characters are constantly discussing porn loudly in expensive restaurants, to the point where it got annoying and unrealistic. Don’t these people have offices?

Also, while I did enjoy the colourfulness and the set design in general, I think the director still has some way to go with editing and cinematography. I remember one long take of one particular conversation, that cut halfway through to shot-reverse shot style, and I was jolted out of watching it. I think he still hasn’t found his own style, not quite.

There’s also the issue of the ending, which is rushed. I wanted to see more of the fallout from the murder, but it was framed as the climax here. There’s also a comment from Corrigan working as a porn producer right at the end, which echoes directly a comment made by Christian Slater, suggesting he’s no better than the creep who came before him.

Basically, it has a lot of issues and it is pretty amateurish, but it was fun to watch. That’s the best way to describe it, I think.

Film #272: Pink Narcissus (1971)

director: James Bidgood
language: silent (with some radio clips)
length: 65 minutes
watched on: 8 March 2017

It’s not the first time I’ve watched this, but I saw images of it online recently, and the desire to see it again was brimming for a while. The last time I saw it was back in 2008, quite a long time. As of writing this, it’s available on Youtube, so I recommend people search it out (but be careful, it does get very explicit).

I honestly think there are few more iconic films than this one, especially gay ones. Its visual style is very distinct, and there are plenty of imitators – the artists Pierre & Gilles, for example, or Bavo Defurne’s films that I watched last year.

Nominally, there’s a plot (it’s supposed to be the fantasies of a young male prostitute, but this is rather awkwardly tacked on to the film), but it’s more of a series of erotic images played to viewers with music – with no dialogue, presumably too expensive to record at the time. Apparently it took several years to make in the director’s New York apartment, which was extravagantly dressed up for all the different scenes. And the film was originally credited to “anonymous” – and no wonder, given the time period, and how explicit it gets.

But it’s a long tease – penises don’t show up on screen until the third act or so, and the moment is built up a lot. There’s a lot of thrusting and sex acts already, including a belly dancer waving his dick around under a thin cloth covering. A thinly-veiled penis indeed. I was almost surprised when they eventually lifted the veil, as it were.

And not all the images are sexual, although that’s obviously the main focus. One of my favourites is where the film, or the screen, seems to crack, but it zooms out to show it’s actually a spider’s web.

Now obviously I like watching guys naked or in very tightly-fitting clothing that outlines their butts – and Bobby Kendall, the main actor, is super cute – but it’s the music, perfectly matching the images, and the vivid colours that make this film work. There’s just something special about it.

Book #130: Openly Straight (2013)

author: Bill Konigsberg
language: English
length: 339 pages
finished reading on: 6 Mar 2017

It remains the case, at least from what I can see, that it’s easier to find young adult LGBT novels than it is to find more grown-up stuff. Perhaps my readers have a different perspective? Let me know if you know anything good! Anyway, for me this follows on from similar books like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, which I read last year. It’s similarly easy to read, and the story is also generally optimistic.

The conceit here is a boy called Rafe who is openly gay, but tired of being The Gay Kid at his school, and wants to be treated “normally”. So he ups and moves right across the country to attend boarding school in Massachusetts, where he decides he’s not going to reveal his sexuality straight away – going back in the closet, as his best friend and family term it.

The arc of the story is very predictable – I could tell what was going to happen within the first two chapters, as all the main characters are introduced. But this predictability is a boon in this genre, actually. It’s comforting to be able to know what will happen next.

The exploration of identity is interesting, but I’m definitely out of the target audience of teenagers still trying to work this stuff out. But I could see parts of myself in it too. I was never “out” in high school, but I would never have wanted to be seen as The Gay Kid. I’m reminded of something my coworker said recently – being gay is important to me but it’s not my primary identity, nor the first adjective he’d describe me with. His impression was that Americans seem to be more eager to make it the centre of their identities, and if I was American I might want to be seen as That Gay Guy.

Not sure about that, but that idea is reflected to some extent here – the other characters are shocked when they find out the main character is tired of broadcasting his identity in such a way, and it looks into the labels we apply to each other. Once he stops broadcasting that he’s gay, he immediately picks up other labels, such as “jock”. And it’s more subtle, but names, too, are very important in the book – the main character goes by different names to different people, and his friend gets angry when people call her the wrong name. I think this was a sensible choice from the author to demonstrate other shifts in identity that everyone makes.

I’m not so into many sports myself, and sports are also a big theme of the book – so I switched off a bit for the descriptions of soccer or American football, but I liked the bits where they went skiing. Selective, perhaps.

It gets very, very awkward at some points, though, in that way of teenagers unable to express their feelings well. Similar to Boys, the last movie I watched, it reminded me in a bad way of the anxiety of coming out.

So while I enjoyed its exploration of the character’s identity, and in general I found it easy to read and enjoyed the variety of characters and situations, I still think I need to get away from stories of coming out and coming of age.

And thus I reiterate my initial request – does anyone know any gay novels that aren’t about coming of age?

Film #270-271: Boys (2014) + bonus short film

aka: Jongens
director: Mischa Kamp
language: Dutch and a bit of English
length: 76 minutes
watched on: 3 Mar 2017

I’ve been seeing pictures and gifs of this movie online for a while, and it looked good. It’s yet another gay coming-of-age movie. You’d think I’d have had enough of them by now, but I don’t get a whole lot of choice in the genre. Anyway, I bought it on DVD when I was back home.

This movie is basically harmless, and it can be fairly described as “nice” for most of its runtime. It tells the story of two teenage boys on the running team in a rural Dutch school who fall in love. Meanwhile, the main character, in deep denial, also gets a kind-of girlfriend to fit in with his best friend and his brother. Unlike his romance with the other boy, which develops slowly and naturally, this seems forced and rushed. Towards the end it comes down to a choice between the two.

The film has a good visual style. It’s clean and uses contrast and symmetry well. I noticed this watching it, and then the director said that’s what she was trying to achieve in the DVD extras – they wanted something that would be iconic enough that individual frames could be screenshotted easily.

The other important thing about the movie is that I think it’s the first “PG” rated gay film I’ve ever seen – and this was also very deliberate on the part of the director, as her target audience was young people just figuring out their sexual orientation. In terms of sexual content, it goes as far as kissing and making out, but not further. I guess some of the homoerotic exercise shots reminded me of Bavo Defurne’s work, which I watched last year, but they were also pretty tame.

Overall, I liked the visual style of the movie, but as I say, I need to take a break from movies about coming out. I think on the same day I watched this, I read That Article that’s been circulating about how gay men are all lonely and emotionally stunted from the experience of being in the closet (I partially agree with it, but it’s a very pessimistic article and has some faulty arguments/conclusions without advice on how to break such a cycle), and watching this film, about being in the closet and figuring oneself out, didn’t help my anxious feeling that day. Still, I’d recommend the movie, it’s basically harmless and optimistic, and feels really genuine and warm-hearted.

The DVD also came with a bonus short film:
Film #271: Even Cowboys Get to Cry (2013)
aka: Cowboys janken ook
director: Mees Peijnenberg
language: Dutch and a bit of French
length: 25 minutes

So I just waxed lyrical a bit about the importance of having a PG-rated gay movie… and the distributors kind of ruined that by packaging it with this 18-rated short, meaning that young teenagers trying to figure out their sexuality can’t even buy this movie legally in the UK. Like, this doesn’t concern me a lot personally, but it’s annoying. I can see why they added it, though – the main feature is a bit shorter than usual at 76 minutes.

The movie is connected to the other by dint of sharing two main actors – in Boys, they are the boyfriend and brother of the main character, here they are best friends and troublemakers. They have a “bromance” going on at the start of the movie and there are some scenes showing how close they are. But then, one of them starts a fight after drinking, and the other gets in a coma as a result of the ensuing violence. The rest of the movie is his rehabilitation and the first boy’s guilt – they sort of drift apart and reconcile at the end.

It’s not gay like the other movie, actually, although it’s very easy to read subtext into it. And the sexual content that gets it an 18 rating is pretty superfluous – firstly, there is a scene where one boy walks in on the other while he’s having sex with a girl, meant to show how they are inappropriately close, and the other is in the hospital, when we accidentally see his erect penis. I think these scenes are meant to titillate, and I think they could easily be extracted from the film.

A bit disappointing, but an interesting look at disability and rehabilitation.

Has anyone else seen this/these?

Book #129: Magpie Murders (2016)

author: Anthony Horowitz
language: English
length: 947 minutes
finished listening on: 26 Feb 2017

This is one of the bestsellers on Audible at the moment, which is how I heard about it, and it’s a book with a unique conceit, which is why I chose to listen to it. It’s basically a book within a book – and while that’s not in itself a unique conceit, I don’t know of any other books that reproduce an entire fictional book within its own pages.

It’s nominally a crime thriller / murder mystery in the vein of Sherlock Holmes or Poirot, but it’s actually the story of an editor, Susan Ryeland, reading a book and finding that it has missing chapters at the end, and then trying to find out how the story ends. Meanwhile, the author of the book, Alan Conway, is murdered, and she ends up in her own murder mystery.

The conceit works well in the audiobook format, as the narrator switches to a male voice for the book-within-the-book, and switches back to the female voice for the parts narrated by the editor of the book. The male narrator does well with the fictional book, which is set in a rural part of England, and has a German main character in Atticus Pund (or Pünd, maybe – I didn’t see the name written down, but there was a reference to an umlaut at one point, although neither narrator pronounced it correctly if there was), who is the book’s detective. He had quite a dynamic voice and range of accents. The female narrator isn’t as good at accents, but that works well for her sections, which are narrated in first person and more conversational in tone – she’s doing things like commenting directly on the style and narration of the book within the book. I actually forgot at one point that she was also, strictly speaking, a character in the novel, which is pretty rare! But basically, when she narrates dialogue, the other characters all sound posh, and the Scottish accent she attempted for one character was laughable.

It’s not my first experience of Horowitz’s writing, but the last time I read him must be more than a decade ago – he wrote the very popular Alex Rider series, and I read the first few books when I was young. They were pretty formulaic young-adult James Bond clones, but exciting for teenage boys. I think one even got made into a movie. My brother was also into them, more than me. I actually think Horowitz is still writing them, and I’m sure they’d be interesting to read now, but I’m well out of the target audience. I also read another “adult” book by him, also a long time ago. I get the feeling he’s been pigeonholed as a children’s writer, leading to frequent comments that books like this are a rare break from form for him.

In the book, this is actually reflected in the author who is murdered, who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a murder mystery writer, and that’s one of the many levels that the book works on. Similarly, aspects of the murder of the author are reflected in aspects of the murder in the story he wrote in the story. It gets confusing if you think about it for too long.

But I liked the book for that. In the first half it’s a straight murder mystery in the style of Poirot or Holmes, but also reminiscent of J.K. Rowling’s post-Potter work (the Cormoran Strike series or The Casual Vacancy) – a little old-fashioned with its 50s setting in a village.

It then goes ahead and deconstructs itself, and even the whole murder mystery genre, in the second half. At this point it takes on a fairly accurate description of modern Britain (I always appreciate seeing gay characters, even if one of them is the murder victim, and not everyone is unrealistically white), reminiscent again of J.K. Rowling or the Peter Grant series (although that’s a lot more self-conscious about breaking that mould).

Then in the final act, it dives right back in to the murder mystery schtick for the Reveal, first as Susan solves her side of the mystery, and then as she finally finds the missing chapters and we get to hear the solution to the original mystery. And as it goes, there are further excerpts from Conway’s writing and from other characters and authors in comparison, and Horowitz writes each style distinctively and adeptly.

There are also a number of nice twists in the ending, and I laughed out loud on a train when the secret of the detective character’s name is revealed. It was nice to get closure on the story – at one point I hadn’t expected to get it – but the two endings didn’t tie together quite as nicely as I’d hoped.

So I would recommend it overall. It’s not ground-breaking, exactly, but it accomplishes something unique, and going right out of the story in the way this does lends it a special quality. Anyone else read it?

Film #269: Arrival (2016)

arrivaldirector: Denis Villeneuve
language: English and some Mandarin
length: 116 minutes
watched on: 24 Feb 2017

I’ve been looking forward to this for a while now, because it’s circulated among linguist circles online that it’s a sci-fi movie that includes linguistics. Opinion is divided on whether it does this well, naturally, but however you feel, it’s infinitely better than the way languages and linguistics are normally treated by filmmakers.

I didn’t know much about it – people have been pretty good at not spoiling the movie, thankfully. I can’t promise anything, but I’ve tried to keep more explicit spoilers out of this review… but even small things I mention in passing here might spoil the movie in a small way, so I strongly recommend watching the movie before reading about it. In the story, Amy Adams is Louise, a linguist who’s drafted to try and translate the language of some mysterious aliens who land on Earth. Said aliens themselves haven’t been spoiled, nor has their language, so I’m reluctant to give too much away – suffice to say they look great, if a bit goofy, and the language has a unique visual design aspect to it.

My main criticism of the movie is that the central premise relies too much on the “strong” version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (language determines thought). The question is not clear-cut (see Through the Language Glass for a book with a more in-depth discussion of how the weaker version of the hypothesis holds water), but that was the part I didn’t agree with, and the point at which I was skeptical.

But what it does with that idea is where the film surpasses any of that. And as I mentioned, the depiction of what linguistics is, and the kinds of methods used to contact peoples that have never been contacted, is completely accurate. There’s an important moment early on where, to prove a point, Amy Adams’ character tells the story that “kangaroo” meant “I don’t understand” in some Aboriginal language, which is why it’s important to be completely sure when communicating – and she immediately follows it up to another character with something like “By the way, it’s not actually true”. And that’s more than I can say for, well, any other movie ever.

I don’t say this lightly, but I genuinely believe this is a modern sci-fi classic. I’m going to try and avoid spoiling it outright, but here’s the thing: I was very annoyed by the movie’s setup. In the opening shots of the movie, we see Amy Adams’ backstory: her daughter being born, growing up, and then dying in her teens. It reminded me a lot of Up, the Pixar movie, but for some reason I didn’t feel the same emotional impact of it. It felt like it was going through the motions somehow. Later in the movie, I was frustrated by Adams’ character having hints of what I saw as an unnecessary romance with Jeremy Renner. But, there’s a twist in the final act of the film, and although it does push the boundary of reality a bit, it’s so monumental that it instantly justified any of what came before it, adding whole complex layers to Adams’ performance and her character’s situation.

It’s one of those one-line-changes-everything twists, on a par with The Sixth Sense, or The Empire Strikes Back, or Fight Club, or any of the usual suspects you think of when you think of movies with twists (OK I hate myself for making that pun), or indeed the last film I watched, The Girl on the Train. I don’t usually get the strong feeling that I should rewatch something armed with the knowledge of the twist, but I’m getting it now. I think there’s a lot that I missed (and not just related to that – there were some lines about theoretical physics I missed too).

Aside from that, it’s a tonally coherent movie, and it keeps a level of mystery in its aliens that I don’t usually see. Parts of it reminded me of Interstellar, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey, at least in visual design – and I think its twist and ending is better than Interstellar, at least. Although I wasn’t impressed with the opening sequence, I thought the emotional aspects of the movie well-balanced by the end of the movie.

I’m probably going to watch this again. And I want to read the short story it’s based on. So watch this space. Anyone else seen this? What did you think?