Film #286: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

creator: Walt Disney
language: English
length: 83 minutes
watched on: 28 April 2017

I think I watched this as a child, but it was so long ago I can’t remember it at all. Anyway, recently some of the less reputable shops in Japan have been selling old Disney movies for ¥80 a pop – it says on the sleeve that they’re now in the public domain. I suspect that this isn’t the case in America or the UK, but I don’t know. The knock-off DVDs are pretty low quality, though, of course. You can see the interlacing and it skipped a couple of times during the movie.

I kind of assume you all know what happens in this movie. I knew the basic story already, it’s just the details that have escaped me. I don’t really know what I expected from this period (compare with His Wedding Night (1917), for example), but the gender roles are ridiculously strong in this movie. Snow White controls everything around her with her beauty (the animals do her bidding when she sings), and her role in the dwarfs’ lives is to be a positive feminine force – she basically makes a deal to stay with them if she can do all their housework for them, and before she arrives, they’re slovenly, like college students. As for Prince Charming, I think he has a total of about two minutes’ screen time. Not quite enough to establish a romance, I’d have thought.

Things I liked included Dopey, basically a silent film character whose role is to provide slapstick humour, and the few sequences in the movie that were actually kind of scary, like when the dwarfs chase the witch away up a cliff during a thunderstorm. The dwarf characters are all established well and have distinctive characters, even when they have very little screentime – this is in direct contrast to movies (and indeed books) like The Hobbit. Over the course of that trilogy, I could only reliably distinguish about three of the dwarves by character, and I couldn’t remember any of their names.

It was also nice to hear the songs, although “Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, it’s off to work we go” is still the only one I actually know in any capacity. And I found the film funny, mostly. It’s nice to revisit things like this. I got two more ¥80 DVDs at the same time, so I will eventually watch and review those too. Watch this space, I guess.

How about you? What’s your favourite Disney movie?

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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.

Book #124: A Closed and Common Orbit (2016)

acacoauthor: Becky Chambers
language: English and some invented languages
length: 789 minutes (13 hours, 9 minutes)
finished listening on: 2 December 2016

This is the second book in the series of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. When I finished that book back in September, the sequel hadn’t been released yet. I think it came out in October. Like its predecessor, it’s coincided with an uptick in the amount of cycling I’ve been doing (during which time I generally have it on), as I’m finally getting over various muscle injuries I’ve had during this year. Indeed, I had injured my elbows back in September because of bad posture on my bike, so I’ve now been able to fix the bike position and other stuff.

So I say it’s a sequel, and that’s only kind of true. It’s following two minor characters from the previous book – Pepper, a techie with a mysterious past, and the AI Lovelace, known as Sidra from about the second or third chapter, who was rebooted at the end of the last book with a scrubbed memory, much to the despair of all the other characters. Basically, Pepper convinces the AI to be reinstalled into a body-kit, like a hyper-realistic android, and then this story is about her journey as she settles into her new body, and the people she meets. In alternate chapters, it also looks into Pepper’s origin story as Jane 23 – a slave clone on a decadent world, sorting through junk in a scrap yard in a world populated by “Enhanced” humans. Sounds like something out of the Hunger Games.

Both characters’ arcs are about finding identity, similar to some of the themes of the first book, finding friendship, and feeling comfortable in one’s own skin. It’s coming-of-age, essentially. Sidra’s story is often about being the “ghost in the machine” – she never feels connected to her body, doesn’t feel ownership of it, until really the end of the book. Part of her journey is literally hacking into her programming to be able to tell lies, and this seems to be one of the keys to her feeling in control of her body. Jane/Pepper’s story is more about finding one’s purpose in life, which is reflected to an extent in Sidra’s story, with a hefty dollop of PTSD and the other effects of an abusive childhood – especially at first, as not having a task to do would lead to punishment in her factory.

Compared to the last book, it’s less of a space opera and more of an interpersonal drama set nominally in space. There are maybe five characters we need to care about throughout, which is a lot less taxing to keep track of, and they don’t really go off-world – no journeying through hyperspace like before. But Chambers uses the opportunity to explore the cultures of her invented universe a lot more, and various cultures are mentioned and expanded that weren’t before. It’s like a warm embrace welcoming me back into her world – it’s only been a few months since the last one, and even then it’s nice to come back into it, with all the unique words and expressions that her future people use.

If I’m to give any outright criticism of the book, as I did before with The Long Way…, it’s going to be mostly nitpicking. Perhaps I wasn’t fully satisfied with the genders again (and the narrator is still awkward saying the epicene pronoun xe) – this time we see that the Aeluons have four genders, but I’d prefer to say four physiological sexes or phenotypes. The extra two genders are basically bigender and agender in our modern context, but they’re actually physically different from males and females.

Anyway, one character Tak switches between male and female every other scene, similar to the character Corey/Kory in The Art of Breathing, which I listened to last year. But unlike that, where the male and female represent different sides of the character and their psyche, I didn’t perceive any significant difference in the way that Tak is presented or the way other characters react to them in one gender or the other. It’s more a game of working out which pronoun the character is using in each chapter. Basically I think I’d have liked a more in-depth look at how this affects the society and the characters.

But those are pretty minor points, and they’re not the main thrust of the story. Just like The Long Way…, it’s a great female-driven sci-fi-esque story about friendship and found family, and that alone should be enough to recommend it. It’s also funny and sweet in equal measures, and towards the end I couldn’t stop listening (some other audiobooks, I can only withstand about an hour at a time before I start tuning out). OK, perhaps a bit saccharine at times, but nonetheless a great listen. The two books are standalone, and one can really read them in any order, but I think the previous book is a better starting point overall. It will fill in a lot of background that’s missing from this book, and it’s a more conventional sci-fi story. But this is a really good book.

Book #112: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014)

lwsmaauthor: Becky Chambers
language: English
length: 941 minutes (15 hours 41 minutes)
finished listening on: 16 September 2016

I chose to listen to this audiobook after Audible kept pushing it on me, basically, but I’m glad overall that I chose it. It also coincided with me getting on my bike more often as the weather mellowed out at the beginning of September, and my sore wrist started healing well enough that I could get on my bike again, so thinking about the book reminds me of going out on my bike and listening to it.

It’s a space opera in the traditional sense of the word, a soap opera in space – it calls to mind things such as Star Trek, and many have compared it to Firefly… but its alien species are much more inventive than either of those (did Firefly even have aliens, come to think of it?). You can do a lot more in book form than it was easy to do on TV in the 20th century without CGI.

Here we have bipedal giant lizards, insectoids, and these blob-shaped things who need mobility scooters and are somehow in effective control of the galaxy. I’ll come back to them later. Having done a bit of cursory research, I’ve realized that I don’t know how to spell any of the names of the aliens (Aandrisk, Aeluon, Quelin, instead of Andrisk, Aluon, and Quellin as they were in my mind), however, and probably most of the characters too – I know at least that the main character is Rosemarie instead of Rosemary. Such are the risks of going with the audiobook version of something.

It follows the story of a “tunneling” ship, whose job it is to create hyperspace links between different parts of the galaxy. They get the job of a lifetime, but it’s going to take them a year to get there. The aforementioned Rosemarie is a new addition to the crew, which is why I think of her as the main character – we’re introduced to the assortment of other characters through her eyes, after all – but each character gets in the limelight eventually. The number of characters is manageable, and they’re all fully fleshed-out by the end of the book. I’m glad the author managed to avoid introducing too many characters. That said, the two “techie” characters blended in my mind, and the narrator wasn’t always good at distinguishing characters by voice, so I still lost track sometimes.

Overall it focuses on these characters and their interactions rather than the grandiose galactic politics going on in the background, and this also worked well in its favour. It does raise some interesting questions using its characters – identity politics is front-and-centre, as it seems it’s not easy to adopt a new identity in this world, and there are other questions raised by interspecies romance (interspecies lesbian romance also features, which is nice!), and even human-AI romance. There’s also a religious question with one species. The author is sending out a message of tolerance, which is nice. She’s also obsessed with sex, I think – so much of the novel is devoted to the different sexual mores of the other species.

I liked it, and I enjoyed the road-trip, episodic nature of it, although (spoilers!) the climax was a bit… anti-climactic. I liked seeing all the different species and I also thought it was good that they didn’t all speak the same language – the main characters speak “Clip”, and the others don’t necessarily do so. Something else I read recently was guilty of using “universal translators”, which might as well be magic. I also liked that it fits into a wider sci fi canon – it uses “ansibles” (a kind of hyperspace communicator), popularized by Ursula LeGuin way back when and used by many other authors since (Orson Scott Card, for example). I liked the glimpses we got into how the culture and technology has changed since the present day, like “scribs”, the author’s word for iPad-like tablets (I’ve noticed these show up in a lot of sci fi recently, and no authors seem to want to call them tablets), although she abbreviates “ansible” to “sib”, so this was confusing for me, as the words sound the same.

I did have a few problems with it, though. First off, the “human culture” that she describes (averse to touch, likes handshakes, and all that) is very America-centric. True, humans don’t go to the extent of her Aandrisks, who are more like bonobo chimps in their sexual proclivity, but it was that and a few other points that made me want to introduce the author to cultures outside her own in the real world.

Similarly, the term “solar year” should be “Earth year” or “terran year” or something – the main character Rosemarie grew up on Mars, so her solar year should be different. It’s a minor point, but it bothered me. The book has its own calendar, using “GC standard years” (GC is… galactic core?), but it’s never explained what this means other than that it’s longer than an earth year. It uses “tendays” instead of “weeks” and “months”, which I think would look good in print, but is often ambiguous when said out loud (the narrator reads “tendays later”, with a meaning like “about a month later”, the same as she would say “ten days later”). That said, the author uses new words relatively sparingly for a sci-fi novel, and it’s easy to get used to the new words.

The bigger thing I had a problem with was the treatment of gender across different species. The author and some reviews have made a big deal of the use of gender-neutral pronouns (xe and xir, or something like that). I’m ambivalent about these in real life anyway, as I don’t think they sound natural, and the narrator stumbled over them a few times. Most places where they’re used it’s in a place where it’d be more natural in English to use epicene “they” – but “they” is reserved for a character who considers themselves an amalgamation of two minds. I got a bit annoyed by the idiosyncracy here, really, but I don’t really mind, because they’re not supposed to be speaking English, so this is like a translation-convention kind of deal.

OK, so that’s fine, but I was expecting there to be a stronger motivation for having a separate epicene pronoun in the first place, and it turns out all of Chambers’ alien species had male/female dichotomic sexual reproduction. Even the insectoids and the aliens that look like blobs. Some transferred from female in earlier life to male later, and one has parthenogenesis in some females, but I found that the few times the epicene pronouns were even used, it was the situation where the other characters didn’t know their gender yet. The situation where modern English always uses “they”, even transphobic grammar-nazis. Honestly, I’d have liked to have seen an alien species which genuinely had no genders.

There was a point when the author pointed out in-story that, yes, all her species are based on DNA, and I think sexual reproduction was probably part of that package. I think this was so that she could work in a familiar framework when designing new species, and so that they could all eat each other’s food, but that doesn’t have to mean a binary gender system for everyone. For all the inventiveness of Chambers’ biological diversity, the lack of diversity in gender and sex systems bothered me more than just the use of invented pronouns, which is a really minor thing.

But even that’s pretty minor. The book is fun, and there’s a lot to like about it. As I mentioned above, I liked a lot of things about it. I think it’s a strong debut from the author, and I hope that some other people have read it. I have more thoughts about this that I don’t really have space for, by the way. I’ve already said enough – it’s always the ones I like that I write more about, after all. Maybe we could discuss it – leave your thoughts down below if you agree/disagree!

Book #8: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

author: Ursula LeGuin
language: English
length: 248 pages
finished on: 14/2

book cover Another self-proclaimed “classic of science fiction” that looked interesting on the shelves of my local library, The Left Hand of Darkness starts with the premise of a planet populated by a hermaphroditic species of humans and explores the implications behind such a race. Essentially, “what if there was no male and female binary?”

The planet is called Gethen, but nicknamed Winter – as this suggests, the planet is in the midst of an ice age and is permanently cold without a particularly hot summer (although it does have a summer). We see the planet through the eyes of an envoy from Earth, who pretty much has a hard time internalising that the inhabitants aren’t really men or women but somewhere inbetween.

I found that the story didn’t really kick off in a real way until over halfway through, so there were many pages of boredom during the early stages of the book – but I’ve already read at least 3 of LeGuin’s Earthsea series, so I know that she’s able to right reasonably well. It only became truly gripping, though, during the final stages of the book, when the two main characters – the envoy Genly and the disgraced prime minister Estraven, who was exiled as a madman for believing the story of the strange alien (or that was their excuse) – are trekking across the planet’s ice cap, and their isolation and the tension between them becomes palpable. And that’s when we really see both characters through each other’s eyes.

But LeGuin’s writing also annoyed me in many places. The book starts off narrated by Genly with some interludes in the form of folk tales that would be told on Winter. These are generally interesting and shine a light on how certain myths might be told differently by a race without men or women. But without much warning, she starts alternating the narration between Genly and Estraven about halfway through the book. The first chapter in which this happens is signposted as such, but the second isn’t, and it took me a whole page and a half to figure out what was going on. I felt she could have done this from the start.

In another section, Genly awakens from a nightmare to find himself in the midst of a real raid – but this was written so ambiguously that I thought he was still in the dream five pages later and had to flick back to confirm that he wasn’t, and was still confused even then. So I think this could have been a bit more straightforward.

Anyway, all that aside for a moment while I talk about the people – I feel that there were a couple of things that were somewhat unbelievable about them. For one, their entire sexual life is centred around a monthly period of oestrus or ‘heat’ (called kemmer) when they get uncontrollable urges and are let off from work. This is alright in itself – I think the purpose is to make them functionally asexual for most of the month – but during this period they apparently acquire one or the other of the sexes, along with, apparently, gender. It’s pretty much explicit that this is them acquiring for their sexual roles a dominant masculine and submissive feminine role, and I have a hard time believing that. Why not just keep them agendered? I certainly refuse to believe that they’d use a different pronoun for those in the different roles – as a more detailed explanation, I think this would break the coreferentiality of pronouns, especially if you talk about someone on two different days (must you talk about the same person with a different pronoun? This wouldn’t make sense). I also think it’s missing the point of grammatical gender a bit and equating it with social/sexual gender.

I’ll get back to some other linguistic issues I had with the book in a second, though. The reasons behind such a race are rather clumsily handwaved, saying that they must have been an ancient experiment by some precursor race… well, fair enough. The other thing I ought to mention is that the people are referred to as men with male pronouns, which gives a rather cute impression of a planet of gays. Kinda makes me wonder…

LeGuin’s other major implication is that in a single-gendered society, one wouldn’t have wars, because one wouldn’t have the more dominant and violent masculine personalities getting at one another. I don’t buy this for a second, and I’m almost insulted on behalf of the male gender. I find these kinds of gender stereotypes annoying and dated, but given that the book is 30 years old, and that Genly as a character certainly does see the world in a very binary fashion, I can forgive this. The implication that the Gethenians wouldn’t see their world in such binary terms is more interesting to me, and it’s this sort of yin-yang binary that is referenced in the title, part of the full form “light is the left hand of darkness”. There is a sort of point in there that men are only dominant and violent because there are women to contrast with them and be submissive, but still, I don’t buy it.

The more convincing reason for the Gethenians never having had a war – that their planet is too damn cold and they would rather stay at home and keep warm – is only given a single paragraph, apparently as an afterthought.

But just as interesting is to consider the two countries of the story – the disorganised but friendly and welcoming kingdom of Karhide and the well-organised-with-a-high-standard-of-living but unwelcoming republic of Orgoreyn (nicely enforcing another binary there – other countries are said to exist but not expanded upon) – who are embroiled in a border dispute. Here, particularly given the period it was written in, I think it would be more apt to instead draw a comparison to a different kind of war, specifically Cold War. Fighting is carried out in a faraway place on behalf of the two countries, although it’s not called war. Orgoreyn is an obvious pastiche of the Soviet Union, with its 33 constituent republics and mentions of the state providing employment for all “units” (ie, citizens). Their Inspectors, who spy on the lives of citizens, stop you at every opportunity to check your papers. When Genly becomes a pawn in the international conflict, he’s eventually shipped off to the Gulag (or “Voluntary Farm” as it’s known in the novel), only to have to be rescued by Estraven. On those grounds I wouldn’t say that the planet hadn’t known war at all.

Anyway, as far as language issues are concerned, there’s the thing with the pronouns, which I’ve already noted, the thing that made me really angry was the paragraph talking about Karhidish’s many words for snow. OK, LeGuin can do whatever she likes with her fictional languages, but the Eskimo myth inspires such bile within me that I nearly threw the book down in disgust. I guess I’m glad I didn’t, though, because it’s after this point (roughly and coincidentally) that it really got good. There’s also the claim that the languages don’t have a word for “war”. I… oh fuck it.

There are a few more things I’d quite like to complain about but that would be getting into the realms of nitpicking, and I can’t really be bothered. I suppose I will mention briefly that I found the sections discussing the Ekumen (the confederation of worlds which Genly represents, which is evidently developed further in a greater series of books that this is a part of) far more believable than many of the sections discussing the Gethenians. But anyway, good premise and good storyline, but the execution could have been clearer in parts and it could have been more focussed, because there are a few things that it would have been nicer to have gone into more depth about and a few things that I felt were a bit superfluous.