Book #135: The Jennifer Morgue (2006)

author: Charles Stross
language: English
length: 349 pages (main story) + 28 pages (extra short story)
finished reading on: 5 May 2017

It’s been a while, but I read another of Charles Stross’s novels about a year and a half ago – Neptune’s Brood – and I bought this book fairly soon afterwards, but didn’t get around to giving it a proper read until this year.

Like Neptune’s Brood, the prose is pretty thick and the vocabulary is quite technical at the best of times. There are words in there that I had to look up, and others that I had to reread several times to get a good sense of what was meant. So it took me a bit of effort to finish the book.

The book is about a guy called Bob Howard who is a member of a super-covert section of MI6 that deals with the paranormal. He’s a computer nerd through-and-through, very attached to what in 2006 must have been an early prototype of a smartphone and tablet PC. I was surprised, indeed, that those words were used. This is partly why the book has a lot of higher-level technical vocabulary, because the author doesn’t shy away from spelling out exactly how his character uses Linux shells and various kinds of scripting languages to carry out his occult tasks.

It’s actually the second book in the series, although the first book was actually two novellas bundled together, so this is the first full-length novel. There are details here and there that allude to previous events, such as when the main character met his girlfriend. I felt at these points I might have missed out, but they ultimately weren’t so important.

The main character is sent on a mission to the Caribbean by his handlers, but they don’t really tell him what the mission will involve, in a spectacular double-bluff which only becomes clear after several big reveals. He is “entangled” to an underwater-demon-woman, meaning that they share thoughts – this kind of “talking” is indicated with stars instead of quotation marks. She can also make him orgasm and vice-versa, meaning that the humour takes an early adult turn, and they find they can share abilities, like being able to breathe underwater. There are some Cthulhu-esque underwater tentacle monsters that are referred to by codewords – the titular Jennifer Morgue is one such codeword. There is also a Blofeld-esque villain, and a lot of the book explicitly satirizes James Bond tropes – indeed, the characters discuss the tropes openly.

In general, I liked it. I thought it was funny, and I felt smart for understanding some of Stross’s more exotic turns of phrase, even though this meant the book was difficult to read. And although it was a bit bawdy at times, it also stayed on the right side of leery about its female characters – I’ve read some other books recently with straight male protagonists that were overly fixated on their breasts. This also managed to subvert some gendered expectations of the characters, especially in a particular one of the endgame twists.

It also contained an extra short story called Pimpf, which I was able to read in one sitting, about someone being sucked into an online multiplayer game, in the style of World of Warcraft. It was more nerdy than the main story, and was but the germ of an idea – but it was somewhat like a better-written version of Ready Player One, with added office pettiness.

So if you like sci-fi/fantasy liberally peppered with nerdy computer references, this might be for you. I would stop short of recommending it to everyone, though – I think you need a certain level of interest in the topics.

Film #291: Girl Goned (2017)

directors: Yukiro Dravarious & Duncan Whom
language: English, some Japanese, couple of sentences of German and French
length: actually not sure but about 2 hours
watched on: 4 May 2017

This is that rare review which I know will be read by the creators, since they’re my friends making an amateur project last year. I’ll try to be nice…

I got a sneak preview from Duncan about a month before watching this, and then went to the second screening on the premiere night – in a BDSM dungeon, of all places, with cages and strange-looking seats. (By the way, I just grabbed this image from a google search, as I usually do, managing to somehow filter out images from Gone Girl – I think it’s from Remiko’s blog. If you’d like me not to use the image, or have a better thumbnail image, please let me know)

The movie is set in Tokyo’s underground drag scene, so it features a few people I know from going to their shows. The plot, insofar as there is one, follows an American private detective who travels to Japan in search of a missing girl, somehow involved in the drag scene. Meanwhile, the drag queens conspire to set about armageddon. Or something. The film deliberately eschews plot at many moments, but it was more coherent than I’d expected from the previews I’d had. It has a deliberate B-movie aesthetic, and a lot of ridiculous gore, with fake blood spattered everywhere.

The main problem with it is that it’s probably incomprehensible to people outside our social group – I think there are too many in-jokes. A lot of the drag queen characters especially weren’t fully introduced. Also, it does have a bit of an episodic feel, and might be too ambitious. But I enjoyed it, and I think it’d stand a second viewing, to help me better understand it.

The other thing, although I think this is part of the aesthetic of amateur B-movies, and not necessarily a big problem, is that the sound and image were sometimes unbalanced. But I think this could be fixed.

It was long-awaited by all, so it was great to finally see it, and I enjoyed the sensation of recognizing quite a lot of the cameos. Thumbs up!

Book #134: Leviathan Wakes (2011)

author: James S.A. Corey
language: English
length: 19 hours and 8 minutes (1,148 minutes)
finished listening on: 3 May 2017

I got this audiobook on the recommendation of a coworker or manager, I think, when I mentioned I was into sci-fi and looking for a new book to read. So I decided to get it sometime during April, and was listening to it when I went cycling. I had planned to go on something more like a cycling trek during April, but sickness and injury stopped me in my tracks somewhat. But this book was still a nice companion to long bike rides, when I got the chance. It took me a long time to finish, of course – the last audiobook was A Symphony of Echoes, a whole month before this one.

The author, James S.A. Corey, is actually the pseudonym for two authors, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, which is a bit confusing. I’m not sure why they didn’t just use their own names – maybe it makes it easier to publish, or something. They wrote alternate chapters of the book, which are from the point of view of different characters.

It took me a few listens to twig that alternate chapters were from disparate points of view. The universe set up by the book is pretty grandiose, and it took a bit of getting used to. The two characters, Holden and Miller, meet up and get split up later in the book, but at first they don’t know each other. And the story takes a while to really get going.

The book is set in a colonized solar system – faster than light travel is impossible, but there’s some kind of constant-thrust drive that makes quick travel easy. This is actually a fairly common idea – it was also in We Are Legion (We Are Bob), for example, although if you’ve been keeping up with my reviews you’ll know I didn’t like that book much, or in Ultima – in those books there was some kind of infinite-like supply of energy that was used to travel interstellar distances. It was also used in The Adventures of Tintin, back in the 1950s, and the effects of gravity on humans reminded me strongly of what happened in the Moon expedition comics. This also made clear one of the other problems with We Are Bob – Bob could go up to 10 g or more without any issues, as he’s a computer projection, but in general the human characters in Leviathan Wakes can only go up to 3 g safely, and have to take a dangerous cocktail of drugs to stay awake and alive at higher thrust levels.

This level of realism made it feel a lot “harder” than the other sci-fi I’d been reading – and in general, gravity is very important to the story, reminding readers of this constantly. There’s rivalry between stocky inner-planet types, who “grew up in a gravity well”, and taller, more spindly types who grew up in the asteroid belt. That brings me to the other thing I liked a lot about this book, which is that it’s very realistic racially and linguistically. The “belters” have a special argot or pidgin that they use to communicate, which is difficult to understand when it’s being read aloud on the audiobook, but lends a special level of realism to the book. I was also glad to see that not everyone speaks English – Russian, Bengali and Hindi at the very least are mentioned a lot during the book.

As the story develops there are a couple of revelations that stretch the boundary of what I’d consider “hard” sci-fi, but this allows the book to also have a mystery feel to it, and even have a few straight-up zombie horror scenes. I imagine it would look exciting on film – and indeed, there’s apparently a TV series, called The Expanse after the name of the book series. I guess I’d better get my act together and try to watch that at some point. I’m not that up-to-date with TV.

Anyway, there are a lot more levels to this story, such as the character Miller’s attachment to Julie Mao, a girl whose disappearance he’s been investigating. And stuff is generally set up and foreshadowed well. So in general, although it took a very long time to finish this book, I enjoyed it a lot and have now downloaded the next book to listen – as of writing this, it’s the next in my queue of things to listen to. But I’m a few weeks behind on reviewing, so it’ll be a while before I get to reviewing it!

Has anyone else read this? What did you think?

Film #238: The Last Time I Saw Richard (2014)

tltisrdirector: Nicholas Verso
language: English
length: 22 minutes
watched on: 23 October 2016
Boys on Film 11 (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8)

This is the fifth in the “Boys on Film 11” DVD, and it’s the one that’s used on the DVD cover. It’s set in a mental hospital somewhere in Australia, and has a strong creepy horror bent to it.

The main character Jonah self-harms, which we see in too graphic detail early in the film. Coincidentally, the last time I saw this on film in such detail was another Australian film where a character kills herself. I really don’t see a reason to include this. But whatever. The love interest is Richard, a new roommate for Jonah. Jonah is a massive dickhead to everyone around him, manipulating everyone around him to get his own way, but with Richard it’s like an unstoppable force up against an unmovable object – Richard is cut off from the world (he always has headphones in) and lashes out with violence when Jonah tries to snoop on him.

But they bond over basketball, and end up in bed together, although it seems more to protect each other from their nightmares. This is where the horror part comes in – there are dream visions where they are missing eyes, or where dark shadows from the corner of the room try to attack the two boys. Despite not being realistic, this part was totally believable, given the setup and taking the boy’s point of view directly.

I thought the piece was well-considered, and even over the very brief total time, there is considerable character development, which I also liked. It can be commended for realism even with the dreaming and fantastic elements, and I really felt sorry for the main character at the end, when he is forced away from the boy he’s grown to love – despite really not taking to him at all at the beginning, when he was being a manipulative little shit. It’s probably my surprising favourite of the 8 films on the DVD. You can watch it on Youtube, but be prepared to cry.

TV: Stranger Things season 1 (2016)

strangerthings1creators: Matt & Ross Duffer
language: English
length: 8 episodes of variable length, 442 minutes total (7 hours and 22 minutes)
finished watching on: 12 September 2016

I was a little late to the game with this one, I guess, but everyone was talking about it this summer. It’s actually set in November, so maybe we should be watching it now, but Netflix apparently likes to release things all at once rather than teasing it out over the course of weeks (which is a blessing and a curse). No, even then it’s a short series and would have been over pretty quickly during the summer.

I usually say that I don’t like horror movies, but I already broke that edict watching such things as The Descent recently. The horror in this is reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth, actually, although I remember finding that difficult to watch and not enjoying it much. In this series it’s the first episode that is the most creepy, as once we get used to the setting and characters it takes the edge off the scary elements, even as they ramp up towards the end of the series. I actually found Orphan Black creepier this year, perhaps because there’s a persistent sense of threat in that series.

I don’t think I need to summarize Stranger Things too much, because I think most people have seen it already, but just in case, it’s the story of a boy who goes missing, and the people – his family and friends mainly – who look for him. With supernatural stuff thrown in. It’s too complicated to explain beyond that without giving spoilers. That said, I’m pretty much going to do just that. So if you haven’t watched it yet, I’d suggest doing that before reading the rest of this.

The series is set in the 1980s, and takes great pains to show us so. This is to do with the creators’ upbringing mainly, but also draws to mind classics such as E.T. and other horroresque or alien children’s movies. A lot of the 80s stuff felt tokenistic, as if to draw a chuckle from modern audiences, like the phones that are connected by wire to the wall, or a lot of the other technology the children use, or indeed can’t use because it hasn’t been invented yet. Walkie-talkies are another good example. But at the same time, they integrated all the stuff well into the story.

Music is also very important, and one leitmotif that often comes up is the song Should I Stay or Should I Go by The Clash – indeed, I’ll never think of the song the same way again. Once we find out about the Upsidedown, and actually see inside the eldritch world, the sound design comes into its own, too.

When I saw the first episode, and there was this giant alien portal in the government compound, I thought they’d given away too many of their cards too early in the show. But as I watched it a bit more, I realized that we really don’t know what’s going on, not really. We’re thrown hints, mere morsels, from time to time, but the monster isn’t, and we don’t understand what’s really going on with the mum’s lights until the final episode, and then you’re like “Ohhhh!”. I had a few theories as to what was going on, but none of them were correct. I think this is a good way to tell good stories.

As for the characters, everyone was a superb actor in this. The kids are all great in it, and really steal the show, and make it what it is. I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised – there are too many cases where the kid actors in something don’t do a good job. They seem to be genuinely nice people too – I hope the fame doesn’t go to their heads. But the teenagers are also important to the story, and Winona Ryder as the haggard mother really puts in a good performance, if slightly over-acted.

And finally, the ending was bittersweet, and I hope good things happen in the next series. So if you’ve gotten this far, tell me your favourite bit. Or go out and watch it if you haven’t already!

Film #218: The Descent (2005)

the-descentdirector: Neil Marshall
language: English
length: 99 minutes
watched on: 4 August 2016

We actually watched three films in one day – the first was The Purge and the second was actually Leon – but I’m not going to re-review that. I mentioned it when I reviewed Nikita, though. My thoughts haven’t changed a lot (Natalie Portman and Jean Reno’s relationship is still creepy), although the visual style is dated.

As for this movie, it’s very famous, and I was much more apprehensive about this movie than The Purge, because it’s actually straight-up horror in a way that the other isn’t. And apparently I talk a lot during the movie when I’m nervous – maybe, yeah, although I think I just talk during movies anyway. But like the last movie, it wasn’t nearly as bad to watch as I expected. I think I just had some bad experiences with horror when I was a child, such as The Witches (I had nightmares about that!), and it’s put me off. I still wouldn’t choose to watch it by myself – I’m still a wuss – but this is teaching me perhaps they’ll be OK.

It’s about some cavers who go astray and get lost in a cave, which turns out to (spoilers) have some monstrous post-humans in it, evolved away when a group of Swiss cavers got trapped (or something), cannibalistic and blind, so the characters have to walk around silently.

The first half of the movie is suspense, and in many ways was more scary and creepy than the second half, which becomes more jump-scares. Of course I get scared by them too, but there’s a certain predictability about jump-scares that there isn’t when it’s people getting trapped in a creepy cave.

One nice thing about this movie that you still don’t see enough is that the human characters are all women. (It was also nice to hear Scottish voices and a variety of accents in there, too.) Since all the monsters are played by men, I think, it lends a certain insidious aspect to it, like there’s a subtle implication of sexual violence, and I think this was deliberate on the part of the filmmakers, but it’s impossible to be sure.

Relatedly, we spent half the movie discussing who would be picked off first. Obviously the feisty one goes first, and the one who forgot to bring her pills for her mental illness is going to stick around. The others were interchangeable. There was a subplot that one of them had slept with the other’s husband, but I didn’t see the point in this argument – it just created drama where it didn’t need to be.

Anyway my main problem with the movie is the director’s cut ending. (So obviously spoilers coming up!) The original ending is that one of the characters escapes – the director’s cut ends with her realizing it’s been a schizophrenic dream and that she’s still in the cave. It’s signposted throughout the movie as her mental illness gets worse and worse – still, I get annoyed when I sit through ten to fifteen minutes of something that turns out to be unreal. On the other hand, since it’s in the realm of unreliable narrator, it does raise the question whether the whole experience was real or not. Or did she just kill all her friends – is she the monster? It’s not all bad, but it left a sour taste in my mouth right at the end.

And anyway, I’m eleven years too late to see this movie, but I liked it overall – I just think the original cut might be better.

Film #217: The Purge: Election Year (2016)

purge3director: James DeMonaco
language: English
length: 115 minutes
watched on: 4 Aug 2016

My friend was in a horror movie mood when we went over to her house in August. I was a bit apprehensive, but it turned out fine. Actually this isn’t really horror, it’s more of a gory thriller where everyone is maimed in inventive ways. Well, that’s okay then…

The premise is that once a year, there is a “purge” in America, when all crime is made legal for one day and the country descends into chaos. This movie is the third in the series (apparently) and has a political bent to it – one of the main characters is a woman hoping to overthrow the fascists in charge and ban the Purge. Sounds a bit familiar…

The premise is patently ridiculous, but it did lead to conversations like “What would you do if there was a Purge?” (I’d try to hide!) and “What way would you like to go?”, and other such morbid questions. It was also as trashy as I expected but in an enjoyable way, and it was fun to watch.

I’ve heard the other movies in the series are better, though – the first one is home-invasion horror, for instance. This is more of a caper, with very light political satire thrown in. It’s no classic, but it’ll entertain.