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.

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Film #258: Jason Bourne (2016)

jason-bournedirector: Paul Greengrass
language: English, and a bit of Greek and other European languages in the background
length: 123 minutes
watched on: 6 Jan 2017 (plane 1/3)

The Bourne series, with the notable exception of a certain sequel from a couple of years ago, was always one of my favourites growing up. For some reason I could never get into James Bond, but I found this series exciting. Of course, James Bond became more like Jason Bourne later, but I digress. I was looking forward to this movie, as Matt Damon was in it again and it was supposed to be pretty good, but I missed it in the cinema, and decided to watch it on my recent flight back to Japan after New Year.

A lot of themes tie in to Snowden pretty well – indeed, Snowden is name-checked at least once or twice by the film. The makers are trying to keep the series up to date with current affairs, it seems. Perhaps a couple of years out-of-date, though – the other major event is the Athens protests, featured in the opening act, which I think were in 2014 or 2015. Things are moving so fast recently!

Jason Bourne in this movie is trying to work out who his father is and why he died, still trying to work through the fog of amnesia, still gradually gaining his memory back. A lot of the film follows a similar plot to the first movie – he’s also followed from afar by a girl in the CIA, and he’s still seen as a major threat, but also someone they want to reintroduce into the fold. It still ends with that Moby song on the soundtrack. It still has a grumpy old man giving out the orders – this time it was Tommy Lee Jones (who I still have trouble telling apart from Robert DeNiro, for shame!), instead of Brian Cox in the first movie.

But like Snowden, it’s lost something of the spark of the first movie. The motives of the characters aren’t so interesting, for one thing, but I also found that the music was overused to try and ramp up dramatic tension. Even in scenes that should have been a breather between action setpieces (mainly the motorbike chase in Athens and a big car chase in Vegas later), the music is still beating on at machine-gun pace. I watched some characters walking up an escalator in an airport to that kind of music, as if something terrible was about to happen right then (it wasn’t). I found this very literally tiring, and started dozing off later on in the movie. I want to hearken back to Mad Max, actually: while I found that a very intense action movie, I never found it boring, and it also knew when to give its audience a brief breather. It also didn’t rely on trite CGI like Jason Bourne (and Snowden).

It’s a fun movie to an extent, but it’s not the return to form that I’d hoped it would be. I’m tempted to go back to The Bourne Identity to remind myself how these movies should be – with more of an element of surprise or tension throughout the movie because of the setup of Bourne’s amnesia, not desperately trying to cling to what tension they have left with mere musical cues. It’s a much better movie. This is just attempting to be nostalgia and not hitting the mark.