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Orphan Black (Season 1)

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Starring Tatiana Maslany, Jordan Gavaris, Kevin Hanchard, Dylan Bruce, Maria Doyle Kennedy

Created by Graeme Manson and John Fawcett

Orphan Black had me right from the beginning, introducing Sarah Manning and the central mystery of the show in three breath-taking minutes without a wasted moment. Even though there are only 10 episodes, each a little less than an hour long, the season feels full, deep, without feeling busy or crowded. Each episode is a cliffhanger, pulling the viewer deeper into the mystery of the orphans and the high tension acrobatics of impersonation and intrigue that inevitably arise in a series about lookalikes.

The series follows Sarah Manning, an orphan and hustler with a seven-year-old daughter she hasn’t seen in 10 months, a drug dealer boyfriend to whom she owes money, and the exact same face as a woman who just threw herself in front of a train. When she assumes the woman’s identity, hoping to scam enough money to reclaim her daughter and go on the run, she finds herself in trouble with the police, on the run from a killer, and being drawn into a conspiracy involving ever more women who look just like her.

Sarah is my favorite kind of hero. She’s rough around the edges, often casually or even compulsively deceptive, but despite her complicated relationship with her family, she is loyal and, no matter how many times she tries to walk away, unquestionably brave. She can’t walk away, not from her family, not from the orphans, not from the woman whose life she has stolen. Something binds her to the fight, some mixture of loyalty – to her family and genetic twins – and sheer punk rock rebelliousness against whoever is playing games with her life. It’s this combination that makes her the protagonist of the show, and a bonafide hero: even her fellow “copies” look to her for leadership; even the antagonists remark that she is special.

The antagonists, speaking of which, are nicely complicated, and despite the shadows cast by corporatism and mad science, I don’t detect much of the usual science fiction trope of What Hath Science Wrought that’s been part of the genre since its inception. Much like Fringe, which I’ve been watching a lot of lately, the science is as likely to be the solution as the problem. The real problems faced by the characters are much more existential than that, a tangled mess of shared genes, assumed identity, and unfathomable purpose. The villains are charming and monstrous in equal measure, capable of generating sympathy while remaining a very real and dangerous threat. It’s risky to make assumptions in the orphan’s world, and difficult to know who to trust. Who can best protect the orphans from the killer who seems set on eliminating them: the cheerful and charismatic transhumanist or the driven and eminently capable detective?  Who has their best interests at heart?

Tatiana Maslany is the core of the show, for obvious reasons, convincingly playing multiple characters, often in the same scene, each with her own motivations and neuroses, strengths and vulnerabilities. She plays both the protagonist and the supporting cast, although the other supporting characters, especially Felix, her foster brother, are also instantly recognizable and endearing. Orphan Black is a well crafted drama based around well-realized characters, and every minute feels rich with meaning, tension, and possibility. Season 1 feels whole and complete and fulfilling, and yet I am so hungry for more. More mystery. More deception, more thrills. More of everything Orphan Black.

Season 1 is streaming on Amazon, or for sale on DVD and BluRay. Catch up before the new season starts April 19th on BBC America.

 

 

Revivification!

I wound up taking a long, unannounced hiatus, not writing much in general, and feeling really uncertain what I wanted to do with this blog specifically. I wish it had been a deliberate, planned, announced break, but nope! Just fell off for a while. I’m sorry.

Now that I’m back, I have some new ideas, new plans. I still plan to post effusive recommendations now and then – I have one planned for today – but I want to open things up a little bit. Sometimes I just enjoy something so much I think you should all watch it. Sometimes I have more to say about genre, character, or storytelling in general. Sometimes a piece of media is like a personal revelation. And sometimes, really, something just needs to be pulled apart to see why it failed.

Obviously your mileage may vary, but that’ s always been true. So, in the future, in addition to dividing posts by Books, Movies, etc, I will divide them into Recommendations, Writing, Criticism, and Personal subsections. Those are the working titles, anyway. As always this blog is a work in progress.

I’m also going to try to keep a bimonthly schedule of posts. Once a week was a bit too much for me, but I think I can have something to say once every two weeks. That should also allow time for me to work on other projects.

Anyway, that’s the state of the union. Stay tuned for ORPHAN BLACK.

Crusader Kings II

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Strategy games have always been my weakness, the games that I fall into for hours, from sunset to sunup, until I stagger away like a drunk from an all-night bender. The first one I remember falling in love with is Deadlock, which is a sci-fi battle for planetary dominance with similarities to both Masters of Orion and Alpha Centauri, which was a spin-off of maybe the most successful strategy franchise, Civilization. All of those games have sucked away whole days, even weeks, of my life. I may have even written fan-fiction based on Deadlock, before I even knew what fan-fiction was. I may have been inspired to model future Earths in my science fiction after the results of games of Civ III, in which the mighty Zulu battlefleet threatened to overwhelm the Aztec-French Alliance. It’s dramatic stuff.

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I may be in love with Alpha Centauri.

Crusader Kings II, the second-most-recent installment in Paradox Interactive’s sweeping and immersive history-based strategy games, is full of drama. You control Medieval lord, and strive to guide that lord and his or her heirs through the next several centuries of European civilization. Intrigue against other nobles, arrange profitable marriages, make war on your neighbors, and try not to annoy the Pope. It all comes down to a series of choices, and the choices you make can change history. Will you create the Empire of Russia? Will you conquer Iberia for Islam? Will your king or queen convert to the Cathar heresy and try to replace Catholicism as the One True Faith?

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The game world is dynamic and ever changing.  In my last game, the Merchant Republic of Gotland took advantage of the chaos caused by the Mongol invasion of Scandinavia to conquer most of Norway, Denmark, and Finland. As the Golden Horde collapsed and its former subjects returned to their original faiths, the population shift caused the Zikri sect of Islam to replace the Sunnis as the dominant non-Shia Muslim faith. Due to a confusing series of crusades, the Iberian peninsula became a patchwork of Castilians, Scots, Irish, Italians, and Aztecs, while the Kingdom of Sicily colonized North Africa. When you begin a game, a whole new European history begins to unfold, and the fun of it is deciding where to reach in and change the flow for yourself. Exert what influence you have to cause the Pope to declare a crusade against that heathen whose territory you want, lend aid to struggling provinces rebelling against oppressive rulers, or conspire with others to overthrow your own feudal overlord. Again, it’s all about choices.

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What a mess.

Similarly to the Total War series, Crusader Kings adds an RPG element to the strategy mix. Each character, from highborn king to lowborn peasant rebel, has certain traits, such as Brave, Deceitful, Drunkard, or Craven, and may gain others during play. You will be presented with a series of decisions and random events. Will you abuse your power to sleep with your courtier’s wife, or will you allow your arranged marriage to deepen into true love? Will you convert to the heresy that is sweeping your lands, or will you make a pilgrimage to the holy sites of your faith? Each choice changes your character, and can affect the game in far-reaching ways. Neighboring kingdoms may become friendlier, your own courtiers may begin intriguing against you, rebels may rise up against your unjust and heretical rule. Think carefully before making a decision that could create more enemies than you can handle.

ck2_20Your trusted councillors/most likely assassins

The depth of play is tremendous, and this makes the learning curve a little steep, even for veteran strategy gamers. It’s not Dwarf Fortress (in which Losing is Fun!™), but skills learned in Civilization or StarCraft don’t necessarily apply here. You don’t have much control over the units you build or the technology you develop, because this is feudal times, bruh, and learning is for Jesuits and Parisians. You do have control over your armies, and to a lesser extent, the generals who lead them. And your family and your court allow you to create alliances and engage in intrigue and murder plots. You can spend your tax and trade income on mercenaries, castles, city development. There are many different ways to play the game, even within one campaign. It’s possible to play one ruler as a war-leading badass, another as a contemplative and pious builder, another as a backstabbing and ruthless powermonger. Wage war to restore your courtiers to the titles they have lost, or throw them all in prison for being disloyal jerks. It’s up to you. And the gameplay changes further depending on whether you are a count or a king, a Catholic or a Muslim, a Pagan Norseman or an Ashkenazi Jew.

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Sometimes becoming King causes Death by Close Relative

I started my last game as the sovereign Grand Prince of Novgorod, took part in the civil wars of the early Kingdom of Russia, spent a generation or two as a minor vassal of the Golden Horde, gained my independence through an unexpected trick of succession and wound up ruling for the next 50+ years as a woman who became Queen Feodora the Great of Wallachia and Ruthenia, uniting most of the former Russian territories under her rule before the invasion of the Timurids ruined everyone’s day and her grandson had to become a vassal king under the rule of the Greek Byzantine Emperor just to stay alive. Several times I thought I would lose the game, only to re-emerge stronger than ever. You don’t lose unless you lose control of all your lands and titles, and there isn’t a set win condition, like conquering a certain amount of territory or eliminating all your enemies. There is a score, an end date, and your own ambition. It’s a giant sandbox, and because you can play as just about any landed noble in all of Europe, the Middle East, or Northern Africa, across almost six hundred years of history, the replay value is enormous.

ck2_4She crushed multiple rebellions and foreign invasions, and reconquered most of Russia. And spoke Greek.

The game has a bunch of expansions and downloadable content. Legacy of Rome, Sword of Islam, Sons of Abraham, and The Old Gods add tons of options to the various religions and cultures of the game, with the last one extending the start date to 867 AD, the Age of Vikings. The Republic adds additional options for the various trade republics of the medieval period, and is probably essential if you want to play as Venice or Genoa and show those snooty Kings and Emperors what a boatload of money can get you on the road to Constantinople. Sunset Invasion is a fantasy expansion that triggers an Aztec invasion of Western Europe, which in my game resulted in the conquest of Ireland, Great Britain, and most of France, the rampage only ending when the second Emperor, a half-Irish imbecile who would rule for 60 years, converted to Catholicism, and then later, Catharism, spreading my favorite heresy over most of England and France. You can also purchase DLC to expand the range of character portraits for a little more visual variety.

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Result: Aztec Cathars with French dynastic names and violent fits

Crusader Kings II might be my favorite Paradox Interactive game, due to the depth of character and gameplay. I love being able to play the Duke of Parma or the King of Croatia and blaze a path of glory across Europe. I enjoyed being Queen Feodora the Great and smashing every rebellious vassal who would not be ruled by a woman. I enjoyed seeing history play out in new and unexpected ways with each new King, Emperor, or Pope. I just thoroughly enjoy this game.

crusaderkings2_old_gods_bannerPlus there are Vikings.

Purchase it from Steam or GamersGate, and check out Paradox Interactive’s other games at Paradox Plaza.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, and Lenny Kravitz

Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt

Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

Directed by Francis Lawrence

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And so we return, coughing at the dust, pulling cobwebs from our eyes, bursting with thoughts and opinions on Katniss Everdeen. It’s weird to me that Catching Fire is what finally got my fingers moving, because the first Hunger Games film left me kind of cold. I liked it well enough, it had some memorable moments, and an actually brilliant narrative trick in which the viewer is encouraged to cheer the “good” tributes only to be reminded that the Games aren’t actually a competition, they’re a bunch of children being forced to murder each other for the entertainment of the elites and the distraction of the masses. It’s not about winning. It’s about control. However, as a whole, the film had no staying power for me, and left me with no excitement about a sequel. Catching Fire changed that.

Catching Fire picks up a year after the first film. Although basically set for life with their winnings, Katniss still goes out into the forest, where she sits silently and shoots nothing, and Peeta spends long hours in the kitchen, baking endless bread. However, Katniss and her mockingjay badge have become a symbol of resistance in the Districts, so President Snow requires that their victory tour be a performance to pacify the restless and the oppressed, a believable pop idol romance to distract the people from their hunger and their hope. And if they fail, he will conclude that the Victors have become a liability to the State. Katniss and the defiance she inspires must be undermined or they must be destroyed, utterly, like District 13. And the way to do that is, of course, with a new, all veteran Hunger Games.

A coworker of mine pointed out that Katniss actually has little apparent agency. Her most important choice happened at the beginning of the first film, when she volunteered, impulsively and heroically, to save her sister’s life. Since then her life has been rapidly yanked from her control, and this only becomes more acute after she survives the Games. The President himself comes to her home to tell her she will put on a performance, or lose her family, her District, and her life. Effie and Cinna, delightful though they are, tell her how to dress and what to wear as she prepares to die. Hamich works around her prickly disposition to arrange alliances and conspiracies. And Plutarch Heavensbee, the new showrunner for the Games, literally and directly controls her entire future, with a complex and shadowy agenda. Not to mention that by simple virtue of being brave, compassionate, and good, she has become a hero to the oppressed. Then again, while Katniss doesn’t have control over sweeping political events or the Big Picture, that’s never been what she cares about. She hates the injustice she’s seen and had to be a part of, but what matters to her has always been the personal: Prim, Gale, Peeta. They are what drives her, what focuses her intense, brilliant anger into the sharp point she needs to survive. They are what make her fight.

I can’t say how it is in the books, never having read them, but taking the Big Picture out of Katniss’s hands also forces the film to focus on the relationship between Katniss and Peeta. Though strained by Peeta’s unrequited love, they are bonded in adversity. They share the same psychic scars, and a unavoidable closeness. When Katniss wakes up screaming, it is Peeta who understands and comforts her. Linda Holmes at NPR has a beautiful analysis of the way their relationship defies typical Hollywood norms with regard to gender, but for the purposes of this review, I’d just like to focus on their relationship on its own terms. For all their estrangement, it seems clear that they would do anything for each other. Peeta has a mastery of interpersonal relationships and social politics that Katniss completely lacks, and he uses them to protect and support Katniss. He is sad, even bitter, after her rejection, but avoids behaving like Actual Boyfriend, Gale, who sulks and snipes like a petulant teenager, which, of course, he is. Katniss, for her part, takes responsibility for Peeta, who is not weak and is reasonably competent but clearly couldn’t survive without her. It is important to her that Peeta live. It is essential. She can control nothing else in the world, but she desperately needs to control this. She needs to make sure that Peeta survives.

I mention this because it is one of the core tensions of the film, but also because trauma, pain, and grief are the motifs of Catching Fire, the uniting narrative threads. You may have noticed from previous reviews that I think it’s important that action heroes, if they are truly going to be heroes, suffer terribly before they win. They have to feel things, not just physically but emotionally, and in a way that feels genuine. Less screaming and emptying your clip into the sky, more pulling shards of glass out of your feet while trying to convince your only friend that you are hanging in there. Ranging from the kind of vivid, hallucinatory flashbacks that movies have taught us are the hallmark of post-traumatic stress, to the more subtle look of pain that crosses Katniss’s face when she aces a marksmanship challenge and realizes how easy and reflexive killing has become, Catching Fire shows us just how costly our hero’s survival has been. And it’s not just Katniss. The  bulk of the cast are victors from previous games, brought back to be traumatized all over again by their government. They are broken and damaged, strange, eccentric, and angry. They invade personal space and strip naked in elevators, they’ve lost their power of speech and sit there, eyes rolling anxiously. Every single one of them is a survivor and a killer, from raging Johanna to gentle Mags. Is it any wonder that Hamich drinks? Or that Johanna, in one of my favorite moments from the film, tells the entire Capitol to go fuck themselves? They have all been forced to do, and be, terrible things. As Hamich says, there are no winners in the Hunger Games. Only survivors.

I liked Katniss in the first movie, but it’s really in Catching Fire that she starts to feel truly heroic, despite how much of that heroic image is out of her hands. She doesn’t actually want to be a hero at all. She seems incapable of seeing herself as powerful and transformative. She does what she does out of necessity, because it is her nature. Where others see her as strong, proud, resourceful, a potential leader, she only sees her own anger and pain and fear. This doesn’t diminish her. She is strong, resourceful, and in possession of a forceful, earnest nature and deep well of compassion that draw people, the best people, to her. And she has courage, in abundance. She has always been one to take on the world alone, and to sacrifice herself for others. All of these qualities combine to make her a hero, and her flaws, her temper and aloofness and Games-inflicted pain, make her one we can believe in and admire. After Catching Fire, I admire Katniss Everdeen. I think that’s a worthwhile quality in a hero.

This movie made me feel things. I came close to crying quite a few times, embarrassing my friends with my sniffles. It is an emotionally charged story about sacrifice, defiance, grief, pain, and betrayal. It is a well-executed film, and I can’t praise Lawrence enough for her ability to channel raw emotion in a way that breaks my heart. Despite its narrative flaws and somewhat ponderous length, Catching Fire managed to redeem a franchise that I was having a really hard time being excited about. I’m excited about it now. I’m committed enough that I feel justified writing over a thousand words about it, and there’s still so much to say. This is a film that causes emotions and thinking and conversations, with a compelling hero and an escalating conflict. It is what I love about watching action movies.

Pre-order on Amazon! Still in theaters, go see it!

Tomboy (2011)

Starring Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, and Mathieu Demy

Written and Directed by Céline Sciamma

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Tomboy is the story of a young French girl named Laure who introduces herself to a new group of friends as a boy named Mikael. When watching the film, I found that when Laure was at home, surrounded by her family, I tended to use female pronouns, while when Mikael was playing with his friends, I tended to use male. I’ve used both pronouns in this review, because the film doesn’t make any definitive statements about Laure’s gender or sexual identity. While I certainly would understand someone reading this as a trans* film or a film about genderqueer identity, I’m reluctant to assign a label when the film declines to do so. I hope this doesn’t cause anyone injury or offense.

Laure is a tomboy. She dresses in shirts and pants, keeps her hair cut short, and has little interest in makeup or the more traditionally feminine toys her little sister plays with. Her family accepts this and doesn’t discourage her, even showers her with affection and love. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. I haven’t been taught to expect this kind of family narrative when dealing with issues of gender or sexuality. Laure is their daughter, and they love her, and that is enough. But when they move to a new neighborhood, the first kid Laure meets mistakes her for a boy, and Laure takes this opportunity to become Mikael, the new kid in town.

What follows is a mix of summertime games, family love, and the constant risk of exposure, a potent blend of sweetness and anxiety which kept me simultaneously tense with fear and nearly melted with tenderness. Mikael makes friends, growing close with Lisa, the only girl close to his age in their group of friends, and struggles to maintain his new identity in the face of daily challenges. It is heartwarming and heartwrenching in about equal measure, making you cheer for someone you know must fail.

Laure’s family life is the sweetest and safest place, with scenes punctuated with such tenderness I almost couldn’t stand it. Sciamma got such a genuine and adorable performance out of her child actors, and Laure’s younger sister, Jeanne, will absolutely break your heart with cuteness. As Mikael comes closer every day to inevitable exposure, his home, and especially Jeanne, become a safe place, an unconditional place, where Laure can be herself without fear. Her parents love her, and her sister loves her, and they all want her to be safe from harm. This sense of safety makes it more bearable when Laure’s identity is exposed, but, in a way, it also makes it more painful. There is no more sanctuary.

I say “inevitable exposure” because it is summer, and classes begin in a few short weeks. Mikael is not on the rolls. Laure is. And the friendship of children is as quickly retracted as offered. Watching Mikael at play is like watching any young boy play soccer in a minefield. Everything could explode at any moment, and I watched with a knot in my stomach, knowing his luck couldn’t last, but hoping it would for just a bit longer. Laure likes being Mikael, maybe even prefers it. The way she looks at her newborn brother with something like envy, because he simply is born a boy while she has to do so much work, speaks to the happiness she has found in her new identity, and the bitterness of knowing that it cannot last. When the reckoning comes, it is shattering and humiliating, tempered only by the love we know her family has for her, and the strength Laure has shown throughout.

Despite its pain and anxiety, Tomboy feels like a hopeful film to me. It so perfectly captures the summer of childhood, with its innocently vulgar games of truth or dare, its petty humiliations, its quiet romances. Laure is an exceptional character, less pulling a con and more finding herself. And the story is ultimately one of love, even if that love is severely tested. Sciamma leaves the ending, like Laure’s sexuality, intentionally ambiguous, but I think there is hope in it. Laure learned something from her experience, and even if her experiment couldn’t last, she was changed by it. And, I have to believe, she is going to be okay.

Tomboy is instantly viewable on Amazon, or can be purchased on DVD at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples

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I wish I had written Saga. It’s the kind of brilliant mash-up of science fiction and fantasy that I loved as a kid, complete with robot princes, adorable animal people, and a bounty hunter wearing a superhero cape. It’s so far from hard science fiction that the moon people cast magic and the space marines have giant feathery wings. As far as I can tell, every starship in the galaxy runs on an abundant supply of handwavium. And with all due respect and affection to the hard stuff, this kind of space opera is where my scifi heart lives. Brian K. Vaughn has taken the idle imaginings of a kid and turned it into a mature, fantastic, slam-bang epic of a story. And I can’t get enough of it.

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The setting is a galaxy locked in a seemingly endless war between the winged and tech-reliant inhabitants of Landfall and the horned and magical inhabitants of its moon, Wreath. Unwilling to risk catastrophic damage to their homeworlds, the belligerents have taken their war into the galaxy at large, fighting on remote worlds and dragging nearly every other intelligent race into a genocidal, galaxy-wide proxy war. And into this hostility, two soldiers from opposite sides fall in love, conceive a child, and run.

Meet cute

The story is intermittently narrated by Marko and Alana’s daughter, offering reflective commentary and the occasional foreshadowing. It’s clear from this – and the title, I suppose – that this is the beginning of a long arc, an epic tale, and it’s likely that not everyone will make it to the end. The pace of the story, however, is action-movie quick and the retrospective narration never intrudes on the immediacy of events. The action rises and falls like the perfect rollercoaster, and I’m so caught up that I keep re-reading as if hoping that one day I’ll turn to the end of the second volume and find the next issue picking up where it left off.

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The writing is Vaughn at his best, maybe better than he’s ever been. The dialogue, even the expository passages, is quick and punchy, unencumbered by archaisms or futuristic slang, no matter what strange creature you’re looking at. Marko and Alana are strange aliens in a strange alien war, but they are recognizable as young people in love, as new parents, as people. Even the Stalk, an alien Freelancer who I think is best described as unsettlingly beautiful, speaks profanity-laced contemporary English like a Hollywood assassin or Elmore Leonard hitter. And this comfortable Leonard-quality dialogue meshes seamlessly with a wonderfully strange galaxy of creatures and events, incorporating death threats, incorporeal babysitters, and cosmic eggs as easily as observations on love, politics, and parenting.

Izabel babysitter

I sometimes have a hard time evaluating art in comics, but the art in this book is goddamn beautiful. Fiona Staples is really more of a co-author in visual form, her style integral to the telling. Lying Cat communicates whole stories about her and her relationship with the Will, even though she never says more than “Lying” or “Mrrn”. When ghostly babysitter Izabel complains that Alana is being dumb, the way Staples draws her is what kicks her voice in my head to an exasperated teenage whine. The narrative itself is punctuated by broad panels and full page illustrations that drive the drama home. Every now and then we’re even treated to a double-page splash of some amazing beautiful thing. It’s a perfect match between writer and artist, and just completely gorgeous to look at.

The Will and Lying Cat

Although Star Wars is a pretty good comparison in terms of genre, Vaughn doesn’t seem to be telling a story of predestined heroes and plucky rebels trying to change the course of history. Firefly might be a closer comparison in terms of stakes, as right now it’s tightly focused on this one family and their survival rather than the fate of a free galaxy. Vaughn already told his Most Important Boy in the World story with the excellent Y: The Last Man, and although Saga has some similarities, it’s clearly a very different tale, and not just because it’s set a million lightyears from Earth. Alana and Marko are not exceptional through a quirk of fate like Yorick or Mitchell Hundred, but because they decided they wanted a life different from the ones chosen for them. Even when being pursued by gray-moraled assassins, war-scarred aristocrats, and vengeful ex-girlfriends, even riding a magical rocketship from a planet full of psychic ghosts, it’s a story about romance, family, and people. Vaughn and Staples have put together a brilliant world full of amazing characters, and they are telling a fantastic story. If you aren’t already aboard, now is a terrific time to hop on.

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Buy Volumes One and Two on Amazon(1/2) or Barnes & Noble (1/2), or pick them up with the latest issue at your local comic shop.

 

Frederik Pohl (1919 – 2013)

Frederik Pohl

Frederik Pohl is dead. I’ve looked for his name in the used book store for as long as I can remember buying my own books. Science fiction has a not entirely undeserved reputation for humorlessness, Douglas Adams excepted. For every Bill the Galactic Hero there are a dozen Dunes and Foundations demanding to be taken seriously and scowling mightily at those who would go to space on a lark. I’m not saying that Pohl didn’t take his writing or his stories seriously, and he certainly wasn’t writing comedy. His subjects are often world-changing events, political upheaval on a planetary scale, and the fate of humanity. But his characters feel more recognizably human than anyone on Arrakis, and even his aliens are easier to empathize with than Harry Seldon. That may be what has always made him stand out for me in the field of authors: he never elevates the Grand Idea of a story to the point at which he loses sight of the human beings caught up in that story. The characters in Frank Herbert’s Dune are well-drawn and intensely memorable, but they are also explicitly at the mercy of something larger, and more important, than themselves. I don’t think that Pohl ever believed the plots of his books were more important than the people in them.

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One of these books approaches its subject with substantially less gravitas.

Of course, I’m basing this analysis on a hilariously small sample, considering that Pohl published almost continuously since 1937, writing more than 40 novels, and I have read five of his books. I think the first was Black Star Rising, because look at the cover art, followed by Jem, which is considered one of his best works. I remember liking them well enough, though I feel like I was vaguely dissatisfied by their endings. Maybe they were more cynical than I could appreciate at that time in my life. It’s long enough ago that I can’t remember any of the details of the stories or characters, but at the very least I liked them enough to pick up Gateway.

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Gateway is an asteroid riddled with alien-made tunnels and starships. The starships go to any number of preset destinations, but the human prospectors who ride in the craft don’t know where that destination is, how long it will take to get there, or what will greet them when they arrive. If the explorers don’t starve to death on a decade-long trip, their ship may still return to Gateway full of corpses, its occupants killed by radiation, gravitational stresses, or some inexplicable anomaly or mysterious accident. Survival is more or less random, and coming back alive but empty-handed isn’t much better than dying in deep space. But those who return with an artifact or scientific discovery that the Gateway Corporation can exploit can retire to a life of luxury back on Earth, the envy of billions.

Into this walks Robinette Broadhead, a young man from the food mines of America, looking for his big break. His story is confessional, from the perspective of an older Broadhead confiding to his holographic psychiatrist. Although the absent Heechee, classic precursor aliens who have all but completely vanished from the galaxy, are an important part of the novel’s setting, this isn’t a story about unraveling ancient mysteries, or saving the galaxy, or even interfering with the intrigues of corporations and nation-states. It’s story of personal risk, adventure, and romance, and all the fear and wonder and heartache that comes with that. Gateway manages to inhabit a rich setting complete with alien mysteries, environmental catastrophe, and multi-national power struggles without ever losing sight of the human story Broadhead painstakingly reveals from the psychoanalyst’s couch.

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Gateway is terrific, but Broadhead’s story doesn’t end there. Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is a more traditionally plotted novel, bouncing among several viewpoint characters converging on a climactic confrontation. The story is full of brilliant and well-executed ideas, though, and it’s refreshing to see the Heechee universe from outside of Robin’s head. More fantastic Heechee technology is discovered, with dramatic consequences, and we begin to see the outline of the void that the Heechee left when they escaped the known Universe. It’s a more traditional novel, but it also captures more of that traditional cosmic wonder and awe of discovery that I find in more traditional space exploration science fiction. It satisfies that Star Trek itch to explore strange new worlds and new civilizations, to go someplace, as a reader, that I’ve never gone before.

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The last novel, Heechee Rendezvous (there are other Heechee-related books, but I believe they are supplemental to the main trilogy), is the weakest of the series, but still explores some fascinating territory. Pohl experiments again with a less straightforward narrative; Broadhead looks back on recent events from the perspective of one who has been “vastened”, which has the effect of creating an omniscient first-person narrator whose point of view is sometimes interrupted and counter-balanced in tidy inserts by the advanced artificial intelligence known as Albert Einstein, a creation of Broadhead’s wife. In spite of Essie Broadhead, the writing is at its most dated with regard to women, featuring just a bit too much sex-as-survival-mechanism for my tastes. Pohl also attempts to up the stakes, both for the Earth, which is increasingly gripped by political and social turmoil despite the advances brought about by adopting Heechee technology, and for the Universe, as the threat that caused the Heechee to retreat from normal space is finally revealed. It’s clear, however, that Pohl’s real interest is in Broadhead and his companions, and the story’s real strengths lie in its meditations on aging and death, the potential implications of technology that grants a kind of immortality, and what I found to be surprisingly endearing relationship drama. It’s an uneven story, bouncing between fascinating alien races and the emotional burden of being a burgeoning AI to cringeworthy passages subjecting various women to the intolerably selfish Wan. Despite this, I found it more consistently enjoyable than Dark Knight Rising, and a more satisfying capstone to a trilogy I quite enjoyed.

Frederik Pohl was active in science fiction from his first publication in 1937 to the present, and he blogged about life, science fiction, and politics right up until his death at age 93. It’s an all but unsurpassable accomplishment. I will still look for his name on the shelves of old bookshops, and look for his influence in my own spacefaring tales. I will reread Black Star Rising and Jem. I will recommend Gateway to anyone who will listen. I will remember Frederik Pohl as one of the Grandmasters of the Golden Age, who left a mark on my favorite genre that will not soon be forgotten.

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Visit his website, or his blog, where you can read the obituary from which I got whatever personal details I included in this post. Buy his books from Amazon, especially Gateway.

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