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Tag Archives: Science fiction

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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

Clarkesworld

First of all, sorry for the late post. I got in late Saturday from Chicago, barely wrote a word of anything while I was there, and then worked and hated life all Sunday. So, you get a super late post, then we resume a normal Saturday schedule. And now, one of my favorite things:

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I found Clarkesworld as a writer trying to place a story. That didn’t really work out, but as a reader I have never looked back. There are many good magazines out there for science fiction and fantasy – Shimmer, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons – in addition to the venerable Asimov’sAnalog, and Fantasy and Science Fiction, but Clarkesworld is my favorite, consistently publishing some of the most excellent speculative fiction – or fiction in general – currently floating around on the Internet.

Neil Clarke, the founder and editor of Clarkesworld and no direct relation to Arthur C., publishes the kind of fiction that I aspire to write. It is strange and beautiful, full of spaceships, death, robots, heartache, alien worlds, interstellar empires, moments of defining character, poetic language, and experimental humanoid and literary forms. I’m wary of drawing some distinction between “genre” and “literary” fiction, so let’s just say that whatever limiting genre expectations you may have, Clarkesworld stories tend to transcend them. There is no formula, exactly, but most of them do what I most want science fiction to do: take me to other worlds. “Mantis Wives”, for example, posits an entire mantis culture based around the death of the male during mating, while “Aquatica” presents the short life of a male anglerfish pursuing a legend of his people in a quest for his life to have some meaning beyond breeding and dying. There are stories that explore the ruined world after some Event (“Fade to White”), or set in an age of great interstellar empires and interplanetary rebels (“Scattered Along the River of Heaven”), hidden worlds not far removed from our own (“A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight”) or our own world gone strange in unexpected ways (“Melt With You”). They don’t tend to explain themselves in so many words; they expect you to splash in and immerse yourself, and let the strangeness and wonder take over for a little while. And they do this effectively, making you feel like you’ve just visited a strange, lovely, sometimes terrible place.

While not as deliberately dark as, say, Apex Magazine,  the quality of the writing is such that when they choose to be so, the effect can be pretty devastating. The three combined stories of the August 2012 issue pack a hell of a punch: “Mantis Wives” is morbidly beautiful, “Honey Bear” is sweet, sad speculative horror, and “Fade to White” just rips straight into your core and keeps on going through and through. The editors aren’t afraid of experimental or weird fiction, either: “Spar” is as deeply upsetting as it is powerful (trigger warning for graphic nonconsensual alien sex); “Everything Must Go” and “All the Young Kirks and Their Good Intentions” are so strange that it’s almost surprising how moving they are, and how well they capture a particular kind of sadness.

I think part of what makes Clarkesworld’s voice, insofar as a magazine can have a voice, unique is the diversity of authors that it publishes. The volume of women and people of color published in Clarkesworld is pretty astonishing, and although Neil Clarke insists it isn’t a deliberate editorial choice, if it was it would be a welcome antidote to what so often appears to be a very white male dominated field. Through Clarkesworld, I’ve learned the names of many writers I might not otherwise have discovered, such as Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, Kij Johnson, Yoon Ha Lee, and these are now names that I look for when I search for new fiction. I haunt the blogs of N.K. Jemisin, Jay Lake, and Carrie Vaughn. I find inspiration, as a writer, in interviews with old masters like Gene Wolfe and Lois McMaster Bujold, and with newer writers like Nnedi Okorafor or Myke Cole. The depth of voice in Clarkesworld makes it fresh and engaging every month. I probably wouldn’t say that Neil Clarke publishes optimistic stories, but I think his magazine does the work of optimistic science fiction: not only showing us how the future of the genre could look, but actively works to make that future a reality. Clarke publishes the magazine he always wanted to read, and it turns out that’s the kind of magazine I want to read too.

I hate to relegate illustration to an afterthought, but I can’t leave the subject of Clarkesworld without mentioning the cover art. I know I’m a sucker for judging books by their covers, but the effort taken to select such gorgeous artwork for each issue of the magazine is part of what makes this a top quality read, and has even inspired me to purchase hard copies of a few issues. I’m just going to leave you with a few links to my favorite covers; see if they aren’t just what you’ve always hoped would be on the cover of a magazine of speculative fiction.

“The Remains Which Live” by Keisuke Asaba

“Soulhunter” by Andrey Lazarev

“Winding Down” by Alex Ries

“Nautilii” by Julie Dillon

“Retro Robots” by Georgi Markov

Read it online, and consider buying a subscription for your ereader. You can also buy the first three Clarkesworld anthologies or selected chapbooks through Neil Clarke’s publishing house, Wyrm Publishing.