The Short Victorious War, by David Weber

I’m afraid that I continue to self-harm with David Weber’s long-running mil-SF series. That’s not entirely fair, actually: On Basilisk Station and The Honor of the Queen were authentically good in their way. Certain admirable aspects of those works continue in this, the third Honor Harrington book. For instance, Weber still has a pretty coherent, self-consistent way of how space naval battles might work (in a way suspiciously similar to the way that, say, actual naval battles worked in the 19th century, but, hey, at least he goes to the trouble of trying to make his contrivance make sense). However, in terms of plotting, character development, and suchlike, I can’t help but feel that Short is coming up, er, short.

Both Basilisk and Honor were set on worlds which were in themselves unusual and provided grist for the plot. This work, by way of contrast, is set on wholly unremarkable Manticorean worlds, with wholly unremarkable Havenite foes. There are a few technological twists, but neither of them are quite equal to the gender politics and religious subplot of Yeltsin or the native uprising plot on Basilisk. The weight of the story thus falls on Manticore and Haven themselves, and not only are they not terribly interesting, but the places Weber shows interest come across as political potshots.

For instance, previously, Haven was just the designated black-hats. They were skirmishing with our designated heroes, and that was enough to give them the role of guys-we’re-rooting-against. Also, they weren’t front-and-center in previous stories, and the central villains (particularly the Masadans) were loathsome enough that we didn’t need to delve very far into who the Havenites were and why we should be rooting against them. But here Weber decides to actually spend some time on world-building Haven, and it’s awful. The premise, which I suppose we’re supposed to take seriously, is that the existence of social welfare has developed the majority of society into a nonlaboring underclass on the dole, with the result that the economy is wholly unsustainable except by relentless pillaging. It’s like a bad parody of Communism blended with a strawman version of the US’s welfare system. With transparent references to revolutionary France that seem frankly a bit cheesy and unworthy of a work that wants me to take it seriously. Manticore itself is not terribly well-developed, but they come across as basically a fantasy-UK. One without the dole.

So the basic premise of Haven is this weird bit of socialism-bashing, and the unfriendliness to liberalism doesn’t end there. Remember Houseman, the straw bleeding-heart diplomat from Honor that didn’t understand that sometimes force was necessary? Well, his cousin’s in this story. He basically does nothing and has no impact on the plot, but he’s present so that every 50 or so pages we can get a reminder of just how weak and stupid he was.

So, yeah, there’s another Honor Harrington story here (spoiler: she wins), which unlike the last two, doesn’t do much to develop her character. She gets a romance subplot and faces some fears, but all in all she feels pretty static here. A lot of energy is devoted to worldbuilding, and the world built is so incomprehensible and crafted to score cheap political points that it was quite hard to actually view the page-count spent on it as worthwhile.

Micmacs à tire-larigot

[Screenshot]I have generally a good track record with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. I adored Delicatessen and Amélie, and liked City of Lost Children pretty well. He’s struck me as basically a French Terry Gilliam: gorgeous scenery, dark comedy, and a liberal helping of complete weirdshit. And I like Terry Gilliam (or at least, I like most of what he’s done), so generally the similarity has worked out well for me.

I’m afraid that I reservedly have to pan Micmacs. I’d still take it over any given four or five films by any other director, but it is not exactly the top of Jeunet’s game. There’s a lot of whimsy and comedy, but the basic soul of the work feels like it’s gone missing. Part of the problem from where I stand is that Jeunet, even in lighter works, has always kept me pretty off-balance. There’s a mystery, or a heavy shroud of surreality, or at least some incidental force which suggests much greater depth to the work than is apparent on the surface. But in Micmacs, pretty much all is as it seems, and the entirety of the work is mired in reality. There are early hints that there might be some deeper meaning to the shell-casing and the sketch which are Bazil’s smoking guns, but in the end it comes down to a revenge-fantasy thickly larded with political subtext. Yes, the squalor of the scavengers’ camp (and of poverty in general) is beautiful rather than dreary, and there’s a light touch of surreality over the whole work, but ultimately, it’s too relentlessly tied to real-world politics to really fly the way his previous delightful works had.

But lest I give a false impression of this film, let me reiterate that I actually liked this movie quite well. It’s extraordinary when it comes to settings and tone (Jeunet’s cinematography is generally pretty inspired), and at times quite funny, with the campy rivalry elements played to the hilt and the quirky scavengers given ample room to shine. Even working in a somewhat less-than-ideal space, Jeunet does a lot better with this work than I would trust most directors to. If you like Jeunet’s style, this won’t make you feel like your time’s been wasted; but expect something closer to Amélie than to Delicatessen or City of Lost Children. Visually, it bears much in common with the latter, but tonally, it’s definitely in a much more lighthearted and simplistic headspace.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

There’s something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. With clever political placement, even an indifferent novel such as this one can be guaranteed an eternal place in history (and good sales in the short term, too). At its best, it’s vivid in depicting the evils of slavery, but unfortunately the visceral and effective bits are broken up by awful treacley sermons. There are good things to be said about it, most of them relevant to its political impact: some of the obvious objections to abolition were foreseen and addressed, so that even the rarity of a “good master” is presented as at best a temporary respite against inevitable evil. Unfortunately, the whole obsession with depicting particular agents as good and evil undermines the characters horribly. There are no shades of gray in characterization. There are evil slave-abusers, good masters who respect slaves, pious slaves who are good, and unsaved slaves who range from unthinking brutality to mischievousness until they’re saved with all the subtlety of a Chick Tract conversion.

It’s also a moderately uncomfortable book to read today. As the above list of characteristics demonstrates, these are not subtle nuanced characters but broad stereotypes. One can read stereotypical good masters and bad masters and slave traders and abolitionists without a twinge, but the stereotypical representations of the slaves are more often than not embarassing, bound up as they are in persistant stereotypes about black people (has a school board banned it yet? It uses the word “nigger” at least as many times as Huckleberry Finn, and uses far more familiar racial stereotypes).

There are parts of it that are enjoyable. Eliza’s flight to Canada mostly works, since it’s long on action and short on sermons. Tom’s stumbling into Christian allegory and martyrdom is somewhat the other way around, and more sentimental than authentically affecting.

See also: Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg.

The Authoritarians, by Bob Altemeyer

Bob Altemeyer is a psychologist at the University of Manitoba, and The Authoritarians is, first and foremost, a report on his research. So pretty much every chapter is a report on several roleplay scenarios, surveys, and other human-behavior studies, in addition to a contextualization of those same studies and their results. It’s a popular-audience tome rather than an actual formal research report, so it’s readable, long on 21st-century contextualization of the observed behaviors, and short on experimental protocols.

From the aforemenetioned popular-audience perspective, it does ot a certain extent seem like Altemeyer’s saying the same thing over and over: namely, that there is a significant subset of the population psychologically predisposed to behave stupidly. He doesn’t come out and say this, of course, but his (research-justified!) contempt for what he calls “high RWAs” comes through, and the indictment of their critical faculties and independence of thought is pretty damning.

It’s an interesting and absorbing read, but not without its problems. It seems in many ways to be confirmation of things which disgruntled liberals like myself already think they know, so despite that warm glow of self-satisfaction, I’m not sure how much I learned from this. It’s short on good explanation for the roots of high-RWA attitudes, nor a cogent plan for combatting them.

But it’s an interesting read, and it sheds at least some light on the peculiar way authoritarians think, and the substantive differences between the psychology of right-wing leaders and their followers. I’m not sure this did much to expand my actual knowledge, but it’s good at sharpening and clarifying the thoughts, like any good orderly and well-justified presentation of facts can be.

See also: online (free) edition.

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

[Screenshot]I read the comic and saw the film in close succession, so I’ll write up about both of them at once, especially since they are extremely similar stylistically. It’s black and white with biold deliniations. The overall effect is very stark, reflecting accurately both a child’s view and the totalitarian state. Even within this constrained style, art-shifts are common, with paper dolls for the history lesson and Munchesque distorted, elongated scenes during a suicide attempt. And, of course, the artistic style in the comic is followed faithfully in the animation. It’s unusual for sequential still images, but for animation it’s positively bizarre. It’s a major departure from traditional animation styles, and, inexplicably, it works. So top marks for both media for style. As for the story, it too is strong and interesting, although it drags a fair bit during the Europe section: while the backdrop of Iran presents compelling drama for either a precocious child of a young woman seeking an identity, the “fish out of water” segment felt a bit too self-pitying and insufficiently dramatic. Yes, I know, it’s autobiography and real lifes have those interludes, but, still, it felt more like a distraction than anything else.

Other than that mild bog-down in the plot, however, Persepolis is a fantastic, engrossing story, however you choose to experience it.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Die fetten Jahre sind vorbei

[Screenshot]This one is storywise good, and shows competent cinemacraft. Where it bugs me is ideology.

Let’s start with the acting, and the straightforward aspects of the film. The central four actors emote well and do a great job with what they’re given. I didn’t know of them before now, but I’m not well-versed in German films, so I can’t be surprised. Nonetheless, they’re good at what they do, and they’re given a pretty decent script to follow (at least as far as I can tell from translation).

So, on to ideology. This film has a distinctly sympathetic viewpoint, and it wants us to sympathize with Jan and Jule (and, to a lesser extent, Peter). The problem is that their attitudes are completely idiotic. They’re angry, and justifiably, but their anger isn’t directed towards any constructive sort of change. They have no real agenda. This seems to fly with some crowd, based on how many hogh-school anarchists there are around, but it doesn’t really work to tear down a system unless you actually have a reason to believe you can improve it. Hardenberg, whose viewpoint is not sympathetically presented, explicitly asks them what they mean to accomplish. They don’t really have an answer, and as far as I can tell nobody involved with the film had a problem with that. They probably should have.

I’m just kind of bugged that we have a tailor-made conflict which could really illuminate the purposes of revolution. We have a lot of dialogue between the battle-scarred, cynical ex-revolutionary and the young purposeless idealists. There’s room for these ideas to meet in the middle gloriously. Instead, we get an epilogue which firmly establishes the rule of the day: starry-eyed idealism without goals makes you a hero, realistic resignation makes you a villain.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.