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.

A Devil at Noon

I saw this as part of the 35th Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre; it’s thus a bleeding-edge new play, with all the experimentalism and quality variation that might entail. As experimental new plays go, it’s not bad, although it’s riddled with pitfalls for the unwary. The first act is largely bewildering, consisting mostly of apparently unrelated monologues and extended mime sequences with foley effects. I knew from the blurb that it was supposed to be, after a fashion, a Philip K. Dick-flavored work, so I expected bewilderment but with a greater thematic cohesion, and by the intermission I was totally lost and really hoping the second act put it all back together.

To its credit, the play did end up eventually tying together most of its disparate threads (I’m still scratching my head about the symbolism of the oft-repeated moon motif), and does so in a manner properly in line with what I expect from Dick inspiration: confusion of identity and reality, with discourse on the interaction of creativity and perception. By the end of the evening, I had felt like I had digested a satisfactory work, while at the intermission I was quite certain it was a hopeless mess. From an expectation-management point of view, I’d call this work problematic: I think a fair part of the audience gave up at intermission. There were aspects that might’ve been tightened up to give it, even early on, a bit more drive and purpose: either dropping or better contextualizing the strange moon segments, and shortening the dialogueless mime segments (to be as unspoilery as possible: the mime/foley elements which serve in the place of actual stage setting actually have a plot-relevant purpose, but the sections where they’re manipulated without dialogue really slow the play down). However, for those of us who persisted to the end, I think the play ended up being a treat. If it could be structured in a way to give the audience greater faith that it’s actually going somewhere, it’d be even better.

As for the details of this specific performance: Actors is generally a good group, and they did well here. Leading actor Joseph Adams displays a moderate range, mostly on the wryly contemplative side but bringing some animation to the character when called for; Rebecca Hart’s range, which seems a bit more limited at first (her role seems to be the Quirky Younger Love Interest) opens up dramatically and she rises to the occasion. The other actors have less demanding roles but work well with them. The foley (and where necessary special effects) were good, and in spite of my distaste for the overuse of the mechanism, I have to register admiration for the extent to which the actors and sound crew made the no doubt difficult effect synchronization work live.

See also: premiere at Actors Theatre.

巌窟王/Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, full series

[Screenshot]A lot of basic information about this series was written up in my review of the first four episodes and then my review of the next four episodes. I’m stepping back from partial-series reviews these days because they leave me with less and less to say by the end. Certainly this series is no exception. The visual style continues to be fantastic and somewhat unnerving: it really is a love-it-or-hate-it effect for the most part. The use of textures is getting steadily less restrained near the end of the series, with more garish and violent combinations of texture and color. That may (or may not) be intentional. I was mildly disappointed by the increasing role of CG effects in the later parts of the series, though: as background decoration they’re brilliant, but as foreground elements they clash badly with the texture-wackiness. Also, the CG gives them an excuse (or perhaps an obligation) to do mecha battles, which I at least could have done without.

The Japanese dub is quite good; the American dub is passable modulo some peculiar design decisions: there is one character who always speaks in French in the original dub, and his dialogue is translated to English the same as everyone else’s in the American dub. While the original decision was a bit peculiar (having exactly one character speak in French, uncommented on by everyone else, in a story set in a futuristic France in which everyone else speaks Japanese is more than a little peculiar).

So, I’ve gone over the technical aspects, but I’m not sure what to say about the plot. It’s deeply divergent from the original story, which is not necessarily a problem: it’s a pastiche built over the characters and motivations of the original work, changing things liberally to fit the story desired (Franz is a much larger character than in the novel; most of the Morrels are absent completely and the few who remain have a considerably diminished role). Peppo, who I adored in the first four episodes, remains lamentably underused, but reamis a ray of sunshine occasionally brought out to play. The final showdown between Morcerf and Dantes felt weak and a bit problematic, but much that led up to it was in fact excellent.

I’d cautiously recommend this one — up to episode 17 it is absolutely fantastic, and from there on it depends a bit much on flashy CGI and lets the plot grind down, but even up to the 22nd episode it remains riveting and interesting. The last two episodes are a bit of a mess, but not in, say, Neon Genesis Evangelion territory. If you liked Dumas’s novel but not so much that you see a disordered recapitulation of its themes and characters as a travesty, then you might well like this series as I did.

However, the easiest test is just to watch the first episode. If the art style puts you off, no amount of intrigue and drama will really counter that. If you find the art fascinating or alluring, it’s probably worth your time at least for the first half.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Anime News Network, AniDB.

The Honor of the Queen, by David Weber

I liked On Basilisk Station enough to continue following the series, or at least as far as the Baen Free Library would take me. It remains a pretty solid page-turner, and I daresay this book is actually in many ways superior to its predecessor. While it lacks the appealing “Honor makes good where nobody’s even tried to before” subplot, it is in many ways less predictable and goes in different directions than were originally foreseen (by way of contrast, it was pretty clear that there was a very specific twist which would arise in the climactic battle of OBS, because it was very strongly foreshadowed early on). One machination of the plot I found surprising, and authentically shocking, was that a newly introduced character, and a minor character from before, take center stage early in the story and become very well fleshed out and likable and generally interesting. And then they both die. It doesn’t feel like a cheap shot, or even a gratuitous drama-heightening death, but it authentically managed to catch me flat-footed, and had significant relevance to the plot. The military developments were also less predictable: devoid of any real twists, but, agian, since the twist in Basilisk was telegraphed, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

As for the actual plot and conceit of the story, one source of moderate worry to me in the series is the pervasive theme of Manticorean ministry to the Less Enlightened Civilizations; it’s all very White Man’s Burden (particularly in light of the fact that Manticore is a thinly veiled outer-space version of the UK). In Basilisk it was literal savages; here the primitives of the day are misogynistic fundamentalists. This admittedly makes for good drama when the Good Guys are a monarchy whose titular head is female and whose on-site military coordinator is also female, and to Weber’s credit he veered clear of Very Special Episode moralizing about equality and religion and suchlike, and kept mostly to logistical and diplomatic ramifications.

Also, I have no idea what David Weber’s actual politics are, but I was a bit irked by the inclusion of a completely pointless diplomatic character who is a hopeless caricature of bleeding-heart liberalism, affording the military characters several pages of frustrated whinging about how he just doesn’t get that you can’t negotiate with fanatics. Nuance may not be Weber’s strong point, and he doesn’t seem to trust his readers to find someone despicable unless they’re a caricature (Houseman and pretty much every named Masadan) or transparently skeezy (Pavel Young, back in the last book).

See also: Wikipedia, Baen Free Library.

On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

I managed to miss most of the sci-fi series of the past few decades. I read Asimov’s series, and a lot of serial fantasy, but mostly missed out on recent serial sci-fi large series, although I’ve certainly heard of the Vorkosigan saga and the Honorverse and suchlike. But the Baen free library has some of the Honorverse books in it, so I finally got around to checking what the fuss is about.

It’s very much operations-and-logistics-oriented, and assumes a certain degree of familiarity with naval convention. I don’t know much about naval convention or naval history, but I get the impression that all the folderol about missile tracking ranges and impeller sidewalls is an attempt to make the ship-to-ship combat in this book resemble 18th or 19th century capital ship battles. The justifications used are reasonably solid if you buy into the particular technologies posited, and it steers clear, in spite of the naval metaphors, of most of the obvious flaws in quasi-nautical sci-fi space settings.

Plotwise it’s not deeply imaginative: our Fearless Heroine, set up to fail, turns the disadvantages of her situation into an opportunity, earns the respect of her subordinates, &c., but it does the job well enough and endears the cental character to the reader. The characters and situations are reasonably believable and it’s an entertaining enough page-turner.

I was vaguely reminded of Dan Brown’s bad habit of beginning each chapter with an occupational modifier before a name, since Weber dos that too. But it’s somewhat more natural in a military setting.

See also: Wikipedia, Baen Free Library.

The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells

This is surely Wells’ best-known work (followed, but not all that closely, by The Time Machine) and arguably one of the genre-defining works of modern sci-fi; particularly modern “hard” sci-fi. Edgar Rice Burroughs and suchlike folks would later carve out “soft” sci-fi, where the technological aspects play a secondary role to the story, but Wells took a more-than-passing interest in exposition, and the heavy hand of attempted scientific realism casn be felt here. There’s significant glorification of technology and wonder at the unverse (the latter albeit tempered by the sense of menace), all of which remains within the bounds of the understanding of science as it stood at the turn of the century. Some of that realism has been diminished by future contradiction of the contemporary state of knowledge, but for the most part the science has aged well. Stylistically it’s rather flat, but that appears to be by design, as if the work were meant to be a report (not unlike Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year).

See also: Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg.

Sunshine ’07

[Screenshot]First off: this is not Szabó’s 1999 opus about a Hungarian Jewish family. I liked that film plenty, and it has the same name as this one, but they otherwise have nothing in common.

This is about 70% or so of a fantastic film. There is interpersonal drama, there is the face of a merciless cosmos, there are logistical and psychological issues, and there is even a modicum of scientific accuracy (OK, more than a modicum; I’m afraid I don’t expect a lot of realism from sci-fi these days). All this is played out in with skilled acting and with effects and technical aspects to match, particularly as regards light and darkness (a major theme, well-conveyed through the cinematography). There is a lot to like for most of the film.

And then it undergoes an abrupt shift in genre, and not for the better. The simplistic new scenario does much to undercut the drama and psychological tension developed over most of the film, as well as raising unanswerable questions about the backstory. Also, it’s very hard to take a horrific scenario seriously when bits of it are cribbed from “Dark Star”.

On balance, it’s actually a very good film, but the extent to which its end fails to live up to the promise of its beginning and middle does much to cast a pall over the whole work.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.