Friday, December 16, 2016

Soaring, Stunning, Exhilarating!

Review: The Eagle Huntress, documentary film by Otto Bell

From the opening scenes, breath-takingly beautiful scenery and uplifting emotions carry to the skies this lovely film about a young woman in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia who seeks to follow her father's and grandfather's footsteps, and become an eagle hunter, despite long tradition that limits this role to men only.

Director Otto Bell and his film crew have done an outstanding job of letting the harsh landscape, the demands of life on the mountains and steppes, and the stunning courage of 13-year-old Aisholpan and her family, inform every part of this incredibly moving story.

I actually teared up at the beginning, watching an eagle hunter (Aisholpan's grandfather) release an eagle back to the wild after seven years of hunting with it. Then the tears struck again at the memorial credit at the end of the film.

In between, the thrilling saga of the girl's dream—and her work—to capture an eaglet, train it and herself, and compete in the national Eagle Hunters Festival in Ulgii is told simply and with little pontificating. Like all successful dreamers, Aisholpan doesn't let the negative feedback from more traditional-minded Eagle Hunters keep her from pursuing her goal.

The choice of a Sia song for the closing credits, Angel by the Wings, is totally appropriate:
You can, you can do anything, anything
You can do anything
You can, you can do anything, anything
You can do anything
Look up, call to the sky
Oh, look up and don't ask why, oh
Just take an angel by the wings...

This film is only in "art cinemas" rather than a wider release, so we drove in pouring rain to a neighboring town and climbed three flights of stairs to watch it in a local cinema. Ken Cummings, who suggested the film, and I, with our respective spouses joined three other people to watch the matinee showing in the tiny theater.

Despite these drawbacks (limited release into smaller venues, English subtitling, lack of Hollywood "names" being involved—although Daisy Ridley, "Rey" of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, provides the narration), I predict the film will do well. It deserves to. And with a G rating, this is a much better choice for family viewing at Christmas than some films in theaters over the holiday (Rogue One, and Assassin's Creed, to name two), and if the word gets out about it, it may even hold its own against heavyweights like Disney's Moana and J.K. Rowlings' Fantastic Beasts and Where to FInd Them.

I believe adults who take their children will also thoroughly enjoy The Eagle Huntress, which is more than I would commit to for either of the other two kid-friendly films.  

Post-Brexit Romp

Review: 54th State by Ian Thompson

Start with a now-American rocker named Tristan Beaver, politically and scientifically clueless, with his celebrity space shot. While Mars and the Moon are old-hat destinations on a well-travelled route, Beaver will make a splash with a crew of non-astronaut groupies and a startling destination: Jupiter's Red Spot.

Add a paradigm-busting US president whose idea of a great deal is to purchase new states (most recently, Cuba), plus a hopelessly incompetant British government surviving only by the efforts of mid-level clerk-assistants, with a post-Brexit space program hoping to be revitalized by Beaver's probe—all the elements needed for a romp. 

Okay, Beaver is not a former Canadian (despite the evocative title of the first paragraph: "Rock Stars, Eh?"), but is instead from rural-industrial England. He became an American, we learn, to avoid British taxes. 

And the free-market-dealing US President is a Libertarian—and a one-time member of Beaver's entourage. (Thompson would appear to have been equally taken by surprise by the recent US election results; his clueless Brit politicos refer on more than one occasion to "that lady President" who preceeded the current fictional holder of the office.)

The resulting farce is rollicking, hilarious, and satisfyingly irreverent in the way all good political comedies are. The Brexit result is called upon to explain the dire finances of Britain, and the ham-handed financial finagle of their treasury chief takes care of the rest. The interplay between the Prime Minister, Sir Barnaby Chamberlain, and the actual chief mover of the government, his aide Forbes, parallels that government's supposed philosophical dissonance with the British electorate.

Wrapped inside this satirical goofiness is a serious thread: a terrorist threat, the struggle of the Beaver Probe's crew to survive their ridiculous mission in a sabotaged spcecraft, plus a truly unexpected twist that takes the reader by surprise. It keeps the story from disintegrating into sniggers and stereotypes.

In fact, my next act after finishing this book was to buy Thompson's previous novel, EZICASH (subtitled How to usurp a totalitarian behemoth with a monkey wrench.) At less than a dollar, the purchase was another steal, and I look forward to reading his "satirical look at Health and Safety mixed with greed." 

I'll have to wait for my sides to stop aching from laughter before I undertake the next journey into his hilarious take on British politics!

Liner Notes:

I nominated 54th State in the Kindle Scout program, but since it was not selected, I purchased it for the princely sum of 99 cents. That's US pennies, by the way. Once again the program has introduced me to an author who has joined my "read everything by" list. If anyone wonders how I manage to read 200 to 300 books a year, the Kindle Scout program is a serious factor in feeding my To-Be-Read stack!

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Quality of Light

Review: Penric's Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold

This novella abounds with observations on light and the lack of it. Clarity of vision is contrasted with the blinding of a central character; the thrilling quality of an illuminated sky is juxtaposed with absolute darkness in a dungeon in the same city. For travelling cleric Penric with his demon companion Desdemona, this contrast is thrust upon them when the two (who share a single body, Penric's, are siezed in the course of a diplomatic mission, and shoved unceremoniusly into a dungeon oubliette. Penric's captors mean to prevent him from using powers lent by his demon indweller. 

Instead, they force the two to expand those powers to create "action at a distance." Penric and Desdemona must visualize the flow of water through cracks in the rock surrounding them, and call on the Fifth God's love of chaos and dissolution to escape.

Further chaos and destruction ensue when Penric meets a young widow focused on helping her brother, the popular general who was the focus of Penric's mission. General Arisaydia has been deliberately blinded to set a hideous example for his men. As a martyr, he might become a rallying point; as a maimed man dependent on his sister, he is an object of pity.

Penric spends weeks hiding out with the two, determined to reverse the general's maiming. He hopes the cure will convince the general (and his sister) to come with him to the Duke of Adria, which will complete his mission. With the Bastard God and Desdemona involved, however, nothing could ever proceed as planned...

I loved the astute way Bujold played with physical and mental vision, using philosophical and emotional light and darkness as characters in her novel. Like a previous Bujold star, Miles VorKosigan, Penric is an intelligent young man with a crippling disability, whose story is always woven with dark threads of the reaction of others to his impairment, and the bright threads of his overcoming it. 

Penric has far to go; I look forward to accompanying him on the next leg of his journey.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Story: 10, Grammar and Punctuation: 2

Review: Born a Witch, Drafted by the FBI! and Conjuring Quantico by T.S. Paul

The first two offerings in the Federal Witch series by T.S. Paul will likely be the only ones I buy. Despite an admittedly great story with an intriguing, vaguely alternate-history, plot-gimmick, I can't force myself to wade any further through the extremely poor editing.

I might have been warned by the cover composition, and the fact that these books are only available in e-format.

The concept is a good one: magic users (Paranormals) are a sizeable group in every country, and have been at the center of each historic conflict since the Great War (WWI in our history), which they call the Great Purge. Because the Allied victory in this war involved killing off the vampire clans in Europe (including neutrals, and those allied to Britain), the paranormal community is extremely leary of cooperating with government agencies like the FBI.

Born a Witch

Agatha Blackmore is not only a witch, she is the most powerful witch of her generation. She is also a loose cannon with a tendency to commit wild magic with unintended consequences. Who better, then, to finally step up to work for the FBI? If her magic goes awry, as expected, at least she'll not be anywhere near the witch community.

This prequel tells Agatha's back-story: the "incident" when she was six that terrified her widowed mother and her aunt, and brought into her life the familiar Fergus, a My-Little-Pony-sized unicorn that talks—and cusses. The story reveals her strong bent toward law enforcement, and provides some reason to why she would comply with her family's desire to have her out of the community.

It also establishes the bias and bigotry of the FBI Academy's director and staff, not only toward Agatha, but toward other paranormals like her Were roommate Cat. The characters each have their own voice and set of quirks, including the politically-incorrect Fergus.

The novella would have been an enjoyably quick read if I hadn't spent so much time documenting the dauntingly numerous instances of apostrophe-abuse and number disagreement. What writer old enough to have a wife, as T.S. Paul's bio indicates, does not know that plurals do not have apostrophes, and possessive nouns (except pronouns) do? I reported dozens of such errors from this short 55-page novella.

Paul is lucky I ignored the apparent inability of the author to use commas; I would have still been reporting them if I had not. Leaving them out makes the reader work so much harder to figure out who is speaking to whom.

Conjuring Quantico

Agatha Blackmore and her roommate Cat are both accepted to study at Quantico. I didn't expect to find a close match with actual FBI Academy practices in a novel about witches and were-cats, so I wasn't disappointed when I didn't. It felt more like the movie Feds: cute girl roommates and a dweeby guy form a pact (or in this case, a Pack), and triumph as student-agents by using teamwork. 

In this iteration, however, they're pitted against a team of powerful demons instead of clueless fellow students.

Here again, the story and character development rates a 10, but the apostrophe-abuse continues. And Paul adds a new issue: rampant capitalization. Random nouns are "properized" by capitalizing them. "Were" (a shape-shifter Paranormal) is proper in one sentence, and uncapitalized "were" in the next, and "were-cat" is just as likely to be rendered "Were-Cat" or "Were-cat." (It doesn't help that the Were Cat is a were-cat.) 

I finally blew my stack when "Dike" and "Sill" (the igneous geologic structures) were properized.

I was sensitized by the time I came across two instances of blatant number disagreement. "There was two..." and "There was several..." made me see red. And don't get me started on the author's blatant disregard for the proper use of commas. "See Cat being a natural leader..." is just not the same thing as "See, Cat, being a natural leader..."

I wanted to love these books. I really did. I'm angry that the abyssmal editing prevented me from doing so, and even more incensed that I spent my own money to experience such a disappointment.

I can't recommend them to anyone else.

Double WriMo!

Final Validated Word Count: 102,421

Late last week, I looked at my per-day stats, and realized I was within shouting distance of a WriMo Double: not 50,000 words written in November, but 100,000. The story was coming easily, and even though a good chunk of it may vanish in editing, that is a concern for December, or next year.

Now the story is finished, and only the editing is left. 

And I'm not the only one. My region, California, Sonoma County, has a large group of WriMos who've obviously been cranking out words as well.

Collectively we're closing in on 5 million words written in November.

We're writers. The great thing about NaNoWriMo is that it shows everyone willing to try that writing is a simple task. It doesn't require talent, skill, or genius, only perseverance.  

Publishing? Well, that's a different kettle of fish entirely. To be an "author," you must publish. To be a writer, on the other hand... typing, handscript, or Dragon dictation is all you need.

In order to write, you just do it.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Aiding Liberty

Review: Angeleyes by Michael Z. Williamson

Williamson's work can be described as mil-scifi with more than a slight libertarian twist. As such, it belongs in the same genre as Heinlein's Starship Troopers, or L. Neil Smith's Probability Broach series. 

Angeleyes, the latest in Williamson's outstanding Freehold series, looks at an unusual Freeholder. "Angie" Kaneshiro is a rolling stone, a spacer with multiple skills whose primary lifestyle is "moving on." After Earth's crackdown on its former colony of Grainne, Angie lists her origin as "Caledonia," because as Earth ships and uniforms become increasingly prevalent, new regulations tighten down on travel for all, but especially Freeholders.

Blessed by her parents with an opaquely-spelled name (Aonghaelaice) and the right to return to her real homeworld of Grainne, Angie prefers to camp with a series of friends, or kip in the odd spaces of habitats and stations until she can find a berth on a ship going somewhere—almost anywhere—else. She has a talent for spotting those unused, unmonitored spots in the interstices of her stop-over worlds. These are places she can live free, if with little comfort, until it is time to move on. She's made a life out of living briefly in such places before she ships out again.

When war actually begins, Angie realizes that her knowledge is vital to her homeworld. She contacts a Freehold Special Ops base, and volunteers her expertise. The rest of the story is a delicious sequence of sneaky maneuvers, sabotage, and mayhem centered around Angie's teammates, with Angie supplying the hideouts and cultural data to prevent their discovery by the Earth forces arraigned against them.

The most intense part of the story, which like Freehold, is definitely not suitable for young readers, is when Angie is seized as a spy, and tortured by her captors. Readers of the earlier books in this series will recognise Williamson's unwillingness to "prettify" warfare. We know Angie doesn't die, but there are no guarantees about any other character in the novel. 

This is fiction at its closest approximation to real life. You could believe this action and these people taking life in any setting of current day or history, anywhere on Earth. That it is set in space simply leaves us free to notice how well the reasonable libertarian society functions despite its philosophical enemies.

It is not for the squeamish, nor the statist.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Post-Apocalyptic Networking

Review: Web of Everywhere by John Brunner

The societal consequence of instantaneous matter transportation is a recurring science-fiction theme. No one has ever done it better than Alfred Bester in The Stars My Destination, though many have tried. (Or have not tried, as with the inconsequential matter transmitters of Star Trek.)

John Brunner came closest to out-Foyling* Bester with this little-noticed novel. Unlike Brunner’s The Infinitive of Go, published six years later, WoE concentrates on the social and political implications of a matter transmitter called a “Skelter.” In the mid-70’s, with the horror of the Tate-LaBianca murders still fresh in everyone’s minds, the name was evocative. 

And like the “helter skelter” cult, the result of the Skelter technology’s free access to everywhere was murder, plus explosive plagues, terrorism dwarfing 9/11, and the collapse of civilization. A “puerperal fever” kills 80% of the world’s women, leaving many of the rest sterile. Only the invention of the “privateer,” a method to lock the Skelter doors against uninvited guests, and a strict law against using unauthorized Skelter codes, has managed to salvage what remains of civil society.
Theseus / Blinded by the dark / Followed Ariadne’s clew of thread.
Ariadne / Has ceased her spinning / And all doors lead to the Minotaur.
—Mustapha Sharif

Hans Dysktra is a deeply unsatisfied man. He is married (a rarity in this post-Skelter world), but his wife is shallow, vain, stupid, and fat. He works exploring the nuclear-ravaged Skelters of Europe under the aegis of a world-wide government headed by the inventor of the privateer, Chaim Aleuker. But secretly he explores unauthorized locations, documenting the state in which he finds these abandoned houses and the restorations he applies. His secret work, he tells himself, must not be revealed until after his death.

His partner in these efforts is Mustapha Sharif, a blind poet with a method for discovering Skelter codes. Sharif is the opposite of Dykstra in many respects; he lives calmly in a non-Skelter community, he is respected, even revered by many of the world’s leaders, and he deeply appreciates what he has. Despite Sharif’s disability, it is Dykstra who is blind, and Sharif who leads him.

Dykstra’s dark-room work on his latest “find” is ruined when his wife opens the door before the photos are developed. To punish her, he accepts her “treasure hunt” invitation to a party at Chaim Aleuker’s house, and solves the puzzle himself so effectively, he comes to the attention of the world leaders. When the party is overrun by local terrorists, he grabs a young “wild girl” guest and flees with her. Like trying to grasp a cobweb without breaking it, his attempts to have the things he believes he wants lead Dykstra only to destroy them.

The action in the novel is physical as well as mental, but the webs that unite each place to everywhere else serve also to bind people together. Cobwebs in unused dwellings echo the threads of connection that link people to each other. At the center of all these webs dwells Mustapha Sharif, a Way of Life believer whose household is Muslim, a respected elder who directly abets Dykstra’s crimes, a peaceful man whose former partners met violent deaths, a blind man whose observations are sharp and precise.
Once I met a man / who every day / went around the planet counterclockwise.
He said by this means / he gained a day / and would therefore live for ever.
Unluckily for him / Death measures time / otherwise than with clocks and watches.
—Mustapha Sharif

You can now get this novel on Kindle, but for the full experience, you’ll want the paperback edition. You’ll have to watch for it in used bookstores. Ignore the cheesy cover art. This is a story that deserves a wider exposure.

Liner Note

*Gully Foyle is the central character of The Stars My Destination, an unwitting champion at using jaunte energy, who has succeeded in breaking the planetary barrier to "jaunting," as the self-transmission is called. Even after 50 years, TSMD is still the starting point for many science fiction readers.