Tag Archives: review

Star Wars Rogue One is a way better movie than I expected.

So I’ve been living under a rock. All I knew about Rogue One since its theatrical release was that it was a Star Wars spinoff movie. Imagine how it felt when I sat on the couch with Netflix expecting this:

and I got this:

Rogue One is the darkest movie in the Star Wars franchise, and it’s a better movie for it. Set during the height of the Empire’s power, it follows the adventures of Jyn Erso, whose mother is dead and whose father is a hostage. In the first scene we see of her adult life, she’s on the way to an Empire labor camp. Alliance fighters break her out and offer her a job.

I don’t want too reveal too much, but if you’ve ever wondered what idiot would build a Death Star that explodes on a single well-aimed photon torpedo, this movie answers that question.

It reminds me of what space opera is for. It isn’t science fiction. Space opera is politics, on the funnest canvas. If you live in a fascist society, what do you do? The human characters in this movie might have a comfortable life if they just gave up. The Empire echoes modern China a little. One of the battle scenes resembles Normandy – and war’s enormous price in lives.

The Empire’s military is made entirely of humans and its brass is entirely white humans. What kind of choice do the aliens have? What do you do when you run out of options? Give up everything?

We see a Rebel Alliance splintered into factions and military commanders disobeying orders all over the place. Is Alliance chaos better than Empire enforced unity? Do you keep fighting? Yes. The movie gives a resounding yes. To give up would be to be complicit in the evil thing Grand Moff Tarkin does on Scarif.

One of the functions of art is to show us what heroism looks like. Heroism when nobody is a Jedi and injuries hurt.

My problems with the movie are quibbles. The other characters treat Jyn like she’s the next Henry V but she’s not that good with words. Did the blind character have to have milky eyes? The CG Tarkin doesn’t look that bad … he just looks like he wandered in from the wrong movie.

The most moving part of Rogue One is the (spoileriffic) last half hour.






They killed a main character. I thought pfft, the robot character, that’s going to be a Disney death if I’ve ever seen one. Then they killed another … and another … nobody was going to get out. In the last five minutes of the film, the Alliance is reduced to extras, and they are scrambling, and desperate, and mortal. I salute the nameless soldier who couldn’t get himself through a broken door but could get a data card through.

If Prometheus had been an actual scientific expedition

I just went and saw the movie Prometheus the other day, and all I have to say is, ouch. And not just because Noomi Rapace gives herself a C-section, either. The problem is that now that I work in a science field, all science fiction movies have been ruined for me.

The science of Prometheus isn’t even all that bad. It takes some stabs at plausibility, like when the exploration team can’t breathe the atmosphere because it contains 3% carbon dioxide. That’s actually pretty accurate. Suddenly breathing 3% carbon dioxide, when it’s not what you’re used to, would be bad for you.

The bigger problem is the scientists. They make so many poor professional decisions in this movie, that if this had been a real research expedition, they would all have lost their jobs and been so thoroughly discredited they could never find another academic job, anywhere, ever. Sure, the idea was to make the movie more exciting, but I think it gives people the wrong idea about what the job is actually like. So I thought I would write this post about how Prometheus would have gone if the expedition had been run by actual scientists.

A biologist being stupid.

A biologist being stupid.

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Gunnerkrigg Court by Tom Siddell

Image courtesy of gunnerkrigg.com

Yes, Gunnerkrigg Court is about the lives of some students at a special boarding school tucked away in the hinterlands of the U.K.  But no, it’s not just a remix of Harry Potter.

Gunnerkrigg Court is a three-times-a-week webcomic by Tom Siddell that’s been running since 2005.  Our heroine is Antimony Carver, who has been sent to the Court on her mother’s dying wish.  As soon as she arrives, strange things start to happen.  There is magic, yes, but this Court isn’t a place where cute little kids learn how to become witches and wizards.  Quite the opposite: Antimony’s at a tech school.  The magical creatures in the forest that surround Gunnerkrigg Court resent the school’s presence, and the two have been in a state of cold war for centuries.

When Antimony tries to interfere with the strange happenings at the Court or in the forest, she often makes things worse.

Start reading the strip from the beginning and play close attention.  Siddell is a master at setting plot elements up far in advance, maintaining them through years’ worth of strips, and then bringing them together for a payoff that was the last thing you expected.  That shadow and that robot from the very first chapter?  They’re important.

The best thing about this strip is its complexity.  Sure, it’s funny.  It’s about a bunch of teenagers and their awkward love lives.  But it can get pretty damn scary sometimes and deep at other times.  There are no characters here who are wholly good or evil, and there’s probably more to all of them than you think.

Girl Genius: Now That’s How Steampunk Ought to be Done

Why is it that all the webcomics I’ve been reading lately have been better than the books? I haven’t written any book reviews lately because the last couple of books I read were lackluster. And the disappointing thing is that they sounded like they would be really good. Good Omens, a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, is about an angel and a demon who manage to bungle up the apocalypse. If you’ve ever wanted to know how an angel behaves when drunk, this is the book for you, but otherwise it didn’t light me on fire. And Seventh Son, well, Orson Scott Card is the kind of sf/f author where everybody takes their hats off when you mention his name, and the book had a way cool premise: what would happen to the American colonies … if magic worked? Unfortunately the book read like a big long prequel. Alvin, who goes on to do actually exciting things later in the series, is only ten years old by the time the book closes.

Girl Genius, on the other hand, is another one of those gems you happen to stumble across by word of mouth. It’s a webcomic by Phil & Kaja Foglio that’s been running for many years now. It’s an alternate history where most of Europe is at the mercy of dueling mad scientists. (They call it Europa, but you’re not fooling me, Foglios.) Imagine a Jules Verne book that has been left in the back of the refrigerator for too long and gotten completely out of hand. It’s gotten to the point where, when a crab monster with laser eyes crashes out of the forest, the peasantry rolls its eyes and groans.

Young Agatha Clay, a hapless student at Transylvania Polygnostic University, discovers she’s the sole surviving heir of the Heterodyne dynasty, a family of mad scientists with a particularly strong and checkered reputation. Now, everyone in Europe wants a piece of her. Her madcap quest to assume her rightful place as a heterodyne and keep from getting killed involves blob monsters, airships, robots, talking cats, wasps that will turn you into zombies, and lots and lots of explosions. And did I mention that her house is insane?

If you’re going to try Girl Genius out, please wait until you’re partway through Volume 2 before you decide whether you like it or not. The Foglios took a while to figure out what they wanted their comic to be. Early on, characters’ reactions to things are kind of cartoony and flat, and the Jägermonsters resemble nothing so much as rotting pumpkins. It really hits its stride once Agatha gets on the airship and we get some character interactions going. By the time you meet the robot princess you’ll need to start keeping a scorecard.

The graphic novel format means they can do some really neat things you can’t do in a novel, like subtle visual humor. Oh, look, Agatha’s guardians just happen to have bolts in their necks. That guy driving the wagon in the background has a cybernetic hand. That mouse in the cellar is actually a tiny, tiny wooly mammoth – an escaped experiment.

One of the things I particularly like about the story is that Agatha’s a strong female character (with glasses!) who relies mainly on her intelligence to get things done. A few well-made death rays never hurt, either. There are certain limits on what Agatha and Gilgamesh (he’s the romantic lead) can do because they’re the main characters, and they’ve got a heroic job to do. The side characters really make the story shine, and there are a lot of them – it is a sweeping, epic plot. And each one of them gets motivations, even if they’re only there for a few episodes, so you get the feeling that if you looked closer there’d be even more to them.

I love, love the Jägermonsters, though I can’t figure out what the dickens they are. They’re humanoids who come in various shades of purple or green and have fangs and claws, and they’re really hard to kill. And they don’t seem to mind eating glue for supper at all. My running hypothesis is that they’re some sort of highly intelligent breed of Orc. And by highly intelligent I mean about as intelligent as a human, because for an Orc that would be an accomplishment. The cool thing is that at first they look like they’re just stormtroopers, but then they get lines, and some of them even get names, and it turns out that they’re a lot more important to Agatha’s destiny than originally anticipated.

I’m far from the only person who thinks this webcomic is awesome, considering its nomination for 2 Hugo awards, its five Web Cartoonist’s Choice Awards and 8 more nominations, and nomination for 2 Eisner awards. These guys mean serious business. And it looks like Agatha’s going to be gearing up for a final showdown soon, so you’ll want to save your seats.

What can I learn from this, from a literary point of view?

  • More explosions always help.
  • Make your minor characters shine, not just your protags.
  • Always keep the following in mind: how can I make my heroine’s life even more complicated?

The Order of the Stick

I appear to have gotten so excited about this review that I’ve written quite a lot of text. Here’s the abstract: The Order of the Stick, webcomic, found at Giant in the Playground Games. A very clever parody of D&D games, with better characterization than some novels I’ve read. Go check it out.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the comic book format coming into its own. Comic artists have decided to relabel their work “graphic novels” and argue that there’s nothing about combining words and pictures that makes the product inherently trash. I have to agree with them there, people have been putting words and text together since time immemorial. Graphic novelists seek to break free of the pow! bam! superhero tradition and produce actual art. Or is it literature? Works such as Persepolis and the Sandman series have been groundbreaking artistic successes.

Where does Rich Burlew’s The Order of the Stick fit into all of this? I’m not sure if I could call it a graphic novel. It’s a free webcomic that Burlew publishes a couple times a week on his website, Giant in the Playground, though there are bound versions available, too. It’s got its share of pratfall jokes, and the people are all stick figures, though they seem to have an XKCD-like elegance to them.

Yet this is one of the most psychologically complex comics I have read, right up there with Sandman and Persepolis. You wouldn’t think this would be true, judging from the premise: it’s a parody of role-playing games.

But that’s the genius of this strip. Burlew manages to render toothless genre clichés that would make most fantasy writers run screaming by tackling them head on. Roy Greenhilt and his heroic band of misfits take the absurdities of their universe for granted. For example, in this strip, our heroic band of adventurers is traveling through the woods when a band of ogres ambushes them. Haley Starshine points out that their horses should have been able to see them coming, so the ogres back up and try again. Familiars and horses vanish when they’re not needed by the narrative, monsters get hurt after the fact when characters realize they forgot to add a level bonus, and everybody frets about how many hit points they have remaining. It’s common knowledge that the tavern is the local employment agency. The characters seem to know they’re living inside a game, but to them it’s their world.

Which brings me to Redcloak. He’s what you would call a disgruntled NPC. If you don’t know what that stands for, you probably won’t get a lot of the humor in this strip. (It’s Non-Player Character, by the way.) He’s a goblin cleric. A villain, to be sure, but a narratively delicious one. His backstory is published in a prequel, Start of Darkness. Start of Darkness doesn’t just verge upon legitimacy as a work of literature. This one has made it. See, Redcloak wishes all the Good-aligned races would stop slaughtering every last goblin woman, man and child just because they have green skin and yellow eyes. Whoa! We’ve been going along reading Order of the Stick for some light comedy, and all of a sudden we’re grappling with issues of genocide.

There’s something wrong with the Alignment system in this world. Different-colored humans get along just fine, and the various Good-aligned races, though there’s the occasional wisecrack about height, seem to manage to lump it pretty well, too. But for some reason Good characters have license to slaughter Evil sentient beings just because. Even when Evil characters aren’t all that bad and Good characters aren’t always that great. Burlew’s done a great job of humanizing the greenskins here. Watching Redcloak’s decline and fall into becoming henchman to a lich is truly painful to see. The little cruelties, like where Redcloak’s promising nephew doesn’t even get to die on screen, are the worst.

And, oh, right, this world has protagonists, too. They’re a lot less complex than the baddies, but they’re still really fun to follow. Even though Roy’s a melee fighter, he’s actually quite bright. He’s on a quest to kill his dad’s old archenemy (the aforementioned lich) in order to prove that he can do it with a sword. Elan (human bard), is an idiot, except when he’s not an idiot and saves everyone’s kiester. Vaarsuvius (elven wizard) is delightfully gender ambiguous. Even Haley (human rogue archer) is more complex than first meets the eye.

If you’ve played a couple rounds of Dungeons and Dragons or a little World of Warcraft, you’ll probably love this strip. It’s remarkably intelligent. There’s visual jokes (Roy’s dad’s tombstone reads 1102-1124, 1124-1143, 1144-1149, 1149-1158, 1158-1159, 1159-1168, 1168-1180) and even literary references (when they pull the mysterious Thing out of the deepest darkest jungle, one of the pith-helmety types tells Marlow to go get the boat). If you don’t get that, your high school English class was missing something. Scroll back up and read the name of the prequel. Order of the Stick is not over yet, so I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes next. Oh, and Mr. Burlew, with a backstory as awesome as that, I expect Redcloak’s demise to be of nothing less than Snapean proportions of epicness. Just to let you know.

Go check it out on his site. We also happen to have the two prequels right here in the Benton House library. (It never hurts to plug Sci-Fi house, right?)

I’ve Got 95 Theses and the Pope Ain’t One

Just check out that architecture in the background!


Also, I saw a play called The Living the other day. I reviewed it on an official blog I write for for Carleton, and since the review’s in keeping with the book review theme of this blog, I thought I’d post a link to it here: The Living