Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Skyfall acts like a parody of James Bond, one created and enacted by actors both struggling to keep a straight face amidst its (surely, surely it must be intentional?) zaniness while striving to point out the espionage genre’s obsolescence and misogyny.

[Warning: SPOILERS]

Fittingly enough, the movie's main villain is irrelevance. The present in the changing, and the past might not be as golden as once thought. This is a new age, and the, as one obstructionist character puts it, “golden days of espionage” are over. In the wake of an intelligence disaster, the leaked identities of numerous undercover agents, MI6 is now to be held accountable to the British public. In defiance to this, Judi Dench’s M gives a speech before Parliament in which she admits that MI6 has no more obvious enemies, but doesn’t everyone still feel all afraid? After all, she says, they have to be wary of foes from “the shadows.” This nonsensical bit of vague fear mongering is, in the eyes of the movie’s characters, vindicated by the villain’s picking that moment to barge in.

But I’m not quite sure it’s as much of a win as MI6 seems to think, for the villain – Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva, who primarily shows his ickiness through acting gay – is actually only pissed because he’s a former MI6 agent, left to die by M. Besides showing how MI6 evidently really doesn’t have anyone left to fight besides those villains they themselves create, this all does bring up where exactly Silva gets his army of henchmen. He’s not seeking any sort of power or promising them anything. It’s his personal vengeance, yet dozens of unidentified folk seem to have nothing better to do than to die for him. Well, anyway, their dying for him and all does seem to convince the whole world that MI6 is totally awesome and beyond reproach, and its former detractors abruptly turn around and lick its boots. They then promptly forget about the whole security breach thing.

Even once we’ve decided that secret agents are still the way to go, there’s still the question (providing you have spent the last few decades under a rock) of whether Bond is our man; 007 is, here, battling his own obsolescence. Bond has, after all, been at this whole secret agent thing for a while, and the grievous injury and potentially more scarring still emotional damage he suffers after the film’s opening knock him out of the action for quite some time. When Bond returns, M tells him he has to take a battery of standard tests before he can return to service. The audience snickers at this routine waste of time. Bond then fails the tests, each and every one of them, and does so miserably. Perhaps, then, Bond really is done?

But no. Once the film actually kicks into gear, Bond is once more at the peak of physical fitness, perfectly performing the myriad tasks we were told he was simply unfit for. We don’t even get the requisite The Dark Knight Rises-style training back to form sequence. Towards the movie’s end, Bond displays his perfect marksmanship, and another character makes a witty remark, as if asking the audience if they expected anything less. The response, “”Why yes I did, I saw the opening of the film, didn’t you?” is not considered.

Once our obsolete hero is back in the field to fight for his obsolete agency, we are treated to the action at the film’s heart, and what should have been pulse pounding is instead something best described as silliness peppered with explosions. The violence in a Bond film is, of course, supposed to be over the top, but here it is all so over the top that it has no tension at all. The opening, which occurs before we’re given a single clue as to why we’ve got to see Bond’s target dead so desperately, includes just about every kind of chase imaginable before Bond ends up attempting to defeat his foe with a crane located on a train car. The entire thing happens so fast that the audience can barely register that we’ve switched tactics – car! motorcycle! foot! train! crane! (and seriously, what was he even trying to do with the crane? crush the guy?) – and each ends before it can be developed, like they aren’t actual contests between Bond and the villain in their own right but rather stages in an elaborately choreographed dance routine that swings them from the crowded streets of Foreign City to the wreckage of a train that inexplicably keeps going, passengers just about calm, despite the carnage (crowds not reacting in any way to deadly violence might even be called the film’s dominant motif).

It’s not just the opening that is pushed to eleven and utterly toothless; the entire plot is a collection of nonsensical decisions and advancements, coupled together by absolutely bizarre actions and sequences. Bond’s pursuit of Silva is a host of set pieces tied together by each’s drive to out-exotic the next. Silva’s super villain-esque, nigh-omniscient ability to plan and manipulate MI6 is made possible not only by his insider knowledge but also by his ability to hack; Skyfall treats computers as a magic box capable of exploding the world if prodded the wrong way. Of course, it doesn’t help that everyone is incredibly gullible. Silva, after all, obtained his island (every villain has to have an island) by telling the inhabitants that there was a chemical leak. They all fled, and no one ever thought to check up on the situation.

The pseudo logic continues, relentless. Now, with Silva’s after them and so able to penetrate MI6’s security, Bond and M decide to flee London and hide out in the country to face Silva alone, evidently concluding that the backup of the rest of the agency is something only a sucker would take advantage of. When Silva attacks Bond’s ancestral home (they thought that the ultimate hideout for some unfathomable reason), M and the gruff and unnecessary gamekeeper escape through a secret tunnel. That deposits them a scant dozen feet from the front door. They take off across the open field. Silva follows. Bond follows, too… and inexplicably ends up struggling to cross a frozen lake that nobody else encountered. Silva comes up behind him, even though he was just in front of him. Bond escapes by plunging himself into freezing water and arrives just in time to save M. Who then dies anyway. Whoo!

But it’s not just over the top violence that’s a Bond tradition: there’s also the misogyny to relish. In their haste to write panegyrics, critics have focused on M and declared this film a departure from Bond’s usual sexism. Focusing just on M, that’s fair enough. But the film has two other female characters. The first is Naomie Harris’ Eve Moneypenny, who begins as a field agent, eventually realizes she’s not cut out for the front lines, and becomes Bond’s secretary.

And Moneypenny’s arc’s a beautiful thing when compared to that enjoyed by Bérénice Lim Marlohe’s Sévérine. Silva saved Sévérine from the sex trade, and he owns her now. She’s terrified of him, and Bond seems to offer an escape. He makes good on that offer by breaking into her room, waiting for her to shower, pointing out how she’s defenseless, and then having hot (consensual?) sex with her. This sets the stage for the film’s most horrific scene. Having realized Bond’s affection for her, and desirous of taunting the captured Bond over his poor scores on the marksmanship test given by MI6, Silva ties Sévérine up and places a shot glass on her head. While his guards watch, Silva hands Bond a pistol and says that they’ll take turns trying to shoot the glass from her head. Bond shoots high. Silva gets the glass off her head by shooting her. Bond watches, impassively, and he and Silva continue their antagonism. For these old MI6 hands, it seems, espionage is a game for powerful men that uses women for advantage and sport and then slaughters them. Bond escapes moments later, but he never so much as mentions Sévérine’s name.

Skyfall is at its most persuasive when it argues for its own irrelevancy, and the disconnected pyrotechnics it tries to distract us with afterwards do little to make us forget. I came in expecting entertainment and at least some moderate level of coherency. I got neither.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Graham McNeil - The Ultramarines Omnibus

Most of the Warhammer 40,000 books I've reviewed so far have taken place in the setting's underexplored corners or have followed its underdogs, which is to say puny humans, no matter how heroic. Not The Ultramarines Omnibus. Oh no. Here, we jump into the setting's very heart. It's time, ladies and gentlemen, for the eight foot super soldiers.

There are, of course, problems with protagonists so inhumanly overpowered, and McNeil knows them well. In his introduction, he writes: It's been said that you can't write for Space Marines, because they're not human and are faceless warrior automatons, but that's not true (p. 9). Alas, every one of the collection's seven hundred and sixty-five pages prove that last bit wrong.

Still, despite their difficulties, Space Marines are rather awesome. McNeil is aware of that too. To quote again from the intro: Space Marines… is there anything cooler in the Warhammer 40,000 universe? (p. 8) Alas, their very coolness is where the first problems set in. McNeil's characters are not so much human beings as they are walking avatars of badassery and military virtue. When reading, one gets the feeling that McNeil is not so much writing a story as he is hero worshipping every Adeptus Astartes he names. Constant speeches about honor, courage, and FUCK YEAH SPACE MARINES make the novels here sometimes read like propaganda for a regime that doesn't exist. One particularly horrific bit tells us that the main character, dear Uriel Ventris, dropped to one knee, overwhelmed by the honor his very existence brought him (p. 49).

In terms of theme, McNeil mostly concern himself with either truisms or issues that could not possibly matter to anyone who is not clad in blue power armor – or, at times, both. The worst of these is brought out in the short story that kicks off the volume, "Chains of Command." There, Uriel struggles with the idea of deviating even slightly from the Codex Astartes, the documented warrior code that the Ultramarines follow. In case you think this might have some universal significance, I should point out that Uriel is not talking about the moral rules of war. The Codex Astartes has nothing at all to do with how one should conduct oneself or the justifications for violence; instead, it deals with vital life questions like the proper way one should assail a gun nest.

Besides that fascinating debate, McNeil presents us with two contentions that form the basis for the Ultramarines warrior spirit. The first is the realization that the people of the Imperium are, well, people and should not be killed. As this is something all of us who are not genetically engineered for martial perfection have picked up some time ago, we'll move on quickly to what is likely the novels' heart. In a rousing speech to his supermen, Uriel says: "Never forget that every man is important; every man can make a difference." (p. 255) It's not a bad sentiment, though it might be a bit easier to follow, especially in this universe, if you happen to be so fearsome as to be colloquially known as the Angels of Death. In fact, despite a few polite nods to the toothless plebs along the way, Uriel just about confirms the credo's exclusivity in the next book: In giving up the chance for a normal life [and becoming a Space Marine], he had gained something far greater. The chance to make a difference (p. 519).

Admittedly, thematic complexity is not the reason why one reads a Warhammer 40,000 novel, but, by showing how vapid its themes are, I hope to get across how shallow the entire book and everyone in it is. The above are not solely questions for McNeil and the reader to debate. They are the questions that Uriel and his fellow marines ponder; they are the only questions that they ponder. Not a Marine in here has a thought besides war. The Ultramarines have less depth than a heavy bolter has subtlety. After following Uriel Ventris around for three novels and a short story, I can say that he has about as much characterization as a secondary or maybe even tertiary character in your average novel.

The civilian characters that abound in Nightbringer and Warriors of Ultramar are not an improvement. Each of those novels has, in addition to its alien foes, a human menace, a traitor. These are of the cackling variety. They are fools so bent on cowardice and wanton slaughter that their higher functions seem to have entirely shut down in their quest to injure everyone around them. When the dastard behind Nightbringer's evil is confronted by a peer, he responds thusly:

"You're just too stupid to understand. […] Events are moving in a manner decided by me. Me! I have invested too much, lost too much, to have things messed up by a globulous waste of space like you, Taryn. […] No, Taryn, we are not friends. You are just a pathetic piece of filth I stepped on on my route too immortality. And now it's time I discarded you." (p. 172)

Later, we get another glimpse of that bastard's malice: Blood, death, suffering, mutilation and torment unknown for millions of years filled his skull; it felt so good (p. 256). Right then. You enjoy that suffering. Lest you think the problem is limited to that one fellow, or even to properly human foes, the Chaos Space Marine antagonist of Dead Sky, Black Sun does not speak but rather sneer[s] (p. 574) and has this gem: There was nothing left but vengeance for hate's sake and malice for the sake of spite (p. 739).

After all that, McNeil's novels are still not without worth. It all goes back to how he begins his intro: Space Marines… is there anything cooler in the Warhammer 40,000 universe? (p. 8) For all the myriad problems that there excessive coolness causes, Space Marines are still cool, and watching them slaughter their way through Dark Eldar starships, Tyrannid hordes, and the Eye of Terror is still pretty awesome to watch.

It's that awesomeness that gives a potential reason to trudge through the first two books' weaker aspects. Though the politicking that makes up much of its first two acts is mediocre at best, Nightbringer still is the best paced of the novels here. For a time, the Ultramarines are battling the very very very sadistic Dark Eldar, but the novel not only broadens out but also explodes (in a good way, like a bolter round) at its end, pitting Uriel against rebels and then a waking Necron menace. The last of those is a suitably rendered menace of Lovecraftian scale. Warriors of Ultramar is a far more linear read, in which Uriel and assorted friends must defend a planet from the invasion of innumerable Tyrannids. It's a perpetual, last stand-style grind that grows rather monotonous but still does have its share of simply cool feats.

It's Dead Sky, Black Sun, however, that is by far the collection's most memorable read – though that is not necessarily to say its most pleasant. In it, Uriel and his loyal sergeant are forced to make their way across a demonic world deep in the Eye of Terror. Here, McNeil uses the settings' over the top nature to bring forth a whole host of inventive, vivid, and absolutely sickening sights. Like everything in these novels, he describes it with not only the single perfect word but several dozen moderately acceptable substitutes, but the overwhelming details work when every facet of the view is a twisted embodiment of Chaos. To give just one example:

A huge grilled platform filled the centre of the depression. Agglomerated layers of dust coated its every surface and its perforated floor dripped and clogged with jelly-like runnels of fat and viscera. Tall poles jutted from the platform, held in place by quivering steel guys that sand as the unnatural wind whistled through them. Hooked between the poles were billowing sails of flesh stretched across timber frames that the scouring, wind-borne particles might strip them of the leavings of their former owners.


Uriel turned in a circle, seeing row upon row of faces in the skins circling the platform – dead, slack features of men and women staring down at him as though he were the subject in an anatomist's theatre.

"Burn it," he said. "Burn it all." (pp. 579-80)

In terms of plot, Dead Sky, Black Sun is a rather simple affair that consists of wandering through hell and fighting constantly. As one or Uriel's companions sums it up, they go from one death sentence to another (p. 686), and the novel never lets you breathe. Still, the Eye of Terror flees McNeil from even the lightest bounds of common sense, allowing him to twist the plot in ways that are totally absurd and yet all the better for it. Simply put, the sheer, relentless, and imaginative gruesomeness of its every detail and development make this one a hard hitting read, even if much of its power comes from excess and extremity.

Graham McNeil is not a particularly good writer. Alas, he writes about cool things. There are far, far better books out there, but these do have the simple fun of genetically engineered super soldiers beating demons to death.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Stephen King - Cujo

She […] understood how afraid a person could be, how fear was a monster with yellow teeth, set afoot by an angry God to eat the unwary and the unfit. (p. 45)

Cujo is a novel from Stephen King's relatively early days, written in a period of such heavy drinking that, according to his On Writing (and Wikipedia), he doesn't remember much of writing it. Moving beyond its pedigree, equal parts promising (early King!) and dubious (so forgettable the man himself can't recall it!), Cujo, the slim physical book, bears little resemblance to its gigantic, two hundred pound titular canine. Nonetheless, this one packs in quite a bit of hefty ideas and tension.

Though occasional vignettes illuminate many of Castle Rock's other inhabitants, we focus primarily on two families, the Trentons and the Cambers. Donna Trenton's having an affair. Her husband Vic's just learned that devastating truth when he and his partner are called away to New York in a last attempt to save their struggling advertising business. Joe Camber, meanwhile, is a backwoods mechanic, and his son, Brett, needless to say, looks up to his dad quite a bit. But that worries Charity Cambers. She's worried that her bright son is going to throw away his future for this poor and rural life. Before Brett makes his decision, Charity wants him to see a different kind of life, and she manages to convince Joe to let her and the boy take a trip to see Charity's sister and her sister's husband, a rich lawyer.

As might be expected of him, King does an excellent job building up the characters and dynamics of each family. Much of the tension in these homes comes from the mothers, both of which are housewives, trying to fit into the world in a way that doesn't just leave them as, as Charity puts it, little more than a kitchen drudge that kept the clubhouse neat. (p. 47) We get scenes from each of the players, and so we develop a broad understanding of each home, even if the reader is still likely to, especially when it comes to the Cambers, take sides. Vic's advertising company, too, is illuminated, complete with the humorous rundown of their recent advertising campaign and the catastrophe that follows.

But I haven't said a word about Cujo yet, have I? The first thing to know about Cujo is that he's a good dog. Big, yeah, but friendly as can be. He played with Brett and was beloved by all. But, when chasing a rabbit, Cujo has the misfortune of finding a cave filled with bats. When one scratches him, the awful virus that they carried enters his blood. As Brett and Charity leave for their visit, Cujo goes rabid. He kills Joe's best and only friend down the road. And then he kills Joe Camber.

While Vic's gone, Donna's car starts to break down. She and her young son Tad nurse the Pinto over to the Cambers' place well past the edge of town. It breaks down in the driveway. That's when they notice Cujo, who throws himself repeatedly at the car, growling and straining to savage them. The doors and windows hold him back for now, but they can't get out. Before long, they realize that they are under siege by dog (p. 218).

This confrontation, the mad beast against a mother and her son, is the heart of Cujo. The greenhouse effect soon makes the temperature in the car unbearable. Far from the nearest house, they realize that no one is coming. Every one of their needs become a matter of incredible danger. As Donna realizes: In this curiously scaled-down situation – this life or death situation – even having to go to the bathroom became a skirmish. (pp. 208-9)

In comparison to the horrible danger that she is in now, the rest of Donna's life begins to seem irrelevant. Every other perspective that we have undergoes the same shift; Vic's commercial struggles and even Charity's cultural ones seem laughable in comparison to the simple life or death truths that underlie them. As soon as Vic learns of his wife and son's mortal peril, he gets a good look behind his life and then realizes it is all stage scenery and false fronts. (p. 248) Cujo is a novel about the brutality under civilization. King's usual habits of branding underscores this. It is not just a pane of glass between them and death, but rather a pain of Saf-T Glass, and, in the context, the brand name becomes to seem a hideous joke.

Cujo is about a life and death struggle, but it is not an uplifting tale of good and evil. It is, of course, tempting to slot the dog into the part of the script marked Villain, but that misses the point. As King takes care to remind us at the end, [Cujo] had always been a good dog. […] He had been struck by something, possibly destiny, or fate, or only a degenerative nerve disease called rabies. Free will was not a factor. (p. 309)

In the absence of malice, King leaves us with a brutality that is harder to come to terms with. It might simply be chance, the cruel and indifferent way of the world, a playing out of undetermined events that makes a mockery of Donna's naïve belief at the start of the novel that there were some things that God never allowed. (p. 169) Or, maybe worse, it all might be fate after all, might be, as Donna begins to believe in the heart of her hell, a punishment meted out by a wrathful God for her sins. If that is the truth, King is careful to make the misery, the pain, and the regret far too visceral to ever be called reasonable. If this is a punishment, it is one that far exceeds any crime, and yet it is the world that Cujo shows.

Despite its brutally successful main plot and thematic thrust, Cujo is not without its flaws, the main one of which stems directly from its success. Cujo is not, obviously, a supernatural and supernaturally deadly menace like the ones King employs so often. He is something far more ordinary than that, despite a few nonstarter hints that he might be something more. As a result, in order to position Cujo as a deadly threat, King has to manipulate a whole truckload of pieces. It's this series of coincidences that allows Donna to read it as fate, and it does work in that regard. But when yet another avenue of escape is closed off, and we are told that Donna Trenton might have called it another stroke of that same Fate she saw reflected in Cujo's muddy, homicidal eyes (p. 269), the reader can't help but recall that it's not fate at work but rather King's pen, and that all of the coincidences were planned out in advance to twist all the pieces into the one configuration into which they could be properly dangerous.

That's a small enough complaint, though, and a rather inevitable one in a work like this besides. I don't think Cujo is a masterpiece like The Shining or even 'Salem's Lot, but it is still a lean, mean and horrific beast of a novel.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Kameron Hurley - God's War

Nyx went on (p. 286).

Kameron Hurley's debut novel, God's War, got widespread coverage and acclaim across the blogosphere last year. Having now read the novel, I can say that the attention is certainly deserved.

The far future world of Umayma has been shaped by the never ending war between Nasheen and Chenja. In many ways, this conflict is reminiscent of our world's recent past, not only with the term and tactic of the "suicide soldier" (p. 167) and the lone man armed with some horrific contagion but with sentences like: Countries at war lived in a state of perpetual fear (p. 197). But, on Umayma, the war has gone farther than ours, has become overwhelming and omnipresent. It has led to strange technologies and powers like the magicians' ability to control bugs or the shifter's morphing. It has led to new societal patterns, new permutations of faiths, and new structuring of gender.

The war has set the course of Nyx's life as much as anyone else's, if not more. She has served her time at the front, has served Nasheen as a bel dame by keeping the populace in line, and has fallen more than once for Nasheen. But she refuses to surrender her autonomy to the war. Those around her know the events and the people that have made them. Some even go so far as to believe they have made Nyx, can take responsibility for her actions. She rejects that:  How many men had made her? […] They were just men. They were just people. […]It wasn't what was done to you. Life was what you did with what was done to you. (p. 240) In the face of the world and war around her, Nyx still demands responsibility for herself, insists upon her own course. She refuses the idea of submitting to anyone – not Fatima, not the magicians, not the queen, not God (p. 171).

Nyx's ferocious individualism is contrasted with Rhys, a religious man who fled Chenja to take refuge in Nasheen and has now found himself a member of Nyx's team. Rhys submits himself to God utterly and often. Yet, no matter how far he is from Nyx, the novel never removes the heart of weight of his position. Hurley's treatment of religion is one of the fairest I have encountered. Both Nyx and Rhys are complete characters with reasons for their faith or lack thereof, and, though each has potentially overwhelming problems as a result of their outlook, those problems do not easily rob their souls of validity. Furthermore, Nyx and Rhys' interaction is a mixture of conflict and care that feels real.

Nyx and her team are recruited to hunt down a woman from the stars and the game changing technology she possesses. This could have been the easy foundation for a simple, Thriller style plot. Instead, this quest doesn't come until nearly a hundred pages into the novel. The hunt will prove brutal for its undertakers. It will take them to and perhaps beyond their limits. But it is not the whole story of God's War, for Nyx's life began before it and will continue after it. The hunt is just one more part of it, something to further explore Nyx and the war rather than to constitute the whole of them.

The hunt at God's War's center, if viewed as a Thriller style chase, is not particularly successful. Much is made of Nyx's abilities, and she is indeed dangerous and possessed of a ferocious will. But she is ambushed and captured. Endlessly, again and again. Hurley can write a gripping action scene, but the grand arc of her plot basically consists in the reader sitting back without ever seeing much of the investigation itself and waiting for Nyx to get kidnapped the next time. Luckily, though she doesn't display the tightest plotting skills, Hurley does excel at character and at world building, and her characters' interactions and needs drive the reader and the story on as its futility becomes clearer.

As one might expect, the scale widens as the novel progresses. Or, at least, it seems to. Often, in God's War, what seems a new vista is simply a vast new continuation of the old. It's not long into the book that we get a sense of Umayma's place in the larger universe. There are many ships and factions out there, many so alien in their level of technology they couldn't have put in at the old port if they wanted to (p. 11). For all that space, though, the simple truths of strife are not escaped. After all, "They fight another of God's wars out there in the dark, can you believe it?" (p. 9)

So it is with the game changing technologies that Nyx chases. They could, perhaps, end the war. But they would not end it with peace but with incredible suffering and destruction. By the novel's end, Nyx is doing her best to destroy that technology, to ensure that neither side can wreak such havoc. But hers, even should she succeed, will not be a victory like that of the secret agent who keeps the nuclear bomb from the terrorist. Nasheen and Chenja are already quite capable at the whole death and destruction thing. At best, Nyx is sparing her world the fire by holding it down in the frying pan.

As Nyx's life swallows her hunt, the war comes to swallow not only the hunt but Nyx and everything in the novel. As we close, the war has not been changed, and even our protagonists have not been saved from its darkness. The novel ends with two sentiments. The first comes from the Queen when she says: "Know that what I do, I do for the good of Nasheen." (p. 283) The reader has no reason to doubt her, and the argument that she presents seems logical. But after so much destruction and pain, the words seem beyond hollow. Finally, the queen says:

"There are no happy endings, Nyxnissa."

"I know," Nyx said. "Life keeps going." (p. 285)

Life keeps going and so does the war. In its cracks, Nyx and those like her exist, tied inextricably to the war and yet determined to make their own path through it. Following them is not a cheery experience, but it is a powerful one.