Monday, September 21, 2009

Queen of Candesce

While the first book in Karl Schroeder's Virga trilogy, Sun of Suns, took advantage of an incredibly unique setting, this second book makes the mistake of finding a way of ignoring that setting. If you'll recall, the books are set in a giant air bag with an artificial sun at its center ( The first novel is action-packed as warships steam through this amazing sea in space, fighting fleets and attacking "islands" that are generally distinct nations. Queen of Candesce remains filled with action, but is set on one of these islands, Spyre, thus removing a great deal of what makes the first book so riveting.

Spyre is a giant cylinder with land covering its inner surface, much like the classic Rama from Arthur C. Clarke. Venera Fanning comes flying into this world courtesy of the events that ended the first novel, only be saved from capture by Garth Diamandis, lothario and gentleman adventurer who, while perhaps past his prime, is getting by quite nicely with the reduced gravity that the cylinder maintains. Fanning, perhaps the most disagreeable character from the first novel, is explored in some detail in Queen of Candesce, providing background and motive to her general unlikeability. Fanning matures as the novel goes on, growing to see other characters as people rather than tools in her power game. This is not to say that the power game she is involved with in the first novel is forgotten; indeed, it is what drives the action of the novel.

However, Queen of Candesce veers into the general structure of fantasy, in part because it removes the hard science aspects of living in a giant gas bag. Instead, the novel sets up Fanning as "the one"; the only person perhaps capable of fixing the near-anarchic state of affairs on Spyre, relying on her role as an outsider to allow her to see the many failings of the way of life on Spyre. Unfortunately, the goal of fixing Spyre is the happy side-effect of her pursuit of an artifact she pursues across the island, one that will give her the power to control all of Virga. There are still moments of hard science-fiction, especially in the moments when Fanning explores new areas of Spyre, such as Fin, one of the principalities of Spyre, located on a giant control fin for the entire cylinder. One particularly striking passage involves Fanning leading an invasion group against another principality, by going through a port on the outside of Spyre and essentially coming up through the basement.

Despite my disappointment in the reduction in the hard science fiction elements compared to the first novel, Queen of Candesce remains an interesting story, especially if it is considered something like a planetary romance with broad sweeping movements across an unknown territory. Schroeder sets up an interesting stagnant culture on Spyre, the roots of which are mostly believable, though the extremes to which the story carries them may push on a more critical reader's suspension of disbelief. The side characters are often more interesting than Fanning, in part because her path becomes increasingly predictable as the story goes on.

Schroeder's biggest weakness, however, lies in the physical description of the settings the characters find themselves in. It seems clear that Schroeder has a good idea of his characters' movements across Spyre, but it is never explained very clearly to the reader. I still can't figure out how the town of Lesser Spyre works; Schroeder seems to feel that saying it is a "wheel-city" is sufficient and leaves the details to the imagination of the reader. It's not crucial to the plot of the book, except when it becomes so, and I just can't make the physics (or perhaps geometry) work out. And when the final battle takes place between Fanning's allies and the dark conspiracy behind the malaise that Spyre suffers, Schroeder does not explain enough of the geography of the place or the layout of the buildings for it to make much sense. Fortunately, the action hops right along so that the reader doesn't have to dwell on the reasons for tactical decisions so much as the results.

The result is that Queen of Candesce is a light enjoyable read with not much going on to provoke serious consideration from the reader. I'm hoping that this is a blip in the trilogy, that the final novel will return to the imaginative storytelling of the first. But even if it doesn't, Schroeder shows the potential for a vibrant future and deserves to be watched in the next few years.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


Whiteout is a movie that seems caught in a trap of its own devising. The premise behind the movie is fairly straightforward—take an old-school mystery and set it in an exotic place. But old-school mystery is not what the current audience wants to see, and the movie's own advertising does little to help it (although I guess that depends on how one defines "help"). The trailers and commercials for the movie made it appear that something terrifying lie under the Antarctic ice, invoking memories of movies like The Thing and 30 Days of Night, and so audiences perhaps went expecting a horror movie or perhaps an action movie at the least. Instead, what is hidden under decade' worth of ice is a Russian airplane and its frozen crew. Whiteout has very few action sequences, and the few it does have depend on the exotic nature of living in a world whose inhabitants don't go outside for six months at a time. The result is a movie that, by one set of standards is entertaining and a little thoughtful and by another is boring and stodgy. If the goal of the advertisements was to bring people in to buy tickets, it succeeded perhaps for one weekend only, because word of mouth is going to kill this movie, as many viewers walk away from the movie disappointed in it not delivering what it seemed to promise.

Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) is a US Marshall who is at the end of a two-year stint at the South Pole. She's looking forward to returning to the United States after spending time in self-designed rehabilitation after an arrest goes bad in her previous position in Miami. Most of her time is spent dealing with misdemeanors, like drunkenness and petty theft. But as the camp is preparing for the changeover from summer to winter, and those folks who are going home are packing up, a body is discovered miles on the ice miles from any camp. Stetko is suddenly involved in two races against time—first, she needs to solve the mystery before the transfer of personnel and she must solve it before a massive storm moves across the camp, resulting in a storm called a whiteout, where vision the hundred-mile-per-hour winds reduce vision to no more than six inches. The approaching storm not only imperils her ability to leave but also could wipe out any evidence there might be.

There are few people she interacts with regularly, including Dr. Fury (Tom Skerritt), her friend and confessor, and Delfy (Columbus Short), her favorite pilot. When Stetko and Delfy go to the home base for the person whose body they have found, they meet up with Robert Pryce (Gabriel Macht), a UN investigator who was working on what appeared to be a separate case and which now seem to have crossed into her own.

The movie follows the investigation of the murder and the conspiracy it reveals, as Stetko and team roam across Antarctica in search of answers. The audience really has very little chance to solve the mystery on their own based on the clues; like current TV shows like CSI and Numbers, too much expertise is required to figure out what evidence means. Again, though, the point is to create an old-fashioned procedural in an exotic location. And the beautiful and haunting vistas of Antarctica are about as exotic as one can get, almost giving the continent the feel of another character in the story. While not quite achieving character level, the setting does become another obstacle that the investigation has to fight through. The action sequences, sort of modified chase scenes, are when the setting must importantly come into play. Not only does Stetko find herself running from a killer with an ice axe, she has to do so across the deathly cold of the Antarctic, thereby heightening the tension of the chases without gimmick or additional players.

The difficulty comes from the movie not stretching to include all the spiffery that is associated with detective movies nowadays. We get corpses galore, but we don't get terrific explosions and deadly gunplay across city streets. When there are chase scenes, it involves the assailant and victim "running" across ice fields as they hold onto guide ropes. It's a whole different kind of tension than modern moviegoers might be used to, where the threat is none the less deadly for its quiet. As a result, the movie feels contemplative, though there are no real twists to the plot until the very end, when the macguffin is exposed. So Whiteout ends up being a competently directed and filmed story with interesting characters interacting without explosion and dissent. This is not to say there is no distrust among them all, but they don't spend time fighting one another. And like a child who grows up eating candy and is suddenly given a potato, modern viewers feel that this type of movie is just boring. But I also bet they would have trouble sitting through the twists and turns and point-to-point investigating that makes up The Maltese Falcon as well.

So I liked Whiteout; it's a solid well-made movie that tells a fairly interesting story. It's probably too mundane for a lot of audiences, even though its setting is just spectacular. I really do recommend seeing it, especially in digital if you can; it's a shame for such beautiful footage to go to waste. But if you don't care for an old-fashioned story told well with no explosions, no burning buildings, no shootouts involving massive amounts of automatic weapons, this just is not the movie for you.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Some random thoughts

At my mainstream job where I have achieved some sort of notoriety as an expert on comics when the company did a small blurb about my interests, I was approached a number of times about the merger of Disney and Marvel. The merger was all over the airwaves and friendly people wanted to know my take on it ("not a very big deal at the moment, but let's see what happens in two or three years if Marvel isn't making as much money as Disney imagined"). I have to say I am not looking forward to the potential appearance of Marvel characters at sporting events that ESPN is covering, or Michael Wilbon going up against Dazzler on Pardon the Interruption. But other than that kind of cross-pollination, I don't expect any big changes.

However, no one is asking anything me about the far more important change at DC, with Warner Brothers exerting control and changing DC Comics to DC Entertainment. This one seems a lot more troublesome to me, especially since it appears (important word choice there) to be a reaction to the Disney/Marvel merger. DC has long been the second-place comic company and some would argue way behind Marvel in the development of their properties for media. Such an argument would have to be based on quantity of movies, because frankly DC has long kicked Marvel's butt in the development of TV shows (Smallville or the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series, anyone?) and in the quality of their movies recently. But since Marvel has announced a schedule for the next two or three years, the perception is that Marvel is leading the race to make a movie buck. And I suppose they are, since four decent movies will generally outdraw just one great one. And of course, creating great movies is not an easily reproducible task.

I doubt that the change is a reaction to Disney/Marvel, since I would think it would take more than a couple of weeks to make such a change—I suspect this has been in talks for some time. Nonetheless, it has already had some serious repercussion with the resignation of Paul Levitz, a guiding hand at DC for some decades. While Levitz will return to writing, whether for good or ill remains to be seen, it is his role as publisher and final decision-maker that is going to be missed. Unlike the Disney/Marvel merger, where Disney was quick to say that nothing will change with the comics, no one is saying similar things about DC and Warner Brothers; in fact, such a move seems designed to force change since DC has been owned by Warner Brothers for years and there was no organizational shake-up.

I've read some interesting analyses of Levitz's tenure as publisher. Most of the industry has only great things to say about him (see, for example,, but the fans seem somehow really angry at him. They blame a lot of interesting decisions about censorship on him without taking into account how important he has been on the larger movements of the comics industry. I think that such a view of his work neglects that comics may have no bigger fan than Paul Levitz, and every decision he made has come from the primal love. They may not have been the right decisions but they were grounded in the joy of going to the store on Wednesday and finding out what was new this week.

And if the result is non-comics people injecting themselves into decisions with an immediate goal of boosting the bottom line, I fear a lot of the creative energy at DC will get misplaced. DC has been very good of late giving comics a good run to find their audience, and with some success. I wonder how short the leash will be for new series. And I worry that more effort will be spent in aligning the comics with the other media representations, something that has already happened at DC, with an upcoming origin series for Superman being his third or fourth in a few years. Having a different viewpoint is not a bad thing and, of course, the long-term health of DC Comics has got to be more important than the career paths of my favorite characters. But it all just feels sort of ominous; perhaps I'm not worried about Disney and Marvel because I really don't read their comics and only am concerned with Marvel's health as it is necessary for DC's continued survival. But when someone starts messing with DC, my hackles may be up and I'm not even aware of it.

We certainly do live in interesting times.


Alex Bledsoe has written a nice opinion piece about the latest Star Trek movie. I've already made my feelings known about it, and Bledsoe has put another nail in the coffin for me, adding to my concern about the movie missing out on what distinguishes Star Trek from random space opera. Check it out at It's a really good point and one that I overlooked in my general unease about what the franchise is trying to become.

Interestingly, Mrs. Speculator was lately talking about the same thing in recent fantasy reading we've been doing. The whole "chosen one" meme seems ripped from mainstream high fantasy, and I've been more and more getting into fantasy that breaks away from the clichés. Mrs. Speculator has bravely gone along on the ride (I imagine she would say she had very little choice in the matter) and so we have read Mieville and Lynch and Rothfuss and Mr. Bledsoe himself. When you go back to the clichés after being in the company of such freethinking folks, it can feel a little ham-handed, and she noticed. Sadly, now that she is about to go back to school, I don't see how she is going to have time to read Abercrombie and Gilman.


A woman's college in the city I have spent my life in just changed their mascot from Angels to Avenging Angels. That strikes me as a little odd, since I would not expect young Methodist women to have much to avenge. It also seems to speak to not having a history of success in athletics, thus requiring the school to spend a great deal of time avenging historic ignominious defeat.

And to show what a geek I really am, I'm reminded of a train of thought I've long held, originating with my firmly held belief that DC comics are superior to Marvel. In 1963, Iron Man, Ant-Man, The Wasp, Hulk, and Thor came together to fight Thor's nemesis, Loki, and then stuck together because they felt they worked well as a team. They named themselves the Avengers, and they worked so well together that after the second issue Hulk was gone. But to my point—the event that brought them together. Loki was just being villainous; he didn't attack Thor or any of his friends, nor any of the others or their friends. Loki causes Hulk to rip up a railroad track. So what exactly is it that the Avengers are avenging? And wouldn't you think after more than 45 years, they would have achieved vengeance?

Note that DC's primary hero team seeks only justice, not vengeance….

Friday, September 11, 2009


I blame Coheed and Cambria.

When Mrs. Speculator and I first saw the trailer for this new animated movie, we were swept away by the use of the alt-prog band's introduction to their song "Welcome Home" (listen for yourself at Here was something strange and wonderful, animated poppets running over a ruined landscape to the strains of one of the best musical introductions of the last decade. And then the trailer throws Tim Burton's name up as producer, and we were sold. How could this movie not just sweep up the world in its awesome embrace?

The trailers didn't lie—well, except for the lack of any music resembling Coheed and Cambria, but you do get music by Danny Elfman, which sort of makes up for it. And that difference between anthemic rock and neoclassical music encapsulates the critical difference between the trailer and the movie: it's missing the fun that was promised.

As the movie starts, your breath will be taken away by the animation, not Pixar good but feeling more indie-minded. Incredibly life-like hands work diligently to put together a poppet apparently made of burlap, every weave of which is visible and distinct. It's gorgeous and effective, drawing the viewer in easily. And then when the poppet, 9, appears to spring to life, you're ready to go on his adventure with him. And though the world he wanders, a post-apocalyptic nightmare, is disconcerting, like the animation itself it becomes part of the background, accepted as normal without much hesitation. This setting of the unfamiliar as commonplace forces the movie to have to do extraordinary things after those first images to help it to rise above average. In other animated movies (I could even argue for pretty much any movie with a fantastic setting), after the first few scenes the movie must have some other strength come to the fore and carry the excitement past the introduction of the different. In the Shrek movies for example, the movie relies on the witty banter of the nearly recognizable characters to maintain the energy. Most Pixar movies rely on interesting characters and exquisite storytelling technique to keep the viewers' attention. Unfortunately, 9 doesn't really do anything to stand out after those first few moments.

Immediately after 9 enters the world, he runs into another poppet, 2, who seems to recognize him and welcomes him to life. There is brief conversation and then they are attacked by a grotesque combination of cat and machine called the Beast. 9 escapes, in part because 2 assists him before being captured himself. Following 2's last instructions, 9 heads off to find other poppets and attempt to enlist their aid in rescuing 2. Just underneath the surface, the viewer questions what is going on—we understand the broad strokes of the movie thus far but the background and motivation are missing. How can burlap poppets move about independently and have free will? Where are all the people? What happened to cause this nightmare? The frisson of these important unanswered questions keeps the viewer a little on edge as the movie begins to plod along, following all the major clichés of action/adventure movies.

9 goes on to meet other poppets, all of which are stereotypes: 1 is the leader whose only concern is safety at all costs, even to the point of using force to keep others from potentially exposing them; 8 is the big stupid henchman who apparently doesn't think very much but is very good at following the leader's orders; and 5 is the injured reluctant fighter, cowed by his experiences, the arguments of the leader and the brutishness of the henchman that he does nothing but exactly as he is told. And of course our hero rebels against such conservative behavior since it would lead to giving up on any rescue of 2, and of course 5 goes with him, seduced by the possibility of becoming more than the shell of who he had been. And then the movie follows the classic movement of action movies: go to the villain's headquarters and make a mistake, return to your own headquarters and have the villain follow, and then return to the villain's headquarters with all your forces to defeat him at home.

Along the way we meet other poppets and we begin to learn some of the details of how the world we find ourselves in was created. But the more the movie explains what is going on, the less sense it makes, moving from a story heavily grounded in technology to one based on spirituality, using it as a crutch to obviate the explanation of events (it's magic!). The cause of the war that has destroyed everything is relatively plausible, if heavily indebted to the Matrix movies, but like those movies, the spiritual explanations are somewhat lacking. And then at the end when the spiritual nature moves explicitly to the forefront as the cause of the events in the movie, it becomes maudlin and pretty illogical, even within the parameters of the story the movie tells.

You'll notice that I don't mention the voice actors here, and for good reason. While the list looks impressive—Elijah Wood, Crispin Glover, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly—the performances really aren't special. They seem to work in just two modes, conversational and excited, with very little nuance. Nothing stands out about any of them, a direct cotrast to, for example, the utter world-weariness that Ed Asner provides in every word that Carl speaks in Up. Even Plummer's performance in Up is far better than his role as 1 in 9.

So we're left with an incredibly promising premise that somehow bogs itself down in the mundane, becoming minimally exciting and not very thought-provoking at all. Even the action scenes are not very strong, and the way the movie spirals into half-baked spiritualism as it draws closer to its conclusion only reinforce the sense of everything just not going to plan. The contrived ending, written explicitly to tug the heartstrings, is not deftly done, feeling more like hammerfalls of obviousness. And though there is a note of hope, it doesn't make a lot of sense once the viewer takes a step back and thinks about the repercussions of all that they have learned through the movie.

I suppose that some will see this as groundbreaking, and I certainly wanted it to be. But it reminds me of Wizards in that it had been built up in my mind by the promise of potential, and then I find the execution is just not there. Given the names behind the movie, I'm sure 9 could become something of a cult film, but it barely deserves that. Fortunately, the movie is pretty short and since I had some fun for a short period of time, I don't feel that it was wasted time. Fans of animation may want to see 9 but they should definitely try to avoid paying full price.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Graveyard Book

I've been struggling with this review for a week. After the awards Neil Gaiman has garnered for this novel, I was looking forward to another entry in the fine list of thoughtful, well-written books from him, and to be honest, on that score I was not disappointed. The story of Nobody Owens begins with the murder of his parents and continues with his being raised in a graveyard by ghosts from various historical periods, a vampire and a werewolf. Given the "Freedom of the Graveyard," Bod is able to interact physically with the ghosts, and he is also trained in stereotypical frightening techniques: fading from view, installing fear, and walking through other people's dreams. It is a fascinating idea, giving Gaiman free reign to do the legend-making he is so adept at.

And he does build some interesting folklore. There's the Jacks of All Trades, an ancient society made up of men named Jack, intent on…well, it's never really clear what their goals are. What we do know, however, is that they have a prophecy (don't all ancient societies?) that indicates to them that Bod will lead to the destruction of their order, and so he must die. Note however, that while this society is hinted at, it is only really developed towards the end of the novel, and this explanation of their activities is tossed off pretty quickly in the course of the biggest action sequence in the novel. Opposing the Jacks is an even more secret society of werewolves, vampires, mummies and other fabled creatures named The Honour Guard. Silas, one of the members of The Honour Guard, is a vampire who has been named Bod's guardian, since he is the only denizen of the graveyard that can be corporeal outside its boundaries. Silas's regular disappearances appear mysterious and dark until he reveals that he has spent the entire book fighting the Jacks in their locations around the world. But most of this conflict takes place offstage and the reader only learns of it towards the end of the novel. The whole conflict just screams out for more books and stories detailing their ages-long battle.

The weakness is that the novel makes no bones about being a children's book (even calling it "young adult" is a stretch), and so there is not a lot of depth to the proceedings. There lurks some undercurrents of bigger things as the story goes on, but they are never really dealt with significantly, since exploring those unhappy ideas would cause the novel to stray beyond the boundaries of its age group. For instance, while Bod's parents are murdered within the first few pages of the book, Gaiman slips humor into the narrative when it could be its most terrifying, diffusing the darkness with his description of Bod as a toddler making his way across town and into the graveyard. Most of the book is spent describing Bod growing up, narrating a few interesting adventures in his life at the graveyard: meeting a witch, making living friends, and trying to go to school as a "normal" kid. These adventures really act as chapter-long anecdotes, scribing the arc of a fairly standard coming-of-age story with a fantastical setting.

But each of the stories also contributes a key element to the crisis of the novel and its resolution: Bod seeking revenge for the murder of his parents. In some ways, those passages just highlight the fluffiness of the previous chapters, but the chase scenes, while somewhat suspenseful, seriously understate the seriousness of Bod's predicament. In rather short order, Bod succeeds with the nonchalance of Tom Swift a more recent child savant, Wesley Crusher. It is terrifically fun and satisfying as it happens, but diminishes somewhat in reflection. And then to maintain a sort of childish innocence, Bod's revenge does not actually end up in the death of any of his pursuers; granted they are all disposed of in potentially guilelessly horrible ways—the unknown is far worse than the known, even if it includes the possibility of escape.

The result of all this is a fun read, not requiring a lot of thought for adults unless they are in the company of a child seeking explanation. Gaiman does offer an interesting point of view for a child entering society with his metaphor of a child raised by the dead entering the world of the living. But he doesn't push those issues too far, just evoking the emotional highlights, enough to prepare children for the difficulties of social interaction in their lives to come and to offer adults wistful reminders of their entry into the larger community. The characters are lightly drawn and the narration and voices all evoke some whimsy, even when Bod is in the most danger. The Graveyard Book is a worthy addition to Gaiman's burgeoning reputation as a great storyteller, leaving this reader wanting more stories from this same world but written for a slightly older audience.