My Take on the Spin

SpinI finished reading Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson, this weekend. I really enjoyed the book. And in my ongoing rating system I have on my personal bio page, I’m going to give it an A+. However, because I’ve spent an average of two days per month for the last five years or so in various writing groups, it’s become my nature to read things with a critical eye. Few books are perfect, and though I thought Spin was excellent, I can’t resist pointing out two minor flaws.

1) The novel juxtaposes two opposing views: the scientific and the Christian. Characters maintaining both views attempt to explain their rapidly changing world through their perspective. It is clear, in my mind, that Wilson favors the rationalist, scientific, point of view. What I couldn’t figure out was (spoiler warning) why Wilson felt humanity needed to be saved? The central premise of the novel is that any sentient culture living in a limited space with limited resources (i.e. a planet) will eventually exhaust its supplies and die. Along comes Vast-Interstellar-Intelligence to save the day. But the VII is so slow-thinking that humanity doesn’t recognize it at first. What Wilson has unintentionally done is ruin his argument (if I read the text correctly). In the novel, a messiah doesn’t come to save humanity, but the VII does. In both cases, humanity is impotent to effect it’s own change. And while altering this premise would vastly change the novel, I found myself more than a little frustrated at Wilson’s suggestion that humanity is at best impotent to cosmic forces.

2) This one is more technical. Throughout the novel Wilson refers to the use of aerostats, high-altitude balloons that are used instead of orbital satellites after the Spin (a black shroud that encloses the Earth) appears. Every time there is an astronomical event in the sky, the aerostats conveniently stop working, leaving humanity temporarily without communication. Wilson should have studied intercontinental communications a bit better. Most communication data travels over fiber-optic cable, not satellite, including the Internet and phone calls, and therefore would be immune to any interference from the stars. A geosynchronous satellite has a two second round-trip time, a latency that’s okay for one-way mass broadcast communications like television, but downright snail-like for Internet and phone calls where latencies in the half-second are considered high. I suppose it was a good device to have when Wilson wanted his characters to be ignorant of the state of the world at large.

These two flaws aside, however, I thought Spin was a remarkable novel in its breadth of scope and its ability to extrapolate a future billions of years hence. I know why it won the Hugo, and it my mind it is very deserving. My trigger-happy crit brain just couldn’t resist the crit.

New Book Review

Senses Five Press will occasionally be posting book reviews and reviews of other media to our site. Eugene Myers recently read DC Universe: Helltown for us and offers his opinion below. This and previous reviews can be found in our new Review Corner.

DC Univers: HelltownDC Universe: Helltown
by Dennis O’Neil, published by Warner Books

The third installment of a limited series of novels set in the DC Universe from Warner Books, Helltown is another name for the dangerous and corrupt Hub City. Like many troubled cities in the DC canon, this one has a vigilante protector: The Question. This masked hero is joined by an ensemble of DC characters, including Lady Shiva, Richard Dragon, and, most notably, Batman.

This book will have the greatest appeal to readers familiar with DC Comics. The author, Dennis “Denny” O’Neil, should be recognizable to longtime comic book fans for his work in such titles as Batman Knightfall, Green Lantern/Green Arrow, and The Question. O’Neil, however, is more than qualified for the difficult task of making the story accessible to readers unfamiliar with the DC Universe while also appealing to hardcore fans.

Helltown is the origin story of The Question, a relatively obscure DC hero who has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years with the Justice League Unlimited animated series and the ongoing DC title, 52 Weeks. The novel follows Vic Sage as he arrives in Hub City. He finds employment as a reporter for a local radio station, soon discovers a corrupt government headed by the unsavory Mayor Benedict Fermin, and uncovers a terrible plot that extends far beyond the city limits. Along the way he creates his superhero persona: a faceless man garbed in a trench coat and fedora.

Vic Sage seems like he was lifted from the 1980s; he frequently marvels at 21st century technology, including cellphones and “Googling.” He is a socially and politically conscious hero from another era, updated along with his supporting cast to more modern times. O’Neil takes other liberties with the established DC Comics history, seamlessly blending storylines from various comics into a unique story that stands on its own. Though devoted fans might take some exception to his changes, most people will simply enjoy the ride—and O’Neil’s approach ensures that everyone will find some surprises along the way.

At its heart, Helltown is about morally complex characters in extraordinary situations, and O’Neil grounds them firmly in reality even while convincing us that superheroes exist. The novel is well plotted, with frequently witty dialogue and solid action.

In a word: fun.

September 28, 2006 – Eugene Myers for Senses Five Press

The Top Ten Movies of 2005

Popcorn makes you fatThe Top Ten Movies of 2005
By Mercurio D. Rivera

In this year of declining tickets sales, the major studios continued their tradition of saving the best for last, releasing the majority of 2005’s best movies in December. This practice, along with the quick turnaround of movies from the big screen to DVDs, has contributed to audiences opting to stay at home to enjoy the slim pickings from the comfort of their living room sofas—not a bad strategy for those movies that don’t rely heavily on visual effects. Despite the dearth of quality during the first half of the year (with just a few exceptions), overall it proved a strong year for film, with an emphasis on the political thriller and gay/transgender subgenres.

As always, I begin by mentioning those critically acclaimed movies that are notably absent from my list. Among the year’s many political dramas, the ambitious and convoluted Syriana tops the list of the most overrated. Its multiple, murky storylines span the globe and left me scratching my head, perplexed by the plot and characters. Likewise, The Constant Gardener’s unintelligible, conspiracy-driven plot ruins a strong love story set in a striking African setting. While biopic Walk the Line has garnered some attention for the stellar performances of its leads, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, the truth is that its TV-movie script is utterly average and ─ unlike last year’s unapologetic Ray ─ makes a boatload of excuses for its protagonist’s bad behavior. Speaking of average-fare movies, I still don’t understand the firestorm over the beautifully shot March of the Penguins, which resembles any other wildlife special you can find on the Discovery Channel. David Cronenberg’s widely acclaimed History of Violence has a riveting beginning before settling into ho-hum comic book gangster violence. And Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, although technically well executed, simply fails to engage the viewer’s emotions until its final few minutes (in part due to the lack of chemistry between its leads, Russell Crowe and Rene Zellwegger, sporting bad Brooklyn accents).

But enough about the also-rans. Let’s get to the ten best movies of 2005:

10. Batman Begins ─ Christopher Nolan’s reinterpretation of the Dark Knight wisely focuses on the disturbing psychological aspects of the character, the childhood traumas and phobias that drive Bruce Wayne to play the part of millionaire playboy by day and bat-clad vigilante by night. More of an homage to Bob Kane’s Batman comics of the 1930’s and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns rather than its garish predecessor movies or the campy series of the 1960’s, there is a concerted effort to ground the character in the real world, which works to the film’s advantage. Christian Bale is terrific as tormented Bruce Wayne and he’s supported by a formidable cast that includes Michael Caine as paternal butler Alfred, Cillian Murphy as the demented Scarecrow and Liam Neeson as a villainous ninja and former mentor. Dark is good.

9. Match Point ─ Woody Allen’s engrossing drama stars the intense, pouty-lipped Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a former tennis pro and ambitious social climber who marries into a wealthy, upper crust British family and then risks it all by engaging in an adulterous affair with his brother-in-law’s American girlfriend (a smoldering, equally pouty-lipped Scarlett Johansson). Where the story heads is fairly predictable, but how we get there provides some surprising twists and turns. Unlike most Woody Allen flicks, there are no neurotic nebbish-y characters, no lame humor; these intelligent, self-absorbed characters play it dead serious. Reminiscent of Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, this suspenseful, cynical drama ruminates on the subjects of adultery, amorality, luck and making our own destinies.

8. The Squid and the Whale ─ This low-budget, high-quality, slice-of-life drama about a dysfunctional family set in 1980’s Park Slope, Brooklyn provides an entertaining and honest portrait of complicated characters facing turbulent times. Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels play literary intellectuals going through a messy divorce that forces their two sons to choose sides. Daniels is particularly effective as the family patriarch, an insufferably pompous penny-pincher and has-been writer who dismisses A Tale of Two Cities as “minor Dickens.” With terrific dialogue and superb acting, The Squid and the Whale reminds us that the dysfunctional family subgenre is alive and well.

7. The 40-Year-Old Virgin – Director Judd Apatow, the creator of the brilliant short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks, brings that same sensibility ─ a deft straddling of the line between crudity and mushiness ─ to this, the year’s best comedy. Steve Carell is hysterical as the gentle-souled protagonist who’s reluctantly agreed to be tutored by his obsessive co-workers ─ Paul Rudd, Seth Rogan and others with plenty of relationship problems of their own ─ on the art of “getting some.” Despite reveling in vulgar gags involving speed dating, bar pick ups and porn, the movie never gets nasty. The characters remain real, so we care and laugh. And when Carell and his sweet girlfriend (the appealing Catherine Keener) finally get it on, well, let’s just say they bring new meaning to “making beautiful music together.”

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ─ The latest installment in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is the second-best of the bunch (only behind the original). Darker and more intense, the movie plays to its strength: the child actors’ development into gawky teenagers. Harry doesn’t merely face the challenge of participating in the Tri-Wizard Tournament; he also has to deal with his best friend’s jealousy over his selection and worry about getting a date for the Hogwart’s dance. The plot succeeds not so much because of its action sequences and spectacle – of which there are plenty ─ but because of the equal attention it gives to the adolescent angst of its characters. Also, Ralph Fiennes, oozing malevolence, is one heck of a frightful Voldemort.

5. Memoirs of a Geisha ─ Rob Marshall’s unfairly maligned follow-up to Chicago is a spectacular, lavish production that transports us to pre-World War II Japan, to the exotic and mysterious world of the geisha, women treated like “walking pieces of art.” Faithful to Arthur Golden’s bestseller, this captivating film traces the life of Sayuri, a girl from a remote fishing village who’s cast into indentured servitude after the death of her mother and eventually undergoes schooling to become a geisha. Kudos to Gong Li who eats up the screen as the tempestuous Hatsumomo, the most famous geisha in Kyoto and Sayuri’s jealous foil and rival. It’s a shame that the controversy over the casting of three Chinese actresses – Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh (all superb) – as Japanese geisha kept this movie from getting the acclaim it deserves. Its visual splendor, unusual subject matter and epic Hollywood romance easily make it one of the year’s best.

4. Pride and Prejudice ─ Having sat through plenty of yawn-inducing, period-piece costume dramas, I have to confess to approaching the latest adaptation of a Jane Austin novel with a few preconceptions and, yes, prejudices  but walking away completely charmed. This delightful take on the Bennets, an eighteenth century British family, and their comical, almost hysterical, efforts to marry off their five daughters pulls you right in and never lets go. Brenda Blethyn is funny and likeable as the single-minded family matriarch, and the incandescent Kiera Knightly “wows” as Lizzie, the film’s intelligent and witty protagonist who refuses to marry purely for monetary gain. Clever, funny and exceedingly romantic, even the most hardened cynics (yeah, that includes me) are guaranteed to fall prey to its charms.

3. Brokeback Mountain ─ Ang Lee’s heart-wrenching meditation on frustrated love is set in the beautiful backdrop of 1960’s Wyoming and explores a lifelong secret affair between two tough-guy sheepherders (Jake Gylenhaal and Heath Ledger). Ledger steals the movie with an Oscar-caliber performance as the gruff, taciturn rancher who rarely speaks about anything, let alone his forbidden feelings. The characters’ suffering is as palpable as it is poignant when they go their separate ways to meet only on occasional “fishing trips.” And their emotional absence also takes its toll on their respective marriages. (Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway are terrific as the tormented wives). Simply put, understated script + amazing acting + the agony of thwarted love = a movie that leaves a lasting impression. It deserves the accolades it’s received.

2. King Kong ─ Pass the extra large bucket of popcorn — it’s three hours long — for the year’s most exhilarating, action-packed adventure. As with his Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson’s magnificent, heart-stopping remake transports us to another world — this time two vivid settings actually, 1930’s economically depressed New York City, and the fog-enshrouded, dinosaur-filled Skull Island—but not before carefully fleshing out characters we grow to care about, including starving actress Ann Darrow (an Oscar-worthy Naomi Watts) and manically self-centered movie director Carl Denham (Jack Black). As a result, there are few “nameless extras” killed in the epic adventure that follows. Despite knowing the movie’s basic plot going in, it still manages to provide surprises and thrills aplenty, not to mention — yes, here we go again — the sadness of thwarted love. Peter Jackson is now officially the biggest gorilla in Hollywood.

1. Crash ─ Paul Haggis’s follow-up to his Million Dollar Baby screenplay is an electric, unpredictable and provocative exploration of racial and ethnic stereotypes in America — and provides no pat answers. Set in L.A., the cleverly plotted drama follows multiple storylines with sympathetic characters of different ethnicities — all angry, desperate and arguably racist. When the plotlines inevitably intersect during a crazed 36-hour period, it results in a combustible, thought-provoking “crash.” The all-star cast includes standout performances by Thandie Newton, Sanda Bullock (who knew she could act?) and Terrence Howard (playing a rich, straight-laced director, a character diametrically opposed to the rapping, misogynistic pimp he portrayed in this year’s Hustle and Flow). It’s rare to be surprised at the movies in this day of the dumbed-down formula flick and unending sequels. Crash surprised me and moved me and left me thinking. It’s the year’s best movie.

11. Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney’s relevant, stylish, black-and-white recreation of the on-air battle between Edward R. Murrow and Commie-hunting Sen. Joe McCarthy); 12. Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman disappears into the role of the egocentric author who stops at nothing to exploit the subjects of his book, In Cold Blood); 13. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (unfairly compared to Lord of the Rings—a comparison guaranteed to work to any movie’s detriment—this gorgeous and engaging children’s fantasy actually compares quite favorably to the Harry Potter movies); 14. Munich (Steven Spielberg’s grey, political drama about an Israeli assassination squad sent to retaliate against the terrorists who executed its athletes at the Olympic games is intelligent and ruminative, refusing to preach and providing no easy answers); 15. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (the acting is wooden and the dialogue stilted, but somehow—I’m not sure how—Lucas manages to connect all the dots and put together a dark, magnificent spectacle).

The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture

The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop CultureThe Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture
by Jason Colavito, Published by Prometheus Books

This dense yet fascinating read proclaims that those theories suggesting humanity commingled with alien races long ago — possibly even being spawned by one — can be directly traced, not to historical reality, but to a series of fictional short stories by the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, written at the beginning of the 20th century. Author Colavito — a former believer, and a contributor to Skeptic magazine — takes us chronologically through the history of this idea, from Lovecraft’s life to the present day, and he makes a convincing argument that “extraterrestrial genesis,” the theory that humanity was created by aliens, is hogwash. Lovecraft, Colavito argues, was a lifelong atheist and materialist and had no room for these pseudo-scientific theories in real life — but he knew well that they make for excellent fiction. The biographical portrait consumes only a fraction of The Cult of Alien Gods, though, and the rest of the work details long arguments intended to debunk dozens of alien-history theories, including those that claim: the Sphinx at Giza is much older than originally thought; Atlantis was real and home to an ancient, technological race; an ancient African tribe knew Sirius was a double star even before modern astronomers did. Though the links to Lovecraft seem reasonable at first blush, Colavito’s arguments sometimes turn specious, and he’s not immune to the same weakness of which he accuses others: presupposing a conclusion and then accepting only evidence that supports it. Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile read that seeks to shed light upon a hundred years of speculation and myth, while at the same time paying high praise to one of the last century’s greatest storytellers.

January 9, 2006 – Matthew Kressel (courtesy Earthling Magazine).

John Crow’s Devil

John Crow’s Devil
by Marlon James
Published by Akashic Books

In the Jamaican town of Gibbeah, all is not well. The village priest is a drunk they’ve dubbed the Rum Preacher, and the devil’s work roams as freely as the vultures. John Crow’s Devil is rife with the black birds, which seem inextricable from the festering morality of this forsaken community. Enter a smarmy man from Kingston called the Apostle York, who drags the former priest from his pulpit and leaves him in a haunted river to rot. First-time novelist James drenches us in Christian symbols, as the river becomes the Rum Preacher’s baptism and subsequent rebirth. While the Apostle slowly convinces the congregation to loathe the word Jesus, to murder cattle farmers, to attack visitors and destroy the only bridge into town, cows are born with heads turned backwards, and strange murders of crows congregate on rooftops and in yards. James weaves a dark, engaging tale from this mix of magic realism and religious literalism. While there are a few unnecessary distractions from the story — sexual organs are mentioned a bit too frequently, and the narrative is often recounted in an awkward-to-read Jamaican patois — in the end it’s a remarkably solid debut novel, promising much from a young and talented writer.

January 9, 2006 – Matthew Kressel (courtesy Earthling Magazine).