Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam, #1)Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I found this intensely unsatisfying. I love dystopias, and I love post-apocalyptic worlds, and I found the worldbuilding in this to be wonderfully imaginative and intriguing, but somehow it managed to be incredibly dull and plodding at the same time.

I think the problem is that nothing happened in this entire book. I was fully halfway through it when Jimmy finally decided to leave his tree, and I thought “aha, finally there will be some plot”, and then his adventure simply served as the prelude to more flashbacks which still only served to build the world, not have anything happen within it. I would have much rather learned about the disaster from a present-day perspective than the hackneyed flashback structure used here. The characters weren’t likable, and they did nothing of note for me to care about, which made the entire thing fall flat on its face. Which is a shame, because the world is a fascinating backdrop.

I see it is a series, so I assume this serves as the introductory paragraph and there will be plot in the later books, but it’s already lost me. I might read a synopsis of the rest of them, I guess.

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Into the Forest

(Not to be confused with “Into the Woods” which is a very different sort of movie.)

This is a movie that really makes you think.  But not in a good way…

This review is going to contain a lot of spoilers but it’s okay because if you’re watching this movie, it’s for the acting and emotional impacts. Not the plot.

I picked this one up because I was in the mood for a post-apoc tale (preferably about a virus since we’re dealing with household illnesses right now and it would be thematic) but, alas, it would appear that I have seen literally every post-apocalyptic movie ever made.  Even the bad ones.  But then “Into the Forest” scrolled past and I went “close enough.”

“Into the Forest” is a post-apocalyptic (sort of) tale about two sisters who are staying at a remote forest cabin with their father when a severe power outage strikes the world. Instead of a chilling tale of virus contagion, I got a tale of two teenage girls whining about the internet not working. Which, honestly, was still pretty entertaining, simply because it was so god damn realistic.

We really did enjoy it—for the most part—but it suffers mightily from “stupid decision syndrome”.  Not quite to the degree where you are yelling at the TV like “NO YOU IDIOT DON’T GO IN THERE YOU WILL DIE.  SEE I FUCKING TOLD YOU YOU WOULD DIE YOU FUCKING DESERVE TO DIE YOU FUCKHEAD” but more along the lines of “ALL of these problems could have been solved if you had taken a tiny little precautionary action eight months ago you dipshits >:(“.  Again: it’s pretty realistic!

Except it’s not.  Stupid character decisions aside… it suffers from a fair amount of bad writing.  More specifically, the movie really suffers from scaling issues.  Supposedly the movie is set in Canada, and the girls spend a lot of time talking about surviving the winter.  The movie spans at least 15 months of time, and not one single snowflake is to be seen, and the greenery never goes away.  Instead there are lots of idyllic berry picking scenes.  The cedars and rain suggest it was located on the west coast, where sure there’s less winter than some places in Canada, but you’d definitely have a few more hardships and a lot more issues with cold than were depicted here.  Worse, they’re living in a modern upscale cabin (with all kinds of electronic gadgets that don’t work anymore!) with a few initial shots of a tarp on the roof to establish that there is some patching that needs to be done, and it goes from that to mold infested and literal beams rotting and collapsing in less than a year.  And it didn’t even have to deal with the weight of snow at all! Apparently it was built with paper mache, which was a bad decision for the west coast of Canada. (Meanwhile, they are still driving a 1995 Jeep Cherokee which is as bombproof as ever.  Oh but for the glory days of Jeep to return…)  If the movie had scaled the timeline up a bit this could have been a bit more believable, but it’s even more annoying that the girls take the time to research topics like in-depth nutrition and “DIY abortion” but not flip a few pages over to look under “Carpentry”.  It’s not like they didn’t have enough fucking wood, and even cedar for shingles!

And then there’s the ending.  So the house rots and collapses around them and they decide “let’s waste the last of our gas to burn it down” for… reasons.  Their logic is explained in the movie but I was still kind of like “…what?”  I mean sure don’t live in the mold infested pile of rot but the gas has a lot of value and you could still store the goddamn books and supplies and shit in… nevermind.  Then they move into a hollow tree stump with a shard of plastic for a roof annnnnnd fin.
I think the intent is to suggest they go back to their ancestral roots and live happily ever after, foraging off the land and enjoying each other’s company as they live out the rest of their lives in symbiosis with nature (hence: ‘into the forest’ see?  Get it??).  In reality, there probably should be a footnote after the credits saying “And then they died.”  Because, yeah.  You don’t just burn down your shelter then wander off into the forest and live in a stump at the onset of winter.  Not even the winter that exists in this world where it just rains and then you go pick some blueberries.  I don’t care how fucking resourceful you are.  If you can’t even be bothered to patch your goddamn roof, you’re not going to make it through a winter in a stump with a newborn baby.

Bitching aside, the REST of the movie was pretty decent.  The acting was great, and the two girls really hit off each other for some high emotional notes.  There aren’t many tense moments or suspense like might expect from most post-apoc stuff, and the worldbuilding is pathetic at best (nothing is explained, and seriously, if the entire world can be fucked for over a year if not permanently by a single power grid failure then the future is pretty dumb), but the emotional moments are A+.  So it’s kind of a girly post-apoc film, I guess.  If that appeals to you, by all means check it out, as long as you are wary of stepping in pits of dumb decisions, bad worldbuilding, and lengthy interpretive dance scenes.

The 100

This is cheating because it’s a TV show, not a movie, but it’s technically a “moving picture” right?  And I feel like rambling about it.

I was bored and looking for something to sleep through, so I glanced at my recommendations on Netflix and ultimately clicked on “The 100”, which was recommended to me because I am one of the few dozen people on Earth who enjoyed Terra Nova and all of its campy low-rent glory (come on guys, it’s basically a worse Stargate SG-1, but with dinosaurs.  How can you not like that?!?  Damn you, Fox).  I ended up mocking the terrible writing in the pilot the whole way through, then taking it off my Netflix list as soon as it was done.  And then maybe 15 minutes later I went back and started episode 2.  Now we’ve finished binging the first season and the few episodes currently available for the second, and I am conflicted.  The show was captivating, yet the writing is terrible.  The writing certainly improved as it went along, but it was still pretty awful.  So why was it so interesting?

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Monsters of Men (Chaos Walking Finale)

Monsters of Men (Chaos Walking, #3)Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

These are good books and you should read them. The final book in the series holds up its end of the bargain and keeps you reading. It has its flaws (and a fair amount of cheesiness…) but it still deserves a five.

I still hate the random misspellings in Todd’s sections. They add nothing. Stop it. I don’t mean during dialogue where it dictates an obvious speech pattern, I mean in his thoughts where any word that ends in “-tion” is butchered into “-shun” for no reason. I got over it but it’s pointless. I still appreciate that every character sounds distinct, though.

Speaking of which, I absolutely loved the way the alien voice is written. It’s a challenging task to take on a language that is intended to be mostly pictorial and then change it into text, but it was effectively done (even if there were some shortcuts here and there). It felt alien. The worst thing about it is that I don’t think it can ever effectively be translated into a movie format. I almost hope no one tries to make this series into a movie because so much of it will likely be lost in translation.

Many of the complaints I had about the characterization of the villains were completely eradicated in the final book – which brings me to a whole new complaint (no, you can’t win). This series should not have been a trilogy. It doesn’t really feel like a cheap cash-in attempt (selling three books is better than selling one after all) but the books feel decidedly unfinished when you hit the break points between them. You need to read all three to get the whole picture and really appreciate it. It was amazing, but I wonder how polished it could have been if it were constructed as a cohesive whole…

The Ask and the Answer

The Ask and the Answer (Chaos Walking, #2)The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Augh this book. It’s so good, and then it grabs the ball and just drops it all over itself and leaves me going “…” because why. Why did you drop that ball. You did everything else so well. Why.

It has so many flaws and yet I must rate it 5.

The Chaos Walking series continues its excellent character development, and even the villains are interesting this time. The story picks up where the first book left off, and the entirety of it is set in the capital city of the planet. A number of heavy issues are broached (racism, slavery, torture, approaches to morality, self esteem and identity…) and it never once became preachy or uninteresting to me.  It also managed to stop doing that thing I hated in the first book where Todd would discover something and react appropriately and not tell anything to the reader grrrr.  So kudos for stopping that bullshit.

It did, however, become a bit baffling at points. What the book (and series so far, really) seems to lack is motivations. Amidst all of these excellent character depictions and believable responses to things, there is a complete lack of a sense for why they are doing what they are doing. The real strengths of these characters are how believable they are, but the lack of clear motivations is starting to make even that a bit muddy in this book. Before reading these books I probably would have said it wouldn’t be possible to write characters this well and somehow miss their motivations, but, well, here it is, and it’s probably the worst thing about this book given how well the first one developed the characters.

In the first book we had comically evil mustache twirling villains who seemed to be evil for the sake of being evil, because there wasn’t really a decent motivation behind their actions. We still have that here, but the villains are fleshed out a bit more and it’s easy to forget that the bottom line is they’re being evil pretty much for the sake of being evil. Okay fine the motivation is “I will rule the world” but that’s synonymous with “comically evil”.

[Vague plot discussion follows – I try to avoid major spoilers but it’s worth a warning:]

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The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking, #1)The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So difficult to rate. I really really enjoyed this book, but there were some flaws that marred the experience. If partial marks were allowed I’d probably end up dipping into 1/2s and maybe 3/4s, but as it is I will just start at 5 stars for being amazing, and drop it to 4 for having unfortunate flaws.

The language was not one of those flaws, although it could have been. The book uses “cleetus speak” to show that the characters are uneducated. The dialects aren’t slathered all over everything and, unlike the Dust Lands books, characters had unique “accents” as the characters moved from place to place. I could actually tell characters apart as they spoke. I enjoyed it, even. (And they use quotation marks! How novel!) It did still annoy me when words were misspelled when it made no sense to do so. e.g. words ending in -tion would be spelled “-shun”. Why. It is pronounced the same, so it doesn’t even contribute to an accent. It’s a minor annoyance and I got over it, though.

It’s such an interesting premise. Todd was born on this planet, but he’s actually part of a colony who landed here and soon discovered that something on the planet is causing them to hear each other’s thoughts. The plot is a bit sparse to begin with – Todd is going about his life, and then shit goes down and he needs to flee his hometown. He’s just as confused about it as we are, and the readers learn about the story while he figures it out. It’s like a blend of old time farmland settings and sci-fi genres, and it works. The worldbuilding is good and keeps you wanting to know more.

I have some issues with the second part of that, though. It relies heavily on a “hook” that I dislike – not telling the reader anything, even if the protagonist learns something. It’s mostly handled well, but then there are parts of the book where it cuts to Todd’s reaction as someone explains something really really important to him. No one explains any of it to us, the readers, and it’s such a transparent hook to make you keep reading. It works, mind you, but I resent every moment of it. You can handle it more gracefully than that guys, come on. It’s jarring and transparent. ESPECIALLY when you’re trying to pull off first person present tense. It was shockingly sloppy compared to a lot of the rest of the writing.

There’s a bit of really obvious telling instead of showing, too, which was also really odd given how well most of the book was constructed. In pretty much the first chapter Todd is thinking about how the year has 13 months in it, and I was all “aha, these are not typical Earth years.” Many many many chapters later Viola painstakingly lays out how the years are a different length here. Seriously? Did you forget that shit was in chapter one or did you think “omg the years are a different length why” would be a mystery for the whole book and it better be cleared up?

The characters were fantastic. They were real. They had human thoughts and made human mistakes. They reacted to each other in human ways. Each character was distinct. Even the dog had an appropriately dog-styled personality. Most of the writing was sort of stream-of-consciousness choppy style, which made a lot of sense in the context of all thoughts being audible, and it was used effectively to bring the character’s reactions to life. I enjoyed it, although it was a bit overdone in areas.

I loved almost every interaction between characters in this book, except for the villains. All this effort was poured into the main characters to make them believable and human, and then it came time to write the villains and they slapped some comically evil paint onto some cardboard and propped it up. Their motivations are weak and cliche (“I will ruulllleee the wooorrrlllddd” yeah yeah we’ve heard it before). The protagonists “kill” the main antagonist like 4 or 5 times and oops he just keeps popping back up! No explanation as to how he didn’t die, just vivid descriptions of the visible damage from the wounds they inflicted last time (and a conspicuous lack of descriptions of a terminator-style endoskeleton, because I was getting pretty certain that’s the only way to survive all this shit by the end).  And then the reveal of how Todd is supposed to transition to manhood.

I just don’t buy it. It’s too flimsy. Enjoyable I suppose, but flimsy.

A bit of an aside, I suppose… one thing I noticed in this book is that it used the word “effing” copiously. It was amusing in a number of ways, mirroring a teenager trying to toe the line and test their boundaries. But then it would say something like “(but I don’t say “effing” I say the real word this time)”. Just fucking say fucking. I thought it was so the book could be properly marketed to a younger audience without having to worry about any scary words being included that would make parents angry or saddle it with a profanity warning, but then Viola lets a proper “fucking” slip and Todd reacts to it. … we have no need to self-censor then, do we? So why so much self-censorship? Baffling.

Bitching completed. I really liked this book. Flaws aside, the writing was powerful and well crafted, the characters were fantastic and believable, and the world is interesting and unique. The villains kinda suck but maybe it will come into its own later on and flesh out the plot a bit. I can kinda relate even if it doesn’t… I often come up with characters I really like and then have no ideas for good situations to get them into.

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Blood Red Road

Blood Red Road (Dust Lands, #1)Blood Red Road by Moira Young

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I gave this book four stars. It does not deserve four stars, but I still gave it four stars. That might be confusing to you because I am going to spend most of this review bitching about it.

Blood Red Road is yet another dystopian fiction that popped up in the wake of Hunger Games, with yet another female protagonist wielding ranged weapons and going head to head with others to survive. Saba’s tiny little family is torn apart when a group of men show up, murder her father, and kidnap her twin brother. She sets out on an action-packed quest to brave harsh elements and rescue him, all while saddled with her 9 year old little sister.
I actually really enjoyed it and didn’t feel like it was trying too hard to cash in on “genre of the week”, although there was one kind of “plunked” section that felt an awful lot like it was trying to force Saba to mimic Katniss’s PTSD character arc (especially since it conveniently never really seems to crop up again for the rest of the book, where it ends up being a huge part of Katniss’s character development throughout the entire trilogy. Hrmmm…)

The first thing you will notice, even if all you do is read reviews about the book, is that it’s written in a “dialect” to reflect the idea that the characters are uneducated (ie: they say things like “ezzackly” instead of “exactly”).
I hated it. Hate hate hate hate.
I actually had no problem with the dialect itself – it’s perfectly acceptable to have a sort of grammar-less drawl be the ‘voice’ of your character if that’s how you want it. Why are the god damn descriptions written in it too? It’s a description of the character’s actions from the author of the book not a written description by the uneducated characters, so it makes no sense to mangle it. It just adds difficulty to reading without adding any depth to the book.

There are no quotation marks throughout the entire book. They don’t know what quotation marks are, because they are uneducated and don’t know how to write, you see. Which makes no sense because they are speaking to each other. This is not someone’s uneducatedly-written account of who was speaking. What’s more, every single character has the exact same ‘dialect’ which just made them all sound like they had the same voice, to me. Even characters who seemed to be quite well educated would speak in exactly the same grammatical patterns, and it was just bizarre. I had to keep stopping and going to back to weed out who said something vs who thought something vs who described something, and it was tedious and stupid. I actually think I would recommend waiting for the inevitable movie to be made, just to avoid wading through this bullshit.

I felt like the story was simultaneously strong and unique, and also shallow and cliche. Figure that one out. I don’t even know if I can adequately describe it… it felt unique enough that I really enjoyed it, but there were a lot of really obvious cliches at work and I rolled my eyes at each and every one.

One of the biggest flaws that kept jumping out at me was the complete lack of a grasp of scale. Time jumps were very hard to get a hold on. Things would progress at a rate that seemed like it must have been a year, and yet it’s like “one month later”. And then at other times it would be all “she got a tiny scratch that was nowhere near as bad as some of the other shit she’s gone through, but despite that she was knocked out and unconscious for two days, but despite it being two whole days we’re just going to get around to stitching it up now…”. It felt like “seat of the pants” convenience writing which probably reflects a lack of experience more than anything.

The most glaring example is the whole sequence with the cage fighting. She’s captured, they spend a few days travelling (though the way it’s described certainly seems like longer), she’s sold to the fighting ring, and in less than a month she’s got her own private cell and special treatment and has never lost a match, and is even asked by one of the other characters to lead the way because “You know this place better than anyone.” This needed so much more setup. Did she do a lot of fighting in her tiny isolated farm that had no livestock to wrestle or anything? Was she secretly a blacksmith to build up all this strength? If the story had spent a little more time developing her at the rink it would have been best, but you couldn’t do that because of the three-losses rule. And of course, the whole pressing overall time limit for the rescue of Lugh. It’s quite a dilemma – too long and it’s unrealistic for her to still be alive, but too short and it’s unrealistic for her to be the champion, so instead it has to skip out into Mary Sue territory to get through it. A bit more planning (and maybe a bit more hanging on by the skin of her teeth instead of winning everything effortlessly) and it would have been much smoother.

Not to mention how, later, miss “undefeated angel of death” screams at the sight of a skeleton. /facepalm.
Oh I’m sorry. It was a “skelenton”. Ugh.

Having said that and done all this bitching, I’ve seen a lot of bitching about the character and how she does not develop and she’s all mean to her little sister all the time so she’s unsympathetic and people hate her. You know what, the flaws of the character are the part I actually enjoyed the most, and I think those people completely missed the awesome character development that did happen with regards to her relationship with Emmi. No, the book does not end with everything being all rainbows and butterflies between them, and thank god because they’re on an actually believable arc that I’m hoping will continue to develop with the series. Yes, you want to smack her at times. That’s who her character is, and it makes sense.

I enjoy dystopias for the worldbuilding, and I enjoyed the worldbuilding in Blood Red Road… which, again, might be pretty confusing because there wasn’t actually a whole lot of worldbuilding. What was there was very subtle, and (this is the important part) it made SENSE for it to be subtle, because this is Saba’s world. She does not need things explained. That’s just how things are for her. She takes note of things, and occasionally wonders about things, and in that way the world is revealed to the reader. I enjoyed it, but I also hope the series goes on to meet a literate historian and reveal a bit more backstory about how things got to be this way.

I also hope they spend a little time explaining the “magic” that seems to exist in the world. Pa’s seeming divination skills, the strange properties of the “heartstone”, Nero having a unique amount of intelligence (to the degree that it’s even commented on in-book… Chekov’s gun?), the king’s immortality? Are there scientific explanations for some of these things, are there magical explanations for these things, or are we just going to smile and nod? There was a vague attempt at explaining the giant worms (though the hind leg reveal was pretty eye-roll inducing…), so there might be some ideas behind things, but then it becomes a question of whether saying more will help, or if it will just make us go “… well that’s just fucking stupid“.

There were plenty of things that already made me raise an eyebrow. They’re constantly travelling somewhere and going “Oh no we can’t stop we have to make it before dark!!!” while also bitching about the heat and their water supplies. It. is. a. desert. Travel at night, dummies! At least the worm explanation made some sense for the one part, but every single other desert-travel section? And speaking of the worms… they let their horses go because they hope the horses will make it to the other side before dark. Why weren’t you riding the god damn horses to go faster in the first place.

And there were just some weird decisions in the plot, too. Rooster showed some interesting character potential playing the part of the abused husband, and then, well… so much for that I guess? Massive armies using stealth when they quite clearly overwhelm the other side? Except… I guess they didn’t because when the dust clears only two people are injured? … More seat of the pants writing. But I really only noticed these things as oddities, rather than being annoyed by them.

Even the inevitable romance bits were tolerable, primarily because they were part of the story and not constantly tromping all over the plot just to be seen. I am worried about the next books though. Naturally the only not-ugly bad guy is going to turn out to be actually a good guy and spark a love triangle, isn’t he. Ugh. Ugh.

So there it is. That is my review. I enjoyed this book despite its massive flaws and I hope they don’t do a cheap cash-in for the movie, because I think it will make for a decent action adventure where lack of quotation marks won’t make me fly into a rage.

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Divergent

Divergent (Divergent, #1)Divergent by Veronica Roth

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction, survival fiction, to some extent military fiction, and I loved The Hunger Games which Divergent gets a lot of crap for copying. I actually saw the trailer for the movie (which I wasn’t really interested in, to be honest) and saw the magical words “based on the best selling novel” and was like “hmm. I should look that one up.” Even if it was just a cash-in ripoff of the success of Hunger Games, I should probably still enjoy it right?

I’m going to put a bottom line up front here: teen and “tweens” will love this book. For the rest of us, it’s just too god damn dumbed down to extract any real entertainment out of. I may have rolled my eyes here and there during Hunger Games, but I never felt like it was actively insulting my intelligence. Divergent… oh my god I felt like I was losing IQ at points.

One of the things I love the most about dystopian fiction is the worldbuilding. What is this world? Why is it dystopian? How did it get this way? Was there a purpose behind making it this way? How are the people coping with their circumstances?
Divergent has almost no worldbuilding. This is the first book in a trilogy (another glaring sign of cashing in… does it need to be a trilogy or are we just hoping to sell 3x the books?) but even if the rest of the series builds the most amazing world, it’s TOO LATE. That shit needs to go in book one, people. The civilization is broken into several factions, and it never explains why. Why do we have these factions? Why were they formed? What is the purpose? There’s a sniff here and there that, hey, maybe there IS actually a plot reason for these factions and it’s not just all pulled out of an ass, but the book doesn’t bother to explain anything to you until a couple of snippets near the end. The main character even explicitly states that she never paid attention in history, to give us a convenient out for not explaining anything.

Speaking of which, the book is in first person present tense, which is a point of view that I loathe. I hated it in Hunger Games and it’s one of the few things I feel really limited the ability to tell the story of that series. In a surprise twist, the POV is probably one of the things that didn’t irritate me about Divergent. I didn’t detect any sloppy mixed tense, and it was effectively used to ramp up the action scenes without losing too many opportunities to advance the plot due to the awkwardness of needing the main character to be present to show the reader every single development.

The problem is, it was probably effective because this book has no god damn plot to advance. The entire plot is “Tris switches factions and goes through hazing rituals for 400 pages”. Then there’s actually a bit of plot in the 10 pages of a war at the end, which is supposed to get you to buy in to the rest of the series. There’s no real background, no worldbuilding, and no real character development either. It’s just Tris going through ordeal after ordeal and trying to survive to make it to the next one, with no clear indication as to why. And also heavy allusions to High School social bullshit (with very one-dimensional bullies), to make sure the kids can relate to her.

The character development was a real issue. We see each and every thought Tris has, and she becomes more and more unlikeable with each one. She comes from the selfless faction, so she’s constantly beating herself over the head with how selfish she’s being now that she’s in a new faction and if she was back home she’d be doing all these selfless acts instead and prostrating herself in front of everyone instead of trying to advance herself. When I say constantly, I mean constantly. She does not shut up about it. Just shut up. Augh. But then she has dizzying bi-polar flips to completely different personalities. She’s flipping between self-loathing to angst to spite to psychopathic rage and then right back to self-loathing (and then incredulousness when she scores first place in everything. How could this be when she’s so bad at stuff?!?). And she’s as thick as molasses in winter, unless the situation dictates that she out-smart everyone by being super clever all of a sudden. Then she will be super clever and amaze everyone. Then she will wonder why everyone is so amazed because she’s so awful at everything how could be they be impressed!??

At one point she asks a stupid question about what’s going on and the reply is “I can’t wait until you finally catch on”. I wrote a note next to it saying “Me too.”  If you ever find yourself reading a book and the main character says “I open my mouth to object, but I can’t.  He’s right.”, and you find yourself yelling “OF COURSE HE IS RIGHT YOU STUPID BITCH”, the character might not be well written.

The characters are all one-dimensional and feel unnatural because they only display character traits when it is necessary to advance the scene (whether or not it makes ANY GOD DAMN SENSE based on past scenes involving that character.  Al?  What the fuck was that, besides a transparent attempt at subverting the expected to elicit shock). The book attempts to use the same “hook” the Maze Runner did of trying to not tell the reader anything about what’s going on, in the hopes it keeps you curious enough to keep reading to find out. What that means is, Tris flips between being completely oblivious and missing the obvious when they want to tell the reader something without “telling” Tris… and asking very pointed and clever questions to try to get to the heart of things, only to be told “I’ll explain later.” It’s infuriating, and it feels completely contrived from start to finish.

And then there’s the romance. The rating of this book plummeted so much during those pages, let me tell you. Before that it was a mediocre but at least sort of interesting attempt at a story that I could see the younger readers really enjoying. The romance heated up and it became porn for 12 year olds. Oh they’ll love it, because it’s perfectly and very pointedly targetted at that age where they’re desperate to know anything about sex and this is a likely parentally-approved route to reading about it (no sex takes place oh goodness no they just cuddle and kiss no sex nope). But it suffers from the same character development flaws as the rest of the book. These characters are not acting naturally, they’re acting in a way that is carefully designed to appeal to a younger audience. Add to that Tris’s ABSOLUTELY INFURIATING obliviousness every single time her boyfriend is on screen (gosh they kissed last night and now he’s ignoring her at breakfast how could this be she thought he loved her he must actually hate her she wants to cry this is so awful because there couldn’t possibly be any other explanation for him not wanting to reveal to everyone in the military compound that they’re in love since you know he’s kind of the leader of the group and boy I don’t see any problems with this news getting out do you? Nope he must hate her now well fine then she hates him too. Oh wait he was acting that way to hide that fact that he loves her because if everyone else found out they might think there was bias going on oh my god he’s soooooo smart she loves him so much for being so smart ~*~dreamy sigh~*~)
… okay I got carried away but ugh. ugh. I don’t even care if this is an accurate portrayal of how teens think. It was tedious.

It gets a lot of crap for copying Hunger Games, but I actually didn’t feel it was much of a rip-off for most of the story… but at the end it veered down a path which is dangerously close to copying plot points word for word. I’m not sure what I think of that, and I’m not sure I will bother delving into book two to find out how Divergent (heh heh heh) it is, because I cannot stand the thought of sitting through another book of Tris’s tortured thoughts and self-flagellation over her lover boy.

In short (yes I know it’s too late for short): I feel like it’s a carefully engineered attempt at cashing in on popular-genre-of-the-week. It doesn’t feel genuine to me. This book was not written to entertain, it was written to sell. It’s unfortunate.

[edit] Now having finished reading, I read some more stuff on the internet and it seems like the author is actually quite young.  I could be wrong about it being deliberately written to appeal to a juvenile audience… it might just be working out that way due to the age of the author.  I bet if young adult dystopia wasn’t “the thing” right now, though, no publisher would have come within a mile of it, much less the movie deals.  But thanks to genre-of-the-week they were all over it like ants in a pop can on a hot day…

Metropia

Metropia popped up on my recommendation list because it was dystopian and sci-fi (…kinda).  We watched it and the whole time I was thinking “Oh man this is so bizarre and unique, this will be a great blog entry.”  And then we finished it and… I didn’t really know what to say.  I could barely remember what the movie was about, let alone say anything about it.  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, and it’s not that it wasn’t unique so there’s definitely some things to talk about… it’s almost like trying to grab on to something incredibly slippery and then it squooshes out of your grasp and out of your line of vision and you can’t remember what you were doing anymore.  I suppose that is appropriate for this movie, though perhaps not intentional.

Metropia is a European movie (Swedish, apparently), set in a future Europe where there is no more oil and vehicles are kaput, so everyone must use the underground rail networks to get around.  The main character finds going into the underground incredibly unsettling, especially since he’s starting to hear voices in his head when he goes there.  Over the course of the movie he discovers that the voices in his head are not imagined, and he sets out to uncover the truth.

That synopsis sounds kind of interesting, but I had to go read the plot on Wikipedia to summarize things because all I can really remember is him jacking off in the shower because of advertising, his wife’s creepy huge eyes, spending entirely too much time establishing his depressing life, his wife almost cheating on him with a huge asshole that was totally not worth her time, and something about a conspiracy involving dandruff shampoo that controls you.

The bit about the shampoo is kind of the whole plot of the movie, and yet it’s the part I remember the least.  I wasn’t even drunk!  Even after reading some synopses to refresh my memory, I’m not exactly sure what the world running out of oil had to do with any of it.  It seemed like it should be a huge part of the plot with how much the blurbs emphasized it, but it was more of a “now everyone uses these tunnels” and that was that. I’m not sure that the plot required them to be in tunnels, though.  And how many people are in this city?  Do they have a single person monitoring each and every one of them?  That seems expensive and impractical.

But anyway, it’s unique and probably worth a look if you like unique things.  The animation is certainly something else.  Wikipedia tells me all of the animation is based off of photographs of random people they recruited off the street.  The result is a highly bizarre and somewhat unsettling “uncanny valley” effect where you’re like “I’m not sure that I like this animation… but I also cannot claim that it is BAD animation…” which probably helps the atmosphere of the movie.  If this were a live action movie I suspect it would be wholly forgettable, really.

In short, I think I liked it?

Elysium

Since it’s so new, I will endeavour to keep this spoiler free… honestly there isn’t much to spoil, but I’ll try anyway.
Sci-Fi movie!!!!  Usually we’re pretty cheap and wait for DVDs, but we loved District 9, and the previews for Elysium looked so good that we went and saw it at the theatre.  It’s not even 3D and we saw it at the theatre!

Elysium was simultaneously really good, and also disappointing. As is typical, my bitching revolves around the writing – the movie was disappointing because it could have been really good, but the writing was just sloppy enough to be distracting in how easily it could have been fixed, god damn it.  I suspect they read the screenplay and were like “Well, we have Matt Damon and Exoskeleton suits, no one will notice.”  I noticed >:(

The premise is that Earth is fucked and super populated and polluted and all those wonderful things we can see in our future right now, so all the rich people built a space station called Elysium and moved there to live in idyllic mansions surrounded by palm trees and swimming pools.

And this is where it starts to fall flat, because the worldbuilding ends there.  All it would have taken is a few more lines of dialogue to tie everything together with a throw-away explanation or two, but instead they leave ambiguous plot ends flapping around and the audience wondering “so… why is that?”.

Elysium residents have access to Med Bays which scan your body and instantly heal each and every thing wrong with it, from split ends in your hair to cancer in your blood cells (how did they design this technology and not solve any of the other problems lying around?  *shrug*).  There was a line somewhere that suggested people are living 200+ years so they also presumably extend your life and keep you young and beautiful forever.  Every single house on Elysium has one of these med bays, and it takes a whole, like, two minutes to cure every single ailment known to man.  For some reason, even though every single house has a med bay and they also have dozens of EMS ships filled with dozens of med bays which are all run by robots so there isn’t even any manpower cost in running them, Elysium refuses to let anyone on Earth use a med bay unless they are promoted to the rank of Elysium Citizen, even pushing it to the degree of needing special identification coded into your DNA before the med bay will activate.

The character development of every single person on Earth is something like this:  “I am sick and will die if I don’t go to Elysium and use a med bay – Therefore I must go to Elysium no matter what the cost.”
The character development of every single person on Elysium is split between “Ew people from Earth are gross” and “I will take over the world.”
That’s as deep as character development gets in this movie.

Unsurprisingly, desperate people are attacking Elysium all the time trying to get to a med bay, which results in things like Elysium launching missiles at them and blowing them all to shit.  Just put a fucking med bay on Earth, and the attacks stop.  WHY IS THIS SO HARD FOR YOU TO FIGURE OUT??  Jesus.  There is absolutely no worldbuilding development that explains why they’re so stingy with their plentiful med bays, other than “Ew Earth people are gross” (not that you need to touch them or see them if you leave a fucking automated med bay on Earth, mind you… and in fact you would see less of them because they wouldn’t keep trying to come to your station to use your med bays), and “We need a reason for Matt Damon to go to Elysium” (undoubtedly the true reason).  It’s so sloppy that it was distracting for the entire movie.
Are they withholding med bays because………. Of limited resources? (Unlikely when there’s a million med bays lying around and people use them for face lifts… but plausible that they want to withhold those resources for their greedy facelifts?  But they don’t explain what they run on or how they work, so…)
Maybe the life extension benefits are too costly when the world is already packed? (plausible, but again, you think they could have mentioned that.  They’re already sequestered on their little space station, why do they care if the Earth stays crowded and fucked)
Because they’re huge elitist dicks? (This seems to be the only explanation, but there are so many other reasons to just throw a token med bay ship down there, like, NOT BEING ATTACKED ALL THE FUCKING TIME).
It feels like it would have worked a lot better if it were a truly alien race living up there on a spaceship with their super crazy technology we can’t understand, enslaving humans to build their robots, but hey they can cure diseases so let’s try to get to those med bays!  … but no, they’re humans, and they’re dicks with no really well explained reason for being so.  Yes, humans are dicks to lower classes of humans, that is well established.  But THE MED BAYS ARE FULLY AUTOMATED.  If only the med bays took fully trained personnel to run, oh look!  A reason to not have them on Earth!  But nooo.  No explanation provided.
I would have been happy with a bad explanation, like any exposition where they were all “Oh no don’t let them use our med bays because we are comically evil and if they use this the med bays will no longer be special and I want to feel special for having one”, but it doesn’t even give us that.

Slightly less distracting is the plot device that requires Matt Damon to use his brain as a flash drive, which makes absolutely no sense, but conveniently makes it so they can’t just solve the problem by shooting him because they need his brain data and it’s not retrievable if he dies.  (Incidentally – this is probably a good reason why a brain is not a good flash drive.  Among other things, which also happen.)

The rest of the movie is people in exosuits brutally punching each other, which was pretty cool… but it’s got some pretty terrible timing because I think everyone will find it pretty lacklustre coming on the heels of Pacific Rim.  Every fight scene I was distracted by the amount of shaky cam they used to cover up the CGI, and I kept thinking again how impressive it was that Pacific Rim didn’t do that.  If I’m thinking about other movies during your action scenes, there might be improvements to be made.

Oh and don’t forget the obligatory contribution of “We are the bad guys so we are going to threaten to rape the pretty girl” scenes.  Don’t forget those!

I’ve done a lot of bitching, so it’s important to point out that I did enjoy the movie, but almost all of the problems I’ve pointed out could be so easily solved with just a little bit of attention to detail.  It’s really kind of a shame.

Oh and then, of course, there’s the fact that everyone on Earth speaks English and Spanish, while everyone on Elysium speaks English and French.  I am deliberately not going to touch the potential allegories going on this movie (because you see, the English/French have good health care and a beautiful clean place to live above the dirty polluted English/Spanish people, so clearly it is a representation of how everyone wishes they lived in Canada.) (arguing about the allorgies is kind of the point of a movie like this I suppose, but you should probably have decent writing before moving to that stage >:( ), but I do want to mention that Jodie Foster has the most irritating accent going on in this movie… I think it was supposed to be French?  I don’t even know, it kind of faded in and out and was really weird and distracting.  Everyone’s accents were distracting. I think it was intentional to show some sort of melting pot society going on, but I can’t say for sure… and if I can’t say for sure, then something has probably gone wrong in the writing/directing department.  It was either an intentional attempt to show something that was a teeny bit too subtle for me because I was so distracted by all the rest of the sloppy writing, or it was just sloppily handled.

At this point it is probably distracting to think about how many times I have used the word distracting, so that’s probably the focal point of this review – there were too many sloppy distracting things going on, and just a little bit of polish could have really cleaned it up.

God, I hope Gravity doesn’t suck.

Papers Please

To be fair, I have only played this game for about an hour, and I lost terribly, but it was enough for me to drop the demo and go buy it full price on Steam and start again.  I bought a game on Steam that wasn’t on sale.  It’s only 10 dollars, but still.

Papers Please is a unique indie game that simulates being a border guard in a communist country, trying to regulate who is legally allowed in and who is a terrorist that is going to blow your shit up.  Meanwhile, you’re making pennies a day (okay, dollars… but not MANY dollars) and you have a decent sized family that is freezing and starving to death.  Do you stop this guy’s wife from crossing the border because she has an invalid passport, or do you take the bribe and hope it’s worth it in the end?  Bear in mind, make too many mistakes (even intentional ones) and your pay is docked, which might mean you can’t afford food tonight.  If your bank balance is negative your ass is in jail and your family will be deported to their eventual doom.  Plenty of people want your job, you know.

The actual gameplay is probably something that will be considered tedious to some people.  A person walks in your booth and hands over their papers, you inspect them and decide if they’re legit.  If you see a discrepancy you highlight it and the game starts an interrogation, from which you can decide if it’s actually legit, if they should be rejected, or if they should be arrested and detained for suspicious behaviour.  A lot of the discrepancies are obvious, assuming you watch for them – expiry dates that have passed, names or serial numbers that don’t match, pictures that don’t match, even genders that don’t match.  Some of the trickier ones are watching for incorrect issuing cities (who the fuck is going to memorize all these city names and the countries they’re from!) or incorrect seal logos.  You have a handy dandy reference book, but you’re paid per person that’s processed so you don’t have all day to leaf through that thing, man, move move move your kid needs some medicine!

The interesting part of the game is in the background narratives.  Some people return over and over again, trying new tactics to get in.  Some people try to bribe you.  Occasionally a terrorist hops the fence and turns your guards into giblets.  Sometimes people slip you notes and ask for favours with regards to denying or approving a future passport.  Can your paycheque take the hit, or should you play it safe and risk retaliation from the seedy underbelly later?  Do you help the rebels try to free the country, or play it safe and try to keep your family happy and healthy with your steady (but shitty) job?

And if you’re not sold yet… you eventually get access to a full body scanner.  The game has a “nudity” toggle which confused the fuck out of me, but once I unlocked the scanner it all made perfect sense.  Bonus:  I confirmed someone’s gender with it!

Don’t get too excited though, the graphics are……… well, let’s just say not great.  It would probably be at home on my old Tandy 2000, with nostalgic CGA style cyan and magenta blocks.  The entire game is 37mb to download (lol) so yeah, don’t expect dazzling textures here.  I’m not complaining though – I enjoy pixel style graphics and it adds to the uniqueness of the game, but I know today’s crowd can be pretty fickle when it comes to things like that, so fair warning.  This is not a game you play for eye candy.

When I lost terribly, the game informed me that I had achieved 1 out of 20 endings.  So there might even be a decent amount of replay in this thing, too.  Unfortunately it seems like the beginning is pretty similar… the same people came through and asked for the same favours, the same terrorists hopped the same fences and blew up the same guards, the kid got sick on the same day…  I feel like it could be a bit repetitive to play a lot in close succession, but then again if you know who to accept and reject in advance you could save up one hell of a nest egg, if you’re that sort of “trial and error” gamer.  Of course, there’s also Endless Mode, which I have not tried, but I assume it will be truly random from start to finish.
[edit] So now that I’ve said this… I went and restarted and it actually lets you pick any day you’ve completed to start from, so the repetitive problem isn’t really a problem until you’ve finished all 20 endings, and by then you’ve probably got your 10 bucks worth. [/edit]

I feel like it’s unique enough that it’s worth the 10 dollar entry fee, but if you want to see for yourself, you can try the beta version as a demo: http://dukope.com/
The Steam version is definitely more polished with more events, and achievements, of course.  I made it to something like day 6 before just going and buying it on Steam – see how you do!

Selected Stories of Philip K Dick

Selected Stories of Philip K. DickSelected Stories of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolutely amazing. I’ve always meant to read some of his stuff, so a book full of short stories seemed perfect. It contains most of the stories which have been adapted into movies I’ve seen, so it was great to see the source material.

I found it fascinating from a psychology perspective too. I had heard that Dick may have been schizophrenic, and I can absolutely see where that comes from, now. So many of the stories involve paranoia, warping of reality, or a complete disbelief in reality. That he is able to tackle those themes on such a deep level and still construct fascinating stories all around it shows how much skill he had.

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Unwind

Unwind (Unwind, #1)Unwind by Neal Shusterman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a dystopian world set in the future (where iPods and plasma screens are in antique stores, just in case you didn’t realize it was the future) where abortion is no longer allowed, so people can choose to “unwind” their unwanted children, thereby donating their organs and various body parts. It is believed that the child will continue to live on (albeit in pieces) through this process, while still doing some good through things like curing medical problems for others. You might imagine that if you are about to be “unwound”, you might feel a bit differently about that… and the story follows a group of children who attempt to escape and attain freedom.

I’m not sure what to say about this book. It popped up on my Goodreads recommendations and I thought “oh sweet, a dystopia that sounds interesting.” I love dystopian survival stories, so I nabbed it.

I will add a disclaimer that a number of things are happening in my life that are probably making me far less patient than I usually am, and that’s probably not entirely fair to this book… but I was almost immediately disappointed.

The writing failed me on a number of points.

1) Present tense. Ugghh. I mean, I’ve seen present tense used effectively, and I suspect it was chosen in this case to try to make the situations the characters were in a bit more urgent (“This is happening NOW and the outcome is uncertain”, as opposed to “This once happened and I am telling you about it, thereby indicating that someone did survive to be able to tell you about it.”), but it was awkwardly handled with some jarring tense transitions, and general discombobulation that I found distracting. I think present tense was the correct choice for the setting, but the actual execution of it was lacking.

2) Character development. I see a number of people lauding the characters in their reviews but I found them stereotypical and flat. The book strayed a bit into the “tell instead of show” territory when discussing their inner thoughts, and I got a bit impatient. It started to feel a lot like the things I used to write when I was a kid, where I was concerned that the reader might miss what I wanted the characters to feel so I had to describe it all in painstaking detail… but after all that work I’d look back and realize I spent a ton of time fleshing out completely arbitrary details.

– In addition, many of the characters simply don’t act in a believable manner. Some of the decisions they make leave you thinking “…what.”

Which leads me to…

3) Unresearched plot points. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to just take the worldbuilding as pure fiction, but I had a hard time swallowing the background behind the organ donations… which was an issue because that is the entire book. I don’t mean “unwinding” as a thing – that was an interesting idea that made me want to give the book a shot. I mean all the stuff about “muscle memory” and personalities living on within the cells of the donated parts, and the bits where brain transplants lead to split personalities. I have studied real world muscle memory and personality disorders and cellular functions, and I had to grit my teeth each and every time it came up in this book. I’m used to fiction getting split personalities wrong because it’s such a popular (and convenient) trope in the media, but so much of this book is inaccurate that I couldn’t just ignore it. So if you’re reading this book and wondering… no, cellular memory does not work that way. If you get a transplanted organ it will not have someone’s ghostly personality wandering around inside of it wondering what has happened and trying to take over your body.

But now that I’m done bitching, it wasn’t all bad! I actually enjoyed a fair amount of it and I think it was an interesting idea that has a lot of merit. I saw a movie recently where clone children were grown for the sole purpose of being harvested for organs for medical purposes, which I thought of many times during the course of this book. I quite enjoyed the movie despite the fact that it was a romance wrapped in a dystopia (why do they always do that), so I thought a similar story wrapped in a survival story would be right up my alley. Unfortunately the premise was executed far more believably in the movie, and the unrealistic bits of the book were too conspicuous for me.

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