Dune: Part One

There’s a moment in Jodorowsky’s Dune where the titular director, discussing how Hollywood canceled his version forty years ago, pulls a fist of euros out of his pocket and shakes them at the camera. “This system makes us slaves,” he cries, “With this devil in our pocket. This paper…It has nothing inside. Nothing!”

In the moment, the gesture feels melodramatic. A bitter cry from a man who was denied his chance to ascend to greatness. But after watching first Lynch’s Dune, and now Dune: Part One, it seems prophetic.

Where Jodorowsky’s version of Dune sought to change the consciousness of its viewers, and Lynch’s Dune tried to convey the weirdness of a future as far from ours as we are from the inhabitants of ancient Sumer, Dune: Part One is seeking to…tell us the story of Dune.

Yet even with this lowered ambition, the film is a failure. Dune the book fascinates in part because of its many colorful factions, all vying for power. But Dune: Part One doesn’t have enough ambition to be a Game of Thrones in space. Mentats here are just bland, faithful servants, denied even their name to let the audience know how special — and central — they are. There’s no mention of the Space Navigators’ Guild, leaving Spice’s centrality to space travel just an abstract thing, a line a character says while standing in the right spot wearing the right clothes, and nothing else. The Spice itself is barely present, looking more like someone turned a glitter filter on than a thing worth killing over.

The result is a film with no depth and no stakes, the world of Dune flattened to something completely mundane. It is a clockwork universe, made with stunning special effects and actors moving in expensive costumes.

In his past films, Villeneuve’s lack of interest in the human was an asset. Both Arrival and Blade Runner: 2049 benefit from a style that is distant and alien, the former because it seeks to convey an alien perspective, the latter because it centers on an unfeeling android. But Dune doesn’t work unless the galactic stakes are connected to the personal, the planetary drama interlocked with the familial. Dune: Part One leaves the galactic stakes mostly untethered, and the family drama unexplored. We get an adaption that is faithful in every sense but those that matter.

If only there was something human at the heart of it all, some emotion, some sense of life and purpose. But Dune: Part One is content to just let events play out, with no rhyme or reason behind them, just toys — beautiful toys — going through the motions, propelled by money, and rewarded with the same.

Short Fiction Review: Apex Magazine Issue 121

Apex Magazine is back!

Apex went on what looked like permanent hiatus while editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore dealt with multiple surgeries for serious health issues (see his editorial in this month’s magazine). But he’s thankfully recovered, and after a successful Kickstarter, he’s re-assembled the Apex editing team, and resurrected the magazine!

Issue 121, then, is their first new issue in almost two years. It’s a double issue, as all of them will be from now on, released every two months. You can grab your own copy here

So let’s dive in! (no spoilers, I promise).

Root Rot, by Fargo Tbakh

Jesus, this story.

Reading it is disorienting at first. There’s a good reason for that, for why the narrator’s voice seems jumbled and confused. But as I read, more and more pieces fell into place, until the very last scene broke my heart.

I wish I could write something this powerful. This moving. An inspiration, and a bar to shoot for.

Your Own Undoing, by P H Lee

Second person, represent!

I usually hate stories told in the second person. All those “You”s feel like commands, and I instinctually kick back against those, and out of the story.

Not so in this case. Lee’s story wove a meta fairy tale around me, a story that was itself an illustration of the conflict at its heart.

If it sounds too clever for its own good, don’t be put off. It’s not. It’s a fantastic story, first and foremost. It’s only afterward, when thinking about it, that its clever structure reveals its shape. Just amazing.

Love, That Hungry Thing, by Cassandra Khaw

This one….this one did feel too clever for its own good, for me.

Not in structure, but in the way it leans so far into the modern (well, post-2004) tendency to leave readers out on a limb. Being confused can work — see the first story, above — for a while, but I (being very careful here, as I know not everyone shares my tastes) tend to get very frustrated if there’s no payoff at the end.

And there’s no payoff in this story, for me. In fact, there’s very little action at all, or even dialog.

A lot of beautiful description, though. Evocative words and phrases that promise glittering insight into this future, but then never cohere into a stable image. Nothing falls into place. It’s an exquisitely described place, though.

Mr Death, by Alix E Harrow

My favorite of the bunch.

I don’t want to say too much, lest I give anything away. Let me just say that this is what I wish the movie Soul had been. Read it. You won’t regret it.

The Niddah, by Elana Gomel

A short story about a global pandemic. Yes, really.

Grey Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts, by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Had an allergic reaction to this one. Something about another story that drops the reader into a confused space, with no explanation, and calls its main environment “The City.”

All I Want for Christmas, by Charles Payseur

Short, powerful flash piece. Made me shudder.

No Spoiler Reviews: Cobra Kai

Cobra Kai has no right to exist, let alone be good.

It’s a spin-off of a move franchise whose third installment limped out of theaters thirty years ago. It’s centered on the villains of those movies. And because Pat Morita has passed on (RIP), it can’t include most people’s favorite character.

How did this happen? Who greenlit this? Who had the audacity to even suggest it?

And how the hell is it this friggin’ good?

Because seriously, if you put the first two seasons of The Mandalorian up against the first two seasons of Cobra Kai, Cobra Kai is the better show, hands down. It’s got funnier lines, better acting, and better characters.

Cobra Kai’s surprisingly deep, willing to show us good and bad sides of all the characters. As a result, for its first two seasons, there’s no real villain. There’s conflict, sure, and tension, hell yes, but you can sympathize with everyone. Root for everyone. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a TV show where I liked every character, but Cobra Kai pulls it off.

…for two seasons. The third season drops the “no villain” posture, and switches genres entirely. From a grounded, complex show, exploring the adult lives of Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso while also examining how their rivalry impacts their kids’ lives, Cobra Kai switches over to a YA love-triangle plot in a universe with martial-arts movie logic. Which is fine, as things go, but isn’t nearly as interesting, and is a jarring switch, after two seasons of being a rather different show. You’ll want to see all three seasons (season two ends on a bit of a cliffhanger), but be prepared for the tonal shift.

Still, if you liked the Karate Kid movies, I highly recommend Cobra Kai. It’s clearly made by people who love those movies, who could recite them line by line, because of the way they weave the backstory from the trilogy into the plot of the show. They even manage to make good plot fodder out of the third movie, which is something I didn’t think was possible!

They took their love, and built this beautiful show, that for its first two seasons stomps everything else I’ve seen recently.

Foreign Affairs: September/October 2020

I’ve got subscriptions to half a dozen different magazines, most of whom I don’t get through.

So I’m trying something new this month: reviews of different magazines, which highlight stories or articles that stuck with me. I’ll also be honest about any sections that I skipped out on, and why.

My hope is that it’ll incentivize me to read them through, and hopefully point you, dear reader, to articles and magazines that you might otherwise miss?

So here we go:

Overview

The theme of the issue is “The World That Trump Made,” but its contents don’t bear that out.

If anything, the articles drive home the fact that Trump has been mostly ineffective or inactive in global affairs. As a result, the world is one that others have made: Japan, China, Russia, Iran, Israel, etc.

And they will continue to do so, as long as the United States abrogates the leadership role it’s played — for good and for ill — over the last eighty years.

Highlights

“A Grand Strategy of Resilience” is a fantastic pulling together of multiple threads, linking social justice movements to the ability of the US to project power abroad. The author rightly points out that an unjust and unequal society is a fragile one, and that great powers cannot weather the storms of global politics if they are not resilient.

I love the concept of resilience, and favor using it as a lens through which to judge policy. It’s the kind of concept that should appeal to both conservatives and liberals: Because who wouldn’t prefer to live in a more flexible, bounce-back kind of country?

“The Tragedy of Vaccine Nationalism” raises a problem I hadn’t even considered: As different countries race to produce a vaccine for Covid-19, what will we do when/if one is found? Once made, how will presumably limited supplies be allocated? And given how global supply chains have gotten, what will we do if one country refuses to manufacture (or drives up prices on) the parts of the vaccine that its companies make?

The author argues that we should be laying the groundwork now for cooperation in sharing and manufacturing any vaccines, so agreements will already be in place by the time one is found. But like so much else, I fear the major powers have no interest in cooperating, and no leaders capable of admitting they might need other countries.

Disappointments

Went into “The Fragile Republic” expecting a good summary of threats both foreign and domestic. Got thrown out of the article just three paragraphs in, though, when the authors reach back to 1798 as their framing device, but name the opposition party as the “Republicans,” instead of the correct “Democratic-Republicans.”

It seems like a small thing, but it incorrectly projects the existence of the Republican Party back an additional sixty years (!). And if they can’t be bothered to get that one detail right (that even this non-specialist knows), how can I trust anything else they say?

“To Protect And Serve” sounds like it’s going to be a wealth of information about police practice in other countries that we can draw from. But the other than “more training,” the one reform the author advocates is a federal takeover of police departments across the US, which would be politically a non-starter and doesn’t help those of us advocating reform of our local police departments.

Skipped Articles

I skipped out on “The End of American Illusion,” an article written by someone who worked in the Trump regime and thinks only he sees the world clearly. I don’t read paeans to strongmen.

Also skipped “Giving Up on God,” because I’m an atheist and the decline of religion worldwide is both not surprising (because it’s been documented since the 1980s) and not worrying (ditto).

Review: Kobo Glo HD

I’ve had two generations of Nook ereaders. I liked holding them better than the Kindles that were available, I wanted to feel good about buying ebooks after browsing at my local Barnes & Noble, and I didn’t like the way Amazon was waging war against book publishers (and, as a consequence, on authors).

But B&N hasn’t updated their Nook in almost two years. Their last Nook’s screen resolution is good, but still not as good as a printed book. It has an annoying habit of setting the margins so wide┬áthat the text forms a three-word column down the screen, and then locks me out of making any adjustments. It doesn’t sync the last page read between the ereader and my iPhone. Its illumination is noticeably uneven. The covers for it are terrible and expensive, so when I travel I put it back inside the box it came in. I have to re-adjust the fonts and margins everytime I open (or re-open) a book, because it doesn’t remember my settings.

None of which are show-stoppers, for sure, but over time they add up. The final straw was when B&N locked users out of downloading our ebooks to our computers. I used to do this on a regular basis, so I could save backups of the books to Dropbox. That changed a few months ago, when they took down the download link next to all the books in their users’ Nook online libraries.

So I went shopping for a new ereader. I worried that I might have to go with a Kindle, since they seemed to have the best screen resolution out there.

Then I heard about the Kobo Glo HD. I knew Kobo already, since they stepped into the breech left behind by Google dropping its ebook partnership with independent bookstores. I knew they produced ereaders, since I’d seen them for sale at Mysterious Galaxy (as part of their collaboration with Kobo). The reviews I found of them were generally positive, and the Glo HD – which hadn’t come out yet – promised a screen resolution as good as the Kindle, and at a cheaper price.

I couldn’t find one locally to try out, so I took the plunge and ordered it. I’m very, very glad I did; I’ve been using it for a month now, and I can honestly say this is the ereader I’ve been waiting for.

The screen resolution is sharp enough that it looks like a printed book when I set it down on a table to read. And unlike the Nook’s dark screen, the Glo HD’s is bright enough that I don’t feel the need to turn on the reading light during the day.

Syncing? My bookmarks sync between the Kobo app on my phone and the ereader no problem, easy as pie, even for books that I didn’t buy from Kobo.

Sideloading was a little more complicated than I’d like. I had to use Adobe Digital Editions to connect to the reader and transfer books over, but it moved all 142 of my backed up B&N books without a hitch, and they all showed up in my Library on the Glo just fine.

I still have to adjust the fonts sometimes between books, but I no longer care. I don’t care because the options for tweaking are incredible: I’ve got a dozen different fonts, sliders for font size, line spacing, and margins, as well as the ability to set justification to full, left, or simply off. And I’ve yet to encounter a book that locks me into reading a certain way. I’ve got full control over how the book looks, and it’s about freaking time.

Even the case they sell for it is amazing. Its the first case for any portable device — Nook, iPad — that actually makes the original device better. It doesn’t add to the Glo’s weight, closing it puts the reader to sleep and opening it wakes it up, and when its open it folds back behind the reader to make it feel even more like a book in your hand. Oh, and it kept the screen scratch-free in my backpack over four cross-country flights.

So this is one gamble that’s completely paid off. It’s the first ereader that I prefer reading on to a paper book, so much so that I have to stop myself from buying ebook versions of the hardcovers on my bookshelf just so that I can read them on the Glo HD.

Flash Fiction Friday: Oct 24, 2014

Inspired by the┬átv show Review, today’s flash fiction entry is a critic’s review of my day yesterday, if my life were a television series:

While no doubt the height of neo-realism, the fact remains that in yesterday’s episode our beloved protagonist again spent most of his waking hours sitting at a desk and typing. Where are the coffee shop visits and meeting friends for lunch of past episodes?

And don’t get me started on how little variety this entire season has had compared to the show’s peak (seasons 21 through 25, if you must know. Those seasons had everything: Space! Lasers! Training Montages! Romance! A far cry from the wilderness wandering seasons that followed). Are the writers completely out of new ideas?

Granted, I was intrigued by the homebrewing subplot. There were several different ways they could have gone with that one: a Breaking-Bad type descent into chemistry obsession and bootlegging, or a slow spin into self-enabled alcoholism, the worm eating its own tail so to speak. Of course, head writer Diego Byte couldn’t let anything that interesting happen. We got one party – one! – without any drunken hijinks, and that’s it.

This show desperately needs a return to the glory days of showrunners like D.C. Nassau, or even Phil Conway. They knew how to mix multiple sub-plots while still giving us a visible character arc over the course of the season. As it is, this show still occasionally has a spark of life, but its best years seem to be behind it. 2 stars.

Cranky Old Man talks about the new Apple Watch

“It tracks your exercise!”
“I don’t need a watch to tell me when I’ve gotten exercise. I’m well aware when it’s happening, because I’m the one doing it!”

“It keeps accurate time!”
“So does my alarm clock, my computer, my phone, and my car. When do I not have a clock staring me in the face, counting down my final hours?”

“Friends lets you send a message with a single touch!”
“All my friends are dead.”

“It gets your attention with a tap! Isn’t that cute?”
“A tap? From that whopper? It’d break my wrist!”

“You can dictate messages to it!”
“Sure, if you enunciate like a British MP. That’s all I need, to spend my day, sitting on a park bench, cursing at my wrist.”

“You can read email on it!”
“Maybe YOU can. With the fonts I use, it’d only display one word at a time!”

“You can send sketches to people!”
“Right. Just what the world needs, more shaky doodles from my arthritic hands.”

“It can record your heartbeat!”
“Now that might be useful. Can it send it to a doctor, or – no? Baldurdash.”

“You can use it to pay for things!”
“Like I couldn’t do it before? Listen, sonny, cash is still accepted everywhere.”

The Decline of Doctor Who

Earlier seasons had episodes that were standalone: the Doctor and his Companions having adventures.

Moffat’s tenure shifted the focus away from the Doctor, away from adventure, and toward drama: Amy and Rory’s relationship, Amy and the Doctor’s relationship, the Doctor and River Song’s relationship.

In the first four seasons, these sort of themes were subtext, part of the background fabric of the show. Moffat’s tenure brought these elements front and center, to the point where you can’t pull an episode out of the Sixth Season that doesn’t deal with some aspect of the Doctor’s death scene from the first episode. The entire season is basically setup for that one event, which means you can skip the entire season and be happier for it.

This leads me to the contradiction in my feelings about Smith’s time as the Doctor: I like Smith’s Doctor, but I hate the episodes he’s in. Smith’s ability to portray a younger, more quirky Doctor one minute and an older, more stern Doctor the next was and is amazing to me. His portrayal is still one of my favorites, and yet, because of the way they used him, I don’t enjoy watching his seasons nearly as much as I like watching Tenant and Eccleston’s.

It’s not until Season Seven that we start getting episodes that are fun to rewatch (“Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, for example). And only once Clara joins the Doctor do we get consistently good episodes.

Even with Clara, though, we can’t escape the Moffat approach of wrapping the Companion up with the Big Bad of the season and defining her mostly by what she does for the Doctor (Impossible Girl? The Girl Who Waited?). Martha Jones used to be my least favorite companion, but compared with Amy or Clara she’s incredibly kick-ass: a doctor, a smart woman who kept her head when the hospital she worked in got transported to the Moon, who had a life beyond the Doctor and went on to be a hero in her own right.

I almost think Doctor Who needs a reboot. Not just a new Doctor (we got that, hooray), but a scratching-out of most of the Doctor’s history since Moffat took over. I mean at this point, the Doctor we have is pretty lame: he’s 2,000 years old but lived in one single town for half of that time, his grave at Trenzalore – where he must never go – is not really his grave, and he’s given up caring or acting in the world because he’s lost his confidence.

We need to wipe the Moffat years out, and start over.

We can do it by making the current Doctor not the real Doctor.

During the end of Season Five (“The Big Bang”) what Amy Pond remembered back into existence was not the real Doctor. It was the Raggedy Man, her Doctor, not the real one.

The real Doctor got shunted off to Gallifrey during the explosion to seal the rift (emergency temporal shift). He was trapped there, and regenerated into a new body.

We introduce this as a season closer, when Gallifrey comes back. The fake Doctor sacrifices himself, the Time Lords return, and the real Doctor emerges. We can drop all the history we don’t like from the last three seasons, and go forward with a revamped show. We can get a younger Doctor, a not-so-needy Doctor, and (if we’re lucky) a female Doctor.

The Ruin of the Roman Empire by James J O’Donnell

Worth the read, but takes a while to get going. The meat of his argument is in Part II, and you can basically stop reading there without missing much.

He often seems more interested in creating a mood, a shift in perspective, rather than advancing an argument or telling a story.

3 things I learned:

  • Both the Vandal conquest of Africa and the Gothic conquest of Italy were less “invasions” than power grabs by elites that had grown up on the borders of the Roman Empire and wanted to be a part of it. Those elites were elites, in part, because of intermarriage with the imperial family and having served as imperial troops in previous wars.
  • Justinian, the emperor who in most histories is a valiant hero trying to reclaim Roman glory, can be seen as the man who destroyed the new stability the empire was settling into, pushing it into dissolution.
  • The popularity of the monophysite variant of Christianity in the Eastern Roman lands (Egypt and Syria), and its suppression during the reign of Justinian, probably paved the way for the rapid adoption of Islam in the seventh century.