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What I've Been Reading: August 2021

Fugitive Telemetry (Wells, 2021) - This is the 6th installment in Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries series. Each book is a novella centered on the life of a sentient combat, security android. I've been along for the ride through the first 5 books, and they are fast reads, so I gave Fugitive Telemetry a try. 

One aspect that endears these books and this character to readers is the unique main character, the Murderbot. It's sarcastic, pessimistic, and often humorous and the story is told first-person by Murderbot, complete with its internal monologue. Readers see the world through the character's view in each book, and we're privy to its thoughts alone. 

What it is not is a robotic, cold and calculating machine. The character is more like the cartoon cat Garfield. Its default attitude is that no matter what situation comes its way, it would rather just assume not be bothered. 

Sometimes this same unique and funny aspect can start to wear me out, and for this, I think the story is better kept at a shorter length, a novella as Wells does. To be longer, I think we'd need a break from Murderbot's mind. 

Ok, so that said, what about this story? Through the previous five books, Wells has slowly been piecing us out a back story for Murderbot, which we are aware involves corporate espionage and cover-ups. We're led to believe Murderbot may even have done something, such as murdering innocent humans, that makes it worthy of the fear the people around it have. But Murderbot doesn't remember. This is a fascinating overarching plot, but we basically abandon it in this installment for some reason. 

Murderbot has reached the safest, most stable place it's ever been, and it catches the case of a human murder to solve. The case is compelling enough. What we learn as the mystery is solved teaches us more about the world the story takes place in, including social problems in the far reaches of space. However, for Murderbot, we don't see any new information. 

Before, since we are in Murderbots mind, whenever new details of its past are exposed, we learn them right along with the character. We see the character react, change, develop as it learns about itself. Thus, the lack of advancing this external plot also means we don't get any character development in this book. As a result, Murderbot doesn't finish the story much differently off than where it began. That was a bit of a disappointment. 

It was still a cool word, it's a decent mystery, and the book's funny in many places. I'll give the series the benefit of the doubt that this might tie into the next installment and end up meaning more to the character than it appears now.


What I've been Listening to: August 2021

Level 6  (Ledbetter, 2020) - This text is only available as an audiobook. It's a sequel to Level 5, which similarly was only in audio format in what is now listed as the Killday series. I met the author, William Ledbetter, during a convention in Houston a couple of years ago. We were both panelists for writing discussions. One thing I love about Ledbetter's work is the science fidelity at play. Of course, the stories are fiction, but the technology that defines the world he puts readers in feels like it is only a short leap away. In Ledbetter's vision of the future, AI has proliferated, as have the use of nanobots, both of which turn out to be to the detriment of mankind.

Level 6 takes place roughly fifteen years after the first installment and follows the path of a college-age woman we met briefly in the first book as a little girl. She is the daughter of a prominent character from the first who (spoiler) died at the end of the first book. So this woman, Abby, has been an orphan. 

I really enjoyed this story. I already loved the world and the technology affecting it. Ledbetter has flushed it out very well so that readers understand how it came to be, and we can relate to how humans have become so reliant on it. In Level 6, we get to see the fallout from the first book's events and how humanity tries to put itself back together after a catastrophe. We get a love story subplot that takes some turns I didn't expect. Like the first, we get to see a political struggle for power that turns deadly. However, the thing I like most about this one is where the story takes its namesake. 

The AIs in this world are categorized at levels, with level 1 being the most basic, perhaps like what we really have today, and so on. The Level 5 AIs are sentient, free-thinking, and mostly self-directing. The exciting aspect is that some of these Level 5 AI's want to produce a Level 6, they want to create an offspring or an evolution, so to speak, that is better than themselves. I think that makes them even closer to humans. People, at least those who have children, tend to think of making life better for their offspring. We want to give children opportunities we didn't have. Much in this sense, so do the AIs in the story.

There's plenty to find fascinating, like rouge nanobots building eavesdropping devices right into a person's body, and if need be, building an execution device right inside your body as well. Just cool possibilities to think about, but the humanity Ledbetter endeavors to explore is even better. Why we would build these AI, why we'd rely on them so much, why some people would fear them, why some would treat them like gods, and how they would evolve to be like us. All these themes are deliciously on the table. 


What I've Been Watching: August 2021


The Fear Street Trilogy (Netflix, 2021) - Is there such a thing as "feel-good horror?" If so, I think this trio of Fear Street movies is exactly that.

I have to admit, I've never read the source R.L. Stine series. 

Each of the three movies in this trilogy feels like something you've seen before; at least they start out that way. In the first, a masked teen serial killer stalks other teens, not unlike the Scream movies. In the second, a killer stalks teens around a summer camp, not unlike Friday the 13th; in fact, summer camp horror could be considered its own sub-genre. Finally, the third goes way back into an early US settlement village where religious fanatics turn mob over alleged witchcraft. This is not unlike The Witch or other films that look to the Salem Witch Trials for inspiration. 

But again, this is the starting point. Each feels like you're sitting down to a popcorn sort of horror and feels even a bit nostalgic for long-time horror viewers. Then things change. Within the first half-hour of the first movie, we learn about a supposed curse, that the teen murder we saw was not an anomaly but a pattern of tragedies that repeatedly happen in this town. The curse seems like superstition, but the evidence and the history suggest otherwise. We proceed to learn that there is more going on than one mere slasher killer, much more. 

The three stories turn out to be braided together, with connecting characters even though they take place across three time periods, all centered on this curse. It turns out to be a fun, engaging layer added on top of what might otherwise have been three popcorn-type horrors. 

One step further, there is even an element of social justice and equality at play. I wouldn't go as far as to put these films in a category with Get Out, or the horror series Lovecraft Country in terms of social justice being a backbone to the plot, but it still adds an element that makes the themes a bit deeper, a bit more consequential than a mere scary story, or series. 

It's also worth mentioning that the films being released virtually all at once was a great decision. I think the braiding between films, the connections would have faded for viewers and been harder to follow and enjoy if we'd had to wait six months or a year between the installments. I watched all three films within one week, and I recommend others do the same if they can.

Ultimately these were just really fun movies. Since R.L. Stines book series has something like a hundred installments, I'm hopeful we'll see another set in the next year or two.


What I've Been Reading: Oct 2020

After being delighted with the Lovecraft Country series, (see my Oct watching post) which is based on a novel of the same name by Matt Ruff, I rushed online to look up the author. I considered grabbing the book, but I noticed Ruff had a new novel, recently released called 88 Names, and decided to try that instead.

88 Names is not horror, but instead part cyberpunk, part mystery, and part spy thriller. This seems like too much, but one would think the same of Lovecraft Country, but somehow it works, at least in the series. Now, I'm about 3/4 through 88 Names, and so far, I'm digging it. The lead character is likable and complex. I've not read much cyberpunk, but there's a lot to like, without being overbearing. And the mystery has me turning the pages eagerly. The fusion of genre elements is pulled off well.

I'll reserve my final proclamation for after I finish, but I'm impressed enough that I predict I'll be picking up another Ruff novel soon.


More Watching: Oct 2020

I thoroughly enjoyed 2018's The Haunting of Hill House. This October, just in time for Halloween, the same director, Mike Flanagan, returns with a new, loosely connected mini-series, The Haunting of Bly Manor.

Viewers will notice about half a dozen of the actors from Hill House have returned for Bly Manor, but all in different roles, in no way connected between storylines, much like the shuffling of talent and characters American Horror Story does. Besides a few of the same faces, Bly Manor delivers the same slow building of suspense as Hill House did and offers a similar dive deep into many characters' internal conflicts. 

In Hill House, everything came to a head as a web of details across the series becomes apparent in the finale. I haven't quite reached the end of the show, but feel like I'm walking the threads of a similar web, just not yet sure what lies in the middle. However, I'm eager to find out.


What I've Been Watching: Oct 2020

Lovecraft Country is one of few series I can think of, which I've followed through weekly releases in the last five or six years. Usually, in this on-demand age, I tend to dig in when a series is available to plow through a few episodes at a time. With Lovecraft Country, I'd been anticipating the series for a while, and with it slated to wrap up so close to Halloween, I didn't want to wait and end up finishing the series with my Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. I'd almost forgotten what it was like to sit on the edge of your seat through an episode, only to have it end, and realize you'll have to wait a whole week to find out what happens next. It's excruciating and wonderful, and Lovecraft Country masterfully carried suspense through every installment.

The show sits squarely at the crossroads of fantastic, supernatural horror, and grounded realistic human horror by blending the Lovecraftian paranormal with US 1960's racial terror. In one scene, we find black characters being chased from a rural town by a mob of armed white supremacists, including the local authorities. In another scene, we get characters being chased by 100-eyed devil dog monsters. We see character flashbacks to the Tulsa Massacre, intertwined with future human time travel and braided with secret-society witchcraft. Without watching, one might think the series draws from far too much, yet it all weaves together seamlessly.

Not to mention, the series has a fantastic cast, captivating character development, and incredible production value through all the monsters, period settings, and fantasy. I don't think I can say much more than; I loved this series.


What I've Been Reading: Sept 2020


Devolution - Max Brooks

I'm a fan of World War Z. I thought the epistolary story structure was exciting and a refreshing take for the zombie subgenre. I also appreciated that it was more of a collection of social case studies rather than frantic horror. In Devolution, Max Brooks turns his eye to sasquatch or bigfoot. Still, the book has a similar structure as WWZ, telling the story through the protagonist's journal entries, supplemented by interviews with her brother, park rangers, etc. 

At first, I thought the story was a bit slow getting off the ground. Unlike WWZ, this is much more focused on a single protagonist, so we spend a lot of time getting to know her. In another story, we might have gotten to the action sooner and picked up more character depth along the way. However, in this structure, where we're reading from her journal, those get-to-know-you details are front-loaded. We have her entries before stuff goes wrong, and after. In the former, we learn of her everyday life problems, getting all the mundane out of the way early. It also serves the story that she is a pretty regular person, not some exceptional character. With this style of structure and this type of character, it had to be this way. 

That said, while it was slow early, it all paid off. Once the story gets going, and we aren't learning about the character, the action takes the driver seat and runs away. Having gotten to know her early, we delve deep into how the story's events change her drastically.

Best of all, like WWZ, there is an underlying theme that has nothing to do with the fantastic, like zombies or bigfoots, but rather is an indictment of real-life and society. Perhaps, here we see how dependent most of us are on our network of goods and technology. When they fail, we're far from prepared, and many lack the resourcefulness to get by. 

I would have loved this book and theme no matter what; however, given the recent and ongoing supply chain difficulties from the COVID pandemic, the book hits close to home. There are also a few theme elements I've turned an eye to in a couple of sci-fi shorts of my own. So I felt a bit of unity while reading. 

Suffice it to say, I think this book is well worth the read, and I'll be eagerly awaiting whatever Max Brooks has up his sleeve next.


More What I've Been Watching: Sept 2020

I didn't know what to expect from the new Perry Mason series, only that it would involve some sort of mystery, investigation, and trial, and that with HBO producing, it wasn't likely to be as clean as the old black and white network show. I thought I'd give it a shot.

I'm not a huge fan of reboots and remakes. I'd rather see something original that stands on its own. However, when one ventures down that road, I think you'd better at least have something new to say with it. Thankfully, that's precisely that the new Perry Mason delivered.

Unlike the old episodic show, this series takes one case and delves deep into it, stretching across the whole season. This lets the show dig into the characters. They give Mason, and other familiar names,  complex backstories. And introduce a handful of new, engaging characters. Meanwhile, the show touches on themes of sexism and gender roles, specifically professional limitations for women, PTSD, discrimination against LGBT, and racism. All this, plus rich period details from being set at the same time as the blossoming Golden Age of Hollywood, between the world wars, and during prohibition, which comes with its organized crime and police corruption, to name a few.

Altogether, I found it enthralling, and I won't miss it if it goes into another season.


What I've Been Watching: Sept 2020

I've followed the Westworld series with interest through its first two seasons. The themes of AI, how it might become sentient, how people might control it and potentially abuse and subjugate it, and how it might react or fight back, are all fascinating, along with some excellent storytelling.  I eagerly awaited season three, in which the AI were set up to leave their captive world and start bringing the fight into human society.

(Spoilers Ahead) One thing I liked right off the bat is the new focus on corporations collecting vast data on every citizen and, in turn, using that information to control, limit, and generally manipulate people. This is a very topical notion, albeit taken to an extreme in Westworld, it has a very 1984 "big brother" sort of vibe, and it works. Season three also ups the stakes exploring the practical possibilities, with the nature of the AI beings, of copying one personality, something humans can't do and putting one AI's core "AI brain" into another AI's body. Where the earlier seasons played with telling the story out of continuity to keep us guessing, season 3 uses this cup-and-ball game of identities to deceive viewers. This increases the challenge of keeping everything straight beautifully. Altogether, I liked this season.

One gripe I have is that while Westworld has always blended the abstract and intellectual with high action, Season 3 gets a bit out of balance in the very last episode. Basically, all the cerebral, thought-provoking elements are strung-out through the first seven episodes, along with some decent action. However, episode 8 becomes just an action-packed, violent, grueling slugfest, with every reference to anything intellectual a mere rehash of what we've already discovered, and thus almost nothing to mull over. I don't think any of the action doesn't make sense for the story, but the tone shift makes it seem like a different show entirely. I feel like some of the action climaxes could have been spread over the last two episodes in order to keep reserve some challenging ideas for the finale.

Overall, I give the season fair marks, but if you're going to drop the ball on one episode, it stinks for it to be the end. All that said, I'll still be tuning in for a season 4.


What I've Been Reading: July 2020

 How to Be an Antiracist - Ibram X. Kendi

This book was challenging, enlightening, maddening, discouraging, inspiring, hopeful, and occasionally humorous all at the same time. If that sounds a little manic for your tastes, I'd argue that it is symptomatic of the topic and having a serious conversation about it. There are symptoms of racism which are horrible, but also advances that give hope and some ideas so dumb, but persistent that one can't help but laugh at them. Point 1, everyone should take away, however, is that issues of race in the United States are anything but resolved.

One approach Kendi, an African American, took throughout the book, which I applaud, was admitting to ideas and actions of his own, which he sees as racist. He walks readers through his growth and acquisition of wisdom, and what mistaken and misguided ideas he held as he grew up, and in turn actions he took, that in retrospect, he believes to have been racist. It disarms the reader, and helps one put down their shield of "I'm not racist" and consider that they might be acting in a racist way unwittingly if they care to cast a critical eye on themselves.

Point 2 everyone should take away, is actually stamped right in the title, that thinking you are not racist because you don't seek to hurt people is not the same as being antiracist. Kendi draws a distinction, in which antiracist is acting to combat and eliminate racism. Kendi asks readers to put aside the idea that a racist is full of hate. While, people like that exist, instead consider that being ignorant, and sometimes willingly ignorant of racial disparity is really racist as well. When one adopts that definition, then the importance of being antiracist becomes clear.

One personal thought I found myself returning to again and again as I read this book was how at the forefront, or even ahead of his time, I think my late father was regarding racial America. He was both a psychology teacher and a practicing psychologist throughout his career, which means he studied, taught about, and treated social problems, he even had a class of that name. Given his career and education, he probably developed his empathy far beyond the average man on the street. However, even when I was a little kid, I remember him discussing debates he'd have with students. The students at the community college where he taught, much as the community where we lived, were predominantly white. Some would go something like a student when presented with racism as a problem saying that "they can't see race" and dismissing the discussion, as if they couldn't even fathom it because they were so beyond race. My dad would more or less call BS on that notion and call it a shield that lets an individual who is benefiting from racial disparity pretend the problem doesn't exist. Kendi, more or less, draws the same point in his book.

Another example, which is pertinent today is policies that discriminate in order to favor minorities. One might call if affirmative action. Students would argue that those policies were racist against whites and shouldn't continue. Kendi states that if a policy creates or helps perpetuate racial disparity, whatever the intent, it is a racist policy. If a policy actively equalizes racial inequality, then it is an antiracist policy. In different words, my father advocated the same thing, and that's the position I've held throughout my grown-up life.

Don't consider this some sort of brag. I'm not trying to say I didn't have anything to learn or to personally criticize myself about, I did, and I still do. But I'd say, this connection was personal and brought a heart-warming aspect to book for me.

Other people will have different connections, but I promise, if nothing else, this book will be a deeply personal and emotional read.

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