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What I've Been Watching: July 2020

Unbreakable Series (or the Eastrail 177 Trilogy)

I saw Unbreakable, the first movie in what turned out to be a trilogy from M. Night Shyamalan back when it came out in 2000. I was still in high school, and I remember thinking the movie was cool, but that I wasn't particularly wowed. Shyamalan was riding high in popularity after The Sixth Sense 1999, but I don't think Unbreakable captured the magic he'd found in The Sixth Sense. Sixteen years later, Shyamalan released Split 2016 with James McAvoy. I have a lot of respect for McAvoy and was interested in the movie as a thriller, only to later learn it tied into Unbreakable. Perhaps it was that tie-in that kept me from seeing it right away. Then, of course, Glass came out last year (2019), which unmistakably referred to Samuel L. Jackson's character from Unbreakable. I'm a fan of Jackson and remember thinking his role was the most interesting of the first film. At that point, I was pretty sure I'd watch the series, it just took me a while to get to it.

Now 20 years out from seeing Unbreakable, I thought it was best to go back to the beginning. I'm glad I did, but it meant finding 6-7 hours to dedicate to the series. Altogether, I think the trilogy works very well, and I really enjoyed it. Unbreakable holds up. McAvoy was great in Split. Anya Taylor-Joy, who some might know from The Witch, was an unforeseen delight in Split.  Bringing all the fascinating characters crafted through the first two movies, including Taylor-Joy's, to a collective head in Glass was fantastic.  On top of that, without giving any spoilers, it's worth discussing the series connection to comic books and, in turn, comic book movies. Obviously, comic book movies have dominated the box office over the last ten years, with Marvel's colossal franchise.

The Unbreakable trilogy is meta, unlike the blockbusters. They're internally aware of comic books and of comic book culture. Marvel and DC movies aren't. Once more, similar to Watchmen (Both the movie and series), Unbreakable takes a dark but realistic look at how regular people react to superpowers or superheroes when they encounter them. In Marvel's movies, the government wants to control the Avengers so that there are some restrictions and accountability for the team's actions. That's a fair notion. In some Batman and Spiderman movies, the police or governments all the heroes vigilantes.  However, the people, and secretly some of the authorities all root for them.

In the Unbreakable series, people are not so welcoming. They're more likely to be scared and label "super" differences as marks of insanity.  This fear-driven reaction to something different comes off as far more realistic, sadly, in our worlds, making this series of films feel quite a bit more mature than other big-name franchise installments. The X-Men series also shines a light on how people treat those with differences poorly, and people who are radically different terribly, which is why I've enjoyed some of that franchise. It just feels a bit more grown-up. James McAvoy appears in that one too...coincidence?

My enjoyment of the series also forces me to look back at why I wasn't so impressed with Unbreakable back in '99, and I think there are a lot of problems. First, the movie revolves around David Dunn (Bruce Willis) realizing his unusual strength and health, being told by Jackson's character, Mr. Glass that he is a superhero like in a comic book, and then wrestling with whether or not to believe it. It seems like Dunn is in limbo and wrestling with many things in his life, including his marriage. If that is the story, seeing him either reject the idea and willfully go back to a mediocre existence, or seeing him accept it, and become the hero seems to be the endings the movie is building toward, but that is not where the movie ends.

Dunn does go out and do one heroic act, using his powers to save a pair of endangered teens and catch a killer, but we get no indication that is what he plans to keep doing. The movie ends (spoilers) with Dunn telling Glass, and then a big Shymalan, quintessential twist, where Glass reveals he committed mass murders in order to find Dunn, and that Glass is essentially a comic book mastermind type villain. The movie, for me, just ends but does not finish. And that is not better illustration than that the last minute is literally, paragraphs on the screen telling us that Dunn had Glass arrested and sent to jail. Dunn can become a hero, Glass believes himself a supervillain, and all we get is a few paragraphs telling us Dunn reported Glass. It was just a big let down. I think, just five more minutes showing Dunn deciding to become a hero, and acting like one; or, showing Glass and Dunn in conflict, and then GLass flee, so we know the story will continue, would have been far better.

Now, once the other films are taken into account, this ending isn't such a big problem. We know the story is just getting started. The end of Unbreakable just signals the intermission, so to speak, before act two. In this way, it now serves as a setup to a larger story, and it works far better.

In short, Unbreakable was so-so as a stand-alone in 2000, but it turns out it was a compelling start to an exciting and deep trilogy.


What I've Been Reading: June 2020

To date, I had read all four novellas in Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries series. I mostly enjoyed them. They definitely have a unique protagonist in the form of a rogue AI, but not just any bot, a security behemoth. As sci-fi classically has taught us, if we have anything to fear from AI turning sentient, it's the Terminator-like killbots that will be our undoing. Yet Wells asks us to empathize with this tortured soul who just wants to live its life and maybe watch some TV.  On the other hand, the character is very sarcastic and cynical. It's funny to see human behavior judged through the eyes of a being intimate with us. And while it's blessed with a more pragmatic mind, it's irritated continuously with our shortcomings.

Murderbot's cynicism often results in humor, but it can also become overwhelming to go through an entire story with this disparaging monologue. I've mentioned before that writing this character in novellas has been a plus, as a novel from Murderbot's POV would be a bit too much. 

Enter book five, the first novel-length installment in the Murderbot series, called Network Effect. I picked it up with mixed feelings. The world-building, secondary characters, and the protagonist have all been creative. The plots have been compelling. But, I was concerned about the length, given this particular character. To my relief, Wells handled this perfectly.

We still get to experience this story through the view of the sarcastic Murderbot, but in addition, we now have a character, his employer who has known Murderbot through the entire time period of the series, and who can cut through Murderbot's facade, to put the light of criticism back on it. We get a teenage character, who like most teenagers, manages to turn judgment back on Murderbot. And, we get other sentient AIs who, for all practical purposes, start to populate family rolls for Murderbot, and they don't take Murderbot's grief quietly. In short, they won't take his crap.

I think this story works well for a couple of reasons. First, we see more viewpoints in general. In turn, we get more breaks from Murderbot's attitude. Second, we get active tit for tat on Murderbot's judgmental voice. It makes this sort of character more palatable. Finally, we really see Murderbot forced to grow. The character has to reluctantly accept that its life is changing, and has to change itself to accommodate. In many ways, the character is becoming more human, more vulnerable, more relatable, and it's endearing.

What I've Been Reading: February 2020

Over the last year or so, I've read the first three installments in Martha Wells's Murderbot Diaries series. I've mentioned how the main character is fascinating, but that his sarcasm can get a little grating as everything is seen through his POV. Still, I like the concept and enjoy the world. I just can't read them back to back. It would be too much murderbot. But, as it's been a few months, I picked up the fourth in the series, Exit Strategy (Wells 2018), and gave it a read.

Some positives form this installment: I liked the external character development for Ren (the murderbot). We've seen (slight series spoiler ahead) Ren transition from an autonomous tool to a feeling and reasoning lifeform, but most of that development has come inside his head. He has also been mostly cautious and distancing with the humans around him. He has developed a few relationships with other digital systems, such as another bot, and the controlling AI for a space ship. In exit strategies, we see Ren's relationship with some of the humans around him proliferate, mostly getting stronger. In a way, in turn, we see him becoming more human, or at least more emotionally like us. It's good. It helps us care for him.

What I didn't like: the plot doesn't advance the series storyline very much. Ren is mostly out of danger in this book, and his overarching goal of uncovering his own memory-wiped history has just fallen away. He gets himself into danger by endeavoring to help the humans he was first liberated with, his wards from the first book. The danger they're in is clear but not largely compelling. The plot is more of a simple frame on which to build the character growth. These books are short, so I understand there is a challenge in having a great plot and excellent character development in limited pages, but I still found myself drifting on the storyline and struggling to keep my focus on it.

The fifth Murderbot Diaries book, Network Effect, is due out in May. So, I can forgive that this book is a bit transitional. Book 1 introduces the Ren and some important supporting characters, plus some action. The next two books let Ren out on his own, to try to uncover his history, and in turn gaining himself a big political enemy, plus lots more action. Now with four, we develop his relationships while stocking the fire of how powerful and far-reaching his big enemy really is. Thus, I'm giving Exit Strategies some extra credit on good faith, securing a solid four stars in my mind.

Certainly, I'll be sticking around for the fifth installment. I've come this far...

What I've Been Watching: Nov. 2019

I've recently started watching the sci-fi series, Another Life, on Netflix. I'm about halfway through the season. So far, I have mixed feelings on this one.

The show features Katee Sackhoff, who you may remember her from Battlestar Galactica, or even from Longmire, which I rather enjoyed. We'll now she's Niko Breckenridge, a captain in some space-exploring government agency. Presumably of the US, but not stated outright. The series begins with an alien ship or probe from an unknown corner of the galaxy arriving on Earth, landing, and erecting a crystal-like structure that starts sending a signal. It appears to be un-manned. Soon after, a ship is launched on a mission to travel to where they believe the probe originated. There Niko and her crew are to investigate and/or make contact with whoever sent it.

Some things I like:

· Sackhoff's character is complex. She's outwardly confident, but also carries a lot of guilt for leaving her family and because of troubles in a previous command. Thus, she grapples with a lot of self-doubts. On top of this, she is a bad-ass who can fight and doesn't back down when challenged. Early, she is tested by an egotistical man who thinks he should be the one in command, and without spoiling anything, let just say, it doesn't go well for that guy.

· The story alternates between events on the ship and events back on Earth, both involving the crystal probe, and the captain's husband and daughter. It adds layers of drama and tension.

· The ship has an A.I., which presents itself as a human via holographic projection. It has flirted with issues of ethics and sentient A.I. though it hasn't gotten into this deeply...yet.

· Dabbles in reflecting modern social issues with one crew member being transgender, though little focus is placed on this. It's treated more like a regular aspect of life in this near future, which is pretty cool.

· Everything is built around the underlying tension of humans having a first contact with an alien species. Will they be hostile? Benevolent? Will we be hostile and undermind any chances of a fruitful relationship?

Some things I question:

· Disiplin is extremely poor on the ship and creates a great deal of the problems. We're not led to believe that the space organization is a military one, but they assign a captain and a second in command, so one would think that the ship is not a free for all where every member of the crew does what they please. Most merchant vessels and science vessels alike still tend to have a captain-down hierarchy, which, if not followed, yields some negative consequence. Not so for this ship, and if they did, so far, it would have headed off most of their troubles. I'm not saying insubordination has no place in a story, but then the disobedience should be the conflict, not the routine genesis of other trouble. In a way, it feels like lazy writing. If anyone is familiar with Star Gate Universe (2009-2010), you'll get a similar feeling among the crew on Another Life. They're always at odds with a failing ship, and always at odds with one another in a power struggle. However, in SGU, they were a bunch of random people who ended up the crew of an ancient Alien ship by happenstance, so they didn't know how to operate the ship and weren't ever intended to be a crew. The same just doesn't seem to fit the narrative for Another Life.

· The technology doesn't seem to match society. The ship is traveling to another star in the span of months. For this to be practical, they must have faster than light capability. They even talk in one episode about making a detour, which is only four light-years, as if it is an inconvenient distance but not a debilitating one. Yet, as of halfway thought the season, there has been no talk of other ships currently out traveling space. The mission that haunts the captain happened near Saturn, so still in our solar system. There is no mention of space stations or other vessels that have been out anywhere near them. At the same time, they don't talk like this is some substantial new accomplishment, as if no other human has been out this far before. Likewise, the alien probe got to Earth's atmosphere apparently without detection. One would think that a society capable of traveling at the minimum to nearby stars would have means to detect an approaching ship, and with a space fleet, potential meet it prior to its landing on our home planet. It's all just a little odd and feels like it wasn't thought out. When you've got FTL, cryo-sleep, synthesized gravity, and the ability to stock a ship with food and water for a large crew and for months of travel, it just seems like certain little things that seem to come up as trouble, should be accounted for already.

· More trope than originality. As an author myself, I've read a lot of genre writing advice that suggests writers know their genre's tropes well. The general idea being, that while certain things might seem cliche, if you ignore them all, you're not likely to satisfy the audience. This could be good advice. If you made a sci-fi story set in a future where humans were able to travel deep into space, but you didn't have advanced computer systems, or alien contact, or ship malfunctions, which can all be sci-fi tropes, then you likely wouldn't have a very well-liked product. But at the same time, you can't have a story that is all trope. Even if you hit all the routine points viewers and readers tend to like; it can still fall flat without at least one new-ish underlying premise. For Another Life, I can't quite put my finger on what that extra something was intended to be.

Altogether I'd call Another Life and pretty middle of the road sci-fi series. It's got a Ripley from Alien sort of leading lady, a Star Gate Universe kind of hodge-podge crew, and an Arrival type of first contact puzzle. But it's a lot like listening to your favorite band's greatest hits album. It's all familiar, there's a lot you like, but you're not going to find anything you haven't heard before, and the elements don't all quite fit together the way they would on a regular album.

The characters have been compelling enough that I'll likely stay tuned to finish the rest of the season, but I won't be surprised if Another Life never gets a second.

My First Vonnegut Experience, Though Likely Not My Last.

I've always been familiar with Vonnegut's name but not particularly versed in his material. I'd seen the movie based on his novel Mother Night, but outside of knowing a few titles, seeing his cameo in Back to School, and of course his connection with the University of Iowa, that was the extent of my familiarity. However, recently I'd encountered an intriguing, simple and playful, yet deep quote from Cat's Cradle. I felt it was time I gave Vonnegut a read and I was not disappointed.

The voice with which the book is authored is often playful, lighthearted, and downright fun, but the story itself bare quite biting criticism of many of society's driving forces - government and religion to name a few. Vonnegut eases into his opinions backhandedly and with an essentially neutral protagonist who is merely a victim of happenstance, landing readers on yet another drawback of such institutions before you know it.

The story of the book, my personal litmus test, starts with a very average seeming Joe. He's a writer and I suspect not-so-dissimilar to Vonnegut himself, conducting research for a novel. Along the way he encounters other seemingly unimportant characters, though by the end the narrator and almost every character along the way end up playing a role in what is essentially the end of the world. A master class is "raising the stakes" if every there was one. Undoubtedly Vonnegut's criticisms would not have been so palatable without the playful and surprising vehicle of this intriguing plot.

My only woe with Cat Cradle is that I didn't read it sooner.
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