Building Harlequin’s Moon

Building Harlequin’s Moon
Larry Niven and Brenda Cooper

I would not normally have read this book. Much as I love Larry Niven, I am skeptical of his later books, especially those co-written with authors I have never heard of. Knowing nothing of Building Harlequin’s Moon, I heard Brenda Cooper on a recent Skiffy and Fanty podcast saying very interesting and intelligent things. Part way through she mentioned collaborating with Larry Niven, and, since I have been seeking out female authors anyway, decided that I should look into this further. Cooper’s comments on a number of issues were enough to overcome any suspicions.

I don’t have any proof of this, but I suspect that Cooper did most of the grunt work and Niven was the idea man. I’m pretty sure that Niven wrote the prologue, wherein the planetary engineer Gabriel builds and hibernates his way through 60,000 years of comet and moon smashing to create a semi-livable habitat orbiting a super-massive gas giant called Harlequin. Big time Hard SF ideas here, and very fun. The rest of the book is more of a character-based societal study, as Gabriel and his fellow starship crew members try to figure out how to handle the indentured colony they put on Harlequin’s moon Selene, while the Moonborn stumble towards some sort of independence under the reluctance of a biologist named Rachel. The initial combination of teen protagonists and political narrative struck me as Cooper’s contribution, since it didn’t feel like most Niven I have read. The big picture and the science did, but not the people.

Oddly, the very first lesson I learned from Harlequin is that I should probably never read a YA novel again. No doubt there are many good ones out there and I am doing myself a disservice, but teens irritate me. (I’m sure this has nothing to do with my tween daughter, my forced re-introduction to pop music and/or teen culture through her, or the face melting crap she watches on TV. Nothing at all.) The initial chapters of Harlequin pack in enough angst, awkward romance, and adolescent scheming that I almost gave up there. Fortunately for all involved, I didn’t, but I think this colored my view of the rest of the novel, which does move into more grownup territory after the first big twist. Again, nothing wrong with YA stuff, just not something I can tolerate at this point in my life.

The rest of the book left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, Selene is a fascinating place that I would gladly read more about. Niven is no stranger to mind blowing feats of engineering and Selene will stand proudly next to anything in Known Space or the Co-Dominion. On the other hand, the whole political situation felt simplistic to me, with the Earthborn attitudes towards the Moonborn only partially grounded in fictional reality. Cooper (I assume) gives just enough of a backstory to make things plausible, but enough to be entirely convincing. While I am well aware that people acting like dirtbags requires little or no motivation, there are a few missing stations on the railroad from fleeing Earth to enslaving ones progeny. But on the gripping hand, when everything reached a lengthy and satisfying climax, I felt attached to the protagonists and empathized with them far more than I expected to. I don’t think this was purely emotional manipulation.

I have purposely avoided reading other reviews at time of writing, since I want to puzzle this one out on my own. I’m curious what people have to say about Harelquin though. It’s an uneasy mix of Niven’s brand of Hard SF, YA emotions, and the colonialism and equality topics bubbling so freely through the genre right now. Chapters swing from Ringworld-esque engineering escapades to scenes of struggle that one might find in Stephanie Saulter’s searing Gemsigns. The characters argue about planetary biology or AI consciousness, then wing off into … whatever kids these days are reading. Longing somethingerother, angst mumble mumble, feelings. Pep the stone hearted, recovering political scientist didn’t always know how to handle this. (Spoiler alert: the big ideas were the best part.) I’m almost certain that I can find reviews that say exactly the opposite: “Loved the characters and romance, didn’t get the science-y bits,” or “Such an inspiring tale of freedom, but could do without the weepy stuff.” I suppose the Sad Puppies would get sick of all the prominent women and the equality hand wringing, but salute Niven’s good old fashioned setting. This even as they grumble about the lack of competent white men saving the day.

Actually, I think the biggest hints that Cooper did a lot of the character work are the frequent scenes of Gabriel mansplaining things and getting tied in knots by the women.

To the book’s credit, it took enough twisty, scenic paths on its way to the inevitable conclusion that I was never sure where things would end up. Cooper and Niven wrap up the story in pretty much the only way they could have, but they still kept me off balance. As with almost everything else, the positives outweigh the negatives in the end, even if I needed some extra convincing. While admitting that my criteria can be obscure, I’m not going to give Harlequin my highest praise. It was a little too naïve for my taste, though the characters and authors managed to dodge the worst pitfalls – this could have been much worse. As I said earlier though, I was locked in for the last hundred pages and feel a surprising connection to Rachel, Gabriel, and a few others. That will push things over the last hurdle to “recommended” status.

Bonus points to everyone out there who catches the obscure Niven reference in this review.

Rating: Southampton. Flawed but charming, this mid-table club wins over neutrals with infectious enthusiasm, even if they won’t ever bring home the championship. And you thought I’d given up on footie nods.

Starborne

Starborne
Robert Silverberg

Short post this week due to craziness in The Attic. Also sun, which in these parts is cause for celebration. It’s like Venus in that one depressing Bradbury story kids always have to read, but we don’t lock anyone in closets here when the rain stops. Fortunately, Starborne is the perfect subject for a short essay, since it is a minor work and doesn’t really inspire lengthy rambling.

My ebook copy of Starborne was the free book of the month some time ago in Phoenix Picks, after which it languished on my Kindle until the last Japan trip forced me to read some of the backlog. It is also my first Silverberg, which, considering his stature in the field, is rather unfortunate. Something more impressive might have been nice. I have other books lying around, but never got to them; so it goes. Starborne is a contemplative book, low on drama and action, though fun in its own way.

The pace of the book syncs to the Japanese game of go, the favorite pastime on a ship full of people sent out from Earth to find a new planet to colonize. They maintain contact with Earth through a telepathic connection between two blind twins, one each on the ship and on Earth. What tension there is in the book comes when this connection attenuates, with nary an explosion or laser gun to be found. There are bits of planetary exploration, but those aren’t really the point of the book. Instead it’s more of a meditation on humanity and how we might push ourselves to a higher state.

Just as entertaining as the book are the reviews on Goodreads, most from disgruntled Hard SF fans complaining about one or another bit of flawed science and grumping at the total lack of engineering feats. There are also disapproving mentions of the free-love, lounge around in bathhouses ethos that pervades the ship that are good for a chuckle. I’m guessing that the space battle and/or alien invasion types didn’t make it past the first chapter. I wouldn’t recommend this to them anyway; it’s only for those seeking a more relaxing and philosophical read. Philosophical might be a strong word – it’s not hugely deep or profound, but I would put it a step above navel gazing.

A final observation before I send this out in the series of tubes that comprises the internet. I read this and Van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle within a month or two of each other; they are now hopelessly tangled up in my head. Not that they have anything in common beyond a voyaging spaceship, but my memories swing wildly between pulp action and restrained character emoting, wacky pseudoscience and metaphysical murmuring. Both authors would probably be appalled to hear this, but what can I do?

Sky Coyote

Sky Coyote
Kage Baker

I have two primary goals for this year’s reading: First, to finish more series than I start. Second, to maintain a diverse, well-balanced selection of authors. I realized about one third of the way through 2015 that I was failing on the second. Knowing that it was time to dilute the pale sausage fest a bit, I set about looking for a book in series, written by a woman. A lower severed head count was also on the wish list. Who should come to mind but Kage Baker, a name that appears on both the 2013 and 2014 favorite reads lists. I started her Company series last year, so Sky Coyote counts towards my first goal as well as diversifying my reading.

For those not familiar with Baker’s Company, here’s an executive summary. The whole series is about time travel and the Dr. Zeus company that discovered it. (Ha – get it? The Company!) Baker keeps her time travel under tight restriction, increasing palatability for me but not totally avoiding paradox and confusion. She is such a fun writer though that I will read anything she puts out, even topics I am normally leery of. Anyway, Dr. Zeus can send people back in time, but not into the future. They have also discovered immortality mechanisms, but those can only be put into the very young. Thus, they have sent people back in time, pulled out children that were about to die horribly, made them immortal, tested them for aptitude, and created an undying cadre to work their way to the year 2355, when apparently we all reach nirvana or something. Baker’s books follow various of the characters through history.

Sky Coyote is the second Company book. Our guide this time is the Facilitator, Joseph. Facilitators are Baker’s answer to Iain M. Banks’ Special Circumstances; to wit, the men and women who do the dirty work as Dr. Zeus tries to navigate its way through human history. We meet Joseph in the first Company book, but he is a supporting character to the biologist Mendoza. This time, Mendoza plays second fiddle. This is probably a wise choice, as Joseph is wise, weary, and witty, while Mendoza is mostly just angry. Joseph’s purpose is twofold: he narrates the actual story at hand and introduces the overarching plot that will presumably carry through later books. Baker’s dual approach here is not entirely effective, as reader satisfaction will depend more on the context they approach the book than is usually the case.

Sky Coyote is a surprisingly placid book. Joseph’s mission to a group of Native Americans involves little drama, the wider plot arc is outlined but not dug into, and nobody gets too excited about anything. Mostly. This appears to have irked some readers, but hit close to the target for me. I was ready for a smoother ride, though I can understand wanting a bit more out of Baker. This is very much a middle book whose purpose is less to tell a story than to build the foundation for everything to come. As Lady Holiday says in The Great Muppet Caper, “Oh, it’s plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.”

One other part of the book has generated negative reactions: the Native Americans in question. They talk a lot like modern day capitalists, which throws some people out of the narrative. This particular tribe (fictional I imagine) is targeted by the Company for exactly this reason; they have a surprisingly advanced economy for the era. Still, I was also surprised a bit by their behavior. While I think it is reasonable to question this without expecting some sort of “How, white man” trope, I have also stopped expecting everything pre-Adam Smith to be primitive. The world has seen a great many accelerated ideas in societies that we would least expect, so I don’t think it’s wholly implausible for a group of Native Americans to develop complex trade routes, credit systems, and price management schemes. It did take a few pages for the shock of the hedge fund manager dialogue to wear off, but I wasn’t bothered after that.

So the book kind of comes and goes, without an emotional wallop or extended incidences of pulse pounding. I naturally assumed that I would be a debonair Facilitator were Dr. Zeus to get ahold of me, though instead of using my jaded optimism to navigate the wilds of history, I would probably just be an extra nerdy musicologist. If so, I would fit in well with the rest of the story. I will probably double check the potential reader’s expectations before recommending Sky Coyote, and I expect that my reactions will change as I read further in the series, but for those who don’t need action on every page, this is a pleasant entry in Baker’s signature series.

2015 Hugo Novel Prognostications

2015 Hugo Novel Prognostications

It’s time to step away from the icky politics and get into what everyone really cares about: prophesying the Hugo winners. I’m going to stick with novels for two reasons. First, the novel category had enough attention to avoid complete Sad Puppy takeover, especially after a crucial withdrawal. Second, I don’t have time to read anything but novels anymore, so I have no idea what happened last year in short stories, dramatic presentations, or related stuff of any kind. I wish I could do more, but novels it is for now.

Full disclosure: I did not participate in the nominating process. I probably should have, but $40 is just enough that I can’t justify it to Mrs. Pep at this time. I may attend WorldCon as it is a short jaunt from here to Spokane, but that depends largely on the condition of the Pep family when all but me return from Japan on the day before the con starts.

Another disclaimer: my Hugo batting average is good for baseball, but bad for much else. Let’s review. In 2014, I supported Ancillary Justice and it won handily. Leckie’s book is a deserving winner, but I thought it a bit of a weak year for novels. Not sure it would have stood up to the 2013 slate, of which I quite vocally chose 2312. I feared greatly a Robert Jordan nostalgia party that year, but had no inkling that John Scalzi would run off with a Redshirts victory. That one soured me on fan voting for awhile, much as I like John Scalzi as the current Face of Science Fiction. In 2013, I vaguely assumed that Embassytown would walk out a winner, but Jo Walton won with Among Others. That was the first year that I paid much attention, which means I’m one for three right now. Anyone laying bets on my choices does so at his or her own risk.

Two books surprised me by their exclusion: Robert Bennett’s City of Stairs and William Gibson’s The Peripheral. I don’t know the numbers for everything, but if these two were edged off the ballot only by the Sad Puppies, I will be irate. Puppy objections to both are pretty obvious, what with the post-colonialism, dark-skinned protagonists, and dead gods of questionable morality in the first, and William Gibson’s very existence with the second. Stairs was my pick for the best book of the year however, and it seemed to generate a lot of buzz. This result may come down to Bennett not being part of The In Crowd in SF, but who knows. The Peripheral came out late and didn’t seem to light the community on fire; surprising both because of Gibson’s pedigree and the reaction in broader literary circles. Regardless, both were on my short list and the ballot is poorer without them.

On to the nominees. Opinions about each come first, then a bold prediction at the end.

Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie
To be honest, when I first saw that ballot I thought to myself, “Whoa. The Sad Puppies just handed Leckie her second straight Hugo.” I don’t think that anything on the original ballot would have challenged Ancillary Sword. She has the momentum from last year’s sweep, the buzz as a hot, new voice in SF, and reviews that seemed largely to say that her second book was even better than the first. I preferred Ancillary Justice, but that says more about my tastes than it does the quality of the book. The biggest obstacle to another Leckie triumph may be voter inclinations to highlight someone new this year.

A second Leckie victory would perhaps be the greatest of ironies, as she represents almost everything the Sad Puppies hate. Leckie writes on the cutting edge of SF, digs deep into questions of empire and colonialism, toys with gender constructs, and generally does all those “political” and deep thinking things that seem to enrage the Luddites. My initial guesses pegged her second behind City of Stairs for an award; the Puppy ballot quashed what I thought was her main competition.

The Dark Between the Stars – Kevin Anderson
I don’t think I’ve ever read an Anderson book, but his reputation among those I trust is not high. No idea where he stands politically, if he cares about the Hugo, or worries that he’s been tarred with that particular brush. I may someday read an Anderson book, but it’s a pretty low priority at this point. Again, maybe he’s awesome and I’m making a snap judgment, but I’ll need a glowing review from a friend or two before he moves up my reading list.

The Goblin Emperor – Katherine Addison
This was a favorite book from last year and I think it fully deserves the nod. I won’t be irked if it wins the Best Novel. I loved Goblin and have recommended it to several, though I thought it a bit slight when compared to some of the meatier offerings from the year.

Skin Game – Jim Butcher
I’ve never read a Dresden Files book either, though many people I trust say they’re great. Someday I’ll probably give one a shot. I have to think that Butcher was as surprised as anyone to be on the ballot this year. He’s not part of the core community that generally gets recognized for awards, which I suppose is the alleged point of the Sad Puppy slate. As with Anderson, I have no clue what Butcher thinks about all of this or if he even notices. I hope he’s not a racist jerk and, if asked, will disavow the group the nominated him.

The Three Body Problem – Liu Cixin
Three Body hitting the Hugo ballot is the best news of an otherwise dismal Hugo season. Even the Puppies got on board with this, though I suspect them of disingenuous spin after multiple public defections. To be honest, I’m not sure what they see in this based on both stated and unstated aims. Liu’s book is “traditional” in that it’s Hard SF with lots of science, but that’s about where the similarities end. Luddites aside, this was one of my favorite books of the year, even without considering the international elements that we are always trying to promote here. Even if Liu doesn’t win, I am hopeful that the nod and subsequent attention generate momentum for more translated SF.

And now, the prediction. I’m happy to say that all three of the non-Puppy nominations are on my Best of 2014 list; I will be content to see any of them win. However, like the Highlander, there can only be one. I think we can safely discount Anderson and Butcher due to anti-Puppy backlash, an anticipated low Puppy turnout at the con, and a lack of “Hugo-ness” about the authors. The last may be unjust, but it is definitely a Thing in the community. The Goblin Emperor is a good book, but it is fantasy and a bit lighter than the others. I don’t think it stands up, though it will leave everyone charmed. Ancillary Sword is another fabulous Leckie book, was on its way to glory, and would have roared its way to triumph until Marko Kloos made his brave decision to withdraw. That opened the door for our 2015 Hugo winner, The Three Body Problem. The buzz about the story, the community interest in international SF, a vague reluctance to give the award to the same person in consecutive years, and the overall quality of Liu’s writing (and Ken Liu’s translation) will push Three Body ahead as the first Chinese Hugo winning novel. Mark it down, you heard it here first. And if anyone out there loses money on their bets, well, er, please form a line over there and I will be by shortly to refund your losses. Any time now. Just wait patiently.

Before They Are Hanged

Before They Are Hanged

Joe Abercrombie

Middle books are always a challenge to review. I shouldn’t complain – I can only imagine how hard they are to write. Having wrapped up the second installment of Joe Abercrombie’s trope-bending First Law Trilogy, it’s time to put down a few thoughts. Unfortunately, as it’s hard to pin down exactly where Abercrombie is headed, both because this is the middle book and because he’s being coy, my reaction is going to be more of a series of opinions and bullet points. Much as I would love to dig deep into the profound literary themes as work here, pithy summation is probably the way to go.

– This book is not for everyone. Abercrombie is called Lord Grimdark for reasons, so some readers just aren’t going to enjoy the disembowelments, maces to faces, and shoulder-to-crotch cleavings. Those who aren’t put off by pulped heads and repeated taking of the Lord’s name in vain might enjoy a certain black hilarity; I’m pretty sure Abercrombie laughed while driving things so completely over the top. Witty banter gets a few chuckles, but it’s more the bleak absurdity of the overall story arc that kept me amused.

The First Law Trilogy gets this year’s Steven Erikson Memorial Award for secondary world with the shortest human lifespan. I’m pretty sure that I would last about three weeks as a character in these books, either mowed down by raiders, pulverized in a city sacking, victim of an out of control wizard battle, or just taken by run of the mill, peasant-class dysentery. The common folk must breed like rabbits to maintain the population base in the face of rampant predation.

– Characters Abercrombie from lesser grimdarkians, but I’m ambivalent about some of them suddenly becoming better people partway through the book. It’s fine for Captain West to be a solid guy, because that’s his role, but Logen Ninefingers or Inquisitor Glokta are more fun when complete jerks. I’m not sure that flashes of humanity suit them. Abercrombie might just be setting me up for a fall though, so I am keeping everyone at a distance. Also, I’m not sure what this preference says about me, and don’t want to think too deeply about it.

– I am just waiting for Bayaz to strip off his good-guy cloak and say, “Lookout suckas! There’s a new sheriff in town! BOW TO YOUR SENSEI!!” If we’re taking the anti-Gandalf path here, I’m going to laugh long and hard. (Don’t spoil this for me if we are!)

– Abercrombie is clearly having fun while he picks apart fantasy cliché. Characters are the obvious starting point, but he toys with plots, settings, and histories as well. I must admit that I have no idea how this will end. Convention dictates that the characters succeed in their every quest, evil is vanquished, and the Union survive because … well, there’s no particular reason why the Union should survive, beyond being whiter than half of their enemies, and more capitalist than the other. I’m sure the author has something entertaining in mind.

I’ll get to the third volume here sometime in the next nine months or so, at which point probing analysis will make an appearance. Until then, maybe some spoiler-free chatter? Anything I should have caught this time around?

The 2015 Hugo Imbroglio

The 2015 Hugo Imbroglio

I am well aware that the world awaits the Two Dudes hot take on Hugo shenanigans, and it’s high time we used the word “imbroglio” here on the blog, so gather round while Uncle Pep tells another story of Valiant Brad and his struggle against The Glitter and Pan-Asian Cuisine Gang, also known in some circles as “Social Justice Warriors,” because apparently it’s a bad thing to be all for such tyrannies as justice. God bless America. This may constitute a politics trigger warning for any readers out there who dream of being spanked by Ayn Rand (“You’ve been a bad, naughty capitalist!”), so those folks should consider themselves warned.

Anyone not currently up on The Great Hugo Imbroglio of 2015 is welcome to read my last articulate and impassioned exposition on the matter, though it may not be worth the indigestion. Unfortunately for me, soon after I posted that self-assured attack on the Sad Puppies, the Hugo nominations were announced and my predictions looked pretty bad. While statistically unsurprising, the Sad Puppy domination of the nomination process was a massive disappointment. Parenthetically, the Hugos are announced at Norwescon, in that great bastion of conservative white privilege called Seattle, so I can only imagine the rage. Probably for the best that my wife and I nixed an expensive trip to the con and spent the day with the kids at Seattle’s SF Museum instead. (Parenthetical to the parenthetical, I took a leak next to none other than George RR Martin at said museum. Or at least, I’m about 99% sure it was him. I said nothing.)

Back on topic. The fallout from the nomination debacle has been impressive. Connie Willis publicly turned down the request to present at the Hugos in a heartfelt and very sad letter. Nominees have denied themselves a chance at Hugo glory and withdrawn their nominated works. Marko Kroos pulled his novel from the slate today, winning acclaim from many and disgust from others. (One commenter compared Kroos’ withdrawal to Germans watching Jews get gassed, but I’m going to assume that this is a minority view.) Beyond this, I’ll skip the big picture for the most part, since people with much more brainpower and/or writing skill than I have thoroughly deconstructed things. (Scalzi is a good place to start of course, or the aforementioned GRRM.) I have a few loosely related thoughts on the matter that may not organize themselves into a focused takedown or anything, but here we go.

I will say first that I am irate that the American Culture War has jumped the firebreak into SF. I would much prefer to enjoy my exploding spaceships in peace, but one has to fight these battles on every front or we will never conquer. And conquer we will. Anyone feeling too down about things should read The Emerging Democratic Majority, which takes on US politics, but is really about everything. SF is growing younger, more diverse, and more inclusive at an increasing rate. We can’t be passive about things, and there will be ugly moments, but it won’t be long before our numbers are overwhelming. People of all colors, genders, persuasions, and world views are joining the conversation; this is one brand of squeezable ketchup that isn’t going back in the bottle. The Glitter and Pan-Asian Cuisine Gang is the wave of the future. (It’s also healthier and more delicious. Teriyaki for everyone!) Valiant Brad fears that we are crushing Tradition under our sparkly boot heels, but I have every confidence that we can appreciate the heritage of SF while taking it to new, exciting places.

But what to do in the mean time with Valiant Brad’s allies? A thorny topic indeed. I don’t know Brad Torgerson personally, but I am far too familiar with the culture he lives in. After all, I grew up in the Mormon Corridor (I-15 from Cardston to Vegas, with a spur into Phoenix) and left many friends and family there when I finally ran screaming from Utah in 2002. Brad’s religion expressly forbids any sort of diversity-motivated hatred, and I have no doubt that Brad himself is a decent guy. Unfortunately, Mormons have a checkered history of racism, homophobia, and misogyny, and there is a deeply rooted strain of benevolent bigotry in Mormonism. (Full disclosure: I am Mormon myself, for those who are new to the party here, and I am allowed to say things like this. Anti-Mormon spittle flinging from anyone, no matter the political or religious affiliation, will be squashed like a loathsome cockroach.) I fear that Brad, no matter how well meaning, has a blind spot right where all the non-white, female, and/or LGBT people are, a blind spot endemic to his native culture that I am not immune to either. I don’t think he sees the full implications of what is going on here.

Worse, he refuses to repudiate the spiritual leader of Puppy-dom, the singularly distasteful Vox Day. (Speaking of loathsome cockroaches.) If the gentle reader is not acquainted with dear Vox, count your blessings. Anyone looking to be outraged is welcome to Google the man, just be ready for a shower afterwards. Possibly in hydrochloric acid. Larry Correia, the other power behind the Sad Puppies, strikes me as a most unpleasant and angry man, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on more serious charges. Vox, however, is a racist and misogynist of the worst kind, and his Rabid Puppies Hugo attacks are about as subtle and useful as a catastrophically soiled diaper. Brad is on record as refusing to “shun” Vox, because I guess he’s reaching out in love to change the guy’s mind? Because Vox is actually a nice guy and just a little misunderstood?

It’s awfully hard for the rest of us to take demands to respect “good stories” seriously when they all seem beholden to someone who calls black people “savages” and periodically says positive things about rape. Is Valiant Brad really so sheltered that he misses this point? Is he just willing to forgive a little irrational hate here and there because someone believes in a similar god and economic system? This baffles me more than anything. I get the fear and anger. I understand gaming a system to either win a few prizes or take the institution down out of spite. I know too well jealousy at others’ success and the conviction that the whole thing is rigged. I am, believe it or not, guilty of some of these from time to time, though I have not yet succeeded in winning a vaguely phallic book award by convincing a load of other angry people to pony up forty bucks to vote for me.

But I just can’t fathom hitching my wagon to a destructive and hate-filled human being, just for… well, I’m not actually certain what they’re trying to accomplish. It it’s respect they want, they’d better jettison the evil dude in a hurry, or any shred of legitimacy that may be hanging on will evaporate. That fig leaf is wearing thin. In the end though, this will all blow over. There will be an asterisk or two next to the awards this year, and maybe next, and things will settle back down. After all, no less a figure of the patriarchy than Bill O’Reilly admitted that LGBT acceptance is winning the day because we have the argument for love on our side, and all the opposition can do is thump a Bible in anger. SF is no different, and I hope Valiant Brad catches on before it’s too late. I’ll even spring for the pho when he joins us.

The Hobbit (Movies)

The Hobbit (Movies)

I spent most of last week beset by illness, a situation further exacerbated by a serious case of the busies. The result? Blog neglect bordering on the criminal. Fortunately there is light at the end of the tunnel, though I suppose it’s possible that said light is an oncoming freight train.

Anyway, one more reason I have written less is a new cable connection to the Attic. I finally gave in, mostly because Spring is coming and I enjoy the daily background noise of Mariners baseball. There are other bonuses, free HBO for two years among them. I may or may not try Game of Thrones, but Mrs. Pep and I were quick to pounce on two Hobbit movies available for streaming. Shameful for a Tolkien fan like me to admit that I hadn’t yet seen any of the three, but that is the sad reality of my cinematic life.

I guess anyone who lives above ground knows that the movies are quite different from the books. While watching, I found it best to divide the changes into two groups: those made for cinematic convention and those made to give the movies the tone and weight that The Lord of the Rings more naturally holds. In general, I disagreed with the first, but have few complaints with the second. I haven’t read The Hobbit in a good twenty years or so, which leaves me somewhat less qualified to condemn much. I have a fear of writing, “I can’t believe that Peter Jackson did such and such, which no doubt left Tolkien spinning in his grave,” only to find out that the scene I ranted about was lifted word for word from the book. Stranger things have happened.

Let’s dig into the groan inducing bits first. I don’t do well with cliché or convention at the best of times, but movies drive me battier than most. The Hobbit manages to avoid many of the narrative excesses of typical Hollywood fare, but I suspect that has much to do with Tolkien’s willfully obtuse storytelling. (LOTR is notorious for violating rule after rule of good novel writing.) The films cave in to other flaws though. I don’t know if it’s the condensed run time to blame, but drama and action seem dialed up to an unreasonable degree in most mainstream movies. The pernicious influence of James Cameron and Michael Bay, perhaps? Unfortunately, The Hobbit is no exception. The action sequences are breathtaking to be sure, but everything seems more kinetic than it needs to be. I wouldn’t mind a few more less dramatic scenes, notably the trolls and the chase leading up to Rivendell.

Related to this is the constant fever pitch of conflict that must be drummed up at all times in cinema. Does Thorin really need to be pursued by Azog all the time? Does Laketown really need a moustachio-twirling and villainous mayor who opposes the brave and democratic, if surly and disreputable, rabble-rouser? Do the wood elves have to be not just aloof and isolationist, but full-on antagonists? I would have preferred a slightly more placid tale, though this is something I find myself saying almost every time I watch a movie or TV show. (I should note that most of my complaints about LOTR, particularly The Two Towers, fall along similar lines.)

On the other hand, there are changes I can get behind. The Hobbit is a pleasant book, but always feels like a light appetizer to me. This is especially true when one thinks about what is really going on in the background; something Jackson can’t avoid now that he’s unleashed LOTR on the world. Bilbo’s ring may have been a random trinket at the time, but we know what it really is and can’t possibly be expected to say something like, “Oh, well lucky Bilbo! What a convenient and useful little thing that ring is!” (Or Tolkien may have known full well. I’m uncertain, but I don’t remember any foreboding in the book.) The ring is the most obvious example, but there are others.

The throwaway line in the book about Gandalf going out to evict The Necromancer from Mirkwood is the biggest addition, and deserves the expansion Jackson gives it. In some ways, this is the real story of the time; dwarves and dragons are much more of a sidenote. Another point of interest is the opinions other factions show about the dwarves’ quest. Again, nothing much is said about this in the book, but re-establishing a powerful dwarven kingdom is a politically unsettling act. The wealth and industrial power of Thorin’s scattered people is going to rearrange the balance of power with humans and elves and, as Gandalf casually mentions, will attract attention in the coming war with Sauron. All of this is glossed over in the book, but adds a deeper context and perhaps a reason why Gandalf is engaged in the first place. I suppose it’s not in keeping with the happy go lucky tone of the book to talk about global economics or the imminent rise of Sauron, but I prefer it.

So this is probably the worst movie review anywhere, with no references to camera work, direction, acting, or anything. Trust Two Dudes to turn Hollywood movies into politico-economic analyses of imaginary places. Though at this point, I am just happy to be posting again, so I trust that loyal fans will roll with it all. I enjoyed The Hobbit, or at least what I have seen thus far, though I admit to preferring LOTR. I’ll watch the third as soon as I can, and may post more, if further reaction seems warranted.