Embassytown

Embassytown
China Mieville

I am woefully under-read in China Mieville. According to somewhere, he has eight novels in print, of which I have only read this and Perdido Street Station. Mieville is a major voice in current SFF though, and one of a few that the broader world deigns to notice, so I’d better get on the wagon. At the same time, I’ve made a sudden and belated run through 2011’s highest profile SF lately, in part because Embassytown and The Quantum Thief were right next to each other on the Monthly Recommends shelf at the library. Yes please, I’ll take one of each. (I read a couple others as well, but they weren’t sitting there on a platter for me.) Since various unpleasant realities mean I’m not totally up on the newest books, I read a wee bit about Embassytown in preparation for this post. It was most discouraging; everyone was talking about semiotics, literary theory, trope usage and subversion, and all sorts of educated topics that I find rather intimidating. My pride won’t let me send people off to read The New York Times or London Book Review or whatever without sliding my own two cents in though, so off we go.

“Best” is a loaded and ambiguous word, so I am not going to call Embassytown the best book of 2011. I will say that it is the most challenging and engaging book of 2011 that I have read so far. Certainly is goes on the list of the multiple best books of the year; even though I have many left to read, I don’t imagine that anything will unseat Embassytown. It seems to have tossed a little gasoline on the dead horse that is the genre fiction vs. literary fiction debate as well, which is probably a good thing. I’ve spent enough time in academia to not really care what academia thinks, but some people are deeply concerned about this sort of thing. I suspect that Mieville’s book is a boon to them, as it balances an exegesis of language with a full speed ahead science fiction ethos. One does not always find the diagramming of sentences in the same chapter as faster than light space travel, but who is China Mieville to follow convention? Even more surprising perhaps is the critical reaction: people are talking about Embassytown throughout both the SF community and more buttoned-up literary circles, with a reaction that is almost universally positive.

All of this coverage has a small downside, as many of the critics toss around spoilers with what I consider to be reckless abandon. Part of the fun of the book is watching Mieville slowly illuminate each successive mystery, but several of the reviews freely give away surprises that come in more than halfway through the book. Fortunately, I hadn’t read any of them. The plot is much more entertaining if the reader doesn’t know why EzRa is so crucial, or what they (he?) really mean.

The story itself moves along two seemingly parallel tracks that eventually converge late in the book. The first follows the above mentioned EzRa, the second chronicles the Ariekei attempts at lying. The vagaries of Ariekei language render lying an impossibility for them, so festivals where they get together and try to say something untrue are like popular sporting events. Since any sort of untruth is impossible, they speak mostly in similes, but only similes that actually exist. There is a rock on the edge of Embassytown that was broken, then put back together, for the sole purpose of allowing the Ariekei to say, “this is like the rock that was broken, then put back together.” The language itself is an amazing creation – the Ariekei speak simultaneously through two mouths, and can only speak exactly what is on their minds. Communication with humans requires two humans, generally identical twins, speaking carefully prepared sentences in unison, with exactly matched intention and emotion. Needless to say, this is difficult. The Ambassadors try, however, and there is some semblance of interspecies cooperation.

Because this language and the effect it has on the Ariekei comprise the heart of the novel, we end up with that strangest of science fiction that cares deeply about both grammar and FTL methods. Good times. Embassytown is, at its basest level, a thought experiment built around a language almost impossible for us to imagine. If this were all it is, nobody would complain too much, as a lot of science fiction never rises above the level of experiment, just usually with physics or astronomy at the core. Mieville’s genius though, lies in his ability to elevate the story far above cookie cutter Hard SF and into the realm of pure literature. I’m not going to beat the drum in genre fiction’s grand crusade for legitimacy, but I will suggest that this is a book that serious lit types would appreciate. It has a great deal to say about the human condition and other such things that lit people love passionately, just not in some bland suburb in the recent past. Will John Q. Lit-Professor give it a shot? I have no idea, nor do I much care. It would be a shame if Embassytown is only appreciated by us crazy SF types, but it’s certainly not our loss. (It’s Mieville’s, yes, but he knew the rules when he joined the club.)

Rating: I have no idea how to relate this to football. Regardless, read Embassytown. Your life will be better for it.

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The Quantum Thief

The Quantum Thief
Hannu Rajaniemi

Today’s challenge: Finland to supernatural Japanese bath houses in seven steps or less, and five countries or more. Can I do it? (Left unasked: Does anyone care?) We start with Hannu Rajaniemi, a fine Finnish author, and, according to his About the Author page, a doer of a bunch of other things as well. Raj, because Rajaniemi is far too complicated to type without using a macro, lives in Scotland, where he wrote The Quantum Thief. This story is apparently heavily influenced by the tales of Arsene Lupin, the gentleman thief of countless French tales. Arsene Lupin is the model for Lupin III, an anime institution. Arguably the best Lupin III movie, The Castle of Cagliostro, was directed by a young Miyazaki Hayao, before he became a god of animation. Miyazaki’s best known work here in the US is, of course, the Oscar winning Spirited Away, which is a tale of a young girl lost in a bath house of the gods. Everyone may now applaud.

I didn’t actually know about this whole Arsene Lupin thing, though I think I once read his name in connection with Lupin III, until I read this quick review. That triggered a brief conversation in the comments, which in turn led to the above paragraph. As I said, I haven’t read Arsene Lupin, so I don’t feel qualified to elaborate on the connection, but it seems like something I should check out if I really want to make sense of Raj’s book. This is not to say that The Quantum Thief isn’t all kinds of enjoyable without knowing about Lupin. It reminded me a bit of the Hyperion books: great stuff on their own, but apparently that much more enjoyable for those who know their Keats. I don’t, of course, so I missed a layer to those books, just like I’m missing a layer of The Quantum Thief. I suppose it’s a bit like sushi without wasabi. All the basics are there and it’s still delicious, but missing just a tiny bit of fun.

On to the book. Thief is a bit of an anomaly, a far future Solar System setting. For whatever reason, Raj decided to keep everything close to home, but with insane levels of technology. This isn’t good or bad, but it was a bit of a surprise, since FTL is generally considered part of The Future. Of course, it could just have easily been somewhere else in the galaxy, considering that pretty much everything is unrecognizable, but Raj is spared the trouble of creating a new set of planets, laws of physics, etc., by just putting things on Mars. This is not your father’s Barsoom, though. Everything happens in a moving city, carried on the shoulders of “Atlas Quiets,” altered humans who cart the city around the planet to escape the depredations of the phoboi. Inside the city, everyone maintains privacy settings on themselves that don’t just cover data, but cover people; so much that, if someone’s privacy settings are strict enough, others can’t even see that person. Conversation is carried on by exchanging memories and public keys. The city is a wild and memorable creation.

“Wild and memorable” is a good way to describe the book as a whole. I won’t be so dense as to divide all SF into two groups, but I do want to propose an axis on which to assess the genre. At one pole is a serious realism. This would include a lot of Hard SF of course, but is also many near future stories. Theme is more important than place, though, as it includes anything that takes a clinical look at humanity, its ethics or problems, or the issues we will likely face moving forward. On the other pole are the books that use SF as a jumping off point for flights of fancy, roller coaster rides of almost unimaginable technology, exotic planets and aliens, or stories that could only happen when things are a bit unlike today. This is not quite the line between, say, Hard SF and space opera, for example, but more of tone and intent. Larry Niven’s Known Space is considered Hard SF, but many of the stories ride closer to the Fun Pole. Compare instead CJ Cherryh and Iain M. Banks, whose books are both often far future, but couldn’t be more different.

Thief is, for those that haven’t already guessed, also squarely near the Fun Pole. The first quarter or so of the book had a noticeable whiff of Banks about it, as he is kind of the dean of zany UK SF, but Raj manages to make his creation his own by the end. Despite the whirling mayhem, there is a core of humanity at the center of the tale, as our irrepressible thief slowly comes to terms with who and what he is. Even at its heaviest though, the book remains off-beat, with the ever present and utterly unconventional Martian society, the zoku, a tribe that could arise from severe inbreeding between World of Warcraft addicts and Japanese otaku, and the mysterious semi-divine entities who pull the puppet strings throughout the story. Raj also gets bonus points for not only starting the book with game theory (poly sci represent!), but by specifically name dropping the book that inspired the last paper I ever wrote in grad school. (The Evolution of Cooperation, by Robert Axelrod, for those who really want to know, while the paper was on Japanese diplomacy in the Straits of Malacca. The fun never stops here at Two Dudes!)

The Quantum Thief has been much talked about in the last couple of years, with chances to be on best of lists for both 2010 and 2011. (Staggered publishing schedules on either side of the Atlantic will do that.) It deserves pretty much every good thing said about it. I will admit to not knowing exactly what happened by the end, and losing bits and pieces of the narrative. When its sequel comes out, I will probably have to reread, because it is either too complex or too scattered for me to pick everything up the first time. It is, as books on the Fun Pole tend to be, a brash display of writing virtuosity, rather like a rhapsody by Franz Liszt. It is also possible that, like Liszt, all the technical flash covers up flaws that would be apparent if the book were more sedate. The reader is probably having too much fun to notice, though, and I will never subtract points for grand ambition.

Rating: Sami Hyypia. There aren’t many Finnish football legends to choose from, but Sami also lived in the UK and captained Liverpool for a time.

Debris

Debris
Jo Anderton

When looking for something off the beaten path, I can usually count on Angry Robot Books to deliver. They put out a lot of supernatural and/or urban fantasy, but also publish authors like Lavie Tidhar and Aliette de Bodard. I saw Debris first in their eARCs, then later at the library, and something about it piqued my curiosity. It promised to be urban science fantasy, with the potential to rise above cliché.

Immediate kudos go to Anderton for her world building. While there were noticeable echoes of other similar books, she managed to keep things fresh. The first place I thought of was New Crobuzon (China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station), though Movac-Under-Keeper is less grotesque. It also, while possessed of a certain European air, seems less Dickensian-ly British than a lot of the steampunk genre. I actually wouldn’t call Debris steampunk anyway, since a form of engineering magic is at the core of the story rather than boilers or Babbage computing machines. It is a part, however, of the ever growing subgenre of Industrial Revolution Fantasy, with its polluted cities, smoking factories, and Victorian technology. I’m guessing this subgenre was kicked off by Marxists writing fantasy wherein the protagonists fight for the means of production. (I’m only partially facetious with this description.)

This is not to say that Anderton is a Marxist, or at least not to the extent that Mieville, for example, or Eric Flint is. There is a standard level of hand wringing over plight of the huddled masses, the usual oppression from above, and even an oblique indictment of that portion of the middle class who spends too much energy maintaining their lifestyles to notice the suffering going on elsewhere. Nobody really pontificates or declaims though, which is probably just as well. As it is, I spent the first 100 pages or so fearing that this would be another “hero(ine) falls from position of wealth and power, discovers true self in poverty” story. Fortunately, it is not. That particular plot chestnut reached its pinnacle in Pohl and Kornbluth’s Space Merchants and doesn’t need to be touched again until somebody can dethrone that classic. Anderton wisely realizes that more fun is to be had elsewhere and steps onto a more interesting path.

No sooner did I mention the world building than things moved off in another direction. Returning, let’s look a bit more at what’s going on. Tanyana, our plucky heroine, is one who controls “pions.” Pions are all purpose building blocks, the electricity, cement, bytes, steam, and steel of her world. They are molded into buildings, sent throughout the city as power, and turned into almost computer-like objects. Not far into the story, an “accident” causes Tanyana to lose her control of pions and instead makes her into a collector, one who can see “debris.” Debris are the waste products of pion usage and must be cleaned up lest they overwhelm the system and shut down the city. Debris collectors are necessary outcasts, similar to the night soil collectors of Olde Japan. (Readers not familiar with night soil are welcome to google it. Let’s just say that I wouldn’t hang out with someone who spent all night surrounded by it either.) Needless to say, Tanyana’s life changes in many unpleasant ways.

I enjoyed Anderton’s creation. The pion-debris concept provides fertile ground for storytelling and broad flexibility for plot use. Need a 50 story building? Why not? Dingy, polluted ghetto? No problem. Debit cards? Sure. Crazy suits that turn arms into swords and are attached to bone ala the X-men’s Wolverine? In a proverbial jiffy. Her city is also well thought out, with its river, infrastructure and transportation systems, and mix of prosperous neighborhoods and slums. Two reviews I read take opposing views of the completeness of the city, betraying the critics’ respective areas of expertise: Here is a glowing portrait of the world, while this one wonders at the holes in Movac’s political economy. It takes a certain brain to notice and point out flaws in a fantasy world’s government or economic system; unfortunately, I have one. Still, there’s nothing particularly glaring here and most will be satisfied and engaged by the world. Everything beyond the city and the history behind Movac’s present are broadly hinted at, but the details have been left to later books to explore.

And later books there will be. The sequel is slated for this coming summer (2012) and Anderton has left, if not a cliffhanger, plenty of questions unresolved at the end of her first book. This is, I suppose, where my biggest quibbles with the book lie. The story starts out with a literal bang, quickly throwing Tanyana into the world of debris collection. It then feints down the narrative path already mentioned, before correcting itself and heading into conspiracy thriller territory. New plot lines emerge, some romance complications show up, and pretty soon the conspiracy is somewhat abandoned for crises, shadowy (and ineffective) resistance movements, and a prophecy. (?) Finally, near the end, some attempt is made at tying all the threads together, but it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to have to take Anderton at her word and settle for the inconclusive conclusion of the first book. Debris lacks a bit of grace at the end, but I will have to wait for the follow-up to pass full judgment on whether Anderton has things under control, or is spinning tales just slightly beyond her reach.

That said, the book was entertaining and original. Less flowery and demanding than Mieville, fewer brass knobs and goggles than steampunk, less smoggy London than Tidhar, and far more creative than stock fantasy, Debris is a good change of pace for anyone who’s had enough of broadswords or starships. It has the potential to open up into a rare, truly unique world, if Anderton can keep all of her juggling balls in the air through the sequels. Even if the series as a whole isn’t everything it could be, it will still be a worthwhile place to visit.

Rating: Hmm, how about Napoli? This is a team that fell from the highest of heights, albeit gradually, and is slowly working its way back to the top. The city is also famous for its garbage collection, or the lack thereof.

The Sky Crawlers

The Sky Crawlers

I’d better put the Anime Disclaimer out here again, since it’s been awhile and I fear that this review could open me to anime fan ridicule. I found The Sky Crawlers quite by accident at the library, picking it up when I saw that Oshii Mamoru directed. Oshii helmed the groundbreaking Ghost in the Shell, a personal favorite that remains his most famous production outside of Japan. (Not so in Japan. My wife has only heard of Ghost from me, but knows Patlabor and Urusei Yatsura quite well. I haven’t seen either of them.) The cover promised Oshii brilliance and a lot of airplanes, all packed into just 120 minutes, so I gave it a try.

Sky Crawlers is not what I expected. No cyberpunk, some action but not wall to wall, and much more subtlety than the cover suggests. This reaction is partially a reflection of my ignorance, but my wife was also surprised, knowing as she does only his older TV work. While watching the movie, I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not and had to trust that Oshii would deliver in the end. It’s not a film that reaches out and grabs the viewer, but instead goes on its merry way and is happy if someone wants to sit down and watch. How one reacts to the final ten minutes or so will likely determine the final opinion.

Things start with a dogfight that showcases the visual wizardry to come and promises frantic action. The pace changes almost immediately after the credits, however, as the main character Yuichi arrives at his small airbase, meets the others, and settles into his new routine. From the first frames, something is not quite right. It’s difficult to pin down what exactly feels wrong, but everything is just a little off-kilter. The pilots are detached, mostly expressionless, and completely out of touch with the people around them. We learn early on that they are basically children who know full well that their entire purpose in life is to fly airplanes and die. In a striking scene, a military leader (a regular adult) is complaining about one pilot’s immaturity. “Of course,” responds Yuichi. “If we’re going to die tomorrow, what’s the point of growing up?”

Feelings of unease aren’t limited to the characters. There is the mystery of the pilot Yuichi replaces, who obviously wasn’t shot down because his airplane is intact. Rumors swirl about his possible murder. The war raging is only vaguely outlined, with no clear purpose and an enemy who isn’t mysterious or hidden, but never defined beyond “the other guys.” We may wonder who the good guys and bad guys are, but nobody in the movie ever asks or explains. It also never explains why all of the pilots appear to be Japanese mercenaries fighting in England. A vague sense of menace permeates every scene, between the possible murder, the war, the strange soldiers fighting it, and the way they seem to fall into roles and situations as though reading from a well rehearsed script. Finally, while the airplane scenes are fluid, lifelike, and rendered in flawless CG, the characters on the ground move in jerky, unnatural ways, as if they aren’t completely conscious, or even alive.

But the planes! The airplanes are amazing. Part WWII vintage, part Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, part modern-day prototype, the airplanes are beautiful. Everything is prop driven, no jet engines here, but are obviously highly advanced. The propellers might be in unconventional locations on the fighters (the back) or in impossibly massive ranks on the bombers (picture a prop driven B-2 stealth bomber the size of a B-52). The pilots use only guns, so the fights are close, personal and brutal. None of the distant, high speed tussles over heat seeking missile lock here. Pair this with the hyper-realistic CG, and we have some breathtaking set pieces. The largest campaign, that I thought would fill up the entire back end of the film, is a brilliant feat of animation. (It was much shorter than I expected, alas.) This reminded me of why I used to drool over military aviation.

But then the flights end, the characters go back to hanging out at the base, and all the tension returns. It’s very subtle, so much so that I didn’t realize it was there until the tension suddenly released itself. I knew that I felt uncomfortable, but couldn’t put a finger on why. The only comparison I can make is to music: Oshii introduces hidden dissonance little by little, that winds up the suspense without ever actually showing its hand, that leaves the viewer fidgeting but unsure of why sitting peacefully is impossible. And then, with just a few minutes left in the film, Oshii resolves the dissonant notes with one abrupt action, and a sound that was all tritones becomes perfect fifths. That moment was when I knew I was watching something brilliantly crafted, when in an instance, the tension drained suddenly out of the characters and out of us, into a situation that, while not happy, is consonant.

Of course, things continue a little longer after that, introducing a new twist to the story that I didn’t initially appreciate. Without spoiling anything, I will just say to watch through the closing credits. The epilogue draws everything to a close that is necessary after the final scene.

The Sky Crawlers is not, perhaps, for everyone. It is slow, contemplative, and obtuse. Oshii mostly eschews simple moralizing, even when his characters might be presenting his philosophy in monologue. (It’s hard to take drunk child soldiers as reliable narrators.) A quick sample of Internet commentary ranges from “work of genius” to “wow, that was boring.” This review goes into spoilery interpretive mode about how Oshii is using the film to roust Japan out of its strange cultural malaise, cajoling people to fight against complacency and make something of their lives. Then it explains how the movie is actually a scathing condemnation of the anime industry and culture, which is an interesting, if self-absorbed, take. I tend to believe that Oshii has bigger fish to fry than anime fans, but I make no claims to know what I’m talking about. I do think I see what the author’s point is, though, about finding meaning in what we do, creating something of value even if the day to day seems pointless and monotonous. Still, what I will remember is less the Important Message and more the dogfights, and that one moment when Yuichi deflated the angst that built up for 100 minutes.

Rating: One of those matches that drags on 0-0 as the crowd gets more irritable and antsy, until someone scores a sudden goal in the 90th minute and everything goes crazy.

Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes
James S.A. Corey

Leviathan Wakes is a smashing debut novel that made numerous Best of 2011 lists, but isn’t actually a debut. I have no idea why an amply published author and a famous author’s assistant, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck respectively, chose the Corey pen name, or, having chosen it, made no attempt to pass said Corey off as a real person, but I am sure there is a very good reason for it all. Authorial semantics have no bearing on the quality of the book however, which deserves all of the praise it received. Most of the commentary I have seen on Leviathan can be compressed into the phrase, “gritty throwback space opera,” though what exactly this means and whether or not this isn’t just a contradiction in terms gets my thinker thinking. (Yes, rather than reviewing a book, I am pondering a review of reviews of a book. This may just be grad school coming back to haunt me.)

“Gritty” is currently my favorite Power Word in book and movie world. (For those who aren’t up on Mormon sarcasm and my unilateral expansions of it, Power Words are terms that, by some unexplained consensus, have to be used all the time in whatever discourse one is involved in. For example, one does not say “rain” in the Mormon world, but “moisture.” Likewise, nobody “sends an email” at work, but “reaches out.” These are Power Words.) I’m not sure how we selected grit as something to be quantified and described in our books, but there it is, and it has nothing to do with books being published on sandpaper. Leviathan‘s paper is just as smooth as any other book. It does, however, involve numerous descriptive narratives of character demise, at least one anti-hero variation, moral conundrums, and scenery with a certain level of trash and pollution. I propose the following equation to measure grit: sg(bk+gr)/sr=GI where the Grit Index (GI) equals the sum of bloody killings (bk) and garbage and rust (gr), multiplied by the number of shades of gray in the story (sg), all divided by successful romance subplots (sr), because we all know that true love isn’t gritty. Bonus George R.R. Martin points for killing off popular characters.

Leviathan would score fairly well on the GI, but most especially for the settings. There is a certain amount of Jetsons style futurism, and one imagines that the military spaceships are by necessity clean and shipshape, but the asteroid settlements, mining freighters, and Belter ports of call are pleasingly crusty. This is definitely the science fiction aesthetic one sees in the Alien movies, rather than Star Trek. It carries over into characterization as well, with a ragtag assortment of cops, miners, Belter revolutionaries, and slimy corporate types populating Corey’s Solar System. There’s something to be said for noir-ish griminess of the cop storyline and the held together with spit and duct tape mining world of the other.

The “throwback” part is the most puzzling. When I was reading reviews and comments that talked about how Leviathan reminded them of classic SF from the 70s, I nodded my head and agreed. Thinking later about it, I’m not entirely sure what that’s supposed to mean. Obviously, Leviathan isn’t much like Golden Age SF, but I’m not sure what about it feels like the 70s rather than now. The book’s attitudes about race, gender and society are much more in tune with now; the characters aren’t all competent white men acting in Adam Smith approved idioms. I suppose Leviathan is what some might call “good, old-fashioned storytelling,” but what does that really mean? Telling stories hasn’t gone out of style, unless one is willing to forget John Scalzi, Karl Schroeder, S.M. Stirling, and countless others who put the story before science, or at least next to it. (Heresy!) And if we’re talking about experimentalism, didn’t the 70s involve New Wave, Dick, Delaney, Ballard, and lots of other crazy stuff? So while I find the assertion that Leviathan is somehow bringing something back that has been lost in whatever it is that’s going on now superficially appealing, I really can’t figure out what that something might be. If one were to name a specific author and call out influence and homage, I can accept it. The whole of an era, though, is more complex than basketball players putting on short shorts, Converse All-Stars, and replica uniforms for a night.

Finally, this term “space opera” makes an appearance. Everyone is calling Leviathan a space opera, so I am too, but I think I need to define for myself what space opera really means. Leviathan feels rather like a space opera, with its semi-epic narrative, heroic characters (warts and all), and large scale conflict. But when I think more about it, the setting pushes me towards “General SF.” Leviathan takes place in that slightly awkward time in between brave pioneers exploring the Solar System and humanity spread throughout the stars in some form of empire(s). The system-wide society is well thought out and worthy of in-depth storytelling.  Though I have a certain fondness for near-space tales, my image of space opera tends towards galactic conflict, aliens, cursory views of multiple planets with an unreasonable number of suns or moons, and making the jump to light speed. Then I remember, say, Buck Rogers, and have to revise my estimates yet again. (Some of the franchise is better taken as pulp, but the SSI Gold Box games are Solar System space opera through and through.)

I wonder too about the nature of the action. Leviathan has an intricate, wide ranging plot that covers murder mystery, abandoned space hulks, conspiracy, system-wide politics, revolution, vomit zombies, Mormons, and possible alien incursion. (Some reviewers have made a big deal of the zombies. I kind of rolled with it, since they seemed to flow well with the rest of the plot.) There are space battles and large armadas, but the action stays focused on a small group of people. No admirals surveying their array of capital ships or vast alien menace, which seems like it should be required or the subgenre. I will give credit for excellent use of Mormons though. One of these days I’m going to produce the definitive survey of Mormons in SF, but not today. So what do I think about space opera? Hard to say. I am inclined to file this more under General SF, but that’s something open to much debate.

Whatever the book is, I’m looking forward to the sequels. I like the world building, most of the characters, the vague threat of alien menace, and even the vomit zombies. I’m excited that a large part of the book takes place on what is basically the Reno, NV of outer space. Some of the pacing and organization felt a bit off, but considering the scope and ambition of the book, I’m not sure I can think of a better way to handle it. Definitely a top read from 2011.

Rating: Manchester City of the same year. Not quite immortal, but the pieces are in place for a memorable run.

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water Pt. 1

Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water
Part One

It’s been awhile since I last dipped a wary toe in the fertile but mossy lake of anime. The opportunity came again several weeks ago when my wife brought home an unfamiliar DVD from the library, thinking to give the kids an excuse to hear somebody’s Japanese besides ours. Normally I wouldn’t pay much attention to anything besides giant fighting robots, but the cover said something to the effect of “the best anime series ever made” and “based on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Consider my curiosity piqued.

Nadia comes from a pretty unassailable pedigree. I was a big Jules Verne fan back in the day, with the venerable tale of Captain Nemo a favorite. The original idea for Nadia was put together by none other than Miyazaki Hayao, back when he was just some guy doing animation for other people. It seems, though, that he never did more than outline a story. Finally, the team of Anno Hideaki and Gainax Animation, those crazy minds behind Evangelion, did the full production at the behest of NHK, Japan’s quasi-public TV station. One would think that this combination is a sure thing, so I decided to give it a try.

This is Part One of our Nadia coverage, through Episode 16. It remains to be seen if Part Two will happen, based entirely on whether or not I make it any further in the series. The entire series has 39 episodes, but widespread Internet commentary says that almost a third of those, from the early twenties to the mid thirties, aren’t worth watching. This means that I have seen over half of the good bits, which is probably enough to make some judgments about it all. Thus far it is a mixed bag. The good parts are intense and impressive, the bad parts are about what one would expect from a TV anime geared towards 10-15 year olds. At its heart is a raging schizophrenia; Nadia can’t decide if it wants to be a tense sci-fi thriller or a zany kids’ show.

In that there is a captain named Nemo and his submarine, The Nautilus, Verne’s story gets a nod. That’s about where the similarities end, as the main characters are teen-aged Jean and Nadia, who stumble, as is the tendency of animated youngsters, into a plot much more complicated than they ever dreamed. Jean is a French inventor, while Nadia is a circus performer with a pet lion cub, both of whom are hinted to be from Africa. Immediate and surprising bonus points for Nadia being black, the series for being aware of it, and the occasional nods made toward racial equality. Anyway, they find themselves involved in a vendetta between The Nautilus and some guy from Atlantis who wears a funny mask and calls himself Gargoyle. There are various confusing twists and turns, an array of side characters, and a lot of questions still unresolved at the end of Episode 16, not the least of which concerns a strange crystal called Blue Water that Nadia carries around.

When the series tracks this story, especially the Gargoyle – Nemo conflict, it cranks up the tension, asks some hard questions, and tells a good steampunk before there was steampunk kind of story. Disc Two in particular comes ready to play, with some amazing shots of the bad guy’s hidden fortress, wild technology, and action intense enough to scare off my kids. As befits a TV series, some of the art is comparatively amazing. There are also plenty of easter eggs for anime fans, many of which probably went over my head. Two that I immediately noticed were Nemo, who is a dead ringer for Global from Macross (not so much when he takes off the hat), and at least one scene with Gargoyle’s people that was straight out of the original Gundam and its Nazi-ish Principality of Zeon.

I have narrative whiplash, however, from watching this thing boomerang from serious SF to crazy kiddie cartoon. Gargoyle will be making some grandiose speech about genocide and destiny in one minute, then kids will be running around the next dodging clumsy bad guys while making stereotypical anime expressions with giant mouths and floating sweat drops. Overly dramatic deaths are paired with comical (?) romantic subplots, while slice o’ submarine life bits interject themselves into underwater battle scenes. I suppose it’s rather obvious which parts I liked and which parts I occasionally skipped through.

Add to this some troubling gender imagery and an irritating female lead and the result is several episodes (hello, entirety of Disc Three) that are completely disposable. Nadia says something cringe-inducing at least once per episode as she randomly goes off on a militant vegan tear, accuses someone of cold-blooded murder after a battle of self-defense, or decides for whatever reason to be angry at Jean. I’m uncertain why they keep her around, though I suppose the secrets of her past (Nemo’s child perhaps?) give a plot-related excuse. I would prefer that she stay quiet and let the cool people (Nemo, Gargoyle) take the stage, but it’s a pain to mute the TV every time Nadia starts talking. (Apparently this all gets worse in the bad episodes, which frightens me.) Finally, despite this being on NHK (generally harmless and dowdy) and directed at 10 year olds, anime never fails to deliver chillingly awkward fan service. That may be a redundant phrase.

The most important question for me is: will I brave the remaining 8-10 non-crappy episodes? I don’t know. I’m curious to know what happens to Nemo and Gargoyle, why the Atlantean Empire is still around and blowing things up, and whether or not Anno and Gainax deliver any more nifty scenes. On the other hand, I can do without any more comedic hijinks and would like to keel-haul a major character. If I can get my hands on a movie compression, I may watch that instead, or just read some episode summaries on Wikipedia. Three plus hours is a lot to ask of a viewer when half of it is pointless. Part Two may eventually follow this review, but I have some other, higher priority stuff to get through first. Stay tuned, but I caution readers not to hold any breaths.

Rating: Freddy Adu. He started with much fanfare and promise, tailed off terribly in the middle, but may yet accomplish something great.