Redline

Redline

I am looking at my calendar and seeing that it is once again time to dip a toe into the murky waters of anime. Under the microscope today is Redline, a tasty combination of interstellar racing, futuristic weaponry, gangsters, and muscle cars. I suppose there are some people out there who won’t like this, but considering the features listed above, I think it should be required viewing for everyone. In fact, it is available for free at Manga.com and Youtube, so there is no excuse to not check it out right now.

Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first. Redline is the directorial debut of one Koike Takeshi, who has worked in the past as an animator on many notable things that I have not seen. His decision to hand draw everything gave the film a seven year production time, and no doubt a correspondingly sprawling budget. The visuals are appropriately jaw-dropping, much edgier and, dare I say, realistic than typical anime. I’m not really an expert and will leave further commentary to the pros, but Redline is a feast for the eyes. James Shimoji wrote a soundtrack of throbbing techno beats that powers the action. Most of it isn’t really my bag, but I would drop the “Redline Day” theme in a club set once in awhile, were I to ever start DJ’ing. Finally, I had subtitles on for reference, but didn’t pay close enough attention to the translation to comment. The DVD I borrowed had the Japanese version; streaming options appear to only have the English dub, which I have thus far avoided. All of these points are better addressed at anime specific sites, by people who know more than I do.

Now for the fun part, wherein I explain why everyone should watch this. The single biggest reason to enjoy Redline, besides the incredible animation, is the protagonist, JP. He has a massive pompadour (called a ri-zento in Japanese), looks like a particular sort of Japanese punk, and appears to drive a late 60s vintage Pontiac. He also has a heart of gold and ends up losing races because he is too nice. I’m not generally a fan of yanki- (literally “Yankee,” but actually a fashion for juvenile delinquents), but anyone who drives a muscle car in rocket-powered, far future faces is alright with me. Bits and pieces of his life are told in flashback during the buildup to the big race.

The race itself, called the “Redline,” is held every five years for winners of various smaller races – the Yellow Line, Blue Line, etc. It is the World Cup of racing, probably illegal, effectively rule free, the center of a galaxy’s worth of gambling, and held at random places throughout the universe. This time it will be on RoboWorld, the domain of a particularly crazy and xenocidal dictator. Naturally, he wants nothing to do with the race and promises to blow everyone to smithereens if they so much as try to race on his turf. A real life parallel might be found if someone sponsored an airlift of elite rally car squads into North Korea, with the finish line in downtown Pyongyang. JP backs into the Redline to race against a motley assortment of humans, machines, and aliens.

The supporting cast is appropriately weird. JP’s best friend and fixer has mob connections and wears zoot suits. This mechanic looks like a creepy ode to a character from Spirited Away. The RoboWorld dictator and his posse are suitably over the top. One of the other racers, Sonoshee, catches JP’s eye; they may have some sort of past. If the characterization is not particularly deep, it is at least entertaining. The people aren’t the star of the show here, but they are sufficient to move the story along between races.

Most of the plot beats follow a typical sports underdog path, albeit one with exploding rocket-powered cars, alien mob bosses, gigantic and vengeful babies, egregious boobs, and three extra tablespoons of awesomeness. There is even a love story I can (mostly) get behind. It’s a bit like Star Wars pod racing done right. I think it’s one of those movies to show to people who wouldn’t normally watch anime, since it skips a lot of the dumb stuff and gets right to NASCAR with laser cannons. Realistically, what more could I ask? I give it three thumbs up, because I’m one of the multi-limbed aliens in the stands.

2014 Reading List

Top 20 Books to Finish in 2014

After much delay, much waffling, and a final burst of determined discipline, I have birthed this year’s reading list. I figure I’ll read 80-90 books this year (I’m at 17 but have hit a slowdown), of which many will be non-fiction, randomly chosen, or taken from an increasing pile of ARCs. I have the requisite disorganized TBR mountain and many ambitious plans to conquer it. Realistically though, the following is probably the best I can hope for.

This list represents my highest priorities for the year, culled from a number of TBR lists and series in progress. They are presented without comment, save for the following. First, there are only a few 2014 releases on here and they are all sequels or conclusions. I’m sure other new stuff is very exciting, but that’s really a list for another time. Second, I am aware that this is Anglo-Saxon men on parade. I will chalk that up to my attempts to wrap up reading projects that stretch back into my insensitive, uncaring days. Please be aware that I have the usual Japanese entries coming down the pipe and am conscious of equality efforts in my other reading. In fact, I’ve been doing pretty well this year, both in completed books and in articles published. (Alternately, readers who are needlessly offended by gender- and ethnic-equality efforts can just skip that last paragraph. Thanks, and enjoy your white, male fiction.)

Finally, if this matches up with anyone else, I’d love to jump on another read along. Or a series completion project. Or a read along of something not listed at all. Or pretty much anything, since this game is much more fun when we’re all playing it. Have a good 2014, everyone.

Cibola Burn – James S.A. Corey

An Autumn War – Daniel Abraham

On the Steel Breeze – Alastair Reynolds

Shipstar – Greg Benford and Larry Niven

The Bonehunters – Steven Erikson

Manifold: Space – Steven Baxter

The Confusion – Neal Stephenson

The Straits of Galahesh – Bradley Beaulieu

David Falkayn: Star Trader – Poul Anderson

The Quiet War – Paul McAuley

The Hostile Takeover Trilogy – Andrew Swann

Prince of Thorns – Mark Lawrence

Rimrunners – C.J. Cherryh

Inversions – Iain M. Banks

Crucible – Nancy Kress

Jhereg – Steven Brust

The Neutronium Alchemist – Peter F. Hamilton

Brain Thief – Alexander Jablokov

Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie

The Towers of Sunset – L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Queen City Jazz

Queen City Jazz
Kathleen Ann Goonan

Queen City Jazz is a difficult, uncompromising book. Goonan refuses to make things easy for the reader, above and beyond the usual Hard SF hurdles. Keeping up with Goonan requires a healthy knowledge of nanotech, bees, and jazz, with lesser amounts of Cincinnati, American literature, baseball, and Shakers. Even if the reader is up on all of these, details of the plot are deliberately obscured, characters mislead the protagonist, the history of the nano ravaged world is vague, and the final point of the story isn’t clear until the very end. Whether or not the reward justifies the work is a hard call to make. I thought it worthwhile, but I may be in the minority.

Like many first novels, this one has an “everything but the kitchen sink” feel to it. Goonan has created a complicated and detailed world, then stuffed it with a wild array of characters and technology. She could have stopped at nanotech, or even at the nanotech derived plague that both transformed the cities and depopulated the country, but kept going. Verity, the protagonist, starts off in a Neo-Shaker community that came together in response to the plagues, but is off before long into the transformed, unrecognizable cities. Her ultimate destination, Cincinnati, is full of towering, graceful skyscrapers, each with a gigantic flower on top and serviced by an army of cow-sized, nanotech bees. Survivors of the nanotech craziness live in shanty towns in the shadow of the city, while the residents of the city itself might be human, or might not.

Are we all keeping up so far? The vertigo is just beginning. Verity discovers her destiny, pre-nano flashbacks start to explain the semi-mad, vaguely incestuous beginnings of the nano-plagues, and everyone plays jazz or baseball. Goonan maintains a voice that manages cold science and dreamy intoxication, often at the same time. I have read a lot of science fiction and know a lot of plot paths, but this one kept me off-balance almost the entire time. I confess to having no idea, through probably 450 pages, of where things were going, what would happen, or how Verity was going to become whatever it is she was supposed to become. Though certainly a credit to the author’s creativity, not everyone will appreciate being bewildered for so long. I think we can all agree, though, that seeing Ernest Hemingway rejected for a spot on the recreated Cincinnati Reds due to arrogant jerkiness is worth the price of admission.

Long time readers might (correctly) guess that the jazz bit of Queen City Jazz is my favorite part. Goonan clearly knows her stuff. The conversations between musicians ring true, the descriptions of their playing reflect the way I feel when I play, and the strange reincarnations of past masters are appropriate. Goonan must know that Sphere, the alto sax player who guides Verity through the city, shares a name with Thelonious Monk, though they have little in common. (Monk’s middle name was Sphere, but Monk was, in (I think) Dexter Gordon’s tastefully understated words, “Not exactly the cat next door.”) My only real nitpick is that jazz seems to stop about 1965 in the book. Keeping things with the classics does give the book a more timeless feel, but also has a “you kids get off my lawn” vibe with the implication that good music died with John Coltrane. To be fair, I think that this was an editorial decision in line with the first observation, more than a flag planted by the second.

Trying to put this all together, Queen City Jazz has solid world building, a singular premise and vision, and excellent prose on one hand. On the other, it is dense and unforgiving, likely leaving many readers with no idea what is going on for long stretches. If people tell me that they just didn’t get it, or bounced hard within the first hundred pages or so, I will understand. Still, there are more books in the series, so somebody thought this was worth the trouble. I have a built in tolerance for the worst excesses of Hard SF (not present here anyway), heavy reading, and all around cryptic stuff, so I muscled through alright. In fact, when they payoff finally came, I was glad that I persevered. I can give that level of recommendation, but will not be surprised if others disagree. I will report back later, once I have delved further into Goonan’s world, with a verdict on the broader implications of the book.

Rating: A tense, 0-0 draw in the preliminary round. Not for everyone, but a certain aesthetic pleasure can be derived from the tactical battles unfolding.

Counting Heads

Counting Heads
David Marusek

I’ve had a hard time finding an angle to write about with Counting Heads. Normally I give up on books that don’t immediately present an entertaining topic for an article, but Marusek’s world is both unique and obscure enough that I want to talk about it. Still, it’s not the easiest thing to make a post from, despite taking on all sorts of crunchy issues in a surreal, cyberpunk-y world. Ah well, let’s dig in and see what what we can make of it all.

More than anything else, what stands out in Counting Heads is the world building. Marusek has clearly spent time inhabiting this creation, giving it an extensive history and complex society. If forced to pigeonhole things, I would file the book in cyberpunk, but it is no Gibson-Sterling clone. I was frequently reminded of Rudy Rucker while I read, though Counting Heads is not nearly as weird as The Ware Tetralogy. It has a similar vibe, combining an uneasy, if not quite dystopian, future with well-reasoned but very strange people. It also has smells, which may have sealed the deal for me. (The cheesy robots and seared unfortunates might get along well.) Marusek blends nanotech, pervasive augmented reality, cloning, Heinleinian family setups, and near-future economics. One review I read speculated that the society is on the verge of a Singularity – it may be, with AI and digitized dead people on the horizon. It’s a grab bag of contemporary issues, presented under the domes set up to protect cities from nanoplagues, by people trapped in a society that is no longer economically viable and searching for answers. The last bit should feel right at home for us.

The economy may be the most impressive world building feat. Marusek’s scientists have found paths both to near immortality and to human cloning. Either of these alone would be a fundamental economic game changer, but together would blow up pretty much everything. Only in a complete post-scarcity world could society withstand that double challenge. The people in Counting Heads seem to have solved some natural resource questions (not all, but more than we have), but the basics remain competitive. Without a very high floor for food, housing, health care, and education, cloning and lifespans in the 200s would devastate the middle class; this is exactly what is happening in Counting Heads. Not only are traditional humans suffering, but whole clans of clones are confronting obsolescence and its resulting poverty. Names have been changed to protect the innocent, but Marusek is painfully close to describing global economics today. It grants the characters a harrowing sympathy.

And a wild assortment of characters they are. We see the super rich, the “seared” outcasts, a co-op trying to make a go of it, clones, a troubled religious leader, and the random denizens of the near future. The viewpoint character for the co-op is a man who has elected to remain twelve forever, both physically and emotionally. He has a good job, but is stunningly superficial; though whether this is by necessity or choice is never clear. The clones are represented by a “Russ,” a clone type used for most security work. This particular Russ may be having a psychological crisis that is forking him off into a new type, or may not. His attempts to make sense of his own psyche amidst his genetically taciturn brethren form one of my favorite subplots. The seared unfortunate is the narrator of the short story that opens the book, who then retreats into a background role that offers a melodic counterpoint to the rest. All are distinct and engaging, likewise the more prominent secondary characters, though my sympathies lie primarily with the groups of clones. I have no idea why, but I found their stories to be the most entertaining.

All of this forms the backdrop for a rather conventional plot, involving someone’s head standing in for the requisite MacGuffin. It’s almost an afterthought, with plenty of other things going on that are probably not related to the head, but ultimately more important. In fact, the location and condition of the head drives one particular plot point that I was never sure needed to be driven in that way. We are told by a couple of unreliable types that a certain outcome would be bad. Certain other unreliable types go along with that and do some unreliable things as a result. Was this the best answer? I guess so, though it’s hard to say. I’m actually more interested in whatever is going on with the domes, how the Russes and other clones are dealing with things, whether or not the seared guy will turn himself into a wheelchair-bound fireball at a hilarious time or not, and if that crazy co-op group will beat down their equally crazy neighbors. The head is nice and all, and is probably a charming person once reattached to something, but it wasn’t the center of my life. I suppose there would have to be a different title without it, so there is that.

I don’t know where to place this in the broader, near-future firmament. It’s kind of cyberpunk. It’s definitely soft SF, with its focus on society over technology. It’s a moderately deep character study of some very sideways people. There is potential here for the next books in the series to dig into some serious issues, and the world to open up into something distinctive, but there is also a chance that things merely plod along with a bunch of navel gazing weirdos. Regardless, I think Counting Heads deserves more notice and more conversation, though it didn’t quite grab me by the lips and yank. “Detached fascination” might be the operative words here, but I will be reading more.

Non-Fiction Roundup

Shattered Sword
Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully
The Ghost Map
Steven Johnson
Tubes
Andrew Blum

A steady trickle of non-fiction makes its way into my reading, despite the tidal wave of science fiction that threatens to overwhelm all. Some of these books are, while not science fiction, tangentially related to science fictional topics or inform one or another aspect of the genre. In many cases, I would consider them aids to world building or broader context for the stories we read. (Some are just about baseball. We all have to take breaks.) When enough of these sorts pile up, I will write an infrequent column introducing them, just in case someone else out there is curious.

Shattered Sword
This is a revisionist look at the Battle of Midway, one of the turning points of the Pacific half of World War II. Parshall and Tully write primarily from the Japanese point of view, making use of original research and previously untranslated accounts to correct what they see as inaccuracies in the historical record. I haven’t read much of the Midway canon, so I can’t say much about conflicts between the old guard and the young whippersnappers, but they felt right on the money to me. Sword is primarily of interest to me because of the focus on Japan; the authors are sympathetic to my adopted home, without absolving them of responsibility. (WWII blame in the Pacific is a much murkier issue than in Europe. Hitler was clearly in charge and evil, but in Japan, there was no central leader. Further, the Japanese had many valid grievances with the international system, even though they dealt with them in exactly the wrong way.)

As for science fictional relevance, WWII seems a model for numerous SF campaigns. For example, Tony Daniel’s tragically unfinished series that starts with Metaplanetary is pretty much the European Front moved to outer space. Gamers of a certain age will remember the Wing Commander series – its developer clearly stated that the Pacific War was his model. I am fairly certain that David Weber’s The Stars at War is also indebted to the same campaign. On the Japanese side, Nazi-like elements appear in Mobile Suit Gundam, while the Space Battleship Yamato series is a redemption tale where WWII goes differently. There are many more, but these are taken from my most recent Goodreads pages. For me, at least, knowing more about WWII informs the context for a lot of space opera.

As far as recommendations go, I wouldn’t hand this book to someone who had never read about WWII before. It is pretty clearly targeted towards military historians, though the authors make a few nods toward general readability. They don’t dumb anything down, but do candidly admit that twenty pages of military doctrine review is not spine tingling. More than this though, Midway doesn’t make nearly as much sense when stripped of historical context. The curious should probably start with an overview of the Pacific War before digging into individual battles. That said, I found the narrative engaging from start to finish and give this high marks all around. Anyone interested in WWII in general and the Japanese experience in particular should definitely check out Shattered Sword.

The Ghost Map
Steven Johnson’s book is subtitled “The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.” That’s pretty ambitious, especially for being just 299 pages (minus notes, index, etc.). The title refers to a map made of the 1854 Broad Street cholera epidemic, an outbreak that marked a major turning point in the battle to make Western big cities something other than complete death traps. And by turning point, I mean “the stunning realization that people really shouldn’t drink their own poop.” Good job, Anglo-Saxons. No wonder we ruled the world for awhile.

In the first half, Johnson traces the mindset changes that prompted a few people to look at cholera (and disease, and demographics) in a different way, one that allowed The Authorities to finally get a handle on one of the most mysterious and sinister killers of the era. We follow the paths of these investigators and get to see how wildly inaccurate but deeply embedded opinions get overthrown (cholera comes from tainted drinking water, not noxious smells), while another Victorian relic somehow carries on (the deserving poor and our justifications for letting them suffer). Prominent heroes include statistics, population mapping, public sewer construction, and the beginnings of discovering germs.

Once cholera is defeated, John turns his eye to the ways this enabled urbanism and crises that may threaten it in the same way now. This part is less interesting than the first, as it mostly wanders into speculation, though I suppose it would be the more applicable half for SF fans. The first though, shows the development of the scientific mindset and the changes a society undergoes when that happens. It also, in a way, is a portrait of London as it approaches a singularity. Not The Singularity, of course, but a singularity caused by the rapid changes inherent in the Industrial Revolution. Anyway, this is worth the read, especially for the first 100 pages or so.

Tubes
Tubes is Andrew Blum’s attempt to map out the physical internet: the cables, data centers, hubs, and buildings that answer the question of just where things come from when we pull them up on browsers. He builds a fascinating portrait of the new – fiber-optic cable, data – and the old – trans-oceanic cables, ancient phone centers converted to network hubs – that comprise the internet in the real world. This should be required reading for any prospective cyberpunk author and has probably already seeded numerous techno thriller plots. (Want to know which building terrorists could hit to wipe out the US internet? It’s in here.)

The book is less effective when Blum’s English degree gets the better of him. He’s obviously tormented by the desire to turn this into some sort of personal journey, because every once in awhile, FEELINGS crash the stage. Uncovering the sort of information that everyone probably wonders about should be enough excitement, but we still have to muse upon the human condition. Oh well. Get past this and Tubes is a geographical eye-opener.