Category Archives: Reviews

Reviews of books, movies, music, and maybe even games.

The Boxtrolls

BoxtrollsThe Boxtrolls is quirky, funny, dark, and a little disturbing in all of my favorite ways. I enjoyed it, but I can see lots of places where folks might not think it’s their thing. Then again, there are probably other folks who will love it a lot more than I did. It comes in just a hair below my Threshold of Awesome.

It’s dark for a kids’ movie, but it’s definitely a kids’ movie. You can tell because all the adults are either evil, disinterested, or too stupid to help, leaving our young heroes in charge of fixing things themselves. A trope, yes, but handled in ways that I found very satisfying.

Did I mention that this film is beautiful? Oh, my. I don’t even know where to start. Even the ugly bits were beautiful. This is one that I may want to own on Blu-Ray just so I can freeze scenes and stare deeply into the designs. On that note, though, the poster above does it a great disservice. It hints at some of the energy of the film, but fails completely to catch the spirit or the beauty of it.

Lock In by John Scalzi

Lock In, by John Scalzi breaks a couple of big rules, but gets away with it quite handily.

It’s near-future science fiction in which a plague has created a whole new class of people whose minds are in fine shape, but who have no ability to move their bodies. They’re “locked in,” and as the prologue (okay, THREE rules) tells us, the fact that some very high-profile people get locked in results in hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency research, several breakthroughs, and a cool system whereby these folks can function like normal people — they teleoperate robot chassis, and yes, this causes some societal upheaval.

But that’s the prologue, and I’ve left lots of stuff out. The story itself is part mystery, part sci-fi police procedural, and part technothriller, and covers a lot of ground in some very efficient words. It’s fast-paced, and I found it really engaging from the beginning all the way to the end.

The book felt kind of thin on descriptions. It’s not quite white-room, but it depends heavily on the fact that the readers can be depended upon to fill in a lot of blanks with their own experiences — something readers are going to do anyway, really. It’s near-future SF, so it’s not much of a problem, and Scalzi gets away with this on the strength of the book’s pacing. Rich descriptions would have broken the pace, and besides, he describes the important stuff.

The big issue for me was that the main character did not have a compelling arc beyond getting the mystery solved and keeping his new job. I gave this a pass for a couple of reasons: first, the story is more of an Idea and Event story than a Character story. Second, the main character is a Lock In, and the fairly shallow character arc makes him seem normal compared to the people around him. Sure, he wants the same sorts of things that you and I want, but he’s not a cop on the edge, or a rookie with a dark secret, or any of the other plot-shortcut tropes.

So I guess it’s not a big issue. It only came up when I got to the end and realized that although the end was satisfying, the main character’s journey wasn’t really about him at all.

The book has already been picked up for a TV series, and I think that it’s kind of perfect for that. There are plenty more stories to be told in the Lock In universe, and they’re good, thoughtful stories that a competent screenwriter can wrap up in 43 minutes, or can wrap a season of 43-minute episodes around.

The Maze Runner

Obligatory Disclaimer: The Maze Runner is based on a novel written by my friend James Dashner. I have a policy about reviewing books, which basically says I only write a review if the book is one that I can recommend. Movies, though, I’ll review if I’ve seen it and have something to say.

TheMazeRunnerWith that out of the way…

The Maze Runner (movie) is a pretty good character drama with science-fiction thriller elements in it. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t clear my Threshold of Awesome. 

Why not? Well, because it’s not my kind of story. And here’s where my policy kind of trips me up — I think that The Maze Runner (movie) is a very faithful adaptation of Dashner’s best-selling novel, but the novel itself isn’t really my thing, mostly for stylistic reasons, and now I have to tell you about a book I don’t actually love.

I think that the conceit of the maze itself, in which a tiny community of young men and boys is trapped at the maze’s center, is super-cool and very engaging. The film brings the maze to life in ways that fans of the book will probably love, and though the events of the book are necessarily compressed, the film gets those right, too.

But I don’t love the style of storytelling in which volumes of new information are dropped on the reader or viewer right at the end. Sure, in real life there’s not much foreshadowing for things that are unexpected, but that doesn’t satisfy me in a book or a movie. I want “surprising yet inevitable,” not “whoa, where did THAT come from?” I like the final twists and reveals to be easily explained in one or two sentences in which everything comes together, rather than long explanations which raise as many questions an they answer.

I also love settings that fully explore the ramifications of their “what ifs,” and The Maze Runner doesn’t really do that. There’s a little bit of a Lord of the Flies feel to the glade in the center of the maze, but the glade is nothing like what I imagine an all-boy subsistence community to be like, especially not with the arrival of a girl.

But hey, I had the same problem with The Hunger Games, and those books and films have entertained a lot of people. Your mileage may vary, and now you have one of the key points of variability.

Shipstar by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven

BowlOfHeavenLast year I read Bowl of Heaven by Benford and Niven, and really enjoyed it. The book had lots going for it, and my biggest complaint was that it ended pretty much in the middle of the story. Sure, local threads got wrapped up, but the overarching crisis had not been resolved.

Shipstar resolves it nicely. Shipstar

This is science fiction like the kind I grew up loving, in which the scale of engineering evokes sense of wonder, and the setting is a critical player in the story being told. The second volume adds of detail the setting and depth to the characters, and of course it finishes the story much more satisfactorily.

Thanks to Writing Excuses I’m pretty interested in the process of creating the things that I like, and I was delighted to find afterwords by both authors. These essays by Benford and Niven were fascinating, not only for what they said (lots of cool things about designing BDOs, B-“Smart”-Os, and eon-spanning civilizations), but for what they didn’t say. In particular, they made no mention to specifics in designing characters. I’m sure that’s something that the authors did, but for some reason that’s not what they thought would interest us in the essays.

I wish they had, because the alien characters were interesting and distinct, and the human characters got a lot deeper with the second volume. I’d love to know what went into making that happen.

At the end of Bowl of Heaven I was pretty sure I knew what Shipstar‘s big reveal was going to be. I got the reveal right, but it wasn’t the big one. I’m quite happy to have been mostly wrong. Shipstar had a bunch of new things in it (something to shop for in a new book, obviously,) and I found the reveals very satisfactory, right down to the surprising-yet-inevitable bits.