QuikReview: Oblivion (2013)

So I watched Oblivion, a 2013 movie scifi movie starring predominantly Tom Cruise.

Now, I’ve opined at length as to the fact that straight scifi movies tend not to be very good. This is because a) filmmakers are stupid, b) they think their audiences are stupid, too. Most SF movies only achieve greatness synthetically, by cribbing off other genres, especially Westerns, but occasionally also horror, or even war-stories. (Pssst, has anyone noticed that Aliens is actually a Western? Everyone thinks it’s an action movie, but it’s got the Red Injuns, the cocky cavalry detachment with the inexperienced leader and the experienced and knowledgeable civilians….)

Anyway, much to my surprise, Oblivion is a straight scifi movie, and it’s….good! It has a simple and unexceptional but solid plot, and it relies on its characters and worldbuilding to reveal that plot point by point and–crucially–twist by twist (there’s a reveal about halfway through that made me actually sit up and grin.) Now, at a certain point it largely gives up on the thoughtful, measured approach and leans hard into the by-golly-I-have-an-explodey-things-budget-and-I’m-gonna-use-it syndrome, but please note I said “leans” not “dives” and entirely omitted “headlong.” The second half of the movie had more than enough built-up good will to keep my attention, but the thing with scifi movies is that they should never try to explain themselves out loud. See a), above. This movie did very, very well when it showed its protagonist–and its audience–what was going on; it only started to fumble when it switched over to telling.

What is there to show, then? Well, Tom Cruise is Jack Harper, Tech-49, who with his communications officer/lover/partner Vika, are the last humans left on Earth after an absolutely devastating war with the alien Scavs that, among other things, destroyed the moon. Most of the human population is on Titan, and some of it is on the orbital space station, the Tet. They have been mind-wiped prior to their mission, because….

Jack maintains the drone fleet that protects the ocean-water-sucking thingies that are destroying what’s left of the earth for power. (Why not just mine some comets, asks no screenwriter ever.) There are still some remnant Scavs on Earth that attack the drones and the power platforms. Vika is his mission control and interface with Command. The two are an effective team, but there are still some conflicts. Jack has dreams of the future and thoughts of the past; Vika resolutely suppresses such things. Jack has a relaxed view of orders and is fully aware that Command has them on a very long leash; Vika has a much stronger belief in regulations.

And then, a signal beamed from Earth brings an ancient spacecraft back to ground….a spacecraft containing living human crewmembers. Living, that is, until Jack’s own drones destroy all but one of the sleep-pods, utterly ignoring his orders to stand down. The sole survivor is Julia, a woman who refuses to reveal anything more to Jack, Vika, or Command until she retrieves the flight recorder from her ship…and shows them the truth. At about this point, Morgan Freeman also enters the picture, and I do have to ask: if Earth is that destroyed, where’d his cigars come from?

And so it goes with the movie, having accumulated this many questions, starting to tip over into revealing the answers (except the one about the cigars.) And so it goes, with the one problem that it reveals rather too many answers and in rather too bald-face a manner for my views.

Other good stuff: the cinematography of this film is really good. Like, I watched it entirely on my phone and I was watching for those little triggering points that normally break my suspension of disbelief (s/a: mysterious, additional light sources when there should not be light sources), and I noticed how good it was. Apparently a chunk of the movie was filmed on location….in Iceland, lending a barren, surreal, beautiful backdrop that works very well indeed. The sets and designs are also very good. Tom Cruise does an expert job as the personable, handsome hero; Morgan Freeman, well, Morgan-Freemans his way through dialogue that is 99% exposition as only Morgan Freeman can or could. Andrea Riseborough and Olga Kurylenko are incredibly outmatched in this movie, talent-wise, which is a shame, but they do their best and, in Riseborough’s case, mostly match up to the challenge.

Okay so, although I’ve spent a long while in this review complaining about the movie when it shifts focus to the action, I will also state that the action scenes themselves are largely quite good….at first, when they don’t involve humans. The drones are an incredible threat / weapon / ally, and  it’s an annoying waste of potential that the movie ends up ultimately wimping out and choosing the cheap (explodey) way of making those bits be exciting. That being said, the cinematography still makes everything look good, the characterization makes them be tense and engaging, and, yeah, it’s pretty good.

Overall, I do think that the movie could have been better if it maintained a better balance between its initial, more thoughtful tone and the faster-paced finale (honestly, delete half the expository dialogue and you wouldn’t have to change another thing else), I still have to admit straight-up that, yeah, it’s pretty good.

Rated: Oh wow, you’re in luck, Julie. There’s two of them for you now!

no, I don’t know when I’m going to read them, either

They were free on the library free bookshelf, OKAY?

  • The Sands of Mars – Arthur C. Clarke
  • Cheaper by the Dozen – Gilbreth & Carey (do I have a copy of this already? Whatever, it free.)
  • Julius Caesar – Shakespeare
  • The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Homeworld – Harry Harrison
  • Tales from the “White Hart” – Arthur C. Clarke

Not actually free, but only 50 cents was

  • The Children of Hurin – Tolkien

That’ll learn me to play hooky, I guess. Send help.

Readlist Rundown: old friends

(In between The Shadow pulps, naturally. I’m at #189 and counting.)

– The Book of Dreams – Jack Vance. This may have been my very first Vance novel, and as such it’s a great introduction; it’s one of his very most Vancian. That being said, it’s not the very best Demon Princes novel, and as the capstone to the pentalogy, it rather pales in comparison with its predecessor, The Face.

– The Old Gods Waken – Manly Wade Wellman. Dude, you spent an entire book building up to the climactic confrontation and fight, and then solved it by accident in a single paragraphWhat the hell?

– Warriors of Blood and Dream – various, edited by Roger Zelazny. This is an anthology of martial arts stories, of various genres and styles, and also of quality. Some of them are actually quite good–the Monkey King’s grandson accidentally ussuring Communism into China, for one; and the final story, wherein a dead and dreaming monster from the city of the Anasazi, the ancient enemy ones, awakens in the present day. (That one ran over its allotted length and you can kind of see exactly when the author checked his pages, winced, and started typing faster. Still quite good.)

– The Prince Commands – Andre Norton. I love this book. It’s a perfect little example of its kind, and if I knew any kids that would read it, I’d buy extra copies for them. (None of the brats I know would read it or even be allowed to, so….)

– Sleepwalker’s World – Gordon R. Dickson. This one starts off very strongly indeed, but Dickson decided to swing away from hard-edged scifi of the sort that did his protagonists well in Wolfling and On Messenger Mountain, in favor of a more psychedelic style….and, unfortunately, stays there. Which is a pity, because he had a really great setup and, frankly, the talking telepathic timber wolf was awesome.

The Shadow Magazine #67 – The Unseen Killer

shadow_magazine_vol_1_67So it appears that I have been doing the brisk Police Commissioner Weston a disservice. He has not, in fact, ever been convinced of the presence of an invisible man, to the point of ordering his detectives to take appropriate actions when guarding doors and windows against said invisible murderer’s entry–or exit. It was actually Commissioner Barth.

Weston, you see, departed New York somewhere around mid-1934 for a heroic stint establishing a….tyrannical police state in a dubiously-named South American nation, okay. His replacement, Wainwright Barth, is something special, even by pulp fiction incompetent detective standards. (It’s explained that Barth lobbied intensively for the job and got it mostly because a) being a former financier, he was able to handle the administrative portions of it, b) absolutely no one else wanted to. It’s also explained that Weston gets his job back very quickly once he returns.)

This era of Shadow stories is interesting, since globe-trotting millionaire Lamont Cranston maintains a friendship with both police commissioners, frequently gets invited out to crime scenes, and is solicited for his opinion on tricky matters. The difference is that while Weston will begrudgingly acknowledge when Cranston has a good point, Barth gets agitated when his own investigative incompetence is highlighted. Needless to say, Cranston handles both with aplomb and, often, the trailing echo of a whispered laugh.

So. An invisible murderer. An incompetent police force. The Shadow. What else does this book contain? Well, for one: a mad scientist, an ex-aviator and soldier of fortune, a couple of majority stockholders, a group of swindlers, a couple of slick gang leaders, and more gun-toting mobbies than you can shake a stick at.

The majority stockholders have lost a lot of money to a trio of swindlers. However, one of them still has a lot of faith in the mad scientist he is funding–despite the failure of the last big invention, which also lost money–and, in order to assuage the doubts of other board members, arranges a viewing of the latest: a device for the devisualization of solids. Lamont Cranston, wearing his tech investor hat (would he be a SpaceX shareholder today, one wonders….), and Commissioner Barth are along for the ride. We know there is going to be major hijinx, because we have also seen the two main mob leaders (themselves, of course, acting on behalf of the Big Boss), meticulously planning a hideout and alibis.

The devisualization test subject is Miles Crofton, a former aviator and soldier of fortune; a capable man with some unsavory associations in his past. He disappears, but then also escapes the laboratory. Threatening letters signed by “The Unseen Killer” are found almost immediately, and, shortly, one of the swindlers gets murdered in his own home. The doors and windows are locked and there is no sign of forced entry.

To give some credit to Commissioner Barth, he does propose a second test of the devisualization device–casually volunteering ace detective Joe Cardona as the guinea pig, heh–but the mad scientist’s sudden death (accompanied by another threatening letter) only reinforces his belief that there really is an unseen killer around. The Unseen Killer promptly demands that the remaining two swindlers turn their ill-gotten money back over to him, on pain of….death. The Shadow, of course, has sussed out the disappearance, and the basics of the ongoing scheme, but with the death-by-gunshot-wound of the first lead, he and his agents must scour the underworld for the next, looking for both the plotters and the not-really-invisible man–and the unseen mastermind behind it all.

And so it goes, down to a very satisfying climax indeed.

So, at the slight risk of spoiling a 92-year-old novel, Miles Crofton is innocent and in fact becomes one of the Shadow’s agents. He’s got rather the most thankless task of any agent–yes, even more so than Harry Vincent–because he’s the private pilot to one of the most badass aviators in all of pulp or adventure fiction.

Speaking of agents, they’re present but far in the background. Harry Vincent and Cliff Marsland end up on the active side of a kidnap-slash-rescue operation, for once. Jericho Druke gets to pop up, bang some heads together, and then play innocent once the police arrive. Pietro the fruitcart vendor makes his second and I believe last appearance, possibly because it’s lampshaded how conspicuous and improbable he is on a stakeout team. And the hunchy, ambling Hawkeye provides one of the biggest breaks in the case, by uncovering the Unseen Killer’s hideout spot.

Gibson’s Shadow stories didn’t contain much outright funny bits, but there’s more than a generous sprinkling of dry, sly humor to them–such as Joe Cardona’s uneasiness at being voluntold to become the next Invisible Man, or Cranston’s missed sarcasm to Commissioner Barth. (A different story sees Cranston and a tubby civilian banker get taken hostage and encouraged to stick ’em up. The narrator observes: “[civilian’s] hands went up as if impelled by springs. Cranston’s followed at a more leisurely pace.”)

Rated: Really, Commissioner? Really?

The Shadow Magazine #157 – The Golden Dog Murders

shadow_magazine_vol_1_157What even is with this story? I mean, besides the fact that it features a guy who keeps a debarked bulldog in his wall safe, there’s a Moslem Maharajah who somehow also worships a nude golden dog-headed goddess, Harry Vincent doesn’t even get slugged over the head once and lose consciousness, there’s a mysterious gray man who makes his entrance into the fortress via parachute, not to mention there’s a nude golden dog-headed goddess in this book? What I mean is: why does the weasely chemist guy keep getting tied up, being rescued, only to turn turn on his rescuers and scurry off–only to reappear in the next scene tied up and gagged again? Why does the skimpily-clad damsel get dragged out of the closet, questioned futilely….and then shoved back into it with no further comment, in the space of like two paragraphs? And if the circus actually did move out and relocate all their animals, where did the animals come from? In fact, if it’s a dedicated animal care facility, why is the snake pit in the middle of the cellar hallway and why does it come equipped with a zipline?

So, this novel was written by Theodore Tinsley, which….not to say that it’s a bad one, or that he’s a bad author. In fact, rather like The Pooltex Tangle, this is one of his better outings in the driver’s seat for The Shadow pulps. But….sheesh, seriously, at least Gibson would have come up with plausible explanations for all of the above. Tinsley, one senses, simply giggled and kept on typing. (I mean, a parachute? Really?)

Tinsley’s Shadow is infinitely less infallible and far more emotional than Gibson’s, but admittedly part of that is due to (I understand) the editorial dictat that slowly reshaped the character into a more conventional one. This Shadow gasps, stares, hopes desperately, grimaces in annoyance, and also struggles in a one-on-one battle with the book’s main heavy; but he does also never get taken completely by surprise, even by random puffs of sinister sapphire nerve-gas in the inky tunnels, etc. (Given how often he runs into this menace, you’d think The Shadow’s kit would include a gas mask, but no such luck.) He laughs with sibilantly grim mirth, looms excellently, and also exposes the true villain with an unerring and merciless eye. Which…you can’t really ask for more than that.

Harry Vincent makes an incredible showing: actually managing to thwart a kidnapping, managing to stay useful even after exposure to the aforementioned gas, and showing excellent marksmanship when it matters most. Cliff Marsland is present, too, and does rather less well, failing to gull his criminal compatriot and succumbing to torture rather more quickly than expected for a tough guy who has withstood epic tortures on-page before. Joe Cardona…is completely mishandled, I’m sorry. He should have been replaced with Clyde Burke or another agent, because he’s devoid of personality. There’s also two lovely blondes (Tinsley seemed to like them, because that’s the only hair color he wrote about. Gibson at least occasionally brought in redheads.)

What’s the plot? If you need the plot explained to you after reading the opening paragraph, then you, friend, are not destined for the pulps. The Shadow In Review marked this book down as a four-star, which….I definitely wouldn’t. But I did enjoy it, even if I was giggling almost as much as Tinsley at points.

Rated: so, if you had ten fake but indistinguishable gemstones and ten real, priceless ones, why is murder the obvious solution?

The Shadow Magazine #171 – Death Ship

shadow_magazine_vol_1_171The difference between The Shadow and many another hero is that, even when he does trip over his cloak hem and, for instance, end up getting his ass handed to him by a group of unexpected Japanese jujutsu masters, he recovers, lays plans, takes precautions, and is completely in control whenever Round Two starts–and thereafter.

The Shadow is a proactive and dominant hero. He doesn’t take orders, he gives orders, and expects them to be obeyed; he does not seek advice; he gives it. And if he’s never, ever, the underdog.

So! As can be inferred, The Shadow starts this book decidedly off on the wrong foot: sneaking up on the site of an experimental speedboat (the Barracuda), a brunette gets the drop on him, as do several thugs with rifles; then the jujutsu masters burst in from the rear and (what makes it funny is that he’s noted to be definitely smarting about this later) beat the crap out of the guy who is extremely used to diving into the midst of a clump of thugs, “arms sledging.” Adding still further insult to injury, brunette, boat, and disreputable soldier of fortune disappear into the Pacific waves; and adding further injury the boathouse explodes, trapping The Shadow in its depths as it collapses. This all happens by chapter two, by the way.

And here’s another difference between The Shadow and other heroes. The Shadow doesn’t ever get rescued. Now, of course, there have been times when he has been content to stay put and wait for his agents to come haul him out of the spike pit; but those are times decided by policy and/or crippling injury. The Shadow is never outmatched by the villains, and when circumstance places him at a disadvantage, he uses his keen wit and untiring brawn to mitigate that disadvantage, and then reverse it. The Shadow usually firmly has the upper hand in conflicts, a status most heroes aren’t allowed to have in the first place. He does lose that upper hand periodically, but when he does, he gains it back through his own effort rather than authorial fiat.

In this case, this involves just barely dragging himself out of the rubble ahead of the rising tide and crawling back to shore under cover of darkness. It’s some time later before Lamont Cranston, somehow looking none the worse for wear, returns to his hotel and consults the newspapers to find out what has been going on.

The Barracuda has taken to piracy. The prime suspect is its inventor, a Commander Prew, who resigned from the Navy to escape a court-martial and whose intentions in marketing the boat are considered suspect. Among the suspects: the Japanese not-at-all-official envoy, Ishi Sotoyo, to whom The Shadow pays a discrete visit….only to find that his Cranston guise has been made and, worse, that he’s been expected. (Sidenote: there is not one, not one singular instance in the 171 books so far in which The Shadow, making an entrance with an ominous loom, a .45, and a cackle, does not immediately have the tables turned on him by someone approaching from the rear. You’d think the man would learn to keep his back against a wall, or something.)

Still, the Japs being a civilized people, a civilized and mutually informative discussion is had with Sotoyo, after which he intends to betray The Shadow, and also after which The Shadow leaves him tied up with his own belt. The result is that the Japanse are highly interested in the boat and its soldier-of-fortune ersatz captain (Felix Sergon) but definitely not to the extent of causing open trouble with the American government. The Shadow also gains a lead on Commander Prew’s financial backer, who has been in hiding. He’s already dead; but we get, in payment for some of the humiliations already dealt him by the totally-not-ninja squad, The Shadow materializing out of the darkness in their very midst as they creep through the apartment, delivering an awesome whispered warning, and then fading back into the black without a sound.

The next step is locating Commander Prew himself. It turns out there are two Z-boats: the Barracuda and the smaller, lighter, Lamprey. Although helped by covert signals from the brunette (bet you forgot about her) being held captive on the Barracuda, the Lamprey is unable to make contact with the Barracuda after an initial search, but The Shadow susses out that the now-completely piratical Sergon will likely be going after a Japanese ship hauling five million dollars in gold bullion. He joins this ship as a passenger, and pays a visit to Ishi Sotoyo, purely and solely for the opportunity to revengefully return the indignity paid to him at their first meeting:

Across the cabin, a man was seated by a desk. His back was turned and his huddled
position made it difficult to judge his height. The Shadow quietly closed the door, then took a chair of his own. From beneath his cloak, he drew an automatic; with the same move, he let his cloak slide from his shoulders. Peeling off his gloves, he removed his hat.
As Lamont Cranston, he sat with his .45 leveled right between the shoulder blades of the
man by the desk.
The hardest part of The Shadow’s whole endeavor was to attract the man’s attention. He
wanted to do it to a degree of nicety; to excite curiosity, rather than alarm. Slight scuffles,
shifting of the chair— neither seemed to work. It was not until the tone of seven bells came
vaguely to the cabin that The Shadow had the perfect opportunity.
The man in the chair looked up from his book. Momentarily diverted from his reading, he
heard the slight stir that The Shadow made. The man looked about, came halfway from his
chair in his surprise. He froze in that position when he saw the automatic.
A whispered laugh came from The Shadow’s fixed lips. He relished this situation. It was a
complete reversal of one that had been engineered at his own expense. He had not
forgotten a certain night in San Francisco. Nor had the man from the chair.
That man was Ishi Soyoto.

Dude, you petty.

Anyhow, the Barracuda located, the Lamprey takes up the chase. There are hostages–not to mention a brave and loyal brunette–to be rescued…

Rated: Hot sub-on-sub action, woah.

QuikReview: The Star Kings – Edmund Hamilton

This book is Space Opera–as written by one of the Old Masters, first of the breed, foremost among those that led the way and titan to those that followed–at its finest. I mean, his nickname was “World Wrecker,” you can’t get better than that. There’s a different adventure every 1.5 chapters, a space princess, a scantily-clad space-concubine, grizzled space-captains, battleships, cruisers, phantoms, cunning or treacherous advisors, quarrelsome barons, and grim and gallant fighting men. There’s the lurking menace of the Clouded Worlds’ rebel fanatics and the legendary, unknowable, unutterably fearsome threat of The Disruptor that keeps even their cynical leader in line. There’s also, to make sense of it all, a present-day (1949) protagonist who has had his consciousness transferred into the body of a star-Prince–and thence suddenly into the teeth of the action itself. But what can a man of Earth–our Earth–do when the stars themselves are at stake?

Aaaaand that’s basically it. If you feel you need to somehow know more about this book, then you ought to read it.

It’s a book that reads incredibly quickly and hits every single pulp fiction trope that it possibly can without changing genres (and that even includes the crashed ship being attacked by hostile natives….if there had been space for even a single chapter more there would have been some sort of sword-against-sword action going on.) –but yet there’s a consummate level of skill involved that carries it all off.

Partly, it’s the prose, which sells the sensawunda that can only be achieved by an active imagination, a yearning for stars yet-unreached, deep knowledge of the past that informs the actual doings and behaviors of mankind; and a nimble pen that doesn’t flinch from a little bit of mauve from time to time (see: scantily-clad space concubine.) The other part is that Hamilton actually did know his business, and, preposterous though the plot is, makes it proceed logically from the actions of intelligent and motivated actors, one of which is often–but not always–our hero.

A third and crucial part is that our hero is a hero. Starting out from an ex-soldier with a yearning for more than his old accounting job will offer him, and thrust abruptly into the whirl of galactic politics and treachery, he accounts himself well, never forgetting that he owes a debt to the true Zarth Arn, whose face he wears and whose place he has taken. Also, another tribute to Hamilton’s prowess, although John Gordon is an outsider with only a cursory knowledge of the situation, never once does anyone to sit down and explain things to him (us) in simple language. While he’s no moron, he’s always scrambling to achieve an in-scene, in-person goal–to keep his cover, to bluff the enemy, to not break his morganatic wife’s heart–and he’s doing it with limited resources and high stakes.

The other characters suffer from the fact that this is a pulp novel at heart. They’re colorful, they’re placed to provide maximum interest, and they all give the impression that, given more time to navel-gaze, they could be turned into interesting persons indeed, rather than what is simply given them by their descriptors–space-princess, stalwart captain, sneaky advisor, cynical tyrant.

The one character who does do particularly well in this is, oddly enough, the cynical space-tyrant who leads the fanatics of the (?) Clouded Worlds. Shorr Kan is an odd duck of an antagonist, professing a fanatical hatred against the Empire that he in no ways feels; his own desire is for naked power alone. He’s cunning enough to seed the elitest ranks of the Empire with his own men, assassinate the Emperor and frame his own son for it, cold-blooded enough to use a brain scan device that, on uncovering neural connections, breaks them irreparably….and yet human enough to immediately switch the device off when it reveals that he’s got the wrong man. Mind you, he’s also dumb enough to let his suddenly-ultracooperative prisoner take his girlfriend along on a harebrained scheme that couldn’t possibly go wrong, so…perhaps his defeat was more inevitable than it seemed. Apparently he gets brought back for the sequel, so.

Rated: man once dreamed of the stars!

QuikReview: Boss Level (2021)

boss_level_ver3So due to hazardous road conditions in my area I’m stuck at home; and after receiving a ringing endorsement from film-authority for the rom-com Book of Love, I decided to watch Boss Level.

Overall….it’s fun movie. There are some directly meta bits (“Is that a katana?” “Psht, no, that would be Japanese.” “Let’s not bring racism into this.”) which don’t quite stick out like sore thumbs because the entire tone is so self-referential to begin with. There’s also a slam against “liberals,” which made me smile even though it’s the villain who makes it, so.
There’s not a whole lot to say about this movie that hasn’t been said already or made abundantly clear from the trailer. It’s a movie.

It has a beginning, an middle, a twist that raises stakes, and then an end. It has handsome and charismatic Frank Grillo, who handles the rather disappointingly basic action scenes with aplomb. It has Mel Gibson, uttering a performance that wouldn’t have gone amiss in a much better movie. It has about Michelle Yeoh, probably only present because someone in the production acquired compromising photos of her and negotiated her presence on set for an hour or two. I like to imagine she beheaded said producer with a prop sword when filming was done and left the set unchallenged. It has a cute kid who is not even annoying. It has an assassiness with her own tagline (“I am Guan Yin. And Guan Yin has done this!”) which probably really confused my coworkers when I added it to my email signature yesterday.

It’s a fun movie and I rather liked it.

Problem is: this could have been a serious, fun movie. It could have been a contender. It wouldn’t have been very hard, either. All it would have taken was a few more adjustments: a little bit less meandering during the first/discovery half of the movie, a little bit more earnestness during the action scenes, and a lot more focus on Grillo discovering the plot rather than getting humorously killed and reset dozens of times.

(There was also enormous potential for the damsel/girlfriend to be the ultimate villain/ess…given that she unhesitatingly and unapologetically used Roy and sent him to a horrible death literally hundreds of times, without his consent. Her character remains something of a blank because of this. Now, it could have been very simply solved by a very short line of dialogue along the lines of: “It’s been a long time since we were together. Would you still come and rescue me if I needed it?” “Of course!” Or, even with just the assurance at the end that “Hey. When I come back, will you go out with me again?” “Yes. Always.”

People complain about damsels having to be rescued. What they ought to complain about is damsels who don’t deserve to be rescued. As it is, lacking these notes, the damsel-mastermind came across [to me] as fairly unsympathetic, and this whole plot thread in my mind is simply fan speculation, adding depth and complexity to a script that doesn’t have and isn’t interested in such things. Oh well.)

Rated: an act of love and self-defense ought to be praised.

Also rated: I AM GUAN YIN AND GUAN YIN HAS DONE THIS!

Go to Your Mama: Mothers in Science Fiction

b66d58748dcbc67d0cded34fcf3c5f4dTLDR: It’s Jessica. Jessica is the coolest. Also Zamm, Agent of Vega. The Ripley picture is because there are no satisfactory images of The Lady Jessica.

Moms get the short end of the stick in fiction. Most of them just flat-out get killed in childbirth. Others are unceremoniously forgotten in the hero’s quest to Find Out About My Father, because….

Even if they survive, mothers tend to ignored by characters and story alike because they try to keep their kids from going on adventures, aka safe. (This is probably because mothers invest a hell of a lot of resources into their children and tend to want to collect a return on their investments.) Even if they are strong* characters in their own right/focus stories, once children get involved they tend to get pushed out of focus and not have a lot of impact on the plot or the protagonist. See: Padme Amidala. See also: every mother of a Disney Princess, ever.

* Emotionally resilient, self-motivatated, and, if a main character, actively plot-relevant (this is less important if it’s a side character.) Another important trait is: how cool are they?

Anyhow, when moms are recognized, they’re usually only counted when they assume an action role in the story–AKA, Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. This is primarily because most people are fake nerds and heretics. It’s also because people like to focus on the fact that Ripley and Sarah Connor’s strength, in-universe, to survive and fight comes from the presence of a child to protect. It ignores the deeper reason that having an external motivation for their actions makes them more active and therefore more interesting characters.

Think about it. Ripley without Newt is a PTSD-riddled civilian tagging along on a military mission. She’s cannon fodder. She’s toast. Without Newt, Ripley doesn’t take as dominant a part in the decision-making and doesn’t survive because Burke forces the issue and everyone gets eaten. With Newt, Ripley has the additional motivation of another person to consider and protect. Ripley has a focus to control and override her impulses to freeze up. Ripley has a strong motivation to get everyone out of there and not stop until they are. Without John Connor, Sarah is the perky blonde who gets killed by the indomitable serial killer. With John Connor (and the fate of the human species, too) as her responsibility, Sarah has a serious motivation and more importantly, she has a reason for doing plot-relevant things. A hero or heroine who does plot-relevant things is a hero/ine doing interesting things.  And not, say, bumbling around an apartment building at night and getting stabbed to death by a bad guy. That is uninteresting.

bef1d0932ad9e3cb8abd91862f572714That all being said, it took me over a month to write this post because I couldn’t think of very many others. No, of course there’s Cordelia Vorkosigan. There’s Amanda Morgan. There’s Scaramouche‘s Comtesse de Ploughastel, but that’s not science fiction, even honorarily. There’s Eden Perdicaris from The Wind and the Lion, and that’s….well, hey, that’s alternate history! It totally counts! There’s…. uh…. Galadriel, whhhhattt, she’s Arwen’s grandma, come on! But most of these characters’ stories don’t focus on the maternal or nurturing relationship between them and their children. That actually seems to be quite rare.

Cordelia Vorkosigan, although an extraordinarily strong protagonist, is not a major character after Miles comes along; she is more prominently a counselor to characters not her own biological son. Moreover, after Cordelia hands over the protagonist mantle to her son, she’s a fairly passive as far as plot-relevance goes. This doesn’t make her a weaker character, just a sidelined one, given that Miles’ focus is on military and political victories, while his mother has a complete disdain for the military and a distinctly apolitical/anti-political stance towards politics of the Barrayaran style. On the other hand, Ekaterin Vorkosigan nee Vorsoisson has a kid, has a close relationship with him, and is an active presence in her opening storylines. So she counts, even if her kid gets promptly sidelined in later books. And as far as action goes, counter-hijacking the doomsday weapon from a group of terrorists and smashing it into the ground until the rubble bounces is a pretty badass start to an awesome career of….being a loyal housewife and Countess and mother to a parcel of other Vorkosiganlings. Pwah. I guess there’s also Alys Vorpatril, but she kind of sucks.

Amanda Morgan is a borderline example, as the majority of her story-time is focused on the ruthless, pragmatic necessities of defending a planet against armed invasion; she has no time or attention for even the birth of her own grandchild. There are, however, hints of the past: she thinks on and deeply regrets the necessity of the strained, strict relationship she had with her own long-dead son….a son who, the text implies, was an unrecognized psychopath only just held to the right side of the law by his controlling mother’s iron will. (Is a good story, everyone should read.)

Family relationships in Tolkien stories aren’t given a huge amount of weight, and those that are are mostly paternal-focused. (Unless your name is Luthien Tinuviel.) That being said, mothers whose presence has a great impact on their children would include Morwen, Idril, Aredhel. And Luthien’s mother, Melian. And Erendis of Numenor, ouch. And Indis, I guess. Actually, come to think of it, Tolkien does do this quite a bit in The Silmarillion, although the narrative conventions and epic scope of that book keeps these relationships out of close focus.

So anyway, finally to the most triumphant example of my thesis: the Lady Jessica, of Frank Herbert’s Dune. Jessica is THE FREAKING COOLEST character in all of science fiction, and this is an opinion I have held since I was thirteen years old. Jessica makes Paul into the hero he is: what she has taught him makes him capable, perceptive, and able to use his powers when he comes into them. Jessica is instrumental to the plot both actively during their escape via the Voice, their initial manipulation of Liet Kynes, and then through the Missionaria Protectiva itself.–to the Bene Gesserit, it is their sister and agent who is the valuable one, not some half-grown boy of dubious potential. And yet through it all, Jessica is still vulnerable and sympathetic and cool. She is admired and respected by other characters, or through her actions and presence instills that respect in them. Also, she gets the last word (literally.)

In the same mould as Jessica is Delamber from Jack Vance’s The Faceless Man. Delamber is a distinctly more limited character than Jessica, as she is an indentured sex slave in a harshly misogynistic setting. She can only give general guidance to her son–but her warmth and courage prepares him for his heroic path throughout the next two books. As for emotional resilience: Mur/Gastel Etzwane is not her only child, and she refuses to attempt escape with him partly because she wishes to remain behind to protect her daughter; she also faces the loss of rank from “sex slave” to “work slave” and the attempted bullying of the priest-caste men with disdainful equanimity. As for plot relevance, the first book revolves around hero’s efforts to redeem her contract and rescue her (a time-honored SF plot, let us not forget.) Habits learned in the process drive him to eventually take on the responsibilities of leadership and protection for his world. There was no third book, shut up.

With a slight pivot to the least triumphant example: Empress Anais of The Braided Path by Chris Wooding. While this works technically–Anais is a major figure in the plot, is hugely motivated by her daughter and desire to protect her (daughter has magic, girls are not allowed to have magic. Magical girls, in particular, are not allowed to become Empresses. Magical girls are supposed to end up dead)–a) Anais does not interact very much with her daughter, b) Anais ends up dead. Also, c) these books weren’t very good.

My last and other triumphant example is that of Zamm, Agent of Vega (from The Truth About Cushgar) by James H. Schmitz. Zamm is an inverted example: she’s a mother who has lost her family. Zamm subsumes her grief and is firmly controlled by her intelligence and iron will. She uses her pain and longing as a weapon, against others–the (ice-cold manipulative spymaster) Third Co-Ordinator describes her as his “grand champion killer”–and against herself. Throughout the story, Zamm drives herself to look for more clues in her own mind and memories, even when this process could kill her or drive her insane. As for plot relevance, Zamm’s vendetta results in the Confederation winning an entire war…by accident.

And don’t ever try to go up against her with a pirate ship or a gun in your hand.

Anyhow, that’s what I’ve got. Thoughts?