Friday, January 13, 2017

Netflix's Travelers

Travelers is a Netflix sci-fi series based on the concept of limited time travel from a future dystopia to the present day. I recently watched the first season.
I've watched and read a lot of time-travel-based science fiction in my time. One thing I've learned is that the fewer restrictions placed on the ability to time-travel, the harder it is to take the story seriously. Travelers addresses this problem by giving the five main characters no control over their travel through time. Nothing physical has moved through time, just their personalities and memories. Each traveler takes over the body of a person seconds before they died, taking immediate action to save themselves, then continuing that person's life. Other travelers and orders from the future show up on a regular basis, but various restrictions in the process require travelers to appear in sequential order, so no going back multiple times to influence the same events.

The show follows a team of five travelers who arrive together in present-day Seattle. They're each expected to maintain their host bodies' previous lives as well as carry out missions from the future, which leads to all the problems that you'd expect from trying to lead two separate lives. It doesn't help that each of those hosts had their own problems to deal with, from addiction to disabilities to relationship issues. The conflicts that arise as the story unfolds are split pretty evenly between dealing with strictly 21st century issues and trying to obey instructions from the future.

The best part of Travelers is the conflicts within the characters themselves, in my opinion. Supposedly they're all dedicated first and foremost to completing missions for the future, at any cost, as well as leaving behind everything about their future lives other than the mission. It doesn't take long to realize that neither of those is really the case. No matter how much lip service is paid to that ideal, the choices they make repeatedly show that they have other priorities. Several supporting characters play a large role in this - wives, friends, parents, children, etc. In theory the travelers should be willing to sacrifice any of their relationships for the sake of the future, but it's never that simple.

Travelers has its fair share of shortcomings, largely related to what I consider to be unimaginative writing. After watching the first three episodes, I already had a pretty good idea where the overall story arc was headed. Indeed, in terms of broad strokes, the season end was pretty much exactly what I'd expected. Also, there are several instances (most notably in the big mid-season climax of episode six) where the characters strictly obey the future's rules of conduct in situations where it makes no sense. That would be fine if they always did so, but most of the time they're more than willing to bend the rules, so those situations come across as the writers relying using those future rules as a crutch to increase suspense. For me (and several other people I know) it had the opposite effect.

This first season of Travelers was good enough that I'll watch another, if Netflix decides to continue the series. And it's worth recommending to fans of the sci-fi time-travel genre. Just be aware that you're likely come across some cringe-worthy moments where the writing doesn't make a lot of sense.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Among Others by Jo Walton

After I'd read The Just City, I thought I'd look up some other books by Jo Walton. Among Others is a stand-alone novel that won several awards a few years ago, so it seemed like a good place to start.
The book is set in Great Britain around 1980. It follows about a year in the life of Mor, a girl raised in Wales who is now going to school in England, after running away from her mother and being sent to stay with her father. She's partially crippled from the same accident that killed her twin sister and the smartest in her class in everything but math, in addition to being an outsider - not a good formula for fitting in at a new school. On top of that, Mor also can see fairies and do magic, unlike almost everyone else around her.

The magic in Among Others isn't flashy or ritualized. Mor isn't throwing fireballs around or creating enchanted swords. She mostly follows the advice of the fairies at first, but over time learns to do things on her own. Magic is a matter of taking specific small actions - scattering leaves at a particular time and place, carrying certain sticks and stones, even acupuncture. The results change the world, but not in any way that's obviously connected to the original actions. Mor mostly avoids using magic except defensively, in fear of unexpected consequences.

She needs that magical defense against her mother, who uses magic liberally and is constantly chasing more power. Her daughters have stopped her before, which caused the accident that killed one and crippled the other. Mor's aunts try to control her as well. A good amount of Mor's energy is spent simply trying to avoid being caught in the machinations of her relatives.

The entire book is written from Mor's viewpoint, as entries in a journal. It works well to give the reader a deep understanding of Mor's character, and how she grows and changes over time. However, the single viewpoint also made me wonder how the story might have sounded from another perspective - say, her mother. Perhaps things wouldn't be quite as black-and-white as they appear.

A major coping mechanism for Mor is reading science fiction and fantasy novels. There are references to all kinds of books from The Lord of the Rings to the Pern series to Zelazny's Amber series, and many more besides. I've read probably two-thirds of the books mentioned, so there was a good amount of nostalgic impact. When I ran across a reference that I didn't know, I felt a bit of a loss of connection to the story and Mor's character. I suspect that anyone who hasn't read a lot of pre-1980 SF/F will find it hard to be immersed in Among Others, due to wondering about the constant unfamiliar references.

There's not really a lot going on in Among Others in terms of plot. "Girl goes to unfamiliar school, grows up a bit, settles some personal demons" is a fair summary, but of course that's not the point of the book. Don't expect to see much in the way of action, mundane or magical. Mor's growth and how she copes with changes in her life drives the story.

I enjoyed reading Among Others, though I'm not sure how much of that was due to the story itself and how much was about nostalgia from all the book references. Either way, I'm happy to have had the chance.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Opposition, not Obstruction

I read a blog post by Robert Reich the other day calling for resistance to Donald Trump's agenda as President. It's disappointing that none of it included trying to work with the new administration.
Some of the points in that blog post are basically obstruction of government. Call your senator and representative and ask them not to cooperate with the administration. Make it difficult for immigration authorities to do their job. Is this really what being an opposition party is about now? Yes, I realize Republicans have done similar things during the Obama presidency, but that doesn't make it the right way to conduct the affairs of government.

I agree with very little of Trump's agenda, or the way he does business. So I understand why Reich and other liberal voices are calling for opposition. That blog post also includes some good opposition concepts, like (peacefully) protesting or expressing your views through letters and social media. But obstruction tactics are just a way to keep anything from being done, and the more they're used, the more likely they'll continue to be used when the balance of power shifts back.

What the political opposition voices need to be calling for is looking for ways to positively influence the Trump administration via compromise. There will be policies and legislation enacted that we don't agree with, that's a given. There will be a repeal of at least part of Obamacare, and there will be tax cuts that favor the rich. With Republican control of both Congress and the Presidency, those kind of changes aren't avoidable.

However, the Republicans are no more united now than the Democrats were back when they had control of Congress and the Presidency. If the leaders aren't willing to make compromises, then they won't get far since their own party isn't united. Democrats willing to work with the administration and congressional leadership will be able to find ways to include compromise positions. It won't be easy - nothing in politics is - but I'd rather see something done over trying to simply block everything.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Pastrix and Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber

I happened to catch an episode of Fresh Air on NPR as I was out driving one day which featured an interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber. It was so interesting that I tracked down a copy of a couple of her books, Pastrix and Accidental Saints, at the library.
Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran minister, though not a stereotypical one. She says in the interview that she's never once had a stranger guess that she was a minister, probably because she's 6'1" and heavily tattooed. She started her own church because she felt that she would have to "culturally commute" to attend existing churches, and wanted there to be a place that others feeling the same would feel welcome.

That church is called the House for All Sinners and Saints. Its founding theme (beyond the gospel itself) is "welcoming the stranger." Drug addicts, homeless, LGBT folks, recovering alcoholics - the kind of people that don't feel comfortable in a traditional church setting. When more "normal" church-goers began attending, Bolz-Weber says that it was a difficult to accept them in the congregation at first...until she realized they also were strangers in a way. The combination of all types of members strengthened the whole.

Pastrix is something of a memoir, but not like others that I've read. The book jumps around in Bolz-Weber's life, rather than telling the story straight through. I didn't feel like she was writing so much the story of her life as describing her own shortcomings, and how her friends and faith and God help her to overcome them. I can absolutely relate to that, and I'm sure I'm not alone.

Another part of Bolz-Weber's story that I closely relate to is her life journey from growing up in a Christian family, to rejecting that establishment, to eventually finding her own beliefs. Judging from the stories in the books, she went a lot further away from the church and faith of her childhood than I did, but I still relate to the general direction. When she says that being a good Christian in her early life felt like little more than following a list of "don'ts" - don't drink, don't swear, don't have sex, etc - I knew exactly what she was talking about. And I especially empathize with how she describes coming to realize how many of those rules didn't make sense in light of her own relationship with God, and had to make up her own mind instead of blindly following church teachings.

Accidental Saints is written as a series of stories, mostly from later in Bolz-Weber's life than the first book. Much of it involves the people in her church, but there are also various encounters from outside the House. A major theme is people making mistakes, but finding ways to move forward anyway, through the love of God and their friends and family. There are many descriptions of people loving God and one another, often in ways that fall outside Christian tradition.

One of Bolz-Weber's themes in these books that really resonates with me is that it's not necessary for Christians and their church to police the world's behavior. God's grace covers everything, and as Christians we should be just as accepting. Any time we go out of our way to avoid or restrict a "sinner" or "heretic" or "unbeliever," we're missing a chance to show the grace of God through our actions. Showing our beliefs in our own lives is fine - pushing them on others isn't, and neither is refusing to associate with, recognize the rights of, love, or serve those we don't agree with.

I really enjoyed the stories in these books and from the interview. Bolz-Weber is a fine writer, easy to read as well as being insightful and thought-provoking. Both books are great reads that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Rogue One

It takes some extra skill to put together a story when everyone already knows the ending. I think the Rogue One folks did a fine job.
This newest Star Wars film takes place prior to A New Hope. It follows Jyn Erso, the daughter of an engineer forced by the Empire to work on the planet-destroying Death Star. She and various rebellion irregulars track down her father, discover that he has sabotaged the project, and go into the lion's den to get the details to the Rebel Alliance.

We've already known for nearly four decades how the story is going to end, since A New Hope starts with the Death Star plans already in the hands of Princess Leia. (RIP Carrie Fisher...the news of her death broke on the same day I saw this movie.) Rogue One takes full advantage of the fact that nearly every viewer is going to know that story. There are lots of familiar people and places and things that show up as Jyn's story unfolds, from C-3PO and R2-D2 to Darth Vader to the princess herself (pretty decent CGI on that). The journey doesn't end happily ever after for everyone, which might have been depressing if we didn't know what comes next.

Having said that, I also enjoyed the story that Rogue One told beyond just looking for the ways that it links to the larger Star Wars story. Jyn is a flawed heroine, involved in the conflict more for revenge and following her father than for the ideals of rebellion. Just about everyone that accompanies her on her journey is a misfit or outcast of some kind. The story is as much about those misfits coming together to get a job done as it is about setting up A New Hope.

One thing you don't see much of in Rogue One is Jedi. There are references to the Force, and one character who has at least some Jedi skills, but this story takes place in the time when Darth Vader has largely exterminated the Jedi Order. It's a stark contrast to most of the other Star Wars films, where being or becoming a Jedi is almost always a central theme. I was pleased to see that Rogue One worked out well without them.

Just about anything Disney puts out under the Star Wars name is going to make plenty of money, but between Rogue One and The Force Awakens, it seems they're trying to make decent movies as well as cashing in. As long as they keep that up, I'll keep watching them.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Holiday Loot 2016

Happy Holidays! I hope everyone had time to reflect on friends, family, and the meaning of Christmas. And now that we're done with that, on to the loot!
My parents kindly sent me a cash gift that I could use to obtain a new tablet, since mine died a few months back. I did a brief poll of some friends and decided on an ASUS ZenPad 10. It's not the most powerful or feature-rich tablet, but all I really want is a good-sized quality display suitable for reading comics and playing simple mobile games (i.e. Star Realms). This tablet fills that need admirably, at a reasonable price.
From my brother, a fine paper book! Literally and in terms of subject matter. Most of what I've been reading recently has been in eBook format, so this will be a nice change of pace back to basics. And it goes nicely with The History of Writing series from Extra History, which I just finished watching the other day.

I also participated in a Secret Santa gift exchange this year with some folks from the QT3 forums. For my part, I shipped gifts all the way to Norway. The distance meant it was a good idea to keep it small, so the only physical item was a small model Viper ship from Battlestar Galactica - my giftee is a fan of the forum game based on that show. I also added some Kindle books (no shipping costs there): a cookbook full of video-game-related recipes and a couple of sci-fi novels.
From my secret santa came some reading and listening material, along with notes mentioning that some of the posts on this very blog helped with ideas. Star Trek - Ships of the Line is a 350-page book of artwork featuring all sorts of ships from the Star Trek universe (gift idea inspired by this post). The Amory Wars is an epic sci-fi comic collection, which I'd never heard of but looks very interesting. Even better, it comes with an accompanying metal album of songs related to the story! Coheed and Cambria frontman Claudio Sanchez is also the writer of the comics. Looking forward to checking out the set. (Update: There was also Randall Monroe's Thing Explainer book! It came a couple of days later in a separate box.)

Hope everyone out there had a Christmas as enjoyable as mine - happy holidays!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Nordic Symphonic Metal

This has been a good year for music discovery, mostly through my Spotify subscription.
My tastes have run mostly to melodic and symphonic metal this year. Back in February, I went to a Nightwish concert. That led me to track down the work of Delain, who had been one of the opening acts. With input like that, Spotify's discovery lists found several other similar artists. My favorites to this point are Amaranthe, We Are the Catalyst, and The Murder of My Sweet.

It's pretty easy to see why all of these bands ended up on the same playlists, when you consider the similarities. All have female vocalists, and most have lots of songs with alternating male/female vocal parts. Lots of classical influences in the music, implemented with metal's heavy guitar lines and driving beats.

All those bands also happen to all be from Nordic countries. Something in the water up there produces symphonic metal, I guess. At first I thought that would mean opportunities for live music would be pretty rare, but there are actually quite a few tour dates in the US. Judging from the show lists that I've glanced over on their websites, most seem to spend about a third of their tour time here. I've got my eye on a few dates next year, mainly in the Chicago area.

I'm pretty sure I've barely scratched the surface of the genre. So far I really haven't looked beyond whatever recommendations Spotify tosses at me. Even so, I've got an awful lot of music that's new to me to listen to.