Book review: Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Invent technology to make interstellar travel possible. Use it to make rich people immortal.

Takeshi Kovacs is a former elite soldier – Envoy – who becomes a criminal on Harlan’s World and has his body killed. Thanks to the technology of stored consciousness – via cortical stacks – he is revived on Earth to solve the body death of one of the richest men on the planet. The police think Bancroft committed suicide, the evidence suggests suicide, but Bancroft is convinced he wouldn’t kill himself after centuries of living. Kovacs starts treading through the underbelly of Earth and tries to discover if it was suicide or murder.

Altered Carbon has been on my TBR pile for almost a decade. My uncle recommended it again a few years ago, which got it bumped up the list. But, as with all TBR piles, it took a TV adaptation to get the novel read. I enjoyed the TV series, particularly on a second viewing. I’d say I enjoyed the book a similar amount but in a different way.

I commented in a blog post about the show that I enjoyed the themes even if the aesthetic was borrowed from Blade Runner. Kovacs in the show is a grumpier and more adept character than the novel. The show also has a more personal feel to many of the characters and makes the female characters feel less like a description of sexy body parts. Pretty amazing given the amount of nudity in the show.

What I think I liked most about the novel was one of the themes. Morgan expressed it like this:

“Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the majority whom the system oppresses.” Source.

This resonated with me given the sorts of non-fiction I’ve been reading lately. Not to mention some of the things happening in the world these days… It made this hard-boiled cyberpunk novel very entertaining.

Well worth reading before or after watching the TV show.*

A couple of quotes related to that theme:

“Kristin, nothing ever does change.” I jerked a thumb back at the crowd outside. “You’ll always have morons like that, swallowing belief patterns whole so they don’t have to think for themselves. You’ll always have people like Kawahara and the Bancrofts to push their buttons and cash in on the program. People like you to make sure the game runs smoothly and the rules don’t get broken too often. And when the Meths want to break the rules themselves, they’ll send people like Trepp and me to do it. That’s the truth, Kristin. It’s been the truth since I was born a hundred and fifty years ago and from what I read in the history books, it’s never been any different. Better get used to it.”

“You live that long, things start happening to you. You get too impressed with yourself. Ends up, you think you’re God. Suddenly the little people, thirty, maybe forty years old, well, they don’t really matter anymore. You’ve seen whole societies rise and fall, and you start to feel you’re standing outside it all, and none of it really matters to you. And maybe you’ll start snuffing those little people, just like picking daisies, if they get under your feet.”

* Is it accurate to call them TV shows now? We watch them on TV, but would it be more accurate to call them streaming shows since they aren’t made for TV networks?

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How Is Technology Changing TV Narrative?

There is a joke that started a month or two ago about how HBO subscriptions were going to cease once Game of Thrones concluded. The implication is that despite a long history of high-quality TV shows – Oz, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Flight of the Concords, Banshee*, and Strikeback** – the station will suddenly have nothing to offer audiences.

This argument reminded me of a PBS Ideas Channel video I shared on how technology is changing TV shows.

It raises an interesting point about how there appear to be more complex narratives in TV shows now. And in light of the conclusion of Game of Thrones, audiences are expecting more from networks that they doubt can be provided.

Of course, there are several problems with this idea. The first is perception. For every Breaking Bad and Justified we have CSI Whatever and the banality of reality TV. So without some hard data on the number of shows and relative audiences, it is really hard to say how real that perception is.

The second problem is that TV shows run a continuum from pure episodic shows, where everything is wrapped up in an episode and the next episode has little to no changes evident to the characters or larger show, through to serials, which have more complex plot lines that often take at least a season to develop and resolve with character arcs building over the course of the entire series. The key word is continuum, as most shows have some aspects of the serial and episodic about them. Again, without breaking down each show on this continuum, and then comparing shows now versus the past, we don’t have any idea of what has changed, if anything has changed.

The third problem is the good old sample or selection bias, especially as it relates to our favourite shows and the shows we remember. E.g. Survivor has been running since 2000 (or 1997 if you are in the UK), yet without looking that up I’d have had no idea when the show started, let alone whether it is still running. I don’t remember it because I’m not a fan. But I will still complain bitterly about the cancellation of Firefly. My frame of reference is biased, so I’m going to remember some shows more than others and think more favourably of some of the ones I remember than others.

The final problem I see is assigning time shift technologies and marathon watching as the driver of a change in our demands for more complex narratives. The idea itself is sound, as I can’t think of thing less interesting than watching the same episode with minor changes in a marathon. That would be like watching 9 hours of hobbits walking. The recording, DVD buying, streaming and subsequent marathon TV show watching would indeed favour shows that have more to them, that more complex narrative that will keep you pressing play on the next episode.

I don’t know that the time shifting, or recording, or DVD buying, or other methods of marathon watching, is driving demand for more complex narratives. As I said above, I think the more complex shows lend themselves more to the marathon than other shows. But if we assume there are more of these shows worth grabbing a blanket and a couch dent, then I still think there are other things at play. I think we’ve seen more avenues for creativity come to the fore, such as Youtube channels, computer games, and the like that didn’t exist a decade ago as they do now. As a result, entertainment such as TV shows has a need to engage the audience on a deeper level. So while episodic shows like CSI Whatever are still huge, they don’t attract the same devotion and fan adoration as a good serialised show. Plus, the advantage of the more complex narratives is that it allows for more interesting characters, plot lines, etc, which in turn allows for better acting, direction, writing, etc, which creates a feedback loop that may one day cause fandom to implode due to awesome achieving gravitational singularity. I’m assuming this will happen when Netflix reboots Firefly.

NB: I hate the term binge-watching and as such haven’t used it in this article. Binge implies that there is something wrong with what you are doing. There is nothing wrong with watching a TV show or movie series you enjoy, so we should stop implying there is something wrong.

* Banshee is criminally underappreciated.

** I stand by including this on the list. Show me another TV show that managed to do more in one episode than most entire action movies with 10x the budget.

Subverting a story and falling on your face

When I sat down at my desk to start work the other day, one of my colleagues came to my cubicle to tell me how disappointed they were with the finale of Game of Thrones. They were soon joined by another colleague. And then another. And then another.

It should be noted that I haven’t watched the show since about two-thirds of the way through the first season. But such is the importance of good storytelling to fans. At least my computer was able to install the updates while I heard about a season of TV I might never watch.

So, what did Game of Thrones do wrong?

How should I know? I don’t watch the show.

What I have managed to glean from several writer channels (see below) and from my disgusted work colleagues is that the show painted itself into a corner. The entire series was meant to be a subversion of the usual fantasy narratives and characters. Our archetypal protagonist was killed off. The archetypal antagonist was removed from power. Our ominous threat that drives the overarching plot… actually, that one appears to have been relatively normal. This makes things interesting but it also creates problems.

At some point, you have to try and make this subversive story have a narrative cohesion that feels rewarding. Otherwise, why are you watching other than to see who gets naked and/or dies this week? Many of the complaints come as a result of the show trying to make that switch to a narrative that could give the Game of Thrones a rewarding payoff.

Clearly, the showrunners weren’t able to do this to the satisfaction of the fans.

Non-fans? Meh.

Update: This post wouldn’t be complete without Lindsay Ellis’ take on things. She raises several points that the other videos don’t, especially the “Fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy” – or more accurately “Hot Fantasy That F**KS” – aspects of the series.

Rex Jameson’s musings on GoTs.

Super Wings – Too Serious

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The latest craze in our house is Super Wings with the various character catchphrases having entered my own lexicon. Super Wings is a children’s toy advertisement TV show following the adventures of the red delivery jet imaginatively named Jett. The various sentient planes on the show have the ability to transform into robots and I’m left with some very important questions.

Jett is the series protagonist. Every episode he is dispatched to another location far across the planet to deliver a package. Yes, just one package. Anywhere on the planet. By jet plane.

How does this package delivery company manage to stay financially afloat!?!

I’ve crunched the numbers on a single 3,500km adventure and just the cost of fuel would be ~$3,000. That’s an expensive package. But Jett is modelled off of an F-16 Falcon which has a range of ~4,000km, yet routinely does deliveries of twice that distance. Not only would Jett have to stop over for fuel or do an aerial refill, neither of which have been shown to occur in the show, but those package delivery costs would also further sky-rocket.

This company’s package delivery economic model can’t work. Either the packages, which are often small items like badminton racquets, are freighted with super expensive delivery fees to only extremely wealthy clients, or the company runs at a massive loss. Now, we already know from the list of clients that many of the package recipients are not wealthy. One adventure sees Jett deliver a sled to a Moroccan villager, and whilst Moroccan’s aren’t living in the poorest African nation their average take-home pay is half that of an average Aussie. This leaves us with a company that has to be running at a loss.

But does it? They have to pay for that fuel somehow. Jett’s employment must be worth something. As a sentient transforming plane surely Jett must have economic needs to be met. Jett might be internationally famous, but I doubt that keeps a roof over his head and whatever equivalent of clothes on his back there is for an anthropomorphic plane – paint maybe?

That leads me to conclude that the package delivery company must be operating with an ulterior motive. It can’t be drug smuggling, even their profit margins couldn’t cover the ridiculous costs involved. Or maybe not. Maybe Jett and his deliveries are a cover for the smuggling operations that other delivery planes are involved with. Jett might be the publicity-friendly face covering for a much darker trade. Maybe sentient planes delight in trafficking human slaves around the world. If so, they already have the police in their pocket.

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There is another possible explanation for the company’s motives and it relates to Jett’s adventures.

Without fail, every delivery that Jett performs he manages to instigate a series of unfortunate events. You have to wonder if Jett is a magnet for Murphy’s Law*, is some sort of Clouseau-esque character, or an agent of mayhem. Regardless, these events require Jett to call on his friends, the eponymous Super Wings, to help clean up his mess.

Several of these Super Wings friends appear to work at or are based out of the same facility as Jett. It is unclear why a package delivery service would have such broad-ranging staff – police, rescue, passenger, a WW1 biplane. It is also unclear why they are always so readily on-call to help. Are they just waiting for Jett’s latest mishap? But the biggest question is how they manage to fund the involvement of all of these extra staff for every delivery adventure. I’ve already covered how expensive just the fuel would be, but a minimum of two staff per delivery, one staff member unable to perform their primary role whilst helping out Jett, and the extensive travel time to far-reaching parts of the planet, and we start to see a mounting cost that has to be footed by someone.**

But what if these unfortunate events and resultant adventures for Jett and the Super Wings are a deliberate act? What if Jett and his package delivery employers are secretly working toward nefarious ends? They could, in fact, be trying to drive socio-political instability in far-flung places around the world. The only question that would then remain is if Jett is a knowing participant in this nefarious plot or if he is merely a pawn in a dastardly game of epic proportions.

Hopefully, all of these questions will be answered as the Super Wings series unfolds.

*For anyone lucky enough to be unfamiliar with it, Murphy’s Law states: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

**Perhaps the aftermath of every episode is the delivery of an invoice for extra associated costs. Maybe that is how the package delivery service makes its money. Lure people in with a super cheap luxury personalised service and then charge for all of the added expenses incurred when Jett’s mayhem inevitably occurs.

Book review: Rick and Morty Volume 4 by Kyle Starks

Rick and Morty, Volume 4Rick and Morty, Volume 4 by Kyle Starks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“If I’m being too vague, I’m talking about your penis here.”

Are you missing Rick and Morty? Can you believe it has been 1 year, 4 months, and 9 days since the cliffhanger of Season 2? Can you believe we still have a month to wait for Season 3?

Well this collection of short adventures will tide you over. So many of these stories feel like lost episodes that we missed out on. It’s a Ricklicious fix. Rick and Morty fans will enjoy this collection no end.

I received a digital copy of this collection ahead of release in exchange for an honest review, focussed on science.

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Book Review: Caliban’s War by James SA Corey

Caliban's War (Expanse, #2)Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes in a novel when you go down the well you have to put the lotion on your skin, other times you’re travelling back to Earth. The latter; this one is the latter.

James Holden and his crew of the Rocinante are back again serving as an ad hoc belter law enforcement when they are sent to investigate an incident on Ganymede. Things quickly circle the drain from there as the war between Earth, Mars, and The Belt threatens to start again at any moment. Oh, and Venus is now under alien control. Fun times.

This is the second novel in The Expanse series by James SA Corey (aka Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) and as a sequel to Leviathan Wakes it delivers. I thoroughly enjoyed the further adventures of the Rocinante crew, but the new characters of Bobbie, Prax and Avasarala only added to fuel to the fire. Avasarala in particular is a great character to follow, making the political side to the story palatable (Avasarala is portrayed by Shohreh Aghdashloo in the TV series, and I’m sure the writers had her in mind when the character was created).

I guess that means it is time to start reading the third novel in this series. Tough job but someone has to do it.

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TV that entertained me in 2014

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The small screen has continued to gain ground on the big screen in 2014, producing entertainment that is better written, produced, acted and engaging. Sorry, is it still a small screen at 50 inches?

Living hours away from the nearest cinema, TV, or at least the streaming version via my internet, is my go to pass time outside of reading. And like my lists of movies and music that have entertained me this year, TV has had a stella year.

24: Live Another Day
It is easy to forget how cool 24 was, especially with later seasons feeling a bit too recycled. But this shorter season was a return to form for Jack Bauer, reminding people why this show was such a success. Plus, I don’t think we have enough people being tortured on TV these days.

Almost Human
Suffered from the Firefly syndrome. Another sci-fi show on Fox that had episodes shown out of order, wasn’t given a proper time slot, and was cancelled before really finding its footing. I’ve written before about Almost Human and what it could have been. Pity.

Archer
There aren’t too many successful cartoon shows for adults that haven’t tried to be a Simpsons clone. Archer blasted into the world with a different style, especially in the humour department. So it was a pity that the Archer Vice season wasn’t up to the normal standard. There was plenty of humour, but not own it on Blu-Ray like the previous 4 seasons.

Arrow
After following this show for the first two seasons I was looking forward to more action-drama from Arrow. Oh, and abs, CW is the abs network after all. Two episodes into season 3 and I’ve decided to not bother anymore.

Banshee
The second season of Banshee had a high bar to jump over after such a fantastic first season. Things have only become more complicated, more violent and more naked. Awesome. Season 2 did have a slower pace, but the payoff was there every time. Can’t wait for season 3 in a few weeks.

Constantine
Meh. Actually I’ll elaborate: David S Goyer should be kept away from comic book adaptations (still love Blade 1-3).

Continuum
I have enjoyed this series as it managed to steer clear of a number of sci-fi and time travel pitfalls. The third season continued to entertain but started to make leaps in the story that seemed too convenient. With a fourth and final season announced, whilst the creators were planning 7 to 10 seasons, it is clear that they curtailed a few arcs.

Crisis
Sometimes when a series is cancelled after one season you have committed an atrocity against television, such as Firefly. Other times you can see why it happened. Crisis was interesting enough a premise, had good enough performances, but too much of the show felt bland and lifeless. Also, much like Legends, there were too many lazy film-making moments, such as the exposition scenes that are only there for the audience and completely unnatural for the characters. Still, kept me entertained when my toddler refused to let me hold a book in front of my face that wasn’t Hairy Maclary.

Defiance
By any measure this show should suck. Aliens on Earth, post-apocalypse civilisation, CGI that doesn’t rival some of the stuff on YouTube, and a home on SyFy. Yet Grant Bowler, Tony Curren, Jamie Murray and Julie “Darla” Benz head up a cast that make this show work. The writers keep a nice balance of wit, action, intrigue and drama flowing, without letting things become cheesy. All in all, an enjoyable show.

Dominion
This show is a sequel to the terrible movie Legion. But it stars Anthony Stewart “Giles” Head and received a lot of promos during Defiance, so I gave it a go. Dominion has a more interesting premise than Defiance, but has less interesting characters, less impressive performances – bordering on wooden at times – and a plot that creates pointless conflicts. SyFy fans will probably love this one.

Fargo
I have to admit that I DVR’d Fargo and only really watched the first few episodes. That speaks more to my time spent watching recorded or live TV as opposed to streaming shows than it does about Fargo. At some point I will be bothered enough to flick through all of those menus to retrieve the recorded shows and watch what struck me as a cool show. In the meantime, streaming is awesome.

Helix
Immortals, zombies, biological warfare, remote Arctic location, and scientists with really terrible autopipette technique: this show has it all.

Jack Irish: Dead Point
The third in the Peter Temple series of TV movies starring Guy Pierce was another winner. Peter Temple is one of Australia’s finest authors, so it is no surprise that his books are being turned into movies. I really enjoyed this series.

Justified
There are few shows that can claim to have impressed their audience so much that the author of the source material decides he needs to join the writing team. Justified is filled with great writing, great performances, and witty banter, enough to make Elmore Leonard proud. The new and final season arrives in January and I will be watching.

Last Week Tonight
John Oliver made the successful transition from The Daily Show to swearing friendly HBO. You’d have to have been living under a rock (in internet terms) to have missed seeing one of John’s fantastic segments this year. There was no subject too hard nor too grim for the Last Week Tonight team to cover. As a result another comedy show has handed out a lesson in how journalism can and should be done (hint: it starts with doing some bloody research!!).

Legends
Sean Bean doesn’t die in this show. Which is a shame. Legends is an annoying show as it flits between moments of greatness, such as Sean’s performance as an undercover operative who takes on different personalities for investigations, and then moments of sheer inept laziness. This could have been so much better.

Mad As Hell
Shaun Micallef is as close to Jon Stewart as we have in Australia. Mad As Hell is his ongoing satire of the week in news and 2014 has probably been his best yet. Off the wall and often forgoing the obvious jokes, this show deserves a bigger audience.

Old School
An offbeat Aussie crime drama, Old School didn’t quite wow me. Sam Neill and Bryan Brown work well together, the premise is good, if unoriginal, and the producers didn’t try to drag it out for too many episodes in the season. But it really didn’t rise above average entertainment.

Peaky Blinders
A friend introduced me to this fabulous show late this year. I cannot say enough good things about it. Cillian Murphy and Sam Neill are fantastic actors, but unlike some shows, the entire cast are great as well. Cillian may well establish himself with this role, not to mention Tom Hardy’s performance in the second season. I’m a fan of Cillian Murphy’s work, even going so far as to watch the terrible In Time. I could cite The Wind That Shakes the Barley as an obvious display of his acting chops, but instead I’m going to say that it was the film Red Eye with Rachel McAdams that won me over. Red Eye shouldn’t have been more than a B-grade thriller, but Cillian and Rachel make the material rise way beyond potential. Now imagine what he’s doing with excellent material and more than one amazing co-star.

Penny Dreadful
I mentioned in my 2014 in Movies article that I could watch Eva Green stare at the camera and find it entertaining. Well, she grabs the script and the scenery and chews them to pieces in this show. Much like Peaky Blinders, this is another well acted period drama, with no bad performances. But I want to like this show more. It suffers from a very slow pace of story telling, so much so that you almost thinking you are watching a soapie. Oh, and it has vampires in it. And they don’t sparkle. Boo-ya!

Person of Interest
Despite the modern setting, this is one of those classic TV shows. We’ve seen this “help someone each week” formula in show after show, but it never becomes boring. Whether it be The Littlest Hobo or MacGyver, shows about helping people in need always have a soft spot for me. Especially if they shoot people regularly like Jim Caviezel.

Rake – the Aussie version
Ignore the US version and check out Richard Roxburgh as a smarmy lawyer who defends any and everyone, whilst corruption and politics surround him. A classic show that doesn’t seem to have translated in the US version.

Sherlock
The third season of Sherlock was a bit of a let down. A few people described the season as suffering from a severe case of smug. Definitely not as good as the first two seasons.

South Park
I’ve drifted in and out of South Park. Much like The Family Guy, I still enjoy watching South Park, but don’t find myself compelled to watch every week/episode. That said, Trey and Matt have continued to skewer every topic with bravado.

The Blacklist
This show has grown on me. At first I didn’t think much of it, too forced and episodic. But then James Spader won me over with his charm. I’m sure there are other people on the show as well, possibly even writers and directors.

The Colbert Report
With Stephen Colbert leaving The Report to take over from David Letterman, it feels like we are losing a satirical show that has been without equal. Whilst I’m actually more of a fan of The Daily Show and the new Last Week Tonight, The Report has held up a mirror to those blowhards in the media and screamed at them to take a good hard look at themselves.

The Daily Show
With the rise of Last Week Tonight and the end of The Colbert Report, it is easy to forget the show that launched them. Still the original and the best US news comedy show.

The Flash
Watched the first two episodes and can sum the show up as: meh.

The Librarians
As a huge fan of Leverage I was excited to hear about the new Dean Devlin series, The Librarians. But then I realised that The Librarians sounded similar to a movie that made me want to cut myself. I was torn, watch a new show with Christian Kane in it and try to forget the horror that was The Librarian movies, or ignore potential awesome from the team that made Leverage. Well, a few episodes in and The Librarians looks like a lot of fun, much like Leverage was. Admittedly, the cheesiness that made The Librarian movies suck so badly is still present, but the fun factor is amped up. Did I mention Bruce Campbell makes a guest appearance? Oh, and Aussie actor John Kim is in the cast, and he keeps his accent, unlike many other Aussies and New Zealanders (e.g. the star of Banshee) cast in US shows.

The Roast
One of the common complaints about Aussie TV is the lack of an equivalent to The Daily Show or Colbert Report. The problem with this complaint was that we did have one: The Roast. Unfortunately it didn’t garner the attention it richly deserved and with ABC budget cuts no-one was going to support a show that took a (satirical) razor to politics and media. I think the 10 minute format was ideal for a daily comedy show, roughly matching the amount of original content their US counterparts produce daily, sans interviews. Vale.

See Also:
http://www.indiewire.com/article/the-most-disappointing-tv-shows-of-2014-20141220
https://tysonadams.com/2014/02/08/entertaining-tv-of-2013/