NULL STATES by Malka Older

Reviewed over at Tor.com:

This is a story about governance and governing, about power and systems, and the edges of both—the parts where they break, and warp, and potentially break down. Older’s gift is to make those systems fascinating and human: relevant, and easy to grasp. Well, one of her gifts: she has great skill with evoking place and its complicated histories, when her characters stay in one location long enough.

“You look different when you tell the truth. Your eyes change.” ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) – Patreon

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It is August 2017. I’m tired and overwhelmed by world events (the USA, Iraq, Finland, Malaysia, Catalonia, and of course Australia’s wonderful idea to hold a marriage equality plebiscite), local events, and how much work I have to do in order to get paid.

This is not a review of the news, though, but of Atomic Blonde, the film I went to see in order to distract myself from all of that.

Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City by Sam Hart and Anthony Johnston, directed by David Leitch (in his first feature-length film), and starring Charlize Theron, Atomic Blonde is a spy film set in 1989 Berlin. Claustrophobic, stylish, rooted in its time and place, Atomic Blonde reminded me a little bit of The Sandbaggers, a little bit of The Bourne Identity, and a lot of Greg Rucka’s spy novels and graphic novels (some of which, come to think of it, were published by the same outfit as The Coldest City).

The cinematography is excellent. There’s a recurring motif of shots through doors and windows, of shots in reflections, of mirrors, of things seen at an angle or edgewise-on. Everything is angles, everything is deceptive, nothing you see can be taken at face value. The characters are all angles and smooth surfaces, frictionless except where they’re playing it rough: everything is nested betrayals and triple-crosses.

Theron plays spy/agent Lorraine Broughton with a chill like the ice-bath we see her climbing out of in the opening scenes — bruised, battered, bloody and still somehow entirely collected. Her performance is light on dialogue, in contrast to the ninety-to-the-dozen chatter of James McAvoy’s David Percival (played with a combination of boyish charm, brutal self-interest, and sincerely dangerous competence): instead, her character is given definition through body-language. The physicality of Theron’s performance is intense, at times almost feral, in a way that fits seamlessly with the really good fight choreography.

(The fight choreography is really good: utterly brutal, unforgiving, full of found objects and with occasional appropriate punch-drunk stumbling. It’s visceral in a way that fight choreography seldom manages.)

Atomic Blonde is a spy film in which most of the characters seem to end up dead of Being A Spy.

It also portrays a queer relationship.

Theron’s Broughton is approached by French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella), a younger and rather more innocent spy. Broughton is enthusiastically into it. (An aside: I didn’t know I wanted to see something like this until I did, and I didn’t know Atomic Blonde had a queer relationship in it until I saw it. A queer relationship! Treated just like a straight one! Not marked out in any way, not a giant part of the plot as in Carol or The Handmaiden, just spies being spies in bed.) This relationship is the only place where we see a hint of something that could be considered softness in Broughton, the only place where she’s a little less than perfectly guarded. It seems that she does actually feel something for Delphine — enough, at least, to tell her to get out of Berlin rather than killing her when Broughton thinks that Delphine has double-crossed her.

Of course, Bury Your Gays is a thing. So I knew Delphine was doomed from the moment she and Broughton kissed. And hey, what do you know? I was right. It’s a film that buries its gays, and I don’t want to say, “But at least it has them” (but at least it has them), although having them at all is unusual for a spy film.

But it’s 2017. I wanted to at least to be able to hope for Delphine to walk off alive by the time the credits rolled. I want there to be enough films where that happens that Queer Death becomes unpredictable. Not, “Oh, she’s doomed now, right?” “Oh, maybe NOT DOOMED JUST YET — nope, that was a fakeout. Doomed.” “Sigh.”

The strangulation scene, when Delphine very nearly fights off her murderer, is so annoying wrong. Hollywood has this tendency to show both CPR and garrotting to be very effective within a short timeframe. In reality, if you are going to choke someone to death, even if you crush their windpipe, it’s going to take a while. Even if it is restriction of bloodflow rather than oxygen that’s the root cause. And they’re going to be unconscious for a few minutes first. Like, three-six minutes. This is why, in sport martial arts, you can actually choke someone out without killing them. Their eyes don’t just roll up and go straight to dead!

I knew better than to expect Atomic Blonde to subvert the Buried Gays/Dead Girlfriend tropes, but seriously, GIRL AIN’T DEAD YET USE A BULLET. Bullets are harder to argue with: the part of me that knows how strangulation works kept expecting her to show up later, at odds with the part of me that knows how Hollywood works.

Atomic Blonde is a good film. I’m going to go see it again. It works well. (And it has a really great soundtrack).

But, you know. Fuck the Bury Your Gays trope. It’s boring and predictable and tedious and bad storytelling. Atomic Blonde would have been a better film without it.

 


This review brought to you thanks to my Patreon backers.

Sleeps With Monsters: The Weird West of Wynonna Earp

A new column over at Tor.com:

I didn’t know I needed a weird modern Western—complete with curses, demons, and complicated family dynamics—in my life. But apparently I didn’t know what I was missing! It turns out that this is exactly what I wanted, when it comes in the form of SEVEN24/IDW Entertainment’s Wynonna Earp, created by Emily Andras, based on the comic by Beau Smith, and starring Melanie Scrofano as the eponymous Wynonna.

THE REAL-TOWN MURDERS by Adam Roberts (Patreon)

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The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts (Gollancz, ISBN 978-1-473-22145-1, HC, stg£16.99, 230pp). September 2017. 

The Real-Town Murders is the first novel by Adam Roberts I’ve managed to finish, if not the first I’ve tried to read. (The Thing Itself was, perhaps, excessively Kantian.) Instead of bouncing off after a grimly determined start, though, with The Real-Town Murders I got instantly caught up in a mystery-plot that turned into a thriller, as Roberts’ protagonist is caught up in a coup playing out between government factions.

Alma is a private detective in a not-too-far-future England. She’s one of the few people who work outside the Shine — an augmented-reality immersive successor to the internet — and whose leisure, such as it is, also takes place outside the Shine — something that’s even more unusual. This is partly from choice, and partly from necessity. Alma can’t afford to lose track of time. Her partner, Marguerite, is bed-bound with a tailored disease: a disease that targeted Alma and Marguerite specifically. Marguerite needs treatment every four hours, and the window for treatment is five minutes long. Otherwise she dies. And Alma must be the one to treat her, because what is necessary for treatment changes every time, but it needs Alma’s DNA all the time.

We first meet Alma as she begins to investigate a locked-room murder mystery. A body showed up in an automobile factory. There was no way for the body to get there, but the man in question is definitely dead. Alma has just enough time to become properly intrigued by the puzzle when a government agent requests and requires her to stop investigating. Then she learns that said government agent has turned up dead — when another government agent shows up to require her to come with them.

This will keep her away from Marguerite for far too long. In order to keep her lover alive, Alma has to go on the run — a process of evading government scrutiny and arrest made that much more complicated by needing to return to Marguerite’s side, like clockwork, every four hours. While also getting to the bottom of the mystery and finding enough leverage, somehow, to get these warring government factions to leave her alone and let her take care of Marguerite.

This is a compelling book, despite Roberts’ occasional weird choices when it comes to representing dialogue. (“Own dare stand” for “understand,” for example.) The thriller-plot is cunning and twisty and tightly paced, and comes together effectively. But the heart of the book, for me, is Alma’s relationship with and to Marguerite.

In the so-specifically targeted disease that has physically incapacitated Marguerite, and which binds Alma to a four-hour timetable to treat her, there is a wealth of scarcely-hinted-at backstory. (One which probably answers the question of why does Alma, of all the private investigators in the world, get roped in to a government conspiracy?) These are fantastic characters, with a compelling relationship — and that’s before we get to the other characters that people this novel.

It’s very rare for science fiction and fantasy to show a relationship between two people, where one of the two is physically disabled and the other is her carer. It’s rarer to show a relationship of mutual respect and love, where the physical dependence of one upon the other isn’t shown with any diminution of personhood or intellectual independence.

The Real-Town Murders could, I think, have shown Marguerite a little more awake and a little more intellectually involved in Alma’s investigation, but in the time we see her conscious and not delirious with fever, we still see a woman with an enormous personality and immense confidence in her own mental capacities — a woman who solves the mystery before Alma can, even if Alma believes her contribution, at the time, to be feverish rambling. Alma never questions her own commitment to Marguerite, never thinks about letting her lover die. She’s going to be there. No matter what, she’s going to be there.

The Real-Town Murders is a deeply satisfying novel. If you enjoy near-future thrillers, I recommend it — maybe even if you don’t.

 


This review brought to you thanks to my Patreon backers.

World and Character in Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe

A new post over at Tor.com:

It’s long been a truism in science fiction and fantasy that the world is a character—sometimes, indeed, the central character, against which humans and other beings recede into insignificance. Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe—the trilogy comprising Updraft (2015), Cloudbound (2016), and this September’s Horizondoesn’t make the humans insignificant, but thanks to the wild, weird scope of its world, the world looms large in the reader’s consciousness—as large as the giant bone spires, high above the clouds, that are home to Wilde’s characters.

RUIN OF ANGELS by Max Gladstone

Reviewed over at Tor.com:

Although Ruin of Angels weighs in at more than 560 pages, Gladstone’s tight pacing and thriller-like narrative structure make it feel like a much shorter book—or at least a fast one. The characters are compelling, the worldbuilding batshit and complex and lush in the way I’ve come to expect from a Gladstone book. Any series runs the risk of growing stale, but Ruin of Angels is garden-fresh. It’s ambitious and epic and really good, and I look forward to reading much more of Gladstone’s work.

Sleeps With Monsters: Flying Beasts and Complicated, Amazing Woldbuilding

A new column over at Tor.com:

It all comes down to worldbuilding. Delightful, amazing worldbuilding. This is a world in which magic—the Slack, which trained people can use to manipulate the elements—co-exists with technological development. Increasing technological development in the hands of the Machinists has lead to conflict, because the magicians—”Tensors”—understand that their monopoly on doing certain things will be challenged by these developments.