Monday, December 29, 2014

Television Review: Doctor Who Season Eight

by Mord Fiddle
So disappointing.

I thought we'd seen the last of Clara Oswald.  At the end of Death in Heaven I said to myself, 'Well self," ('self' being what I call myself when we're alone) "With any luck Moffat has finally cut loose the Clara Oswald sea-anchor and now Doctor Who's center of gravity can shift back to its titular character.  Now that every episode doesn't have to revolve around Clara, Capaldi will have the elbow-room needed to put his own stamp on The Doctor."

Then, Last Christmas, 2014s Christmas episode of Doctor Who, dropped a wagon full of coal on me.

I have dubbed season eight of Doctor Who 'The Fan-Fiction' season.  One could see it coming on.  Under Moffat's tenure, periodic fan-fic episodes have been a reality since the onset of season six.  He was restrained about it that year - an episode here and there, usually by a guest writer. However, with the arrival of Clara Oswald (a fairly blatant Mary Sue) Moffat's control began to slip.  Season seven was one long, slippery fan-fiction slope with Oswald's 'impossible girl' waiting for us at the bottom.

Since the arrival of Peter Capaldi at the beginning of season eight, episodes of Doctor Who have largely revolved around Clara Oswald.

To an extent this is understandable. During the Tennet and Smith years Doctor Who developed a strong romance-oriented following.  While Moffat and company wanted to cast the post-Matt Smith Doctor as an older, cynical and far less romantic Doctor, no one wanted to lose this new romance-oriented demographic.  In Deep Breath, season eight's opening episode, when Madame Vastra took Clara to task for recoiling from the The Doctor because he was no longer young and a potential love interest, Moffat was speaking to the part of the audience that viewed The Doctor through a romantic lens.  That plot-line was a careful threading of the needle, and while it was a self conscious plot-line that put the episode out of balance, it was a needed farewell to the Doctor as romantic interest

That done, I thought we could move on. Have a little fun, run a nice dramatic story arc or two, and save a few worlds without it having to do with Clara for a while. Sadly, season eight turned into all Clara all the time. Every single plot was Clara-centric. I'd venture that Jenna Coleman has had more screen time in Peter Capaldi's first season as The Doctor than Peter Capaldi. 

First it was Clara as love interest, coming to terms with the Doctor as a non-romantic figure, which meant they had to give Clara a new love interest (because god forbid Clara not have a romantic subplot in her life).

Then it turned into Clara as daughter figure, which meant her love interest must be someone the Doctor would disapprove of and who would disapprove of The Doctor so we could play up the father-daughter-boyfriend triangle.

And then it was all 'Ooh Doctor I so hate you (for no good reason, but it's in the script therefore), you must leave and never come back".

And then it was all "Ooh, Doctor, I'm all sad and conflicted because my loyalties are torn between you and my boyfriend, and therefore I must lie to you both in order to continue our adventures in time and space on the sly."

And then it was all "Ooh, Doctor, I'm so distraught at having distracted my boyfriend by pronouncing my complete and total love to him (over the phone) as he was crossing a busy street, thereby killing him. Bring him back or I'll destroy all you hold dear."

GAH! {Bangs head on keyboard}

Anyway (ow), with Clara and The Doctor apparently parting ways at the end of the season I thought we were done with Doctor Who revolving around this banal instance of Mary Sue flotsam. Oh, I knew she'd be back at some point for a visit during Capaldi's final season. Maybe for a special episode. I even half suspected that this Christmas episode might end up being a cozy farewell to Clara. Which I was prepared for.  Really. Totally cool with it so long as the Tardis would hie off after the closing credits, leaving Clara and Earth in the rear-view mirror for a while.

But no. Apparently no decent movie offers came in for Jenna Coleman and we'll be stuck with her for another season.  Clara Oswald, like sidewalk gum on a hot summer day, is proving a bit of a tough scrape to get off the bottom of the Doctor Who shoe.

Wake me for the 2015 Christmas special.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Infinity Scarf

by Mord Fiddle

The other day I heard someone say that they wanted an infinity scarf for Christmas and was immediately intrigued.

As the names of things go ‘infinity scarf’ is pretty wicked.  I immediately imagined something like a wearable TARDIS or Infinite Improbability Drive. Or perhaps a means of accessing alternate time streams running in parallel with our own.  In terms of ‘look’ I imagined the scarf in a constant state of flux, its warp and weft giving off ominous metallic flickers as an infinite array of possibilities and nascent realities manifested themselves across its surface.

Imagine my disappointment.

In what universe do you sew the ends of a scarf together to make a circle and then modify the name of this mundane and unimaginative scrap of cloth with an adjective as wild and stuffed with possibilities as ‘infinity’?   This is a moral outrage; a cruel ‘bait and switch’ scam.  It was like hearing about Santa Claus for the first time and then, just when your heart was filled with innocent delight, being told “Oh, by the way, there ain’t no such person and it’s all a marketing ploy”.  The bastards! 

I mean, maybe if they made one using a really cool electric blue fabric and printed it with Eucliud’s Proof of the Infinitude of Primes I could allow points for whimsy.  But no. The so-called infinity scarf is so pedestrian, so relentlessly dull and boring that the guys at Think-Geek and Forbidden Planet wouldn’t touch it with a four-meter light saber.

The only solution now is to get it into a decent work of science fiction and redeem the name before it is indelibly tainted by association with a flash-in-the-pan wearable one is later embarrassed to admit one owns; on par with the dickey, the snuggly and the ascot.  Gaimen might be able to help.  Or maybe Aliette de Bodard who is, I understand, between projects and in the mood for something short and fun. If all else fails I could take a cut at it myself.  Hmmm.  Maybe a theme anthology – a collection of short stores based on an impossible scarf knit up from the stuff of the infinite.

I suppose it is a bit mad, setting your heart on something so unlikely even for a moment.  My inner curmudgeon should normally have kicked in ahead of time, dashing any surge of wide-eyed anticipation with a cold bucket of past precedent.  After all, what was I expecting?  And the answer is, I suppose, that this is the time of year for unfettered dreaming, when my more jaded self steps back and gives my inner innocent the window seat that looks out on the world.  

And in such dreams, I might just wear infinity on my shoulders.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


by J. D. Popham

Back when I was an undergrad I learned to read Old English. What can I say.  I was young, foolish and had no sense of the practical. Of course, back then practicality was only beginning to be the sole point of undergraduate studies.  Discovery and extending the boundaries of what you knew was important for its own sake. In those days a youthful fascination with dead languages, like butterflies, needed no excuse.

As a result of my ill-spent youth and linguistic dalliances, I've had the good fortune to read Beowulf in its original Old English as well as in a number of modern English translations. While the original and the translations tell the same story and describe the same sequence of events, they are very different literary experiences.  Until the Normans wandered across the English channel and steeped Old English in French for more than a few generations, English was a primal, hard hitting language full of 'skull' words. We retain enough of the old words that one can still hear in the better modern English translations the echos of primal monsters and heroes from Scopic songs. However, I assure you, if you've read Beowulf in translation, whether it's by Tolkein, Chickering or Heaney, you haven't read Beowulf.

Like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Beowulf was originally oral poetry, intended to be performed for an audience.  It's set in the 600s and the oldest written version that survives was written down a bit after the turn of the first millennium, CE.  At that time the literate folk in England were almost invariably churchmen, and so I like to think that the two scribes who recorded it for posterity were a couple of reprobate Benedictines who preferred a good yarn about heroes, mead-halls, mere-walkers and dragons to chanting Vespers.  By adding a thin overlay of Christian forms to Beowulf's original Scopic sensibility and pitching it as a Christian morality tale, the two saved a decidedly pre-Christian tale from being forgotten and lost to future generations.

Once, when my son was very young, about eleven years old, he had a few friends overnight.  They did the usual things.  They bedded down in the living room with their sleeping bags, flashlights and snacks.  They watched videos and played board games and told the sorts of really horrible jokes that are uproariously funny to the eleven-year-old mind but utterly lost on anyone else.  And finally, as the night wore on and the sugar rush wore off, they pulled their sleeping bags into a circle and asked if I knew any good ghost stories.

"Hwæt!" I said to them. "Listen!" And I had their attention. "We have heard of the Spear-Danes, in days gone by, and of the of the brave kings who led them to greatness," I went on. "And of their king Scyld Sceffing who defeated many enemies and threw over the benches in their mead-halls."

What followed was a very abridged retelling of Beowulf, pitched to the ear of the modern eleven year old.  (In case you're wondering, I left in all the grisly bits. No one appreciates grisly like an eleven year old.)  My Old English professor, who looked the very model of an aging Saxon Earl who'd set aside his armor and spear for a brown wool suit and a red editorial pen, would have frowned in disappointment at the resulting translation.  The kids, however, were riveted, their eyes wide and in rapt attention as Grendel and Beowulf each came to Heorot, Hrothgar's mead-hall, and to battle with one another. Sometimes the boys cast nervous glances at the dark beyond the windows, the idea of a mere-walker lurking outside in our flower beds to peer in at them having moved into the realm of the possible.

It is a primal thing, gathering together in the dark and telling scary stories.  It seems etched into our DNA, undiminished by the ongoing march of written and digital entertainments.

A few weeks ago my son, now just shy of his thirtieth year,  mentioned that he and his friends still recall that telling of Beowulf, and that it was a happy and stand-out moment in their childhoods.  Praise from an audience of eleven-year-olds doesn't get any higher than that.  And their reaction, echoed across the span of twenty years, may explain why a couple of reprobate monks spent time and ink recording an old pre-Christian epic, likely risking the ire of their monastic superiors in the process.

And in my minds eye, the old Saxon Earl cum Old English professor finally ceased to frown and has put up both his spear and red editorial pen.  There might even be the trace of a smile.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Book Review: Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

Reviewed by J. D. Popham

Until now the Rivers of London series has kept Police Constable and apprentice wizard Peter Grant close to home and followed his encounters with the ghosts, mystical creatures and Newtonian magics that exist just beyond the public's sight in contemporary London.  In London, of course, even things that go bump in the night are subject to the Queen’s peace, and the Metropolitan Police has the job of dealing with breaches of said peace; even when they involve malevolent spirits, jazz vampires and river goddesses.  

Foxglove Summer, the fifth book in the series, takes PC Grant out of his beloved London and deep into the English countryside; to Herefordshire, to be precise.  There, two eleven year-old girls have gone missing and the search for them has captured the attention of the 24-hour news machine and thus the British public. What with the disturbing connection between the blood of innocents and the more ethically challenged magics, Grant is dispatched by Inspector Nightingale to check in on an elderly wizard, long retired to the area, in order to confirm that he is not somehow involved in the girl's disappearance. 

Before long both Peter Grant and the urban river goddess Beverly Brook, are drawn into the search proper. What follows is a very pleasant collision between urban Fantasy and the rustic/rural wellspring of the tales and folklore that form much of modern fantasy's foundation.  At the same time Foxglove Summer's police procedural elements get the opportunity to rub shoulders with British police/detective fiction's countryside tradition. 
The urban/rural divide in English crime fiction is one of long standing.  Sherlock Holmes famously opined in Silver Blaze that "the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside".  Happily, Aaronovitch avoids reaching for the threadbare tropes about the city cop out of his element in the sticks.  PC Grant is as good humored as he is tough and clever, and his view of the countryside and its denizens is pragmatic and even-handed.  Besides, between his duties as a copper in the ongoing search for the missing girls, magical doings afoot, and a river goddess to act as his liaison with the local genius loci, boredom is the least of Peter Grant's worries.  

London has been central to the Rivers series so far, and setting Foxglove Summer in the English countryside makes evident the degree to which the city drives the tempo and energy of Aaronovitch's Peter Grant stories. The little town of Rushpool lacks the kinetic charge of London, and not even the frantic search for the girls and the accompanying news media feeding frenzy is going to change that.

This, however, is where Aaronovitch shows his skill as a story-teller. He never fights his setting or attempts to press Rushpool or its denizens into behaving out of character as a means of injecting energy into Foxglove Summer.  Rather, he lets the story move at a pace appropriate to the setting, allowing Peter Grant's narrative voice, his observations of and interactions with the town, and with the emerging evidence of the fantastic that lies beneath, provide the book's rhythm and tempo.

Some of Aaronovitch's more impatient readers have grumbled that the Rivers story arc featuring the Faceless Man, the series' primary antagonist, gets little attention in this outing. Over at Liz Bourke has gone so far as to dismiss Foxglove Summer as a 'placeholder novel', which it is certainly not.  Given that in Broken Homes Peter's fellow constable and apprentice Leslie May betrayed Peter, Nightingale and the Metropolitan Police, joining the Faceless Man on the ethically challenged side of both magic and the law, they can be forgiven for feeling a bit let down.  However, anyone paying attention to the pacing of the Rivers series to date will have expected the sound and fury of the Faceless subplot to recede to the background in Foxglove Summer.

Aaronovitch tends to avoid spending his story's dramatic tension all at once. He leaves the Faceless Man subplot largely behind periodically, knowing the reader will be all the hungrier for it when he returns.  However, to call Foxglove Summer a mere placeholder is to imply that its central story is throw-away and that the book contributes nothing of value to the larger story arc, neither of which is the case.  Foxglove merely changes the larger story's tempo, creating a bit of narrative elbow room before foreshadowing the storm to come.    

By doing so, Aaronovitch allows himself the space and literary tempo needed to extend Peter Grant's character at something less than a gallop.  It also allows the author to develop Beverly Brook, who has been consigned to cameo appearances since her introduction in Rivers of London, and to give their heretofore slow-approach relationship room to breathe and unfold naturally.  He uses Foxglove to expand the back-story of Molly, Nightingale's otherworldly housekeeper, of Ettenberg where the flower of English wizardry was broken, and to hint at what is walled away in the basement of the Folly behind sheets of battleship steel.  And we learn that that the Genius Loci of the rivers of London are reaching out and establishing their own entente with their peers in the countryside.

Foxglove Summer is worth your hard-earned shekels, and I recommend it.  Fans of the Aaronovitch's earlier works will enjoy it (provided they can school themselves to patience) and readers who wish make Peter Grant's acquaintance without reading the series from its beginning will find Foxglove a good place to jump in.

Alas for our American readers, while released in the UK in November, Foxglove Summer will not be sold by US retailers until January. The Infinite Reach will reference this review again when the book is released in the US, lest you forget.

On Spoiler Alerts and Trigger Warnings

by Mord Fiddle

After thoughtful consideration, the policy of The Infinite Reach with regard to the use of spoiler alerts and trigger warnings is as follows:

We don’t do spoiler alerts and trigger warnings.

With regard to spoiler alerts:

When writing reviews we’ll avoid (to the degree reasonable) giving away plot twists and reveals the revelation of which would degrade the reading/watching/listening experience for the reader.  After all, a review is intended to provide media consumers with an evaluation of a work prior to the reading/watching/listening-to of said media and assumes that many of the readers/watchers/listeners will not have already read/watched/listened to the work being reviewed.  This being the case, it can be assumed that reviews at The Reach will (for the most part) avoid giving away key elements of the reviewed story in advance.  Obviously where there are no intended spoilers there is no need for a spoiler alert.

Having said that, when the odd spoiler does happen to slip in we still won’t issue a spoiler alert.  That’s right.  You won’t know.  You’ll just have to take a chance.  You’ll have to hang it out on the edge and dance on the rim of the abyss.  The Infinite Reach isn’t about playing it safe.

Even within the context of reviews, the avoidance of spoilers applies only to the work being reviewed.   Prior entries in a fiction series get no such consideration.  For example, let’s say The Infinite Reach reviews the sixth book in the Brak the Barbarian series. Our review of that august tome will avoid spoilers for book six, but may contain spoilers for prior books in the series without issuing a spoiler alert.   So if you plan on reading the fifth Brak the Barbarian book and would be upset to find out that Princess Iruda is revealed therein to be Brak’s daughter by way of his tryst with the Dread Spider Queen of Yizod back in book number three (oops!), you might want to hold off on our review of Brak number six.

Outside of reviews, we reserve the right to spoil with abandon and without prior notification.

For example, let’s say I write about the importance of Thomas Piketty’s observations on wealth and capital to understanding Star Wars’ Imperial economy.  I’m not going to issue spoiler alerts prior to revealing that Luke Skywalker and Princess Lea are the twin offspring of Darth Vader.   And, before you ask, I have no idea how the Skywalker lineage could possibly be in any way relevant to the discussion of the behavior of imaginary economic actors in a fictional imperial economy.  But hey, it’s economics.  It could come up.  After all, no one spins a good science fiction yarn like Alan Greenspan.

With regard to trigger warnings:

Trigger warnings are for intellectual sissies.

There was a story in the NY Times last summer about English Literature majors in American universities demanding trigger warnings for each book that had content a student reading it might find disturbing.  To my mind any Lit majors making such demands should immediately and forthwith be drummed out of the Literature program and have their library privileges revoked. Literature is no place for the faint of heart.

The job of literature in general and science fiction in particular is to disturb; to move readers outside the comforts of their closeted day to day, to give them a peek over the walls of conventional wisdom and cause them readers to question what they had previously thought to be unshakable truths.  Shelly's Frankenstein, Orwell's 1984, Leguin's The Left Hand of Darkness and Delaney's Dhalgren all rattled the crockery of convention when they were published, and the tremors they set in motion still reverberate today.

If I’m doing my job right you’re going to read something that discomforts you now and again.  The Reach isn’t here to pad the corners of the universe or to make readers feel safe.  Reading is not a safe activity. Books are dangerous things.

 Literacy, real literacy, requires courage.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Not a Review of Interstellar

by J. D. Popham
I went to see Interstellar over the weekend.  Interesting movie. If The Grapes of Wrath and 2001 A Space Odyssey had gotten together and had a baby it would probably look something like Interstellar.   But I’m not here to review Interstellar.   Instead I want to talk about the larger science fiction story lurking beyond the edges of Interstellar.

As you’ll know from various reviews, the central premise of Interstellar is that Earth is on the verge of becoming so inhospitable to human beings that the species is faced with the choice of moving off-world or becoming extinct.  Of course, humans have never had the lift technology needed to send even a fraction of our population into space, and aren’t likely to develop it in the future.  And even if we did, Earth is so far out in the galactic boondocks that any potentially habitable planets are beyond our reach.

Happily for humanity, some anonymous fifth dimensional benefactors have apparently detected our plight and opened up a wormhole out near Saturn.  At the other end of this wormhole are, not one, not two, but three planets that look at least marginally habitable. Early on in Interstellar, we are told that scientists are working on two separate plans for using this wormhole to save the human race from group suffocation.

Plan A involves mucking about with gravity (using insights gained from our fifth dimensional friends’ bending of time and space) in order to lift some really, really massive space stations off Earth.  Once in space these city sized craft would gravitate their way out to Saturn, through the wormhole, and on to humanity’s new home on the other side.  Of course Plan A depends on Michael Caine cracking the physics of gravitational manipulation in order to succeed. To that end he remains on Earth, writing out reams of equations while a crew of intrepid explorers travel through the wormhole to select humanity’s destination.

Now, it is possible that the secret to manipulating gravity is beyond even Michael Caine’s awesome intellect, and Earth’s human population is be doomed to perish in place.  In that case humanity’s future will depend on Plan B.   Our intrepid explorers have brought along with them a large cryo-bank of fertilized human eggs (and, one assumes, the means to bring them to term without Anne Hathaway having to carry all the maternal freight for the first few generations).  In the event Michal Caine’s calculations fail, Plan B calls for the team of astronauts to establish a colony on one of the three candidate planets, and there birth and raise a smallish generation or two from the egg bank.  Those generations will then birth and raise increasingly larger generations, until a self-sustaining population with sufficient genetic diversity has been established.

At the end of Interstellar, both Plan A and Plan B have been executed.  At least some of Earth’s population has been lifted from Earth in massive space stations and these stations gravitate merrily about the Solar System.  And yet, while enough time has passed that a few generations have been born and raised on the stations, no one on Earth's side of the wormhole seems terribly interested in traveling through to the other side and establishing a new home on a new world.  The Earth-born seem content with their nomadic lot.  There is baseball on the stations and, we assume, all the cultural comforts that it implies.  Perhaps, having barely avoided extinction on Earth, they are reluctant to trust themselves to the hardships and uncertain mercies of planetary life.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the wormhole the astronauts, believing Plan A to have failed, have fallen back on plan B.  The cryo-bank has been deployed and the first generation, we assume, are merrily gestating their way toward birth.  A new human race, which has only the most tenuous connections to Earth, its cultures and human ancestors is underway.

So there we are: Two parallel human civilizations separated not by mere terrestrial geography, but by a nigh untraversable expanse of galactic real estate.  Their only means of contact is through a wormhole, and humanity’s friends from the fifth dimension have given no indication as to how long that interstellar emergency exit will be held open.  It’s entirely possible that the two human civilizations could be separated for tens of thousands of years if not forever, without contact.  The Earth-born might never know of their lab-born kindred, and the lab-born would only know stories of lost Earth through tales passed down across the generations, those tales becoming entwined with and indistinguishable from that culture’s own unearthly myths and legends.

Interstellar sets the stage for the opening act of an Homeric science fiction saga that looms in the shadows just beyond the end titles.  Given the rich story-telling possibilities inherent in the film’s end position, I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated when the lights came up.  It was as if the filmmakers had filmed a prologue and left the story proper, the story I really wanted to see and hear, on the cutting room floor.

Failure of imagination? Possibly.  Or a matter of artistic temperament. Christopher Nolan’s movies turn inward rather than outward, tending toward the claustrophobic spaces of an individual’s dreams, memories and illusions. Or Gotham City.   Even Interstellar, set in the vastness of space, has a somewhat closed-in feel, maintaining as it does a largely inward focus on a few characters and the small spaces they occupy.  Nolan rarely pulls the camera back to let the audience take in the larger view.  Even if he were mindful of the larger story he'd set up, grandeur and sweeping epics are not his idiom. 

I tend to call these abandoned or ignored bits of narrative 'found science fiction'.  You see them all the time once you start looking for them. Every story occurs within the context of a larger narrative, and stray plot lines, walk-on characters or roads not taken by one author are fodder for the imagination of another.

As I left the theater that night some new characters were murmuring in the back of my mind, and new plot lines began to unfold around them.  I walked the cold streets of DC with my head down, lost in thought, spinning stories.