I know I’m late to the party, but I watched the first two episodes of Last of Us the other day, and I really like it! I haven’t ever paid much attention to announcements and trailer releases, so most of the time when a new series starts I’m often one of the last to know. For the record, I was aware that HBO was adapting the Last of Us video game, I just didn’t know it was coming out this January.
So, without knowing much about it besides Pedro Pascal being cast as Joel, I went in knowing basically nothing about the show. But not really nothing, Last of Us was a game I spent many a Saturday night playing during my freshman year. I don’t play games for completeness, but I loved the reclaimed cities and the unique fungus-based zombies. So I know all the story elements already. Although Pedro Pascal did a great job as the Mandalorian and is basically playing the same type of character in Last of Us, I was a little wary about watching a video game adaptation. The last one I tried to watch was just plain bad (Halo), and I didn’t want to get my hopes up.
It turns out Last of Us is pretty good! It’s true to the story and spirit of the show and follows the original plot closely. It’s precisely what I would expect a faithful adaptation to look like. It’s captured the spirit of the game and so far has done a great job of translating storytelling techniques between mediums. I’m looking forward to episode three, which Twitter tells me was very good.
Now that it’s over, we can look back and analyze what the Kenobi series did right. I already shared my feelings about the series, and I may decide to talk about three things that Kenobi did wrong too. For now, though, it’s all appreciation for this vital addition to the Star Wars canon.
1. Giving Obi-Wan A Reason To Leave Tatooine.
We have been spending a lot of time on Tattooine lately. Somehow every character ends up there eventually. The Book of Boba Fett finally gave a face to the inhabitants and background characters of the desert planet. It’s a perfectly fine setting, who doesn’t love haggling with jawas? But the problem with reusing a setting over and over is that it gets old.
Like most people I expected most of the series to take place on Tatooine. Aside from a now non-canon book series we were never given a reason to believe that Obi-Wan had ever left Tatooine during his exile. Despite this, Leia somehow recognizes “Ben Kenobi” as the “Obi-Wan Kenobi” she was looking for. Some might even say that this entire series was made to fill in that plot hole.
2. Keeping Luke (Mostly) Out Of It
When we first saw the trailer all we were allowed to see was Obi-Wan, the deserts of Tatooine, and a young Luke playing at being a pilot. Since Luke and Obi-Wan spend a lot of time together on screen in Episode IV, if Luke was a prominent part of the Kenobi series we would have been left with two plot holes for everyone the series writers tried to fill.
Instead, we got only a brief glimpse of Young Luke on Tatooine. I think this was for the best. Luke is already the main character in three separate movies, we’ve had enough of them. If the Star Wars franchise is going to continue to grow it needs to let us explore other characters instead of giving us a mere handful of bloated characters.
3. Having Obi-Wan Face Of With Darth Vader
The final confrontation between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader added so much meaning to their confrontation in Episode IV. At the end of Episode III Obi-Wan had every reason to believe that Anakin had died on Mustafar where he left him. He had no reason to think that one of the tormentors of the galaxy was his fallen apprentice.
The events of Kenobi and the finale showdown ad extra emotional weight to the events of Episode IV and the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan.
Kenobi wasn’t perfect, no series is. However, I think this was a fantastic addition to the Star Wars canon. I’ll always miss the old Expanded Universe, but I am glad that the people Disney has in charge of Star Wars seem committed to keeping the spirit of the franchise alive. Especially after the lackluster sequel trilogy, we were made to watch
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Kenobi is a great addition to the Star Wars franchise.
Disney’s new Kenobi streaming series got off to a slow start, and with episodes as short as just 35 min I worried that the ending would be rushed. The scenes all felt very empty but that’s to be expected with pandemic filming. But like the Book of Boba Fett, which I liked well enough but couldn’t really enjoy until the final episode, Kenobi pulled it off in the end.
While the scene lighting was far too dark, the final episode, at around fifty minutes, took its time to give us a finale that hit all the right emotional notes. Obi-wan, having been in hiding for ten years, finally faces his fallen apprentice again and comes to terms with the past. His brief stint spent out of retirement instills in him a new sense of purpose and hope for the future (any guess what hope that is?).
Kenobi has some poor design choices, and at times suffers from being a screenplay that was initially intended to be a movie, but it proves itself to be very worth the watch in the end. I plan to rewatch it in close order soon to see what it’s like to experience it all at once.
I love that Paramount+ is continuing to churn out new Star Trek IP. Even with the rushed endings and main character syndrome that we have seen in Discovery and Picard, it’s hard not to get excited about seeing Star Trek with modern effects and CGI. They’re fun shows to have on for spectacle, but they’re not really anything to get excited about. That said, it’s been clear that Paramount+ has a lot of talented and passionate people working on Star Trek. It’s just that until now it has seemed like those in charge aren’t letting the writers do their thing.
All that has changed with the newest series; Star Trek Strange New Worlds. This new series follows the adventures of the starship Enterprise when Kirk was still a newly minted officer and Captain Pike is still in command. If you’ve seen the Original Series you probably remember that Pike was left needing intensive care and life support following a deadly accident.
Strange New Worlds is many years before that accident. However, we are shown in the first episode that Captain Pike has been given a glimpse of his future death. This gives us a great over-arching character arc for the series that follows Captain Pike as he comes to terms with his own mortality. Meanwhile, we are treated to the Enterprise going around and doing Enterprise things.
Instead of focusing on high-stakes and potentially species-ending threats, Strange New Worlds has instead focused on an adventure of the week format. I can’t say enough how great this is. In the age of season-long movies, it’s great to see the writers returning to the franchise’s roots.
Seriously I love this show. But I, unfortunately, have to take a moment to explain Star Trek. Since Star Trek Discovery began there have been a lot of “fans” coming out of the woodwork to accuse the new Star Trek of being “political” or “woke.” I do not think it is possible to be a part of the modern fandom without having to think about this. Here is the truth; Star Trek has always been and should be “woke.” This is the franchise that had the first interracial kiss on television. Star Trek has always been aspirational. It’s always been about imagining a world where humanity learns to leave its petty prejudices behind and focus on building a better future for everyone.
Star Trek’s wokeness is not a weakness or a failure. It’s the point.
Right upfront, I will say that this movie was both entertaining and forgettable. That said it had some great ideas that I want to discuss. Here’s a summary.
It’s 2036 and Ukraine is embroiled in a civil war caused by Russian separatists (that aged well). At this point in the near future, robotic soldiers called G.U.M.P.’s are now fighting in limited roles alongside American troops. Lt. Harp, our protagonist, is a drone pilot who is deployed to Ukraine after he disobeyed a direct order. We the audience know that it was probably the right call to make but he still disobeyed a direct order. He is given a special assignment with Capt. Leo. Leo is an experimental military android (Anthony Mackie) whose existence is known only to Harp and the base commander. Leo tells Harp that their mission is to stop the rebel leader Victor Koval from getting control of an abandoned Soviet-era missile launch site. This is only partially true, as it turns out Leo is actually using Harp to help override his programming so that he can get control of the missiles and launch them at the united states. At the end of the movie, after Harp has shot him with anti-vehicle bullets and a drone strike is seconds away, Leo explains his true motivations. He wanted the first-ever deployment of an android super-soldier to be a failure so that it never happened again.
Leo’s motivations are what made me like this movie. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a good one, and it harkens back to a few time-tested science fiction tropes that deserve modern portrayals. That is, what happens when the machines we built learn to think for themselves? What happens when we give them autonomy or even feelings? Moreover, what happens to us when we use these machines to do our dirty work and use them to do the things we would rather not admit responsibility for?
The motivations that Leo reveals at the end sum up the themes of this movie. Themes that have been explored in classic science fiction by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Themes that absolutely deserve modern adaptations like this.
Drones: Keeping Death At Arms Length
We don’t like to think about death. We especially don’t like to think about the death that we cause. Unmanned aerial vehicles have become a ubiquitous part of modern warfare. One that allows militaries to distance their personnel from the battlefield and reduce the enemy to nothing more than pixels on a screen. Unmanned vehicles don’t just separate the pilot from the target, they make it easier for a country to justify airstrikes when none of their people will actually be put in harm’s way. Much of the movie is about making Harp see the conflict up close and experience the true cost of the war that had previously been hidden from him.
Robots With Guns: Who Gives The Kill Order?
As un-manned vehicles have become more common on the battlefield and more designs are in development, the question increasingly being asked over the past two decades is who is pulling the trigger. For current systems, human operators are still making the final decision, this is far from perfect, but at least it puts off having to answer this question for another decade or so.
But as companies like Boston Dynamics continue to develop more advanced robots, this question will have to be answered sooner rather than later. It’s one thing to train a human how to make decisions and improvise, it’s another to teach a computer, and as we have seen with AI already, it’s easy to program in biases even if it’s not intentional. Can we trust a computer to decide whether or not the person it sees is a threat? Can it tell friend from foe? Will it care if innocents are in the way?
This comes up a few times in the movie with the G.U.M.P.’s where the robots open fire without warning. To be honest, with how common incidents of friendly fire and civilian casualties are with humans pulling the trigger, we’re going to have the same problems with AI in a few years.
Artificial Intelligence: What Happens When Computers Can Feel?
We still have a long way to go before we can make computers think and feel like humans do. When we finally manage to teach a computer ethics and compassion and right from wrong, what will it do with this information? A computer that is able to know right from wrong and also examines things perhaps more honestly and objectively than humans. How will they see us?
This movie is pretty forgettable. It’s well made and it’s fun but it doesn’t really stand out from the pack. I still think that it’s a good movie that provides a much-needed update to classic robot tropes.
Boba Fett has been a fan favorite since he first appeared on the screen. This background character exploded into a fan favorite with numerous book and comic appearances that added to his back story. Much of that backstory went away when Disney bought Star Wars and made the Expanded Universe non-canon.
Fans everywhere were ecstatic when the Book of Boba Fett was announced following the character’s appearance in season 2 of the Mandolorian. We weren’t given much to expect except that Boba would be trying to gain control of Jabba’s former holdings on Tattoine. Many expected that we would see Boba on a brutal rampage as he works to wrest control on Tattoine from various rivals. Instead, we got a fairly slow-paced series in which we saw Boba find a family and then lose it in the form of a tribe of Tuskens, then work to build support among the locals of Tattoine and go up against the Pyke crime syndicate.
Many were thrown off by the show’s pacing and lack of brutality, complaining that Boba has “gone soft” but this is simply not the case. In season 2 of The Mandalorian, we saw Boba destroy a contingent of stormtroopers with just a gaffi stick. We know that he is capable of brutality and violence when needed, but a man who resorts quickly to violence is not going to live very long. Boba knows when violence is needed, he knows when to be careful and methodical, and he knows when he is better off making friends than enemies.
Furthermore, at no point in the show does Boba claim to be a crimelord, he has a protection racket, yes, but he never claims to be a crimelord, he is a Daimyo. A feudal lord who serves as a protector to his realm. He is trying to gain the trust and respect of his community, shooting everyone he came across would not have done him any good. Besides that, it should not be surprising that a man who has gone through a near-death experience has decided to make some changes in his life.
The Book Of Boba Fett has its problems and is far from perfect. But the series takes us on a stroll through one of Star Wars’ iconic locales and further fleshes out the relationship between Boba and Din. Once we have another season of The Mandalorian I suspect that we will view this series in a very different and more favorable light as a part of a larger narrative.
Dune is a movie that I have been waiting for for a long time.
I tried to manage my expectations. I really did. But I failed. And that’s okay because this movie is fantastic. It met every expectation that I had and surpassed them.
It’s a problem inherent in every movie adaptation. Too many times readers have been disappointed by movie adaptations made by people that don’t seem to understand the source material. We can’t always expect to get the Peter Jackson treatment, as much as we all wish that wasn’t the case. But this time, this time readers were not let down.
This movie is amazing in so many ways. I was worried that all of the lore and politics that the book dwells on so much would seem hamfisted in the movie. I was totally wrong. So wrong. Villeneuve and company distilled all of that worldbuilding into its most essential elements. It all just worked. Everything was made with an obvious appreciation for the source material that is hard to find in movie adaptations.
However, I really want to talk about what made the movie better than the book. Yes, you read that right. Sometimes the movie is better. In some ways. Sometimes.
Here, the movie succeeds in how large the world feels. Science fiction is littered with planets that feel like villages. The book series that is Dune is filled with a few planets that feel like universes. In the first several books the narratives focus exclusively on events that take place on Arrakis. That single planet feels big and there is a lot that happens there. We are told that there is much more out there in the rest of the universe but we mostly have to take the narrator’s word for it. In Dune Messiah we are told that Paul’s armies have rampaged across the known universe, but we are only told that. We aren’t shown that. We only ever focus on the lives and actions of a handful of characters.
That’s okay. It’s characters who are at the heart of any narrative. But it’s also hard to feel like the rest of the universe is really out there. The movie doesn’t have that problem and that is where it really shines.
From the book, we know that the Atreides are one of the great houses and that they are powerful. In the movie, we see that. We see that in the army behind them at the signing ceremony chanting “Atreides” and in all the pomp and ceremony that we see when the Atreides arrive on Arrakis.
Everything in the movie is big. All of it is focused on Paul and the other main characters, but everything around them is so much bigger than they are.
Honestly, it’s nearly perfect. Just go watch it. And then watch it again. And again! In my mind, Dune is to SciFi what Lord of the Rings is to Fantasy. They’re not the end all be all, but their shadows loom large. It’s so good to see Dune finally get the treatment it deserves on the big screen.
This book first came to my attention thanks to a “Big Idea” post on John Scalzi’s blog Whatever. In that post, Dewes explained that the original inspiration for the book came from a single line sung by Johnny Cash in the song “Highwayman.”
“I’ll fly a starship across the universe divide.”
That instantly hooked me because like Dewes I’ve listened to that song many times and thought that there must be a story somewhere in that line. Turns out Dewes found it.
The Last Watch follows a group of Sentinels, soldiers sent to stand guard at the edge of the universe as a punishment. That’s how Adequin got there at least. The other POV character, Cavalon, was once the heir-apparent to one of humanity’s royal houses, THE royal house in fact, or as close to this universe has to one. Forcing him to enlist in the Sentinels was a convenient way to get rid of him.
In a way, both Cavalon and Adequin are out of place in their current posting and are in conflict with each other. At the start, Adequin is trying to beat Cavalon into an acceptable soldier and Cavalon is just trying to be…Cavalon? He really wants to be better he just can’t seem to keep his mouth shut.
Both of them will learn a lot by the end of the book. They accomplish a lot too. In this book, Dewes manages to tell a small story with large implications. I think that’s a skill. We are so used to protagonists with outsized importance. The characters that Dewes created do have a great deal of importance, but they have also been completely relegated to the edges of society. And I mean it when I say edges.
The book’s back cover promised an existential threat that only the Sentinels could avert. It didn’t disappoint. There are a lot of ideas in this book coupled to a lot of fun. The dialogue is great, the ideas are better, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the second book. You should go read it. Right now.
Mystery can be a great driver of plot and a trap at the same time. J.J Abrams is notorious for using this strategy in Lost and blowing it at the end. The problem is if you set up some huge mystery at the beginning of a narrative you better have a satisfying answer to the mystery by the end. Or do you?
I would argue that you don’t. If you do it right.
If you have a great answer to the mystery you present to your audience at the beginning then by all means share it, but if you do you better make sure you are very confident in the answer. Your audience will not thank you if your answer fails to live up to their expectations. Remember how disappointed Spongebob was to find out Patrick has just spent the entire episode hiding the string in his secret box?
I am here to argue that sometimes it’s best to leave mysteries unsolved. There is both terror and wonder in the unknown, that’s part of being human, there’s no reason the stories we tell shouldn’t reflect that.
I am using Dan Simmons as an example here because his 1989 science fiction novel “Hyperion” is fantastic. It’s the kind of “genre fiction” that gets literature snobs to lower their barriers. But I think it would have been better if Simmons had never written a sequel. Let me explain.
Hyperion, unsurprisingly, centers around the planet Hyperion. A planet at the edge of known space, one that is not incorporated into the network of gates that allow instantaneous travel between worlds.
Traveling to Hyperion means sacrificing a great deal of time and accepting a certain amount of risk. Many accept this because Hyperion is a planet of mysteries. It is one of the labyrinthine worlds, worlds with great labyrinths constructed by unknown aliens. It is also home to the Shrike and the Time Tombs. Both have been sent back in time for an unknown purpose.
One group of humans, the Shrike Church, believe that the Shrike is a punishment for humanity’s sins and traveling willingly on pilgrimages to Hyperion where most of them will be killed in various horrible ways by the Shrike. It’s strange how the bishops never go themselves, isn’t it?
The protagonists of Hyperion have all been selected for what will probably be the last Shrike pilgrimage. At the start of the book, it is stated that the Time Tombs are opening and that a group of transhumans called Ousters are about to attack the planet. There’s not much hope that the planet will hold out either. None of them are members of the Shrike Church, none of them know exactly why they were selected, all of them have their own reasons for accepting the missions.
The book is a futuristic retelling of the Canterbury Tales. In between chapters that narrate their journey to the planet and their attempts to determine who among them might be a spy, they each share their stories about what led them to accept their place on the pilgrimage.
Through their stories and their motivations, Simmons explores imperialism, artistic integrity, betrayal, love, artificial intelligence, technological reincarnation, fatherhood, and many more themes. In some ways, the book is also a love letter to John Keats.
In the end, despite their differences, they joined hands and walked to their fate. Then the book ends. The series should have ended there too.
Instead, Simmons continued to write in this universe, which eventually became the Hyperion Cantos. The second book, The Fall of Hyperion, wasn’t that bad. It largely follows an artificial reincarnation of John Keats and much of the book’s events are told through his experiences. But we also see the POVs of the characters from the first novel. This is where the problem arises.
In writing the second novel Simmons had to explain all of the questions that arose in the first. In doing so he brings up a lot of interesting ideas that were totally unprecedented in the first novel. So instead of leaving the mysteries of the first book as mysteries, he chose to answer them with time-traveling agents from the future and messianic powers that came out of nowhere.
The first book was an amazing opportunity to explore multiple stories at once, to get close to deeply flawed characters with mixed motivations for being where they are, and to see them accept the uncertain future in front of them. I think the series would have ended beautifully with just one book. Instead, Simmons decided to keep writing.
That’s not to say that I hated the second book. I enjoyed most of it. Just not as much. I think I would have enjoyed it more if some of the concepts introduced in the first actually mattered in the second. Powers that destroy the Shrike don’t bother me as long as we the readers were given reason to think they might be possible beforehand.
But we weren’t.
I keep looking at the third book on my shelf and I don’t know if I can convince myself to read it. Hyperion is a great book and if it was the only book of the Hyperion Cantos that you read it will likely remain a great book in your eyes. Because the answers provided in the later books simply don’t hold up to the questions posed by the first. If you haven’t read Hyperion yet then you definitely should, but consider skipping the books that follow.
Lately, I have been listening to a lot of audiobooks. It’s helped to make tedious tasks more enjoyable, and it has helped me cross A LOT of books off of my to-be-read list. A few of these books have been Alastair Reynolds’ Inhibitor Trilogy. These books have me obsessed.
For those who don’t know, Alastair Reynolds is a prolific science fiction author who studied astrophysics with the European Space Agency. He holds a doctorate in astronomy and his experience shines through in his writing.
He has an incredibly engaging style that he peppers with just the right amount of scientific jargon to make his settings convincing. He also does an amazing job of bringing seemingly disparate story threads together at the end in ways so obvious in retrospect.
I could go on and on about why I like these books. Instead, I want to talk about one thing that Reynolds does very well. Conflict. Or should I call it fluff? You know those fight scenes that drag on too long or the infiltrations that seem a little too contrived? I know I can’t be the only one, which is why I was so happy when Reynolds chose to fade to black for those scenes that another author might instead drag along for a chapter or two.
That’s not to say that these books don’t have fight scenes or are free of violence, but Reynolds seems to know exactly how much of the fight we need to be shown, and much of the violence in the series takes place between starships. Starships so far apart that a commander will not know if their attack was successful for several hours. In a book like this, conflict is best shown through the thoughts and worries of the commanders rather than the minutia that many authors get stuck in.