Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Favorites in 2012

Some things I liked in 2012 (that weren't necessarily released in 2012).


John Scalzi's series-starter Old Man's War opens with:

"I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army."

I was hooked immediately and on every. single. page. after that! This is a sci-fi military thriller from the current president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Hey, I'd vote for him too.

Best read without any spoilers beyond that first line.

Ted Chiang's collection Stories of Your Life and Others is a perfect blend of religion, math, linguistics, and transhumanism. It begins with a retelling of the Tower of Babel and ends with a what-if about turning off the human ability to instantly judge facial beauty.

Chiang surely has one of the best publications-to-awards ratios in the business, possibly because he writes fiction as a side gig. At three stories in, he jumped up there with Borges on my favorite short form authors list.

Yes, I read a lot of science fiction this year! The Diamond Age: or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson is officially the book I most want to see adapted into a movie, so long as it has a big budget and doesn't hold back on the adult content. When I saw Sucker Punch later, I thought, "This director would be perfect for The Diamond Age if he isn't allowed to write the script!"

This story has everything: the end of material shortages, society after nation-states, cyborg gangsters, nanomachine smog, robot horses, and the best introduction to computer science a girl could ever have.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco does its damnedest to drive off readers in the prologue and first few chapters. I know because I suffered through that trial, and because there was a note in the back about Eco's friends complaining about it and him saying it was on purpose. So tough!

But get through the bits about medieval monks squabbling over seemingly irrelevant theological points and what you'll find is a gripping murder mystery set in and around one of the most anti ALA-approved libraries in the history of mankind. I've actually seen it referenced in a professional paper as an example of what not to do. (Seriously, though, skip the prologue.)

Films (besides Drive, obviously)

Never Let Me Go is science fiction in the minimal sense that Gattaca is science fiction. The technological advance is not a whiz-bang amazing thing in the foreground, but the background reason the protagonists are struggling. Without a doubt the best child-actors-to-adult-actors transition I've seen, and both phases of the story are equally strong. As a bonus: this is the first time I've liked Keira Knightley in anything.

Heaven (2002) is a gorgeously-shot story about life after the unforgivable. Set in Italy and frequently switching between Italian and English, this police drama has a lot of the dreamy quality of the director's earlier film Run Lola Run.

I almost stopped watching Castaway On The Moon about a third of the way through because I felt the silliness of being stranded on an island in the middle the Han River in the middle of Seoul wasn't enough to fill the rest of the movie. I was right and so very wrong. A major twist happened that took this from a ha-ha three stars to five SOUTH KOREA IS BEST KOREA stars. No, I won't give you a hint. If you don't mind a few poop jokes along the way, trust me on this film.

If you didn't know Cold Weather was an amateur detective film, you probably wouldn't guess it for quite a while. Best cinematography of the year and the most realistic characters. The polar opposite of something like Brick, as these characters aren't especially clever or talented. That's an understatement; they're flat-out not clever and not talented. They're awkward, complex twenty-somethings like everyone I knew at that age. And I've never felt so tense worrying about characters in a mystery film.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is the wacky, gloriously exaggerated 80s movie that can only be as low profile as it is due to an alien conspiracy. Banzai is a neurosurgeon. No, he's a test car driver! No, he's physicist! No, he's a band leader! No, he's a personal advisor to the President! He's all of these things and the leader of a paramilitary organization trying to keep Earth out of the crossfire of an interplanetary conflict. He's a very busy and very cool man.

Beyond The Black Rainbow is all style and little substance, but the style THE STYLE! Heavy synth. Abrupt changes in lighting and color filters and contrast. This is more like a planetarium light show than a movie. What little plot there is reminded me vaguely of the Portal video game series and required me to piece together the back-story out of small touches and sparse flashbacks. I loved it, but I completely understand why so many people detest the film. I had to take a couple of breaks to finish it.


Just listen...

Interactive Fiction

I didn't like the comic version of The Walking Dead. The TV show is decent. But for my money, the video game series is the best-written, best-acted incarnation. It's in the adventure game genre, which means the focus is on dialogue choices, examining and using objects to solve puzzles, and some action game-y elements sprinkled here and there.

If you're familiar with the TV version, this is a parallel story starting from the day of the infection with cameos by a couple of characters you know. I've heard of a gamer's mother who doesn't like zombie violence or approve of all the swearing, but who got hooked by the story about protecting a little girl through the apocalypse and played the whole way through herself. No surprise, considering how this game cleaned up at the Spike TV video game awards, including one just for the girl's voice actress. I give it the Most Intense Emotional Rollercoaster award.

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