Notes on Doctor Strange

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A disclaimer: I didn’t read the comics and I don’t plan to, so these are just thoughts on the movie as an isolated entity. I’m rapidly losing interest in superhero movies as they become increasingly disappointing, so I didn’t follow the film’s development, except to read an article or two when a friend mentioned the whitewashing of The Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton. Still, I hold out hope that these movies will at least be fun to watch, and Marvel has been doing far better than DC in this regard.

A visually beautiful, trippy movie. No complaints there. It seems I can still be swayed by aesthetically pleasing action.

Oh cool, a white dude travels to the East to learn some esoterical shit and shortly after he has to to save the world because none of the POC characters who have been training for years – particularly Mordo, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor – are as special as him. You can just smell how fresh this plot is.

heading-east But I won’t lie – I like Benedict Cumberbatch. That voice. Those eyes. That snooty sarcastic genius typecast he’s fallen into. I don’t care that his face is weirdly long. I’m only human; I have my weaknesses okay.

On Christine, the ER surgeon and ex-lover played by Rachel McAdams: one of only two women in this Bechdel-test fail, Christine exists purely for Stephen’s sake. At the beginning, she directs his attention to a dying patient with a unique injury so we can see what an awesome neurosurgeon he is. During the course of the movie, she always happens to be at the hospital (but unoccupied) when Stephen rocks up needing her help. The only time we see her anywhere else is during Stephen’s recovery, when she delivers food to his home and informs the audience that he’s gone broke trying to fix his ruined hands. Christine has no life or personality outside of the functions she serves for Stephen Strange. The fact that she’s a surgeon is not enough to make her a strong female character. She hardly has any character.

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Supporting character

Tilda Swinton’s action scenes are the best. I found her stereotypical guru persona banal (blah blah blah mystical wisdom blah) but I loved watching her mind-bend architecture with signature elegance.

The villains suck. Their multidimensional plot is a one-dimensional scheme of bland evil with the usual small-minded goal of becoming uber-powerful and taking over the world, causing spectacular destruction in the process. I barely know what Mads Mikkelsen was on about when he explained the reasoning for this in that one scene (where, for some reason, he just couldn’t kill Strange, despite him being a total noob), but it didn’t seem to matter. All you need to know is that the baddies are going to destroy the world, and must be stopped. By Strange, who is the only one smart enough to figure out how, obviously.

Dr Strange’s red cloak is a more enjoyable character than Mads Mikkelsen’s. This is one of the main reasons I’m getting sick of superhero movies: the characters are so flat I don’t actually care what happens to them, and the spectacular action scenes are rendered meaningless. This isn’t quite the case in Doctor Strange, which has just enough charm to get by.

There are quite a few funny moments. This movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. That said, I’m slightly discomfited by the way Wong (played by Benedict Wong) mostly seems to be there so Stephen can make fun of him for our amusement.

 Entertaining, but I wouldn’t watch it again.

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Daily Reads: 19 January 2015

Hey everyone! Apologies for my recent blog silence, but I have finally moved back to South Africa from Ethiopia (YAY!) and I’ve been extra disorganised as a result. But I’m slowly getting back into my routine, and I’ve got some cool stuff planned for Violin in A Void. This includes lovely professional photography by my sister Ruth (contact details at the end of this post).

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I’m currently reading The Just City by Jo Walton, and Sister Sister by Rachel Zadok, whose gorgeous cover Ruth captured in the picture above. You can get a better look at the artwork on the publisher’s page here, and several people have been telling me that Zadok’s novel is just as wonderful.

But before I go and curl up with that again, here are some daily reads for you.

In “A Matter of Gaze” Foz Meadows offers some practical ways of thinking about the male gaze, and formulates a companion test for the Bechdal as a way of assessing the way women are portrayed in film. A very useful article especially if, like me, you feel strongly about these issues but sometimes struggle to think about or discuss it in a clear, analytical way.

Following his article on why you should write in your books with a pen, Tim Parks wrote an article on how to read critically. I’ve already found it quite helpful in turning my attention to little details that I might not otherwise have noticed, and appreciating writing that seemed lacklustre at first glance. A fantastic tool for writing reviews!

Speaking of which, I recently read some articles on negative reviews, which, as regular readers may have noticed, I have no qualms about writing. Some people don’t like them or don’t like posting them, but these articles argue in their defence.

The G from the blog Nerds of a Feather invited other reviewers to give their opinions about the positive value of negative reviews. If you want to see me get a little ranty about this, check out my comment below the article.

Litreactor also has a post about why readers don’t owe it to writers to finish books they don’t like and how it’s ok to review a book you didn’t finish (provided you review it honestly as a dnf – did not finish). Although I usually slog through books I don’t like, and sometimes get a bit annoyed with dnf reviews of books I loved, I have to agree here. A dnf review can’t offer a valid assessment of a book as a whole, but readers still get a worthwhile opinion from a review that says a book was so bad/slow/boring etc. that the reviewer couldn’t bear to finish it.

What do you think? Is it ok to write dnf reviews? Do you find that opinion helpful? Do you read/write negative reviews, or do you think it’s better to either be more diplomatic or simply keep snarky opinions to yourself?

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments 🙂

Photography for this post is courtesy of Ruth Smith. You can view or buy her work here, or contact her at photobunny24@gmail.com.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke LamoraTitle: The Lies of Locke Lamora
Author: Scott Lynch
Series: Gentleman Bastard #1
Published:
 27 June 2006
Publisher: 
Gollancz (eBook)
Genre: 
fantasy, urban fantasy
Source:
Own copy
Rating: 
7/10

An orphan in the fantastical city of Camorr, six-year old Locke Lamora is such a lying, scheming, overzealous thief that the Thiefmaker has no choice but to get permission to kill the little troublemaker before he rips the fabric of underworld society. In a last-ditch attempt to make some money off him instead, the Thiefmaker sells him to Father Chains. Chains might look like a humble priest, but he’s the leader of a small gang of talented thieves called The Gentleman Bastards. Locke fits right in, and along with several other children Chains trains him to be a master thief.

About twenty years later, the Gentleman Bastards – Locke, Calo, Galdo, Jean and Bug – run the city’s biggest scams in total secret. Everyone thinks they’re small-time thieves when in fact they’ve become quite rich. This is exactly what Chains taught them to do – steal from the nobility and…. hoard all the money because they don’t really know what to do with it, they just love scheming and stealing from rich people. Under Locke’s leadership, the Gentleman Bastards always have brilliant plans with big hauls.

But Locke is so slick, smart and successful that it’s perfectly clear to anyone who knows anything about stories that he’s soon going to get his ass handed to him and even his fantastic lies won’t get him out of trouble. And that’s what happens when the Grey King shows up.

This mysterious man starts killing the city’s most fearsome garristas (gang leaders) as if they were no more threatening than flies. The murders rapidly undermine the power of Capa Barsavi, the mobster boss of Camorr to whom all gangs musts pay their dues. The Gentleman Bastards fear that Locke could be the next target, but the Grey King has something far worse planned for him.

It’s only about halfway through the book that we actually encounter the Grey King, however. The Lies of Locke Lamora  is a fun read but it does spend quite a lot of time setting up the world, Locke’s character, and the Gentleman Bastards. Which isn’t a bad thing – I enjoyed hearing about Locke’s schemes and his performances as a consummate liar and actor. He’s a fantastic character, an ideal anti-hero: cocky, snarky, ruthless but not evil, so flawed but so remarkable, devious, but fiercely loyal to his friends. You won’t mind getting to know him instead of just rushing headlong into the main plot.

The Lies of Locke Lamora also has some of the most intensive world building I’ve come across. It’s impressive, but it can be a bit overwhelming. It seems like half the book must be devoted to world building – the districts of Camorr, its social structures, culture and religions, the practice of alchemy and other forms of magic, the social structure of the underworld, the smells, the tastes, the colours. Most notable is Camorr’s unique architecture – the world of the novel was once populated by a race of long-dead beings – Eldren – who left behind their gleaming Elderglass structures. Elderglass is virtually indestructible, and at twilight (called Falselight), the sun’s rays reflects off the glass for “an hour of supernatural radiance”. It’s one of about a thousand things in this book that I would really, really love to see in film.

Others include a garden of fatally sharp glass roses that ‘drink’ blood, the “Shifting Market” located on a river, the secret Elderglass basements where the Gentlemen Bastards have their headquarters, an alchemically designed orchard on a boat. It’s because the world building can be so impressive that it doesn’t drag the book down. Although you probably won’t have a good grasp of the world without a re-read or two, you’ll still enjoy reading about it just because it’s awesome.

On the darker side is the city’s underworld. Camorr has over a hundred gangs. It’s almost hard to imagine that some citizens are just ordinary people because it seems like the city is thrives on crime:

‘Gods, I love this place,’ Locke said, drumming his fingers against his thighs. ‘Sometimes I think this whole city was put here simply because the gods must adore crime. Pickpockets rob the common folk, merchants rob anyone they can dupe, Capa Barsavi robs the robbers and the common folk, the lesser nobles rob nearly everyone, and Duke Nicovante occasionally runs off with his army and robs the shit out of Tal Verarr or Jerem, not to mention what he does to his own nobles and his common folk.’

‘So that makes us robbers of robbers,’ said Bug, ‘who pretend to be robbers working for a robber of other robbers.’

Almost all the major characters are criminals or engage in some kind of socially sanctioned violence. In the central plot, thieves and killers fight against other thieves and killers. Capa Barsavi rules the underworld through murder and torture. The Grey King isn’t really any worse; he’s the villain mostly because he upsets the social balance and targets the characters we’re meant to empathise with. Whether a character is a good guy, bad guy or victim generally depends on their relationship to Locke. Locke and the other Gentleman Bastards might have a higher moral standing than their peers but only because their victims are nobles rather than common folk or merchants.

One thing I wanted to mention is that Camorr seems to have a more egalitarian society than you typically see in fantasy with quasi-historical settings. When it comes to minor characters – gang members, business people, civil servants, etc. – the genders seem well-balanced. On the downside, it’s still not fully egalitarian (apparently it’s difficult for fantasy writers to be that imaginative) and the narrative favours male characters. Most of the antagonists are male. The Gentleman Bastards are all male, except for a mysterious character named Sabetha, who is mentioned multiple times but never, ever appears on the page. Capa Barsavi admits that his daughter Nazca is the perfect person to become the next Capa, except that she’s a woman so he can’t possibly choose her over her brothers. Admittedly, some physically and socially powerful characters in the novel are women, one of whom is a criticism of male dominance, but their roles are smaller than those of the male characters.

The hype also spoiled this book for me a wee bit. I hadn’t read any reviews, but I heard several times that it was a brilliant, and that it was dark and violent. I think it’s a great book, but it didn’t blow me away. And these days, a book has to be pretty twisted or brutal to stand out as such. Perhaps because I was bracing myself for an onslaught, The Lies of Locke Lamora wasn’t as brutal as I’s expected. Ok yes, it includes some pretty graphic torture, a character drowned in a barrel of horse urine, savage beatings and murders, and aquatic monsters that rip people to shreds, but authors like George R.R. Martin and Gillian Flynn still deliver much heavier blows. Unlike them, Lynch also balances out the grim bits of his story with adventure, humour, and the fantastic friendship of the Gentleman Bastards. This is no bad thing, obviously, it’s just that very little of the novel’s darker content made much of an impact on me. Especially after reading A Storm of Swords.`

That said, it’s still compulsively readable. I didn’t race through it, but whenever I put it down to take a break, I’d soon be thinking about how nice it would be to curl up with it again. At over 700 pages, it gave me about a week’s worth of good reading. I’ve never really empathised with people who say they prefer long books because there’s more to enjoy – the quality of a story has no relation to its length, and if a long book becomes boring it’s torture – but with The Lies of Locke Lamora I understood the point. It’s good fun, and you know you can look forward to a lot of it. At the same time it’s not so long that you’re intimidated by how much time it’ll take, and it doesn’t have an open ending that insists you move on to the next book in the series right away. The ending paves the way for the sequel, but provides satisfying conclusions to this plot.

I will be reading the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, and not just because I received a review copy of book three, The Republic of Thieves. The Lies of Locke Lamora is fun, well-written, dark but not grim, and Locke Lamora is a superb character. I’m curious to see what he does next, and what other wonders his world holds.

#DiversityInSFF: Readers and Reviewers

If you weren’t following yesterday, I highly recommend you check out the #DiversityInSFF hashtag that Jim C. Hines started on Twitter yesterday. Twitter can be one hell of a time-waster but it has its moments and following last night’s discussion was undoubtedly time well spent. The problem is a clear one often talked about in sff circles: these genres – or at least their English-language versions – lack diversity, with the major problem being that white male authors and straight, white, predominantly male characters are favoured.

Reading through the hashtag gives a good overall idea of who and what is underrepresented: anyone who is POC, female, gay, transgendered; settings and cultures that aren’t North American or European; non-western folklore and mythology. Saladin Ahmed raised the issue of class (“I want fewer kings and starship captains, more coach drivers and space waitresses.”). There’s also the issue of world sf – most published works in English come from American and British authors or favour those settings.

As several tweeters pointed out, the problem isn’t just with authors and the fiction they produce; the issue is systemic. It exists at the level of publishing – the people hired in the industry, the works they choose to publish, the changes they sometimes require (like removing gay or POC characters), the cover art they produce (objectifying women, whitewashing POCs).

Of course, authors and publishers are influence by readers, so the problem also exists at the level of readers and reviewers. I wanted to talk about this specifically because it’s where I fit in and last night’s discussion had me thinking about my choices as a reader and reviewer. Here are some of my favourite tweets on the subject:

Reading widely is in itself a solution. The paradox of sff is that it can take you to other worlds but still be horribly provincial. A case in point was an indie novel I reviewed this year:  Twin-Bred by Karen A. Wyle. In the story, a human colony settled on another planet, alongside the indigenous aliens, but their lives were little different from suburban America and most of the humans never speak to the aliens or get over their xenopobia. An excellent counterpoint to that novel is the short story: “The Children of Main Street” by A.C. Wise. In Wise’s story, human colonists also replicate suburban America on another planet, except for their children, who have somehow all gained the ability to change sex whenever they feel like it. Many of the parents are disturbed by this, but one mother becomes increasingly disappointed by the adults’ the aversion to difference and their refusal to change. Why travel to other worlds and build new societies only replicate the one you came from?

A lot of sff does that for their readers, transporting us to other worlds that look less like exciting new landscapes and more like small corners of the world we already live in, with lots of people, lifestyles and cultures kept out of view. Vampires in western cities and suburbs, elves and dwarves in some version of medieval Europe, spaceships crewed by straight Americans – these things often aren’t as adventurous or fantastical as they purport to be. Promoting diversity in sff means reading more diversely. And what readers choose to read influences what publishers choose and what authors are encouraged to write; it’s a knock-on  effect.

One of the major lessons I got from the #DiversityInSFF discussion is that this diverse reading really has to be a conscious effort on your part. Because sff suffers from so many biases, simply sticking to preferred subgenres or ignoring the gender, race etc. of the authors you choose means that you’re going to end up reading mostly white male authors who write white male protagonists simply because they are in the vast majority.

I’m pleased to say that, fortunately, my tastes naturally lean towards a measure of inclusivity. I like books that offer me something unusual, and in sff genres, “unusual” often coincides with diversity: POC protagonists, gay and transgendered protagonists, settings that aren’t European or North American, non-European folklore and mythology etc. It also includes female protagonists; they’re easy to find in genres like YA fantasy or paranormal romance but can be harder to find in other sff subgenres.

As a reader and reviewer from South Africa, I’ve also been encouraged to look for ‘world’ sff, simply because the local sff scene is blossoming. What this emphasises is that those genres don’t belong to the American and British authors who dominate the market, and when local authors promote South African and other African speculative fiction, I’m encouraged to look further as well. So when I hear about Nnedi Okorafor’s short story anthology Kabu Kabu for example, or a novel based on the Japanese creation myth of Izanami and Izanaki, my interest is immediately peaked and I request a review copy.

But on the downside I’m not actively seeking to make my reading more diverse. While I do look out for more interesting protagonists and settings, I’m one of those people who doesn’t normally take much notice of the author when looking for books to read and review. Also, I primarily use NetGalley to get review copies and I mostly request books from publishers I trust. What this means, in part, is that I’m basically just waiting to stumble across non-standard fiction, and in the meantime I getting a big dose of the norm. I still come across many female authors and characters this way, but finding POC authors and characters, non-US/European sff, gay protagonists and transgendered protagonists is far more unlikely. Looking over my reading for the year, I’m pleased to see an good gender balance, several Japanese novels and a few books that explore non-traditional sexuality, but it’s hardly as diverse as it could be. I’m not planning to avoid books I really want to read just because their authors and protagonists are white men; I think that’s silly and I’d miss out on some great fiction if I did so. What I’m talking about is finding more varied books to read as well.

Obviously what I read dictates what I review, and reviewing involves discussing and promoting those works, making them more visibile to readers. And visibility is the second major issue that grabbed me last night. The most obvious aspect of this is talking about diverse works of fiction on my blog.

The aspect I hadn’t really thought about much before was making diversity clear within a work of fiction.

Those tweets are directed at authors, particularly because many readers (of any race, gender or sexual orientation) will assume characters are white, straight and male unless told otherwise, and stopping them from doing so is important. Thus, I’d say the idea also replies to reviewers, since describing plots, characters and settings is part of what we do. So, should reviewers make an effort to point out the diversity (or lack thereof) in a work? Should we take care to mention, for example, that the main character is dark-skinned, bisexual and Muslim?

When these factors are central to the plot or whatever is discussed in the review, the answer is an obvious YES. What interests me more, are the cases where that information isn’t needed, when it’s an extra piece of information that doesn’t necessarily fit anywhere.

My instinct thus far has been to leave it out. After all, I don’t provide full character descriptions based on every related scrap of information in novel; I stick to what’s relevant or notable. Skin colour might be as irrelevant as hair colour, and if the story doesn’t include a sexual relationship then it might not be worth mentioning a character’s sexual orientation. Also, I don’t go around pointing out that, by the way, this character is white or straight, so in the spirit of equality I don’t do it for POC or gay characters either unless it’s a major issue. I don’t want to be a twat howling “Look! The main character is a black female scientist! You have to see this!” potentially objectifying them as some kind of exotic artefact on display, instead of viewing them as a (fictional) person. And I kind of feel like I’m doing exactly that if I write something like “Jane is a black scientist on Mars” when Jane’s race isn’t an important plot point. After all, I wouldn’t write “Jane is a white scientist on Mars”.

Then again, there wouldn’t be any need for this discussion if things were equal. These characters are underrepresented. Often when they are present their difference is emphasised, with the fiction making the point of exactly how ‘Other’ they are. While those stories are also necessary to relate individual experiences or the experience of being othered, what we also need are stories that where being POC, gay or transgendered is normalised, where those characters can just get on with the plot without having to explain themselves or function as a representative of a minority. Those are the books for which I wouldn’t need to mention he particulars of the characters diversity, but at the same time that’s the ideal we should be striving for; is it wise to keep silent about it?

Sometimes I’m lucky enough to find a smooth approach to this, like integrating it into a character discussion eg. “John can never commit to anything; he keeps changing jobs, boyfriends and the colour of his hair”. Alternatively, I might punt the book as breaking away from the norm, eg. “It’s not often that I get to read a story from the POV of a gay teenager with a disability”. And if all else fails, maybe I should be stating openly that “Jane is a black scientist on Mars” as a way of telling readers that hey, this book has a POC protagonist. It feels a bit weird, but then again this whole issue has the awkwardness of masses of people saying “Excuse me, but why the fuck do you keep ignoring me?” The solutions aren’t easy, but we shouldn’t shy away from them. So for starters, I’m going to take a closer look at my review pile and see what I can change about it.

Readers, bloggers and other reviewers, what do you think? Do you feel the need to assess your tbr piles and maybe make some changes? How do you address diversity in your reviews?