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.

Review of Westlake Soul by Rio Youers

Title: Westlake Soul
Author: Rio Youers
Published: 10 April 2012
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Genre: science fantasy, drama
Source: review copy from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

Westlake Soul used to be a surfing champion. He was tanned, toned and gorgeous. He and his beautiful girlfriend were in love. And then a surfing accident left him with crippling brain damage and for two years he’s been in a vegetative state, with his once athletic body turned to skin and bone.

On the positive side, the accident also turned him into a genius with remarkable mental abilities. Westlake can’t move his own limbs, but he can astral project, sending his soul out wherever he wants to go. He can explore his own psyche as he would a landscape, he can read minds, and exert minor mental influence on others. With all these abilities, he’s like a superhero.

However, none of his powers can give him the human interaction he longs for. He watches over his family like a ghost. He cannot hug his heartbroken parents or comfort his sister. He can’t move a muscle to give his girlfriend some sign that he’s still in there somewhere. He can’t show his caregivers how much he appreciates what they do for him. He can’t tell anyone that he feels and hears everything, even though the doctors said that this is impossible. The only creature Westlake is able to speak to is Hub, the family dog.

And if Westlake thinks of himself as a superhero, he certainly has a supervillian to fight – Dr Quietus, an incarnation of death. Westlake frequently battles him in short, violent confrontations, and so far he’s managed to cling to life. But everyone loses to Dr Quietus eventually, and if Westlake’s parents decide to remove his feeding tube and end his life, the battles will become infinitely harder and soon he will lose.

Westlake Soul is an ambitious project for a writer – a novel about a person who is unable to move or speak. It’s written in first person, from Westlake’s perspective, so the entire story rests on his fragile shoulders. The challenge, I’d say, is to make something interesting out of this limited position. I have to say kudos to author Rio Youers, because for the most part, I think he did a good job.

Westlake Soul has is often a very touching novel. The story sounds like it would be boring, but it’s driven by the emotional urgency that Westlake’s condition creates, both for him and his family, and even for the dog Hub, who cares deeply for them. Westlake’s soul often watches them around the house, and thus we get glimpses of their lives and feelings. There are many scenes depicting the pain that his parents and sister are suffering as a result of his condition, but also the love that they have for him. At first they were all optimistic that he would recover, despite what the doctors said. After two years of having to care for him while he wastes away, they’re losing hope, and feel horribly guilty for it.

Of course, there’s a great deal about Westlake’s suffering as well. He’s well aware of how disturbing it can be for friends and family to even look at him, and how caring for him can be disgusting. The novel doesn’t shy away from describing the gross realities of Westlake’s body. His very situation is a nightmare – he used to tame the waves, and now he’s totally paralysed and unable to communicate, while possessing a brilliant mind and the ability to feel, see and hear everything around him. Ironically, he’s observed doctors tell his parents that his brain is effectively dead, he can’t perceive anything at all, and that there’s no hope for his recovery. It’s a disturbing concept.

Fortunately, Youers has avoided making this a dreary book. Despite his struggles, Westlake has a casual, upbeat way of speaking, full of slang and pop culture references. The serious moments are balanced out by happiness and humour. This tone does a lot to keep you reading; if it were more sombre I think it would be a depressing slog.

I like the science fantasy/superhero/supervillain thing, although it’s not quite what’s suggested by the blurb, and I think Youers could have done more with it. There’s a touch of science, such as the idea that the accident shut down the 10% of Westlake’s brain that allowed him to function as a normal human being, but awakened the 90% that most people never use, thereby giving him superpowers. The superhero thing, however, is more like a way of perceiving himself and his battle to stay alive. Since he cannot manipulate anything in the physical world and has only a tiny amount of mental influence over others (sort of like giving their minds a push) he can’t do anything you’d consider heroic. He claims that he’s not interested in saving the world anyway; he just wants to surf again. His fights with Dr Quietus, are only to save himself – he doesn’t stop anyone else from dying. Dr Quietus himself gets very little time on the page, and he has almost no lines.

I would have liked it if Youers gave Quietus more of a presence in the novel. There are some philosophical and spiritual musings, and Westlake and Quietus could have engaged in similar discussions. The battles between the two of them aren’t all that exciting and they feel out of place. Westlake and Quietus fight in locations like the skies over Tokyo or an abandoned factory. It feels like these scenes came straight out of an action movie. On the other hand, it makes sense that Westlake might see himself as a superhero fighting action-packed battles with a supervillain – after all he is a 23-year-old surfer. I just wish Youers had handled the concept differently.

This brings me to some of the other issues I had with the novel. I don’t think it was a good idea to make Westlake a genius. He doesn’t seem like a genius. He just seems like a guy with some amazing mental abilities. Although he’s more knowledgeable, he doesn’t show signs of being especially smart. You’d think that such a phenomenal change in intelligence would change the way Westlake thinks about the world, but his psychology seems to be pretty much what you’d expect from a 23-year old guy in this situation.

Then there’s the language. Like I said, the tone is essential to keeping the reader engaged, but Westlake’s speech is full of weird, dated slang and references. Like “too cool for school”. The novel is set in 2011 and there’s plenty of contemporary stuff about Facebook or the latest music, but there are also times when it sounds like Westlake is from the 60s or 70s. It’s weird.

Nevertheless these are flaws in what is, on the whole, a solid execution of a difficult idea. It’s not great, especially with Dr Quietus’s character being wasted, but it’s good. Youers keeps the story well-paced right up to the end, which is something many writers fail to do. The ending itself was nicely done. I’m not really sure who to recommend this to though. I think that anyone wwith a friend or relative in the same state as Westlake would find it extremely painful, especially with regards to the question of switching off life support. This story essentially describes a situation in which the doctors are almost completely wrong about the patient’s condition, most notably about his ability to feel pain or hear what’s being said about him. The very idea is something that I’m sure would cause torment to those who’ve been in the same situation as Westlake’s family. I still think it’s an interesting concept to read and write about though, and there’s a great deal in this novel that’s beautiful and heartwarming, so I’d say read it if you think it sounds intriguing, but perhaps not if it’s too close to home.

Buy a copy of Westlake Soul at The Book Depository

Review of Empire State by Adam Christopher

Title: Empire State
Author: Adam Christopher
Published: 27 December 2011 (USA/Canada); 05 January 2012 (Rest of the World)
Publisher:  Angry Robot Books
Genre:  detective noir, steampunk, science fiction
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
My Rating: 5/10

It’s prohibition-era New York, and Rex Braybury, a small-time, no-scruples bootlegger, watches the city’s two rocket-boosted superheroes fight an epic battle in the sky. Once friends, now mortal enemies, the Skyguard and the Science Pirate end their final fight in an explosion that alters reality. Very few know about it, but the catastrophe spawns an alternative version of NYC:  the Empire State, “The City That Sleeps”.

Rex and the superheroes disappear for a while as the narrative crosses to the Empire State, a place that’s clearly a copied from NYC but at the same time is nothing like it. In this dreary city, Rad Bradley, the Empire State version of Rex, is a private detective down on his luck. He finds money and trouble when a beautiful dame in a red dress comes into his crappy little office anxiously asking Rad  to find her lover, a woman named Sam Saturn. Rad doesn’t hesitate to take the case, but it quickly gets him involved in something much bigger and more dangerous than tracking down a missing person. NYC and the Empire State are linked, not just by a tear in the fabric of reality but by a few people who have somehow crossed over. Among those people are Rad’s double Rex and Sam Saturn. But the rift between the worlds might close, and if it does it could destroy both cities. Rad suddenly finds himself having to deal with conspiracies, mysterious and dangerous people, fascinating steampunk technology, and an event that defies what anyone knows about physics, not mention the realisation that his home and his entire existence is just a flimsy copy of something else.

When reading this, I wondered how the book would work without a blurb or plot summary. It’s very seldom that you dive into a book without knowing what it’s about first, so can the blurb actually function as a necessary introduction? I wondered this because, after a few chapters from Rex’s perspective in NYC, you jump straight into the Empire State with Rad and it’s not until much later that it’s explicitly stated that this city was created by the superheroes’ fight (although this is implied). I wasn’t disorientated, because I already knew this from the blurb and plot summaries I’d read, but what if I hadn’t? Would I have felt very lost, wondering what this weird city was and why it was in the book?

Speculation aside though, The Empire State is an interesting place. It’s a mirrored impression of NYC, so that the two cities share similarities but are nevertheless vastly different. The Empire State is quiet, constantly shrouded in fog and almost always drenched in rain. It’s going through ‘Wartime’, fighting against ‘the Enemy’, which everyone just accepts even though it doesn’t make a shred of sense since no one ever leaves the Empire State. Such a thing is inconceivable because there simply isn’t anywhere else. But something about the Empire State simply prevents its citizens from thinking about all the contradictions of their existence. It completely lacks NYC’s energy, to the extent that the dreariness is almost palpable.

As in NYC, it’s the prohibition era of the Empire State, but the latter is more like a fascist state. It’s ruled by the City Commissioners, and any dissent will probably find you in an early grave. Not only is alcohol banned but cigarettes are forbidden too, and most food and drink are rationed (a tragedy for the traditional private dick who practically survives on coffee and booze).

Every person in the Empire State is a double of someone in NYC, although you won’t get to see many of them, just the few who play a role in the plot. In terms of tech, the Empire State is a steampunk world featuring massive iron ships (ironclads) and robots that are used for war, airships and automatons.

It’s an intriguing world, but the more you read the less impressive it becomes because Christopher’s world-building gets increasingly flawed and unstable in an unfortunate parallel with his end-of-the-world plot. Rather than getting a better grasp on what the Empire State is and how it works, everything seems to unravel leaving gaping plot holes and important questions unanswered. At one point we’re told that the Empire State and NYC “cannot co-exist, for they are the same place” and yet it’s very clear that they’re not the same place and they’ve obviously been co-existing for some time. Nevertheless we’re then told that the Fissure that links the two worlds might either be closing or opening wider, or that someone is planning to destroy it, but whatever the case, it’s BAD NEWS and Rad has to put a stop to it, whatever ‘it’ turns out to be. If he doesn’t then the Empire State will be destroyed, or possibly the Empire State and New York or maybe even the Empire State, New York and the world. Some people are trying to travel from the Empire State to NYC, either because they somehow got stuck in the wrong universe or because NYC is simply a better place. This may or may not work, and may or may not destroy the Empire State and possibly New York, who knows? There are clearly other methods of crossing over but these don’t seem to be an option. Key figures are hatching plots based on what they think they know but frankly no one really has a handle on the physics, me least of all. I’m not a fan of hard sci fi, but I’d really appreciate that kind of rigor here. The novel certainly claims to be sci fi rather than fantasy, but it’s really not trying very hard.

Perhaps the most frustrating plot point is when an archvillain is revealed to have set this whole thing in motion, but the book doesn’t tell you how his whole role in this in even possible. It’s INFURIATING.  Then there’s the matter of the doubles – every person in the Empire State has a double in NYC. However, there’s no consistency in the nature of the doubles. Rad is a private detective, the opposite of Rex who is a criminal. On the other hand another pair of doubles are so similar that they actually share memories and knowledge, which seems to contradict the way the two worlds work. Two pairs of doubles differ in age. Another pair looks dissimilar enough that no one realises they are doubles, whereas every other double is a splitting image of their counterparts. These inconsistencies suit the plot but weaken the structure of the whole.

Christopher is also guilty of the heinous crime of artificially maintaining the mystery by constantly varying Rad’s level of curiosity. This is one of my pet hates. Rad is a detective, a person who makes a living by noticing oddities and asking questions. And yet when he encounters things like Byron, a 7-foot tall automaton manservant in a brass helmet and boots, Rad decides it’s best not to ask about this kind of weirdness, only to make a mental note at the end of the novel that he must find out more. It drives me fucking loopy.

Perhaps I’m too fussy a reader for this book. It was released in the USA and Canada on 27 December and is being released worldwide today, and most of the reviews I’ve seen so far are positive. The novel does have a kind of pulpy appeal, especially for noir and steampunk fans. It also has some good ideas at its core and it’s well-written. There’s also a possibility that some of the gaps and inconsistencies in the plot were left there to give more creative space to the Worldbuilder project in which Christopher and publishers Angry Robot allow fan artists, writers and musicians to create their own works within the Empire State universe. Not that that’s a good excuse for a sloppy book, since it still has to stand on its own two feet. As a debut novel though, I’d say that even though Empire State doesn’t work for me, Christopher undoubtedly shows a lot of potential in terms of writing and ideas, so if he can tighten up the structure of his creations he could produce something really cool.

Buy a copy of Empire State at The Book Depository