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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — ROGUE NATION (2015) Movie Review (Spoilers)

The newest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, was written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects and Edge of Tomorrow, director of Jack Reacher) from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce. It’s the second M:I film produced by Bad Robot, and thus the third with involvement from J.J. Abrams (who directed M:i:III but apparently did not produce it, I was surprised to learn recently). It continues the trend of continuity between films and the ensemble flavor of Ghost Protocol, with Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn and Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt returning from that film, alongside Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Ving Rhames’s Luther Stickell, who has a sizeable role this time after having just a cameo in GP. Having both Benji and Luther prominently in the same film could be a problem, since they fill the same role on the team, but this is resolved by having them spend a lot of the film apart, with Benji supporting Ethan and Luther supporting Brandt. Paula Patton’s Jane Carter is neither seen nor mentioned, with the female lead instead being Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a disavowed British agent whose loyalties are unclear for much of the film.

The film rather wisely starts out by immediately disposing of the big vertiginous Tom Cruise stunt sequence that was inevitably going to be plastered all over the trailers and promotions and thus wouldn’t be a surprise anyway — namely, the scene where he clings to the side of a cargo plane as it takes off. Fittingly, Ethan’s first appearance in the film has him doing a Patented Tom Cruise Run to leap onto the plane, and his plane cling isn’t exactly Ethan Hunt Climbs Things but is pretty close. (Previously, Cruise has had short hair in every odd-numbered picture and long hair in every even-numbered one; here he’s sort of in between.) The sequence is fun and deftly directed, and Joe Kraemer’s score immediately makes an impression equal in strength to Michael Giacchino’s work on the previous two films. Like Ghost Protocol, the teaser leads into a main title sequence that homages the titles of the original series, complete with flashforward clips of the action to come, but in a more conventional way than GP’s titles — rather evocative of the original 1996 film’s title sequence, in fact. The main title arrangement is big and brassy in a way that evokes both the 1996 Danny Elfman version and the Ghost Protocol Giacchino version.

The evocation of the ’96 film is perhaps appropriate, since this is the first sequel to directly acknowledge any events from that film. CIA Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) mentions Ethan’s iconic Langley break-in from said film, along with the destruction of the Kremlin and other events of Ghost Protocol, as part of his case that the IMF is a renegade organization that should be shut down. He actually makes an objectively good case that its secretive methods are ill-suited to the modern age of transparency and accountability, but of course we’re supposed to be rooting against him and for Brandt, who argues that the IMF has been doing good work for 40 years — which is short by about nine years, I’d say. Has the original series suddenly been retconned out of existence? Is this proof that the movies are in a separate reality from the show? Or did Brandt just misspeak? In any case, the nebulously defined committee that they’re testifying to agrees to shut down the IMF.

But Ethan doesn’t know this, as he’s going to a message drop in London to get his next assignment. I had to squee at this sequence, because the drop is in a record store and the message is encoded on a vinyl phonograph album — a callback to the 1966 pilot episode!!!!! But with a couple of twists — first, that it uses a modern laser thingy to project graphics onto the turntable lid… and second, that it turns out to be a trap laid by the Syndicate, an evil organization that Ethan’s been hunting down since the closing moments of Ghost Protocol (said to be a year before, even though that was four years ago). It’s fun to hear the formula of the message subverted by the bad guys. Ethan sees a mysterious bespectacled man gun down the pretty store clerk who was his contact, before he’s gassed unconscious as the “self-destruct” part of the message.

Ethan awakes in the clutches of the Syndicate, which apparently plans to use torture to break him and turn him to their side. He’s helped to escape by Ilsa Faust, a mole within the Syndicate, but he finds from Brandt that he’s out in the cold and that Hunley doesn’t believe in the Syndicate’s existence. But he’s determined to find the bespectacled man and get justice, so he goes rogue. Cut to six months later, with Brandt working under Hunley and Benji as a CIA analyst who has to trick weekly polygraph tests to insist he has no loyalty to Ethan. But Ethan arranges to get Benji’s help at an opera in Vienna, whereupon he encounters Ilsa apparently trying to assassinate the Austrian chancellor, though there are two other assassins on hand to take her out if she fails. Ethan foils the assassination — the same way Ilsa had planned to — and they escape together, but the Syndicate has a backup plan and foils their foiling.

Ilsa breaks away to preserve her cover and report to Syndicate head Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), who keeps letting her live despite her “failures” because it’s convenient to the plot — err, because he sees “potential” in her. Meanwhile, Ethan explains to Benji that the Syndicate is an “anti-IMF,” consisting of former spies believed dead or missing and employing IMF-style tactics to fake deadly accidents in order to tear down the world order.

Lane gives Ilsa one more chance, sending her to Casablanca to break into an ultra-high security data vault, a job that Ethan and Benji end up helping her with when they learn it’s to access Lane’s ledger listing all the Syndicate’s agents. This is the sequence with Ethan diving into an underwater facility and trying to hold his breath for several minutes, and it’s another tour-de-force action set piece, with the underwater sound design being particularly impressive. Ilsa saves Ethan’s life when he drowns — the second time in the series that the female lead has gotten to bring Ethan back from the brink of death — but then she breaks away with the retrieved data, and Ethan and Benji literally run into Brandt and Luther as they chase after her. A car chase reminiscent of The Italian Job gives way to a motorcycle chase reminiscent of M:I-2, but Ilsa gets away.

She takes the data to Attlee, the head of British intelligence, and demands that she be brought in, but he turns out to be a ruthless bastard who insists she go back in and assassinate Ethan to prove her allegiance to Lane. He also deletes the stolen data on her thumb drive, though of course Benji made a backup, so Ethan’s team now has the only copy. And it’s not a ledger, but a “red box” file that only the Prime Minister of the UK can open. Clearly Lane intends to kidnap the PM. But when the team tracks down Ilsa to confront her, Lane kidnaps Benji in order to force Ethan to kidnap the PM. This was the plan all along. (Why? Seems needlessly convoluted.)

It looks like Ethan’s going to go through with it, and Brandt argues against doing something so insane. We cut to Brandt calling Hunley to tell him what Ethan’s planning. It’s pretty easy to guess that in between scenes, Ethan spelled out a con game that Brandt is playing along with, only pretending to betray him. Brandt lures Hunley to London, where they end up in a room with the PM and Attlee, the latter of whom maneuvers the PM into revealing to Hunley that the Syndicate was a proposal of Attlee’s to found a rogue agency that could act with impunity — a proposal that the PM rejected but that Attlee carried forward anyway. I guessed pretty early in the scene that Attlee was actually Ethan in a mask, since the actor they cast, Simon McBurney, seemed similar to Cruise in size and facial structure. And of course it was, though it’s unclear how Ethan deduced some of the things he reveals as Attlee. They’ve also lured the real Attlee to take the fall, while arranging for Hunley to take the credit for catching him. With Hunley now on their side, they use the PM’s biometrics to open the file, which is Attlee’s financial records intended to fund the Syndicate. (The most awkward moment in the film is here — just before the truth is revealed to Hunley, when he still thinks Ethan is coming to kill the PM, he issues an overwrought warning about how Ethan is this unstoppable force, “the living manifestation of destiny” or some such thing, which just comes out of nowhere and is way too aggrandizing to Ethan. We don’t even get a comedy beat of embarrassment when Hunley realizes that Ethan was standing right there listening to his overeffusive words.)

Lane sets up a trap to force Ethan to turn over the account numbers lest Benji and Ilsa be blown up, but Ethan outmaneuvers him — he memorized the data and erased the disk, so now Lane needs him alive. He gets Benji released and then protects Ilsa from being shot by Syndicate men, and this leads into a final chase through the streets wherein Ethan and Ilsa eventually get separated so that they can each have their own individual action climax. Lane shows up to confront Ethan directly, conveniently forgetting that whole “need him alive” thing, and Ethan leads him into a nice little trap set up by Luther and Benji — a trap that, refreshingly, ends with the villain apparently still alive and unconscious. And the way it’s done, which calls back the record-store incident that was Ethan and Lane’s first meeting, is more satisfying than Lane’s death would’ve been. Anyway, Ethan and Ilsa say their farewells — platonically, I’m glad to say, though that’s as close as the film comes to acknowledging that Ethan still has a wife out there somewhere.

The movie ends with an odd little scene where Hunley convinces the Nebulous Committee to reinstate the IMF, whereupon Brandt tells him, “Welcome to the IMF, Mister Secretary.” Now, that’s very odd. It implies that the Secretary is the head of the IMF. In the past, it always seemed that he was the secretary of defense or state, a cabinet-level post that oversaw the intelligence community. Having him be exclusively attached to the IMF and appointed by some kind of committee is hard to make sense of. It’s also a disappointing ending in another sense, because when Ilsa went off to her ill-defined future, I imagined the closing scene I wanted to see: Ilsa some time later showing up to a message drop and then hearing Ethan’s voice say, “Good morning, Ms. Faust. Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” I think that would’ve been a perfect ending. Concluding the film without formally bringing Ilsa on board feels incomplete, particularly since it leaves the IMF as an all-male outfit throughout the film.

Rogue Nation was a pretty solid action movie, very well-made. It doesn’t seem to have the plausibility problems of the first two films, and it has a level of humor close to that of Ghost Protocol. I’m getting tired of Ethan always being on the run from his own government, but at least it was set up as a continuation of the events of previous films. Indeed, I enjoy the way this film felt like a continuation of the previous one, even more so than GP did; it’s a refreshing change from the first decade of the franchise, where each film felt like an unrelated standalone. RN didn’t have as strong a character story at its core as the previous two, but what filled that void was the interplay and friendship among the core cast. This is the first M:I film where every member of Ethan’s team is a returning character, and that history gives weight to the character interactions, which is good, because the characters are given little development otherwise. There’s also Ilsa’s story as a reluctant double agent trying to balance her allegiances and stay alive — perhaps not very deep or emotional, but well-handled by Ferguson, who’s a very strong presence and an effective counterpart to Cruise. There’s a degree of male gaze directed toward her by the camera on occasion, but she never really feels objectified, since she’s so poised and in control.

I have particular praise for Joe Kraemer’s score. It integrates the Schifrin themes as strongly as Giacchino’s did, if not more so, and builds new motifs on similar chord structures so that it all feels of a piece, not only with the Schifrin themes but with the Giacchino scores, which did much the same thing. Kraemer actually uses “The Plot” more extensively than Giacchino did, accompanying a lot of the team’s machinations; although, like Danny Elfman in the first film, he never quotes the entire melody, sticking mainly to the first few bars. The most extensive use of “The Plot” is in the Casablanca sequence, where it gets reworked to have an “Arabian” sound to it.

The movie is not without flaws, though. For one thing, it fails the Bechdel test. Ilsa is the only significant female character; of the two others, one (the doomed record-shop clerk) is just there to be killed to motivate Ethan, and the other (an aide to Hunley played by Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu, who’s prominently credited for less than a minute of screen time) is apparently just there to satisfy the Chinese funding partners. Neither of them interacts with Ilsa at all. I’d say it passes the Mako Mori test, in that Ilsa has a clearly drawn arc of her own that isn’t about supporting a male character’s arc, but the overwhelming maleness of most of the cast is distracting. (The Nebulous Committee, for instance, consists entirely of old white men plus one token old black man.) Looking back over the series, though, it seems that none of the films pass the test fully, except maybe the first, which has three named women on the initial team, participating in the group conversation about the mission.

It also doesn’t feel as much like Mission: Impossible as GP did. It’s more in the vein of the second and third films in being driven more by big action than by devious con games. The sequence with the Prime Minister and Attlee comes the closest to an IMF-style con game, and the infiltration of the Casablanca vault has a touch of it (since it’s basically a variation on the classic IMF tactic of inserting fake credentials for a team member into the target’s records). But mostly it’s action over calculating schemes and deceptions, and Ethan and the team spend too much time improvising rather than playing out intricate chess games plotted in advance. The Nebulous Committee even argues that Ethan’s methods are “indistinguishable from luck,” which is pretty much anathema to the IMF of the TV series, wherein every move was calculated from the start and very little was ever left to chance. I regret that the film series has become so defined by its big action, because I’d love to see an M:I movie that was all about a big sting operation. Oh, and the Syndicate is said to be an “anti-IMF,” but its methods seem to consist mainly of snipers and bombs and the like. Dougray Scott in M:I-2 was more convincing in his use of IMF-style tactics for evil, and loyal readers, I’m as astonished as you to hear myself saying something positive about M:I-2. Granted, though, lack of IMFery isn’t a dealbreaker for an M:I movie; the third film had little of it, but it’s still one of the two strongest films in the series. It’s just that GP was the first film in the series that actually felt like Mission: Impossible rather than The Adventures of Ethan Hunt, and I was hoping RN would continue the trend. It did not.

And the lack of character development compared to the previous two films does disappoint me in retrospect. The dramatic tension among the team members played well, but there was little sense of backstory or personal lives like there was in the previous two films. It was all about the job and the plot business they were dealing with. The past two films gave Ethan a personal life that humanized him, but that was totally absent here, with Ethan defined totally by his quest to bring down the Syndicate. So it’s shallower overall, though not as shallow as the first two films.

If anything, RN reminds me of M:I-2 in a lot of ways. It’s a heavily action-driven film featuring a lengthy motorcycle chase; it features a villain using IMF-style tactics for evil; and it centers on Ethan’s competition with the villain for the allegiance of the sole significant female character in the film. But it’s much better in most respects: the action is less cartoony; the female lead is a protagonist in her own right and not merely a lust interest; and the rest of the IMF team functions as a full ensemble rather than just being tacked on.

So out of the five films so far, I would rank Rogue Nation as a close third behind the previous two films, and well ahead of the first two. I still think of the first two as failed pilots for a series that didn’t really get underway until J.J. Abrams took the helm. That series proper is now up to three films that have maintained a pretty consistent level of quality throughout. This is the weakest of the three, but by a narrow margin.

Shore Leave 2015 report

August 13, 2015 1 comment

Um, okay, I guess I’m nearly recovered enough from Shore Leave to finally get around to posting about it… if I can remember enough.

Let’s see, I set off relatively early on Thursday morning, since it was raining in southwest Ohio and I hoped to get past the weather as soon as I could, before the really harsh stuff caught up with me. Once more, the weather radar app on my smartphone was very helpful in tracking the storm. I did get caught in one pretty heavy downpour, but it was brief.

Oh yes, but before I did anything else, I went to the nearest Kroger gas station to use my fuel discount, and then I went to the Starbucks in the same mall to get coffee for the road. It took me a moment to spot the store, because it didn’t have its name on the sign, only its logo. I suppose that reflects how ubiquitous Starbucks has become, but it’s also a worrying sign that we’re becoming a non-literate society. (Even the New York Times crossword page has redesigned its format to be mostly pictures rather than words. I mean, a crossword page. Think about that.) Anyway, I asked the clerk (barista? I don’t know this arcane terminology yet) for some advice on picking a beverage, something mild and sweet and not bitter, and ended up going for a white mocha thingummy with whipped cream, which wasn’t bad. Still, I found I needed more of a caffeine boost on the road, so over the course of the day I had both of the iced-coffee drinks I’d bought the day before just in case. I’m starting to think that caffeine doesn’t have that much of an effect on me. But the other part of the problem was that I’m out of shape. I’ve been too busy writing lately, too sedentary, so my general endurance and energy levels are down. Driving may be a sedentary activity, but it’s a draining one. I’ll have to remember that in the future, and try to get in better shape before my next long drive. As usual, I had an essentially sleepless night in the motel where I stayed, but the coffee I had the next morning did help me stay reasonably alert for the rest of the drive. I got in to the hotel at just about 3 PM on Friday, and my room was ready promptly.

So anyway, my phone rang while I was on the road Thursday afternoon, but I couldn’t answer it while driving. When I stopped for dinner a bit later and checked my messages, I learned from my cousin Cynthia that our mutual cousin Scott, whom I’d never met, would be attending Shore Leave with his son and hoped we could get together. I was expecting him to show up at Meet the Pros on Friday if he didn’t find me sooner, but he never appeared that night. I contacted him later and found he wouldn’t be in until Sunday.

My first panel on Friday was at 5 PM, so I didn’t have time to rest much in my room, though I did shower and change and transfer stuff into my trusty but worn Shore Leave tote bag that I’ve had since my first visit over a decade ago. The panel was “Keeping it Real: Using Facts in Fiction,” and I and the other panelists, including my friend David Mack, had a pretty good discussion about incorporating real scientific and historical research into our work. After that, I tagged along with Dave and his wife Kara as they checked out the vending area, and then later we got together with a bunch of the other writers and went over to a sports bar in the mall across the way for dinner. We had an interesting conversation, and I had a pretty good chicken wrap with cheese sauce, but I had to step out early because I had an 8 PM panel. I took the second half of my wrap with me to have later, and I hurried back to the hotel on foot, expecting to be late for the panel. I managed to get there just one minute late — only to find that I was the first panelist to arrive, and that the auction scheduled for the previous hour was still going on. The panel I’d rushed to reach started over 15 minutes late, and I had enough time to wolf down the rest of my wrap. Fittingly, it was a panel on SF humor. I used it as a chance to plug Hub Space, but I didn’t have much to contribute beyond that. Fortunately, Peter David was on the panel, so I didn’t have to say much.

I stuck around briefly for the start of Marco Palmieri’s annual 9 PM panel announcing upcoming Tor books, but then I decided I needed to go back to my room and rest up a bit before Meet the Pros at 10. At MtP, I was seated between Dave Mack and a relative newcomer to the Trek line, John Jackson Miller, who’s already known for his Star Wars stuff. Of the three of us, I was the one who got the least attention, because I had the least to promote. Uncertain Logic came out months ago, and I don’t have anything new coming up for a while. I did print up a sort of flyer to promote Hub Space, just a single sheet that I had on display, but nobody took much interest. Maybe I should’ve printed up multiple cards and handed them out, but it was too much of a last-minute decision. Which is not to say that Meet the Pros was a disappointment for me. In addition to meeting my fans (and putting a face to the name of one of the regular commenters over on Tor.com), I got to catch up with some of my friends and colleagues, and talked a bit of business with one of them, which hopefully will turn out well, though I shouldn’t get my hopes up yet.

The new hotel management doesn’t continue the practice of putting preorder menus for Saturday breakfast in our rooms, so instead I just went down to the former Hunt Cafe, which is now yet another Starbucks, and got breakfast there, including another white mocha thingummy (I’m a veteran now!). I don’t remember doing much before my Sherlock Holmes panel at noon. I’m not sure I contributed much there, since the moderator, Kathleen David, wanted to focus on literary Holmes continuations and pastiches, while I was expecting something more screen-oriented. But there was some talk of screen adaptations, so I was able to contribute somewhat. Still, I made a point of seeing Ian McKellen’s Mr. Holmes beforehand, and I don’t think it would’ve made much difference if I hadn’t.

I lucked into a free lunch on Saturday, since I ran into Keith R.A. DeCandido, who brought cold cuts from New York City to provide his friends and colleagues with a less expensive alternative to the hotel restaurant and cafe. I had roast beef with mustard, and it was pretty good. Thanks, Keith!

At 2 PM was the sole Star Trek literature panel, where all of us Trek authors with books coming out in the rest of 2015-16 got together and announced our stuff, as well as the upcoming titles by the authors who weren’t in attendance. You can see the list of titles at Memory Alpha’s Upcoming productions page, including a TOS 5oth-anniversary trilogy by Greg Cox, Dave Mack, and Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore, and a TNG trilogy by John Jackson Miller. My own announcements were of two upcoming projects: a 5-year-mission-era TOS novel called The Face of the Unknown, scheduled for January 2017 (released in late December, so just barely squeezing in as part of the 50th anniversary), and a second Department of Temporal Investigations novella, Time Lock, which is not yet scheduled.

After sitting in on the last half of Keith’s Stargate fiction panel from 3-4, I went to the book vendor’s table and did my hour signing autographs in the Author Chimney, the enclosed space between brick pillars where authors sit to do signings. Actually there were one or two non-Chimney spaces for writers at the table this year, but Dave Mack was already there, so I ended up in the Chimney. I actually found the enclosed space kind of comforting. After that, I participated in the annual authors’ ritual of the Saturday night mass visit to Andy Nelson’s Barbecue. I had the same thing I had last year — a pulled turkey barbecue sandwich with cole slaw and cornbread, because Nelson’s makes the only good cole slaw and cornbread I can ever remember having — but I’m thinking that maybe next year I should try something different.

While I was in the Chimney, Kara came up and told me where I could get a new Shore Leave tote bag, since my trusty old one isn’t as trusty anymore, getting kind of worn out and frayed. The vendor was closing up by the time I got there after my signing session, but I went back the next morning and got a new bag, which is fancier than the old one, with more pockets. Hopefully it’ll be useful for years to come.

Sunday morning was the usual authors’ breakfast at the hotel restaurant, but I’m starting to wonder if maybe I should’ve reconsidered that tradition and taken Kevin Dilmore’s suggestion to go out someplace less expensive for breakfast with him and his group. It used to be, back when Pocket Books had an official presence at Shore Leave, that the editor (Marco) picked up the tab for the authors, but these days we’re paying for it ourselves. Still, I’d already told the convention organizers that I’d be at the author breakfast, so I felt obligated to follow through. I had a double-sized breakfast to tide me over and to justify the expense. And I got to chat with some authors I hadn’t already talked to much, including a talk about Gilligan’s Island with Peter David. (Wherein I got to share my theory that Gilligan’s island is the last surviving piece of Captain Nemo’s Mysterious Island. That’s where the 6-foot spider in “The Pigeon” came from!)

I also touched base with cousin Scott and his son before breakfast, and then Scott showed up to watch me at the Orphan Black panel, even though he’s never seen the show. Afterward I showed Scott around the con a bit, and then we joined his son for the back half of John Barrowman’s talk, which was certainly lively — and meaningful, since Barrowman talked a lot about fighting for LGBT inclusion and acceptance, and said a lot of encouraging and affirming things to people from the audience. Afterward, at my suggestion, the three Bennetts went over to the Wegman’s in the mall for lunch — they had pizza, but I was still full from my big breakfast, so I just had a cucumber-blueberry-feta salad (yes, really!) and an iced tea — and then we went back to hang around in the corridor where the actor guests were signing autographs. I’m glad Scott was there, since I usually never get up the nerve to go talk to the actor guests, but I just tagged along with him and thereby got to have conversations with folks like Roger Cross and Jaime Murray. (It was weird getting home the next day and seeing Cross in Dark Matter on the DVR when I’d been talking to him in person just the day before.)

Once Scott and his son went on their way to see other convention stuff and said their farewells, I just hung around and talked more with whatever writer acquaintances were still around — which was serendipitous, since one colleague sounded me out on a very interesting business opportunity that I really hope will prove feasible. That was a good way to end my Shore Leave experience this year, and my mind was racing with the possibilities on the first leg of the drive home. Which is getting ahead of myself, since there are a couple of things I need to find out before I even know whether this is possible; but I always get ahead of myself with these things. Maybe that’s an occupational hazard of a science fiction writer.

I left the hotel at 4:10 PM, which I know because I’ve discovered that my phone’s Google Maps stores a record of my movements — kind of creepy but useful for reference. One reason I’d stuck around was that I’d been hoping for a chance to visit my DC-area cousins Barb and Mark, and I’d texted them to find their plans; but it turned out they wouldn’t be home until late that evening, too late to make it feasible. So I just texted my regrets and headed for home. Given my late start, I was only able to make it midway through Pennsylvania by nightfall — but I had the idea that I should try to make it back to the same motel I’d stayed at on the way out, since I’d been fairly satisfied with it and I didn’t want to take chances with an unknown commodity. Plus, fortunately, I’d picked up two different motel-coupon booklets at a rest stop on Thursday, and thus I had two coupons for the same motel. It belatedly occurred to me that driving west around sunset was a bad idea, but fortunately the sky was overcast most of the time, so I never had to contend with glare in my eyes. I made it to the motel just shortly before sunset and parked in the same space I’d parked in on Thursday night. I even ended up in a room right across the hall from my previous one, and a single digit higher in number. I’m a little disappointed that it wasn’t the same room, but missing it by one is almost as good.

At the motel’s complementary breakfast, I had two cups of coffee, and toward the end of the second cup, I noticed some grains that I thought were undissolved bits of sugar. It turned out they were actually coffee grounds. The coffee pot had only just been put in place when I filled my cup, so I guess maybe the grounds hadn’t settled. I just looked into whether there’s anything bad about eating coffee grounds, and it seems the only potential problem is the acidity. I didn’t swallow many before figuring out what they were, though.

I set out fairly early, hoping to get home by mid-afternoon, but as always, it took longer than I hoped, since I needed to take a number of rest breaks. I managed to cross into Ohio just before noon, though. I stopped for lunch at a Subway in a convenience store/truck stop in Cambridge, one that had a small dining area where the TV was playing a basketball game. It slowly dawned on me that it must’ve been a replay of a classic game, since I recognized the Chicago Bulls lineup from back when my father was a fan of them — names like Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, and even Michael Jordan. Checking Wikipedia, it looks like that narrows it down to 1995-98. It was against the New York Knicks, but I can’t narrow it down any more than that. I generally couldn’t care less about basketball, but it was interesting to realize that it was a game my late father might well have watched and enjoyed when it was new.

My phone told me there was some rain coming in between Columbus and Cincinnati again, so I decided to wait it out at a rest stop east of Columbus — where I had yet another cup of coffee to stave off fatigue. I thought I’d stayed there for a significant amount of time, but my Maps timeline tells me it was only 22 minutes. Which it claims to be my last stop before reaching home, but I think I stopped briefly at another rest area on I-71, so I guess it doesn’t catch everything. (And maybe it was longer than 22 minutes at that.) Anyway, my timing was pretty bad, since it was rush hour when I got into Cincinnati. I’d just about decided to get off a few exits early and make it the rest of the way home by the surface roads (why do they call them that?? It’s not like freeways are underground or hovering in midair, usually), but the traffic started to clear off and I figured, hey, it’s not likely to crowd up again within the next three miles, right? So I stayed on the freeway. Only to spot another traffic jam — just five seconds too late to make it off onto the last exit before mine. Arrgghhh! I was stuck crawling forward for most of the last mile and a half before my exit. Really, really frustrating.

And then I got home to find a note under my door from the building manager. Turns out the downstairs storage lockers had been broken into while I was out. Fortunately I don’t keep anything valuable in there, so nothing was taken. But the combination lock I’ve had since high school was destroyed. I still have two others, from my gym locker and my shop locker, but that was my main lock! Waaaah!

I’ve spent the past couple of days recuperating and catching up on recorded shows, as well as getting groceries. At the hotel, they had “coffee pods” that were basically tea bag-like filter packets that went into the coffee maker’s funnel, but it occurred to me one could just use them like tea bags, so I took a few of them home with me for later use. I also checked the grocery store shelf yesterday and found actual coffee bags. I just tried my first one of those this morning, and it’s not very good, but at least it’s convenient. The quest for a good coffee option continues. Maybe I should just buy a small coffee maker and filters and get some good grounds from the natural foods store. They have some beans that are infused with sweet flavor and thus don’t need anything added.

So anyway, that’s my combined travel/Shore Leave/family visit post, only three days late. I had a good time this year. Although the long drive is still wearying, the weekend didn’t feel as rushed as it did when I flew last year. And I got to catch up with my friends, I got to meet another cousin, I got to talk to some actors, I got a new tote bag and some interesting meals, and I got a couple of iffy but hopefully promising work opportunities, both from conversations in the same hotel corridor (though at opposite ends of it). With luck, I’ll be able to say more about one or both of those in times to come.

Shore Leave 2015 schedule

I’ve been so busy writing lately that I forgot to post any updates about this weekend’s Shore Leave convention in Baltimore, which I’ll be attending as usual. This year, I’m going back to driving there, since my trip by plane last year made the whole thing feel like it raced by too fast. I like having a bit more flexibility with my comings and goings. The prospect of the long drive each way is a bit forbidding, but now that I’ve started drinking coffee, hopefully that will shore me up (no pun intended) for the effort. I’ve also spent rather a lot on car repairs, including all-new tires, brake pads, drive belt, and transmission seals, to make sure I don’t break down along the way. Well, to make sure the car doesn’t break down. The coffee is to make sure I don’t break down.

Anyway, the schedule is now up at the Shore Leave site:

http://www.shore-leave.com/programming/schedule.htm

The writers’ track is surprisingly light on Trek Lit-related panels this year, perhaps because Shore Leave has a more diversified list of author guests these days. Still, I managed to find five panels to be on, and here are my scheduled appearances:

FRIDAY 8/7

Keeping it Real: Using Facts in Fiction — 5 PM, Salon A

A panel about working real science and information into science fiction is right up my alley, so I’m glad they were apparently able to find room for me at the last minute (although I’m not listed on the published pocket program, which apparently is not completely up to date on panel membership). Also slated to feature Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Kathleen David, Mary Louise Davie, Charles E. Gannon, Amy Griswold, and David Mack.

Humor in Sci-Fi — 8 PM, Hunt Ballroom

A chance for me to talk about Hub Space: Tales from the Greater Galaxy and maybe my use of humor in Only Superhuman and Star Trek. Lorraine Anderson, Russ Colchamiro, Peter David, and Daniel Morris will probably have more to talk about than I do, though. Be sure to stick around Hunt afterward for Marco Palmieri’s annual “What’s New in Tor Books” panel, followed by:

Meet the Pros — 10 PM, Hunt/Valley Corridor

The annual 2-hour mass signing event where all the author guests will be available to autograph whatever you bring or buy.

SATURDAY 8/8

All Roads Lead to Holmes — Noon, Salon A

Writers being fannish, as we talk about all the various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes out there today. My only writerish qualification for a Holmes panel is that one essay I wrote, but I am a longtime fan. The other Irregulars include Kathleen David, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Robert Greenberger, and Melissa Scott.

What’s Coming from Star Trek — 2 PM, Chase Ballroom

That is, what’s coming in Star Trek literature from Pocket. This (or Meet the Pros) is the place to come if you want to hear about Rise of the Federation, since it’s pretty much the only panel this year that’s specifically about Trek Lit, including all the guests with upcoming Trek books: myself, Kirsten Beyer, Peter David, Kevin Dilmore, Dave Galanter, David Mack, John Jackson Miller, and Dayton Ward.

SUNDAY 8/9

Orphan Black Season 3 — 11 AM, Salon F

My only morning panel this year — nice. I have no connection to Orphan Black except as a fan, but I’ll be there, along with Kirsten Beyer, Marco Palmieri, Susanna Reilly, and Jennifer Rosenberg.

Beyond that, I’ll be wandering around and will try to do my stint in the Author Chimney at the book table, which is traditionally located on the lower level between the escalators and the Hunt/Valley corridor.

ANT-MAN Review (spoilers)

I’ve seen some reviews criticizing Ant-Man for not being as “necessary” to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe as other films have been. But I think that’s missing the point of the MCU’s interconnectedness. It’s not about how the films serve the universe; it’s about how the universe serves the films. And I think that was very much in evidence in Ant-Man. It’s telling its own story, but it’s a story that’s informed by the larger context it’s part of, and that sense of being in a larger world is useful to the story.

For starters, the ties to the larger universe serve as a shorthand to help us understand the mindset of Dr. Hank Pym, as played by Michael Douglas, who’s very convincingly de-aged in the opening flashback to the 1980s. We already know what SHIELD is (in the person of a mature Peggy Carter), and we know who Howard Stark is (with John Slattery reprising the older Howard), so that gives us context for where Pym is coming from when he walks away from SHIELD rather than share his powerful Pym particles with them. And we know how Howard’s son Tony formed the Avengers and how SHIELD connects to Hydra, so that gives context for later developments such as Pym’s unwillingness to call in the Avengers and the plans of Pym’s protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) for militarizing the shrinking tech and selling it to disreputable parties.

So that background simplifies the exposition and lets the film focus more fully on the story it’s telling in the here and now, with catburglar Scott Lang (star and co-writer Paul Rudd) trying to go straight and be worthy of his totally adorable 5-year-old daughter, but being lured back into thievery by Pym, who intends to recruit him to steal Cross’s Yellowjacket prototype before it can fall into The Wrong Hands. Both Scott and Hank are defined by their troubled relationships with their daughters — Scott close to his daughter but kept away from her by his ex-wife and her cop fiance, and Hank marginalizing his gung-ho daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) in a way she resents, but that turns out to be based on protectiveness and his grief about the loss of his wife Janet, the winsome Wasp. It’s a pretty effective story about well-meaning but flawed people gradually finding their way to the same page. Not profound drama, perhaps, but fine for giving a human core to a comedy-adventure movie.

What’s interesting about Hope’s arc, which is largely about her wanting to don the Ant-“Man” suit herself and resenting Hank’s insistence on recruiting Scott instead, is that it feels like a metatextual nod toward the treatment of female heroes in the MCU thus far. Hank may be acting out of love, preferring to risk the expendable Scott over his own daughter, but it’s still a paternalistic choice and keeps a clearly qualified woman out of the lead role she deserves. Hopefully the resolution of that arc is also symbolic of where the MCU is going with regard to its heroines, but it still feels like too little (no pun intended), too late.

Another MCU trend that this film fails to buck is the tendency toward one-dimensional villains. Darren Cross is an obvious bad egg from the first scene, and he has no character arc. It’s explained that the effect of his knockoff Pym particles has warped his mind, but that’s an easy copout. Making a villain insane is a cheat, because it saves the writer from having to come up with plausible motivations or nuances. And Marvel has had so many rich, nuanced villains in its comics over the decades that it’s surprising the MCU falls so short on that front even while capturing the Marvel spirit so well in other respects.

For me, perhaps the best example of that was the scene where Hank sent Scott on a “trial run” to steal a security bypass device from an old Stark facility which turned out to be the new Avengers HQ, leading to a fight with the Falcon. This was the part that felt the most like a scene out of a comic. You’re introducing a new hero and you want to show his stuff, so what do you do? You bring in an established guest hero and have them fight. That’s a classic Marvel move. And now the MCU is such a well-developed, continuous universe that it feels as natural in the movies as it does in the comics. It’s also good to see Falcon get a featured role after the way he was marginalized in Age of Ultron — though it’s a shame that his first action scene as an Avenger ends with him losing.

Also, I was bugged by Scott’s boastful line afterward about how “I fought an Avenger — and didn’t die!” That implies the Avengers go around killing as a matter of course, and that’s disturbing. That’s another respect in which the movies have consistently failed to capture the comics’ flavor — the casualness with which the “heroes” kill, something that their comics counterparts usually avoid as a rule. I find it ironic that the TV series Daredevil, which is touted as the darkest and most violent incarnation of the MCU yet, is the only one in which the hero has a code against killing. Ant-Man was pretty good in that respect too; both Hank and Scott were opposed to violence, and they and Scott’s comic-relief accomplices made a point of evacuating the building they planned to destroy in the big heist. (Indeed, the moment where Luis went back to rescue the tied-up guard was perhaps the moment when he really crossed the line to the side of “the good guys,” a nice redemptive beat.) Even Yellowjacket’s fate in the end is somewhat ambiguous. This film probably has the lowest body count of any MCU production to date, and that’s refreshing.

Otherwise, I feel the action was very well-done. Ant-Man’s shrinking powers and the microscopic setting in which he operated made for some very novel visuals and action beats, a nice, fresh addition to the usual roster of superpowers. When was the last time we had a live-action movie that played around with miniaturization? Was it way back with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids? If so, it’s a trope that’s been overdue for a revisit with modern effects. The control of ants as a major part of the action was also a novel element, though as a lifelong entomophobe, I appreciate that they made the digital ants “cuter” than the real things would be at that scale of magnification.

The comedy aspects of the film are also pretty effective, and I can tell that a lot of Edgar Wright’s ideas and sensibilities have been retained, particularly the use of super-quick cuts and visual montages. It’s probably more homogenized than it would’ve been if Wright had stayed on the film, but as a middle ground between the Wright style and the MCU house style, I think it worked pretty well.

The theater I went to was pretty crowded, since Tuesday is discount day and it’s the first week of release. (Normally I would’ve waited longer, but there were already so many spoilers out online that I felt I had to see it before I got too completely spoiled.) Nearly everybody stuck around for the mid-credits tag scene, but only a dozen or so people, myself included, stayed for the second tag scene. I found it interesting that the order of the tags was inverted compared to earlier movies. In both Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the mid-credits scene was a teaser for the next film in the sequence, and the final post-credits scene was a tag to the film we’d just watched. I felt it would make more sense the other way around — and this time, it was, with the mid-credits scene being a tag to Ant-Man and the final scene being a setup for (and, I think, an actual excerpt from) Captain America: Civil War. It works better that way, especially with so few patrons being patient enough to stick around to the very end.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , ,

New ANALOG story coming: “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad”

I’m pleased to announce that I recently sold another novelette to Analog Science Fiction and Fact. It’s called “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad,” and though the Agatha Christie nod is intentional, the primary reference is to a different kind of railroad… well, you’ll see. But yes, this is a murder mystery, my second after “No Dominion” — although that was more a police procedural, while this is a proper whodunit with clues hidden in plain sight. But not everything is as it seems, and there are a couple of pretty major surprises.

“Murder on the Cislunar Railroad” is also my first Analog story in 15 years that isn’t set in the Hub universe. In fact, it’s going back to my main original universe, the one my first two Analog stories occupied. It takes place in the same colonized Solar System setting as Only Superhuman but about 15 years earlier, and it connects indirectly to the backstory of one of that novel’s major characters. (That’s because I wrote an earlier version of this story years ago and cannibalized it for ideas when fleshing out that character’s past.) A hint: The story involves the nature of artificial intelligence and the ethics of AI rights.

No word yet on the publication date, but I’ll let you all know once I find out.

Tap dance

My faucet was going pip.

When I first noticed the faint, repeating sound from my kitchen sink, I thought it was a drip, but there was no drip. Just a faint, recurring pip sound from somewhere inside the faucet assembly. I could sometimes get it to abate by adjusting the knobs just right, or maybe it just seemed that way through random variation. But though it was quiet, it was enough to be distracting to me, because I’m easily distracted. (Oh, look, a shiny thing!) It sounded like maybe some kind of air bubbles forming and popping inside a pipe or gasket somewhere, but I couldn’t be sure.

So at one point last month, I mentioned it to the building manager, along with the fact that there tended to be small amounts of water leaking around the edges of the faucet assembly from time to time — which, in retrospect, was probably the more important thing to mention. Anyway, the maintenance guy came in and put in new valves or whatever they’re called inside the knobs. The pips stopped, but the knobs became stiffer and hard to turn. This is a problem for me, since I like to turn the knobs with my forearms in order to keep my hands clean after washing them. It was hard to apply enough torque with my forearms with the new knobs. So I happened to mention to the manager that the knobs were too stiff.

So the maintenance guy came in again a few days later and tried installing a different kind of valves or whatever in the knobs. He also put plenty of grease on them to lubricate them. But afterward, the knobs were even stiffer, and seemed to get harder to turn by the day. The maintenance guy couldn’t figure out what the problem was. Although I did learn more than ever before about the anatomy and functioning of my sink knobs.

But that knowledge quickly proved moot, since the maintenance guy decided just to replace the whole faucet assembly, and that’s what he and the senior maintenance guy did today. The old assembly proved difficult to take out, since the nuts were so old that they’d become stripped or worn or something and the senior guy needed to use a drill to break them open (they were plastic). Apparently, I’ve been living here so long that they haven’t had a chance to renovate the kitchen in over a decade. (I could ask them to, but it’d mean a rent increase, and, well, I’m a writer.)

Anyway, he gradually made progress, and it was fun watching the effects up above as he wrestled with the pipes below. It was like the faucet was dancing in gleeful anticipation of finally being freed from its bonds. (Hence the post title.) But I happened to be looking away at the moment it finally came loose, so I missed its triumphant leap into the sink.

So now I have a gleaming new faucet assembly, and the best part is, it has a single lever rather than separate hot and cold knobs! That’s the kind of kitchen faucet I used to have before I moved here, and it’s the kind I’ve always wished I had again, because it’s so much easier to turn on and off and adjust the temperature with, especially without using my hands. Come to think of it, it’ll probably be easier to keep clean as well. It wasn’t easy to clean underneath the old knobs, and they tended to accumulate mineral deposits or gunk of some sort. (The water in this neighborhood is alarmingly hard. I’d make some geeky joke about it giving Jay Garrick superpowers, but the science of that is so dreadful that I just can’t bring myself to do it.) Now I’ve just got a nice smooth plate with the faucet and lever in the middle, and fewer places for water to leak from.

EDIT: I just remembered the most important reason I prefer a single-lever faucet. In this building, in the winter, the cold water gets really cold, and the hot water tends to get really hot to compensate for it. So while in the summer, I can get by comfortably using just one or the other, in winter I need to find a tolerable mix of the two, and that’s a lot easier to do if I can just nudge a lever, rather than having to constantly use both knobs and try to find a good balance between them. At this time of year, when both hot and cold are at more moderate temperatures, it doesn’t make much difference, but I’m sure I’ll be grateful for the change come winter.

So all in all, I’m very pleased with the end result of all this. I guess it pays to mention it when your faucet goes pip.

Although I still wish I knew what that sound was.

Categories: Uncategorized

ROTF 4 title revealed: LIVE BY THE CODE

As usual, 8of5 at The Trek Collective has been alert to the latest updates on Star Trek news, and that includes the news that the title and pre-order information for Star Trek: Enterprise — Rise of the Federation Book 4 has now gone public. So I can now freely say (heck, I probably could’ve said months ago, but I wasn’t sure) that the book is called Live by the Code. It’s a title that has several meanings, but one of them is a play on computer code, since this novel continues the Ware narrative begun in Uncertain Logic.

Here’s the pre-order link on Amazon:

Order Live by the Code on Amazon

Nobody else seems to have it up for pre-order as of this writing.

The Collective‘s item includes a preliminary blurb for the novel, but it’s just an excerpt from one scene in my outline, and one that isn’t representative of the overall plot, so I won’t reprint it here. It does reveal, though, that the Klingons play a major role in Live by the Code — and readers of Keith R.A. DeCandido’s The Klingon Art of War may recognize a plot point or two. This is my first published book to deal heavily with the Klingons (though they figured in my unsold TNG spec script back in 1992 as well as my cancelled novel Seek a Newer World), and I drew heavily on TKAoW for inspiration, as well as getting invaluable input from Keith himself. As you can guess, the title also alludes to Klingon codes of honor (plural used deliberately). Among other things.

No cover yet, but the cover artist was nice enough to contact me and discuss possibilities, and I think the result should be quite interesting.

And yes, I’m aware that the acronym for the novel is ROTFLBTC. At least it’s better than the last one, which was ROTFUL.

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