Archive for Avatar

the Hainish novels [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2018 by xi'an


When Ursula le Guin passed away earlier this year, I realised I had not read anything for her except for the Earthsea series. I thus ordered the two volume collection of the Hainish novels and short stories beautifully published by The Library of America. This boxed set has been at my bedside for the past six months and I completed reading the first volume while on Vancouver Island. The short novels (Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions) and both novels (The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed) are not part of a coherent cycle but relate to the same Universe, run by the mysterious Hains. Ursula le Guin herself describes the collection as a forest rather than a tree. There is nonetheless a strong common theme of displacement and of confrontation of one character with another culture, this character being often turned into the representative of his native culture. While the stories involve faster-than-light interstellar travel and mind reading and genetic engineering, their major thread is more of sociology or anthropology fiction than of science fiction. I enjoyed all these novels, both for their underlying common thread and for the massive diversity in the stories reported in the novels. If I had to pick only one, it would be The Dispossessed, as it merges a deeply realistic description of an anarchy run planet with the moving story of a top physicist faced with the individual doubts of pursuing research and the societal constraints imposed by a harsh arid planet and the pressure of the entire society. Albeit anarchist in principle, it still produces power structures and pressures, while being nationalistic at the planetary level by refusing any entry from another planet. In particular, I found most interesting the realisation by a group of friends that the society was no longer revolutionary and mostly replicating traditions and patterns. The reflections about scientific creativity and bareness in this novel as well as the power structures within academia are also most meaningful and should appeal to most researchers (and beyond!). Before the end of the Canadian trip, I was further able to read The Word for World is Forest in the second volume,  which is about the threat of destruction for a planet and its native humanoids, by Terrans seeking wood as the new gold. This theme has been reproduced in the subsequent sci’ fi’ literature, as in Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, but the short novel remains striking (and in line with the permanent theme in Le Guin’s books of conflicting cultures and the difficulty to apprehend the fullness of the other culture(s)… Le Guin notes in the introduction to the second volume of the box that strong similarities have been pointed out about “a high-budget, highly successful film [which] resembles the book in so mamny ways that people have often assumed that I had some part in making it.  Since the film completely reverses the book’s moral premise, presenting the central and unsolved problem of the book, mass violence, as a solution, I’m glad I have nothing at all to do with it”. The film is Avatar, James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster.

Great North Road [book review]

Posted in Books, Running, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2017 by xi'an

As I was unsure of the Internet connections and of the more than likely delays I would face during my trip to India, I went fishing for a massive novel on Amazon and eventually ordered Peter Hamilton’s Great North Road, a 1088 pages behemoth! I fear the book qualifies as space opera, with the conventional load of planet invasions, incomprehensible and infinitely wise aliens, gateways for instantaneous space travels, and sentient biospheres. But the core of the story is very, very, Earth-bound, with a detective story taking place in a future Newcastle that is not so distant from now in many ways. (Or even from the past as the 2012 book did not forecast Brexit…) With an occurrence of the town moor where I went running a few years ago.

The book is mostly well-designed, with a plot gripping enough to keep me hooked for Indian evenings in Kolkata and most of the flight back. I actually finished it just before landing in Paris. There is no true depth in the story, though, and the science fiction part is rather lame: a very long part of the detective plot is spent on the hunt for a taxi by an army of detectives, a task one would think should be delegated to a machine-learning algorithm and solved in a nano-second or so. The themes heavily borrow from those of classics like Avatar, Speaker for the Dead, Hyperion [very much Hyperion!], Alien… And from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for an hardcore heroin who is perfect at anything she undertakes.  Furthermore, the Earth at the centre of this extended universe is very close to its present version, with English style taxis, pub culture, and a geopolitic structure of the World pretty much unchanged. Plus main brands identical to currents ones (Apple, BMW, &tc), to the point it sounds like sponsored links! And no clue of a major climate change despite the continued use of fuel engines. Nonetheless, an easy read when stuck in an airport or a plane seat for several hours.

speaker for the dead [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2016 by xi'an

Here is another book I bought for next to nothing at Beers Book Center in Sacramento. I have read several times Ender’s Game, which I consider as a major science-fiction book, for the fantastic plot, the psychological analysis of the main character, and the deeper reflections about the nature of war and the extermination of other forms of life, even when those are extremely alien. For one reason or another, I never had the opportunity to read the sequel trilogy, which starts with Speaker for the Dead. The 37 hour trip back home from Melbourne was a perfect opportunity to catch up and I read this 1986 instalment in the plane, once I was too tired to read statistics papers on my computer screen. It is a very good (if not major) book, with a lot of threads to philosophy, ethics, ethnology, and (almost) no hard science-fi’ line in that most of the story takes place in a very limited universe, a town on a monotone planet (monotone as in mono-tone, for it enjoys no diversity in both flaura and fauna), with a prohibited access to the rest of the planet, and sentient if alien autochtones. The main plot is thus centred on uncovering the culture and specifics of those autochtones, under strict regulations (from the central planet) preventing cultural contaminations. Or aimed at preventing, as contamination does occur nonetheless. The new culture is quite fascinating in the intricate symbiosis between flaura and fauna, a theme repeated (differently) in Avatar. This progressive uncovering of what first appears as primitive, then cruel, is great. The influence of the Catholic Church is well-rendered, if hard to believe that many centuries in the future, as is the pan- and extra-humanist vision of Ender himself. The concept of Speaker for the Dead is by itself just brilliant! What I like less in the story is the very homely feeling of being in a small provincial town with gossips from everyone about everyone and a lack of broader views. Not that I particularly lean towards space operas, but this secluded atmosphere is at odds with the concept of hundreds of colonised planets by colons from Earth. In particular, assuming that each planet is colonised by people from the same place and culture (Portugal in the current case) does not sound realistic. Anyway, this is a good book and I would have read the sequel Xenocide, had I had it with me during this looong trip.

Shriekin’ dull!

Posted in Kids with tags , , , , on July 8, 2010 by xi'an

On Sunday afternoon, my kids rushed me to downtown Paris to watch a movie as a “last time together” opportunity. I was somehow hoping for a valuable alternative (even Millenium 2 would have been nicer!) for myself but, since none was available, I ended up watching Shrek 4 with them… While I liked very much Shrek (1), its great soundtrack, and its second degree type of humor, this last (?) avatar of in the series is very dull and recycles most of the jokes (and all of the characters) of the previous movies. The main line is along the very easy scenario trick of alternate realities, namely “what if Shrek never rescued Fiona?!” in the current case. But there is very little to sustain the plot, the “bad guys” being hopeless, even though some ideas, like the witches dance floor, the rat/witch/sock/ogre piper, the origami way out of the contract, or the reversal of the roles of Shrek and Fiona, are worth their salt. At some point, I thought it was going to be a great parody of the (obscure) Groundhog Day, which repeats itself over and over again for a single character, but it seems the days of second-degree and self-inflicted irony are mostly left behind by the realisators producers of Shrek. Even the soundtrack was fairly poor. As with many 3D movies (which I fundamentally dislike because I do not have 3D vision!), the technical trick of producing 3D effects seems to take over the story (see Avatar as an upscaled example). In the end, the nicest part of the movie film was sitting in the cool and in the dark, but if it is not that hot, better stay at home and watch again Shrek 1. Or whatever!


Posted in Kids with tags , , on December 25, 2009 by xi'an

Given that the cinema in the small town where we go skiing always has a very diverse program, I ended up seeing Avatar with my kids yesterday. (Despite the three afternoon sessions, the hall was packed.) Everyone seemed excited about the film, especially for the special effects that made the planet Pandora where the story takes place so real. I quite agree with the quality of the landscape rendering, as well as with the imaginative fauna and flora that live on the planet. The idea of a connected ecosystem that make the whole planet like a single aspen grove is a very good idea (if directly inspired by this unique feature of aspens). I find the scenario of Avatar very poor, however. The notion of a mining planet with the local inhabitants rebelling against the desecration of their planet is a direct transposition of the settlers-versus-indigenous scenario. There is not an inch of subtlety in the characters: the good guys and the bad guys are clearly identified from the start! The Marines are strangely disobedient for soldiers. The locals are all very nice and full of qualities but they nonetheless need a Marine from Earth to lead them to victory. The end is in particular completely unrealistic. A battle with bows and arrows (and dragons) versus spatial technology does not seem to offer a wide range of possible outcomes! The man-to-man fight concluding the battle is truly ludicrous: the three main characters meeting in a final fight, with again bow and arrow triumphing of a military robot… This movie reminded me of the recent District 9, in particular because the final fight has many common features, except that the scenario choices made in District 9 led to a much better movie. So I completely agree with the analysis of Avatar recently given by Le Monde, namely that the special effects killed the focus of the director and made this movie a good entertainment rather than a masterpiece.