John Scalzi has nearly twenty science-fiction novels to his name, and won the 2013 Hugo Prize, but I’d never sampled him until his latest, “The Consuming Fire,” second in a series that will be at least a trilogy. I have to say it’s one of the oddest novels I’ve ever read. It is staged as a space opera in which the Interdependency, a stellar human empire, faces catastrophe when The Flow, a mysterious extra-dimensional pathway linking planets, begins to collapse. Can the Interdependency’s leader save the day amidst Machiavellian politics? Writing down the plot that way makes the book sound like an Asimovian series of battles. Instead, what Scalzi dishes up is intricate intrigue revealed through barbed dialogue, loads and loads of dialogue. Rather than a space opera, it’s an opera of wits and treachery. Scalzi is an adept stylist and every page sparkles with movement and wit, and when the action moves onto actual spaceships, the effect is electric. The array of characters is fascinating and all are splendidly portrayed. If in the final analysis this is less Asimov and more Dorothy Dunnett, who can complain about that?
A Philadelphian singer-songwriter straddling the sounds of Kate Bush and heavy-metal, Melissa VanFleet’s new EP, “Ode to the Dark,” is atmospherically arranged, executed, and produced, a lush feast for the ear. An EP always seems to me a slight offering, and this EP’s four songs can meld into each other, but any offering with a track titled “Raven” appeals to this birding Corvus fan. “Raven,” with its opening piano figure and blazing chorus, is in fact the standout track. Against the album’s positives, the seemingly dark-and-dark lyrics and the super-slick dark-themed cover/website imagery failed to hit a chord with me. An impressive if manufactured release.
Grab this as soon as it hits the street. Jamail, a seasoned journalist and mountaineer, stuns with “The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption.” Weaving in riveting accounts of some of his top-of-the-world mountain adventures, he sets out to explore the spots on Earth where climate change can be seen to be happening. In Alaska and Montana, he sees firsthand how glaciers are retreating, and in Alaska’s northernmost village, he learns how Arctic sea ice is vanishing “so fast, we’re having trouble keeping up,” in the words of one scientist. In the Bering Sea, he talks to people baffled at how fishing is threatened by fast-warming ocean waters. He checks out dying coral reefs in Palau and Guam, visits the sickly Great Barrier Reef. As have a number of writers, in Florida he is flabbergasted that property investors still thrive in Miami, already subject to regular flooding. He examines trees and the Amazonian rainforests. Throughout, he is evocative yet precisely factual; the effect is overwhelming. Throughout, a constant theme is the utter inability of dedicated scientists to understand how the human race ignores their messages. When I read this – “A child born today will see an Everest largely free of glaciers within her lifetime” – I was shattered. Jamail’s final moving call to action cements “The End of Ice,” in my view, as an essential modern overview of climate disruption.
After years of sterling service as climate change activist and media personality, Tim Flannery has returned to his beloved field of paleontology (he’s also described as a mammologist) with “Europe: A Natural History.” Displaying a natural storyteller’s suppleness and daring, he relates the hundred-million-year tale of Europe’s physical form and fauna and flora, the land formed out of clashing continents, the animals and plants arriving from Africa, Asia, and North America. His narrative strokes are broad indeed – 100 million years down to 34, then down to 2.6 million years, then the stretch down to 38,000 years, and the human eras since. Yet the level of detail deftly summarized, often leavened by quirky discoveries that obviously pique his interest, is stunningly informative. Using a narrative lens of entertaining biopics of key fossil scientists, often odd indeed, brings a human dimension to the story. Historical spans greater than decades leave me befuddled, so much of the detail of species long gone didn’t lodge in my head, but Flannery’s writing chops carried me through. I was fascinated to be brought up to date on the evolutionary emergence of human beings: “The Europeans themselves are hybrids, created about 38,000 years ago when dark-skinned humans from Africa began interbreeding with pale-skinned, blue-eyed Neanderthals.” The book concludes with modern topics such as the re-wilding of Europe’s hinterlands, deliberate or not. “Europe” is a tour de force of synthesis, imagination, and exposition.
The first Australian high budget series from Netflix, the eight-part Tidelands disappoints from the first scene, an ocean action sequence that promises nothing good. I watched Episode 1 with some anticipation, being an Aussie myself, and I found myself impressed by the sumptuous camerawork and a tight script that moves along. But the basic plotline – an ex-con back home, drug running, and a half-siren gang queen – hardly inspires and all the major characters are woefully miscast. The dialogue has a certain snappiness to it, but it’s unintelligent fare delivered with Australian accents in a way that imbues each scene with the feel of a soap opera. The end of Episode 1 is a cliffhanger that should entice me onwards but I won’t bother. For the first time, I’ll not give a series its full rein… such a shame.
A mash-up between an alterna-world sci-fi riot-fest and a gritty brother-brother road trip flick, “Kin” promises much, scene by scene, but sat uneasily in my mind after the closing credits. The brain child of the talented Baker brother combo, we see a fourteen-year-old adoptee (played well by Myles Truitt) plunged into the deadly affairs of his much older, just-released-con brother (Jack Reynor, in a mixed performance). They flee, young Eli hiding a strange stocky weapon straight out of video games. Pursued or beset by garishly horrid crims (James Franco hams his heart out) and robotic beings on super-fast motorbikes, the bonding brothers (“kin,” get it?) drive day and night across plain and mountain range. If it sounds like I’m taking the piss out of the plot, that’s what watching felt like on too many occasions. The sci-fi action is cartoonishly blasty, many scenes ring true, and even a strange sequel-beckoning plot twist towards the end entertained me, but my disquiet with the plot’s arc overrode all the pleasures. Oh, I should mention the Mogwai sountdrack, which I’ve reviewed and which lured me to the underlying film – it also disappoints, rarely imposing its grandeur on the scenes, a notable exception being the fabulous driving tune gracing the closing credits. Overall, fab prospects promised but not delivered.