writer, photographer, programmer, dad

Category: Uncategorized

“Exhalation” by Ted Chiang

A race of pneumatically-powered androids must come to terms with the fact that their very consciousness is built upon the variation in air pressure in their universe, and that the inevitable equilibrium of air pressure will mean the end of everything that they know.

This is a beautifully elegiac story that progresses from a clever solution to challenges of self-knowledge to acceptance of the inevitability of annihilation. The pneumatic society of the androids is tantalizingly sketched, and the problem of the equilibrium of air pressure is clearly a metaphor for the heat death of the universe or, much more urgently, climate change; for the former, the final acceptance is beautifully philosophical, but for the former a bit too sang-froid.

“Tiptoe” by Laird Barron

After an unsettling experience, a man reflects on some strange events from his childhood and suspects that there was something much darker about his father than he realized at the time.

This is a wonderfully creepy story, with just enough hint and suggestion of the darkness at its heart to keep the reader on edge. Like so many of the stories in this collection, it has a real “is this what it seems to be, or can this all be explained innocently?” feel; I opt for the far less innocent reading.

Love, Death, and Robots

“Love, Death, and Robots” consists of 18 unrelated short science fiction and fantasy films, all under 20 minutes and most animated rather than live action. Their quality varies wildly, from sublime to ridiculous; most look and feel like the video game trailers that sometimes pop up in the advertisements of the ridiculous CW superhero shows that I love to watch.

There were seven that I really liked–“Three Robots,” “Helping Hand,” “Ice Age,” “Sonnie’s Edge,” “Beyond the Aquila Rift,” “Good Hunting,” and “The Witness.” These had interesting stories, characters, and animation styles, and seemed to be more than just video game trailers. And there were a couple–“Shape-Shifters” and “The Secret War”–that I thought were just abysmal, with no effort to rise above the genre. The rest might have had a few interesting aspects–for example, Samira Wiley’s performance in “Lucky 13,” and the animation in “Fish Night”–but were mostly predictable and frankly dull.

Most also had gratuitous nudity to make them seem more “edgy” than they really were. Nudity was appropriate and used well in “Sonnie’s Edge” and “The Witness,” but in the rest it seemed to be there mostly for the “NSFW” vibe. The violence was pretty much over the top, too, but not really out of place given the subject matter; some of it, particularly in “Sonnie’s Edge,” was grueling and effective.

Overall, this series reminded a lot of “Heavy Metal,” though without the loose unifying structure that the orb provided in that movie. I haven’t seen “Heavy Metal” in years, and I suspect that on re-watching it I’d find the same things to criticize, though it was a pretty awesome movie for a 14-year-old boy’s tastes; which seems to be the audience most of “Love, Death, and Rockets” was targeting as well.

The Autopsy of Jane Doe

A beautiful, mysterious corpse is discovered half-buried in the basement at the scene of a horrific crime. A father and son team of coroners unravel her history as they disassemble her body, and unleash a vengeful terror.

There are aspects of body horror as well as historical score-settling in this tight, tense story. The movie becomes darker and darker as layers of “Jane Doe” are (literally) peeled away and the awful history her body has to tell is revealed.

City of Ash and Red by Hye-young Pyun (translated by Sora Kim-Russell)

An unnamed man travels to an unnamed country to take on an unspecified role at his employer’s home office. The foreign country is in the midst of political and social upheaval, spurred on by an apparently virulent but possibly harmless (except for the paranoia it engenders) plague. Through a series of misfortunes, misunderstandings, and mis-remembered crimes, the man finds himself exiled to a rat-filled sewer in a foreign country, slowly losing his identity.

This is a grim, uncomfortable book. Many of the reviews have compared it to Kafka, and that’s certainly fitting: there’s faceless bureaucracy as in “The Castle,” a sense of paranoia as in “The Trial,” the weirdness of a foreign land as in “Amerika,” dissolution of the self as in “The Metamorphosis”, and the dissolution of society as in “An Old Manuscript.” Unlike a typical Kafka protagonist, though, the man in this story is drenched in guilt and part of his dissolution is an embrace of the worst, most inhuman parts of himself.

Rats, monkeys, garbage, knives (sharp and blunt), blood, and foul smells pervade the novel’s imagery. It’s a fascinating descent into horror; hardly a pleasant read, but a powerful one.

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill


Charlie Manx prowls the secret roads between our world and an evil Christmasland of the mind in his Rolls-Royce Wraith, searching for children to “rescue.” Vic McQueen, psychically damaged by both her own abilities to travel those secret roads (first on her childhood bicycle, then on a restored Triumph motorcycle) and by an earlier encounter with Manx, needs to catch Manx to rescue her son.

“NOS4A2” moves along at a brisk clip, built as it is around Vic as both pursuer and pursued. It’s a lot like a classic Stephen King novel, jam packed with pop culture references (as well as references , both overt and subtle, to other Joe Hill and Stephen King stories), and full of broadly drawn, over-the-top characters. While it certainly doesn’t break new ground in the horror epic genre–“Talisman,” for instance, was more original in its world-hopping, and some of the spooks in “20th Century Ghosts” are more unsettling than Charlie Manx (though the Gas Mask Man is certainly a high point in chilling characters …)–it’s solidly written and holds the reader’s interest. I especially like that the magic in the book comes at a steep cost for its practitioners–no one can hop between worlds without suffering cumulative damage. The denouement is a little too tidy, but I’m glad that it ends on a happy note after so much pain, especially in the last 150 pages or so.

Icelandic Horror Movie: Grafir og Bein (Graves and Bones)

On the weekend before he’s to be sentenced for financial fraud, Gunnar goes with his wife Sonja to a remote house where Gunnar’s niece Perla is staying after the apparent suicide of her parents. Strange things start to happen, seemingly centered on the little girl and the house’s tragic history.

I watched this in part to prepare for a trip to Iceland: I’ve read the tour guides and restaurant reviews and even done a few lessons in Icelandic, so I wanted to get a glimpse into Iceland’s culture through a horror movie. A few things I took away: Icelanders drink a lot of coffee and wear a lot of sweaters, they don’t talk a whole lot, and they’re incapable of distinguishing a real little girl from an evil ghost. It was useful to hear spoken Icelandic, and I enjoyed picking up the handful of words (45 or so, according to the app I’ve been using) that are in my extremely limited vocabulary.

The story was a little sketchy, with gaps in the plot that didn’t seem to be just a matter of translation. At the end, it was unclear how much of the haunting was real, and how much was in Gunnar’s head. All in all an enjoyable movie, but I think it could have done with some editing for clarity.

© 2022 Michael Hartford

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑