It’s been said that there’s more to life than music and, while we remain sceptical, we’ve decided to test the premise with our new bi-weekly Cool People Column!
Noyan and Eden already bring you great pop culture recommendations and discussions each week on Heavy Pod is Heavy, but why should they get to have all the fun? (Just because they essentially maintain and run the blog itself? I think not!) Now it’s the rest of the staff’s turn to share all the cool things from beyond the world of music that have been tickling their fancy over the last fortnight; everything from books to films, TV shows, video games and beyond!
We also want to know what all you cool people out there have been getting up to as well, so make sure to let us know in the comments.
To be honest, I’m falling out of love with keeping up with pop culture. I’m going to be 34 this year, and I can’t help but read every study I come across about how a person’s desire to “keep up with the Joneses” starts falling off about this time. But I’m still a pretty voracious consumer of pop culture, and when my wife said The Great (2020) looked fantastic, I was down. Honestly, I’m truly stunned at just how good it is and how much I absolutely love it.
What kills me about it the most is the show’s unofficial (maybe? I can’t tell) subtitle: *an occasionally true story. As you watch the show about Russian aristocracy and royalty in the 18th century, you’ll slowly become aware that the writing sounds like what mid-18th century rich people would say, but it’s also modern in its word choice at times so you don’t miss out on any little details along the way. It all becomes so clear when you realize the showrunner, Tony McNamara, also wrote and produced The Favourite (2018). No wonder it’s so brilliant.
The writing is so brilliant that I honestly didn’t even notice a major detail for about 4 episodes: the cast isn’t entirely white and it makes absolutely no difference. The writing and performances are so completely enthralling that the characters could be played by talking zebras and you wouldn’t notice. I wavered about mentioning it at all except it seems like a major breakthrough in 2020. If you can have such a diverse cast as The Great does playing Russian aristocracy at the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, then everybody can do it.
On top of all of that, the chemistry between Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult is absolutely delightful comedy. The comedy of manners and fish out of water storylines weave well enough together, but you need this kind of relationship to make the story work. Hoult’s entitled airhead Peter III combined with Fanning’s worldly and self-aware Catherine turns the idea of the period piece on its head. It is all absolutely divine and well worth even a scant few moments of your time.
Buckle up folks, this series is wild. I went through a pretty mainstream anime phase when I was a tween (Dragonball Z, Gundam, Naruto, etc.) but haven’t had much interest since. A lot of the series I’ve started revolve around the same tropes, and nearly all the English dubs I’ve encountered are…subpar. So when the trailer for Dorohedoro (2020) started to autoplay on Netflix this past Friday, something about the dark, off-kilter premise and animation style caught my eye. My fiancée and I were between series since we just finished bingeing Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005–2008) (which is fantastic), so we decided to give it a shot. What we encountered was a graphic black comedy revolving around themes of class warfare, and we enjoyed every moment of it.
The series is based on a manga series written and illustrated by Q Hayashida, which ran from 2000 to 2018 but was just released as an anime in Japan late last year. Caiman serves as a boisterous, simple-minded protagonist searching for the sorcerer who cursed him with a lizard head. Throughout the series, Caiman chomps down on various characters’ heads so they can face a shadowy figure living inside him, who determines whether they’re the sorcerer who cast the spell. Amid this quest, Caiman and his partner Nikaidō kill a sorcerer who worked for En, a mob boss figure who sends stronger henchmen to enact revenge and eliminate them. The series is defined by continual clashes during these intertwined pursuits.
Beyond the unique animation style and phenomenal character design, what drives Dorohedoro’s success is the unhinged, fast-paced storytelling. The synopsis I just laid out is largely revealed within the first episode and continues accelerating with each new chapter. Unlike other anime I’ve watched, Dorohedoro wastes no time getting to the point, even if that point is unleashing a graphic fight sequence. The dialogue is almost always relevant and pushes character development or the plot forward, while the action is non-stop and incredibly violent. Most importantly, the English voice actors fit their characters well and don’t suffer from the pitfalls of other dubs, where dialogue is either too rigid or silly. Netflix also included the original Japanese version, allowing viewers to choose their preference of a subbed or dubbed experience.
What sealed the deal for me were the potent yet subtle political undertones that defined the series. Sorcerers live in a thriving city that serves as a perfect foil for The Hole, a desolate hellscape where Caiman, Nikaidō, and their fellow humans live. Special doors created by sorcerers allow them to travel between the two worlds, which they often do when they’re in need of humans to use as target practice for their magic. Flashbacks reveal a more robust resistance effort from humans, but in the present day, there appear to be relatively few humans left to thwart sorcerers that cross the plane, and fewer still that actually put up a fight. That’s what makes Caiman’s mission more meaningful; in more ways than one, he is leading a fight to regain his humanity from an oppressive upper class.
Then again, if you just want to see him rip people’s faces off and slash them into pieces, there’s plenty of that, too.
Children of Time and Children of Ruin
By Adrian Tchaikovsky
“She is only wires and ants and some notional business that arises from their interactions, after all.”
Sometimes you go to sci-fi for abstract reflections on contemporary society and radical challenging of contemporary paradigms.. But sometimes you just want to read a book (or two) about spider astronauts, bacteria zombies, octopus aliens and megalomaniac artificial intelligences half-made of ants (a nod to Terry Pratchett‘s Hex perhaps?). It’s sentences like the above that set Adrian Tchaikovsky‘s Children series (2015–) apart from the usual space-opera fare, and how much of a kick you get out of reading that should give a pretty good indication of whether this series is for you or not.
Similarly, while the best books are often those that innovate upon their genre, sometimes its enough to simply put all the pieces together in complex and interesting enough ways. The Children series doesn’t really contain anything new, but it draws together many dominant themes from notable semi-hard, space opera series, such as David Brin‘s Uplift novels (1980–1998), The Expanse (2011–), Dan Simmons‘ The Hyperion Cantos (1989–1997), Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Aurora (2015) and even (now that I think about it) Arthur C. Clarke‘s later Space Odyssey novels (1997), and weaves them into an enthralling, new combination that even manages to make the dreaded lady-who-is-actually-a-spaceship/spaceship-who-is-actually-a-lady trope that became so over-saturated in the wake of Anne Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice (2013) seem fresh and interesting again.
The Children series might not be pushing sci-fi forward as a genre, but its a good reflection on where its been. Some of the conclusions seem a bit rote and I’m not sure how successful its inversions of traditional gender politics are but its a fun (albeit sometimes confusing) “light” read nonetheless, and I’m definitely interested to see where the rest of the series ends up going.
The Stars Are Legion
By Kameron Hurley
It’s fitting that this entry comes after Tchaikovsky in this post since what those books don’t do (that is, push the genre into weird, new places), The Stars Are Legion (2017) most assuredly does. Hurley’s Twitter profile proudly sports a quote from Reddit reading: “Kameron Hurley is the Death Metal of SFF.” and to be honest, that’s not wrong. In The Stars Are Legion, a doomed fleet of ships is locked in orbit around a central star. That is, until one ship from close to the Core manages to somehow break away from its course and start to make its way to the outside, to the rest of space. That ship is the Mokshi and anyone who tries to capture it (as many do) die horrible deaths. Oh, and one last thing: all the ships are gigantic worlds and they’re completely made of organic material, relying on an endless biological cycle of death and recycling to survive, a cycle which is now running out of proverbial (if not literal) steam.
Add to that the fact that these worlds/ships are populated entirely by women, whose wombs are fertilized by the different ships to produce whatever that ship needs, and that they are locked into eternal, brutal warfare and you start to get the death metal comparison. If that wasn’t enough for you, the viscerally biological nature of the setting is thoroughly explored, with description of bodies popping, bursting, and suffering. Beyond all of that, the book is also just plain good; the reliable narrator trope at its core (embodied in two narrators, both unreliable in different ways) works really well, the technology is interesting without being overbearing and the universe at large is compelling. Perhaps the only point of criticism I can offer is that the pacing feels a bit off, long periods of nothing much but brooding being punctuated with extreme bouts of violence and the story momentum which accompanies them.
But seeing as the setting is so engrossing, that isn’t a huge deal. It’s easy to see why Hurley is one of the up and coming names in SFF today; her stories have that edge, usually to do with gender, which is all the rage today and, in Hurley’s case, that edge is handled effortlessly. The story never feels a slave to “a message” while also not devoid of deeper meaning. The end result is an action-filled caper dotted with lots of weird ideas, sharp left turns, and a setting bizarre enough to keep you guessing.
– Eden Kupermintz