thrillers

Orphan Black, the many roles of Tatiana Maslany

Tatiana Maslany as Alison, Helena, Sarah, Beth, Cosima, and Katja.

Orphan Black is a new science fiction television show produced by BBC America and Space, starring Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany. I recently discovered this series, the first season of which just finished airing in the beginning of June 2013, and I plowed through all 10 episodes in two days.  It’s a smart, complex, often dark yet at times quite funny, and well-paced show with a continuous narrative arc that explores the issues of identity and intellectual property. There is fine acting all around but the two standouts are Tatiana Maslany, who plays many roles on the show for which she deservedly won a Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series, and Jordan Gavaris, who plays the foster brother of one of Maslany’s characters.

Minor spoilers follow, but everything I mention is revealed in the first episode or featured prominently in the official publicity for the show.

The science fiction element of the show is pretty low key. You won’t see much in the way of futuristic technology in this series. Instead, the plot revolves around the controversial subject of human cloning and the early stages of body modification and genetic engineering. Who are we if we are not biologically unique, if there are others out there who are genetically identical to us? How much would our experiences and personal choices shape who we become despite this? What would you do if you encountered to your surprise not one but two or three or more other people who look exactly like you? What is it that makes us human? These are some of the questions explored in Orphan Black.

The series begins by introducing us to the main character of the show, Sarah Manning, played by Maslany. Sarah is an orphan, born in Great Britain, raised by a foster mother, and moved to Canada at an early age. Now a young woman, we meet her trying to escape a wild life of crime, drugs, and an abusive boyfriend. Sarah aims to get her life back together, reclaim custody of her daughter Kira from her foster mother Mrs. S, and scrounge up enough money to make a new life somewhere for herself, her daughter, and her foster brother Felix (played by Gavaris).

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Higher Cause by John Hunt

This review is part of a series covering each installment of the serialized novel Higher Cause, written by John Hunt and published by Laissez Faire Books. To catch up, start with the announcement, the book’s link-rich table of contents, and the first review.

Higher Cause by John Hunt

It has been a long trip. Twenty-two weeks, sixty chapters plus a prologue and an epilogue. With this week’s installment, John Hunt’s Higher Cause finally comes to an end.

We had a lot of adventure, saw a lot of character and relationship arcs, experienced some mystery and intrigue, and all the while saw a libertarian society in operation. It struggled to survive in the midst of statism, full of dedicated men who not only believed in a libertarian philosophy but were willing to live it and work hard to achieve it. It would be nice to see more works of this sort.

The books virtues, as I have mentioned before, are the imagination that went into the concept and the overall grasp of a story arc. The writing is generally solid and Hunt manages to competently weave together a rather complex tale.

It is my opinion that the dialogue could be improved and that certain sections of the prose could be deleted to good effect. At times, there was a tendency to over-explain things.

In addition to the above, and with the story now behind us, there are other aspects I would like to point out as needing strengthening. For starters, the separate story strands could have been synchronized a little better. For most of the novel, they complimented each other and crisscrossed back and forth quite nicely, but things came loose a touch at the end.

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Higher Cause by John Hunt

This review is part of a series covering each installment of the serialized novel Higher Cause, written by John Hunt and published by Laissez Faire Books. To catch up, start with the announcement, the book’s link-rich table of contents, and the first review.

Higher Cause by John Hunt

It is my opinion that John Hunt’s greatest strength as a novelist is in his overall design of the story. This is particularly true when it comes to setting things up in one chapter to get a payoff in another. The last dozen or so chapters have been all about payoff, realizing returns on investments made in earlier chapters. In this the penultimate installment, we see as good a display of his careful planning as we have yet seen. A seed planted way back in the beginning of the book finally bears fruit as a twist to end the installment.

To begin the installment, we saw the conclusion of the cliff hanger from last week. I truly had no idea where he was going to go with it, but his resolution was clever and made sense. Things have, in the main plot line, pretty much come to a close, barring some unforeseen surprise in the next chapter.

One supposes that the last segment will be an epilogue that brings to a close the other plot line, the one about The Bounty, which never quite merged with the central story about The Island and its enemies. This is going to be a bit of a problem for the book. There is nothing about The Bounty story that needs connecting to The Island’s libertarian story. This is not necessarily bad, by any means, but it seems that the two are not going to ever truly be connected, except geographically. It is an odd choice, but The Bounty was never as fully developed and intricate as the rest of the plot. Leaving it to the side, as has been done, makes it feel unnecessary, like a story line that did not need to be there. Judgment must be reserved until the end, but right now it feels like The Bounty story could have been a separate book, maybe a sequel. The present one might have been better without it. We shall see.

As I said, the main story seems to have pretty much concluded. There are some final character moments we are going to need, especially involving Elisa and Petur. And something will have to be done to justify the inclusion of The Bounty in the story. And, of course, we must see how the British decide to handle things if they are to be the mafia institution that oversees The Island. Just one more week, and all will be answered.

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Higher Cause by John Hunt

This review is part of a series covering each installment of the serialized novel Higher Cause, written by John Hunt and published by Laissez Faire Books. To catch up, start with the announcement, the book’s link-rich table of contents, and the first review.

Higher Cause by John Hunt

Higher Cause is a bit of a mixed bag this week. The final showdown continues, but there is an aspect to it that fails to convince. The action and the tension remain, but some of the maneuvering with respect to international law does not strike this reader as very plausible. However, there are two very good moments, one of them being what is probably the novel’s greatest cliffhanger.

The standoff with Mexico reaches what seems like a climax, only to redouble in suspense just a short while later. All in all, this final showdown has been an up-and-down affair. Just when the reader thinks one faction has an advantage, the tables get turned. I expect they will turn again, though how this is going to happen after the aforementioned cliffhanger is beyond me.

There have been a number of things I have criticized in these reviews, all having to do with how information is conveyed to the reader. There has been tell when there should be show. There have been moments when something already understood is explained at length. Sometimes, things that we do not need to know yet, or even really should not know yet, are told to us. All three kinds of these “information problems” are on display in this installment.

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Higher Cause by John Hunt

This review is part of a series covering each installment of the serialized novel Higher Cause, written by John Hunt and published by Laissez Faire Books. To catch up, start with the announcement, the book’s link-rich table of contents, and the first review.

Higher Cause by John Hunt

Higher Cause #19 continues the entwining of separate story lines that began in earnest in the previous installment. There are three more chapters, with all the action being on or around The Island. The situation is at its most dire as we enter, but the good guys get a lucky break and suddenly their opponents’ hand is not as strong as it was. At the very least, they have been given a chance.

One of the key elements Hunt has used throughout the novel is the planting of mystery. Many seeds have been sown along the way, some of which sprouted and were further tended to. Now, as we near the end, we are starting to get a lot of payoff from the harvest. As far as timing goes, I think it was handled well.

One of the reveals, however, may be problematic for other reasons. The entire backstory has not yet come out, so final judgment must be withheld, but one of the enigmas we have encountered in the book is beginning to strain my credulity. At this point, it seems like some license was taken with plausibility in order to set up the mystery, but perhaps a future installment will set me straight on that.

Act Three is well under way and must resolve itself in the next ten chapters or so, unless a cliffhanger and a sequel are in store for us. It has been a pulse-pounding finale so far with more to come. And we know that perhaps the greatest mystery of all, the one that was prepared for us as early as the prologue of the book and has been developed repeatedly since, has yet to play a role. The author has done a good job of masking his intentions with it, because though some possibilities as to how all this will play out occur to me, there is no obvious or unavoidable scenario to make the book too predictable.

We shall have to wait to see.

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Higher Cause by John Hunt

This review is part of a series covering each installment of the serialized novel Higher Cause, written by John Hunt and published by Laissez Faire Books. To catch up, start with the announcement, the book’s link-rich table of contents, and the first review.

Higher Cause by John Hunt

After a long break, we return to the Higher Cause reviews.

In part 18, there are many pieces in play as we near the end of the novel. Different story lines, separate for so long, are now starting to entwine themselves together in the narrative thread. What looked like nothing more than a mid-story action sequence a few weeks ago has turned into a protracted battle that reignites every time we think it might be slowing down. It is becoming apparent that, however it evolves over the next few installments, it is going to be the final showdown.

The terrorists are still playing cat and mouse games with The Island’s defenses. The Island has been evacuated as the Mexican government forces land on The Island. Petur and his team prepare to defend themselves, though in what manner we still do not know.

Chapters 45 through 48 exhibit the attributes we have come to recognize in the novel. There are many perspectives that enhance our experience of the action. Hunt likes to drop bombs to end his chapters — to good effect. There is a bit too much over-explaining. The dialogue could be cleaned up a little to sound more normal.

With only a handful of weeks to go, the end can be made out in the distance, though the features are still a blur. A few mysteries await elucidation, too. This marks several installments in a row that have kept us hooked and ready to read on, despite some areas in want of polishing. It is much to be hoped that the end will satisfy the built-up tension and expectation.

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Alongside Night by J. Neil Schulman

Alongside Night by J. Neil Schulman

Alongside Night by J. Neil Schulman, so far as I am aware, is still the agorist novel par excellence. More than three decades have passed since its publication — not that you would know it without looking at the copyright date — yet in that time no other novel has so successfully mixed the principles of agorism with such a keen perspective on the future. There are not many novels that can top it for entertainment value either.

The story takes place in what was then the future, but which now seems a very prescient present. Not only is the story filled with theretofore unrealized gadgets and technology that differ from what we actually possess sometimes by no more than an appellation, or occasionally a small feature or manner of use, but the economic conditions described in the tale read like a seer’s forecast.

Schulman’s knowledge of economics allowed him to make a forecast every bit as accurate as the one for which Ayn Rand, in her novel Atlas Shrugged, has been lauded of late. In fact, this very knowledge of economics is probably what helped the author predict all those gadgets, for it is well established that science-fiction authors, a group not known for their economic acumen, tend to think on a grand scale when most of the advances, in a consumer-driven society, are modest devices of everyday convenience and entertainment.

It is a dystopian world we are plunged into in Alongside Night, where central control of the economy and erosion of civil liberties proceed, as they must, hand in hand. When the government abducts the protagonist’s father, a noted free-market libertarian economist somewhere between Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises in his radicalness, the high school student Elliot Vreeland embarks on a quest to free him. This quest takes him into the world of the agorists, free-market rebels and masters of counter-economics.

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