The Best Of 2020

Oh, 2020. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

It’s becoming a tradition that we can’t fit all we want to write about in our end-year post, and again we had to divide it into two. Before Christmas we wrote about the blog and stats, now we want to share our favourite – and least favourite – books and shows, consumed in this fateful year.

Ola: Well, say what you want, but for me 2020 turned out to be a good time for reading ;). As last year, I decided to divide my best reads into three categories, Fiction, Non-fiction, and Comics. With so many books read, my The Best Of criteria had to be very harsh, so below are the best of the best of the best, which means a very impactful, thought-provoking and delightful read, as well as the even rarer 10/10 rating :).

Ola’s Best of 2020 in Fiction

Neal Stephenson, Anathem (2008)

This was truly one of the very best reads of 2020 and one of the very best SF reads ever. Stephenson’s love letter to Western philosophy and science is pure perfection, and his decision to wrap it into a hero’s journey through a world as like and as unlike our own was a masterstroke, allowing the readers an incredibly immersive experience. The prose is dense, ambitious, unforgiving, but given a chance it shines with amazing clarity and emotion. I owe big thanks to Bart, who recommended Anathem to me; Stepehenson’s Seveneves is good, especially the first part dealing with orbital mechanics, and would’ve been even better if the last part didn’t exist, but Anathem is a masterpiece, clear and simple. If you haven’t yet, read it!

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror & the Light (2020)

The grand finale of the critically acclaimed Cromwell trilogy doesn’t disappoint. It may be more meandering and more sentimental than the naked blade of Bring Up the Bodies, but that’s to be expected since it deals with the final years of Thomas Cromwell, whose tragic history is inextricably linked with that of Henry VIII. A historical novel with grand ambitions, a deep psychological portrayal of human vices and virtues, of naked ambition, egotism and the pitfalls of power, The Mirror & the Light is astonishingly modern, significant novel; a mark of true classic, its contents equally relevant in times of Henry VIII and our own.

Yoon Ha Lee, Ninefox Gambit (2016)

I’ve written all I could about this quirky, thought-provoking read. I loved Lee’s bold, utterly brilliant mashup of Korean mythology and political anti-utopia clad in military SF accoutrements and wrapped up in a stolen identity mystery happening in the middle of a galactic war. Ninefox Gambit is wonderfully ambitious, broad in scope, and lyrical. I’ve read the remaining two books in the trilogy, but sadly, their quality seemed to be deteriorating with each installment, and by the end turned into a political treatise focused on gender issues while what I was expecting was an all-out AI revolution ;).

Bernard Cornwell, The Pale Horseman (2005)

The second installment in the Saxon Stories series, popularized by the Netflix’s TV series Last Kingdom (very good, actually, though I haven’t seen it past season 1 as I want to read the books first ;)) is impeccably written, heart-rending, thoroughly researched, and simply riveting. The first book is good; but only in The Pale Horseman Cornwell achieves the psychological and societal depth to make his work outstanding. Many thanks to Sarah, who recommended this series to me. A review will come one day, I promise 😉

Daniel Polansky, The Seventh Perfection (2020)

I was really surprised by this little novella; its impact on me was far bigger than I’d expected judging by its length and the misleadingly obfuscating beginning. But this tiny bit of a book is simply amazing, turning midpoint from a slightly generic fantasy into a Kafkian treatise on the nature and limits of power. I absolutely adored every aspect of it, from the stunningly apt use of the second person perspective to the impeccably structured journey – inward and outward – of the protagonist.

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The Mandalorian (2019 – present)

Creator: Jon Favreau

Title: The Mandalorian

Franchise: Star Wars

Series: The Mandalorian #1

As we’re nearing the release date of the second season of The Mandalorian, the highly acclaimed space western series and the only thing that valiantly stands between Star Wars and the abyss of total, disgraceful annihilation, we’ve decided it was high time to review the first season 😊.

The Mandalorian came to the TV screens as a surprise pet project of Jon Favreau, for a long time associated mostly with Marvel and their cinematic universe. Favreau and Dave Filoni, known best for his long-time work with Star Wars franchise (particularly the animated series SW: Clone Wars and SW: Rebels), worked long and hard on a new live-action series that would explore the SW universe immediately after the events of The Return of the Jedi.

Ola: Hmm, I wonder why is that? Is it possible they weren’t fans of the new Star Wars movies Disney so horribly botched? 😀

When you watch The Mandalorian, the answer to this question quickly becomes obvious. The new series pays direct homage to the very beginnings of the Star Wars franchise, revisiting old places and old themes in a way that remains respectful, very self-aware, and wonderfully nostalgic while simultaneously offering new perspectives, immensely better CGI and slicker storytelling – not to mention the exploration of the more mysterious elements of the lore, such as the Mandalorians, the nature of the Force, or even the species of Yoda. It’s clear that the series is a creation of devoted fans, a heartfelt tribute to a phenomenon that had significantly influenced not only the imaginations of many generations of movie goers but also the Western popular culture in general.

Piotrek: Yes, definitely, I won’t argue with you on that. The Mandalorian is my favourite recent addition to the Star Wars universe and one of the best SF shows I’ve seen recently. We both hated the new trilogy, even if I enjoyed its first instalment. This show was great in itself, and also developed the lore in interesting ways. Now they just need to remove most of the new feature films from the canon 😉

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The Mandalorian

In anticipation of the new season of The Mandalorian, the only thing that stands between Star Wars franchise and a demeaning, protracted death by thousand Reys, here’s my watercolor version of the eponymous character :D.

You can enlarge the image by clicking on it.

Expect the review of the first season soon!

The Mandalorian © A. Gruszczyk

Moving Pictures Roundup 2019

We discussed books highlights of 2019, now it’s time for movies and TV-series. A few of the favourites and a few of the disappointments in both categories, to round up the past year in media :).

Ola’s choices

I haven’t had much time for movies and series. I’ve watched a nice mix of old and new, and enjoyed quite many of them – though only few made a lasting impression. The absolute winner in this category is…

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Nostalgia post #6: Ad Astra Per Aspera

Star Trek (1966-?)

Star Trek Space

The other science fiction franchise. Or the science fiction franchise, if we christen Star Wars science fantasy. Where George Lucas took Campbell’s ideas and put the eternal myths into a space adventure story, Gene Roddenberry envisioned a better future for spacefaring humankind. He created a vision of an utopia, in which more enterprising, unruly individuals join the Starfleet in order to find adventure, because in the post-scarcity Earth society there’s not much of that. In Starfleet, they travel across the universe, to meet exciting new people and… not shoot them, unless absolutely necessary.

Piotrek: I’ve always been more of a Babylon 5 guy, but I appreciate Star Trek more and more. As a kid, I’ve seen a random selection of mainly The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine episodes, and there was not enough large-scale conflict for my taste. I generally liked it, but John Sheridan was my space captain. So, my introduction into the world of Star Trek was pretty chaotic… but I always liked the idea of trekking through galaxies in a big spaceship, and in time I came to also appreciate stories about (relatively) peaceful exploration.

Enterprise

Ola: My own acquaintance with Star Trek was no less chaotic, I must admit. I watched nearly all episodes of The Next Generation as a pre-teen kid, and for years Picard was the only true captain of the Enterprise 😉 I waited with bated breath for each episode, and while some of them were rather convoluted for a six- to eight-year-old, it was still a great adventure. Fantasy worlds, various races with distinct cultures, drama on the ship, imminent danger… What I liked about Star Trek then and value even more now was the nearly non-violent approach, so rare in modern pop-culture. Differences were abundant, conflicting interests as well, but more often than not a peaceful resolution could have been – and heroically was – achieved. Exploration and understanding were the key values of the Star Trek universe, and inspired countless SF visions since. As for the liberal vision of future military, with its weirdly relaxed and convoluted structure, the red- and mustard-colored uniforms and the variety of ranks coupled with a nearly total lack of discipline, back then I didn’t even bat an eye 😉

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