Review: Under the Dog

Under the Dog is a science fiction anime OVA about government conspiracies and experimentation gone wrong.  It channels a mixture of Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell, both in the art design and the world, including a shady pseudo-governmental organization that uses teenagers as its operatives for reasons that remain unclear.  Episode 0 was just released following a 2 year production period after the Kickstarter, with no future episodes planned.

The production values were good but not gorgeous like the first few episodes of Evangelion, or what you would expect from a movie.  Avoiding spoilers, the episode’s plot surprised me.  Under the Dog plays with the “chosen hero” and “government conspiracy” tropes in a way that feels fresh.  The ending leaves an opening for a series but stands well enough on its own, feeling a great deal like a classic science fiction short story- briefly exploring the consequences of a theoretical technology on people’s lives and society as a whole, with disturbing implications.

The acting had its moments, though the subtitles in some scenes give the usual feeling that there is a subtext that has been lost in translation.  Some character speak only in English, with the quality of acting varying wildly.  The fight choreography is good, better than what you would expect from a series, though not as good as Darker than Black or the trailer for Under the Dog.

Character development and world building are both excellent, showing rather than telling what is happening, and paint a rich yet fleeting picture of the world without an exposition dump. Under the Dog Episode 0 is well constructed with good animation and a fresh plot and if there were later episodes I would watch them based on the strength of the first.

Yet as a Kickstarter backer, it feels like a raw deal.  The single episode produced is good,  but for $25 and a two year wait I was hoping for more than 28 minutes.  This is probably a failure to manage expectations on my part, but to people uninvolved with the Kickstarter I would not recommend paying $25; wait for it to hit a streaming service or go to retail.  My disappointment is with the Kickstarter process, which was expensive, long, and created inflated expectations, rather than Under the Dog itself.

Under the Dog stands well on its own, telling a satisfying story in a skillful way that could be continued but doesn’t feel like it has to be either. The main complaint being there isn’t enough of it speaks well about the quality.  It works as a unit and I want to see more of it not because it ended on a cliffhanger, but because it is well done and interesting.

TL,DR; Under the Dog is good and worth keeping an eye on in the future if the series is picked up, especially if you like classic dark science fiction.  Don’t back Kickstarter projects.

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Review- Dune: House Atreides

Dune: House Atreides is the first of the Prelude to Dune Series, a trilogy of prequel novels set in the Dune Universe about the origins of the characters from House Atreides, Harkonnen and Corrino in the original novels, by co-written Frank Herbert’s son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.  The sequels will be discussed briefly as well, while avoiding spoilers.

It is a challenge to write prequels and make them fit, and House Atreides and the rest of its trilogy do not meet it.  The characters I knew from Dune seem like strangers, the entire tone of the trilogy is heavy handed and feels off from the subtleties and moral complexities of the original book, and it is implausible that the events of the trilogy would not be referenced in the later books.  I understand the difficulty in weaving the vague hints given in Dune about the past into an entertaining prequel, and none of these things would be a deal breaker if House Atreides were not in the Dune series, inviting unfavorable comparisons with the original novel.

While we are given more time with some interesting characters that we saw too little of in Dune, the characterization feels off, contributing to a sense that the tone of House Atreides and its sequels doesn’t fit with the rest of the series.  In some cases this is understandable- Duncan Idaho and Leto Atreides are children and have not yet become who they are in Dune.  Yet the Old Duke, who is described as a hard and stern man in Dune, is instead a genial man of the people.  The Harkonnens and Emperor Shaddam  are reduced to caricatures, committing atrocities for their own sake or out of sheer stupidity. Even where the differences in how the characters act are plausible, it robs House Atreides of the interesting character interactions that were so important to Dune.

Dune was a novel about showing rather than telling- the world is introduced in fleeting references and the actions of the characters, slowly and tantalizingly painting a picture of the world in which the novel is set.  Herbert and Anderson instead far too often choose to tell us about the world in House Atreides instead of letting it speak for itself- too much information from the narrator and not enough from character dialogue and actions.

The dialogue is much less tight- Dune features tense conversations where life hangs on the possible interpretation of every word, such as the hunt for the traitor in the Atreides compound and the internal intrigues on Geidi prime.  House Atreides never reaches the same level of attention, and some of the early conversations are especially bad, with characters vomiting exposition at each other instead of having a conversation.  In particular the scene between the Emperor and Pardot Kynes in one of the first chapters   made me cringe and I almost stopped reading the book.  The structure of the dialogue is butchered to introduce the world and Pardot Kynes’ mission to the reader; Kynes’ lines are obviously a pretext to get exposition on the page and Emperor Eldrood harps on how he hates the falseness of the court, a sentiment that is never mentioned or shown again.  The rest of the opening scenes are not much better.

Contributing to the off characterization is this is a novel in the Dune series without much Dune.  Frank Herbert embedded reasons in the setting for technology to be unusable with purpose- it puts the focus on the human elements of the story and gives an interesting contrast to the setting, with spaceships and battles with bladed weapons plausibly coexisting.  Moving away from the planet Dune undermines these strengths, and the machine planet of Ix in particular does not seem like something that should exist in the Dune Universe, where religion is based on a crusade against machines.

Things improve marginally in House Harkonnen and the trilogy finally finds it feet at the end of House Corrino, but it’s too late at that point.  The ending of the trilogy was good but if I had known what it would take to get there I would not have purchased House Atreides or its sequels.  It is not clear for whom this book is written- the Dune chapters have little interaction with the rest of the story and thus will not be meaningful for first time readers, but House Atreides and it sequels clash with both the tone and continuity of the previous books.  We discover that characters from Dune had children, long lost friends, and familial ties with each other that are never mentioned in Dune- it stretches plausibility and ultimately many of the gaps filled in by the prequels were more interesting as mysteries.  The original Dune portrayed a harsh world that raised uncomfortable questions- would you break down your dead for their water?  Are you willing to change yourself into something worse to win?  The prequel trilogy attempts to outdo Dune with planetary genocide, and torture; it feels like its trying too hard and doesn’t have the same impact.

If Dune had never been written House Atreides would have been the first entry in a decent pulp science fiction trilogy.  Indeed, this book is more enjoyable if you have never read Dune- the exposition dump won’t be as glaring since its new information, and the continuity errors will be invisible.  Everything taken together- the differences in tone, the small continuity errors, a pulpy writing style- create a book that is not bad but feels out of step with the original novel; I wasn’t able to enjoy it.  Maybe I’m being too hard on House Atreides, maybe it wasn’t meant to channel the same feelings as original, and I’m picking too hard at the continuity, but Dune is the dominant word on the cover, larger than the title, and House Atreides does not deliver on the promise implicit in that word.

TL,DR:  A passable pulp science fiction novel that doesn’t really fit with the series it is set in.  Your time is probably better spent on other books, unless you are a fan of Brian Herbert or Kevin Anderson’s works.