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Moving pictures 2016, #3

Continuing the, er, continuing series of blog posts on my movie-watching. Once againm a nother varied selection, not all of which were from the list.

texas_chainsawThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre*, Tobe Hooper (1974, USA). Not a film I’d normally choose to watch, but it was on the list so… And no, I don’t know why it made the list. I don’t know enough about horror films to know if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was seminal or heralded a sea change in the genre or anything like that. I can only judge it as the movie I watched. And in that respect, it did not fare well. It looked cheap – not necessarily a bad thing, it has to be said, as cheap and amateurish is what drove the whole found-footage craze of the late nineties, and, in most cases, it actually worked quite well (more so, it must be said, for the earlier films, such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, than for Hollywood’s jumps on the bandwagon like Cloverfield). But, anyway. Young hippies travelling across the US run into a bunch of psychotic freaks living in a farmhouse, murderous mayhem ensues. Involving chainsaws. Not being a fan of the genre, I saw nothing to admire or like in this film. I suspect fans of the genre would be hard-pressed too – other than perhaps its position in the history of horror films. Still, at least I can say I’ve now seen it and so can cross it off the list.

lesgirlsLes Girls, George Cukor (1957, USA). Three dancers accompany Gene Kelly (well, his character) on a tour of Europe: a Brit, an American and a French woman. The Brit later marries a member of the aristocracy and writes a kiss-and-tell memoir of the tour. The other two sue her because some of the details are less than accurate. So what we get is the same story, more or less, told from the point of view of the characters played by Kay Kendall, Mitzi Gaynor and Taina Elg, none of which actually agree. This film is, by most accounts, minor Cukor, although it boasts a score by Cole Porter and choreography by Jack Cole. This is a shame. The slightly unusual structure actually adds interest to a relatively straightforward story. The leads are all on top form – especially Kendall – and the musical numbers are quite good, as are the costumes. I’m surprised this film is not better known – I certainly enjoyed it more than, say, Guys and Dolls, which appeared only two years earlier.

wooden_clogsThe Tree Of Wooden Clogs*, Ermanno Olmi (1978, Italy). If I had to choose a list of favourite film genres – although perhaps “movements” would be a better word – then Italian Neorealism would be somewhere in the top ten, and likely higher than France’s Nouvelle Vague. But this is a film that really strains my liking for that genre. It is, on paper, a movie that should appeal – the life of a peasant family in 1898 in the province of Bergamo, a communist tries to drum up support but is ignored, a young couple are married, and a family is booted from their tenancy by their landlord. Life was brutish and short, although not for those who lived off the labour of the peasantry – a situation the current political class seem determined to return to – and this film simply documents it in a way which cannot fail to garner the viewers’ sympathy. Despite all that, The Tree Of Wooden Clogs was a bit of a, er, slog. It wasn’t that it was slow-paced, as I quite like “slow cinema”, nor that it was unremittingly bleak – I seem to be more tuned to that than I am to mindless optimism, anyway – but that the film seemed to lack focus or movement. I’ll try some more Olmi, but this is supposed to be his masterpiece.

finziThe Garden of the Finzi-Continis*, Vittorio de Sica (1970, Italy). And speaking of Italian Neorealism, de Sica was a leading director in the movement but The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is not a movie that qualifies as one (and no, I don’t know why the Arrow DVD cover singularises the family and removes their hyphen). It’s based on a novel by Giorgio Bassani, about a wealthy Jewish family who become victims of the Nazis. It opens in the 1930s, with a group of bright young things, some Jewish, some not, who meet in the titular locale to play tennis and be idle rich (although not all are rich). The film follows Giorgio, a middle-class Jew, who is friends – but hopes to be closer – with the Finzi-Contini daughter. But she has an affair with a man she admits she despises, and then leaves to stay with relatives in Venice. When she eventually returns, most of the Jews of the town have been sent to the death camps by the Nazis. Only the fate of the Gentile characters is shown. While it would be unfair to say the upper classes routinely collaborated with the Nazis, many of them did just that, partly because they shared their views but also as a means of protecting themselves (as if they deserved it…). Not that it was always successful. As The Garden of the Finzi-Continis shows. I much preferred this film to The Tree Of Wooden Clogs, for all that it was an historical drama set during a period for whch the entire human race should be ashamed, and not Italian Neorealism.

new_girlfriendThe New Girlfriend, François Ozon (2014, France). I admire Ozon as a director, although I’ve not liked or admired every film he has made. Nonetheless, when a new one is released, I stick it on the rental list. Although, for some reason, I actually bought this one on DVD. I hadn’t realised it was an adaptation of a Ruth Rendell short story of the same title, which I read many years ago in a  collection, also of the same title. But once I’d spotted that, I also realised that Ozon’s script doesn’t follow Rendell’s story all that faithfully. The basic premise is the same – a woman enters into a relationship with a man who is a transvestite. But from what I remember, the original story ends badly, whereas the film gives us a relatively happy ending. In pretty much all other respects, this is a typical Ozon film – it’s colourful, although not quite saturated, the characters are handled sensitively, and there is a plenty of wit in the script. I can’t say it’s my favourite Ozon, but it’s definitely one of his better ones.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 709


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Reading diary, #22

Yes, I know it’s confusing that I’m continuing the numbering scheme from, er, when I started it. But never mind. It would be a bit weird to change it a handful of weeks into the year, so I seem to be stuck with it. Anyway, a mix of books this time round…

aventineAventine, Lee Killough (1981). I reviewed this collection of short stories for SF Mistressworks – see here. I like Killough’s fiction, it’s very readable and likeable, even – dare I say it – undemanding. This collection’s premise may well have been more original, for science fiction, in 1981 than it is now, but it’s stood the test of time reasonably well. It remains memorable, which is more than can be said of the works of many of Killough’s peers in genre. I shall continue to hunt down copies of her books.

soc_modRoman Bezjak: Socialist Modernism, Inka Schube (2011). Bezjak, a lecturer at a German university, often travelled around East Europe, and he took photographs of socialist architecture – or rather, architecture that seemed designed to foster socialist ideals. The result is a series of photographs from a number of cities of exactly the sort of architecture I find hugely appealing… because I too believe there’s a utopian dimension to architecture – and that’s despite living in a city in which one of the great such experiments failed and sits prominently on a hill above the city centre…

soviet_ghostsSoviet Ghosts, Rebecca Litchfield (2014). And this book makes makes real the dreams of the former book… We’re all too quick to judge one group of people for their failures and yet admire others for their aspirations. For all its manifold faults and endemic corruption, the Soviet Union had many admirable ideals – and a great many of those are embodied in the buildings, now ruined, which appear in Soviet Ghosts. Perhaps most emblematic is the Buzludzha Monument in Bulgaria, intended as a celebration of a secret assembly of socialists in 1890, opened in 1981, but since fallen into extensive disrepair. Other photographs feature abandoned sheds of locomotives, military bases, hospitals, even entire towns which have been left to rot. As the previous book no doubt demonstrates, I find socialist architecture interesting, and it’s just as interesting in decay as it is in rude life – perhaps even more so, because it embodies a dream that died rather than one corrupted by compromise, greed and corruption.

agodinruinsA God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (2015). I’d heard good things about this semi-demi-hemi-sequel to Life After Life, which was a book I’d enjoyed a great deal and thought good enough to nominate for the Hugo (as I was a Worldcon member, briefly, that year). In that earlier novel, Ursula Todd repeatedly died and was reborn, and so got to live out alternate versions of her life, of history itself since much of the story took place during World War 2. Teddy is Ursula’s younger brother. He enlists in the RAF, becomes the pilot of a Handley Page Halifax heavy bomber, flies three tours (ie, ninety missions), before being downed and captured. After the war, he marries his childhood sweetheart, Nancy, who worked as a decoder at Bletchley Park, the two become teachers, have a daughter Viola, who bounces around UK counter-culture, and has two children of her own, Sunny and Bertie. A God in Ruins is Teddy’s life, told in non-chronological order. He is an ordinary man in extraordinary times, who promises himself that if he survives the war he will strive to always be kind – and so he does. It’s a lovely piece of writing, deeply affecting, with an impressive control of the story’s emotional landscape. I suspect it will prove one of the best books I read this year. The big question, however, is: is A God in Ruins genre? For ninety-five percent of its length, most certainly not – it is a well-researched piece of historical fiction (Connie Willis should take notes). But the ending casts an entirely different light on what has gone before. It’s either genre or metafiction, although I tend to the former, given its link to Life After Life and the way the ending is  actually handled. But read it for yourself and make up your own mind. Because you really should read it.

after_funeralAfter the Funeral, Paul Scott (1979). The only edition of this short story available is a chapbook published shortly after Scott’s death, illustrated by his daughter and with a preface by his friend and collaborator Roland Gant. Copies are hard to find and expensive, but I found a reasonably-priced one on eBay. The story is typical Scott – a retelling of Cinderella which turns the entire tale on its head without losing sight of the original or sacrificing detail. The illustrations are lovely and appropriate. It is, in all, a very nice limited edition slipcased hardcover chapbook, and a fitting tribute to its author.

vertigoVertigo*, WG Sebald (1990). If you want to confuse someone, ask them to explain the plot of a Sebald novel.  Better yet, ask them if his novels actually are novels. Because I’m not entirely sure they are – and yet I’m pretty sure they’re fictional. Vertigo describes the arrival in Italy of Stendahl in the early 1800s as part of Napoleon’s army, and then covers his life somewhat swiftly. The next section recounts two visits by the narrator to Venice, and other towns in Italy, as in 1987 he retraces some of his travels of 1980. The third section describes an incident during Franz Kafka’s life, when he was supposed to give a talk in an Italian town in his professional capacity. In the final section, the narrator returns to his childhood village and notes the changes since he left decades before. It’s clear the narrator is Sebald himself, but not clear how much of what he recounts is invention. Certainly Venice, which he visits, is a real place, and the places he mentions in the city are real and the histories he gives them are real; but is the village of W., where the narrator spent his childhood, an actual place? Does it matter? I am, as should be clear from my own writing, interested in that liminal area between true fact and invented fiction – that is, essentially, what the glossary to Adrift on the Sea of Rains is. (And I admit it, Sebald’s Austerlitz was one of the inspirations behind my novella.) Reading Sebald is unlike reading any other author, and it’s for that reason – and the sheer quality of his prose – that I treasure his books. I plan to work my way through his entire oeuvre.

1001 Books You Must Read Before you Die count: 122


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Acquisitions

… and unlike a company which specialises in student accommodation which “aquired” some land locally a few years ago, I know there’s a “c” before”the “q”. Yes, I can hold spelling grudges for years. I can also keep books for years on my shelves… before either reading them or giving them away because I’m never going to read them and whatever possessed me to buy them in the first place has long since evaporated… But some of the following may well become members of the Ian Sales Permanent Book Collection – which does not necessarily result in an eventual state of “having been read”. I really need to get the TBR down to manageable levels. I think my current record is eleven years between buying a book and actually reading it – and, perversely, it turned out to be my favourite book of that year…

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Flesh & Wires, Elysium, Necessary Ill, The XY Conspiracy and A Day in Deep Freeze were all ordered from Aqueduct Press. The second and third I’d heard good things about, and that prompted the order – the rest were thrown in to make it worthwhile… and Shapter’s novella I immediately nominated for the BSFA Award. I wrote about Flesh & Wires here.

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Europe at Midnight was sent to me by the author, who is a good friend, and excellent it is too – see here. It was on my BSFA Award ballot. I hung on for the signed limited hardback of Slow Bullets, only to discover WSFA had given it the same ISBN as one of their previous books. You would not believe how many things that fucks up. Argh. I wrote about it here. And Mike Cobley is a friend of many decades, so I only buy his books out of a sense of duty – hence Ancestral Machines. (Only kidding, Mike’s space operas are smart twenty-first century examples of the subgenre, and worth reading.) Other Stories is a long-awaited collection from a favourite writer – and it’s another lovely job from PS Publishing.

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Borderliners is by one of those authors whose books I pick up when I see them in charity shops. I’ve been a big fan of Helen Simpson’s short stories for many years, so a new collection by her – which is what Cockfosters is – is worth celebrating. And I’ve always been meaning to complete my Radix Tetrad by picking up a copy of Attanasio’s Arc of the Dream, but completely failed to do so until now – but I’d sooner have one in better condition than this one.

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Spin Control, The End of Days, The Adjacent and The Last Pilot were all Christmas presents. My family obviously know my tastes in books – or have access to my Amazon wishlist… So far I have read only The Last Pilot – see here.

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Caliban and Lady Killer are a pair of graphic novels I bought in Faraos Cigarer in Copenhagen over Christmas, and wrote about here.

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Atoms Afloat I’ve been after for a while. I think the NS Savannah, the first commercial nuclear-powered ship, is a beautiful vessel. DH Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage came from my mother, who found it in a charity shop, I think. And I love me some photographs of Soviet/East European modernist architecture (second only to Niemeyer’s designs for Brasilia), so Roman Bezjak: Socialist Modernism was a must-purchase.

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Gypsy was recommended to me by a number of people, and the title novella is indeed very good – sadly it wasn’t longlisted for the BSFA Award, although I think it was eligible. Happily, Wylding Hall, also recommended to me by, er, the same people, was longlisted, is very good, and it took one of my nominations. The Buried Giant didn’t make it to the longlist, but A God in Ruins did… so I read it, thought it very good indeed , and promptly nominated it for the BSFA Award. Gypsy and Wylding Hall I wrote about here.


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Moving pictures 2016, #2

More films watched by Yours Truly, some of which might have been from a certain list, some of which might not.

amores_perrosAmores Perros*, Alejandro González Iñárritu (2000, Mexico). I hadn’t realised this was the movie which brought Gael García Bernal to fame (admittedly, I’d thought Bernal Spanish, not Mexican), but having now seen it I can understand why so much notice was taken of him. Like another South American film on the list, Meireilles & Lund’s City of God from Brazil, Amores Perros is a series of interconnected stories, in this case three, all springing from a car crash. Bernal plays a young man who discovers that his brother’s dog is an excellent fighter. So he enters it in dog fights, and it wins repeatedly (the film-makers make it clear no dogs were actually harmed during the making of the movie). But then he accepts a private fight with a local gangster, and when his dog wins, the gangster shoots it. Bernal stabs the gangster and flees, with his friend and his wounded dog… which is when the crash happens. The driver of the other car in the crash was a model, the lover of a wealthy magazine publisher. Her leg is severely broken. While recovering in the new flat she shares with her lover, her yappy dog disappears down a hole in the floor, and searching for it she injures her broken leg, which then has to be amputated. The third section centres on a homeless man who appears briefly in the previous two stories. He rescues Bernal’s dog, but it is killed after he agrees to murder a man… Like most such films, the plot is complicated and somewhat convoluted. It is also, however, well-played by its cast, and well-shot. A deserving entry on the list.

ryans_daughterRyan’s Daughter, David Lean (1970, UK). I’ve always been conflicted about Lean – I mean, I love Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, but for all his plaudits I’ve never really thought of Lean as a particularly good director. And Ryan’s Daughter appears to be an attempt at making another epic movie like the two previously mentioned, except, well,… Mind you, it has to be said the cinematography is frequently gorgeous. But Robert Mitchum makes an unconvincing Irish school teacher, although he does give it a good go. John Mills’s Oscar-winning village idiot feels like an invader from a much older, and less sophisticated, film, and the story’s leisurely pace means its moments of high drama often fade away to nothing. And there are several moments of high drama, perhaps the most notable of which is when the villagers help the Irish Republican Brotherhood recover arms and munitions during a fierce storm from the German ship which attempted to deliver them but foundered. It’s a movie that feels like it lacks focus because it has so many things going on in it, and in such a short narrative time-frame and constrained to such a small geographical location. And, to be honest, the whole introduction, intermission and entracte thing, with incidental music, just feels pretentious. Yes, I know Lean did it in the other two aforementioned films, but sticking up “INTERMISSION” in big letters on the screen does not make it an epic (I’m old enough – just – to remember when cinema showings did have intermissions), and I’ve yet to be convinced it serves any good purpose.

londonLondon, Patrick Keiller (1994, UK). Given my admiration of James Benning’s films, this was recommended to me as something similar I might like, and I ended up with a copy as a Christmas present and… Yes, good call. It has more of an overt narrative than Benning’s films – here provided by Paul Scofield’s narration – although the cinematography does indeed consist of static shots. Of, er, London. As the camera focuses on various parts of the city, the narrator recounts anecdotes and aphorisms by his friend Robinson, not always as they relate to the part of London on-screen. It’s fascinating, although there’s less work required to piece together the story as the voice-over pretty much does that for you. But the Scofield’s somewhat circuitous explanation of events is its own reward, and the anecdotes are entertaining, irrespective of their relevance to the view on the screen. I plan to watch more films by Keiller – and he’s made quite a few.

man_from_uncleThe Man from UNCLE, Guy Ritchie (2015, USA). Having just worked my way through eight of Solo’s and Kuryakin’s theatrical adventures, I thought it worth giving this twenty-first century reboot a go. True, the director’s name didn’t bode well, although I didn’t actually know it was a Ritchie film when I bunged it on the rental list. But, it arrived in its little envelope, I stuck it in the player and… the title sequence is actually really good. And the film’s commitment to period detail is impressive. The only problem was the two leads – Henry Cavill and Arnie Hammer – have zero on-screen charisma. Cavill has a chin you could chisel granite with, and you feel he ought to light up the screen when he appears, but… he just doesn’t. His urbanity felt like a thin veneer, and not bone-deep as it did with Robert Vaughan, and his suave something he put on only when the camera was on him. Kuryakin, on the other hand, has been re-imagined as some sort of Soviet super-strong thug, and Hammer plays him like a block of Soviet wood. I can’t actually remember the plot, and I’m pretty sure there was one somewhere.

ohenryO Henry’s Full House*, various (1952, USA). I stuck this on the rental list not realising it was an anthology film, with each segment directed by a different person. It starts off strangely, with a man in a jailhouse making notes on what the other prisoners are saying. This, we are then told by John Steinbeck, who is sitting behind a desk in a book-lined study, was O Henry, a journalist who used the people he encountered during his career as fodder for his stories… and each of the short films in O Henry’s Full House is in some way a result of this. Unsurprisingly, given the age of Henry’s stories, the sting in each one’s title comes as no real surprise. Charles Laughton plays a gentleman vagrant, who is chivalrous to Marilyn Monroe in an early role. Richard Widmark plays a hugely irritating villain who gets his just desserts in a nicely ironic fashion. A young woman is convinced her pneumonia will kill her when the last leaf falls from the ivy outside her window – but the leaf never falls. Two men kidnap an annoying kid for ransom, and it pretty much goes as you’d expect. And finally, a poor married couple each make a sacrifice in order to afford a decent Christmas present for the other – with ironic results. The directors involved were Henry Koster, Henry Hathaway, Jean Negulesco, Howard Hawks and Henry King. I’m guessing they couldn’t find five directors called Henry, although both Hawks were Negulesco are both excellent film-makers.

avengers_ultronAvengers: Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon (2015, USA). I’m not a big fan of the MCU films (and now even less of a fan of Marvel given its CEO’s financial support of Trump) and I really didn’t like The Avengers (despite being a Brit, and despite “the Avengers” referring to the far superior group led by John Steed, I think Avengers Assemble a stupid compromise title – we’re smart enough to figure out the difference between a bunch of US near-fascist goons in Spandex and the sarcastically urbane umbrella-wielding Steed; and I also note the Lycra’d loons have lost their definite article for this sequel). Anyway, Avengers: Age of Ultron: I didn’t like this either. Awful film. A stupid movie carried by the personalities of its cast – not the personalities of its characters, but of the actors who played them. With a stupidly confusing plot plastered over the top. One of the problems with Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation was that when you have a villain so powerful, how can you realistically have dramatic conflict? Marvel’s universe suffers from the same problem – something the comics themselves often side-step by randomly ramping up heroes’ superpowers from one story to the next – and Avengers: Age of Ultron falls into the same trap. The only way the Avengers can actually beat Ultron is by Plot Hole. But, to be honest, by that point of the film I was long past giving a shit about any of them, as they came across more like a team of parodies than a serious attempt at recasting comic-book stories for the cinema. Avoid.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 706


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My BSFA ballot

I’ve now posted my votes for the BSFA Award – the deadline is midnight 31 January. And only works on the longlists here can be nominated.

In previous years, members of the BSFA simply nominated works in each of the categories they felt deserving of an award – initially as many as they wanted, but then restricted to four choices – and the final shortlist comprised those works with the most nominations. This year, a first round of nominations (again, four per person per category) produced the longlists linked to above, and now the second round of nominations will lead to the shortlists. Which will then be voted on at the Eastercon at the end of March. It’ll be interesting to see what effect this new process has on the award. Certainly, anyone that didn’t get their act together in December last year, and so didn’t get their chosen works onto the longlists, has now missed their chance. I suspect a few works that might have proven popular with the BSFA membership have missed out as a result. I’m pretty sure, for example, that Carter Scholz’s ‘Gypsy’ – the novella, not the collection – was eligible, but no one nominated it for a longlist (I didn’t read it until after the longlists were published, or I might have done).

Anyway, there are longlists. And I have selected my four choices for each category which I think deserve to be on the shortlist. The novel category wasn’t too difficult, although I was determined to avoid easy picks. I suspect, for example, that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora might make the final cut, although I didn’t think it his best. The longlist certainly helped when it came to the art category – instead of trawling across the internet for suitable works, I had only to look at the longlist (and yes, I did nominate four pieces for it myself, so it’s not like I didn’t do some trawling across the internet). My non-fiction candidates are exactly those I nominated for the longlist. The short fiction category… Well, I worked my way through all those that were available to me, and even went so far as to buy a copy of Wylding Hall from PS Publishing – which was certainly worth it as it has made my ballot.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my nominations from the longlists for the BSFA Award shortlists (in alphabetical order):

novel
1 A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)
2 Europe at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
3 Glorious Angels, Justina Robson (Gollancz)
4 Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

I expect the Hutchinson to make the shortlist as there’s been a bit of buzz about it – and deservedly so. The Robson might make it on name recognition – she’s been shortlised four times before – and I think Glorious Angels is less polarising than her Quantum Gravity quintet might have been. The Tchaikvosky will, I think, lose out to KSR, which would be a shame. The Atkinson is a long shot – a few people have recommended it, but despite Life After Life I don’t think she has much traction among BSFA members.

short fiction
1 Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (PS Publishing)
2 ‘Islands off the Coast of Capitola, 1978’, David Herter (tor.com)
3 ‘Manifesto of the Committee to Abolish Space’,’ Sammy Kriss (The New Inquiry)
4 A Day in Deep Freeze, Lisa Shapter (Aqueduct Press)

The Hand was recommended and proved a good call – but it’s a PS novella, so not free to read. That might count against it. The Shapter is my own nomination for the longlist – but again, it’s from a small press and can’t be read for free online. A shame as it’s really very good (so is the Hand too, of course). Both the Herter and the Kriss are free to read online. I’ve been a fan of Herter’s fiction for many years, and only wish he were more prolific. The Kriss is… a beautifully judged piece of trolling, and award-worthy for that reason.

non-fiction
1 ‘What Price, Your Critical Agency?’, Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture)
2 Rave and Let Die, Adam Roberts (Steel Quill Press)
3 ‘{and then} a writing life beyond reviews’, Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife)
4 My Fair Ladies, Julie Wosk (Rutgers University Press)

Maureen Kincaid Speller and Jonathan McCalmont are some of the best fan-writers we have in the UK (even if both would dispute the label). (And I see no good reason to nominate a piece of US fan-writing for this UK-based award.) The two pieces above are important elements in a conversation which I think deserves to be read by more people in genre. Adam Roberts is one of our best genre critics, and I don’t want him to pack it in. The Wosk caught my fancy on a certain very large online retailer one day, and it’s a fascinating piece of work, if focused more on media sf rather than written sf.

art
1 cover of Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction, Luis Lasahido (Tachyon)
2 cover of Wolfhound Century (2015 edition), Jeffrey Alan Love (Gollancz)
3 cover of All That Outer Space Allows, Kay Sales (Whippleshield Books)
4 illustration for ‘Songbird’, Vincent Sammy (Interzone # 257)

Four lovely pieces of design, covering a variety of styles. If the cover of a certain self-published novel appears in my list of four, it’s because I think all four quartet covers are excellent but it’s only this last which is eligible – and all four covers are brilliantly done, relevant to each book, and yet each one a simple but highly effective design. But then I do like that sort of stuff a lot – as does my sister, of course – and was fascinated by a visit at Christmas to Finn Juhl’s House at the Ordrupgaard Museum.


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Reading diary, #21

The first batch of 2016’s reading, which, er, seems to be entirely works from last year. I don’t normally read a great deal of recent fiction, and especially books that are less than twelve months old – although, to be fair, I need to get my choices in for the BSFA Award before the end of the month… And some of them feature below. It’ll be interesting to see if the longlist approach has made much of a difference to the shortlist. (I note that ‘Gypsy’, the title novella of the PM Press collection, see below, was actually eligible but no one appears to have nominated it for the long list. Which is a shame.)

fleshandwiresFlesh & Wires, Jackie Hatton (2015). So I went on the Aqueduct Press website with the intention of buying both Elysium and Necessary Ill, both books I’d been planning to pick up for a while… and I saw mention of Flesh & Wires, as well as a pair of novellas, A Day in the Deep Freeze (which I’ve nominated for the BSFA Award) and The XY Conspiracy, bunged them into my basket and bought them… And the first of the three novels I read was Flesh & Wires. To be honest, the blurb made the novel sound more interesting than it proved to be. Which is not to say it wasn’t good. The set-up worked, the plot worked, the characters were well-drawn, there were just some elements of the background which read as confused and a little, well, clichéd. The Earth was invaded by aliens, who killed off most of the population, but kept some women, and turned them into sort of cyborgs by means of “wires”. But then the aliens died of an Earthly disease, and a new set of aliens, Orbiters, turned up, and sort of helped the surviving women – and handful of men – to rebuild. The novel is set in a small town just south of New York, and told chiefly from the point-of-view of a powerful “wired” woman who is the de facto leader of the town. When her brother, long thought dead, turns up and proves to be representing the Orbiters – and is not not at all honest about his intentions; and then a group of Orbiters exiled to Earth also appear, casting doubt on what the protagonist had believed of the current state of affairs… The end result is a solidly feminist sf novel that perhaps relies over much on somewhat dodgy tropes but manages to put a fresh spin on its plot. I’d also like to go on record as stating that Aqueduct Press publish some bloody good sf, and it’s always a pleasure to place orders with them.

my_fair_ladiesMy Fair Ladies, Julie Wosk (2015). Subtitled “Female robots, androids and other artifical eves”, which pretty much describes its topic to a tee. The author was inspired by the discovery of a mannequin’s head in a street fair, and from that starting point goes on to cover historical representations of artificial women in Greek mythology, by Shaw and other late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century writers, before moving into films, television, robots occupying the uncanny valley, and finally artists, such as Cindy Sherman (although no mention of Gillian Wearing or Lenae Day), who explore the concept of “perfect manmade” women through their art. While the book goes into detail on early literary artificial women, later literature – particularly science fiction – is mentioned only in relation to film or television adaptations. So, no Susan Calvin, Asimov’s robot psychologist who behaved like a robot herself; nor the women of EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Masters of Space, who are all too eager to be uploaded into replacement robot bodies because it means “their tits won’t sag”; nor even Helen O’Loy. The list of fictional female robots and cyborgs on Wikipedia gives remarkably few examples from sf stories or novels, so perhaps it’s a topic written sf hasn’t tackled that much… although it feels like it has done; too prudish, perhaps, or maybe it required more self-examination than male writers of two-fisted space adventures were capable of; and female writers had more than enough material writing about real women. Anyway, fascinating stuff. One for the non-fiction BSFA Award.

large_737_gypsyGypsy, Carter Scholz (2015). I’d never heard of Scholz, although apparently he is held in high regard. Looking at some of the comments on this book, it’s clear he has plenty of genre friends in San Francisco/Oakland, where he lives – including Kim Stanley Robinson – and where PM Press is based. None of which is a reflection on Scholz’s ability, more on the requirement of connections and patronage in genre in order for good fiction to get noticed. And ‘Gypsy’, the title novella of this collection, is very good indeed. It’s 2015’s third generation starship story, and probably the best of the three as a generation starship story. Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time scores well because of its spider civilisation, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora has some good bits about narratology… but Scholz’s ‘Gypsy’ goes for real science and engineering and paints a bleak picture – one not helped by the driving force behind the flight being the immanent collapse of Earth’s biosphere. Not that the flight itself provides any answers. The remainder of the collection comprises a somewhat tired epistolary short story, an essay about US economic shenanigans, a story presented as house committee testimony, and an interview with Scholz. I have a lot of time for Scholz’s approach to genre, as given in his interview, but only the title novella seems a good expression of it.

europeEurope at Midnight, Dave Hutchinson (2015). I thought Europe in Autumn a very good, if a little confused, novel – a superior near-future spy novel, it took an unexpected swerve around two-thirds in, which unsettled the plot but managed not to upset it. And now the sequel, Europe at Midnight, follows that swerve further around the curve and results in a very different novel of a type of science fiction that likely occupies a small place all its own in the genre’s corpus. In the nineteenth century, a wealthy family invented a new English county, which somehow came into being in a reality sideways from ours, and then subsequently expanded into Europe to form a Little England writ large: the Community. Which, it seems, has teeth. The novel opens in the Campus, a pocket universe 200 miles across which comprises one huge university, now having difficulty recovering after a bloody coup. The new Professor of Intelligence is suspicious of the Faculty of Science, but his investigations result in the termination of his position and a take-over by the Science people, who have suspiciously modern weapons. Fortunately, he escapes to our Europe… where he comes under the control of the UK intelligence services. Despite that disconcerting start, we’re now back in future spy novel territory… but even then, Europe at Midnight seems to slip across hidden borders into parallel fictions – much as some of its cast do – as it tells a story about Europe, the Campus and the Community which is only actually revealed in the final chapter. This is good stuff – a novel that cleverly runs our future alongside our memories of our past, and sets the scene for a war between the two. I’ll be nominating this for the BSFA Award.

wylding_hallWylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand (2015). This appeared on the BSFA Award short fiction longlist, and was recommended by several people whose opinions I trust – and, it had to be said, the précis did sound interesting… so I bought it, read it, and I’m giving it one of my four slots on my BSFA Award ballot. An acid folk group in the very early seventies hires the eponymous country manor to rehearse and record their second album (following the suicide of the group’s original singer; she was also the girlfriend of the band’s main creative force). Wylding Hall is a strange place, but this novella doesn’t go for in-your-face ghosts and apparitions but a much more effective general atmosphere of uncertainty. Windhollow Faire come across as a believable band, and the links to the darker side of English folklore are well-handled. The story is told as the decades-later reminiscences of the band members, a technique which is especially effective as it gives it the authority of a Sky Arts documentary. I have only a couple of minor niggles – back then, a grammar school would have been more posh than a comprehensive, and Radio 3 – not BBC 3 – was always more into classical and jazz, not folk; and John Peel was on Radio 1, which was the station mostly likely to play electric folk at that time.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 121


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Moving pictures 2016, #1

A few people have said they’ve enjoyed these posts, so that’s enough for me – I’m going to keep them going. Otherwise, I guess, it’d be weeks between content appearing on this blog. Having said that, I really should write another one of my rants about science fiction, they usually go down well… But, for now, it’s movies and more movies…

cria_cuervosCría Cuervos*, Carlos Saura (1975, Spain). There are films you feel you really ought to like, given their subject and how well they’ve been made. I suspect Cría Cuervos is one such film. An eight-year-old girl witnesses a mistress visit her father on the night of his death, but she believes she was herself responsible for his death because she added “poison” to his glass of milk earlier that evening. She takes the glass from her dead father’s bedside and carefully washes it. Her mother appears in the kitchen, and the two talk. The father was a senior military officer in Franco’s fascist government. After the funeral, their mother’s sister is brought in to look after the girl and her two sisters – because their mother had died years before (in a clever bit of casting, Geraldine Chapman – the director’s partner at the time – plays both the mother and the adult version of the protagonist, who appears occasionally to comment on the events of her childhood). The children’s aunt is not a very good substitute mother, and the young girl obsesses over the “poison” she had given her father – which later proves to be nothing more than bicarbonate of soda – so much so that she even offers it to her mute grandmother. There is something contained about this film, the fact that Franco’s regime exists but impinges only peripherally, and yet the whole film is itself a commentary on that regime. It is, on reflection, a clever film, one that deserves more than single watching. I’m not convinced its child protagonist is necessarily a strong enough character to centre the film – and more ought to have been made of her future self’s appearances – but the way her life allegorizes Spain as a whole is effective. A good film.

uncleThe Man from UNCLE Movies: To Trap a Spy, One of Our Spies is Missing, The Spy with My Face, One Spy Too Many, The Spy in the Green Hat, The Karate Killers, The Helicopter Spies, How to Steal the World (1966 – 1968). I have no idea what possessed me to buy this boxed set of eight movies, expanded for theatrical release from episodes of The Man from UNCLE (I refuse to put full stops in the word, we don’t do that in the UK – abbreviations, initialisms and acronyms aren’t written with them in British English). Anyway, the men from UNCLE, Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin. One of the many cable channels to which I have access had been showing these films and I caught a couple. They weren’t very good, but I thought it worth seeing the rest… Hence the DVD box set. And, well, as expected, they weren’t especially good. To Trap a Spy stars Luciana Paluzzi as the femme fatale, but she’s completely wasted. The Spy in the Green Hat has a frankly bonkers Jack Palance as the villain, ably assisted by Janet Leigh as an unhinged secretary/assassin (the best character, it has to be said, in the lot). It’s near impossible to pick a “best” film as they’re all so bad – and often cheap, too. Despite the familiar faces of the guest stars, the movies still boast television-episode budgets, and there’s an English-looking house somewhere in Hollywood or Bel Air used as a mansion in a variety of European countries. Having said all that, Vaughn is impressively suave as Solo, McCallum is, er, McCallum, and THRUSH is still a dumb name for an evil organisation. Complete tosh.

black_sundayBlack Sunday*, Mario Bava (1960, Italy). This was apparently the first film Bava directed and wrote – and it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… which is why I watched it. I’ve seen comments which praise its cinematography, but Bava was always a bit of a stylist – and it’s a failing of critics everywhere and at any time that genre should somehow be treated differently, as if the same rules of style do not apply because, well, horror. Absolute bollocks. Genre is an attribute of the story, not of how the story is told. Having said that, Bava’s style was certainly distinctive, and often OTT. In Black Sunday, a witch is executed in the seventeenth century, but two hundred years later, a pair of innocents discover her grave and inadvertently bring her back to life. There are no surprises here, but it’s all done with panache and a somewhat more artistic approach to such stories than may have been common previously. Fun, but I’m not sure why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

superflySuper Fly*, Gordon Parks Jr (1972, USA). Because blaxploitation films became a thing in the 1970s, the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die list feels an obvious need to acknowledge their existence by including a few on its list, without actually thinking it possible to build a list in which such movies are not necessary. Because if you make a list that’s 50% American, then it’s going to be racist by definition – hence the need for three films by Gordon Parks Jr. Include more films by, for example, Ousmane Sembène, Souleymane Cissé, Mahamat Saleh Haroun, Mehdi Charef, or any other film-maker from the African continent. In fact, the list has remarkably few Arab directors on it – none from Egypt’s enormous film industry, no Palestinian directors such as Elia Suleiman (a favourite of mine, I admit), although one or two Iranian directors and Israeli directors are listed. All of which has has no bearing on Super Fly, which is a relatively ordinary early seventies thriller, notable because its hero is a villain and the film more or less presents his career as the one of the few open to people of colour. Which is likely true in the US – then and now. Not a great film, and I suspect its implications would be lost on ninety percent of its audience – which does render its inclusion in the list somewhat moot.

kuchKuch Kuch Hota Hai, Karan Johar (1998, India). After watching Deewaar by mistake late last year, and having really enjoyed Dilwale Dulhalia Le Jayenge earlier in the year also, I went and stuck a bunch of Bollywood films on my DVD rental list. And Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was the first to arrive. My expectations were… pretty much based on Dilwale Dulhalia Le Jayenge, rather than Deewaar, and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai met them all – it even starred Shah Rukh Khan again (despite being released in the same year as Dilwale Dulhalia Le Jayenge). SRK, while at college, fell in love with the principal’s daughter, who had joined after studying in the UK, they married and had a baby. Sadly, the mother died in childbirth. Eight years later, daughter Anjali reads the final letter left by her mother and learns that she was named for SRK’s best friend at college. The original Anjali is about to get married, but young Anjali thinks her father would make a better husband. There’s also a long flashback sequence explaining how SRK, Tina (young Anjali’s mother) and original Anjali meet and become friends/lovers. Plus songs and dance routines. I loved it. That decision to add some Bollywood to my rental list? Totally vindicated. I will admit to a secret hope – many years ago, in a taxi in Abu Dhabi I heard a song from a Bollywood film playing on the radio, and it managed to cover about fifteen musical genres in less minutes. A friend later told me the film in which the song had appeared, but I have since forgotten the title and would love to stumble across it. But, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai was just a fun film from start to finish. I tweeted while watching it that “Bollywood was Hollywood dialled up to eleven”, and so it is. I have been bemoaning the preponderance of Hollywood films in my viewing last year, but Bollywood makes a perfect replacement. More such films have been added to DVD rental list.

public_enemyThe Public Enemy*, William A Wellman (1931, USA). One of the drivers of early Hollywood success appears to have been gangster movies, and I’m not entirely sure why. There are certainly other stories that are just as dramatic. I guess Prohibition fucked up the US more than it cares to admit. Not that the US would ever admit it’s been pretty much fucked-up since it was founded. Anyway, the end result is that many gangster movies of the 1930s all resemble each other – I kept on forgetting I was watching The Public Enemy, and confusing it with either Scarface or Angels with Dirty Faces. Although, sadly, it wasn’t a patch on Scarface. Cagney plays a gangster who makes good selling beer to bars – not that the bar owners have much choice, and much like the plot of Scarface – and argues often with his war hero brother. And, er, that’s about it. Cagney is a gangster, there is much gangsterly violence, Cagney dies a gangsterish death. The end. Watch Scarface, ignore all the other movies of like ilk.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list: 704

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