It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


10 things I learnt writing space opera

The following may read as pure cynicism, but it’s actually meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I thought it best to mention that before some redditor sees it and starts frothing at the mouth…

1. There is nothing to be learned from analysing other space operas
Why are some space operas successful, and some not? It’s no good looking for a magic ingredient or a magic formula – there isn’t one. This also applies to epic fantasy, another resolutely commercial form of genre fiction. I read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series to see what made its books bestsellers. I couldn’t figure it out. They were terrible and derivative, and often astonishingly dull. They also sold by the boatload. Go figure.

2. Yes, you can be too clever
Space opera is a commercial subgenre of science fiction and has proven wildly successful on television and in the cinema. It is broad-brush literature. Yes, you can get clever with it, but the sort of people who enjoy space opera are unlikely to appreciate it, and the sort of people who like clever fiction are unlikely to pick up a space opera in the first place. This doesn’t mean there aren’t successful exceptions, of course. But. M John Harrison’s Light had his name on the cover, so readers knew exactly what they were getting. And Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy judged the amount of cleverness to include pretty much perfectly.

3. In a trilogy or series, never put off the resolution of minor plot threads or mysteries until the next book
It’s one thing to draw out a plot over the length of a trilogy or series, but that’s the meta-story – no one expects that to be resolved in the first book. But if you’ve included a bunch of minor plot threads, or even a couple of mysteries, you need to resolve them before the end of the book in which they appear. Readers will either conclude the plot thread doesn’t work, the author has forgotten about it, or won’t remember it when you do resolve it in the book following. See above re too clever…

4. Readers will swallow anything… as long as it’s a trope
As Joe Abercrombie tweeted several weeks ago: “Always surprises me the things people find utterly unbelievable in a fantasy. Giant winged lizard? Fine. Female smith? BEYOND RIDICULOUS.” In space opera, that would be: Faster-Than-Light travel? No problem. A society that never developed gunpowder? I DON’T BELIEVE IT. Guess what – it’s all fucking made-up. Every bit of it. Dragons are not real, FTL is not real. So if the author wants to posit a star-faring society without guns, then why the hell not? Um, see above re too clever…

5. Familiarity does not breed contempt, it breeds the moneys
Commercial fiction of any genre trades on the familiar. It exists mostly to be comfort reading, and most people don’t like to have their likes and prejudices questioned. See Puppygate, see Lovecraftgate, see anybody who uses the term “political correctness” or “social justice warrior” unironically. Space opera is big spaceships, big battles, derring-do and as much colour as can be reasonably squeezed into 700 action-packed pages. Themes are big and bold and simple: good people win, bad people lose; evil empires are evil; one man (it’s always a man, of course) with a stout heart can topple the biggest of empires; if you can’t map Middle America values onto a fictional universe, then it is clearly wrong.

6. Unless your space opera is military sf, don’t package it to look anything like military science fiction
If you put a GIANT SPACE BATTLESHIP on the cover of your space opera, most readers will expect to find something inside which is all about the GIANT SPACE BATTLESHIP and nothing else. Manly man human space fleets battling nasty reptile aliens, for example. And when that’s not what’s in there… When people buy a meat pie, they expect to get a pastry shell filled with some sort of flavoured flesh. If it was filled entirely with, say, aubergine, they would be rightly disappointed. Of course, books are not meat pies, and it may well be that a military-sounding book title and a GIANT SPACE BATTLESHIP on the cover are actually relevant to the story, which is, despite all that, not at all military science fiction. But that, of course, is why we have blurbs – and why Kindle books let you read an excerpt.

7. Too much description is a bad thing
Descriptive prose gets in the way of action. Though how immersion is supposed to work without descriptive prose is beyond me– oh wait, clichés. Of course… And you could always stick it in dialogue. Readers like dialogue – it explains things. You know that writers’ maxim: show, don’t tell? It should really be: don’t show, tell it in dialogue. Fact.

8. It’s impossible to know what needs to be explained
Some readers will complain because a space opera’s particular flavour of FTL is not backed up by an info-dump. Others will be unwilling to suspend their disbelief regarding the book’s social set-up without some sort of history lesson to “explain” it. There is no way of knowing what level of exposition is appropriate, or what elements actually require exposition – it varies from reader to reader, from story to story. Personally, I tend to go for “less is more”, but readers seem to trust authors far less these days than they used to.

9. There needs to be a Poe’s Law type thing for pastiches
Science fiction, they say, is a genre in conversation with itself. It might be better to consider it as some sort of colony creature, which passes its genes – ie, tropes – from one generation to the next, slowly evolving, often mutating, as it goes. A GIANT SPACE JELLYFISH. Conversation, after all, it implies some sort of intellectual engagement, and if tropes are what genre uses to propagate itself, you wouldn’t expect them to be used so uncritically so often. So when tropes are indeed pastiched, it’s often impossible to tell if it’s being done ironically or uncritically.

10. You can overthrow the universe as long as you put it back how you found it
Nothing ever really changes in space opera – or in epic fantasy, for that matter. Different uniforms but the same old jackboots. You can only take progression so far. See earlier re female smith. Start putting too much progression in there and you put the entire genre at risk – you get Puppygate. Still it’s hardly surprising that a subgenre based on autocratic political models is regressive, it’s written into its DNA. And if you change that, well, you haven’t really got space opera, have you? So keep your universe tidy and put things back where you found them. You know it’s the “right” thing to do…


Of course, for every point made above, someone is going to name a particular space opera which disproves the point. Which, er, pretty much proves point 1. But when you look at a genre which exists in two distinct markets, one of which is driven by marketing spend (proper published books), and one by weird sales algorithms (self-published Kindle books), it tends to be the more traditional fare which succeeds best in the latter market. Besides, the points made above are not actually meant seriously…

Or are they?


Moving pictures, #35

Your usual selection of classics and obscurities. I’m going to have to find something new to post about when I’ve finished these– oh wait, I’m supposed to be a science fiction writer, I can always post about that, you know, science fiction and writing and, er, books…

camilleCamille*, George Cukor (1936, USA). This is the film in which Garbo apparently laughs– no, wait, that one was another one. This is the one in which she plays the consumptive mistress of a wealthy aristocrat, but falls in love with a younger, better-looking and poorer man, and so has to choose between love and security. Set in mid-nineteenth century France. She chooses the older man, but there’s that consumption, you see, so she dies. This is one of those films that proved entertaining enough, and despite its age made a good fist of its period, but it’s hard to see why it made the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Meh.

two_laneTwo-Lane Blacktop*, Monte Hellman (1971, USA). I had low expectations for this – an alleged cult classic, starring musician James Taylor and the drummer from the Beach Boys, about a pair of beatniks who race across the US in their souped-up ’57 Chevy. But you know what? It was actually pretty damn good. The main characters’ taciturnity worked well, as did rival Warren Oates’ constant line in bullshit. Despite containing mostly footage of cars driving along empty roads, with the occasional moment of drama and/or action… and despite the characters being little more than ciphers, with no appreciable arcs… and despite being very much a film of its time (with a pretty good, and thankfully not intrusive, soundtrack)… I really enjoyed this. I’d even consider buying my own copy. Definitely a film that belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

angels_dirtyAngels with Dirty Faces*, Michael Curtiz (1938, USA). The title of this film may well be iconic but the movie itself was a big disappointment. Cagney plays a gangster (yawn), who returns to the old neighbourhood after a stretch and meets up with his old childhood friend, who is now the parish priest. There’s a gang of youths the priest is trying to keep on the straight and narrow, but Cagney gets them involved in all sorts of illegal shenanigans. There’s something to do with corrupt city officials, and a couple of shootouts, and then Cagney is on Death Row and his friend asks him to set an example to the youths and kick and scream on his way to the electric chair (so that the youths will no longer idolise him). So Cagney does just that. There are a lot of noir films on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, far more, I think, than the genre merits. And there are way more Hollywood movies on the list than are warranted. It could stand to lose a few of both… and Angels with Dirty Faces would be a good candidate.

ruhrRuhr / Natural History, James Benning (2009/2014, Germany/Austria). These are the last two Benning films available on DVD (at least until the Österreicheschen Filmmuseum release some more), and one of them was a special commissions by the Natural History Museum of Vienna. Ruhr is a series of six static shots of industrial landscape in the Ruhr district:a road tunnel, a steelworks, an airport, a mosque, a street, and the chimney from a coking plant. In fact, that last shot, the chimney, accounts for 60 minutes of the film’s 122 minutes running time. Apparently, Ruhr caused something of a stir – it was one of Benning’s first films using a digital camera, and he was accused of “digital manipulation”. All that actually happens is he gradually darkens the image of the chimney as the film progresses, so that by the end of the hour-long shot, it’s almost entirely black. That’s all. Natural History, on the other hand, is a series of static shots of rooms and corridors in Vienna’s Natural History Museum, mostly behind-the-scenes places. While the chimney shot in Ruhr is weirdly compelling (nothing actually happens, just steam billowing out of it at intervals), and although Natural History does feature the occasional person wandering past (and voices on the ambient sound soundtrack), the latter film is more a chore to watch. Benning has made some twenty-five feature-length films, but only eleven of them are currently available on DVD. I hope more appear soon.

little_bigLittle Big Man*, Arthur Penn (1970, USA). This film is chiefly notable for Dustin Hoffman playing a centenarian under layers of prosthetic make-up (not especially convincing make-up either, by current standards) and apparently screaming for an hour before each take in order to speak with a hoarse voice like a really old person. Hoffman’s titular character starts out as a young boy adopted by the Cheyenne after the members of his wagon train are killed by Pawnee. Then when the Cheyenne are attacked by the US Cavalry, he reveals he’s really white and is taken in by the soldiers. He then bounces around among the settlers, along the way selling snake-oil, getting married, running a trading post… before signing on with Custer (who is portrayed as a moronic oaf) as a scout… only to end up living once again with the Cheyenne. Where he gets married again… only for Custer to attack the village and kill almost everyone. It all ends with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which Hoffman’s character witnesses. The novel on which the film is based was by Thomas Berger (whose Regiment of Women, by the way, is fucking dreadful), and if it’s anything like the movie I’ve no desire to read it. I have no idea why this film is considered suitable for the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list – when it wasn’t patronising, it was annoying; and when it was trying to be funny, it, well, it just wasn’t. Avoid.

orphicThe Blood of a Poet, Jean Cocteau (1932, France). It took me a while, but I tracked down a copy of the Crtierion DVD release of Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy, containing The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus (Orphée) and Testament of Orpheus. As is usually the case with these sorts of purchases, two weeks after I bought my copy, I saw another copy going for a fifth of the price I paid. Bah. Anyway, I really like Orpheus, and I wanted to see Testament of Orpheus, but I knew nothing about The Blood of a Poet and was not especially bothered about it. Nonetheless, I watched it and, oh dear, it’s another one of those 1930s French surrealist films. And I’m really not a fan of them. Mostly, it seems to be an excuse to display a bunch of cinema tricks, which ,to be fair, are actually pretty effective (one or two, I seem to recall, also make an appearance in Orpheus). Nevertheless, it’s worth tracking down a copy of the Criterion Orphic Trilogy set, although given it’s a) a US-only release, and b) deleted, it won’t be that easy to find (copies on Amazon marketplace start around £60). Don’t be fooled by the Studiocanal Jean Cocteau Collection, which contains only The Blood of a Poet and Testament of Orpheus, and not the best of the three, Orpheus.

shepitkoWings, Larisa Shepitko (1966, USSR). In order to see Shepitko’s Ascent, which appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I had to buy a two-film Criterion box set, which was the only DVD I could find of Ascent. The second film in the set was Wings. And having now seen both, I think Wings belongs on the list more than Ascent does. Nedezhda Petrukhina is a highly-decorated World War II (Great Patriotic War) fighter pilot, who now, twenty years later, is the principal of a school. While still something of a minor local celebrity for her wartime exploits, she is also seen as little more than her role at the school. She has to deal with unruly male students, apparatchiks, all the bureaucracy of her position, while dreaming of the freedom and excitement of her time during the war. There are perhaps elements of Wings which aren’t exactly subtle – contrasting a (mostly) domestic character study with aerial shots of Petrukhina flying through clouds, for example – but I think I much prefer the ordinariness, and its violence-free nature, of this film to Ascent.

I must admit, I thought I knew my taste in films before I started watching the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I like science fiction films, I even liked bad science fiction films. And I sort of liked superhero films. And I liked some world cinema. While the list I’ve been using is not especially diverse – more than half of the films on it are from the USA – it has introduced me to a much wider variety of movies, and I’ve found I much prefer films on the edge rather than typical mainstream cinema. In fact, I’ve purged my DVD collection several times since starting the list, dumping a lot of the recent Hollywood titles (I still like the old classics from the 1950s and 1960s) at local charity shops, but then also hunting around online for copies of DVDs by some of the more obscure directors I’ve been introduced to.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 674


Reasons to be cheerful… in space opera

Consolatory fantasy typically ends with the existing power structure back in charge, and they’re usually the good guys – no matter how unfair the society – so as a result I suppose that could be seen as optimistic. Of course, the bad guys are always much worse. Most space operas follow a similar set-up. If it’s not the barbarians at the gates, it’s the rot from within. Either way, the empire or republic is in for a kicking and the good guys have to put up the good fight to save it. If the empire does go down in flames, a new more powerful one will rise phoenix-like from its ashes. So far, so consolatory.

I will happily admit I deliberately set out to pastiche the consolatory fantasy template when I wrote A Prospect of War. Here’s the emperor – he’s under threat. So here’s a posse of good guys all set to fight the dark lord and defend the throne. And so the plot of the novel pretty much kicks off the conspiracy and sees the peasant hero gather his forces for the final battle.

However, part of the fun of writing the sequel, A Conflict of Orders, was then carefully upsetting that structure. The final battle takes place halfway through the book, rather than at the end of the trilogy. The villain is defeated (that can hardly be a spoiler) and the throne is once again safe… And then the tone of the story changes…

There is a plot hiding beneath the story of the An Age of Discord trilogy. Hints and clues to it appear in both A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders, and it was always my intention to bring that plot into the light and resolve it in the third and final book, A Want of Reason. But in the years since I finished writing A Conflict of Orders and now – when I have to write A Want of Reason from scratch to complete the trilogy – I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things. Not least what happens in A Want of Reason. Part of this is practical – I put together lots of notes for the third book back when I was writing the first two, but those notes now sit on a dead computer and are inaccessible. But it’s also true that my definition of what constitutes an optimistic ending, never mind an interesting story, has changed in the years since I completed A Conflict of Orders. Which is not to say that A Want of Reason will be a domestic novel – I’m not going to do a Tehanu (much as I would love to)…


But as A Want of Reason begins to take shape and settle into its story, I’m finding it a much darker novel than I had expected. The focus of the story too has altered, and now rests on a different selection of characters. Casimir Ormuz, the peasant hero, is still there, of course. But his journey to the resolution – never mind the resolution itself – is very different to the one I had originally envisaged.

I wrote each novella (and novel) of the Apollo Quartet to confound reader expectations. I see now that I’d been working to a similar principle – albeit considerably weaker – when I’d written A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders. But for A Want of Reason… I’m going all-out. The good guys will become bad guys, and the bad good, and the ending will neither reinforce the status quo nor raze the empire to the ground.

There’s not much room for innovation in space opera, given that everyone judges the subgenre by its bells and whistles. It’s either the world-building or – and this is a development of the past few years – its gingerbread prose which seeks to disguise common tropes beneath obfuscatory metaphors. The story templates haven’t changed, the tropes certainly haven’t changed. (There’s probably a Tough Guide to Space Opera, er, Space post somewhere in all this.) And those few space operas which have rung changes have generally caused very few waves. Has there, for example, been anything comparable to Nova published in the twenty-first century? (Having said that, are there any space opera authors as fiercely intelligent as Samuel R Delany currently being published?) There’s Ann Leckie’s trilogy of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, of course, which used an astonishing piece of sleight of hand in using female as a default personal gender to add a fresh new flavour to something Iain M Banks had been doing for three decades. And while Banks was certainly more innovative than pretty much every other writer of space opera – a consequence, I suspect, of having one foot in the literary fiction camp – even then he had a tendency to use tropes as they were set up rather than subvert or re-engineer them.

Sadly, Banks is gone and I suspect Leckie’s trilogy will prove a one-off blip. Space opera was already busy retrenching after the exciting times of the British New Space Opera of the eighties and nineties – not just Banks, but Take Back Plenty, Eternal Light, Light… But that movement introduced more of a hard sf sensibility to space opera (and some of the names attached to it, including McAuley and Reynolds, are probably better considered hard sf writers), without substantially changing its story patterns or its commonest tropes.

I’ve said before that space opera – if not science fiction itself – is an inherently right-wing genre (even if not all of its practitioners are right-wing). But more than that, I think space opera is inevitably drawn to the right. If someone writes a space opera which isn’t right-wing, it soon veers back to that side of the political spectrum. In part, it’s a function of the political systems which usually appear in space opera: emperors and empresses and empires and bloody great huge space navies. (I don’t, incidentally, hold with the argument that it’s the supposed tyranny of the laws of physics which lends science fiction, especially hard sf, its right-wing character.) However, I do think that science fiction has now, more than ever, reached a position where much of what qualifies as sf is little more than the rote deployment of sf tropes. There’s no insight, no consideration, attached. Put FTL into a story and no one so much as blinks. It’s just part of the furniture. Flat-pack science fiction.

And if you’re going to claim FTL is okay, it’s plausible, because there might be a Kuhnian paradigm shift which means it could happen… Which is, er, not my point at all. The tropes exist, they’re the building blocks of both space opera and science fiction. But I don’t think they should be used uncritically. I’d like to think I haven’t used them myself uncritically. Admittedly, a commercial space opera is likely not the best vehicle to deconstruct space opera tropes (but then I’d have said an commercial fantasy trilogy might not be the best place to deconstruct epic fantasy tropes, but Delany went and wrote his Nevèrÿon novels; but then, Delany…).

My area of interest in writing lies chiefly in the shape of stories, the narrative structures used to present a story in a particular way. I’m not interested in immersion – or rather, no more so than I need for a story’s world to be rigorous in my own mind. I’m not interested in literary techniques designed to make one reader response more likely than others… I jokingly mentioned in a recent conversation that I’d set a story on an exoplanet orbiting Gliese 876 but moved the setting to 61 Virginis because I didn’t think it plausible the story could have taken place given the original star’s distance, and likely travel times, from Earth. This is a science fiction story, of course, which posits a human civilisation across several star systems. No one would have noticed, but it was important to me.

If a science fiction story creates its own world , its version of Mars, Dubai, the Atlantic Ocean, etc, that doesn’t to me mean it does not demand the same level of rigour which pertains in the real world, in mimetic fiction. And at those points where the science fiction touches the real world… then the rigour applies just as much. This was a defining philosophy of the Apollo Quartet. The An Age of Discord space opera trilogy, however, does not touch the real world – at least not to any degree which might affect its setting. But its universe still needs to be internally rigorous. This may be why I find narrative structures and story templates preferable to be experimented upon – because they do not jeopardise rigour. (Yes, yes, you can make a point of ignoring rigour – surrealism, if you will – but that’s a different discussion.)

And so, in a more roundabout way than I am typical guilty of, it’s back to A Want of Reason and my total inability to wrap up what is supposed to be a commercial space opera trilogy in a nicely commercial way. The final chapter of A Conflict of Orders gives a flavour of the third and final book, and it wasn’t until I came back to that chapter a few months ago that I realised exactly what I’d set myself up for. Empress Flavia is on the Imperial Throne – and she’s kicked off a crack-down. When I first wrote it, it probably meant something in terms of my original plan for A Want of Reason. Now, it means: space opera fascism! And that’s what you’ll be getting: a space opera setting that moves ponderously to the right, in order to set up a climax that shifts everything irrevocably to the left. And, meanwhile, your favourite characters? I’ve either dialled them back so far in the narrative they no longer have any agency, or I’ve got them doing stuff villains normally do.

Because. Space opera.


Moving pictures, #34

Bit of a surprise this time round, a film I actually watched in a cinema. But before you get too excited – no, it’s not The Martian, it’s the latest 007, SPECTRE. And it was, well, it was…

spectreSPECTRE, Sam Mendes (2015, UK). The previous 007 film to this, Skyfall, was a massive international hit. I was less than enamoured of it – I laughed when I saw its open-air server farm, and I was flabbergasted, and deeply disappointed, when Skyfall itself turn out to be just a bloody house in Scotland. So my expectations – despite promotional advance notices – of SPECTRE were not high. And yet it still failed to meet them. The UK security services are being amalgamated under a super-technological super-surveillance organisation headed Andrew Scott (who seems to play the same character in every role), and whose technology was provided by a private contractor (plus much of its funding too). This is actually quite a pointed indictment of Tory politics and economics, but it’s unfortunately lost in the rest of the film’s crap plot. Which revolves around Oberhausen – later renaming himself Blofeld, er, for reasons – played by an unctuous Christoper Waltz, who is as threatening a villain as a week-old blancmange. Meanwhile, manly man Bond is totes old school and no one wants old school no more, so he’s persona non grata. Except totes old school is the only way to beat smiley villain Waltz and super-surveillance-state Scott. And the rest is all useless fat on a story already over-marbled with adipose tissue. The car chase through Rome in hypercars is superbly silly as there are no roads that allow the cars to reach the speeds they’re capable of. The family link between Oberhausen and Bond adds nothing. The female characters are paper-thin. Fiennes adds some much needed gravitas as M but is inconsistently written; and Wishart’s Q has yet to find a peg on which to hang his character. This is an underwhelming film. It has the big action sequences, it has the secret lair in the middle of nowhere, it even has the obligatory torture scene. But we’ve had more than half a century of Fleming’s hugely over-rated books, and it’s going to need more than state-of-the-art film-making to inject some much-needed life into the film franchise.

un_chien_andalouUn chien Andalou*/ L’Age d’or*, Luis Buñuel (1928/1930, France). I admit it, I looked away during the razor/eyeball scene. I’m squeamish, I won’t apologise for it. As for the rest of Un chien Andalou… er, um… Good question. It’s a surreal movie, and reputedly an early model for muscial promo videos, but to be honest I can’t remember what was part of Un chien Andalou, L’Age d’or or even Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet. They all seem to have merged in memory into one movie of bizarre cinematic non sequiturs. There was a man dressed as a nun, and a woman standing in the middle of street and then hit by a car, and, er… Nope, it’s gone. L’Age d’or at least boasted something approaching a plot, even if it was only a series of scenes of a pair of thwarted lovers. The opening sequence, however, seemed to bear no relationship to the rest of the film. And though it looked like a silent film (if that makes sense…), every now and again someone would speak. Meh. I’ve watched seven of Buñuel’s films so far, and I think I much prefer his later ones – although I did like The Exterminating Angel – and probably the one I’ve thought best so far is The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie. Oh well.

salt_earthSalt of the Earth*, Herbert J Biberman (1954, USA). I knew nothing about this film, other than it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and neither of the two rental services I used had copies. And then it appeared on Amazon Prime as a free-to-watch movie. So I watched it. Not the best quality, it has to be said – a cut above a rental VHS cassette, but about the same as a piss-poor DVD transfer. But. Amazing film. One that deserves to be restored and released on Blu-ray, that needs to be on every list of great films. Not because it is beautifully shot, or even amazingly acted, or fantastically scripted. It is, in most respects, a pretty ordinary drama of the early 1950s. But it is the reasons why it is not ordinary that make it stand out. Its story of a strike at a New Mexico zinc mine is based on real events. The US mining industry is notorious for its callous disregard of employees and environment. In Salt of the Earth, latino miners go on strike to demand equal pay to whites. But in order to get around an injunction against picketing their place of employment, it is their wives who actually picket. Leaving the men at home to look after kids and household. And the women are determined to win – so much so they continue despite being arrested repeatedly. And this is all based on true events. In fact, the bulk of the cast were not professional actors, but people actually involved in the strike which inspired the film. Go watch it.

out_of_africaOut Of Africa*, Sydney Pollack (1985, USA). I have yet to work out if I actually liked this film or not. As I watched it I sort of flipped from one state to the other. I liked the character played by Meryl Streep – Karen Blixen – but hated Streep’s weird accent. Robert Redford was a real charmer – but seemed too urbane for his part. The cinematograpy was mostly gorgeous – but still managed to hit every Africa cliché available. And yet… by the end I sort of found myself liking it. I think it’s possibly because it’s a dramatisation of Karen Blixen’s actual life, as documented in her book of the same title as the film, and that knowledge gave the film a much needed boost of credibility. The fact it’s a true story – it says so on the DVD cover – added an edge, more interest. I’m tempted to mention the cinematography, but it would be a piss-poor director who failed to find lovely visuals in Africa – and Pollack may not be an auteur, but he knows his craft and he’s been producing money-making films for decades. Not a great film, a borderline case perhaps, but I think I’m generally well-disposed toward it.

closely_observed_trainClosely Observed Trains*, Jirí Menzel (1966, Czech Republic). This is a title I’ve certainly seen mentioned a number of times in relation to classic films or recommended arthouse films or best world cinema. Despite all that, I knew little about it. It has, I now know, a typical Czech black humour, and its ingenu protagonist is a character Czech cinema has taken advantage of more than his fair share of times. In this case, the ingenu is a trainee station guard at a small country station in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during WWII. The remaining cast are… not grotesques, but certainly comic figures. And that’s about it. There’s a final sequence in which the ingenu places a bomb on a passing Nazi troop train, but the film is more a series of short character arcs than an actual story with a beginning, middle and end. Not a bad film, and probably deserving of its place on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but not a great film.

tomorrowlandTomorrowland, Brad Bird (2015, USA). You know when you hear about a film and its premise sounds interesting and then you learn it was written by Damen Lindelof and you think oh fuck… Well, that’s Tomorrowland. On the plus-side, Disney have done an excellent job on the Blu-ray release. And the film does look quite lovely at times. On the other hand, it’s a complete hot mess that makes no sense and is about as rigourous as a bowl of strawberry jelly. Child Clooney visits the World Fair in 1964 and travels forward in time to a place called Tomorrowland. The film abruptly shifts to the present – except they’re taking apart Space Shuttle launch platforms and the last Space Shuttle mission was in 2011, so maybe not the present per se. Clooney is now a reclusive inventor after being thrown out of Tomorrowland – but Casey Newton, who has seen visions of Tomorrowland thanks to a special badge given to her – is determined to find her way there. And no, none of this actually makes any sense. The place Tomorrowland seems to be based more on magical technology rather than 1950s visions of the future (which was clearly the intent). And even in the so-called present-day, there’s the usual science fiction bobbins masquerading as plot – such as the robots with the shit-eating grins – but things really jump the shark when a wax exhibit on the Eiffel Tower proves to be the key to launching a secret steampunk rocket hidden under the edifice, which goes up into space, and, er, back down again but lands somewhere in Tomorrowland – because that’s how re-entry works obvs. And it’s all because the magic tech which keeps Tomorrowland together is slowly destroying our reality. Or something. The more you think about Tomorrowland, the less sense it makes. Which is pretty much Lindelof’s USP, I suppose. It doesn’t so much fail to suspend your disbelief as take your disbelief and throw it out of a fifty-storey window. I will no doubt watch this movie several times, and be even more confused by it – and not in a good way – with each subsequent viewing. A major disappointment.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 670

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Moving pictures, #33

It seems to be mostly US films in this post, but that’s just the way the rental DVDs came. And all but one film are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list too.

thin_blue_lineThe Thin Blue Line*, Errol Morris (1988, USA). There are a number of documentaries on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and while I can understand why they were chosen I’m not entirely convinced they still hold up today. The Thin Blue Line is a case in point. It’s a study of a cop killing in the US in 1976, for which an innocent man was sentenced to death (although his death sentence was actually commuted to life imprisonment). If every miscarriage of justice in the US prompted a documentary, we wouldn’t be able to move for the damn things. There’s not much in this one that makes it especially interesting – the man found was found guilty thanks to perjured testimony and a determination by the district attorney to make a case, despite all the evidence suggesting another perpetrator. That the actual killer came from a community with a strong KKK presence may have had something to do with it, but The Thin Blue Line shies away from outright accusations. Apparently, this documentary was one of the first to make use of re-enactments of the crime although, interestingly, the re-enactments shown are as per the various witnesses and not the actual suggested series of events. It was mildly interesting.

being_thereBeing There*, Hal Ashby (1979, USA). Although I’ve been aware of this film for several decades, I’d never actually seen it. Back in the late 1970s, Peter Sellers was a huge star, so anything he did was news. And Being There, a film in which he plays a mentally disabled man who is forced out into the world when his guardian dies, was a film I remember getting quite a bit of press. And time has apparently been generous to it, seeing that it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Which is, of course, why I stuck it on my rental list, and watched it when it arrived. And… It’s a movie with a single mildly amusing joke – that the complete lack of understanding of Sellers’s character is taken for great wisdom – which it relentlessly flogs to death. It is perhaps overly charitable to describe Being There as a one-joke movie, because it tries desperately hard to find the humour in its premise… and the obvious location is: among the rich and powerful. Humbling those in power – in a non-threatening way that doesn’t actually, er, threaten their power – is a Hollywood speciality, and Being There pokes fun at the US rich and the US presidency with all the subtlety and effectiveness of a sword made of cooked spaghetti. I have no idea why this film was considered worthy of the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

asphalt_jungleThe Asphalt Jungle*, John Huston (1950, USA). Although the DVD cover to the left doesn’t feature her, this film is often noted for being one of Marilyn Monroe’s earliest roles. Which is at least notable, as there’s little in this film to actually suggest it might be a superior example of a noir movie. While I recognise it’s hard for old films to demonstrate their reason for inclusion on a list of film classics since techniques they may have originated have become industry standards… And to take a slight swerve sideways, it’s a bit like why John Carter failed so badly – because the tropes it made use of had been used so frequently by science fiction and science fiction cinemas in the century since A Princess of Mars was published, that the movie felt like it was re-using old material when it was actually the origin of that material. And perhaps that’s also true of The Asphalt Jungle – not, of course, that that should be the chief reason for inclusion on such a list – but I suspect Monroe has more to do with its reputation than any inherent quality in the film. A criminal mastermind fresh out of prison arranges a jewellery store heist, but their middleman has secretly decided he’s going to fence the goods himself. Actually, he’s decided he’s going to do a runner with them. Unfortunately, the police are sniffing around the gang for a number of different reasons and then… well, honour among thieves and all that. Noir fans will probably get more out of this film than I did.

last_metroThe Last Metro*, François Truffaut (1980, France). I think Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 is a wonderful film, but I’ve not really taken to anything else he has directed. Which now includes this one. Set during the occupation of France by the Nazis, Catherine Deneuve plays the owner of a small theatre which continues to operate – apparently, people would go to the theatre to keep warm as fuel was severely rationed. Her husband, a Jew, has allegedly fled France, but is actually holed up in the theatre’s basement. Meanwhile, Gerard Depardieu has joined the cast as the new male lead… and it all went on a bit and no doubt made a bunch of important points – especially in regard to the collaborationist theatre critic – but it was also dull. The cast were uniformly excellent, and the  mise en scène mostly convincing, but there didn’t seem to be anything there to hold the viewer’s attention. I don’t doubt that Truffaut is an important director, and he certainly belongs on a list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, but I’ve not seen enough of his oeuvre to determine if The Last Metro is the best choice… And yet, the reasons I love his Fahrenheit 451 are purely personal and I don’t know if that makes it worthier of inclusion on such a list.

shaftShaft*, Gordon Parks (1971, USA). Most people would recognise the theme tune to this film within a few bars, but how many could tell you the plot of the movie? The title character is a private detective who gets involved in a Mafia attempt to move into Harlem and displace black gangsters. It is, pretty much, a bog standard PI film of the 1970s. But it also makes a point of its title character’s race, and asks some important questions along the way. Richard Roundtree is actually surprisingly bad in the title role, although none of the cast actually shine. But the 1970s ambience works well, the pacing is just about right, and the gangster plot resolves itself in a satisfying way. There were many Blaxploitation films released during the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s hard to believe Shaft was among the best of them. As a thriller, it’s an inferior example of the genre, but, bad acting aside, what makes it stand out is its commentary on black culture and society. Roundtree gets to say things that needed saying. And yet, forty-five years later, “black lives matter” is still a thing, and videos of US police beating up, or even killing, black people are uploaded almost daily to Facebook…

she_done_him_wrongShe Done Him Wrong*, Sherman Lowell (1933, USA). I think this is the first Mae West film I’ve ever seen, but she was just like I’d imagined she would be. On the other hand, I hadn’t realised Cary Grant was in it – not until he appeared on the screen, that is. West plays a singer in a Bowery saloon, who has many jewels and a lifestlye that doesn’t quite match her occupation. Grant plays a Sally Army captain based in a building next door. But he’s not really, he’s a G-man. And West’s boss and beau has been involved in naughty business. So Grant keeps on popping into the saloon, while West does her thing – which includes taking in a young woman who her boss would, unbeknownst to West, send to San Francisco to be a prostitute or a pickpocket. But West is a surprisingly benevolent figure, despite her image – as, apparently, was West herself, who insisted on having a WOC play against in her in her films and stage shows, and did much to battle racial discrimination in Hollywood. Despite all that, She Done Him Wrong is only mildly entertaining. It all feels a bit melodramatic, and while West sails through the proceedings with all the presence and aplomb of the biggest battleship in the fleet, Grant lacking his later (and customary) sheen isn’t especially watchable, and the the rest of the cast are a bit pantomime. This might well have been an early box office success and Oscar nominee, but I’m not sure that a footnote in the history of US cinema is a good enough reason to qualify as one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

shaneShane*, George Stevens (1953, USA). I am not a big fan of Westerns, athough I do love me some Technicolor. And Shane, a seminal Western, opens with some gorgeous Technicolor footage of Wyoming. In fact, those first twenty or so minutes are absolutely lovely. But in a genre in which Clint Eastwood has become the defining hero (and anti-hero), Alan Ladd no longer really convinces. The plot too suffers from the raft of similarly-plotted Westerns which have followed, including some by, er, Clint Eastwood. Cattle barons are trying to force the homesteaders to leave so they can take over their land. Into this drifts lone gunman Shane, who stays to help one particular homesteader family. And, well, the story then runs along well-polished rails. A bit too well-polished. There’s some night footage, which is not very effective, and, in keeping with the time, several scenes in which a studio is tricked out to look like the outdoors – which are equally ineffective. The fight scenes also seem a bit… gentlemanly, and not quite violent enough. Interestingly, it was Shane which introduced the effect of using wires to pull back actors when they’d been shot. It’s now an industry-standard effect. I really wanted to like Shane more than I did. The opening footage promised more than the rest of the film delivered, and even the scenes set in town couldn’t manage the charm of my favourite Western, Rio Bravo from 1959. I’m tempted to give Shane another go – there have been several films I’ve not liked much on first viewing, but then come to really like – so I think I’ll keep an eye open for a cheap copy…

wild_blue_yonderThe Wild Blue Yonder, Werner Herzog (2005, Germany). The elevator pitch for this movie alone was enough to get me interested: Brad Dourif portrays an alien who tells how his race tried to form a community on Earth, shown over re-purposed footage of Space Shuttle astronauts in orbit and divers beneath the ice in the Antarctica. And yet, watching it… Much as I enjoy watching Dourif, it felt like the film would have been better served by having Herzog himself narrate it. The footage is fascinating, and has that sort of documentary artistic feel that Benning does so beautifully in his films, but the narration – the plot itself, in fact – treads a narrow line between silliness and well, not profundity, but certainly a gravitas appropriate to the imagery. In other hands, or indeed without Dourif’s barking mad staring eyes, I don’t doubt it would have been silly from the moment the opening credits rolled. But Herzog is a genius, and even his maddest projects are clearly the products of genius, no matter how unhinged. The Wild Blue Yonder works, and even though I found this is in a charity shop, it’s a keeper.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 665

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A weight of words

With Fantasycon and a quite successful trawl of the local charity shops, there’s a few more books than usual joining the collection. Here they are:

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After finding books seven and eight of CP Snow’s Strangers and Brothers in a charity shop, I needed to get a copy of book six, The New Men. This one I bought from eBay. As I did Windows in the Sea, which is signed (although since all the copies I found on eBay, on either side of the Atlantic, were signed, I suspect that means little). Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper I won in the raffle at the recent SFSF Social. And I stumbled across the topic of Trapped Under the Sea somewhere online and it sounded fascinating – so I bought the book.

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My Fantasycon purchases. Sunburnt Faces and Astra were both freebies. There were a number of books free for convention members to take, but most were epic fantasy. I did, however, persuade several people to pick up copies of David Herter’s excellent One Who Disappeared (which I already owned). I’d been meaning to buy I Remember Pallahaxi for a while after reading Hello Summer, Goodbye several years ago. In the end, I decided to get all three Coney books published by PS Publishing’s Drugstore Indian Press. Flower of Godonwy is a DIP original. I flicked through Rave and Let Die and was pleasantly surprised to see I was in it – or rather, a review of my Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (in point of fact, the second edition paperback of my novella uses a quote from Adam’s review on the front cover). The Heir To The North is Steve Poore’s novel, and he’s someone I’ve known for many years. I first saw chapters from this back when I was a member of the local sf and fantasy writers’ group. When Dave Barnett described the plot of popCult! at a local SFSF Social, I knew I’d have to pick up a copy. So I did.

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Some graphic novels: I’ve been waiting for ages for 2000 AD to publish their run of Dan Dare – I remember bits and pieces of it from reading it back in the 1970s and 1980s – and now, finally, we have Dan Dare: The 2000AD Years Vol 1. I’ve been buying The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer since the Cinebook editions first appeared (after stumbling across a volume of an earlier attempt to publish them in English, about twenty years ago in Abu Dhabi). The series is now up to number 21 with Plutarch’s Staff. Valerian and Laureline I also stumbled across in Abu Dhabi – again a handful of volumes from the series were published in English. I then started reading it in French, but Cinebook started publishing English translations a few years ago, and it’s now up to volume 10, Brooklyn Line, Terminus Cosmos.

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I had a bimble about the local charity shops recently, and someone seems to have got rid of a bunch of classic literature. Result. I still have Sokurov’s Dialogues With Solzhenitsyn to watch, but I thought I might try reading him first – so I was chuffed to find a copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I once tried reading For Whom The Bell Tolls but gave up halfway in; perhaps I’ll have more luck with The Old Man and the Sea (it is, at least, short). I keep an eye open for Nabokov’s books, but Invitation to a Beheading is apparently a Russian novel from the 1930s not published in English until 1959 (and not translated by Nabokov either). After watching Out Of Africa recently, I thought I might give Blixen a go, and promptly found Anecdotes of Destiny in a charity shop. Whenever I see books in the Crime Masterworks series, I buy them, irrespective of condition, as I just want to read them. Margaret Millar’s Beast In View is one I’ve not seen before. I’ve seen the film of Naked Lunch, but the only Burroughs I’ve read is The Soft Machine. Updike’s three Rabbit books are on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You list, so A Rabbit Omnibus was an economical find. And I’ve read most of McEwan’s books, although nothing since the disappointing Saturday – but I do have Solar on the TBR… and now Sweet Tooth


Reading diary, #16

It’s pretty much a done thing by now that 2015 is the year of watching movies rather than reading books. And there’s a resolution for next year – make 2016 the year of reading books. Instead of slapping another DVD in the player of an evening, pick up a book instead. I have so many books I want to read, and since you can’t just take a pill and so magically be in a state of having read them, it takes an investment of hours and often days to get from first page to last. I need to invest that time – 15 minutes each way on my daily commute, and 45 minutes to an hour last thing at night, isn’t really enough.

Meanwhile, I continue to make lists… of books to read, books to buy, books read, books bought… and while on the purchasing side, the fun is often in the hunt for a decent copy of a title, or the surprise find in a charity shop, the damn things do exist to be actually read. And here are a few wot I have done so of late:

01_frankensteinFrankenstein*, Mary Shelley (1818). All these years and unbelievably I’d never actually read Frankenstein. I thought I knew the story, of course – who doesn’t? But that was from the films, and all they’ve done is lifted the central premise of Shelley’s novel and built their own interpretations of it out of that. I read Brian Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound many years ago, and from that I was aware part of Frankenstein took place at the North Pole. But there was plenty – the bulk of the book, in fact – I knew little or nothing about. Like the fact it’s structured as a series of nested first-person narratives, opening with letters from an arctic explorer who rescues a man from the ice. That man proves to be Victor Frankenstein who, once recovered, proceeds to tell his story – how he worked himself into a breakdown at university, building a creature from parts (none of which are named, nor their origin specified), and which promptly escapes. And then Frankenstein completely forgets about his eight-foot-tall monster for a year, and is only reminded of it when his youngest sister is murdered and a beloved family servant is accused of the murder. He then meets the monster, which tells its story… the murder was an accident, but it feels Frankenstein owes it and must make it a mate. So Frankenstein heads off to London, and then north to the Orkneys, but after making a start on a female monster, he suffers a change of heart… so the monster murders his best friend and Frankenstein is arrested for it… Frankenstein is a lot richer a story than film adaptations have led me to believe, but it’s also – and likely this is a product of the time – less rigourous than expected. The entire Frankenstein narrative, we are supposed to believe, is being told to Walton, and yet reads like, well, like a novel. The same is true of the monster’s narrative, especially the part when he spies on the cottagers (not what you are thinking: it is from spying on a family in a cottage he learns to speak French, and to read and write it). Not to mention actual correspondence from Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s childhood sweetheart, embedded in Frankenstein’s narrative. The prose reads somewhat overwrought to modern eyes, everything dialled up to eleven – Frankenstein doesn’t have friends, he has soulmates he loves deeply. The lack of narrative rigour also takes some getting used to. But the hardest part is untangling all the subsequent versions of the story knocking about in your head in order to fit in the original source text.

plutarchs_staffThe Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 21: Plutarch’s Staff, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2014). Only two more and the series is complete. Well, there’s two more left that were originally penned by series creator Edgar P Jacobs, but who knows how many more the Jacobs Studio will produce. But since I like the series, that wouldn’t, of course, be a problem. And I actually like the non-Jacobs titles more than the Jacobs ones. Chiefly because they’re more modern, although set in the past, and a good deal cleverer. This one is set during WWII, and details how Blake and Mortimer came to be friends and colleagues. They had met before – in The Oath of the Five Lords (see here) – but had then gone their separate ways. As Plutarch’s Staff opens, Blake is a RAF squadron leader flying Seafires for the Fleet Air Arm, and Mortimer is working at a secret research establishment in a Scottish glen hidden beneath an artificially-generated cloud. But Jacobs’s more-than-problematical villains, the Yellow Empire, are waiting in the wings, ready to pounce once WWII has ended. Although they’re not above helping things along. Sente and Juillard drag in quite a bit of history – including a visit to Bletchley Park – and manage to cleverly slot Jacobs’s weird alternate history into our history. Good stuff.

v_bombersV Bombers: Valiant, Vulcan and Victor, Barry Jones (2001). Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Britain’s nuclear deterrent was controlled by the Royal Air Force. We had the Bomb, and it would be delivered by an aeroplane. Then the Americans and Russians started building ballistic missiles, and Duncan Sandys’ infamouse White Paper was published, declaring that the UK no longer needed jet aircraft as it would all be missiles from then on. As a result, the Royal Navy wrested control of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, with its Polaris missile submarines. And here we are, more than half a century later, no one has dropped a nuclear bomb in anger since 1945, and the UK is currently preparing to spend billions to upgrade its Trident missiles because… Er, I’m not sure why because. Are we supposed to believe no one will take us seriously as a nation if we don’t have nuclear weapons? Does the bomb prevent us from being invaded? Invaded by who? Anyway, fifty years ago, during the Cold War, there was a known enemy, and the word “deterrent” had a real and palpable meaning. The British aircraft industry was in a really strong position coming out of WWII, with a huge number of firms, all at the cutting edge of aeronautical technology. Back then, the government could put out a tender for a new bomber or fighter and several British firms could compete for it. And the end result would be a world-beater. Unlike now, when we just buy some hugely expensive US aircraft that doesn’t work properly. The V-Bombers – so-called because the first, a stop-gap aircraft built by Vickers, was named the Valiant in a competion among company staff – were three jet bombers explicitly designed to carry nuclear weapons. And iconic-looking planes they were too. Then it turned out anti-aircraft missiles could reach the altitude at which they flew, so they ended up being used as low-level bombers. But they weren’t designed for that and it shortened their operational lives. The Valiant was retired pretty quickly (although it did drop a couple of test nuclear bombs), but the Victor and Vulcan went on to serve as tanker aircraft. Vulcans were also used in the longest bombing run in history, flying from the UK to bomb Port Stanley during the Falklands War. Anyway, this is a pretty good history of all three, although it focuses mostly on their design, testing and introduction into service.

a_girl_in_the_headA Girl in the Head, JG Farrell (1967). I like British postwar fiction, but there’s one particular type of story I’m not a fan of: the comic male midlife crisis novel. So guess what JG Farrell’s third novel is. Boris Slattery claims to be a Polish count, but he’s improverished, ends up in the invented seaside town of Maidenhair Bay, where he marries Flower Dongeon, whose house he now shares with his brother-in-law, father-in-law and her grandparents. He works as a maitre d’ in local restaurant, is friends with a Spanish boy who is staying with the family, and has sex with the underage daughter of the local stationmaster. And then the Swedish Inez comes to stay, and he begins to obsess over her. The story is told as first person, but there are interludes about Boris’s arrival in the town which he tells referring to himself in the third person. There are also some pages of typographical trickery, for no good reason that I could see. Despite being a comic male midlife crisis novel, there are things to like in A Girl in the Head, and plenty to admire. The comedy is very low-key and handled deftly. Farrell’s prose is excellent, and surprisingly insightful for the type of novel. In which respects, I guess, that makes it one of the better books of its type. Although, admittedly, Farrell is always worth a read.

brooklynValerian and Laureline 10: Brooklyn Station, Terminus Cosmos, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1981). This is the second installment of the two-parter begun with Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopiae (see here). There have been a series of strange manifestations in 1980s Paris, and so Valerian has been sent back in time to investigate. Laureline, meanwhile, is off to Cassiopiae to figure out what triggered it all. The first part of this series managed an impressively noir-ish air, and juxtaposing that with Laureline’s space opera narrative worked really well. But one of the things it managed well was a sense of mystery, and this second part dispels that because it, well, it resolves the mystery. In the 1980s, this leads to a meeting in Brooklyn between the heads of the two corporations driving the plot; and in the future, Laureline tracks down the two scavengers who inadvertently kicked off everything when they stole four religious symbols. The Valerian and Laureline series has always been among the smartest of bandes dessinée, and while the art is wonderfully glib and matter-of-fact, it’s the facility with genre displayed in the stories which is the series’ real charm. These are very, very good, and if you’re not reading them – why not?

ancillary-mercy-coverAncillary Mercy, Ann Leckie (2015). And so one of the most-lauded science fiction trilogies of the last couple of years, if not of all time, draws to a close. Was it worth the accolades it accrued? Did it deserve all those awards? Of course, as is always the case, much of it comes down to timing. Harry Potter became a global phenomenon because it appeared at just the right time. And certainly the timing was right when Ancillary Justice was published. Space opera was stuck in a rut, if not actively regressing – and Ancillary Justice was something different. Something visibly different. That thing with the default female pronoun, for example. Which doesn’t quite make sense in its professed use, but is certainly striking enough to generate buzz. Using “she” does not mean the Radch language is ungendered, nor does it mean female is used as the default gender. It’s a writerly trick, and a pretty effective one, but it makes little sense in terms of world-building. As for the plot… I wondered where the trilogy’s story arc was going after Ancillary Sword seemed to get stuck down a side-plot. Only it seems the side-plot is the actual plot of the trilogy and Ancillary Justice was pretty much prologue. And yet, despite all that, Leckie pulls a resolution out of left-field, to leave things not only neat and tidy but also with a giant jumping off point for any future novels. Ancillary Mercy is also a very talky novel, and a lot of the prose is spent on analysing people’s emotional states, little of which actually advances plot or world-building. These are interesting novels, and reasonably good ones, but I’ll be disappointed if this final book is all over award shortlists next year. Still worth reading though.

dan_dare_1Dan Dare: The 2000 AD Years Volume 1, Pat Mills, Massimo Belardinelli, Gerry Finley-Day & Dave Gibbons (2015). I remember bits and pieces of these from back in the late 1970s, although it wasn’t until a year or two later that I actually subscribed to the comic. But from the bits I did read, I seemed to remember it being quite good. I was wrong there. Reading the stories from start to finish in one volume really does show how bad they were. The art was often good, despite the limitations of the pulp printing process, but the scripts are uniformly awful. Admittedly, a lot of the Hampson Dare stories were pretty bad – and 2000 AD’s version bears no comparison with the Eagle original – but at least Hampson never had Dare say things like, “He’s stronger than a super-nova sun!” Nor did he rip off sf novels, like the one story in this volume which is pretty much Lem’s Solaris. Every time I buy one of these 2000 AD reprint omnibuses, I end up poisoning a little more of my childhood. Nostalgia only works from a distance, it does not hold up to scrutiny. Which is ironic, given that over half of the West’s various entertainment industries seem to be geared towards delivering nostalgia. But hey, there are all those people with rose-coloured lenses grafted onto their eyeballs and they’ll happily shell out for the latest cultural trigger to remind them of their lost childhood (as their bodies slowly fall to pieces and bits of it stop working as well as memory once insisted they did). Which obvs includes, er, me. As I’ve grown up I’ve developed powers of discrimination, and it’s not a superpower, it’s a consequence of maturity and age. And I wish a few more people would exercise that power. And yet, and yet… we are slaves to our lost youth, and I know damn well I’ll be buying volume 2 of Dan Dare’s 2000 AD years when it’s published, even though I know full well it’ll be shit. Because that’s an acceptable price to pay when your mortality weighs heavier on you with each passing day and those golden years of childhood come to be seen as more than just time spent in bodies that simply worked but also in minds that saw everything with uncritical wonder – and this has got a bit maudlin, so I’d probably best stop wittering on.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 118


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