It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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.

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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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Moving pictures, #32

The films I watch, and document in these moving pictures posts, are pretty much dictated by the rental services I use. While I might set the priorities for the various movies on my rental lists, it’s still random what actually gets sent to me. But then, of course, there are those DVDs and Blu-rays I’ve actually purchased for myself (usually because I want to see them and they’re not available for rental, like the, er, Benning DVDs). So, anyway, more films, of varying degrees of obscurity and/or classic status.

rrRR / casting a glance, James Benning (2007/2007, USA). RR stands for “railroad” and that’s pretty much what you get – 77 minutes of middle-distance shots of US locomotives travelling across the screen, some on urban railways (not “railroad”, because I am British) and some on tracks passing through some amazing landscapes. There is no voiceover, no scrolling text, just ambient noise. I now have some experience with Benning’s films, and while I can certainly sympathise with his desire not to compromise in art, RR is much harder film to watch than others by Benning I’ve seen. It follows in broad form his other works, but its lack of concessions to the viewer can make for difficult viewing. It is, like his other films, often mesmerising (I keep on using that word, I must find another one), and the landscape of the North American continent is in places absolutely stunning (yes, even with a railway track running through it). Benning’s films are an acquired taste, but totally worth it. And yet… casting a glance even manages to test a fan’s endurance. It is a series of shots over two years of Robert Smithson’s artwork ‘Spiral Jetty’. Which is exactly as its name says – a jetty made of stone, in spiral form, in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. What makes this film especially interesting is that although Bennig filmed the artwork over a two year period, he actually documents its lifetime since its creation in 1970 – as the sixteen shots of it depict “the historical water levels (mathematically reconstructed)”. The end result is more like a screensaver than any other Benning film I’ve seen, but still manages to keep interest. Narrative does intrude at one point, when the ambient noise is replaced by the song ‘Love Hurts’, a film released in the same year that Smithson died. I totally agree with making the viewer work to understand a film – culture is not babyfood, it should not be spoonfed – but Benning’s extra-textual references are often just too… extra. I still love his films – and the more about them I learn, the more I love them. But like Sokurov’s movies, there is a story taking place outside of the story on the screen, and knowledge of that totally changes the viewer’s perspective. I have maintained for years that X-Factor is a cross-platform event – the television show makes little sense unless you’ve been following the various dramas in the gutter press. I love the idea of cross-platform and extra-textual intellectual properties – a sort of implementation of Frank Zappa’s “interconnectedness of all things” – but it all needs to be available. Without the booklets in these Österreichisches Filmmuseum DVDs, I’m pretty sure I’d miss a lot of the commentary Benning embeds in his films. Which is a shame.

The-Blue-Angel-1930-Front-Cover-95283The Blue Angel*, Josef von Sternberg (1930, Germany). This is the film from which Marlene Dietrich’s public persona likely depends. It’s certainly the source of the most iconic presentation of her. The title refers to a nightclub in Weimar Republic Berlin, at which Dietrich’s character performs. However, the actual focus of the story is the schoolteacher who falls under Dietrich’s spell. Initially, he goes to the club to remonstrate with its star because naughty postcards of her (which she sells as souvenirs) are distracting his students. But he falls under her spell, and returns to watch her so often that he marries her, loses his job and ends up working as a clown in her show. The film was banned by the Nazis, which is obviously a point in its favour – but for all that it seems a fairly unexceptional film. I’ve no way of judging if it was more titillating than was the norm in the 1930, but there’s little enough in it that clearly signals it as belonging on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’ve seen a number of films from the same era that were clearly innovative, if not seminal, for the period, or that simply stood out for a variety of reasons. The Blue Angel, sadly, is not one of them.

labellenoiseuseLa belle noiseuse*, Jacques Rivette (1991, France). I suspect I may like the idea of Rivette’s films more than I like Rivette’s films – although that’s hardly fair as La belle noiseuse is the first film by Rivette I’ve ever seen, But it is also 237 minutes long – and not that much actually happens during it. A young artist and his girlfriend turn up at the rural retreat of a famous artist who has not produced any new work in years. The girlfriend is asked to model for the famous artist. We see the artist make lots of sketches of the girlfriend, as well as start but not finish a number of paintings. Eventually he does finish one, and everyone assures him it’s a masterpiece, but the viewer doesn’t get to see it. I liked the film, it is very French, and like many of the best French films it subjects its characters’ relationships to much intense analysis. But it did test my patience at times – we see each of the sketches the artist draws, line by line, and it’s not exactly exciting viewing. But I liked that Rivette chose to show us that, I liked that he decided this was the way his film would proceed. As has no doubt become obvious over these Moving pictures posts, I like films by those who do things differently… I see there’s a Rivette Blu-ray box set now available, and it’s definitely tempting me…

ex_machinaEx Machina, Alex Garland (2015, UK). I’d seen this film highly praised, and while I may be perverse, I’m not so perverse I’ll dislike a movie because it is popular – although certainly what I value in a film is not what most film audiences seem to. But ten minutes into Ex Machina, a movie I was expecting to be about AI, and all it appeared to be about was some ultra-rich knob who lived in the middle of nowhere (how did they supply his house?) and I was already thinking bad thoughts… only for it be pointed out on Twitter that this was the desired response. The person behind Ava, the AI robot (as seen on the DVD cover, because of course you’d give an AI a human face and a chicken-wire body), is meant to be an entitled prick. Because that then pushes the viewer’s emtional engagement onto Ava. The poor old programmer, Caleb, invited by Nathan to his billionaire hideway – and who has to be asked, “Do you know what the Turing Test is?” Of course, he does, he’s a programmer – finds himself a patsy for both Nathan and Ava by turns, and the fact he is emotionally engaged with the AI only makes you wonder why Garland chose to stack the deck so heavily in Ava’s favour. And having done that, the end of the film can hardly come as a surprise. I really didn’t like Ex Machina. I found it annoying, crude and a not very intelligent study of its premise. I much preferred the far less pretentious Chappie.

eisenstein_1October* Sergei Eisenstein (1927, Russia). I picked up a copy of Sergei Eisenstein Volume 2 at the end of last year – it contains Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible Part 1 and Ivan the Terrible Part 2 – but volume 1 proved much harder to find (since it had been deleted several years ago). Admittedly, I already owned a copy Battleship Potemkin and Strike, and October wasn’t exactly hard to find on DVD… but I wanted Volume 1 to go with my Volume 2, so I hung on until one popped up on eBay. Which it did. For a reasonable price. So I bought it. And I’ve now watched October twice and I’m still not sure what to make of it. For a start, it’s unashamed propaganda, a cinematic reconstruction of the October 1917 revolution, featuring many of the people who were involved in the actual event itself. Also, Eisenstein uses a surprisingly large number of modern cinematic techniques – or rather, techniques that have become standards in film-makers’ lexicons and are now used so unthinkingly that their origin is ignored. Anyone looking to put together a DVD collection of important films really should include both the Eisenstein collections (assuming they can find copies, that is).

sennaSenna*, Asif Kapadia (2010, UK). This was available on Amazon Prime and since it was on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, I watched it, despite motor racing being a sport in which I have zero interest. (Not that there is in fact any sport in which I have a more-than-zero interest.) Unsurprisingly, I found much of Senna not especially interesting, although I’d known almost nothing about Ayrton Senna prior to watching the film and he at least did come across as an interesting person – although chiefly through his work to improve the safety of F1 Racing – a sport in which a handful of rich pricks risk the lives of drivers in order to further line their own pockets, which is frankly disgusting. In fact, F1 comes across as little more than a playset for billionaire regressives. It’s telling that since Senna died and the increased safety he campaigned for came into effect, there has been only a single death during a race – and that was last year, ten years after Senna’s death. Having said all that… I’m not really sure why this film is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 658

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The future we used to have, part 29

We can look back on the Cold War with fondness now, because it’s not going to be national posturing, missiles or nuclear bombs that are going to do for us all, but climate crash or economic crash. Which doesn’t, of course, mean that scumbag world leaders are not going to lie through their arses in order to justify illegal invasions of sovereign nations who just happened to be on someone’s shit list. But back in the day, NATO and the Warsaw Pact strutted back and forth in front of each other, showing off their military hardware… and a hell of a lot of it was damn cool-looking hardware. Normally, when I touch on the Cold War in these posts, I stick to aircraft, ships, submarines and the occasional rocket. But for this one, it’s all… missiles! Big pointy blowy-uppy things that went whoosh from assorted ships, silos, mobile launchers or fixed launchers. And then went BOOM! I’ve covered the early warning side in earlier posts, but I might do it again in a dedicated post later. Because SAGE. Because Texas Towers.

But, right now, because guided missiles.

Bristol Bloodhound: UK surface to air missile (1958 - 1991)

Bristol Bloodhound: UK surface to air missile (1958 – 1991)

Sea Slug missile: UK surface to air missile carried aboard County class destroyers (1961 - 1991)

Sea Slug missile: carried aboard County class destroyers (1961 – 1991)

Blue Steel - UK nuclear missile, carried by V-bombers (1963 - 1970)

Blue Steel – UK nuclear missile, carried by V-bombers (1963 – 1970)

Douglas Skybolt: US air-launched ballistic missile, bought by the UK but cancelled by the US before it went into service

Douglas Skybolt: US air-launched ballistic missile, bought by the UK but cancelled by the US before it went into service

De Havilland Blue Streak: UK nuclear ballistic missile, never went into service

De Havilland Blue Streak: UK nuclear ballistic missile, never went into service

Nike Hercules: US nuclear surface to air missile (1958 - 1988)

Nike Hercules: US nuclear surface to air missile (1958 – 1988)

Boeing CIM-10 Bomarc: US supersonic interceptor anti-aircraft missile (1959 - 1972)

Boeing CIM-10 Bomarc: US supersonic interceptor anti-aircraft missiles (1959 – 1972)

Thor: US ballistic nuclear missile, deployed in the UK (1959 - 1963)

Thor: US ballistic nuclear missile, deployed in the UK (1959 – 1963)

Atlas: US ICBM (1959 - 1965)

Atlas: US ICBM (1959 – 1965)

Titan I: US ICBM (1959 - 1965)

Titan I: US ICBM (1959 – 1965)

Scud: Soviet, and now Russian, tactical ballistic missile (1957 - present))

Scud: Soviet, and now Russian, tactical ballistic missile (1957 – present))

SS-20 Saber: Soviet, and now Russian, intermediate range ballistic missile (1976- 1988)

SS-20 Saber: Soviet, and now Russian, intermediate range ballistic missile (1976- 1988)


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