It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Reading Challenge #7 – Jack of Eagles, James Blish

This month’s book was somewhat delayed as I’ve been focusing on reading and writing about books related to Apollo 11 for my celebration of the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing. You can find those reviews on my Space Books blog here.

But on with the reading challenge…. My edition of James Blish’s Jack of Eagles is a 1977 Arrow paperback with cover art by Chris Foss. I suspect it was bought for me some time around then. So I must have been twelve or thirteen when I first read it. I actually have a number of Blish novels from that period – all with Foss cover art – as he was one of my favourite sf authors at the time. Which made rereading Jack of Eagles an interesting exercise.

The novel is about Danny Caiden, a young man who develops psychic powers – precognition, telepathy, teleportation, telekinesis, etc. – and subsequently becomes embroiled in a secret war between two groups of powerful psychics, one of which is bent on taking over the world. With the help of a parapsychology professor at a local university, Caiden learns how to control his new-found powers… but it is only when he comes into conflict with the Brotherhood In Psi that he discovers he is the most powerful psi ever.

There’s a definite sense of time and place to Jack of Eagles. It was expanded from a 1949 novelette, ‘Let the Finder Beware’, and with its mention of the GI Bill and other details, it’s clearly set a few years after the end of World War 2. The book is also, like much of Blish’s fiction, well written. But. And this is a problem I had with his The Quincunx of Time when I read it at the end of last year. That too had originally been a short story – which I’d read – but Blish had not chosen to expand the plot, or provide more details of the setting. Instead, he’d used the greater wordcount to waffle on about the bogus science and philosophy which underpinned the book’s central idea – a faster-than-light communication device which allowed people to pick up signals from the future.

And I suspect the same thing happened in Jack of Eagles. The first half of the novel is a relatively straightforward action story – Caiden loses his job, and seeks to learn more about his burgeoning powers by visiting various “experts”. But there’s a long section in which the parapsychologist, Dr Todd, tries to explain the scientific basis of Caiden’s powers, referencing some mangled form of quantum mechanics and the Many Worlds Hypothesis. It’s pointless, implausible guff, and it slows down the story to a crawl.

Later, during Caiden’s battle with the Brotherhood, he escapes by travelling into alternative futures – explained once again by the bogus science of earlier. Each of the futures he visits is interesting, but Blish spends far too long trying to explaining the how of it and his explanations ring false and spoil the atmosphere.

I can’t remember what it is about Blish’s stories and novels that appealed to me when I was in my early teens. Rereading them now, thirty years later, it’s plain that Blish was a good writer. But he seems to have this bad tendency to pad out his novels with implausibly bogus science and philosophy. He should have just finessed it. The explanations interrupt the pace of the narrative and add little or nothing to the story. They probably seemed impressive to a naive thirteen-year-old. Perhaps that was the attraction of Blish’s novels. That and the Chris Foss cover art, of course.

I’m tempted to try reading or rereading a Blish novel that wasn’t expanded from a shorter piece, just to see if it’s the expansion process which led to him padding out the story with scientific bollocks. Perhaps he didn’t do that for stories which were originally planned to be novel-length. The only difficulty is finding such a novel in his oeuvre.

Jack of Eagles was certainly better than the other books I’ve read for this challenge. I’m not entirely sure what it is about the book which originally appealed to me all those years ago, but I doubt I’d have become a fan if I’d read it at my current age. All the same, I still think Blish is a pretty good sf writer, and I won’t be purging my shelves of his books…


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Relaxestcon

I spent last weekend at Satellite 2, a small sf con in Glasgow. Actually, it wasn’t just about science fiction; it was also about spaceflight, falling as it did just after the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. The guest of honour was Iain Banks.

It was a very quiet convention – at least it was inside the Crowne Plaza hotel. Outside was the Glasgow River Festival, so there were many thousands of Glaswegians wandering up and down either side of the Clyde by the SECC. Satellite 2 was chiefly confined to the rear entrance / bar area of the hotel (the one that looks onto the Armadillo’s rear, for those who know the SECC).

Highlights of the weekend included…

… meeting up with the usual suspects; an interesting presentation on the Apollo Guidance Computer by Frank O’Brien – he has a book out on the subject early next year, so that’s gone on the wants list (unfortunately I missed the other panel items about Apollo); six-year-old Emma Steel saying in the dealers room, “I like books but I can’t read”; the discussion about the Puffer Fish Chain Gun on the Saturday evening; discussing NewSpace with Charlie Stross; being present when Mike Cobley was asked to sign a copy of his Seeds of Earth by a fan of, he admitted, Banks, MacLeod and Stross; starting up a discussion on the Roberts vs Scalzi Hugo novel shortlist debate after forgetting that Charlie Stross was sitting at the table…. And no doubt other conversations and incidents that I’ve forgotten.

Satellite 2 was an unusual con for me on two counts. I spent more money getting there than I did at the con. And my bag was lighter coming home than it had been going to the con. Well, it was a small con, and the dealers’ room reflected that. In other words, I didn’t buy anything.

In all, a good weekend. Many thanks to the redoubtable Steels for putting me up. The con programming was an interesting mix, and I wish I’d managed to attend more items. That may usually be the case after a con, but there were more I’m sorry I missed at Satellite 2 than at an eastercon. If there’s a Satellite 3, then I’d seriously consider going.


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Favourite SF Stories

SF Signal today posted a couple of Mind Melds on “Memorable Short Stories to Add to Your Reading List” parts one and two. An excuse, in other words, to ask a bunch of people to name their favourite genre stories.

So I thought I’d do the same – list my favourite stories, that is. And here they are in chronological order of publication (where copies exist online, I’ve linked to them):

‘Aye, And Gomorrah’, Samuel R Delany – first appeared in Dangerous Visions (1967), edited by Harlan Ellison, and while much of the contents of that anthology weren’t exactly memorable, Delany’s story has stuck with me through the years. It’s very 1960s, very lyrical, and notably thin on plot. But I think it’s the evocativeness of the prose which appeals most.

‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill Side’, James Tiptree, Jr – was originally published in Fantasy & Science Fiction‘s March 1972 issue, although I read it in Tiptree’s collection 10,000 Light-Years From Home. This story is a classic, a simple idea approached using an entirely original angle of attack. It’s bleak and a perfect antidote to most space opera. Everyone who likes space opera should read it.

‘The Lake of Tuonela’, Keith Roberts – was a more recent discovery for me (see here). It first appeared in New Writings in SF 23 (1973), edited by Kenneth Bulmer, but I read it in Roberts’ collection The Grain Kings. Roberts’ prose is impressive, and in this story he manages to evoke the titular lake, and the long tunnel to it, with some beautiful writing. If the story had actually done more, and had managed to really evoke its alien setting, then it would have been very nearly perfect.

‘A Little Something For Us Tempunauts’, Philip K Dick – I first read in the anthology in which it was first published, Final Stage (1974), edited by Edward L Ferman & Barry N Malzberg; and which was, I think, one of the first sf books my parents bought for me. It also contains one of the few Harlan Ellison stories I remember liking, ‘Catman’. Like the Delany above, this is another story which is very much of its time – it feels very early 1970s to me, all Apollo and Grateful Dead and the like. But that works very much in its favour.

‘Air Raid’, John Varley – was originally published under the name Herb Boehm in Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine Spring 1977 issue, because Varley already had a novelette, ‘Goodbye, Robinson Crusoe’, in the issue. ‘Air Raid’ was adapted as film, Millennium, and Varley later expanded his own screenplay into a novel, also titled Millennium. The story’s premise is certainly original – people from the future snatch passengers from planes just before they crash in order to repopulate their own time – and the pace never lets up from start to finish. The later novel rounds out the background and characters, and adds an interesting twist in that the different narratives follow the events of the plot in a different order, but the original story’s brevity gives the central idea greater impact.

‘The Gernsback Continuum’, William Gibson – was first published in Universe 11 (1981), edited by Terry Carr, but also appears in Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology, edited by Bruce Sterling. Elegiac is not a word I’d normally associate with Gibson’s prose, but it’s certainly one that fits this story. For all its insistence of looking forward, sf has a curious tendency to gaze fondly at its past, and at the futures of its past. ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ is an excellent description of that tendency.

‘A Gift From The Culture’, Iain M Banks – is the first of three Interzone stories on this list. Interzone is probably my chief source of short sf, and has been since I first subscribed to the magazine back in the late 1980s. ‘A Gift from the Culture’ appeared in #20, Summer 1987, but can also be found in Banks’s only collection to date, The State of the Art. Banks’s Culture is one of the great sf invented universes, and ‘A Gift from the Culture’ is one of the few pieces of short fiction set in that universe. It’s also quite a sad story and, like ‘A Little Something For Us Tempunauts’, there’s an inexorable quality to its resolution – although it’s driven by character and emotion, rather than the laws of physics.

‘Forward Echoes’, Gwyneth Jones – is another Interzone story, this time from #42, December 1990. A slightly reworked version was also published three years later as ‘Identifying the Object’ in a chapbook collection of the same name from Swan Press. ‘Forward Echoes’ introduced the two main characters of Jones’s novel White Queen, and the Aleutians, the alien race of that novel and its sequels North Wind and Phoenix Café (and, of course, the recent and excellent Spirit: The Princess of Bois Dormant – see my review here). I think what first appealed to me about this story was its strangeness. It’s one of the most sfnally-evocative (to coin a phrase) stories I’ve ever read.

‘FOAM’, Brian Aldiss – was later expanded into a section of Aldiss’s 1994 novel, Somewhere East of Life. In 1991, Gollancz relaunched the magazine New Worlds as a paperback anthology edited by David S Garnett (in those days, Garnett was almost ubiquitous), and the story first appeared in that. Aldiss manages to layer strangeness upon strangeness in a somewhat picaresque plot set in the central Asian republics in the near-future (as was). This is another story, like the Jones, which makes something peculiar and sfnal of our world.

‘The Road To Jerusalem’, Mary Gentle – is the third and final Interzone story, from #52 in October 1991. It’s also the only alternate (alternative) history story in the list. In it, the knights templar have continued to exist to the present, and the world is a very different place. But it’s only as the story progresses does it become clear exactly how different.

The most recent story of the ten above is nearly eighteen years old. Which means it’s probably about time I brought the list up-to-date. I’ve certainly read some excellent stories published since Mary Gentle’s ‘The Road to Jerusalem’, but none seem to have stuck with me as much as the above ones have done. Perhaps I need to read stories a couple of times before they grow on me enough to be tagged as “favourites”. Perhaps that’s an exercise for another day – looking back over the short fiction I have access to which was published after 1991, and seeing if any of them have the same impact on me the above ten did.


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Thoughts on Space and Fiction

There is a story, no doubt apocryphal, about a European company which signed a contract with a Japanese manufacturer of televisions. The contract allowed for 1% wastage, or 1 in 100 defective televisions sets. Come the day the first batch was delivered, and the CEOs of the two companies stood and watched as ninety-nine brand-new televisions were transported into the warehouse. The Japanese then presented the European CEO with a box containing a smashed up TV. When asked what it was, the Japanese CEO explained that it was the one defective television set from the hundred, as stipulated in the contract.

With CNC robots and CAD/CAM, manufacturing in the 21st Century is a sophisticated, precise and cost-efficient process. Back in the early 1960s, the Apollo command modules were built by hand by North American Aviation. The first one, CM 012, contained so many faults, Apollo 1 commander Gus Grissom intended to hang a lemon from the control panel. No more than a few days later, Grissom was dead, along with his crew, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, killed by a fire inside the command module during a plugs-out test.

In order to navigate to the Moon, much of the course calculations for Apollo were performed by rooms full of computers at Mission Control in Houston, Texas. Aboard the spacecraft, there was only the Apollo Guidance Computer, a device considerably less sophisticated than an average mobile phone of today. The AGC required the astronauts to enter “verbs” and “nouns” using a DSKY (display/keyboard) in order to start programs. It had a vocabulary of around 38,000 words. In Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins’ autobiography, he describes having to make 850 key-strokes in order to enter the necessary data and program calls for Columbia and Eagle to rendezvous on the Lunar Module‘s return from the lunar surface.

Even cruder was Gemini’s radio-control “encoder” for the Agena target vehicles, which used a “little box topped by two concentric wheels and a lever”. All instructions “ended in either a one or a zero, and were formed by setting up the first digit on the outer wheel and the second digit on the inner wheel, and transmitting all three by turning the lever from center to either the left (for zero) or the right (for one)” (also from Carrying the Fire).

The technology to return to the Moon not only exists, but is a great deal more sophisticated and effective than it was in 1969. True, the same laws of physics still apply, and the solutions to the problems those laws present have not changed. But in the tools and instruments used to implement those solutions, there is really no reason why Project Constellation should not be able to put one or more astronauts back on the lunar surface in relatively short order. In the 21st century, the hardware can be built to better engineering tolerances, with less faults, for less cost and in shorter time. The entire trip can be managed by computers onboard the spacecraft, using software which does not require data to be read out over the radio to the crew and then laboriously inputted by them.

But it’s not the hardware and software which have prevented return trips to the Moon. Some might say it’s the lack of public will – and yet, there were still those criticising and demonstrating against Apollo when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Sea of Tranquility. There are many since who have complained that the money spent on Apollo could have been better spent on other things. Perhaps it’s the lack of political will. When President Kennedy gave his famous speech, “we choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”, he may have been motivated by a desire to win the Cold War in at least one area, but he made it happen. I see no reason why a later president could not have managed something similar – providing they had the will, their motivation is irrelevant.

Money is often cited as another stumbling block. The Apollo programme up to Apollo 12 cost $16.1 billion in 1969 dollars – about $112 billion in 2005 dollars (figures from Return to the Moon by Harrison Schmitt). By 1969, the US Administration had spent approximately $83 billion on the Vietnam War, and $214.4 billion in Iraq by 2005. So money is clearly not a problem.

What about expertise? The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes were designed, managed, built and staffed by young people, who frequently put in long hours to get the job done. It’s been said that no equivalent workforce exists today, and that people now are unwilling to work the necessary hours. Which is plainly rubbish. Look in any large corporation and you’ll find a workforce which often puts in ridiculous – and unpaid – hours to finish projects and meet deadlines. There is certainly enough expertise throughout the world in computing and information technology for a return to the Moon – after all, the bulk of the work in the 21st century version will lie there and not in hand-engineering hardware.

There is perhaps one element of the Apollo programme which no longer holds true, and might in part explain why it has never been repeated. NASA at that time was dominated by a large number of strong-willed and charismatic leaders – not just the astronauts, but also the administrators and chief engineers. Many of them were ex-military, or had fought in World War II. The entire organisation’s culture was very much based on personal leadership. People’s careers could be ruined by saying the wrong thing to the wrong person in a meeting. It could be argued this mindset had been forged during half a decade of global war; certainly no such comparable event happened in the second half of the 20th century. NASA is now a bureaucracy, with systems and procedures and checks and balances. Many critics have complained that it this which is holding back Project Constellation – take the recent decision by NASA to convert from Imperial to SI units… which they subsequently abandoned because it would have been too difficult and costly to implement. I don’t necessarily agree that the leadership/organisational model used by NASA during Apollo is necessary for a return to the Moon, but it’s certainly clear that the compromises foisted on the organisation in the decades since then have severely jeopardised its operations.

Yes, I think we should return to the Moon. And then travel onwards to Mars, and the planets, dwarf planets and moons beyond. It doesn’t matter if there is no immediately obvious benefit to doing so. Not all of the benefits of Apollo were plain at the time. I’m not much bothered whether the next set of astronauts on the Moon are American, Chinese, Indian, Russian or European. But it is a little embarrassing to see NASA floundering as it tries to implement a programme they have already implemented once before and which should be so much easier to do now. Even worse, they’re failing in other areas – the International Space Station will likely not last much longer than 2016.

It’s been said that landing on the Moon killed science fiction. I suspect the reverse is true. The Apollo programme demonstrated that space is not the benign environment advertised by science fiction short stories, novels and films. Far from it. As a result, one branch of sf turned inwards – the New Wave – while another slid further into fantasy – Star Wars and its ilk. Space has become a place of dreams and fancy, and so unreachable. There is a hardy few dipping their toes in the water, so to speak, in the International Space Station and aboard Shuttle missions. But, by and large, space is an environment, a setting, which exists chiefly in books and films.

Not so long ago we had the Mundane sf Manifesto, which insisted on “stories set on or near the Earth, with a believable use of technology and science as it exists at the time the story is written”. It was, and remains, controversial. Perhaps now, on the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the Moon, we should re-introduce the sub-genre of Space Fiction, stories set in space which treat the setting honestly and accurately. Perhaps the sub-genre could be used to re-introduce space as it actually is to the public, perhaps it might even rekindle interest in it as something achievable and conquerable – because only when you have identified the problems, can you start working on solutions…


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40th Anniversary of Apollo 11

Back in May, I decided to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing on my other blog, A Space About Books About Space. In keeping with the blog’s reason for being, I thought I’d do this by posting reviews of books specifically about Apollo 11 and its crew. So for the past few weeks, I’ve been busy reading the biographies and autobiographies of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. I don’t think I’ve ever read so much non-fiction in so short a period ever before.

Anyway, the first of my Apollo40 posts is now up, kicking off a series of relevant book reviews over the next five days. Feel free to check it out.


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Reading & Watching Roundup – July 2009

Here’s what I’ve been reading and watching in the last few weeks:

Books
The Pilgrim Project, Hank Searls (1964), I reviewed on my Space Books blog here.

The Daily Mirror Book of Garth 1975, Frank Bellamy (1974). I remember Garth from the 1970s and early 1980s. I often stayed at my grandparents, and they took the Daily Mirror every day. The central premise is that Garth, who is immensely strong, has various adventures in time and space, usually righting wrongs as part of a war between Good and Evil – with Good represented by Garth’s “lover through the ages”, Astra. Usually, when travelling through time, Garth occupies the body of a man who resembles him in every way. The comic strip was limited by its format, and often had to repeat information each day, but the stories were reasonably inventive and Frank Bellamy’s art was excellent.

The Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler (2004), I decided to read after seeing the film, which I enjoyed. I have several books by Fowler – Sarah Canary, and a couple of collections – but I’d not read any of her mainstream fiction. The Jane Austen Book Club is cleverly structured – the discussion of each of Austen’s books is led by one member of the group, and that allows Fowler to tell their life-story, which in part echoes the themes of the Austen novel. Fowler also plays games with the narrator – the book opens with “our book club” and “we”, and returns to second person at various points, but none of the characters actually narrates the book. The film is a mostly faithful adaptation, although Jocelyn is played by Maria Bello and so younger than the book version. The sole male, Grigg is also more successful in the film, having made money in a dot com start-up; in the book, he’s just tech support. Overall, it seems strange to describe a novel by Karen Joy Fowler as light reading, but that’s what The Jane Austen Book Club is.

Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes (1984), I picked to broaden my reading. I’d not read any Barnes before, so I had little idea what to expect. And… this is not a book which wears its research lightly. The narrator, Geoffrey Braithwaite, is an amateur Flaubert expert and the novel is as much a dissection of the French writer’s life as it is about its putative plot – in which Braithwaite tries to determine which of the stuffed parrots on display in two Flaubert museums is the actual one Flaubert used when writing ‘Un coeur simple’. Braithwaite also has a secret of his own, which he gradually reveals as the book progresses. Flaubert’s Parrot is very clever and informative… but the central metaphor strikes me as a bit thin and Braithwaite’s own story doesn’t actually reflect thematically on his Flaubert expertise. As a readable and interesting treatise on Flaubert, the book succeeds very well; but as a novel, it feels unbalanced and Braithwaite fails to compete with the subject of his expertise.

After the Vikings, G David Nordley (2004), is a self-published collection of five stories which had previously appeared in Analog and Asimov’s during the first half of 1990s. They all take place on Mars, and are tied together with a framing narrative in which a pair of aliens discuss the extinct race which once lived on the planet. My copy is the 2004 revised edition, and it features some of the worst cover art I’ve ever seen (not the same as the version shown on Amazon). But the stories…. Back in the late-1990s, I tipped Nordley as a writer to watch, chiefly on the strength of his novella ‘Into the Miranda Rift’, originally published in the July 1993 issue of Analog and nominated for the Hugo and Nebula that year. He’s still regularly published in Asimov’s and Analog but since I’ve not seen either magazine for nearly 10 years, I’ve read only a handful of stories by Nordley and none recently. And he’s yet to produce a novel. After the Vikings is less good than I expected – the stories are very much 1990s Analog/Asimov’s sf, a little heavy in places on the science and the moralising, but well put together. I’m not sure about the final novelette, ‘Martian Valkyrie’, which features an inventive means of getting to Mars, but also includes some heavy-handed racial stereotyping and an unpleasant undercurrent of sexism.

Eclipse 2, edited by Jonathan Strahan (2008), I bought because of the good reviews it’s received. And because I wanted to read more recent genre short fiction. The anthology is a good read, although I found the contents mixed. The stand-outs are Tony Daniel’s ‘Ex Cathedra’ and Peter S Beagle’s ‘The Rabbi’s Hobby’. Terry Dowling’s ‘Truth Window: A Tale of the Bedlam Rose’ is near-incomprehensible as it requires the reader to be familiar with the universe of Dowling’s novel, Wormwood – although, to be fair, the novel does seem like it might be worth reading. Alastair Reynold’s ‘Fury’ contains some good ideas, but feels a bit weak for him. Stephen Baxter’s ‘The Turing Apples’ is polished, but felt a bit cold and uninvolving to me. Nancy Kress’s ‘Elevator’ is just plain dull. The rest are all enjoyable and well-written, but none really struck me as especially exciting. Oh, and there’s a Chiang too. Which won the BSFA Award this year. And I wrote about it here.

Starship Fall, Eric Brown (2009), from NewCon Press is a sequel of sorts to an earlier novella, Starship Summer, published by PS Publishing. It’s set on the same world, Chalcedony, and features the same cast. With Brown, you always know you’re going to get well-written character-driven sf, and Starship Fall is no exception. There’s no cutting-edge idea at the heart of it, just a story about people on an alien world which unfolds in elegant prose to an inevitable bitter-sweet conclusion.

Apollo 11 Owners’ Workshop Manual, Christopher Riley & Phil Dolling (2009), I read for my Space Books blog. A review will be appearing there later this month.

Films
The Dark Is Rising, dir. David L Cunningham (2007), is yet another attempt to create a film franchise from a YA fantasy series. Hollywood hasn’t done too well so far – Pullman’s His Dark Materials never got to book two, which is a shame; and the second Chronicles of Narnia film didn’t do very well at the box office. The Dark Is Rising is adapted from the 1973 novel of the same name by Louise Cooper, actually the second book of the series. A boy on his fourteenth birthday learns that he is the “Seeker”, who must find the six Signs so the Light can defeat the Dark. There’s something old-fashioned about the film despite an attempt to drag it into the twenty-first century. It feels very mid-twentieth century, all English village halls and village schools and fierce winters. Although it doesn’t appear on screen, there’s a sense of austerity to the story. Not having ever read the book, I can’t say how well it has been adapted, but most of the adult cast appear to be sleepwalking through their parts. Christopher Ecclestone as the Rider is especially poor. I suspect The Dark Is Rising will be another film franchise which slowly fades away uncompleted.

Guard Post, dir. Su-chang Kong (2008), is set in a, well, in a guard post, in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. A company of South Korean soldiers have turned up to GP 506 (the film’s original title) to relieve the company on duty. Except they find said company slaughtered, but for a single survivor. Over the next few days, they try to discover what happened, while one by one they themselves die. This film isn’t as gruesome as I expected – which is good, because I’m not a big fan of grue. But neither is it quite as suspenseful as the premise suggests. It’s done well, but nothing about it really stood out for me.

Battlestar Galactica: Season 4 and The Final Season (2008 – 2009), probably deserves a post of its own, but never mind. Lots of people have written at greater length and more intelligently than I could manage on this television series. What is interesting about the various commentaries scattered about the tinterweb are the points each commentator has picked up on. For me, BSG often failed because the writers didn’t have a clear idea right from the start what they were trying to do. So some episodes contradicted others, some made no sense in light of earlier revelations, and some were clearly knocked together in service to the “moral of the week”. The devil, they say, is in the details, and that’s where BSG often let itself down. When the fleet finds Earth, they determine that it was once populated by Cylons…. How? If they can identify 2,000 year old remains as Cylons, then why could they never determine who was a Cylon in the earlier seasons? But then I was never convinced by the Cylons – the BSG writers never seemed to grasp what machine intelligence might actually mean, or what machine intelligences in human bodies would be like. As for the final episode, ‘Daybreak’, I’m not as annoyed by it as some were. I quite like the idea of the Colonials feeding into the genetic heritage of Earth, and I can’t get upset at them walking away from their culture. Which is notoriously ephemeral anyway.

Boy Meets Girl (2009), was for review for videovista.net. See here.

The Last Sentinel, dir. Jesse V Johnson (2007), was also for review for videovista.net. See here.

Once Upon A Time In America, dir. Sergio Leone (1984), is in the Time Out Centenary Top 100 Films, but I don’t understand why. How a film can be so highly regarded when its central character rapes two women and suffers no qualms or consequences is beyond me. Once Upon A Time In America covers the beginnings of a group of Jewish gangsters in New York during Prohibition, and their eventual demise. The story is framed by the return of one, played by Robert DeNiro, thirty years later in answer to a mysterious summons. It’s all to do with the way his fellow gangsters met their deaths. The characters, being gangsters, are all nasty pieces of work, and quite frankly it’s difficult to care about them or what happens to them. At least in Westerns, there’s a disconnect – the milieu seems to be unrelated to the world as it is – so vile behaviour by characters is less likely to break the emotional compact with the viewer. And anyway, most Westerns are essentially white hats versus black hats. Once Upon A Time In America at least doesn’t romanticise gangsters – but then, that’s why it’s not especially entertaining.

Inkheart, dir. Iain Softley (2008), is yet another attempt by a Hollywood studio to kick off a new fantasy franchise. This time it’s based on the YA novels by Cornelia Funke. Brendan Fraser can apparently bring characters to life when he reads a story out loud – i.e., magically create them as real live people in his world. And he discovered this by reading a blindingly-obscure YA fantasy by an Italian writer to his young daughter… and subsequently giving life to the book’s chief villain and causing his wife to disappear into the book. And ever since he’s been hunting for copies of that book in order to try and “read” his wife out of it. With daughter, now twelve-years-old, in tow. Funke is German, and her books were first published in that country… which means this film has a European flavour somewhat at odds with its Hollywood treatment. It’s all very picturesque, and the European view of literature and fairy-tales sits uneasily on the US’s typical approach to this type of fiction. If The Dark Is Rising felt like 1950s England, then Inkheart feels even less anchored in the here and now.

The Band’s Visit, dir. Eran Kolirin (2007), is an Israeli film about, well, a band visiting Israel. The band are the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra from Egypt, and they’ve been invited to play at the opening of a new Arab cultural centre in Petah Tikva. Unfortunately, when they arrive at the airport, there’s no one there to meet them so they have to make their own way. They get it wrong and end up in Bet Hatikva, a dead-end town on the edge of the Negev Desert. (Arabic has no “p”, only a “b”, so the confusion is understandable.) The band are stuck overnight in Bet Hatikva, as there are no more buses. A local café owner, Dina, helps out, providing food and somewhere for the band members to stay. This is not a film in which much happens, but it’s well observed and the gentle humour and sharp characterisation carries you through to the end. Sasson Gabai as band leader Colonel Tawfiq Zakaria is especially good.

Honeydripper, dir. John Sayles (2007), is the latest film from my near-namesake. In this one, Danny Glover plays the owner of the eponymous ramshackle club in Alabama in 1950. He’s in danger of losing it – receipts are down and his unscrupulous landlord wants him out; and the local sheriff also wants to go into “partnership” with him. So Glover pins all his hopes on a live performance by Guitar Sam, a New Orleans star. Who doesn’t show. Happily, a young substitute takes his place, the concert is a success, and Glover gets to keep his bar. Given the period and location, it’s no surprise that the whites are pretty much entirely unlikable; but then neither are the blacks presented as paragons. Of course, much of the appeal of a film like Honeydripper is the music – blues, and early rock and roll. Although the latter only makes an appearance in the final scene. A polished work, with a sharp script, featuring polished performances and some good music; although overall not as good as Sayles’s Lone Star or Matewan.


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Fifteen Books

Another meme doing the rounds of the blogosphere, Facebook and Live Journal, sent to me courtesy of Liam Proven…. Simply list fifteen books that have affected you most, will always stay with you, etc. Off the top of your head – well, in less than fifteen minutes. Here’s mine, in order of year of publication…

1 The Undercover Aliens, AE van Vogt (1950)
2 Starman Jones, Robert Heinlein (1953)
3 The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (1957 – 1960)
4 the Dorsai trilogy, Gordon R Dickson (1959 – 1971)
5 Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
6 Dhalgren, Samuel Delany (1975)
7 The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley (1977)
8 The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe (1979)
9 The Space Mavericks, Michael Kring (1980)
10 Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1982)
11 Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988)
12 Metrophage, Richard Kadrey (1988)
13 Iris, William Barton & Michael Capobianco (1990)
14 Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
15 Coelestis, Paul Park (1993)

Many of these books are my favourites, and I’ve read them several times. In fact, I reread a bunch of them a couple of years ago as a reading challenge – see here.

Others…. The Heinlein is the first true sf novel I recall reading – a friend lent it to me at school. So it’s effectively the book that turned me into a sf fan. And The Alexandria Quartet is the book that turned me into a fan of Durrell’s writing – for evidence of this see here and here.

Although I recently reread the Dorsai trilogy and was disappointed, I still remember loving it as a young teenager. Iris was the first book I read by Barton and Capobianco. I went on to read their solo novels, and Barton has remained a favourite sf writer ever since.

As for The Right Stuff… well, I’ve read it several times, the film adaptation remains a favourite film, and it eventually led to me starting up my Space Books blog.

The Space Mavericks is the novel which kicked off the whole Turkey Shoot thing. Turkey Shoot was a short-lived fanzine dedicated to sf “turkeys” – i.e., really bad sf novels – which I wrote and published back in the early 1990s. It was almost celebrated in its day. I can still remember some of The Space Mavericks‘s more memorable lines – “you can never mistake a museum building because of the way they build them” and “the green fur more than anything made it look like a Terran gorilla”.

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