It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Book Porn – Shepard & Shiner

Lucius Shepard and Lewis Shiner are among the finest writers of fantasy (and the occasional science fiction) currently being published. Shepard has won a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, two World Fantasy Awards, a Sturgeon Award, a Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), a Kurd Laßwitz Award (Germany), five International Horror Guild Awards, a Rhysling (poetry), and a Shirley Jackson Award. He also won the Campbell New Writer Award for 1985. Shiner has not been so lauded and to date has only won a single World Fantasy Award. But then, many of his novels have been presented as mainstream rather than fantasy.

Both are writers whose novels and stories I admire as much as I enjoy. So I collect them. First editions, of course. Many are also signed – but both are frequently published by small presses, such as PS Publishing and Subterranean Press, which produce beautifully put-together signed limited editions.

But on with the photos. Below are the books I own by both writers. My Shepard collection is far from complete, but the Shiner one is… although there is a Collected Stories due to be published later this year by Subterranean.


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Catastrophia ToC announced

Editor Allen Ashley has announced the full table of contents of his forthcoming anthology, Catastrophia. The stories, by alphabetical order of author are:

  • ‘Hapless Humanity’ by Brian Aldiss
  • ‘The Phoney War’ by Nina Allan
  • ‘Nanoamerica’ by David John Baker
  • ‘Steven’s Boat’ by Billie Bundschuh
  • ‘Happy Ending’ by Simon Clark
  • ‘Something for Nothing’ by Joe Essid
  • ‘Check’ by Robert Guffey
  • ‘Fade’ by David Gullen
  • ‘Trouble with Telebrations’ by “J. B. Harris”
  • ‘Up’ by Andrew Hook
  • ‘A Hard Place’ by Carole Johnstone
  • ‘Scalped’ by Jet McDonald
  • ‘Noose’ by Adam Roberts
  • ‘In the Face of Disaster’ by Ian Sales
  • ‘Pixels on a Screen’ by Patrick Shuler
  • ‘The Long Road to the Sea’ by James L. Sutter
  • ‘Gravity Wave’ by Douglas Thompson
  • ‘Crashes’ by Stuart Young

I’m in good company there, I see.

See here for the full press release.


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Anatomy of a Story: The Amber Room

It occurred to me some people might find it interesting to learn how I came up with the ideas for my stories, how I approached those ideas, and what I was trying to achieve with the stories which resulted.

First up is ‘The Amber Room’, which was published in Pantechnicon #9 in March 2009. If I were to write a blurb for the story, it would go something like this:

Tina lives in a museum, but this museum contains all the lost art treasures of the world. They were found by her boyfriend Chris, who has an amazing ability: he can visit alternate universes. That’s where he “found” the lost art treasures.

Here’s a PDF of the ‘The Amber Room'; so you can read it before reading the rest of this post.

The idea for the story came to me sometime in March 2007. As far as I recall, it was inspired by the real-life Amber Room itself, mention of which I’d stumbled across somewhere on the Web. I wanted to use it in a story, but, of course, it was lost. So why not write a story about it being found? And since I write science fiction, why not have it found in an alternate universe? In fact, why not have an entire museum filled with “lost” works of art which had been found in alternate universes?

But that’s not actually a story. It needs a plot, characters… a beginning, middle and end…

I remember banging out a first draft in pretty much a single sitting. In that original version, the story focused on Chris, the universe-hopping “art thief”, and was structured as a series of vignettes from his life in no particular chronological order. But it had the same sting in the tail: the identity of Chris’ girlfriend, that she was him from an alternate universe in which his “parents” had had a daughter.

I emailed the draft to a group of friends to see what they thought to it. We’ve been emailing each other stories and novel excerpts for several years now; I value their comments. They liked the central premise, but not the way I’d chosen to tell the story. I rewrote it, making Tina the central character and giving the narrative a linear structure. I sent this second draft to my friends. They liked it a great deal better. However, they still weren’t keen on the ending – initially, the story explained that Tina and Chris were alternate versions of each other. I changed that, made it, well, subtle – i.e., having Tina look at a pair of photographs which reveal the truth… And that too nicely linked in with the Amber Room and the whole concept of “lost” art, turning it into a metaphor of the central relationship. Sometimes, you get to a point in a story where all the choices you made earlier, without really knowing why you made them, suddenly slot together and it all works.

After that, it was simply a matter of refining and polishing the prose. At one point, it occurred to me that since the Amber Room featured four mosaics depicting the five senses, then I should do the same in the story. So every section is written such that it references each of the five senses, beginning with Tina hearing something, then seeing, then touching, and so on.

For example, from the first section: we have “The slam of the door echoed in memory, but she heard now only the metronome click of her heels on the marble steps” (sound). Later in the same section is, “The windows to her right painted great rectangles of sunlight on the floor” (sight). Then “Whenever in the Room, she felt a desire to run her fingers over the mosaics’ tessellae…” (touch), and “The Room soothed her, calmed her. It smelled of history” (er, smell). And finally, “… the wine tasted unnaturally full-bodied and rich to her” (taste). It’s not always a smooth progression – and looking back at the story now, I can see a couple of places where I slipped up and used a sight reference in a line that should have been sound reference, and so on.

Choosing to use the senses in this way also proved useful as it provided a framework for the descriptive writing. Because I could only use imagery specific to the sense referenced at that point in the narrative, I had to think harder about my sentences and word-choices. Take the line “She glanced back up the cochlea-curve of the staircase”. Originally, I’d used “nautilus-curve”, which was the image I wanted; but “cochlea” is hearing-related, and of a similar shape, so I used that instead. And I think it works better too.

Then there was the research. Every single piece of art mentioned in the story is real, and very much lost. When you’re writing, research should hurt. You need to get everything right. Sf is not like it used to be – you can’t just blithely invent stuff, or wave an authorial hand in front of the reader. Like you, readers have got access to the Internet, and they can fact-check as well as you can. Science fiction doesn’t mean you can make it up as you go along. On the contrary, it’s harder to write because you can’t rely on readers’ assumptions or common knowledge.

And, I should point out, it was while researching more about the Amber Room that I learnt of the four mosaics it contained. Which I then fed back into the story as a framework for the prose in each section. So none of it was wasted.

As for the roll call of alternate history sf mentioned on page four… The novels and stories mentioned are all ones I’ve read, and some of them I admire a great deal. Sticking ‘The Amber Room’ in among them was just my attempt at a little postmodern humour. And the “two films – different futures dependent upon whether or not a train was caught” on page seven… Most people have realised that one is Sliding Doors; the other is Blind Chance by Krzysztof Kieslowski.

‘The Amber Room’ was a deliberate attempt to write a “literary” sf story. I wasn’t interested in exploring the central premise. I was interested in the premise’s effect on two people and their relationship. How their relationship came about, how it was progressing. And I wanted the story to be about politics too, about the complicity and greed of politicians. Yes, I could have written a story in which Chris uses his experiences of all those alternate universes to create the perfect political system, or to help humanity reach the stars, or something equally sfnal… But that would be a different story and, to tell the truth, I’m not that interested in writing sf which privileges the central idea. I see the premise, the sfnal aspect of the story, as an enabling device – it enables a story that could not take place without it, that could not be transposed into another genre. If you can swap out the furniture and change the labels, and the story remains unchanged, then it’s not science fiction.

‘The Amber Room’ is by no means perfect – there are rough spots in it. But I achieved what I set out to do with it, and I stand by it. I was disappointed it received so many rejections – five, according to my records – before Pantechnicon took it. I thought it was better than that; I still do. I’d like to think others do as well. And I’d like to think others have found this dissection of it informative and useful.

I hope to do the same soon for the other story of mine I’ve posted here: ‘Thicker Than Water’.


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Thicker Than Water

My story ‘Thicker Than Water’ was published in Jupiter magazine’s January 2009 issue. Unlike ‘The Amber Room’ (see here), it received a couple of reviews and was described as an “exciting story” (SFRevu) and “a good story with much promise, atmospheric and exciting” (SF Crowsnest). SF Site was less complimentary – “I was not really convinced … either by the motivations of anyone involved, nor by the potentially interesting conclusion, which is not sufficiently a part of the rest of the story.” For the record, ‘Thicker Than Water’ was inspired by the story of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon. Click the link below to download the story in PDF format.

Thicker Than Water


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Reading Challenge #9 – Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg

I can’t say I’m a huge Silverberg fan. I’ve read many of his books and short stories, and I’ve enjoyed them. But I’ve never made an effort to seek out those of his works I’ve not read – as I have done with some other writers. To be fair, Silverberg is one of the stalwarts of the genre. He’s had – and still has, of course – a fifty-four year writing career, and has mostly produced good books and stories. During that more-than-half-a-century, he has won four Hugo Awards and five Nebula Awards.

Silverberg’s most well-known creation is, arguably, the world of Majipoor, on which he has set seven novels, two novellas and a short story. The first of these is Lord Valentine’s Castle, published in 1980.

Majipoor is a big planet – in fact, it was inspired by Jack Vance’s novel, Big Planet – with four enormous continents. The world has been settled for thousands of years and has a population of some sixty billion; but it is now something of a backwater, and rarely visited by people from other planets. It is home to several races – humans, Skandars, Ghayrogs, Vroons, Su-Suheris, Liimen, and Hjorts. There are also the native Metamorphs, from whom the humans took the world, and they now live in a reservation. Majipoor is ruled by four potentates – the Coronal, who is the executive arm of government and rules from his castle atop the thirty-mile-high Castle Mount; the Pontifex, the legislative arm, who lives in the Labyrinth; the Lady of the Isle of Sleep, who through dreams provides the world’s moral framework; and the King of Dreams, who punishes wrongdoers, also through dreams.

Lord Valentine’s Castle opens with a man called Valentine on a ridge looking down upon the city of Pidruid, on the western shore of the continent Zimroel. He doesn’t know who he is, or how he got there. A passing boy, taking cattle to market in Pidruid, approaches him and the two enter the city together. Within a couple of chapters, Valentine has shown an uncanny natural ability at juggling, and joined a juggling troupe. The Coronal – also called Valentine – is due to appear shortly in Pidruid on the Grand Processional all coronals take shortly after ascending to power.

The name is not a coincidence. Valentine the juggler soon learns that he was Coronal Valentine but, by some art or science never explained, his mind has been swapped into another body and someone else has taken his place as coronal. The more of his memory Valentine recovers, the more he determines to take back his throne. So he travels across Zimroel to its east coast, and there takes ship to the Isle of Sleep, in order to persuade the Lady (who is always the mother of the coronal) of his true identity. And after succeeding in doing that, he continues on to the eastern continent, Alhanroel, to first gain the Pontifex’s support, and then march on Castle Mount and throw down the usurper.

And that’s pretty much the plot. Silverberg intended that “the book must be fun”“all light, delightful, raffish…” And in that respect he succeeds. Valentine encounters obstacles on his way, but he overcomes them. He has exciting adventures – some of which seem a little too much, such as being swallowed by a legendarily giant sea-dragon while en route to the Isle of Sleep.

But then, Lord Valentine’s Castle is not a book to take seriously. It has a simple plot and a hero who prevails. It is, above all, colourful – Valentine’s journey east is very descriptive. And everything he sees and meets is exotic. And we know it is exotic because Silverberg has given it a made-up name. Although not all names, it has to be said, actually work all that well. “Niyk-tree” isn’t too bad, nor is “blave”; but “stajja” and “dhiim” just look like typographical accidents.

What strikes me most about this book is not the acknowledged debt it owes to Big Planet, but the debt it owes to Vance. Silverberg is channelling Vance. He does it well, because Silverberg is nothing if not a master craftsman. But, all the same, Lord Valentine’s Castle often feels a little like there’s too much Vance in it, as if Silverberg has crammed several novels by Vance into one book – which at 506 pages (in my 1982 Pan paperback; not the cover shown above) probably is equivalent to several novels by Vance…

Unlike some of the other books I’ve read in this year’s reading challenge, I didn’t regret rereading Lord Valentine’s Castle. I quite enjoyed it. It’s mind candy, but the sort of mind candy a friend might bring back from a trip to a foreign country – still fluffy, but with an exotic flavour to it. It’s a good book to read on a dull journey. And, like many books of its type, its general shape will linger – that the world of Majipoor is so big, Castle Mount and the Fifty Cities on its slopes, the overall story of the book but not Valentine’s individual adventures… and that it all ends happily. It had been a good twenty years or more since I last read Lord Valentine’s Castle, and still it felt comfortably familiar. Which is no bad thing sometimes.


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Rounding up the Readings & Watchings

I seem to have been a bit busy lately, which is why I’ve not posted here recently as often as I have done in the past. Here, anyway, is another catch-up post on what I’ve read and what I’ve watched.

Books
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985), I bought in Abu Dhabi, so I’ve had it at least seven years. I’ve no idea why it sat there neglected on my book-shelves for so long, because I expected it to be a good book. And so it proved to be. Admittedly, I’d also expected it to be a more straightforward approach to its premise – a US theocratic dystopia – that it actually was. But couching the story as the reminiscences of the narrator I thought worked very well. Some of the scenes were especially powerful. For all the bollocks Atwood talks in trying to distance herself from sf, it can’t be denied that she’s a very good prose stylist. An excellent book. Now I’d like to see the film.

The Power Of Starhawk, Stever Gerber (2009), is the second of Marvel’s collection of early Guardians of the Galaxy comics. These ones are at least better than the previous collection (see here). The Guardians are an odd group – they weren’t popular on their debut in 1969, but in the years following various people have tried to revive them – Gerber in 1976 (collected in this volume), Jim Valentino in 1990, and now Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning from 2008. It’s the Gerber ones – from Marvel Presents #3 to #12 – that I remember from my childhood. The artwork is typical of Marvel for the period, and the story has its moments. One for, er, fans, I suppose.

Sicilian Carousel, Lawrence Durrell (1977). I adore Durrell’s writing, and there’s plenty of good stuff in this one to salivate over. It’s one of his Mediterranean travel books, which, of course, are not travel books per se. In Sicilian Carousel, Durrell joins the eponymous package tour of Sicily, and writes as much about his fellow travellers as he does the island. As usual, he evokes place with near-perfect prose, and characterises his companions with a mixture of affection and pomposity. Typical Durrell – brilliant, in other words.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969), was August’s book for my 2009 reading challenge. I wrote about it here.

De Secretis Mulierum, L Timmel Duchamp (2005), is a novella originally published in F&SF magazine in 1995, but now available from Aqueduct Press as one of their “Conversation Pieces” series of fiction and non-fiction. A time-viewing project discovers that Leonardo da Vinci was a woman masquerading as a man… and that the same was also true of Thomas Aquinas. A female history doctoral student, against the wishes and advice of her sexist controlling male professor, continues with her thesis on da Vinci. I liked the central conceit, and the discussion of history and women’s roles in it that the conceit generated… but the professor was such a complete wanker he seemed a little as though he had been deliberately made so as a counterpoint to the conceit. A very good novella.

The Buonarotti Quartet, Gwyneth Jones (2009), is also a Conversation Piece, and is a collection of four short stories set in the same universe as Jones’ excellent Spirit, or The Princess of Bois Dormant (see here). The four stories are ‘Saving Tiamaat’ (originally published in The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan), ‘The Fulcrum’ (Constellations, edited by Pete Crowther), ‘The Voyage Out’ (Periphery: Erotic Lesbian Futures, edited by Lynne Jamneck), and ‘The Tomb Wife’ (F&SF, August 2007). The last story was also shortlisted for the 2008 Nebula Award. Like the novel, these are rich stories, and while sometimes that richness feels like it’s obfuscating the story, it also helps create a physicality to the invented universe. Of the four, I liked ‘The Fulcrum’ the best, although some of the characters felt as though Jones was having too much fun with the space opera furniture.

Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, Samuel R Delany (1984), I read for the LibraryThing sf reading group and… it was a bit of a slog. Delany is a writer I admire, and his Dhalgren (see here) has long been a favourite. But for some reason I find Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand really hard to get into. I tried three times to read it back in the 1980s when it was first published, and failed. This time at least I finished the book. I’m not sure what it is that gives me so much of a problem – perhaps it’s the way the story gets heavier and heavier under the weight of accumulated detail, and so the plot gradually grinds to a halt. Perhaps it’s the bizarre society Delany has invented – in which everyone is addressed using the female gender, but the masculine gender is reserved solely for objects of lust – and which Delany seems determined to explain as much as possible about. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand doesn’t feel like a novel. It’s not just that it’s half of a diptych – which is unlikely to ever be completed – but it reads like 500 pages of set-up, of prologue, and the real novel, which would probably rival anything by Peter F Hamilton in size, isn’t there. One day I may have another go at reading it.

One Small Step, PB Kerr (2008), I reviewed on my Space Books blog here.

Renaissance, AE van Vogt (1979), is late van Vogt and… oh dear. There’s something I find entertainingly bonkers about van Vogt’s fiction, but his later novels are embarrassingly bad. This one is based on a premise so slight, so badly put together, and so stupidly old-fashioned in its attitudes, it made for a difficult read. Aliens have conquered Earth, put women in charge, and through the use of a drug made all men near-sighted so they are forced to view the world through “rose-tinted” spectacles (which have made them meek and mild and non-sexual). But when one man’s glasses are broken, he starts to regain masculine mastery, shows his wife who’s boss, and goes head to head against the aliens. If this had been written in the 1940s and 1950s, the attitudes in it might have been understandable. Definitely one for laying down and avoiding.

Orbital Vol 1: Scars, by Sylvain Runberg & Serge Pellé (2009), is one of the many French sf comics Cinebook is publishing in English editions. It’s not unlike Valérian: Agent Spatio-Temporel (see here), which I like very much. A couple of hundred years from now, Earth joins a galactic federation, although a faction of isolationists still cause trouble. A human and an alien Sandjarr are teamed together as diplomats, sort of federal marshals and mediators, to resolve a dispute between a human colony and their world’s owners, the alien Jävlodes. There’s a nasty info-dump in the middle of the story, but otherwise this is pretty good stuff. The sequel is on my Amazon wish list.

Nights of Villjamur, Mark Charan Newton (2009), is a debut-that’s-not-a-debut which landed earlier this year with quite a splash. (Newton’s actual first novel was The Reef, published in 2008 by small press Pendragon Press.) Nights of Villjamur was very well-received – except here, where a negative review caused a bizarre backlash in the comments thread. So, is the book worth the hype? Sadly, no. Newton has created an interesting world, but there are infelicities in the prose – caused, I suspect, by him trying too hard; his writing’s better when he sticks to plain language – and a couple of the narrative threads didn’t seem to add much to the plot. It shows plenty of promise; and yes, it’s a better book than The Reef. While it’s certainly a respectable debut, I’ll be surprised if we see it on any shortlists next year.

Films
One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing, dir. Powell & Pressburger (1942), is one of the Archer’s wartime films, and while it’s done with wit and style the heavy hand of propaganda flattens parts of the story. The crew of B for Bertie, a Wellington bomber, bail out over the occupied Netherlands when their plane is damaged by flak – but it flies on, unmanned, to cross the Channel and crash in England. The Dutch resistance take the downed crew in hand and smuggle them to the coast, where they’re given a boat and must row for Britain. Bizarrely, the film ends, and then a series of title cards appear on screen explaining that the cast, crew and everyone associated with the film wanted to know what happened to the crew of B for Bertie after their rescue. So there’s a brief epilogue showing the airmen doing their bit for Blighty.

Nosferatu, dir. FW Murnau (1922), is a famous silent film, the first to put Bram Stoker’s story of Dracula on celluloid – the names were changed because it was an unauthorised adaptation. I have yet to quite figure out how to approach silent films. I find them slow, and often my attention begins to wonder… but afterward I want to be able to watch them again. Nosferatu was a rental DVD, but I’m tempted to buy a copy of my own so I can watch it again. While the presentation – silent, black & white, the odd mugging style of the acting in those days, dialogue carried on infrequent intertitles – is something of a barrier to someone used to cinema as it exists now, that difference also forms part of the appeal.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, dir. Jamoril Jires (1970), is like Jodorowsky meets Buñuel. I didn’t understand one bit of it. The titular Valeria floats about; there’s a vampire-like figure who pops up every now and again, and who might or might not be her father; there’s her mother, who gets bitten by the vampire and grows younger; and… lots of other bits and pieces I couldn’t quite fathom, It’s all very dream-like… which is the apparent intent. I like strange films, but for some reason this one didn’t really appeal to me.

A Comedy of Power, dir. Claude Chabron (2006), stars the excellent Isabelle Huppert. In this films she’s a judge heading an investigation into a government-supported body which donates money to other nations for large infrastructure projects – the French equivalent of the Overseas Development Agency, in other words. And, like the OSDA, just as corrupt. There’s not much that’s actually funny in A Comedy of Power, despite its title; except perhaps the drôlerie of a system in which corrupt officials are protected by officials who are themselves corrupt… except for the one they’ve decided to sacrifice, of course. A surprisingly lightweight thriller.

Outland, dir. Peter Hyams (1981), may be High Noon in space – well, on a moon of Jupiter – but it never pretends to be anything else. Sean Connery plays the local marshal, who uncovers a conspiracy at the mine. So the mine owners send a team of assassins to Io to rid themselves of the troublesome sheriff. Mostly, it works; except for repeated instances of people exploding in vacuum. That doesn’t happen – in fact, it’s believed a person can survive for about three minutes in vacuum. Even then they won’t inflate like a balloon and then burst. If it hadn’t been for that, and the mysterious earth-like gravity (on a moon with a diameter 3,642 kilometres) – oh, and the lack of vulcanism on Io’s surface – Outland might have been quite a good sf film.

A Kind of Loving is a 10-episode television drama from 1982 I reviewed for videovista.net. See here.

Let The Right One In, dir. Tomas Alfredson (2008), is a vampire film from Sweden, which has deservedly won a bunch of awards. Oskar, a twelve-year-old boy, is being bullied at school. He makes friends with the girl who has just moved in next door, Eli, and who only appears at night and seems a bit odd. I’m not a big fan of horror films, or vampire films for that matter – notwithstanding Nosferatu above – but Let The Right One In really is very very good. It’s perhaps slower than I’d expected, more of a drama than a horror film per se. But it’s very effective, and definitely worth seeing.

Event Horizon, dir. Paul WS Anderson (1997), I remember first seeing at the cinema in Abu Dhabi. I wasn’t impressed then, and I’m still not impressed after watching it again more than a decade later. There’s nothing wrong with the central premise per se – Earth’s first FTL ship goes missing on its maiden voyage, and it transpires its FTL drive opened a portal into another dimension, Hell. Yes, the eponymous ship is little more than a haunted house in space; but the “hauntings” are effectively done. But that doesn’t mean it has to look like a haunted house. It should look like a spaceship. It doesn’t matter how cool it looks, it still has to look plausible.

Equilibrium, dir. Kurt Wimmer (2002), I’d heard vaguely good things about. So it came as a bit of surprise to discover that this film was rubbish from start to finish. The opening exposition is clumsy. The main character (Christian Bale, putting on a terrible American accent) is a “Grammaton Cleric”, which sounds like something out of a fourteen-year-old’s Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The story is ripped off from 1984. The final reveal that “Father” died years before is obvious right from the start. Throughout the film, everyone is supposed to be emotionless, thanks to a wonder drug called Prozium, yet all the dialogue references feelings and emotions. Even the “Gun Kata”, the firearm/martial art, is daft – watch any of the firefights and there’s no way any of the clerics could have survived. The film is stupid nonsense from start to finish.

Ordet, dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer (1955), is a film from the Time Out Centenary Top 100 Films list. It’s also very grim and dour. Perhaps that’s because it’s Danish (joke). It’s filmed in black and white, with a small cast, none of whom ever seem to smile. Anders Borgen wants to marry Anne Petersen, but their parents won’t allow it because each family belongs to a different Christian sect. The Borgens are, ironically, “Glad Christians”, while the Petersens are “Inner Mission”. Then Anders’ sister-in-law, Inger, suffers a stillbirth and then dies. Petersen relents and allows Anders and Anne to be betrothed. Then Anders’ older brother, Johannes, who is mad and believes himself to be Christ, reappears after vanishing earlier, and resurrects Inger. He also appears to be sane. Despite the flatness of its presentation – the sparse décor of the interior sets, the black and white film stock, the monotonous landscape – Ordet is a study in opposites: one faith against another, science against religion, sanity against insanity…. Perhaps it’s the straight face, which never cracks a smile, with which the film is played that makes the final scene so affecting.

Even Dwarfs Started Small, dir. Werner Herzog (1970), is the final film in the Werner Herzog Collection and… I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. The entire cast are dwarfs and the plot is, well, there’s little plot, in fact (no pun intended). A bunch of dwarfs are behaving anarchically outside an institution, and demanding the return of their leader who is imprisoned within by another dwarf. One dwarf rides round on a motorbike. Later, he hotwires a van and ropes the steering-wheel so it drives round continually in a tight circle. Another dwarf, Helmut Döring, has the most bizarre chuckle I’ve ever heard. Some films you are better if you have a bottle of wine or a few cans of beer as you watch them; Even Dwarfs Started Small is one of those films which are better if you have a bottle of wine or a few cans of beer before you watch them.

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