July felt like a month of molasses – everything seemed a bit of a struggle. I thought I hadn’t read as much as usual, nor written as much. And yet, looking back, I seem to have read as many books as I typically do in a month. Perhaps I wasn’t exactly prolific on the writing-front during the same period – not that I ever am – but I did manage to start and finish a couple of new pieces. Happily, August felt a little better. Although, having said that, I’ve only just started on my Summer Reading Project (see here); and I’d planned to read the first book in July…
Anyway, you know how it goes: books wot I read and films wot I watched since the last post on this wot I wrote.
Conflicts, edited by Ian Whates (2010), I reviewed for Interzone. A mixed bag: some good ones, but not so good – as I hope my review makes clear.
Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975), is Eric Brown’s favourite sf novel – he even managed to sneak it onto the Grauniad’s 1000 novels everyone must read last year. I’m surprised I’d not read this sooner. Coney’s name is not unknown to me, but I seem to have managed to avoid his novels over the years. Yet I vaguely recall having his books recommended to me at cons as much as twenty years ago. I should have read them then, because Hello Summer, Goodbye is good. The world-building is excellent, it’s well-plotted, and the characters are drawn well. It’s set on a world with extreme seasons and human-like people. Drove, a young teenager, and his parents have moved to Pallahaxi, a seaside town, because of the war with a neighbouring nation. The previous year Drove had fallen in love with a town resident, Browneyes, and he’s keen to renew his friendship with her. Which he does. He also learns more about the war, and about his world. Drove is admittedly a bit of a prat, and he matures surprisingly quickly about halfway through the book. But the ending is cleverly done. There’s a sequel, I Remember Pallahaxi, which I wouldn’t mind reading.
The Possibility of an Island, Michel Houellebecq (2005), is the second Houellebecq novel I’ve read and, while the story is different, it’s very much like Atomised. The same concerns – immortality and sex – are there, the same misanthropic and nihilistic tone is there. In this one, Daniel is a French comedian, fêted for his edginess. As he grows older, he finds his libido waning and his ennui waxing. By accident, he gets involved with the Elohimites, your typical nutjob alien-saviours/creators cult/religion. Except the Elohimits are serious about genetically-engineering humanity to be immortal, and have the scientific chops to make a proper job of it. Daniel takes on the role of documenting the Elohimites’ quest for immortality, an important aspect of the stopgap measure they introduce – as indicated by short interspersed chapters by Daniel26 (i.e., the 26th incarnation of Daniel). There’s something about Houellebecq’s writing which carries you through his novels – despite the misery; the unhealthy, and often misogynistic, focus on sex; and the weak sfnal ideas around which he builds his plots, and the unconvincing way he often deploys those ideas. I have Platform on the TBR.
Anna Mercury Volume 1: The Cutter, Warren Ellis & Facundo Percio (2009), and Ignition City Volume 1, Warren Ellis & Gianluca Pagliarani (2010), are a pair of mini-series collected as trade paperbacks. Both are sf. In Anna Mercury Volume 1: The Cutter, the title character is an agent of a secret organisation who travels to alternate Earths. There are apparently nine of these alternate Earths, and they were discovered when the USS Eldridge disappeared in 1943 during the Philadelphia Experiment. The means of travel used by Mercury means she has, effectively, superpowers. In this story, she’s attempting to prevent a war between two powers. The aggressors are the nation where the USS Eldridge arrived, and they’ve reverse-engineered the technology they glimpsed and built a cargo-cult around the ship’s appearance. Ignition City Volume 1 is, I think, the better of the two, although its premise isn’t as interesting, or off-the-wall, as the other one. It’s set in a post-Flash Gordon 1970s, after the Earth has fared badly since defeating Kharg (Ming, in other words). Flash Gordon is named Lightning Bowman, and he’s not heroic anymore. Mary Raven, daughter of another such space hero, has come to Ignition City to learn how her father died. He was murdered in his sleep, probably by Lightning Bowman. But why? There’s a brilliant exchange in this: when Mary meets the Professor Zarkov character and is invited into his house, she says, “… your house smells weird.” He replies, “It smells of SCIENCE.” I hope they do another series of this one. The art in both, by the way, is uniformly very good.
The Alteration, Kingsley Amis (1976). Ten-year-old Hubert Anvil is a chorister, with perhaps the best voice in Christendom, and so the abbot of his school decides he should have a glittering career as a singer. There’s only one thing that needs to be done first: castrate him. In the world of The Alteration, there was no Protestantism and so the Roman Catholic Church “rules” all of Europe. Technology has reached about mid-Victorian levels, although the book is set in 1976. Anvil’s impending “alteration” sets off a chain of events: he meets the pope, runs away from school, is abducted by a Jewish kidnapper who uses ransom money to finance Aliyah, and tries to escape to North America. Amis’ alternate world is cleverly done, there are some excellent sf in-jokes in the story, and the plot canters along at a comfortable pace. The writing’s a bit clumsy in one or two places, and the fact it’s a “satire” is plainly meant to justify the frankly disappointing ending. Still a fun read, though.
The Chimpanzee Complex Vol 3: Civilisation, Richard Marazano & Jean-Michel Ponzio (2010), is the final part of this French graphic novel trilogy, and… Something doesn’t quite add up. Parts one and two both had really cool ideas, but this one feels like it belongs to another story. It’s also a little odd reading a comic which doesn’t use decompression. I think I need to reread all three parts of The Chimpanzee Complex… and then I will write about it here. Maybe.
Starswarm, Brian W Aldiss (1964), is another attempt by Aldiss to do Last and First Men, much like he tried in Galaxies Like Grains of Sand. I like Aldiss’s fiction, and I have a high regard for it, but a month after reading this collection I can remember almost nothing of it.
Veteran, Gavin G Smith (2010). I met Gavin at alt.fiction (see here), and he arranged for me to be sent a review copy of this, his debut novel. My review is up on SFF Chronicles here. It’s not a book I enjoyed reading a great deal – I didn’t like the world, and I’m not a fan of military sf. It’s a polished debut, there’s no doubt about that; but it’s not for me.
The Inward Animal, Terence Tiller (1943), is a collection of Tiller’s poetry. There’s a faint stamp on the cover of this first edition which reads, ‘Burma Educational Bookshop, 549 Merchant Street, Rangoon’, so it’s not only come a long way in time but also in space to reach my bookshelves. The poems are war poems, inasmuch as they attempt what Tiller describes in a foreword as the three parts of a pattern of experience: “a shocked and defensive rebellion; reconciliation must follow; the birth of some mutual thing in which the old and the new, the self and the alien, are combined after war”. Tiller I find a very technical poet, a skilled practitioner of form and imagery, and The Inward Animal shows this more than his other collections. Several of the poems were composed in Cairo, where Tiller taught during World War II and was a member of both the Personal Landscape and Salamander groups.
Smiley’s People, John Le Carré (1980), I read because it was on one of those 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die lists (but not the Grauniad one). I’ve read a number of Le Carré’s novels over the years but not, apparently, this one. I don’t think I even saw the BBC dramatisation, starring Alec Guinness as Smiley; although I wouldn’t mind doing so (in fact, I think I’ll stick it on the DVD rental list; and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy too). Anyway, as a novel, Smiley’s People was slow, and seemed to veer strangely from narrative to reportage and back. Le Carré also appeared more interested in Smiley-as-enigma than he did in the actual story. But it had a good sense of place, and the way the plot was slowly revealed was cleverly done.
Roads Not Taken, edited by Gardner Dozois & Stanley Schmidt (1998), is one of those anthologies cobbled together from recycled stories from Asimov’s. This one is themed and the theme is, er, alternate history. The usual suspects are all present and correct: Harry Turtledove, Mike Resnick and, um, Gene Wolfe. I got this book free from readitswapit.co.uk, which is just as well as it’s crap. It takes real skill as an editor to put together an anthology that contains not one single decent story, but they managed it with this one.
Surrogates, dir. Jonathan Mostow (2009), is your usual Hollywood tosh masquerading as science fiction. It embodies a couple of perversions which seem to be part of the so-called American Dream – a) true success for a company means dominating 100% of the market (which requires corrupting the legislature in order to make that legal); and b) any idealistic leader who opposes the successful company must be corrupt. I don’t think this is what neocons mean when they complain about “Hollywood liberals”. The surrogates of the title are near-indestructible robot bodies which people use every day – while they stay at home, safe and sound, operating their robot bodies through VR. Of course, the surrogates are prettified versions of the real people – except for star Bruce Willis’s surrogate, which actually looks quite creepy. Which is weirdly fitting, because the entire concept is creepy. Willis is a FBI agent tasked with investigating the bizarre murders of some surrogates – murders which also kill the surrogates’ operators. Definitely a film to avoid. But you knew that already because Bruce Willis has hair in it.
Battlestar Galactica: The Plan, dir. James Edward Olmos (2009), was, well, odd. I like Battlestar Galactica, I even like the hiccup ending they put in because of the writers’ strike; and I like the actual real ending which had so many people annoyed. Which is why I bought Battlestar Galactica: The Plan. It’s a feature-length television movie which tells the story of all four seasons of the television series from the point of view of the Cylons. And chiefly from the point of view of a pair of them played by Dean Stockwell. If you’ve not watched the TV series, you won’t understand this. If you have, you’ll wonder why they thought they needed to make it.
Humanoid Woman, dir. Richard Victorov (1981), was a rewatch, but I decided to write about it here as I hadn’t done so before. It’s an English-dubbed and much-mangled version of a Russian film, Через тернии к звездам (To The Stars By Hard Ways). There’s an official site here in Russian. A starship comes across the wreck of an alien ship. The crew explore the wreck, and find a number of dead humanoid bodies and a single survivor. This section was filmed underwater to simulate zero gravity – which works quite well, but does look weirdly murky. The survivor, Niya, is taken to Earth and invited to stay with a scientist, his family and crap-looking robot. She has lost her memory, but appears to have weird supernatural abilities such as teleportation. She recovers her memory, and remembers that she is from the planet of Dessa, which has suffered a catastrophic ecological collapse due to over-industrialisation. Earth puts together a rescue mission, with Niya, and heads for Dessa. But the Dessans are split into two warring factions, and one manages to control Niya telepathically. She breaks their control, and releases some sort of intelligent foam, which seems to clean up the planet. This is a very strange film, and I’m not entirely sure whether it makes sense. That may be an artefact of being mangled and dubbed for the English-language market, but I suspect the original Russian version was also very odd. A director’s cut with new special effects was apparently released a couple of years ago on DVD by the director’s son. If it was available with English subtitles, I’d seriously consider buying a copy.
Romeo & Juliet, dir. Alvin Rakoff (1978), is another one of the BBC’s Complete Works of Shakespeare adaptations. Like many of Shakespeare’s plays, the story is known by pretty much everyone. Likewise, almost everyone forgets a few details – as I had. Such as the fact that Juliet is only thirteen when she secretly marries Romeo. In this adaptation, the actress playing Juliet, Rebecca Saire, is close to that age – she’s fourteen. And Romeo, who is almost twice her age, snogs her repeatedly. Otherwise… John Gielgud’s plummy tones bookend the story as the chorus, Michael Hordern plays the head of the Capulets well, but both Romeo and Juliet are a bit bland, and Anthony Andrews hams it up shamelessly as Mercutio. Not one of the BBC’s better adaptations.
The Damned United, dir. Tom Hooper (2009), I watched because I’d read the book and I wanted to see how it differed. Not much. Although they did tone down the swearing quite a lot. The film also missed out some of the story, especially some of Clough’s early life. But that’s not unexpected. Not being a fan of football, the subject of the film was hardly going to appeal, but I liked the book and that carried over into the film. Michael Sheen managed to turn Clough into a likable bloke, which might have been doing Clough a great disservice but certainly made for an entertaining film.
Timecrimes, dir. Nacho Vigalondo (2007), is one of those twisty-turny time-travel films like Primer but, well, is nowhere near as fiendishly twisty-turny as Primer. Héctor and his wife have just moved into their new house. While the wife heads off to the shops, Héctor relaxes in the garden. But he spots something in the woods up the hill from his house. It’s a young woman undressing. He investigates, finds the young woman seemingly out cold, is attacked by a mysterious figure with its head wrapped in bandages… and runs away to find himself in a laboratory with a strange machine. The scientist present urges him to hide in the machine, which proves to be a time machine, so he travels back in time… and sort of recreates the plot of Heinlein’s ‘By His Bootstraps’… A clever and entertaining film.
Up, dir. Peter Docter and Bob Peterson (2009), is the last of the “long forms” (ugh) from the Hugo awards shortlist. As everyone has said, the opening section showing Carl Fredricksen meeting his wife-to-be Ellie, the two of them growing up together, marrying, living to a ripe old age, her death… is superb. That’s not to say the remainder of the film is rubbish – it’s not as strong, but it’s still very good. And if I were voting on the Hugo, I think I’d place Moon first, followed by Up, Avatar, and then No Award – as I disliked District 9 and thought Star Trek XI so monumentally stupid it should never have been shortlisted. But Up… The whole balloon thing is a bit too whimsical, but sort of works. The bird is annoying – as is the fat kid, but only initially as he soon grows on you. The dogs are excellent – the best things in the film, in fact. It’s a fun movie, worth seeing. And it may well win the Hugo, although I suspect not.
Out Of The Past, dir. Jacques Tourneur (1947), is film noir starring Robert Mitchum, and is generally considered one of the greatest of all film noir. I like film noir, but strangely this one didn’t appeal. It wasn’t Mitchum, who I find perfectly watchable; nor Jane Greer, who was good in her role. Perhaps it’s just one of those films you simply don’t connect with. I may have to watch it again some day.
Body Of Lies, dir. Ridley Scott (2008). Once upon a time, I was big fan of Scott’s films. Well, yes, he directed Alien and Blade Runner. But then he did Legend. And after that he only managed the occasional film which seemed to rise above their story. Plus many that didn’t – I mean, G.I. Jane? Anyway, I hadn’t even recognised Body Of Lies as one of his when I sat down to watch it… and discovered it was in the opening credits. It is, essentially, Syriana with more guns. Sort of. A perfectly respectable thriller, in other words, and happily not one of the gung-ho Republican thrillers which attempts to justify US foreign policy, torture, rendition or Gitmo. Leonardo DiCaprio plays a CIA Arabist (who speaks Arabic with a terrible accent) in Iraq. His handler, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a fascist prick… and it’s DiCaprio’s attempt to do the job right, as he’s the man on the ground, against Hoffman’s neocon steamroller tactics which drives the plot. The action starts in post-invasion Iraq, but soon moves to Jordan and the hunt for an Al-Qa’eda terrorist cell. Better than I expected.
Mesrine 1: Killer Instinct and Mesrine 2: Public Enemy No. 1, dir. Jean-François Richet (2008), were an odd pair of films. They’re about the eponymous gangster, played extremely well by Vincent Cassel, from his beginnings as a soldier in Algeria to his ignominious end as public enemy number one. The films present his life without moralising, which made for a nice change, but about halfway through they started to turn increasingly less realistic. After fleeing to Canada, Mesrine is arrested and jailed in a high security prison which makes Gitmo look like Disney World. This was during the 1970s. He escapes, and returns to shoot the place up – ostensibly to free the other prisoners, but he fails. He returns to France, continues to rob banks, and is eventually killed in a shoot-out with the police. Mesrine was, apparently, a real person, and the events of the two films are mostly based on true events – despite seeming in places like something out of a Hollywood thriller. These are good films, well-made thrillers, and definitely worth seeing.
The Day The Earth Stood Still, dir. Scott Derrickson (2008). Well, I’d been warned. This film is bad, they said. I’d seen the trailer and, despite starring Keanu Reeves, it didn’t look like it could be as dreadful as described. But I was wrong and they were right. The Day The Earth Stood Still is terrible. Reeves is even more wooden than usual, the plot is stupid, the story doesn’t make much sense, and even the message of the original has been garbled. Avoid.