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Readings & watchings 7

Oops. The more alert among you might have noticed this post pop up a day or two ago while it was unfinished. That’s what happens when you click on the wrong button because you’ve not realised the time and have to dash off to work… Anyway, here is the full content I meant to post – books, films, you know the drill…

Books
In-flight Entertainment, Helen Simpson (2010). Every five years, another collection of Simpson’s short stories appears. Reading her is a bit like reading a masterclass in literary short fiction, although the stories in In-flight Entertainment felt a bit inconsequential compared to earlier collections. Several of the stories were about climate change, and not exactly subtle – in the title story, for example, a man on a plane has to suffer a lecture on “why climate change is nonsense” from someone who clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about; meanwhile, an elderly passenger dies and is left in his seat for the remainder of the trip. Simpson is certainly worth reading, but nothing in this collection grabbed me as much as some of her earlier stories had done.

Halcyon Drift, Brian Stableford (1972), is the first book in the sextet variously named ‘Star-Pilot Grainger’ or ‘The Hooded Swan’, after either the narrator or the experimental ship which he pilots. This novel is typical of its time – it’s thin, for one thing. Grainger is a misfit, unemployable after crash-landing on an uninhabited world, rescued after several years and then sued by the rival who rescued him. Oh, and he’s got some sort of alien resident in his mind as well. Grainger is then recruited by the owner of the Hooded Swan, an experimental ship. Their first mission is to enter the eponymous drift, a dangerous region of space (the science explaining why it’s dangerous is nonsense, of course), and find a long-lost ship carrying treasure ahead of other ships. This is solid late 1960s / early 1970s space opera, with pointy spaceships (although not the Hooded Swan), space flight much like sea travel, and a a blithe disregard for plausibility. It’s a bit grimmer than most of its kind, however.

The Saturn Game / Iceborn, Poul Anderson / Gregory Benford & Paul A Carter (1989). No. 14 in the Tor doubles series published in the late 1980s. The actual contents themselves are from earlier. The Anderson was originally published in Analog in 1981, and appears to have been reprinted a number of times. I’ve no idea why: it’s complete rubbish. An exploratory mission to Iapetus from a huge research vessel in the Saturnian system comes a cropper. The crew of four are not trained scientists. In their strangely copious free time they play a fantasy role-playing game, and have done for so many years it’s threatening to spill over into real life. When their trip to Iapetus’ surface turns into a disaster, they must trek across the moon’s surface to safety – and only come close to success by fantasising it as a quest in their “game”. Anderson obviously had this neat idea of juxtaposing the twee fantasy RPG world with the hard sf story of visiting Iapetus. But he gets the details of the moon wrong, the prose tries too hard and often falls flat on its face, and I find it highly implausible such incompetent people would be let near a spacecraft in the first place. The second novella is original to the Tor double. In it, a mission to Pluto discovers life on the dwarf planet. Meanwhile, everyone on Earth thinks the whole thing is a scam by the sole astronaut – the only survivor of the crew of four – and the Project Pluto team on the Moon. Clearly much of the thought in this story went into the creation of the Plutonian ecology, because the story’s not up to much, the politics is simplistic, and the characterisation is poor.

No Truce with Kings / Ship of Shadows, Poul Anderson / Fritz Leiber (1989). No. 5 in the Tor doubles series published in the late 1980s. I’m wondering myself why I immediately read another Poul Anderson novella after finding the one above so poor. But I did. ‘No Truce with Kings’ originally appeared in F&SF in 1963. Which does cast a somewhat different light on it. The story takes place a couple of centuries after a nuclear war. A feudalistic state now exists on the Pacific coast of the US, but there has been a coup by a faction wanting to impose a more democratic society. They are helped by a pan-continental Order of Espers. Except the Espers aren’t really psionic – they just have fancy advanced technology given to them by undercover aliens… who have secretly engineered the coup because they want the Earth to have a supra-national democratic world state before it can be invited into some sort of galactic federation. Anderson makes out that feudalism is a better and more successful form of government than democracy. Rubbish. This novella is better than ‘The Saturn Game’, but not by much. The second novella, ‘Ship of Shadows’, is from 1969, and is Leiber trying to pull off a Cordwainer Smith story. The viewpoint character is amnesiac and has poor eyesight – so everything he sees is blurred and hard to understand. The Big Reveal is that they are all aboard a spaceship orbiting a dead Earth – although using the word “ship” in the title seems a bit of a giveaway to me. Confusingly-written, thin on plot, and mostly pointless. Not impressed.

Real-time World, Christopher Priest (1974), is Priest’s first collection, and holds up surprisingly well despite being thirty-six years old. The first four stories are very good indeed. The second half of the collection is less good, but the collection ends on a strong note with the title story, which may be a bit too consciously Ballardian but still works well. I wrote about one of the stories in Real-Time World on NextRead for their Short Story Month here. A new edition of the book, with added notes by Priest, is available from Priest’s own GrimGrin Studio here.

The One Kingdom, Sean Russell (2001), was May’s book for this year’s fantasy reading challenge, and I wrote about it here.

Yukikaze, Chōhei Kambayashi (2010), was originally published in Japanese in 1989, but this is the first English edition of the 2002 revised version. I reviewed it for Vector.

When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro (2000). Much as I like Ishiguro’s writing, it’s difficult to feel the same about his characters. In this one, Banks, a famous detective in the 1930s (in the style of Sherlock Holmes), is a pompous self-deluded idiot. He grew up in Shanghai but returned to the UK at age ten after his parents mysteriously vanished. More than a decade later, he visits Shanghai and imagines a) that he can rescue his parents from their kidnappers, b) resolve the war between the Chinese and the Japanese, and c) that the kidnap of his parents and the war are linked and so the solution to the first will bring about the second. Ishiguro’s consistency of voice is impressive, but the central conceit of the story felt like too much of a hurdle to suspend disbelief.

The City and the City, China Miéville (2009), I reviewed for SFF Chronicles here.

Child of the River, Ancients of Days and Shrine of Stars, Paul J McAuley (1997 – 1999), or the Confluence trilogy, is McAuley doing Baxter on Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun. Sort of. Confluence is an artificial needle-shaped world, dominated by a river running its length, and orbiting a black hole. The creators of Confluence – or rather, those who caused Confluence to be built – entered the black hole and so left the universe thousands of years before. Yama is discovered as a child floating in a boat on the river, but he’s plainly not one of the ten thousands races (mostly uplifted from animals) which inhabit Confluence. There’s very much a Wolfean vibe going on here, with McAuley using existing obscure words for all manner of objects, from fauna to types of boats. In the first book, Yama travels to the capital Ys, having adventures on en route and learning something about himself and his powers. In the second book, Yama learns more about Confluence, and the narrative contains great globs of Baxterian story – a bit like finding cubes of beef in a bowl of onion soup. The final book explains everything by looping in and out of Confluence’s timeline, sort of like a cross between Heinlein’s ‘By His Bootstraps’ and Baxter’s Timelike Infinity. This is good, inventive stuff, quality UK sf, but perhaps too rich a brew to read all three books one after the other.

Troy, Simon Brown (2006), is, as the title suggests, a collection of ten stories, each inspired by a character from the Trojan Wars. The stories are variously literary fantasy and science fiction – the most sfnal is ‘The Masque of Agamemnon’, co-written with Sean Williams and available online here (some of the others are on Simon Brown’s web site here).  They’re very well done indeed – I wouldn’t mind reading more by Brown.

Starfield, edited by Duncan Lunan (1989), is a bit of a curio. It was published by The Orkney Press, and is an anthology of Scottish science fiction. The contents are a mix of known names and unknown – the latter mostly are winning entries from the annual Glasgow Herald SF Short Story competition. There’s an early William King, a couple of short Alasdair Gray pieces, some Edwin Morgan poems (although I much preferred ‘VENJINSS’ by alburt plethora), and a long story by Chris Boyce from 1966, among others.

Starlight 2, edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden (1998), is pretty much a snapshot of US literary sf and fantasy at the turn of the millennium. As were the first and third volumes in the anthology series. This one contains fiction by Robert Charles Wilson, Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Lethem, Angélica Gorodischer, Ted Chiang, Martha Soukup, and several others. While none especially stood out for me – except perhaps Raphael Carter’s Tiptree Prize-winning ‘Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation’ – this is a collection of well-written, polished genre fiction.

The Captain’s Doll, DH Lawrence (1923), is another from the Lawrence omnibus I found in a charity shop. It’s the best of the three novellas in the book – the other two are ‘The Ladybird’ and ‘The Man Who Died’. ‘The Captain’s Doll’ is set in Germany during the 1920s. Hannele is an impoverished German countess, who is having an affair with an English infantry officer, Captain Alexander Hepburn. She ekes out a living making dolls, and makes the eponymous one of Hepburn. Then Hepburn’s wife appears, and makes it plain she’s there to stop her husband’s philandering. However, she doesn’t realise Hannele is the other woman, but instead believes it to be Hannele’s friend. Then the wife dies in a suspicious accident. Hepburn returns to Britain, and a year later hears that Hannele has moved to the Tyrol and is engaged to an Austrian Regierungsrat. He travels there with mixed motives – he has sworn off women, but neither is he willing to let Hannele go. He meets her, is invited to her house for tea, and then the two go on a trip up the mountain to see a glacier. Lawrence excels at the interaction between his characters – here, the argument between Hepburn and Hannele as they tramp up the mountain is brilliantly done – although he does have a tendency to go off on introspective rambles which are often repetitive. In ‘The Captain’s Doll’, this latter tendency is not so obtrusive because the two main characters are, well, they’re a little bit odd. Good stuff.

Books of Blood VI, Clive Barker (1986). Barker is the master of padding. And it shows even in his short fiction. There are four stories in this slim book, but each one is about twice the length it needs to be. He’s one of those authors I’ve continued to read because I liked a couple of things he did – but there’s nothing in this collection remotely as good as them. The same could be said for his novels. Time for a purge of the book-shelves, I think.

Found Wanting, Robert Goddard (2008). And it was indeed. There’s an interesting idea buried in this – that the son of the woman who claimed to be Princess Anastasia grew up incognito in Denmark and founded a successful multinational – but having the main character be chased around Scandinavia while people explained the mystery to him is not a good way to tell the story.

Films
Charlie Wilson’s War, dir. Mike Nichols (2007). I fail to understand why the US insists on trying to make something heroic out of ill-thought adventurism and blatant interference in other nations’ sovereign affairs. They’d be the first to cry foul if someone did it to them. In Charlie Wilson’s War, the titular Wilson is a good ole country boy congressman with control over the intelligence budget… which he uses to funnel money and arms to the Mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet invaders. Of course, as soon as the Russians were kicked out, the Mujahideen turned into the Taliban. Which the people who knew something about the situation expected. But Wilson saw only the plucky Afghanis fighting the evil Reds. This is what happens when you give parochial cow farmers covert control of foreign policy…

La Cérémonie, dir. Claude Chabron (1995). Nope, still don’t get it. I know Jonathan McAlmont is a big fan of Chabron’s films, but I’ve now seen a couple of them – because Isabelle Huppert stars in them – and I can’t see the appeal. In this one, Huppert is the post-mistress in a small village, and a bit of a rebel. A young woman starts as the housekeeper of a well-to-do family in the village, but the woman is illiterate and goes to great lengths to disguise the fact. Resentment builds up, in part fuelled by Huppert’s character, and it all comes to a violent end. An interesting thriller/drama, and entertaining, but it often feels too clinical in places to really admire.

Gran Torino, dir. Clint Eastwood (2009). This was a surprise: Eastwood actually playing to his current strengths – i.e., in a role as an septuagenarian hard-ass. The racism in the film is harsh, and Eastwood’s character never quite redeems his bigotry – and it’s difficult to carry a film on an unlikeable protagonist, especially one who makes an effort not to be liked. There’s a weird subtext that it’s characters such as the part Eastwood plays which made the US great – as made concrete by the titular car – which doesn’t strike me as an especially edifying lesson for the history books. Nevertheless, Gran Torino is put together well, everyone plays their parts with skill, and it’s an easy film to like.

The Comedy of Errors, dir. James Cellan Jones (1983), is the third of the BBC’s Shakespeare collection, which I’m steadily working my way through. There were these twin boys, and they had as bonded servants another pair of twins. Except the pairs were separated – boy plus servant – at an early age. One grew up in Ephesus, and the other Syracuse. Both think the other dead. Then the one from Syracuse comes to visit Ephesus on business… It’s an obvious set-up for mistaken identity. Except both men are called Antiphone. And their servants are both called Dromio. And both pairs happen to be wearing exactly the same outfits. At which point, any sane person’s head will explode from an overabundance of implausible coincidences… Michael Kitchen was good as the Antiphones, and Roger Daltrey not too bad as the Dromios. The comedy manages to be both sly and obvious, but some of the language was horribly clunky. Not one of the Bard’s best.

The House Bunny, dir. Fred Wolf (2008), I added to my rental list after reading somewhere that it was funny and ironic. The review lied. It’s a typical brainless sexist Hollywood comedy. A sorority of losers succeeds by turning themselves into objects of male desire, helped by an ex-Playboy Bunny. Admittedly, Anna Faris as the Playboy Bunny played her mind-numbingly stupid character well, but what’s funny about a stupid Bunny Girl? It’s pandering to stereotypes. But then the entire film did that. Eminently avoidable.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, dir. John S Robertson (1920), and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, dir. Robert Wiene (1920), I saw these two silent films in one night in Sheffield Cathedral, with live accompaniment provided by the organist. Not your typical venue for a pair of silent horror films, but never mind. It was an excellent night out, although church pews are bit hard and tend to numb the arse cheeks after a while. Barrymore chews scenery like it’s a seven-course banquet in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; although that was pretty much the style of the time. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari was all German Expressionist sets, weird camera angles, and creeping shadows. I’m glad I saw them – and the accompaniment was expertly done – but I’ll not be rushing out to buy the DVDs…

His Girl Friday, dir. Howard Hawks (1940), is another classic from some list of top 100 films – but I forget which. The copy I saw was a poor transfer, which was a shame. Dialogue doesn’t come much snappier than this, although the plot descended into farce when the main characters were trapped in the local prison. A very fast film – everything seemed to happen in quick succession. I can see why it’s a classic, and while it’s funny in parts, it all went a bit too farcical for me.

Magnificent Desolation, dir. Mark Cowen (2005), I reviewed on my Space Books blog here.

Revolutionary Road, dir. Sam Mendes (2008), is an adaptation of the novel by Richard Yates, which I’ve not read. And, in some strange way, this film’s literary origin told against it. The first two acts are optimistic, as Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet marry and set up home, then decide to jack it all in and move to Paris with the kids. But I knew it couldn’t last – books and films of this type never do. And so it proved, as everything started to go horribly wrong. The two leads were excellent, and the film evoked period extremely well. But it’s by no means a cheerful movie, even though it initially tries to represent itself as such.

The Red And The White, dir. Miklós Jancsó (1967), is another one of those foreign films I stuck on my rental list and can no longer remember why I did so. Happily, whenever I done this it’s always turned out well, and this one was no exception. The red and the white from the title are Russians, and the film is set two years after the October Revolution. Hungarian irregulars support the Reds in their battles with the Whites. This is not a film with a definable story-arc, or any kind of resolution. It’s brutal, but not gory, and was unsurprisingly banned in Russia for not showing the Reds as “heroic” (not that the Whites are heroic, either). Definitely worth seeing.

District 9, dir. Neill Blomkamp (2009), I’d been looking forward to seeing for a while. It was, according to many, one of the best sf films of last year. So I was surprised while watching it to find that I didn’t think it very good at all. The opening shots of the alien saucer over Johannesburg are effective, but then there’s an immediate break in tone as the main character, Wikus van der Merwe, is introduced. He’s a bumbling, self-effacing bureaucrat, and clearly a twit. But District 9 isn’t a comedy. It didn’t help that the story was initially framed as “found footage” – i.e., excerpts from newscasts and a documentary about van der Merwe which was being filmed as District 9‘s events unfolded – but every now and again, the PoV would pull back and cinematically break out of the framing narrative. And if presenting the story as an idiot comedy wasn’t enough, in the second half van der Merwe suddenly turns into some sort of action hero and the film into a standard Hollywood shoot-em-up. Not good. Very disappointing.

I Know You Know, dir. Justin Kerrigan (2008), is an odd film. I reviewed it for VideoVista here.

Repulsion, dir. Roman Polanski (1965), was Polanski’s first English-language film, a psychological horror film set in London and starring Catherine Deneuve. I reviewed it for Videovista here.

Blake’s 7 – Series 3 (1980). I have odd memories of bits and pieces of this programme from when it was first broadcast and, while I knew the general set-up and characters, I don’t think I could have described the plot of any individual episode. Series 3 is a case in point. Two new characters join the crew of the Liberator in this series, and I have quite strong memories of someone living in a spaceship hidden under the sea with a disguised hatch on the beach. Which proves to be the home of Dayna, as introduced in the first episode of this series. One thing I certainly hadn’t forgotten was how cheap Blake’s 7 was, with sets even wobblier than Dr Who’s, alien worlds that bear a remarkable resemblance to parts of the UK, and alien monsters that wouldn’t convince a two-year-old. The central characters are drawn well, Avon and Vila especially – both get some great lines – but the episodes themselves are mostly rubbish. As Blake’s 7 progressed through each season, it grew less plausible and more nonsensical, and some of the episodes in series 3 must have been the nadir. Still, it’s a piece, an important piece, of UK telly sf, was always watchable drama, and there were some good ideas in there every now and again.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil, dir. Sacha Gervasi (2009), I thought would appeal to me, given that I’m a metal-head. It’s a warts-and-all documentary on the titular Canadian heavy metal band who have been going for thirty years. Their fortunes have declined with the years, however – although, unsurprisingly, this film has improved them somewhat. Anvil! is very much like all those talent shows put together by Simon Cowell – it’s ordinary people parading their delusions which makes for the entertainment. Anvil! is not unlike Chris Smith’s American Movie in that respect. But it shouldn’t have been. It’s about a working band. They’re not Spinal Tap, and it’s misrepresentation to present them as though they were. Nor does Anvil! even try to engage with the music – despite the director claiming to be “England’s number-one Anvil fan” on first meeting the band in 1982, and having been a roadie for them on three tours. The film holds up the members of the band and characterises them as idiots, when they clearly do what they do for the love of the music. Other, more honest, documentaries have explored the tribal nature, both among the musicians and the fans, of metal music. I’d have thought the director of Anvil! was in a position to understand this. Perhaps it wasn’t entertaining enough. Perhaps he thought Anvil as Spinal Tap would prove more popular. I suspect he may have been right…

Cymbeline, dir. Elijah Moshinsky (1982), is another of the BBC’s Shakespeare adaptations. The thing about Shakespeare is that you already know the story, even if you know nothing about the play. The plot of Cymbeline is a case in point. An exiled noble, Posthumus, proud of his wife Imogen’s constancy (she’s King Cymbeline’s daughter), boasts of it to an acquaintance while in Rome. The Roman, Iachimo, doesn’t believe him, so they bet on it. Iachimo is off to visit Britain, and if he can seduce Posthumus’ wife, then he wins the bet. Of course, he cheats – hides in a trunk, has it carried into Imogen’s bedroom, and pops out in the middle of the night and notes whatever information he needs to convince Posthumus that he slept with his wife. Posthumus, showing a remarkable lack of faith in a wife he was only too happy to be boastful about, promptly goes mad. Shakespeare dresses this up with a pair of princes stolen at childbirth, who grew up believing themselves the sons of a woodman; and a war. Strangely, despite Cymbeline clearly being set in Roman Britain, the director chose to stage it in Elizabethan dress. Helen Mirren was excellent as Imogen, and Robert Lindsay as the conniving Iachimo. I must admit I’m enjoying working my way through Shakespeare’s plays, and these BBC The Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare are superior adaptations.

The White Ribbon, dir. Michael Haneke (2009). There can be little doubt that Haneke is one of the most interesting directors currently making films. And good as The White Ribbon is, I have to wonder how far he can go. I knew this film would not have a resolution because it was a Haneke film. I knew that what was happening on the screen was not a story as such. It documents the events of a year before the outbreak of World War War in a rural German feudal village. Someone strings up a wire between two trees, and the doctor runs into on his horse, causing him to fall and break his collar-bone badly. The horse has to be shot. The baron’s young son is abducted and beaten. A farmer’s wife falls through rotten floorboards and into a threshing machine, which kills her. The midwife’s retarded son is tortured. There is a mystery here, but all attempts to investigate it prove fruitless. Instead, we’re shown what monsters the baron, the doctor and the local pastor are. As if the horrible events are reactions to the culture, the society, of the village which they have created. The White Ribbon is, like most of Haneke’s films, one which defies easy analysis. I rented this, but I suspect I shall be buying a copy of my own. Because it’s a film which needs rewatching.

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