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Moving pictures, #14

These are the last films I watched during 2014 – or at least, the last films I watched worth noting. One or two you might have heard of. As on previous Moving Pictures posts, asterisked titles are on the 1001 Movies You Must Watch Before You Die list.

josephine-and-menJosephine and Men, Roy Boulting (1955, UK). I bunged this on an order from Amazon as a) it was cheap, b) the write-up sounded interesting, and c) I like 1950s films. Unfortunately, it proved less good than expected. The title character is played by Glynis Johns, who was apparently big in her day but was new to me. She plays the sort of woman who is attracted to men in need – fortunately, she comes from a well-off family, so she doesn’t have to suffer while attaching herself to them. Her first is a struggling playwright who, after marrying her, becomes a commercial success, so they retire to the country. Then an old beau who’s a rich and successful investment-something turns up, and apparently his firm has collapsed owing lots of money and his partner has probably done something fraudulent. So Josephine falls for him and… There’s probably a word for these sort of 1950s Brit rom coms, where everyone is terribly-terribly and the women all wear mink coats and you know the men all went to the best schools. It’s all very frothy and no more representative of this country than any contemporary Hollywood film or indeed a present day Conservative Party political broadcast. A film for a wet Sunday afternoon when you can’t be arsed to switch your brain on.

xmendaysX-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer (2014, USA). From what I’d read, I was expecting a twisty-turny plot that was more twisty and turny than a twisty-turny thing. Not quite up to Primer‘s level, but something a bit like, say, Looper. So my expectations were somewhere around the middle, and yet X-Men: Days of Future Past still failed to meet them. There’s no cunning time-paradox plot. The film opens in a future Earth decimated by the Sentinels, and the surviving X-Men use some magic superpower to send Wolverine back in time to the 1970s to prevent the Sentinels from being built. It’s mildly amusing, although perhaps chiefly entertaining for the po-faces pulled by the cast as they speak their ridiculous lines or strut about in their ridiculous costumes. I remember being really impressed with the first X-Men film when I saw it. I’d always had a fondness for the group and used to buy the comic as a kid. (I did try later rereading the Dark Phoenix Saga – I shouldn’t have done. It was shit. Don’t piss on your childhood heroes, keep them safely dry under rose-tinted glass.) Anyway, X-Men: Days of Future Past was I suppose entertaining, but this superhero movie thing, it’s all getting very silly now and I think it should stop.

lastdaysonmarsThe Last Days on Mars, Ruairi Robinson (2013, UK). I sort of feel a very tiny sense of ownership of Mars since I’ve written a novella and several short stories set on the planet’s surface, and I researched them all thoroughly… But seriously, having researched Mars, I’m somewhat sensitive to attempts to portray it realistically – and there have been several attempts. Sort of. Who remembers Red Planet and Mission to Mars? The Last Days on Mars makes a reasonable effort to depict the Martian surface – it was filmed in Jordan, apparently – but the plot is your usual sci-fi cinema nonsense. One of the scientists disobeys orders to go on one last survey – why are astronauts and scientists in films so unprofessional? Seriously, no one’s going to spend billions of dollars putting some maverick prick into space or on another planet. Anyway, said scientist discovers a weird hole in the ground, falls in and gets contaminated by some alien gunk that turns him into a zombie. And it’s contagious! And it’s zombies on Mars! And that’s it!

Les-DiaboliquesLes Diaboliques*, Henri-Georges Clouzot (1954, France). The only reason I watched this was because it’s on the 1001 Movies To Watch Before You Die list, but it’s one of those films which proves the worth of such lists. I’d seen another Clouzot earlier in the year, Wages of Fear, which I’d thought good if somewhat over-shadowed by later uses of the same formula. But when I shoved Les Diaboliques into the DVD player, I knew nothing about it. The title promised… Well, pretty much like Wages of Fear, the title promised a different story to that which unfolded as the film progressed. An abused wife of a schoolmaster gets her revenge, with the her husband’s mistress, also a teacher at the school. They drown him in a bath-tub, then roll his body into the school swimming-pool so it looks like an accident, but the body is never discovered… Casting his actual death into doubt. It’s all very cleverly done, but I did think it took a while to get going.

Space-Station-76-2014-R2Space Station 76, Jack Plotnick (2014, USA). A person of my acquaintance encouraged me on Twitter to watch this film by telling me how bad it was, because they quite clearly knew I’d be unable to resist it from their description. In actual fact, it wasn’t quite as bad as advertised, it was just mostly very dull. I can see how someone might have thought the central premise – it’s set on a space station! but like a space station from a bad 1970s sci-fi show! – might have sounded awesome for about, oh, a nanosecond or so. But really, this film should never have been green-lit. I’m having trouble remembering the actual story – in fact, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t one. Some of the jokes, piss-takes of 1970s sensibilities, were either not funny or borderline offensive. Like the gratuitous nude woman who appears a couple of times. She’s a hallucination by one of the male characters and serves no purpose in the plot. It was all a bit like an episode of one of those 1970s science fiction television shows, where you look away for five minutes, look back and it’s like you never looked away at all except it’s just struck you that you no longer give a fuck what’s happening.

lolaLola*, Jacques Demy (1961, France). I think this is the first Demy I’ve ever watched. When this movie opens with a big American convertible driving around the streets of a French port, the first thing it put me in mind of was Aki Kaurismäki. But then it sort of turns into a Nouvelle Vague drama, with a US sailor who falls for the eponymous singer/dancer in a bar – which looked a bit too wholesome and clean, to be honest – but Lola is still pining for her previous boyfriend, who left seven years before to make his fortune. There’s also an ingenu, who knew Lola as a teenager and bumps into her in the bar where she works. There are one or two musical numbers, which are cleverly integrated into the story. It’s all very charming and not what I was expecting. There was a matter-of-factness, a pragmatism, to Lola, which contrasted well with the various concerns of the supporting cast. By the time the film had finished, I’d decided I’d like to see more films’by Demy… but, of course, only two or three of them are available in the UK. Typical.

element_of_crimeEuropa, Lars von Trier (1991, Denmark). This is the third film in the E-Trilogy box set and it’s so much better than the first, Element of Crime (see here). An American, played by Jean-Marc Barr, visits Germany just after the end of WWII, and gets a job as a sleeping car attendant with the Zentropa train line. (Von Trier later named his production company for the train line.) Germany at this time is suffering due to a crashed economy, blasted infrastructure, demoralised population, heavy-handed and brutal occupiers, pogroms against anyone with Nazi connections, and a group of resistance fighters known as Werewolves. Barr gets involved with the daughter of Zentropa’s owner, and through her becomes embroiled in a plot by the Werewolves to bomb the train on which a new mayor is travelling to his town. Europa consciously mimics the old pulps – and it’s especially interesting comparing it to Kerry Conran’s un fairly-maligned Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow. Europa is B&W, and often superimposes characters and action against blown-up backdrops, something pulp serials often did. Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow, on the other hand, was filmed in colour, and used that back-screen technique less. The later film’s plot, however, better suits pulp cinema techniques than does the post-war noir of Europa. So far, I seem to hate one von Trier film and then like the next. Europa definitely falls in the “like” column.

transcendenceTranscendence, Wally Pfister (2014, USA). Johnny Depp is like top of the field in AI research, but he’s sort of at odds with everyone else because, er, because no one in the film actually seems to know what AI is. And then he’s diagnosed with cancer and he hasn’t gone long to live, so he records his consciousness, and his wife and best friend/colleague upload him into his superfast quantum computer. And that sort of gives him god-like powers, not to mention overweening arrogance. And yes, it all pretty much plays out how you’d expect. Actually, bits of this film I liked. I thought the attempt at utopia versus AI-led autocracy made for an interesting story, which, of course, rapidly devolved into a shoot ‘em up, but never mind. Depp never really convinced in the, er, title role, but to be honest there’s only a handful of films where he has done – which doesn’t actually make him either a bad actor or one that isn’t entertaining to watch. Transcendence wasn’t anywhere near as smart as it liked to think it was, and while it looked pretty in places, it was still as shiny and glossy and plastic as any Hollywood product. Meh.

realmofsensesIn The Realm of The Senses*, Nagisa Oshima (1976, Japan). This is perhaps chiefly famous for being, well, pornographic. And it is, it really is. I was expecting something typically 18-rated (if that rating still exists), plenty of artfully-framed sex scenes that reveal little but suggest plenty; but it’s not, it’s outright porn. The plot is based on a true story, about a maid at hotel in 1930s Tokyo who enters into an affair with the hotel’s owner.’The affair soon turns obsessive, before eventually ending badly with some consensual, er, bondage. To be honest, I found it all a bit slow and not every engaging. Despite being a period piece, it felt somewhat 1970s. The characters felt a bit flatly drawn and the scenery all looked a little washed out. I only watched it because it was on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – honest! – but at least now I can cross it off.

athrowofthediceA Throw Of Dice*, Franz Osten (1929, Germany/India). Apparently, in the 1920s and 1930s, Osten made 19 silent films in India – although he was arrested in 1939 as a Nazi and held until the end of the war. Many of his films were based on stories from the Mahabharata, with an Indian cast but mostly German crew. A Throw Of Dice tells the story of two kings who want to marry the same woman. They gamble for her hand, evil king wins, good king becomes his slave. To be honest, I don’t recall a great deal from this film – it’s been a few weeks since I watched it. It’s not especially long for a silent film, and the intertitles were neither too intrusive nor too opaque. It all looked very good, although a hunting scene I recall being a little, er, over-acted. But I’m glad I watched it. I’d watch more by Osten.

guardiansGuardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn (2014, USA). I have a soft spot for the Guardians of the Galaxy. Back in the 1970s, I used to buy the occasional Marvel comic, and when they weren’t X-Men ones, they were usually the anthology UK reprints which included Guardians of the Galaxy. And I quite liked the Guardians – I liked that they were actually science fiction, I thought Star Hawk an interesting character, I liked Vance Astro… Of course, this movie is based on the rebooted Guardians from the mini-series written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning in the early 2000s, although Disney have made a number of changes to the property. Cosmo the telepathic dog is out, although he does make a cameo, Knowhere is not their headquarters but some clichéd lawless frontier place, and the Guardians aren’t actually the Guardians but a group of roguish criminal misfits who sort of band together in adversity and become the Guardians. Which is just fucking nonsense. It would be a bit like the Kray Twins being made police commissioners. It only happens in stupid films. And, er, comics. But the film… It all felt a bit formulaic. New character, quick give us the back-history! There were huge indigestible chunks of exposition. Not to mention lots of things that made no logical sense. A galactic prison. And guards who wander among the prison population carrying powerful firearms. And the watch-tower can sort of detach and turn into a spaceship… except there’s no way out for it to go except the normal entrance. And, of course, prisons normally park inmates’ vehicles in their own parking lot, don’t they. And… why bother? Guardians of the Galaxy was a text-book script-writing in parts, narrative tools that really need to be retired in others, and the usual Hollywood nonsense when it came to world-building or logical story progression. Whatever they’re teaching scriptwriters these days, it’s complete bollocks.

snakepitThe Snake Pit*, Anatole Litvak (1948, USA). The title refers to a ward at a mental institution to which Olivia de Havilland is sectioned (although I don’t think they use that term in the US). De Havilland does legitimately suffer from a mental illness, and a sympathetic doctor eventually uses regression therapy to figure out the event which led to her condition. Which is not to say, of course, that all such conditions are the result of past trauma. The institution was a pretty uncivilised place, with the inmates either treated like criminals or wild animals, most of the staff were stuffed shirts, although the nice doctor and the husband were sympathetic. De Havilland screamed a lot, and it all seemed a bit overwrought in places – but I actually thought it much better than I’d expected. And one scene where de Havilland is interviewed by the staff to see if she’s ready to leave, but a doctor’s wagging finger sets her off, was done well. I’m not sure it belongs on the 1001 Movie list, but I’m glad I watched it.


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Rounding off the TBR in 2014

This is not the first book haul post of 2015 but the last book haul post of 2014. I have yet to purchase a book this year, and I’m trying to resist the urge for a few weeks longer. Meanwhile, here are assorted Christmas presents, charity shop finds and drunken purchases on eBay…

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Four more books for the Women’s Press SF collection, which brings the total to 40 (out of 52, by my count). I, Vampire, The Female Man, Skirmish and Machine Sex… and Other Stories were all bought from Porcupine Books. I already have the SF Masterwork edition of The Female Man, but never mind. I’d also previously read Machine Sex… and Other Stories. Skirmish is one of only two sf YA novels published by the Women’s Press under the Livewire imprint – the other was Gwyneth Jones’s The Hidden Ones (I’ve owned a copy for years, of course). Skirmish, the first book of the Skyrider quintet, was originally published in the US, but not as YA.

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I already had paperback copies of both The Ebony Tower and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but these are signed reprint hardbacks and were relatively cheap. The Quincunx is a first edition by a favourite author. Darkness Divided is a hard-to-find first edition from a US small press. It’s signed, of course.

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The slipcased signed edition of Kalimantan was a bargain find. The Pride of Chanur and Chanur’s Venture – both signed – were purchased on eBay after perhaps one glass too many of wine. Having said that, I’ve owned a signed first edition of the final book of the series, Chanur’s Legacy, for years, so I really ought to complete the set…

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Luminous was a charity shop find. Adam Robots, Lord of Slaughter, The Martian and Stoner were all Christmas presents. I’ve received a Lachlan novel for the last three Christmases – it’s almost become a tradition. Fortunately, they’re good books. I’ve already read The Martian – I was not impressed (see here). John Williams is an author new to me.

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Can I say how chuffed I am I have a copy of The Grasshopper’s Child? I’m reviewing it for Vector, and I’m really looking forward to reading it. Shades of Milk and Honey was a Christmas present. I received a few odd looks reading it on the train journey home. The Quest for Christa T. was a charity shop find. I keep an eye out for the green Virago paperbacks now, so I can expand my reading of postwar UK women writers. Not shown is The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, which I found in a charity shop, read over Christmas, and left in Denmark for my sister to read. I thought it pretty good (see here).


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Resolute

I don’t know why I bother, I rarely manage to keep to the bloody things. Looking back at my post on “reading resolutions” for 2014 (see here), I see I successfully kept… one of them. I stuck to alternating genders for long fiction, but failed to read every 2014-published book I bought and only read seven translated works during the year (and two of those were anthologies of Soviet science fiction). Ah well. For 2015, I think I’ll continue the alternating genders thing. But I’m not going to make any other promises about what I read during the year. I’ve signed up for the GoodReads reading challenge and set myself a target of 150 books, and I think that’s sufficient.

I doubt I’ll be visiting the cinema any more often in 2015 than I did in 2014 (which was twice). I might go and see Jupiter Ascending, but is there anything else due out during the year worth catching in 3D IMAX? I do intend, however, to keep watching films on DVD from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I doubt I’ll finish the list – some of the films are just too hard to find, but I’d like to get as close to complete as possible. But not to die when I’ve seen them all, I don’t want to do that. Obviously.

And then there’s the other stuff, what I laughingly call my writing career… Later this month should see the completion of the Apollo Quartet, with the publication of All That Outer Space Allows (at last!). Plus, shiny new paperback editions of Adrift on the Sea of Rains, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself and Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. I’ll need to do some promoting once all four books are available, so prepared to be spammed. Mercilessly. And in February, I’ll be publishing Aphrodite Terra, an anthology of six stories sort of about the planet Venus.

I’ve gone off short stories, so I suspect I’ll not bother writing any in 2015. None of the current crop of magazines publish the sort of science fiction I’m interested in reading or writing. I have a couple of ideas for novellas I might have a go at, although it will be fun trying to sell them… And then there’s the novel, the infamous literary hard sf novel, which will obviously have a very short title, something like A, perhaps, or Z. Um, except that won’t be much use for internet searches. Something a bit longer, then. I did like Tim Maughan’s suggestion, Fuck the Outward Urge, but I suspect the profanity will make it difficult to sell. At the moment, I’m sort of leaning toward Bow Shock. Eight letters. Easy to type. Let’s hope the novel itself proves as easy to type…

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Mostly, I just hope I’ll be a more productive in 2015 than I was in 2014. I did take on a lot last year, and I didn’t manage to finish all that much of it to my intended schedule, but it also felt like I wasted a lot of time. I’d like to better manage my time this year. So, of course, with that in mind, I’ve decided to take on even more than I did in 2014… And, hopefully, that may soon require a small announcement about something. So keep checking back.


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2014 in numbers

Time to crunch some numbers on what I read and viewed during 2014. I don’t consider myself an especially fast reader, and I seem to throw away huge amounts of time I could have spent reading… There are still so many books sitting on my shelves that I really want to read but have yet to get around to… A situation not helped by buying more books that I really want to read. Likewise for films. Anyway…

books
During 2014, I read 149 books, which is up by 1 on 2013. Thirteen of those books were published during 2014. I alternated genders for my long fiction reading, and managed to read 50 novels/collections by women authors and 51 by men. The rest of the books I read were either anthologies, non-fiction or graphic novels (well, bandes dessinées). Twenty-three of those novels, collections or anthologies, I read to review on SF Mistressworks. Two were for Interzone, and one was for Vector. The remainder I mostly blogged about here.

booksbygender

I don’t normally read so much recent fiction, but during 2014 I joined the Worldcon – although I later sold my membership and didn’t attend – which allowed me to nominate works for the Hugo Award. I also managed to read a number of 2014 books during the year. I suspect the high number of fiction books published between 1961 and 1989 is a result of reading for SF Mistressworks.

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The bulk of my reading was, as is usual, science fiction at 41% – which is less than half, so that’s not too bad – and closely followed by mainstream (or literary) fiction at 18%. Fantasy manages 5% and horror only 1%. I did use a number of books on science fiction criticism and spaceflight as research for Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows, but the only research books I actually read were biographies.

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I should make more of an effort to read fiction by authors from other nations. More than three-quarters of my fiction reading was from the UK (38%) or USA (42%). But I did manage to read one or two novels/collections each from a further sixteen countries.

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During 2014, I purchased – or was given, or sent for review – 217 books, of which 30 were published during 2014 and 23 were better editions of books I already owned. By the end of the year, I’d read 77 of those purchased books (although that figure does include books I’d read in earlier years but had not owned, or had purchased a better edition in 2014).

I had to munge a couple of categories together, due to the crappy chart-building website I’ve used. Even so, it’s clear that most of the books I bought were science fiction (38%), closely followed by mainstream (22%). I bought one horror book – a John Shirley collection – and, surprisingly, 11 fantasy books (most were probably freebies from Fantasycon). My book purchases by genre break down as:

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It seems just over half (51%) of the fiction books I purchased in 2014 were by Brits. Less than a third were by Americans. The remainder are scattered across fourteen countries.

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The relatively high number of fiction book purchases from the 1920s is a result of buying a number of DH Lawrence paperbacks. The high number for this decade is due to Hugo Award reading and my habit of buying books the moment they’re released by favourite authors who are still writing. Otherwise, it doesn’t surprise me that the 1970s is the next highest decade, although only just. That’s also likely a result of reading for SF Mistressworks.

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If I’ve done my sums correctly, I bought 194 new books during 2014 but only managed to read 149. Which means the TBR has grown by 45. Some of those book purchases were for research or reference, so not really the sort of books you read from cover to cover – but still. So far I’m managing to keep the TBR manageable by dumping at charity shops books that I’ve belatedly realised I’ll never get around to reading – but I really ought to make more of an effort to get the humungous TBR down to more realistic levels. At the last count, given my average reading speed, I could probably go for a good five or six years without having to buy another book before I ran out of stuff to read.

films
In 2014, I started on a new viewing project: watching all the films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. I’d already seen almost half, but I still had plenty of titles to track down. Mostly, I’ve been using Amazon rentals, but not every film on the list is available there so I had to buy a few of them. As a result, 2014 proved to be, well, a year of lots of film-watching. And I mean lots. By 31 December, I had seen 369 films… which is 182 more than in 2013. Basically, I watched two years’ worth of movies in twelve months. I managed this chiefly because Amazon changed my rental agreement so they sent out replacement DVDs as soon as I returned the ones I had, which pretty much meant I had three rental DVDs every weekend throughout the year (149 in total over the year, in fact).

I documented many of the films I watched in fourteen Moving Pictures posts on this blog. I still have one more – the fourteenth – to post. It should go up in a few days. Not every film I watched was any good, but several did become favourites. Around a third were rewatches (29%), and that includes several rewatches of All That Heaven Allows. Ninety-one of the films were from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (25%), which puts my final total at 541 out of 1001.

By genre, my viewing was, unsurprisingly, not dominated by science fiction – I’m not that big a fan of sf cinema. It accounted for only 18% of the films I watched. The biggest genre was drama at 34%. The actual breakdown is:

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Incidentally, the television series category doesn’t include two series I didn’t manage to complete during the year – The Jewel In The Crown (I need to read A Division Of The Spoils before I watch the last few episodes) and From the Earth to the Moon (I rewatched selected episodes as research for All That Outer Space Allows).

I’ve long been a fan of the cinema of nations other than the USA and UK – although those two nations do dominate my viewing. In my defence, most of the American films I saw in 2014 were classics. In total, I watched films from 25 different countries. Some films were actually multi-national efforts, in which case I’ve assigned them to whichever nation seemed dominant. The high number of Italian films is a surprise – I hadn’t realised I’d seen that many. Likewise for Russia… although I did rewatch several of Aleksandr Sokurov’s movies during the year. I’d expected Poland to score higher, given that I “discovered” both Piotr Szulkin and Andrzej Wajda during 2014. Denmark’s good showing will be from watching a bunch of films by von Trier and a rewatch of some Dreyer.

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I mentioned earlier that the bulk of films I watched were rental DVDs – 40% of my viewing, in fact. But almost half were from own collection (48%). The actual figures break down as:

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After claiming I don’t watch much twenty-first century Hollywood product, it seems most of the films I watched in 2014 were from the last four years. Oops. But at least the next highest decade was the 1950s. Altogether, I don’t think that’s too bad a spread. I could do with watching more films from the 1940s and 1970s. Likely I’ve seen most films released during the 1980s – or at least those I’d be interested in seeing from that decade. I’d like to watch more early cinema, but a lot of those films are hard to find on DVD – in the UK, anyway. In fact, the UK’s record on DVD releases is pretty poor.

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I mentioned Piotr Szulkin earlier – I only got to watch his films because I ordered a DVD box set from Poland. I also bought several Region 1 DVDs, because the films had never been released in this country. And even a couple of Region A Blu-ray discs… only to discover my Blu-ray player was locked to Region B. Argh. That’s something I’ll have to address in 2015. There are even a handful of recent documentaries yet to appear in the UK that I really want to see – Jodorowskys Dune and James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, for example. As soon as I get myself a region-free Blu-ray player, I’ll be getting Blu-rays of those from the US. There are also several favourite directors whose oeuvres are incomplete in the UK, but not in other countries – such as Douglas Sirk, Aleksandr Sokurov, Andrzej Żuławski, Miklós Jancsó or Sergei Parajanov. Having said that, much praise to the BFI and Second Run DVD for continuing to release excellent films on DVD and Blu-ray.


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Reading diary, #12

The last bunch of books read in 2014… Almost. There’s one more I’m currently reading, but I’ll lead off my first reading diary post of 2015 with it. I’ll do a numbers post once the year is actually over.

rusticationRustication, Charles Palliser (2014) I’ve been a fan of Palliser’s works for years, but he doesn’t produce much. In fact, I thought he’d packed it in. But during this summer I’d spotted a new charity shop in town, near Fanoush, where I occasionally go for a falafel wrap at lunch-time. So one day after getting my wrap – they’re actually made with proper khubz, not stupid tortillas – I popped into the charity shop. And spotted Rustication. Result. The novel is set in 1863 over the Christmas holiday and takes the form of a journal, with anonymous letters inserted. Richard Shenstone has been rusticated from Cambridge after the suspicious death of a friend. His father died earlier in disgrace, and his near-destitute mother and sister are now living in a run-down house on the edge of a salt marsh near the town of Thurchester. Shortly after Richard’s arrival, someone starts sending obscene poison pen letters to the worthy women of the area and their daughters, and sneaking about at night and killing farm animals in horrible ways. Clues suggest Richard is responsible, although since it’s his journal which forms the narrative it’s clears it’s not him. Having said that, he does have an opium habit, which leads him to do a number of stupid things which make him look guilty. It all comes to a head when the local earl’s nephew and heir is murdered returning from an Assembly at which Richard had threatened him for compromising his sister’s honour. Rustication is pure Gothic, but tricked up as a literary thriller. It’s a slighter work than The Quincunx or Betrayals, but I’m still a fan.

the-man-with-the-golden-gunThe Man with the Golden Gun, Ian Fleming (1965) There’s a story that Fleming had told people he planned to become a writer once World War II ended, but one of his upper crust friends told him, “Oh Ian, don’t. You don’t have the brains for it.” And he didn’t, you know. Have the brains for it. The 007 novels, and I’ve now read them all except for Octopussy & The Living Daylights (which is on the TBR), range from bad to terrible. And The Man with the Golden Gun is toward the terrible end of the scale. Of course, the film bears no resemblance to it. (The only film which follows the plot of the novel is Thunderball, and that’s because it’s actually a novelisation of the script… and  a rights battle between Fleming and four others subsequently tied up the title for decades.) In The Man with the Golden Gun the novel, Scaramanga plies his trade in the Caribbean and has links to the Castro regime. Bond has been sent after him because he returned from You Only Live Twice brainwashed by the KGB to kill M. But now he’s had electro-shock therapy and he’s back to his normal self. M is still wary, however: hence the mission to terminate Scaramanga. Either Bond will prove his mettle, or Scaramanga will get rid of an embarrassing loose end. Bond stumbles across a clue revealing that Scaramanga is in a town in Jamaica, heads there, meets the man in a brothel, and is hired as security for an upcoming meeting Scaramanga is hosting at his half-finished luxury hotel nearby, where “investors” (ie, mobsters) will be persuaded to hand over more cash to finish the hotel. Scaramanga talks like a hoodlum from a cheap television series, Bond is his usual two-dimensional self, and Fleming can’t resist getting in his usual offensive digs at homosexuality, women and non-whites. Parts of the novel simply don’t ring true at all, as if Fleming has done little or no research; the only bits that are convincing are his descriptions of the countryside (Fleming, of course, lived in Jamaica). As with the bulk of the Bond books, you’re better off sticking with the film.

languedotdocLangue[dot]doc 1305, Gillian Polack (2014) A team of scientists have been sent back in time to the titular place and time, and they have a single historian with them – who was parachuted in at the last minute after the original two historian members of the team pulled out. Artemisia Wormwood, however, is not an expert on 14th-century Languedoc, but on mediaeval saints. Fortunately, she knows considerably more about the time and place than the scientists, who are there to refine their theory of time travel and investigate the natural environment. The team set up in a system of caves under a hill beside the village of St-Guilhelm-le-Désert and, while they keep apart from the villagers (only Wormwood speaks old French, and she does that haltingly), they make no secret of their presence. In fact, the scientists behave like a bunch of spoilt kids. They don’t seem to care about the impact they may be having on the lives of those in the village. Wormwood acts as an unofficial liaison between the two groups, via disgraced knight Guilhelm. This one is definitely a slow-burner. Not much happens during the course of the novel, it’s more a diary of incidents experienced by the time team. However, it definitely packs a sting in the tail. The prose is polished, Polack evokes her period extremely well, and the whole thing is very readable if somewhat languidly paced. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Race, Nina Allan (2014) Allan’s first novel-length piece of fiction is actually four linked novellas, and also very lightly meta-fictional. I wrote about it here.

From the Legend of Biel, Mary Staton (1975). This was the first book of the second series of Ace Specials. I read it for SF Mistressworks. My review is here.

The Moon King, Neil Williamson (2014). I’m working on a longer review of this, so I’ll just mention it in passing here. I will say, however, that I enjoyed it much more than I had expected to. (I’ve known Neil for ages, so I expected it to be well-written, but had thought it wouldn’t be quite to my taste – I was wrong.) Anyway, a post on this novel should appear here soon-ish.

firstfifteenThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (2014). Found this in a charity shop, had heard it mentioned here and there, understood it to be not unlike Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (which I thought good), so decided to give it a go. And yes, I did enjoy it. The prose is nice and breezy, the central premise – people who relive their lives over and over again – was handled quite cleverly, and the eponymous protagonist was sympathetic and plausible. Plot-wise, the book is less successful – although hinted at on the first page, the plot didn’t actually kick into gear until over halfway in, and even then it spent more time on the silly maguffin at the core of the book than it did the far more interesting process by which the villain removed all his enemies. I’d seen mention of North’s Touch, due out early in 2015, and thought it might be worth a go. On the strength of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, I’ll almost certainly be picking up a copy.

Casebook2The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, Peter Ackroyd (2008). Victor Frankenstein, a young man from Switzerland, joins Oxford University, where he meets Percy Bysshe Shelley. The two become friends, although their interests only just coincide – Frankenstein wants to understand how life is created, and focuses his investigations on reanimating dead bodies using “the electrical fluid”, whereas Shelley’s investigations are more metaphysical. Even after Shelley is expelled, the two remain close – Frankenstein even moves to London to be near him. In order to further experiment, Frankenstein contacts some “resurrection men” and has them deliver cadavers to his laboratory in Limehouse. Most of his experiments are failures, but when he is handed the body of Jack Keat, a few short hours after he committed suicide (he was dying of consumption), Frankenstein successfully brings him back to life… And you just know the story going to end up at the Villa Diodati. Ackroyd takes a few liberties with Shelley’s life, and Byron comes across as a dickhead, but the whole adds up to an entertaining take on the Frankenstein story and the Romantic poets. The period detail is impressively handled, Frankenstein is a sympathetic narrator, and there are a number of neat touches to the scientific thought of the day which I found amusing. A good book.

femalespeciesThe Female of the Species, Carol Joyce Oates (2006). My second Oates. This one is a collection of short stories, many of which originally appeared in genre magazines. I think I can safely say now that Oates doesn’t quite work for me. According to the blurb, in these stories “women are confronted by the evil around them and surprised by the evil they find within them”. I thought the most successful story was ‘Madison at Guignol’, in which a trophy wife polished to a lacquer-like gloss learns of a secret door at one of her favourite high-end boutiques and insists on admittance through it: Fifth Avenue meets Gothic horror. Another one I liked was ‘Hunger’, a much longer piece about a bored wife who, after a holiday affair with a younger man, is horrified when he turns up at her home. Even though she loves him – though it seems to be more of a passion – she’s not willing to jeopardise her marriage. Not all of the stories worked for me – the one about the nurse felt too much like reportage, in some of the others the prose seemed too focused on effect rather than the story. The reason for Oates’ stature is plain to see in this collection, but there are other writers I’d sooner read.

themartianandyweirThe Martian, Andy Weir (2014). This is an odd one. The book has been hugely successful, so much so Ridley Scott is apparently making a film of it. Yet most of the praise for the book I’ve seen has been outside fandom. Is this because the book was originally self-published, and did so well on Kindle it was then picked up by a major imprint? Or is it that hard science fiction has fallen out of favour with genre fandom? Actually, I think it’s neither, but rather the fact that a) The Martian is a resolutely commercial book, and in style and approach has more in common with technothrillers than it does science fiction novels, b) it is completely hollow, there’s no meaty idea for a sf reader to get their teeth into, and c) it’s actually not very good, just pages and pages of a very irritating narrator explaining how he managed to survive on Mars after accidentally being left behind. It’s basically “Home Alone on the Red Planet”, with the planet itself playing the part of the inept burglars. (Sticking Val Kilmer, or his lookalike, on the cover, probably didn’t harm its chances either.) The original self-published novel has been padded out with scenes set at NASA, as they learn the narrator, Mark Watney, is still alive and then set about putting together a rescue plan. But the characterisation is paper-thin and everyone sounds pretty much the same. Watney’s various predicaments are interesting, and some of his solutions are mildly clever – but Weir throws so much bad luck at him, it soon beggars belief. We also get little real idea of what it would be like to be on the surface of Mars. A handful of mentions of the 0.4G, no mention at all of the surface radiation, but lots about the cold. Lots. It was also my understanding that at such low atmospheric pressures, gale-force winds would actually cause very little damage. The Martian could have taken place pretty much anywhere, even the Antarctic, and very little would need to change (well, the technology would have to be dialled down a little). I’m completely mystified by all the praise this book has been receiving. We might as well claim Clive Cussler’s latest sweatshop effort is one of the best sf novels of the year…


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The Race, Nina Allan

I first came across Allan’s fiction in Interzone, and while her stories always struck me as well-written, there was a vagueness to some of the details in them which never quite rung true for me. ‘Flying in the Face of God’, which was shortlisted for the BSFA Award in 2010, is a case in point. The relationship between the two central characters is handled beautifully, but the story is also about a space programme for which one of them has been selected. And something about that space programme felt unconvincing. A recent reread of the story in the collection Microcosms did not change my mind.

Of course, many people will say I’m missing the point of the story – or rather, by focusing on that one aspect, I’m missing what the story is about. And that’s almost certainly true. But a story is more than the sum of its parts, and a failure in one of those parts can throw the whole out of balance. It’s entirely subjective, of course – I can admire a story like ‘Flying in the Face of God’, without thinking it as good as everyone else seems to. And one thing I do admire about the story is Allan’s facility at creating worlds slightly off-kilter from ours, ones just strange enough to unsettle without seeming completely unfamiliar. Which brings us to The Race, her first piece of novel-length fiction.

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The Race comprises four novellas, titled ‘Jenna’, ‘Christy’, ‘Alex’ and ‘Maree’ after their narrators. Jenna lives in Sapphire, a town on the edge of Romney Marsh, in a future that is plainly not our own. Her brother, Del, manages a dog track, where smartdogs are raced by “runners”, people with an empathic connection to the smartdogs mediated by implants. ‘Jenna’ is essentially a family history and an exploration of Jenna’s small world (we learn very little of the world outside Sapphire). Jenna becomes a maker of handmade gauntlets for the runners, and Del gets married and has a baby girl. A few years later, the girl is kidnapped, and it transpires Del was involved with drug dealers and owes them money for a missing shipment.

Christy, on the other hand, lives in our world. Her father and brother run a house clearance firm. ‘Christy’ focuses on Christy’s relationship with her brother, Derek, and his girlfriends. First Monica, and then Lin. Derek is a thug and a nasty piece of work. After he sexually assaults Christy, she leaves for London and university. She becomes a writer, and ‘Jenna’ is revealed as one of her stories. It is during one visit home that she meets Lin, who Derek tells her he will marry. But then Lin disappears, and Christy fears her brother may have murdered her.

Alex is the ex-boyfriend of Lin, and a journalist based in London. He is contacted by Christy – several years have passed since the central events of ‘Christy’ – who asks him to come and visit her in her home in Hastings. She asks him about Lin, and he describes an incident when Derek assaulted him because Lin had come to talk over her fears about Derek. Alex also reveals that Lin is alive and well, as he saw her in the street several years later but she blanked him.

The final novella is set in an alternate UK. Maree is an orphan and an empath, and she leaves her home in Scotland to cross the Atlantic to work on a secret project in Thalia (which seems to be a country in South America). This world also has smartdogs and shares some elements with that of ‘Jenna’ – in fact, it may be the same one but the narrow focus of ‘Jenna’ concealed the parts in ‘Maree’ that are invented. And the invention in the novella is… odd. Some places – London, Inverness – have the same names as real places; others do not – Lilyat (Lisbon?), Bonita (Buenos Aires?), Kontessa… And then there are the whales. Much of ‘Maree’ takes place aboard a ship crossing the Atlantic. This is considered a hazardous journey as convoys of whales sink ships when they come across them. And chief among the whales is the “baer-whale”, which is bigger than most ships. Maree discovers during the journey, from a fellow passenger who admits he is a private detective who had been hired to find her, that she is Del’s missing daughter from ‘Jenna’, and that she wasn’t kidnapped because of the drugs but because she is a natural empath. In other words, she doesn’t need an implant. This also means she is gifted at acquiring languages. The secret project she is joining is trying to translate alien messages from outer space.

The things that are good about The Race are the things that Allan is good at. The mosaic structure plays to her strengths in that it allows for a tight focus over a relatively short wordcout. However, it also reveals a weakness: the links between the novellas are not quite strong enough to hold the novel together. Take the murder which appears in ‘Christy’ and ‘Alex’. Christy is afraid her brother killed Lin, but the truth is revealed in passing by Alex. Which makes the resolution of it, and the relief Christy must feel, completely secondhand, robbing it of any emotional impact. It’s not central to either novella, of course, but it feels like one of those details which never quite rings true. Which is not to say that every detail rings false. One of Allan’s strengths as a writer is the off-focus lens she shines on the worlds of her stories, and she does this by changing some details, such as the names of places, so that everything feels slightly off-kilter, and by keeping the relationships between the characters firmly at the centre of the narrative and the plot beats somewhere to the side. This is something that is more obvious in The Race than other works because each of the novellas exists at the edges of the preceding one.

The writing throughout is, unsurprisingly, very good, and the characters are drawn extremely well – although if Jenna, Christy and Maree seem a little similar that’s an artefact of the structure, I suspect. As is the novel’s lack of, well, plot. The two science-fictional novellas wrap the real world ones, when you’d expect the reverse to be the case; but Christy’s life – since ‘Alex’ too is about that – doesn’t really provide a key to ‘Jenna’ and ‘Maree’. The mystery which exercises Christy for years does sort of map onto the disappearance of Jenna’s brother’s daughter. And Maree does end up with a completely new life, much as Alex reveals Lin to have. Even then, revealing what happened to Del’s daughter doesn’t really resolve anything, as ‘Maree’ only catapults her into a new, and unsolved, mystery. I’m also not really sure what role the dog racing plays, or why it provides the title, since it only appears in ‘Jenna’, which is Christy’s creation anyway.

The end result is, I think, one of 2014’s more interesting genre novels, and certainly proves Allan is a writer to watch. I’m not convinced The Race is wholly successful, but it’s definitely a worthy attempt. If it doesn’t quite match another 2014 genre mosaic novel, Paul Park’s All Those Vanished Engines, that’s probably because Park goes full-on metafictional, and Allan sort of nibbles at the edges and never quite commits. Or perhaps it’s just that Allan’s form of metafiction is less overt – it lives within her stories rather than providing the stories’ building-blocks. Having said all that, I won’t be surprised if The Race appears on one or two shortlists next year.


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My 10 works for inclusion in the SF Masterwork series

This is something Joachim Boaz (see here) and some other bloggers did yesterday, and I was then challenged by Joachim on Twitter to produce my own list. Ten books I think Gollancz should add to their SF Masterwork series. There are a number of “rules”, to be followed at your own discretion: one book per author; no books by an author currently in the series; and a goodly number of years between publication and 2014 – I chose twenty years, so a publication of date of 1994 or older. Of course, this list totally ignores any rights issues that might prevent Gollancz from including the books.

So, in chronological order of publication…

detective_houseThe House That Stood Still, AE van Vogt (1950) I’m surprised there’s no van Vogt in the SF Masterwork series – he was, after all, hugely popular for many decades. Admittedly, most of his books are complete tosh, and he was second only to Philip K Dick in making shit up as he went along (and there is, of course, at lot of Dick in the series). But I still rate The House That Stood Still (AKA The Undercover Aliens). I once described it as “if Philip Marlowe and Flash Gordon had a baby, it would look like this book”, and I stand by that description.

Judgment-NightJudgment Night, CL Moore (1952) I will admit I wasn’t expecting much of this short novel when I read it – a typical piece of Planet Stories space opera nonsense, I thought. But it proved to be a lot more interesting than I’d expected. The plot is relatively straightforward, but the characterisation of the protagonist, the warlike Princess Juille, is clever, and there are some really interesting ideas in the world-building. It’s a very short novel, however, only 156 pages in its first paperback publication; so perhaps it ought to be bundled with another of Moore’s novels, or a Northwest Smith novella, or something. I reviewed Judgment Night on SF Mistressworks here.

HelloSummerGoodbye_CoverHello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975) There are few sf novels written from the viewpoint of the alien, and among them even fewer in which humans never appear. Hello Summer, Goodbye is an elegiac coming-of-age novel set on an alien world with an entirely alien cast and an alien culture. And it works really well. It’s also a lovely piece of writing. I’m actually surprised this hasn’t appeared in the series yet. There is a sequel, I Remember Pallahaxi, which I’ve not read.

ophiuchiThe Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley (1977) Varley’s Eight Worlds – in which the mysterious Invaders threw humanity off the Earth, so we now eke out an existence on various moons – is one of sf’s more memorable middle-distance futures, and while he explored it to better effect in numerous stories, The Ophiuchi Hotline is the first of three novels set in that universe. It’s also the best of them. The ending throws away an entire novel’s worth of ideas in a single paragraph, but the journey to that point is strange and wonderful.

Cowper- A Tapestry of TimeThe White Bird of Kinship, Richard Cowper (1978 – 1982) This one is a bit of a cheat as it’s an omnibus of three short novels – The Road to Corlay (1978), A Dream of Kinship (1981) and A Tapestry of Time (1982). There’s also a novella, ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, which inspired the novels, so perhaps we should throw that in as well. The story is set in a UK after water levels have risen so the country now comprises many small islands. It is very British sf. The SF Gateway has published the four in an omnibus, but it belongs in the SF Masterwork series too.

SerpentsReachSFBCHCbyKenBarrSerpent’s Reach, CJ Cherryh (1980) I’m guessing rights issues have prevented Cherryh from appearing in the SF Masterwork series so far. Because given her stature in the genre during the 1980s, she certainly qualifies for inclusion. Of course, there is then the question of which book to include… My favourite is Angel with the Sword, but it’s not her best. Downbelow Station and Cyteen are worthy contenders, but I plumped for Serpent’s Reach because its plot is closer to heartland science fiction.

queenofstatesQueen of the States, Josephine Saxton (1986) There are lots of books in the SF Masterwork series which never got within sniffing distance of an award, so why ignore one that appeared on two shortlists during its year of publication? Queen of the States was shortlisted for both the BSFA Award and the Clarke Award in 1987 – it lost out to The Ragged Astronauts, Bob Shaw, and The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, respectively. Queen of the States is also a great novel. I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here.

wallaroundedenThe Wall Around Eden, Joan Slonczewski (1986) I picked up this book and read it just so I could review it on SF Mistressworks – see here. I knew very little about it or the author, so I was somewhat surprised to discover it was a masterclass example of accessible science fiction. It is one of the best-constructed sf novels I have come across, and I’m surprised it’s long out of print. It needs to be introduced to a new audience. As soon as possible.

kairosKairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988) This is one of my favourite sf novels and appears pretty much on every “top” or “classic” science fiction list I put together. It’s set in a Thatcherite near-future of its time of writing which, of course, now makes it alternate history – but it captures the fears and anxieties of that period with clinical precision. And it’s beautifully-written. In many ways, Kairos prefigures Jones’s Bold As Love sequence in that it remakes the political landscape of the UK using people outside mainstream culture as catalysts. Sf authors don’t write enough of this sort of science fiction.

coelestisCoelestis, Paul Park (1993) Another favourite science fiction novel and mainstay of the various “best” sf lists I put together on this blog every so often. An intelligent commentary on postcolonialism – a subject not often explored in sf, which seems to prefer rehashing First World colonialist imperatives of earlier, and less enlightened, centuries – Coelestis then goes on to deconstruct the colonial identity of one of its protagonists. An important book that deserves to be back in print.

There were a further two books I would have liked to include in my list of ten, but since both authors already had entries in the SF Masterwork series I ruled them ineligible. And one was a bit of a cheat, anyway. They were Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968), which I think is actually a better book than The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (Compton’s only entry in the SF Masterwork series), though it reads a little more dated than that book; and The Collected Joanna Russ, because Russ is an author who deserves to have all her fiction collected together into big career-defining collection, and the SF Masterwork series is the perfect venue for that.

ETA: The other bloggers giving their own choices for inclusion in the SF Masterwork series are: the aforementioned Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, 2theD at Potpourri of Science Fiction, Admiral Ironbombs at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased, Jesse at Speculiction and From Couch to Moon at, er, From Couch to Moon.

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