It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Books do furnish a room

I may be putting up these book haul posts less frequently, but the book collection seems to grow at its usual pace. I take care to purchase fewer books each month than I read, so the TBR is being slowly whittled down. But the book-shelves are still double-stacked, and the spare room has books piled all over the floor. I’ve dumped lots of books I knew I’d never get around to reading at the charity shop; and I’ve foisted off quite a few genre books at the York and Sheffield socials, but I still need to have a big clear-out… Anyway, here are the latest additions.

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Some new science fiction. Children of Time and The Last War I bought at Edge-Lit 4, where, of course, A Prospect of War made its first appearance in hardback. Aurora was purchased from a certain online retailer. I’ve already read Children of Time and Aurora, and they’ll both appear in my next Reading diary post.

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Some mainstream(-ish) paperbacks. The War of the End of the World was a book I’d planned to read for a fiction-in-translation reading challenge back in 2012. The challenge foundered about halfway through the year, but some of the books I’d picked I still fancied trying. It’s taken me until now to buy a copy of this one. The Bone Clocks and Kolymsky Heights I bought in Harrogate, using a book voucher given to me by my employer, while in the town to hear Val McDermid interview Sara Paretsky at the Crime Festival. The Davidson was recommended by a number of people a couple of months ago, and though I kept an eye open no copies had appeared in my local charity shops. Collected Stories I bought after reading Jonathan McCalmont’s reviews of Salter’s short fiction on his blog, Ruthless Culture.

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This was my prize from the Edge-Lit 4 raffle: six HP Lovecraft books in flash new hardback editions from PS Publishing. Given some of the other prizes, I think I did exceedingly well.

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A pair of deep sea books. Ocean Outpost, a study of undersea habitats, was cheap on eBay. Discovering the Deep, a glossy coffee-table book thick with science, is a new publication.

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Some genre paperbacks: Skin is an ARC, I’m reviewing it for Interzone; Wolves was on a couple of award shortlists last year; I’ve been a fan of Hanan al-Shaykh’s writing for several years, so I’m looking forward to reading her spin on One Thousand and One Nights; and The Saga of Eric Brighteyes is the second book in NewCastle Forgotten Fantasy series, which I bought because of course I really need to start collecting another series of books… Actually, it was cheap on eBay, so it’s not like I went out of my way for it.

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A new Lawrence Durrell book. From the Elephant’s Back is a collection of previously-unpublished essays and letters was published by the University of Alberta. The Silkworm is the second pseudonymous crime novel by JK Rowling. I thought the first a bit meh, but my mother found this copy in a charity shop and after she’d read it she passed it on to me.


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What is it about space opera?

It often seems to me that space opera has within itself to be all things that are science fiction. Most writers, however, treat it as little more than action-adventure in space, or the fall of some historical empire transplanted to an interstellar canvas (with added cool techno-gizmos). Given the size of that canvas – there are literally no limits – there’s more than ample opportunity to ask relevant questions and play through the various answers. Some space opera authors have indeed done so – Iain Banks springs to mind: in his Culture novels he often examined the morality of intervention in other sovereign states’ internal affairs. Sadly he’s an exception, rather than the rule.

So why is it so few space operas do little more than pit one group against another, usually differentiated by either race, class or politics? Or show an interstellar polity torn apart from within or without? And the science fiction, well, that’s embodied in the background or some maguffin around which the plot revolves.

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One of the chief elements of a space opera which the subgenre rarely seems to interrogate is the whole idea of an autocratic or feudal interstellar polity, in which custom and tradition has embedded an oligarchy so deeply in place it can only be dislodged by actually razing the polity to the ground. Historically (real history, that is), rulers claimed divine descent and so justified their exalted position – this was probably the second biggest con ever perpetrated on humanity, after the concept of an afterlife (capitalism comes a close third) – but any such claims of godly DNA are risible at best, deluded at worst. And if those rulers didn’t actually claim divine descent, they certainly claimed divine right – ie, they ruled in the name of the gods, with the gods’ permission and blessing. Quite how you prove that is beyond me, but it certainly happened – and there are probably a few royals out there who are so stupid or inbred they still believe it.

But let’s assume a space opera empire is ruled by a particular dynasty for the same reasons that such dynasties ruled in real history, ie, canny politics and/or historical accident, and park that for a moment. What about the actual society, its various levels and the lack of social mobility? What Herbert called “fraufreluches” in Dune. I can understand the need for a tightly-controlled society in an artificial environment such as a space station – everybody’s lives depend on people not breaking things – but space operas in the main presuppose a galaxy of earth-like planets ready to be colonised by land- and resource-hungry humanity… Except, wait, they can’t be all that land-hungry because a lot of space operas feature worlds that are either populated to a ridiculously dense degree, or almostly entirely empty. And those densely-populated worlds… A world like Trantor or Coruscant, it would be impossible to feed the population of such a world, it’s just not physically possible to ship in the foodstuffs required to support a population of a trillion or more (Wikipedia gives Corsuscant’s population as “Approx. 1 trillion”, although the Wookiepedia claims three times that; isn’t the internet wonderful?). Assuming an average of 2,500 calories per person per day, for the entire population that’s equivalent to about 5 billion (or 15 billion) cows a day.

For a highly technological (ie, “magical” per Clarke’s dictum) space opera, most problems, not just food, would be magically solved by magical science and magical engineering – replicators, or something like that. If there’s no scarcity, you’d expect the society to be relatively flat, and any social classes that have shaken out have done so depending on whether the empire follows an egalitarian socialist model or a more restrictive model based on, well, any variety of right-wing ideologies. I’ve said in the past that science fiction – and especially space opera – is an inherently right-wing mode of fiction, irrespective of the politics of its writers. Just look at the various societies depicted in science fiction texts, look at the solutions proposed to the problems presented by science fiction texts. It’s said that editor Donald A Wollheim once ran a straw poll among sf fans on the best form of government and “benevolent dictatorship” proved most popular. Even back in the 1960s and earlier, when science fiction traded on the assumption its fans were “better” than readers of other modes of fiction (“fans are slans”), that’s still a horribly juvenile result. But then look at genre’s various role models, and then count all those Marxist space operas…

The idea of science fiction, or indeed any mode of fiction, as primarily a form of “entertainment” has often been used to poison the debate regarding the genre’s uses. Some people – often stupid ones – will champion fiction as a literature of ideas, a vehicle for thought experiments, and then pooh-pooh concepts or approaches they don’t like as “message fiction”. All fiction is message fiction. It’s only the content of the message, and the power of its vector, which differs. And, of course, the ability of the reader to pick up the message.

But space opera… Most space operas require huge, often cumbersome, authoritarian political structures in place at the start. And there’s usually an associated fascination with all the pomp and circumstance and cool uniforms that go with such structures – er, Star Wars anyone? (And now we have Imperial Stormtroopers appearing at conventions and such… Er, they were the bad guys, you know.) Of course, the better entrenched the power structures, the greater the equity gap, the more melodrama there is when the empire burns. But where space operas so often fail is in showing the consequences for everyone. Heroes must by definition have sufficient agency to either destroy or save the empire, but those embedded in the power structures are far from the only victims. As the title of Robert Sheckley’s 1972 story has it, ‘Zirn Left Unguarded, the Jenghik Palace in Flames, Jon Westerley Dead’ – palaces are, after all, home to more than just empresses and emperors. In CL Moore’s excellent Judgment Night, the two protagonists, Princess Juille and Egide, prince of the H’vani, actually meet at a “pleasure moon” which is, naturally, purely for the use of the upper classes and, as in other space operas, the only non-aristocrats mentioned are servants or soldiers.

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I freely admit that when I started writing my space opera trilogy, An Age of Discord, I chose to base the plot on a well-established story template from consolatory fantasy: someone is trying to unseat the emperor, for reasons not clear when the story opens. Toppling the throne, of course, does not necessarily entail a complete destruction of the empire, it might just be a dynastic struggle. But this is a consolatory fantasy, which sort of presupposes an elemental battle between good and evil – and a dark lord makes a better villain than an ambitious cousin. I had no intention of using a moral landscape painted in such primary colours in my trilogy, and it was while considering the alternatives that it occurred to me I should present the irruption caused by the plot across all levels of imperial society. To some extent, I had to consider this: the main protagonist, the “peasant hero” was by definition a member of the lowest sector of society.

But there’s a paradox there. While the fight may affect, or indeed include, all levels of society, the conditions which define defeat or victory exist only in the uppermost levels. So I had no choice but to elevate my peasant hero if he was to play any sort of useful role in the struggle – and this in a society in which social mobility is near-impossible. I could show how the consequences applied to all social levels, and I felt I needed to show that – so  I had to make a discussion on the society of my interstellar empire an important element of the plot. Which I did. A Prospect of War opens with three main narrative threads – one features serfs (I call them proletarians), another has a pair of middle-class (ie, yeoman) characters pretending to be proletarian, and the final one is firmly yeoman (but also features aristocrats). There’s no getting away from involving the upper sectors of society if the stakes are empire-wide, so I had to introduced them – but by making one of the protagonists a peasant hero, I could use the mechanism of his elevation to the position required to lead the fight as commentary.

I based the empire of A Prospect of War on an historical model and I built a fictitious history for my empire which justified its various institutions. (Chiefly, I admit, by limiting the technology of my empire such that Age of Reason technology was more than sufficient to maintain society.) I also went for pomp and circumstance. I gave everyone uniforms, and then I described them (I even worked out a colour scheme for the uniforms of army regiments). I described the architecture because that’s another good signifier of monolithic social structures and embedded power groups. I used the sword – the carrying of it, the legal right to use it – as an indicator of social class. In other words, I made it as plain as I could that here was a society that had not, and could not, change or progress. Except by violent upheaval. Which I even signposted – the empire of A Prospect of War is around 1300 years old, and came into being when a powerful admiral used his fleet to seize the throne of the preceding empire.

The term “space opera” was coined as a pejorative, a reference to “horse opera”, which were bad Western stories. In the decades since the term first appeared, its meaning has changed, and those works boasting the label have gained a measure of respect that now puts them on a par with other types of science fiction. Moore’s Judgment Night, mentioned earlier, was first published as a magazine serial in 1943. Wilson Tucker coined the term “space opera” in 1941. I’ve no idea how Judgment Night was originally received by its readers – perhaps at that time it had not even been identified as space opera. It’s certainly a classic of the subgenre now. But like early classics in any genre or subgenre, it deals chiefly with archetypes and its tropes have long since become clichés (sadly, in Judgment Night‘s case, several elements of its plot seem to have been forgotten by science fiction for several decades, such as a princess leading the defence of the empire). For me, A Prospect of War had to function not just as an entertaining space opera, but also as a commentary on space opera – and, to some extent, consolatory fantasy. I’d like to think I managed to do so, but that’s for the book’s readers to say.


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Moving pictures, #19

Yet more movies, of varying quality, worthiness and entertainment value. Which I shall continue to document, even if a year from now I read what I’ve written and wonder why the hell I watched a particular film.

scarlet_streetScarlet Street, Fritz Lang (1945, USA). Godard’s Le Mépris has almost spoiled Lang’s films for me. There I was, picturing him as some sort of industrious Modernist German film-maker but in that movie he played a louche Prussian aristocrat with monocle and cigarette holder. And yet he made some wonderful noir films, full of Modernist sets and starkly-lit shots. Scarlet Street boasts plenty of the latter, but none of the former. Edward G Robinson plays a meek cashier. After a party celebrating his twenty-five years of faithful service, Robinson gets involved with femme fatale Joan Bennett, and is consequently persuaded to commit various crimes to support her… while he indulges in his hobby of painting. And then his art suddenly becomes desirable, but Bennett claims to be the painter and… well, it all gets a bit complicated after that. Scarlet Street is a well-made film, of course, but there’s nothing in it that makes it stand out from others of its time and genre.

picnic_at_hanging_rockPicnic at Hanging Rock*, Peter Weir (1975, Australia). So I’ve watched several of Weir’s films over the years and he’s not a director who’s really stood out for me – I mean, Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Mosquito Coast… er, Green Card? This is middle-brow, if not lower, Hollywood entertainment, sometimes with a nod at worthiness – Gallipolli, for example – but just as often not. But Picnic at Hanging Rock is on the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die list, and I was aware of the regard in which it was held, so… Okay, the mystery is never solved and I can see how that sort of bounces you out of your typical Hollywood box, and the movie is also resolutely Australian, to a degree that a film such as Mad Max most certainly isn’t, so that perhaps some people thought better of the film than it deserved. Because it is, to be honest, a bit dull. It is also, to be fair, a period piece and it does present its period well. But, meh.

orientalelegyA Humble Life, Aleksandr Sokurov (1997, Japan). The third of Oriental Elegy‘s three documentaries – did I mention I managed to buy a copy for £25 and currently copies go for £200 to £300? Anyway. Like the other two films, it was made in Japan and takes as its topic an old Japanese woman who lives alone in an old house in a small mountain village. It is also engimatic, features Sokurov’s trademark distortion of the image, such that it often appears like a painting, and lots of intense close-ups. Sokurov documents the woman’s daily activities, often without voice-over, and achieves more in setting tone and mood than incidental music could have done (although Sokurov often makes excellent use of music). This is perhaps the most elegiac of the three films on the disc, and I’ll be watching again. Several times, no doubt.

bird_crytals_plumageThe Bird with the Crystal Plumage*, Dario Argento (1972, Italy). This was apparently Argento’s first film, and it’s pretty obvious it’s a giallo right from the start. An American writer resident in Rome – you can only tell he’s American because he mentions it in conversation, as, of course, his dialogue is dubbed into Italian – witnesses a man attack a woman in a gallery late one night. He fails to break into the gallery, but does scare off the attacker. Another passer-by calls the authorities, who arrive in time to save the woman, who had been knifed. Then further murders following the same modus operandi take place, and the inspector in charge of the case asks the American for help in solving it. It’s all very giallo, and there’s a twist in the end which I probably should have spotted, but it’s probably closer to Mario Bava’s Baron Blood and Lisa and the Devil than it is to Suspiria. I’m not entirely sure why it makes the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die list, but there’s a lot of films on there I could say the same about.

bamboleLe Bambole, Franco Rossi et al (1965, Italy). This is another one of those Italian anthology films, which are, of course, about women – well, women as men see them – and perhaps might once have been described by Brits as “sex comedies” given that at some point the actresses usually end up clad in only their lingerie. The first of the four “episodes” is about a young woman on the telephone to her mother while her husband slouches about the apartment trying to amuse himself until she is ready to accept his sexual advances. The second has Elke Sommer looking for the ideal father for her child – something to do with the shape of his ears – before eventually recognising the suitability of her young and virile guide about town. The third sees a wife trying to rid herself of her husband so she can be with her lover, only for her various plans for his demise to go awry. And the final section is apparently an adaptation of a segment of Boccaccio’s The Decameron and stars Gina Lollobrigida, but to be honest I can’t really remember what it was about.

ace_in_holeAce in the Hole*, Billy Wilder (1951, USA). Oof, this was nasty one, not the sort of thing you’d expect from Billy Wilder. A disgraced big city reporter pulls into a small New Mexico town and persuades the local paper owner to take him on. A year later, while covering a rattlesnake hunt he learns of a local man trapped by a rockfall in a cave. It’s the story he’s been waiting for. If it gets syndicated, it could get him back into the big time. So when a mining engineer proposes shoring up the cave and then digging out the trapped man, the reporter vetoes it and instead they start to drill down from the top of the cliff. Meanwhile, the media has picked up the story and descended on the region. It becomes a complete circus. The reporter, of course, is loving it as he controls access to the trapped man. Meanwhile, the days pass, the trapped man weakens… The ending hardly comes as a surprise – people who play with others’ lives in flms generally get their comeuppance. Although, of course, it’s the trapped man who pays the bigger price. I can sort of see why this is considered a classic, but it leaves a nasty after-taste and for that reason I couldn’t like it.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 606


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Moving pictures, #18

I bought an Amazon Fire TV Stick in their recent Prime Day, so these Moving pictures posts may become a little less frequent as I can now catch up on some 2015 television series I’ve missed. Because, despite having umpty-zillion cable television channels, there’s generally fuck-all on them worth seeing or that I haven’t seen before. One channel, for example, has been back-to-back episodes of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda for several weeks. Why? And other channels have gone right back to the first seasons of their most popular television shows, which of course I’ve already seen. Anyway, this all sort of explains why I watch so many movies…

tranceTrance, Danny Boyle (2013, UK). A charity shop find. Boyle is a name I know, though I can’t say I’m a fan, and the plot sounded twisty-turny enough to promise a reasonable night’s entertainment. And so it proved. James McAvoy works at a high-end auction house when a very valuable painting is stolen by thief Vincent Cassell and a team of thugs. During the robbery, McAvoy is beaten about the head by Cassel and subsequently suffers retrograde amnesia. Which is a problem, as he was actually in on the robbery and seems to have hidden the painting before apparently handing over the case containing it (under feigned duress) to Cassel. So McAvoy visits hypnotherapist Rosario Dawson in order to recover his lost memories… and it then gets all twistier and turnier. And there you have it. Thrillers this twisty-turny are nothing new, and the twenty-first century seems to have added a level of unnecessary gloss, and even-more-unnecessary gore – not to mention an often dodgy treatment of the female characters – and Trance is one of these in pretty much all respects. You’ll watch it, you might well enjoy it, but a couple of days later you’ll probably need hypnotherapy in order to remember it.

world_without_sunWorld Without Sun, Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1964, France). This is one of a number of documentaries Cousteau made about his underwater exploits, but I bought this one because it focused on Conshelf Two, the habitat he built ten metres underwater in the Red Sea. I remember Cousteau from my childhood, his films were a staple of Middle East English-language television channels, so I knew all about the Diving Saucer and the Calypso and I have fond memories of the films featuring them. But Conshelf Two I find much more interesting these days, so hence my purchase of this. And it was… weird. They all smoke! In an undersea habitat! Two of the divers spend a couple of days in a heliox environment in a tiny habitat much deeper, and the first thing one of them does on his return to Conshelf Two is… light up his pipe! The underwater photography was, of course, excellent and fascinating, and Cousteau’s narration was interesting and informative. But the sight of half-naked Frenchmen smoking Gauloises in a metal box thirty feet underwater is just…

from_the_new_worldFrom The New World, Pt 1 (2012, Japan). This was the second anime mentioned by David Tallerman, and while I sort of liked his first recommendation – Royal Space Force: Wings of Honnemâise, see here – I really didn’t take to this one at all. (He did say, incidentally, to ignore the somewhat dodgy cover – but, of course, Amazon rental only send me the disc so this is actually the first time I’ve seen it and… oof, it is pretty dodgy.) Anyway, From The New World is apparently based on a novel by Yusuke Kishi, and the anime adaptation is done in that big-eyed tiny-nosed style which is what most people probably think of when they think of anime. The story is set in the distant future, long after humans start manifesting psychic abilities and so bring about the collapse of civilisation. But everything is now happy and peaceful and agrarian – or so it seems. Much of the story concerns Saki Watanabe being trained in the use of her powers, her friends and lovers at special powers school, and a long adventure in which Saki and some friends get involved in a war between two groups of Monster Rats and there’s this creature which spends an entire episode giving them a history lesson and… I found this really quite dull. While I began to think more kindly of Royal Space Force: Wings of Honnemâise several days after watching it, I can’t say the same of this. Just Not My Thing. At All.

ordinary_peopleOrdinary People*, Robert Redford (1980, USA). A week or so after watching this film from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and I’m having trouble remembering what it was about. I can recall it was Robert Redford’s directorial debut, and it was nominated for a load of Oscars… but the story has mostly gone. Something about a teenager suffering after a suicide attempt, and Mary Tyle Moore as his completely unlikeable mother. Let’s see… There’s an American family, middle-class, affluent, normal by Hollywood middle-America standards, and the eldest son drowned in a boating accident before the film started, the younger son has been suffering from survivor guilt and attempted suicide before the film started… and things on the home front are now pretty fraught. But the son is seeing an unconventional psychiatrist and the therapy seems to be working. However, things are getting worse at home because mother is being mean and father’s peace-keeping isn’t always successful and… yawn. Cross this one off the list, I’ve seen it, I’m likely never to watch it again and I’m perfectly happy with that.

the_passionate_friendsThe Passionate Friends, David Lean (1949, UK). The DVD cover alone should tell you this is a romantic triangle story, and the year and country indicates that it is, of course, all terribly terribly, with Ann Todd married to Claude Rains but still in love with ex-boyfriend Trevor Howard, against a backdrop of the Swiss Alps, and based on a novel by, of all people, HG Wells. It’s structured, as many British romantic dramas of the time seem to be, as a series of extended flashbacks. Todd arrives at a Swiss hotel, and learns that Howard has booked into the room next her, quite by coincidence. And so the film goes back nine years to Todd and Howard’s relationship, and then slowly winds its way forward through Todd’s rejection of Howard, her marriage to Rains, and thence to the meeting which opens the film. And from there it moves smoothly into a rekindling of their relationship, hubby finds out, divorce papers served, etc, etc. I actually quite enjoyed this – Todd is very watchable, the flashbacks explained the story rather than confused it, and the ending was a pleasant surprise. It’s a minor Lean work, although to be fair I’m pretty sure that everything he did except Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and The Bridge On The River Kwai was a minor work…

jupiter_ascendingJupiter Ascending, Wachowskis (2015, USA). I waited for the DVD before watching this because, well, what I’d heard about it didn’t bode all that well. It did, however, prove to be mostly accurate. You can call Jupiter Ascending bollocks or tosh or fluff or any number of terms that basically require you to turn off your brain before you attempt to watch it, but it is nonetheless undeniably pretty. This is a film which exists because of its visuals, and the fact they don’t entirely make sense is irrelevant. The story, a rags to riches, toilet cleaner to heiress to the entire galaxy, is just so stupid it completely bypasses the stupid filter. Eddie Redmayne is bloody awful as the main villain, Mila Kunis as the eponymous heroine is a charsima-free zone, and Channing Tatum’s character, a soldier engineered from dog/human genes, is just too daft to take seriously (not to mention Sean Bean’s half-human/half honeybee). There is some very pretty CGI, lots of gurning, evil villainess Tuppence Middleton looks weird for half the film but that’s because she’s wearing make-up so she appears old, and I really can’t remember most of the plot even though it’s only been a couple of weeks since I saw the film. Ten years from now, no one is going to be sticking this on their list of “ten great sf movies”, not unless they have zero critical faculties.

orientalelegyDolce, Aleksandr Sokurov (2000, Japan). This is one of three films on Sokurov’s Oriental Elegy DVD, which is extremely hard to find. I’d seen one or two copies on eBay and Amazon, going for between £200 and £250 each, which was way more than I was prepared to pay no matter how much I admire Sokurov as a director. But then a copy of Oriental Elegy popped up on eBay with a Buy-It-Now price of £25. I bought it. I was a little worried the item had actually been mislabelled, as there was no photograph, but it not only turned out to be a proper copy of Oriental Elegy but also still in its shrinkwrap. Result. But, Dolce… Sokurov’s documentaries resist easy classification, some more so than others. This one opens with a quick summary of the life of Japanese writer Toshio Shimao, a series of photographs with Sokurov in voiceover, the sort of stuff he started his career doing back in the early 1980s with Dimitri Shostakovich: Sonata For Viola, patching together archive footage and photographs to form a narrative. Dolce then becomes an interview of sorts with Mihao Shimao, who talks about her life with her father, although not in a conventional interview-sense, more as private reminiscences spoken out loud while alone (in Japanese, which Sokurov then speaks in Russian, and then appear in English subtitles). It’s affecting stuff, and very Sokurov – which means it’s likely to take a number of rewatches before I begin to understand exactly what is being said. Which is, of course, one of the reasons I like Sokurov’s stuff so much.

exterminating_angelThe Exterminating Angel*, Luis Buñuel (1962, Mexico). I have so far found Buñuel a bit hit and miss for me, but this particular film I found I liked the idea of it much more than I liked the execution. Which is not to say it’s a bad film – on the contrary, it’s very good. But the premise is one I find particularly appealing… but I do wonder if perhaps it wasn’t stretched out a bit too long. A group of affluent people meet up for a dinner party. Over the course of the evening, the servants quit and leave for no reason. The diners retire to the sitting-room… and then find they can’t leave it. At first it seems that they have no desire to, and start bedding down for the night. But then it becomes obvious they are psychologically incapable of doing so – for reasons no one understands. And as their “imprisonment” continues, so their civilised veneer is stripped away and their bestial natures are revealed. Now I don’t believe in all that “animal natures” crap, but I do like the idea of people being mysteriously trapped in a room which has a clear and obvious exit. Buñuel makes a proper meal of his conceit, before eventually reeling it all back, and leaving cast and audience no wiser as to what has happened. I liked that. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 603


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Reading diary, #10

I’ve given up on writing actual full-length book reviews on this blog – you know, a post about a single book, covering it in some detail. I do that for SF Mistressworks and Interzone (and occasionally Vector). Besides, I read so widely these days, it would seem weird to review only science fiction books here, not to mention only recent science fiction novels. These reading diary posts strike me as an acceptable compromise – a couple of hundred words on every book I’ve read, irrespective of genre or year of publication – serving both to remind me of what I’ve read as well as perhaps point followers of this blog at something they might find worthwhile reading.

And after my last reading diary was almost all genre fiction, this one sees something of a return to form, with only a pair of sf books, and a third which was published as literary fiction but was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2008 (it lost out to Richard Morgan’s Black Man).

the_rainbowThe Rainbow, DH Lawrence (1915). Three books into working my way chronologically through Lawrence’s novels, and he’s yet to move outside of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire (I’ve also read the later Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which also takes place in Notts). The Rainbow follows the Brangwen family through several generations, from the 1840s through to 1905. It starts with the family patriarch before eventually settling on Ursula, who comes of age at the turn of the century, is fiercely ambitious, and ends up teaching at a local school. It’s a more structured novel than The White Peacock and Sons and Lovers, although only inasmuch as the passage of years provides a framework for the story – it still has a tendency to randomly move from one member of the family to another, and it’s not always clear where the novel’s focus lies. But Lawrence’s descriptive prose, particularly in regard to the landscape, shines; and he brings his usual detailed, if occasionally heavy-handed, eye to the emotional landscapes of his cast. I set out to work my way through Lawrence’s oeuvre because a read of Lady Chatterley’s Lover persuaded me I’d been missing out by avoiding him, and because my father was a huge Lawrence fan. The more I’ve read, the more I too have become a fan of his writing – and collecting the books is fun too, of course.

voiceoutramahA Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough (1979). I picked this up from Alvarfonden at Archipelacon in Mariehamn – did I mention I went to a con in Finland, well, the Åland Islands to be precise, and it was excellent? – anyway, I bought this with the intention of reviewing it for SF Mistressworks. I’d come across Killough’s name in an anthology of sf by women, but I’d never read anything else by her. I started the book while waiting for my connecting flight to Manchester in Helsinki Airport, and ended up finishing it before my flight was called (it was a five hour wait). And I really liked the novel. As you can no doubt tell from my review on SF Mistressworks here.

strange_bedfellowsStrange Bedfellows, Thomas N Scortia, ed. (1973). This I also bought from Alvarfonden, and read during the flight from Helsinki, and train journey from Manchester. And I suspect it’s the worst sf anthology I’ve ever had the misfortune to read. I mean, just look at that strapline on the cover: “Can sex survive the space age?”. I’m guessing yes it will, it’ll survive a whole lot of things, like climate crash, nuclear armageddon, global economic meltdown… maybe even the heat death of the universe. There are nineteen stories, two are by women (Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Miriam Allen deFord); the remainder are by a mix of well-known names (Silverberg, Sturgeon, Aldiss, Farmer), and a few that were unknown to me. The stories, on the other hand, are full of the worst of early seventies sensibilities – the Silverberg is about a young man who discovers he has mental powers and uses them to stalk women, there’s a section titled “Toujours Gay” which opens with the frankly awful ‘The World Well Lost’, another story has serial rape as the “twist”, and the Aldiss is racist and features sexual slavery. The rest are either worse, or completely unmemorable. Best avoided.

The-Cuckoos-CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith (2013). According to the blurb on this book, it was a huge best-seller and then the author was revealed as JK Rowling, which is not how I remember it happening. The Cuckoo’s Calling received several positive reviews and sold modestly. Then someone at Rowling’s solicitors (I think) leaked Galbraith’s true identity, and sales shot up overnight by about 5000%. But hey, let’s rewrite history anyway and make out that it’s not Rowling’s name that sells books, that’s she still a really good writer even when no one knows it’s her. So, of course, it comes as little surprise to find The Cuckoo’s Calling is… okay. It has too many words for its story and could have done with losing 100 pages, the most interesting thing about its hero, Cormoran Strike, is his improbable name, and the whole thing feels like it was written by someone who’s a little bit out of touch. A supermodel falls to her death from her penthouse flat and the police initially rule it suicide. But the supermodel’s brother, a solicitor, thinks this is wrong and hires Strike to investigate. At the same time, a new temp has started as Strike’s secretary, and she proves to be highly competent and very much in love with the idea of being a private investigator – parts of the novel are written from her perspective. The plot moves smoothly, but it feels wordy, yet nowhere near literary enough to be literary fiction. There are a few digs at the ultra-wealthy, which feel like they’re the result of personal experience, but mostly Strike’s life seems to belong to an earlier decade. I now have a copy of the sequel, The Silkworm, but I’m not expecting it to be any better.

researchResearch, Philip Kerr (2014). John Houston is a mega-selling author, who runs an “atelier” of writers – he comes up with the stories, they bang out the actual prose… and the books are of course sold under Houston’s name. It makes him millions of dollars a year and his writers a comfortable living. If this sounds a little familiar, it’s because Houston is clearly based on James Patterson. But Houston has decided to pack it all in. He wants to write something himself, to prove he has the writing chops. So he closes down his atelier and pays off his writers… Shortly afterwards, his wife is found murdered in their Monaco apartment, and Houston has done a runner. The police contact Don Irvine, the first writer to join Houston’s atelier (the two were friends and colleagues at an advertising agency), but he can shed no light on the murder. And then, as you’d expect to happen in a novel such as this, Houston contacts Irvine, pleads innocence and asks for Irvine’s help. Which he is happy to give. The novel is broken into sections, alternating between first-person narrations from Irvine’s and Houston’s point of view. And pretty soon things aren’t what Houston, Irvine or even the Monaco police thought they were. As thrillers go, there’s not much in here that hasn’t been done before. However, Kerr does a top job of satirising mega-selling authors of the likes of Patterson, their books, and the publishing industry which supports them. For that alone, it’s worth reading.

the_carhullan_armyThe Carhullan Army, Sarah Hall (2007). I picked up this in Oxfam in Micklegate, just before the York pub meet back in May. I’d been after a copy for a while, so I was pretty chuffed when I found this one. I had high hopes too of the novel, as it had been repeatedly recommended to me, but initially I wondered if it had been over-praised. It’s structured as segments of found testimony by Sister, who leaves her husband to join a women’s militia based at a remote farm. In the near-future UK of the book, the economy has crashed, the US sends aid, and an oppressive political regime is tightening its grip on an already downtrodden and poor population. Once Sister reaches Carhullan, the militia’s farm, the story picks up, and when she is recruited to the women’s army which is planning a coup on a local town, then it really moves into gear. By the end of the novel, I was much more impressed than I had been after the first dozen or so pages. On balance, definitely worth its position on the Clarke Award shortlist (and arguably better than the eventual winner).


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Space movies

I saw a list recently of “space movies” and the first film on the list was… Star Wars. I like lists, and though they usually make me angry I also like bad lists – because they inspire me to create my own. After all, if you’re going to put together to a list of “space movies”, then you’d expect “space” to play a major role in the film. And yes, there’s the Death Star and the Millennium Falcon running away from the Imperial space destroyer and that final space battle and it’s space opera which even has the word “space” in it… but is Star Wars really a “space movie”?

There are plenty of films – not just Hollywood ones, either – where space or space travel forms a major portion of the plot, or is indeed the actual subject of the film. Having said that, any list of films which comprises almost entirely Hollywood output, bar one or two token world cinema entries, is also going to generate rage. I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve seen Tarkovsky’s Solaris as the token non-Hollywood sf movie in a lists of sf movies. Tarkovsky was a great director, no doubt about that, but he made two other sf films – all of which is beside the point, as there are a huge number of non-US and non-Anglophone directors who have made science fiction movies, many of which are excellent.

All this is, of course, a somewhat long-winded way of introducing my own list of “space movies”, ie films that are space-related – inasmuch as they are about space exploration, or the setting is space for at least more than half of the film. I have, as is my wont, tried to avoid the obvious and commercially safe choices…

space_odysseySpace Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets (2004, UK). This is my go-to for near-future space-based science fiction. It’s a television dramatisation of a near-future Grand Tour, made chiefly by the BBC. It’s hard to find these days, but it’s definitely worth hunting down a copy. The CGI hasn’t aged especially well, the acting is not great, and the talking heads often slow things down… but much of it was filmed on the Vomit Comet and it does a top job of presenting life aboard a spacecraft travelling about the Solar Sytem. In fact, it does a top job of presenting all the technology required to visit all the planets of the Solar System. Good stuff.

apollo18sdApollo 18, Gonzalez López-Gallego (2011, USA). Okay, so the rock monsters are a bit silly, as is the, er, plot. But this is still the best fictional presentation to date of an Apollo mission on celluloid. And it also scores highly because it shows a Soviet LK and gets it absolutely right. This is the proper way to do a space movie… even if it’s in service to a hoary old plot. Admittedly, it’s a found footage movie, and it’s never quite made clear how they found the footage, given we’ve never been back to the moon… but never mind.

cargoCargo, Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009, Switzerland). This is a polished piece of sf from a country not really known for producing science fiction movies. The story takes place aboard a starship on its way to an Edenic colony world, which is closed to the masses teeming in space stations orbiting a poisoned Earth except as a prize in a lottery. En route, the film manages to pull in most modern sf movie tropes, but it handles them well and even manages a few – albeit somewhat predictable – scares along the way.

eolomeaEolomea, Herrmann Zschoche (1972, East Germany). Deutsches Film-Aktiengesellschaft made four big-budget – for East Germany – sf movies during the late 1960s and early 1970s. They’re a bit dippy, but they did go all out to make good-looking, globally-minded intelligent science fiction. Eolomea is perhaps the best of them, a mystery about the plan to settle the eponymous exoplanet and a space station that has suddenly gone silent. Some great 1970s retro-futuristic production design, too.

testpilotpirxTest Pilot Pirx, Marek Piestrak (1979, USSR). AKA Pilot Pirx’s Inquest. Based on the character created by Stanisław Lem, this sees Pirx take a trip to the rings of Saturn, with a crew which contains one or more androids – but he doesn’t know who is which. It starts as a weirdly-paced future thriller, before turning into a space movie that strives for accuracy in some areas but gets it bizarrely wrong in others. And, like most Eastern Bloc sf movies, the future is assumed to be a world of peaceful multinational cooperation, unlike in US films. The soundtrack is also surprisingly ahead of its time.

ikarieIkarie XB-1, Jindřich Polák (1963, Czechoslovakia). The titular spacecraft is sent on a long mission to Alpha Centauri, and various incidents happen en route, including one member of the crew going mad. The production design reminds me a little of Raumpatrouille Orion in places, and there’s plenty of Anglophone films that were later influenced by it – perhaps because, unlike Hollywood sf films of the time, it had an intelligent script.

frau-im-mond-loresFrau im Mond, Fritz Lang (1929, Germany). Not the first ever sf movie, that was Georges Méliès’s Le voyage dans la lune in 1902 (which is worth seeing), but Lang’s silent epic Frau im Mond is considerably more realistic and famously gave us the rocket launch countdown. It perhaps spends overmuch of its length laying out the background to the moon shot, and the scenes set on the lunar surface are unsurprisingly not especially accurate, but I’m pretty sure it’s the first actual space movie.

queen_of_bloodQueen Of Blood, Curtis Harrington (1966, USA). This is one of those films Roger Corman cobbled together from footage from a pair of Soviet sf movies – in this case, Небо зовет and Мечте навстречу – with US-filmed material starring John Saxon, Dennis Hopper, Judi Meredith and Basil Rathbone. Florence Marly plays the title role, an alien vampire stranded on Mars who is rescued by a mission from Earth. Although considered a B-movie, Queen Of Blood rises above its humble origins – those astonishing Soviet visuals, Meredith’s equal treatment alongside Saxon and Hopper, and Marley pulling a star turn as the alien vampire.

o_the-day-after-tomorrow-into-infinity-dvd-gerry-anderson-f508Into Infinity, Charles Crichton (1975, UK). AKA The Day After Tomorrow. A live-action made-for-television film by Gerry Anderson, it describes the maiden voyage of Altares, the first human spacecraft to travel at the speed of light. The dialogue is mostly exposition, there’s an explanatory narration by Ed Bishop, and, to be fair, the plot is somewhat on the dull side… but I remember loving it as a kid, and although a recent rewatch did reveal many of its flaws it still fired the sense of wonder I recalled from all those decades ago.

royalspaceforceRoyal Space Force: Wings of Honneâmise, Hiroyuki Yamaga (1987, Japan). An anime film about a space programme on an entirely invented world, and which ends with the first launch of a crewed rocket, should surely qualify for this list. I only watched this for the first time recently, and I wasn’t that taken with it – but in the weeks since I found myself thinking more kindly of it, and I’m even considering getting hold of a copy of my own.

There are some others I could have included, one or two of which I might even hold in higher regard, but for this list I wanted a good geographic spread.


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The great big space opera giveaway

And that’s not “great  big” because there’s lots of copies to give away, I’m afraid, but because the single copy of A Prospect of War I’m giving away is itself “great big”. The give away bit is certainly true, however. The rules are simple: send an email to sales at whippleshieldbooks dot com (you’ll have to translate that yourself) before midnight GMT of Sunday 19 July 2015. Open to everyone.

 

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