It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Starship Seasons, Eric Brown

starship-seasonsThe four novellas which make up Starship Seasons, titled ‘Starship Summer’, ‘Starship Fall’, ‘Starship Winter’ and ‘Starship Spring’, were originally published individually by PS Publishing (of which Drugstore Indian Press is an imprint) and NewCon Press between 2007 and 2012. All four are set on Chalcedony, Delta Pavonis IV, in a future in which starship travel has been superseded by Telemass, interstellar teleportation. The novellas feature David Conway and the circle of close friends he makes when he moves to Magenta Bay on Chalcedony. While the stories share locale and cast, and each novella references events in the preceding stories, they can be read as standalones.

Conway has retired to Chalcedony, a move partly driven by the death of his daughter and the subsequent breakup of his marriage. While hunting for a suitable property on the shore of the idyllic Magenta Bay, he stumbles across a junkyard of starships, run by an ex-pilot called Hawk. Conway decides to use an old ship as a home, but the one he chooses is of mysterious provenance. He settles into a life of indolence – with a great deal of drinking – and makes friends with several of the locals, including Hawk, famous artist Matt, telempath Maddie, and Hawk’s alien lover, Kee (a native of Chalcedony). Conway soon discovers his starship home is “haunted”… by an avatar of the Yall, an advanced alien race who have long since vanished. The Yall admits his race built Chalcedony’s great marvel, the Golden Column, an impenetrable pillar one kilometre in diameter and thirty kilometres high, and of unknown purpose. Conway and his friends, with the help of the Yall ghost, make Conway’s starship operable and fly to the Column… and so discover the mysterious object’s true purpose.

‘Starship Fall’ is set five years later. The fuss over Conway’s discovery of the Golden Column’s purpose – it is, in fact, part of an instantaneous interstellar transport network – has died down. The appearance in Magenta Bay of holo superstar Carlotta Chakravorti-Luna, however, threatens to upset Conway’s life of indolence and drinking. And then Hawk’s alien companion, Kee, vanishes into the jungle to “smoke the bones”, an alien ritual which allows the smoker to snatch glimpses of the future but has a seventy percent fatality rate. Conway, Maddie and Hawk head off into the interior to “rescue” Kee, but unfortunately are too late to prevent her undergoing the ritual. What Kee sees of the future involves Chakravorti-Luna and also Hawk’s possible death. The holo superstar admits she is on Chalcedony to find an ex-husband who crashed on the planet decades before, and this has something to do with the smoking the bones ritual.

The plot of ‘Starship Winter’ is driven by Matt, the artist, who puts on an exhibition of works which use “empathy stones” from the world of Acrab IV. Visiting Magenta Bay is Darius Dortmund, an empath, who is not only unduly interested in Matt’s showing, but is also accompanied by an alien from Acrab IV. Dortmund is arrogant, secretive and a nasty sort. He annoys and upsets Conway and his friends, spoils the grand opening of Matt’s art show, but at a big party in his rented property later is found murdered. Suspicion immediately falls on Conway and his circle, who had stayed over at Dortmund’s house for the night. In this novella, Conway’s circle expands by one: Lieutenant Hannah van Harben of the local police, who becomes Conway’s love-interest.

The final book of the quartet is ‘Starship Spring’. It is six years later. Conway and van Harben are now living together in and have a young daughter, Ella. Their friends are busy off-planet – Matt and Maddie touring Matt’s latest art show, and Hawk and Kee flying rich tourists to some galactic wonder. But soon they will be returning, so all six arrange for a fortnight away at an expensive Chalcedony holiday spot called Tamara Falls. Part of the charm of the place is that it’s apparently haunted… and the ghost makes a number of appearances in front of the six friends and Ella. It also seems to be trying to tell them something. Matt admits that the holiday is being paid for by Dr Petronius, a famous art patron, who insisted on it as a condition of his offer to tour Matt’s art show. Millennia ago, the Yall fought and defeated an evil alien race, the Skeath, who managed to hide a vast army beneath Tamara Falls, ready to be awoken one day to conquer the galaxy. Petronius wants this to happen, and needs Conway and friends and family to be on-hand to trigger it…

There’s something very… comfortable about the stories in Starship Seasons. There’s nothing edgy or outrageous about the world described, nor about the concepts deployed in the stories. That the characters are well-drawn is a given – Brown has been writing sf since the mid-1980s, and he’s very good at it. But each of the central quintet has a secret, and that five damaged people should become such close friends occasionally feels somewhat banal. Except that feels like too harsh a judgement – these are four polished novellas, firmly located in genre heartland, thoughtful and considered in tone, and very much character-centred. They will not disappoint a dedicated science fiction reader even if, in these days of immersion and jump-cuts and “blowing shit up”, these four novellas do feel a little old-fashioned in affect. Entertaining, thoughtful and put-together well, certainly, but… The fate of the galaxy is several times put at risk, the lives of the central and supporting cast are frequently in danger; and yet once the dust has settled, Conway’s life returns to normal. There is progression – the Golden Column supersedes Telemass, Conway and Hannah have a child, the characters grow and heal over the years – yet the victories won in each of the novellas still feel small scale and personal. Sometimes, that’s all science fiction needs.

Starship Seasons, Eric Brown (2013, Drugstore Indian Press, £7.99, 978-1-848636-02-6)

This review originally appeared in Vector, No. 274, Winter 2013/2014.


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Reading diary, #3

It’s been a bit of an odd month, reading-wise. Mostly science fiction, both new and old – three for review, one for Vector and two for SF Mistressworks.

MegalexCoverMegalex, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Fred Beltran (2014). I picked up a copy of the first volume of this several years ago, but parts two and three never seem to have appeared in English. I thought about getting the original French editions – and might well have done so, had this omnibus edition not been published last year. The original bandes dessinées – L’anomalie, L’ange Bossu and Le cœur de Kavatah – appeared in 1999, 2002 and 2008, respectively. Beltran’s art apparently tends to the pneumatic, and two of the lead female characters are implausibly buxom. The plot borrows a number of devices Jodorowsky has used before – in fact, even the setting feels a little second-hand too. A world has been turned into one giant city, except for a small area of forest. A glitch in the clone factory results in a dimwitted giant of a clone, who manages to escape and join the rebels living underground, who are led by a hunchback. The king’s daughter is searching for love, but her touch kills. The rebels attack the palace and kidnap the princess – but the hunchback is not killed by her touch. And his hunch turns out to conceal a pair of wings. The princess and winged man conjoin and become a winged hermaphrodite, which leads the rebels to victory over the evil king and queen. It’s not Jodorowsky’s best work by any means. It all feels a bit recycled, and though Beltran’s art is gorgeous, it’s a far too much objectifying. Despite a career in bandes desinées stretching back to 1966, Jodorowsky hasn’t really done anything science-fictional that beats The Incal.

shortnovels2The Virgin and The Gipsy, DH Lawrence (1930). I decided to read this “short novel” before watching the 1970 film adaptation sent to me by Amazon rental. It was apparently written around 1926, but discovered among DH Lawrence’s papers after his death in 1930 (the novel, that is, not the film adaptation), and published later that same year. It… actually reads like a parody. Flighty virginal young woman is attracted by animal charm of handsome gipsy, but then a local dam bursts and floods the area and the gipsy saves the young woman from the waters. So that’s 1930’s prize for Most Obvious Sexual Metaphor Ever to David Herbert, and this is a man who never let a metaphor for sex or sexuality go unmolested. There’s also some anti-semitism on display – the virgin makes friends with a Jewish divorcee (who is not actually divorced) and her laid-back boyfriend, and there are over-frequent references to the woman’s ethnicity. Lawrence was always very good about writing about landscape, although that’s not so much in evidence in this short novel. But he was also really good at interiority and there’s plenty of that on display here. It’s not Lawrence’s best work of those I’ve read – although it seems to have been critically well-received.

The Kif Strike Back, CJ Cherryh (1985). I reviewed this on SF Mistressworks here.

The Grasshopper’s Child, Gwyneth Jones (2014). A new novel from Jones. W00t. It’s a YA novel set in the world of the Bold as Love series. I reviewed it for Vector.

ultimaUltima, Stephen Baxter (2014). The sequel to Proxima – did you see what he did there? Proxima: nearest; Ultima: furthest. Where the first was near-future sf, this one drags in Baxter’s other great interest, alternate history. It seems that the Hatches which allow for easy travel over interstellar distances (instantaneous for the traveller, but light-speed is not violated), also trigger “resets” of history – or shift the protagonists into alternate histories. In the first, the Roman Empire makes it into space but despite making use of “kernels” (magic energy wormhole-y type things) as a power source, it doesn’t appear to have progressed much beyond the first century CE. And then it’s an interstellar Aztec Empire, which also uses kernels and has built a giant fuck-off O’Neill cylinder but still runs pretty much along the same lines as it did when Cortés stumbled across Tenochtitlan. It’s quite an impressive sustained act of imagination, but not in the least bit plausible. The book also suffers from juvenile characterisation – a running joke involving a lead character, a grizzled Roman legionary – wears thin soon after the third mention but Baxter keeps it going right to the bitter end. There’s lots of clumsy exposition, and a central premise that doesn’t really convince. Baxter has done much better than this, and it all feels a bit by-the-numbers and banged out over a quick weekend. Disappointing.

credit_titleCredit Title, GB Stern (1961). GB Stern is Gladys Bronwen Stern, a British writer who published some forty novels between 1914 and 1964. I should have guessed from the cover art, but I didn’t realise Credit Title was a “junior novel” when I bought it on eBay. Oh well. It’s set in 1933. Sharon’s father is a director in Hollywood, but they move back to England when he marries Meryll Armstrong, who already has six children. Sharon has been dreaming of being part of a large family – inspired by a series of books about the “Rectory Family” – but the reality proves disappointing. They expect her to be stuck-up because she’s lived in Hollywood, and this colours the way they treat her. It’s all very terribly-terribly and breathless and patronising, a bit like the Narnia books – and I should have picked another Stern book to see what she’s like.

The Power of Time, Josephine Saxton (1985). Review to appear on SF Mistressworks soon.

murder-at-the-chase-2Murder at the Chase, Eric Brown (2014). This is the second of Brown’s 1950s-set murder mysteries featuring thriller writer Donald Langham and his fiancée literary agent Maria Dupré. In this book, they’re invited to unravel a locked-room disappearance of another mystery writer, and it turns out it’s all to do with a satanist who may or may not have been born over one hundred years earlier. Brown evokes his period well, and his two protagonists are eminently likeable. He even manages a nicely liberal view of humanity that wasn’t common in 1955 – two of the secondary characters are gay, and despite it being illegal at the time, pretty much everyone seems surprisingly tolerant when confronted with it. The locked-room puzzle is disposed of disappointingly quickly, but then there’s a murder and what looks like a suicide… And it all gets wrapped a little quickly and tidily for comfort. I suspect these are not written to be cosy mysteries, but they’re beginning to resemble them. They need to be a bit edgier – Brown is capable of it, he handles his period with aplomb and his characters with assuredness. But the plot is all a bit rushed, and the ending is far too tidy.

hook3Hook 3: Star City, Tully Zetford (1974). This is the third book in the quartet featuring Hook of the funny eyebrows. Zetford was a pseudonym of Ken Bulmer, and it’s even more hacky than the stuff he put out under his own name. In this one Hook has teamed up with four others to steal a collection of cultural artefacts (weighing 50 kg), but the other four intend to cut him out of the deal. But Hook turns the tables on them, loses his payment for the haul at the titular star city, and then loses the money he steals to make good on his losses… before he ends up saving the unsophisticated natives of the planet the star city orbits who are being hunted for sport. This is disposable stuff, a couple of hours’ reading you’ve forgotten ten minutes after chucking the book onto the pile of books that are going to the charity shop. Best forgotten, and I suspect the author felt that way too.


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Moving pictures, #4

Yet more movies. What I have watched. I’ve been averaging two a night, due to the fact there’s been nothing worth watching on the terrestrial channels or cable television.

sierramadreThe Treasure of the Sierra Madre*, John Huston (1948, USA). Humph is stuck in Mexico, too poor to leave and look elsewhere for work. He’s offered a job, which he accepts, but when the job finishes, his employer doesn’t pay. Apparently, he’s known for doing this. That’s capitalism for you, folks. One man gets rich while others do the work; and all the better if he can get away without actually paying for it. Humph and a friend from the job hook up with an old prospector – played by the director’s father – and go looking for gold in them thar titular mountains. Which they find. But the prospect of great riches turns Humph all paranoid. And then bandidos turn up, bandidos with no stinking badges. Things go from bad to worse, Humph totally loses it, and it all ends badly. Not bad, although I thought Humph’s paranoia was a bit overdone. Huston senior was a complete star, however.

the_wind_risesThe Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki (2013, Japan). This is the Studio Ghibli one based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero, Japan’s most successful fighter plane of WWII. It apparently caused a bit of a fuss when it was released on the grounds it celebrated the life of a man who had designed a highly efficient killing machine. Despite all that, the film is well, a bit dull. Miyazaki livens things up a little by throwing in some weird dream sequences, featuring Italian aircraft designer Giovanni Batista Caproni. He also chucks in a doomed romance – the woman Horikoshi loves has tuberculosis, and dies shortly after they’re married. Horikoshi’s real wife was perfectly healthy. This element of the story was apparently adapted from a completely unrelated novel (and to which the film’s title is a reference). Incidentally, Werner Herzog provides the voice for a German character (in the English-language version), and it’s really quite strange hearing him in a Ghibli movie.

mononcleMon Oncle*, Jacques Tati (1958, France). This is how karma bites you on the ass. My rental agreement with Amazon involves them sending me 3 DVDs at a time, I watch them, return them, they send me 3 more. Except the copy of The Great Gatsby (see here) they sent me wouldn’t play. I reported it as faulty and returned it. They said they’d send me a replacement and it wouldn’t affect my agreement. Except they sent the replacement as one of my next lot of 3 DVDs. I complained, they apologised, and sent me an immediate fourth disc (The Virgin And The Gypsy, in fact). Situation resolved. And then they send Mon Oncle in my next 3, even though I’d bought the Jacques Tati box set only a week before – I’d forgotten to take it off my rental list. Argh. Anyway, this is definitely the next best Tati after Playtime, and it riffs off a similar conceit – but rather than city life being impersonal and oppressive, here it’s a single gadget-filled house, in which live Hulot’s sister and brother-in-law. There’s more of an actual plot than in Playtime, but again the film is built around a series of well-observed and cleverly executed set-pieces. More, please.

arriettyArrietty, Hiromasa Yonebayashi (2010, Japan). And this is the Studio Ghibli film based on The Borrowers, about a group of tiny little people who live behind the skirtingboard in a house. And, er, that’s it. Boy spots Borrower protagonist, who then reveals existence of Borrowers to him. Boy is ill and due to go into hospital for a risky operation. Parents discover evidence of Borrowers, and rings up a pest removal company. Boy helps Borrowers escape from pest removal experts. If I thought The Wind Rises was dull, this one has it beat. It didn’t even seem much like a Ghibli film.

moscowMoscow does not Believe in Tears, Vladimir Menshov (1980, USSR). An odd film, this. It won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1980, the third Soviet film to do so (the others were War and Peace in 1968 and, er, Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala in 1975). It opens in the 1950s, with three young women from the country now living in Moscow. One works as a mechanic, but wants to go to university to train as an engineer. Another works in a bakery, but believes in having fun and finding a rich husband. The third has a boyfriend who’s a farmer and they intend to marry. The baker and mechanic are asked to house-sit a rich relative’s apartment. They pretend the place is theirs and throw a party for eligible men (it’s the baker’s plan, the mechanic goes along with it reluctantly). The mechanic’s university plans are then scuppered when she falls for a television engineer, who makes her pregnant but refuses to marry her. The baker meanwhile marries a rich and famous hockey player. The film then jumps ahead to the 1970s. The mechanic is now the director of a successful manufacturing plant and a single mother, the baker’s marriage ended badly when the hockey player became an alcoholic, and the third one has been happily married to her farmer for two decades. And then a tool and die maker at a scientific lab picks up the director woman, not realising she occupies such an important position, and the rest of the film is their romance. While the movie carefully ignores many of the hardships of living under the Soviet system, and presents the USSR as a relatively affluent society, there are a number of details which are peculiar to its setting – in the 1950s, the three women live in a women’s dormitory, for example; or the mechanic is interviewed on television at one point because she is a female mechanic. It’s a well-handled drama, and despite a tendency to soap opera melodramatics in places, gives an interesting glimpse of a society that no longer exists. Worth seeing.

virginThe Virgin And The Gypsy, Christopher Miles (1970, UK). I decided to read the DH Lawrence novella from which this film was adapted before watching it, which was probably a mistake. (The novella is also the source of “inexcusable puddings”, although the expression is not used in the movie.) Two daughters return from their French finishing school to their father’s East Midlands vicarage. Yvette, the virgin of the title, is flighty, but Lucille is made of more sensible stuff. Yvette’s character is blamed upon, and often alluded to, the vicar’s absconded wife (although she was Lucille’s mother too). While out motoring about with some local friends, the sisters come across a gipsy, and Yvette is taken with his macho charm. Even for Lawrence, this is all about as subtle as a black pudding in the face. The film ends with a dam burst which floods the area – and Yvette’s life is saved by the gipsy. The film didn’t quite portray the characters as they were written, if anything it seemed to tone them down a little (it also toned down the 1920s racism, thankfully). And it didn’t look like a very expensive production – although it did actually look like it was filmed on location (which it was; it’s more or less the part of the country I’m from).

michaelMichael, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1924, Germany). I think I’ve come to Dreyer’s films backwards, starting with his Danish (sound) movies and then watching his earlier silent films. I’ve still yet to see Vampyr and The Passion of Joan of Arc, two of his most famous movies. But, Michael. This apparently didn’t do very well on release, likely because it’s centred around a gay relationship between a famous painter and his model. A bankrupt countess approaches the painter for a portrait, but actually plans to seduce him and then take all his money. But the model instead falls for her, and they go off together. The model steals from the painter, which then inspires the painter to paint his masterpiece. Soon after the picture is unveiled, the painter takes ill and dies, without being reconciled with his lost love. This is not much like the Danish films, neither in subject nor presentation. There are similarities, of course – Dreyer’s use of close-up, for example; but the sets more resemble German Expressionism than they do the Scandinavian starkness of Ordet or Day Of Wrath. There are also a lot of intertitles.

gagarinGagarin: First In Space, Pavel Parkhomenko (2013, Russia). The title is probably a bit of a clue to this film’s story. It’s a fairly straightforward biopic of the first man in space. I didn’t spot any glaring inaccuracies, although I’m no great expert on Gagarin’s life. There was quite a bit of emphasis on the camaraderie of the cosmonauts and Titov’s jealousy, but it also really pushed the idea that everyone thought Gagarin should be first right from the start – which I suspect is casting a somewhat rosier glow on history than was the case. Gagarin’s Vostok 1 spacecraft looked surprisingly roomy on the inside, and the film handled its spaceflight well. I enjoyed the film, but then I’m interested in its subject matter.

bride-of-frankenstein-dvd-001Bride Of Frankenstein*, James Whale (1935, USA). A classic piece of horror that tries to link back to Shelley’s novel with an opening scene set in the Villa Diodati (in which a peculiarly stiff Elsa Lanchester plays Mary Shelley). Other than that, the plot can be pretty much inferred from the title. Karloff’s Monster actually learns to speak in this movie, and it’s really quite silly. “Good … gooood! Bad! Bad!” And so on. Despite a couple of neat set-pieces, this is a film that shows its origins and its age far too plainly. And suffers for it.

traficTrafic, Jacques Tati (1971, France). Apparently, Tati was only meant to co-direct this, but he fell out with his collaborator and ended up going it alone. He plays a car designer who works for a small French company, and is responsible a gadget-filled saloon car-derived caravanette. The company plans to display this at an automobile show in Amsterdam, and so transport it to the Netherlands in the back of a truck. But the journey doesn’t quite go as planned, as the truck keeps on breaking down. Like Playtime, the plot is carried as much by sound effects as it is by dialogue, and there are a number of impressively choreographed set-pieces. The car company’s PR agent, played by American model Maria Kimberley, is impressively high-handed and incompetent. One of the biggest “gags”, a multi-car pile-up, is spoiled a little by a few elements that are a little too intrusively faked. Not as good as Mon Oncle or Playtime, but still bloody good.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 562


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Seoul Survivors, Naomi Foyle

seoul_survivorsSome time in the near-future, an asteroid is detected on a collision course with Earth. Its existence is denied by media and governments, but hackers find evidence of the “truth” in military and governmental computer systems. Damien is a slacker who believes in the asteroid. His plan is to find the safest place on the planet and then move there, but to do that he needs money. So he agrees to smuggle drugs into Korea for a friend; and then he stays on in Seoul to earn more cash by illegally teaching English to the kids of rich Koreans.

Sydney is a Canadian prostitute who has been taken to Korea by her boyfriend, Johnny Sandman, and is now working as a model. Johnny, an ex-gangbanger, works for ConGlam, which is some sort of shadowy transnational. One of the projects he is overseeing in Korea is VirtuWorld. This is the brainchild of genetics genius, Dr Kim Da Mi, who also plans to build a faux-European mediaeval theme-park village in the mountains north of Seoul, where her genetically-engineered “children” will survive the impending catastrophe.

Lee Mee Hee is a North Korean villager who has had herself smuggled out of the country. By ConGlam. She is taken to China, where she meets a number of other women from North Korea. After they have recovered from their ordeal, they are taken to the purpose-built village in South Korea, where they are to become surrogate mothers for Da Mi’s “children”. Sydney will be the egg donor and Johnny the father. But Johnny proves to have some genetic abnormalities which rule him out. Damien, who resembles Hugh Grant, is a much better candidate. When he learns of this, Johnny is not happy; he’s also losing Sydney, first to a Korean artist and then to Damien, and he’s not happy about that either.

Seoul Survivors is a readable pacey near-future thriller but it seems a little confused as to what it is actually about. Mee Hee’s narrative is wholly about the village of soon-to-be genetically-engineered children, but Sydney’s story chiefly concerns her love-life. Damien is living the life of an illegal immigrant, saving up for a false passport and an airline ticket to Canada. When Da Mi recruits Sydney to the VirtuWorld project and Sydney persuades Damien to donate sperm, he’s not told the true reason. And the objective of the Virtuworld technology is initially presented as the ProxyBod – real-life avatars put together from corpses and various electronic systems. (Only one ProxyBod appears in Seoul Survivors, and it is used by Da Mi.)

Despite having been published by a genre imprint, Seoul Survivors doesn’t read much like science fiction. The near-future it describes so closely resembles the present, it’s hard to determine exactly what are meant to be genre tropes and what are simply setting. There is a vague move in the direction of one or two science fiction ideas – Da Mi introduces Sydney to a therapeutic VR tool; there’s the ProxyBod; and then there’s the asteroid itself lurking somewhere in the background (or not). The world-building is almost wholly reliant on depictions of present-day Seoul, although there are one or two mentions of climate-crash elsewhere and there’s a terrorist attack offstage in London two-thirds of the way through the story.

Foyle has chosen to present many of her Korean characters as speaking pidgin English throughout – in fact, the first line of the novel is: “‘Ni-suh, Sy-duh-nee – Omhada – look at camera – thank you – better – pro-fesh-ional – Now, play with Hot-Cold, plea-suh!” Though this may give the narrative some verisimilitude, these days it’s a difficult trick to pull off without causing offence. And, annoyingly, Foyle refers to the mobile phone throughout as a MoPho rather than mobile or cell or the actual term the Koreans use (which translates “handy phone”, apparently).

None of this, in and of itself, prevents the book from being readable and entertaining, but the cast are something of an obstacle. Sandman is racist, sexist and violent, thoroughly unpleasant, and responsible for several incidents of sexual violence which leave a sour taste. Damien is passive and not very interesting. Sydney is none too bright, while Mee Hee Lee is unworldly and naive. Even Da Mi is self-centred and arrogant and far from likeable. It’s not a particularly edifying group of characters on which to hang a story.

There’s a feeling throughout Seoul Survivors that it’s a book whose whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. While there are some well-handled set-pieces, the story-arc is sign-posted far too blatantly, and the violent climax comes across as somewhat cartoonish because it tries to resolve all of the narratives at once. The advance publicity calls Seoul Survivors a “cyber thriller”, and it certainly feels more like a thriller than science fiction. Whether this is a strength or a weakness… is hard to say.

Seoul Survivors, Naomi Foyle (2013, Jo Fletcher Books, £16.99, 978-1780875989)

This review originally appeared in Interzone #247, July-August 2013.


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Machine by Jennifer Pelland

machinecover3_largeCelia Krajewski has a fatal genetic condition. Since it’s unique to her it will take some ten years before a cure is possible. Unfortunately, by that point she will have suffered irreparable brain damage. Happily, in the USA of the late twenty-first century, it’s possible to put Celia’s body into stasis until the cure is ready. And so that she does not miss out on her life during that period, her mind can be uploaded into a bioandroid body which mimics her appearance in all particulars.

This decision has unintended consequences: Celia’s wife leaves her, convinced that the bioandroid Celia is not the real Celia. There is a great deal of popular support for this position – so much so, in fact, that those in the bioandroid programme must keep their participation secret or they might be subjected to violence.

It comes as little surprise, then, that Celia begins to doubt her own humanity. She cuts herself, but beneath the skin is some sort of ceramic surface. Unwilling to accept that her identity is unchanged, Celia feels a need to explore her machine self. She visits online clubs where “bot freaks” hang out, and through one meets the Mechanic, a hacker who can give her what she wants. Through him, she meets a group of “mechanicals” who have altered their bioandroid bodies such they they no longer resemble or work like their biological originals. One in particular, called 1101, especially attracts Celia. 1101 has changed its bioandroid body to resemble an artist’s dummy. It recognises no gender, nor its previous humanity. Another, Gyne, has a body that can morph between male and female.

It is the fetishistic side of Celia’s situation which occupies much of the story of Machine. At one point, for example, she accompanies two of the mechanicals as they act as “love doll” prostitutes; and later plays the part of a love doll herself. Machine is at its best when it’s exploring this response to Celia’s machine identity. The exposition explaining the origin of the bioandroid programme is inelegant and unnecessary; and the popular reaction to bioandroids is clearly based on the US’s anti-abortion movement, but still feels a little too arbitrary to convince. In fact, the world-building throughout mostly feels a little too light to really convince. But these are minor quibbles.

There’s a disturbing prurience to the mechanicals and the changes they’ve made of, and the uses to which they put, their new bodies. Rather than explore how her new body makes her stronger, hardier, or no longer requiring food or oxygen, Celia chooses not to make herself more than human, but instead less than human. That she does so by changing her appearance to look less human, and through participation in the sex trade, seems only fitting. In Machine, Pelland has chosen an odd way to explore her theme, and though it’s skillfully done, it’s not an approach that will appeal to everyone.

Machine, Jennifer Pelland (2012, Apex Publications, $14.95, 978-1937009137)

This review originally appeared in Vector 271, Winter 2012.


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Moving pictures, #3

Well, my DVD-player decided to pack in. After seven and a half years of hard use. I guess I can’t complain too much. Fortunately, I also have a Blu-ray player, so there was no interruption of service. Having said that, I need to get a new Blu-ray player as the one I have is region-locked, so I can’t watch my Criterion Blu-ray of All That Heaven Allows. Bah. Stupid region-locking.

servantThe Servant*, Joseph Losey (1963, UK). James Fox is an upper crust bachelor, back in London after working abroad. He buys himself a townhouse, and advertises for a manservant. Dirk Bogarde is subsequently hired. Once the house has been decorated, the pair move in. Bogarde arranges for his sister, Sarah Miles, in Manchester to join him as a housekeeper, although the two seem suspiciously close for siblings. Fox’s girlfriend, Wendy Craig, doesn’t like Bogarde – she doesn’t think he’s appropriately servile. Miles and and Fox have sex, Fox comes increasingly under the sway of Bogarde… until their roles are pretty much reversed. Bogarde doesn’t quite convince as a Mancunian, but he plays a servant just on the edge of taking liberties perfectly. A proper creepy little film and worth seeing.

greatgatsbyThe Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann (2013, USA/Australia). F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the Roaring Twenties, when you think about it, should be pretty much ideal material for Luhrmann’s brand of spectacle. So it’s a bit of a shame that this film felt entirely pointless. Not the story – which everyone knows – but the film’s reason for existing. It didn’t help that I’ve always found both Maguire and DiCaprio a bit bland. And some of the scenery was pure CGI eye-candy, which made everything resemble a cartoon more than a classic of American literature. Nothing felt plausible, so what the story was actually about got lost in the fake world Luhrmann had created – and this is the film of a novel that comments on weighty topics like, to quote the Wikipedia page for the novel, “decadence, idealism, resistance to change, social upheaval, and success”. Disappointing.

madeinparisMade in Paris, Boris Sagal (1966, USA). A silly sixties rom com starring Ann-Margret and the late Louise Jourdan. Ann-Margret plays a junior fashion buyer for a New York department store, sent for the first time to Paris to sign up fashion designer Jourdan’s latest collection. She discovers that the previous buyer and Jourdan had something of an “arrangement”. Since she has a clean-cut boyfriend back home, and she’s a nice girl, Ann-Margret’s certainly not going to continue it. So a telegram gets sent back home saying she’s falling down on the job. Boyfriend then turns up and jumps to conclusion. Jourdan oozes Gallic charm throughout, Ann-Margret makes a good ingenue… but it’s all just melodramatic froth and chock-full of French stereotypes.

dayofwrathDay Of Wrath, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1943, Denmark). Dreyer’s Gertrud is a film that almost makes my top ten, so I’ve been picking up more of his films to watch. Day Of Wrath was Dreyer’s first film after more than a decade. It was also the first feature film he made in his native Denmark, and only his second with sound. It’s set in a village in 1623. A young woman is married to a pastor a good deal older than herself. When a local old woman is accused of witchcraft, the young woman hides her in the pastor’s house. The pastor’s son returns home from abroad shortly afterwards, and he and his father’s wife begin seeing each other. The wife, whose mother had been accused of witchcraft, but spared because the pastor wanted to marry the daughter, curses her husband. He dies. She’s accused of witchcraft. This is grim stuff, shot in stark black and white, with lots of close-ups of grim-looking faces. Sort of like Bergman, but without the cheerful optimism. I especially like how Dreyer stages his films, so that the sparse sets throw the focus on what’s going on beneath the words. He’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite directors.

starshiprisingStarship Rising, Neil Johnson (2014, USA). I bunged this on an order because the DVD had a pretty cover and it was cheap. What I didn’t know is that Johnson is a genre feature film cottage industry all his own, and churns out low budget movies like a one-man Global Asylum. He is apparently best known for directing over 500 music videos. Huh. While the CGI in Starship Rising is actually pretty respectable, the sets just about visible underneath look cheap (and badly-lit, to hide how really cheap they are). And the acting is poor, too. So was the script. There was something about a huge warship, which is ordered to destroy Earth, but one of the officers mutinies and, er, lots of other things happened. I will admit I wasn’t concentrating as much as I should have been – maybe there was something interesting happening on Twitter, there was certainly nothing interesting in the movie. One to avoid. There is apparently a sequel due, shot back-to-back with this one, but not yet released.

Devils-DVDThe Devils*, Ken Russell (1971, UK). I’ve actually read Russell’s science fiction novel, Mike And Gaby’s Space Gospel. It was fucking awful. And only the other night, I was flicking through channels and stumbled across The Lair of the White Worm, and after watching Amanda Donohe chew everything in sight, including the scenery and some poor lad’s genitals, while bumbling posh Englishman Hugh Grant played a bumbling posh Englishman, I couldn’t help noting how much of a perv Ken Russell had been (not an original observation, by any means). Which leads me to The Devils, which is the only one of Russell’s 18 feature films (and much more television work) to make it onto the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. The Devils was very controversial when it was released, probably because it has lots of naked and semi-naked nuns having sex in it. To be honest, it was all a bit much and overwhelmed the story a bit. The sets, however, all buttresses and high walls of white tile, looked pretty cool, and Oliver Reed was on top form. Despite its relentlessness and all those scenes of writhing naked flesh, I thought The Devils pretty good. Might watch some more Russell.

bigredoneThe Big Red One – The Reconstruction*, Samuel Fuller (1980, USA). I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of war movies (and I have far less time for Vietnam War films than I do WWII ones), but there are a handful which are quite good. This, I discovered as I watched it, is one of them. Okay, so Israel makes a poor stand-in for, well, North Africa and most of Europe, and this was clearly a film done on the cheap as even the tight-focus shots couldn’t disguise the paucity of cast members. Not to mention that exactly the same type of tank – Israeli M51 HV tanks, apparently – stood in for all the tanks used during WWII. The film follows a platoon of soldiers from the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division (their badge is a, er, big red 1), led by taciturn sergeant Lee Marvin, as they fight in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy and Germany. The sergeant and four others survive each action, so much so other soldiers assigned to the platoon might as well have worn red shirts. A German Feldwebel pops up at intervals, usually trying to kill Marvin, as a sort of thematic reflection of Marvin’s character. The Big Red One is not a patch on The Thin Red Line, but I did think it better than those huge ensemble war movies they used churn out by the dozen in the 1960s and 1970s, like The Longest Day.

effiebriestEffi Briest, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, Germany). Another film from the Fassbinder collection. The title character is a callow young woman who marries well, to a baron twice her age, but then has an affair with a male friend. Later, the family move to Berlin as the baron has got himself a position in government, but he finds the letters between Effi and her lover – this is many years after the affair finished – and so divorces her. Her parents won’t take her back because her reputation is in tatters. The baron meanwhile challenges the lover and kills him in a duel. Effi succumbs to illness, and her parents let her come home. She dies. There’s much more to it than that, of course, and in many respects the story bears similarities to Gertrud. It was adapted from a 1894 novel, of the same title, about which Thomas Mann apparently said that if a person’s library were reduced to six novels, Effi Briest should be one of them. This film also boasts one of the longest titles in cinema, although it wasn’t used by distributors; it is: Fontane Effi Briest oder Viele, die eine Ahnung haben von ihren Möglichkeiten und Bedürfnissen und dennoch das herrschende System in ihrem Kopf akzeptieren durch ihre Taten und es somit festigen und durchaus bestätigen.

throneofbloodThrone Of Blood*, Akira Kurosawa (1957, Japan). I will admit that Japanese cinema does not appeal to me as much as the cinema of some other countries, and while I’ve watched films by Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi, I’ve never felt the urge to watch everything in their oeuvres. But it’s no good watching the same sort of stuff all the time, so I occasionally bung a piece of classic Japanese cinema on my rental list… Throne Of Blood is, famously, Kurosawa’s take on Macbeth, and I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to. That the final scene with the archers, as depicted on the cover of the BFI DVD, really is quite astonishing. The scenes set in the forest looked a bit stagey, but the rest of it – filmed high up on Mount Fuji – looked really effective. I think this is the Kurosawa I’ve enjoyed and appreciated the most of the ones I’ve seen, although – according to my records – the last one I saw before this was Ran in May 2009. I really should watch more of his films.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 558 (they’re the ones with the asterisked titles)


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Reading out loud

One week tomorrow, I’ll be giving a reading at the Sheffield Fantasy & Science Fiction Social Club, along with US author Dana Fredsti. This takes place on Sunday 1 March, from 4 pm onwards, in the Old Queen’s Head (next to Sheffield bus station). There will also be a raffle, with lots of prizes (people rarely go home empty-handed), and plenty of friendly chat. This is the second event put on by SFSF Social – the first was on 24 January and was very successful.

Time permitting, I plan to read a very short excerpt from Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows, and then another very short excerpt from my forthcoming space opera, A Prospect of War. I’ve no idea how well it’ll go – if the Apollo Quartet has taught me not to give books long titles because typing them out all the time is a complete faff, I suspect reading from A Prospect of War will probably teach me to pick character names I can actually pronounce…

So, come along – it costs nowt and it’s an excellent way to spend a Sunday evening.

oldqueenshead

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