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Reading diary, #13

More books read. Not as many as I’d like. Especially when I see the size of the TBR…

bone_clocksThe Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (2014). According to my records, I read Cloud Atlas back in April 2009, likely as a result of recommendations by friends and acquaintances. I thought the novel good, but it didn’t quite gel for me. I then worked my way through Mitchell’s oeuvre – number9dream, Ghostwritten, Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – over the following three years. Last year, The Bone Clocks was published… Initial noises were good, but then a few dissenting voices appeared… What was clear, however, was that it was structured as a series of linked novellas and that it moved deeper into genre territory as it progressed. I was, I admit, expecting a novel not unlike Cloud Atlas, one that had many impressive pieces but together left me feeling a little disappointed. Happily, this wasn’t the case at all. True, you wait for a book about conspiracies of body-hopping immortals and three come along at once – there are elements of The Bone Clocks that are reminiscent of Claire North’s Touch and of Marcel Theoux’s Strange Bodies – although for secret wars masterminded by hidden groups, you might as well go all the way back to EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Arisians and Eddorians. The Bone Clocks follows Holly Sykes from her teen years in southern England, when she runs away from home, through to a post-apocalyptic Ireland some thirty years from now. Along the way, other voices occasionally take over the narrative, such as egocentric author Crispin Hershey (based on Martin Amis?), a well-handled pastiche although it reminds me of Charles Palliser’s brilliant piss-take of Jeffrey Archer in Betrayals; and even one of the immortals, who is, at that time, occupying the body of a black Canadian psychologist. The two factions at war are the Horologists, who are serial reincarnators and seem to have arisen naturally among humans; and the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar, who are able to “decant” souls in order to extend their own lives. Holly becomes inadvertently involved with these two groups, partly because one of the immortals reincarnates in her younger brother, partly because the Horologists prevent her from being groomed to be “decanted”, and partly because she has a brief fling with Hugo Lamb, who is recruited by the Anchorites. Holly is a great character and Mitchell handles her brilliantly. Some of the other elements I found less successful – the Anchorites reminded me a little of the baddies in the bande dessinée L’Histoire secrète by Jean-Pierre Pécau (both have chief villains with no eyes); and the post-apocalypse scenario hewed somewhat too closely to the common template. Much has also been made of those characters which have appeared in other Mitchell novels and stories, but this is hardly unique nor does it add much to this novel. Nonetheless, a very good book, and I’m looking forward to reading Slade House.

The Tomorrow People, Judith Merril (1960). This is another book I bought at Archipelacon in Finland. I reviewed it for SF Mistressworks here. To be honest, the cover art is probably the best thing about it.

the_echoThe Echo, James Smythe (2014). Twenty years after the disastrous mission to interstellar space described in The Explorer, a pair of Swedish twins organise a second mission. This flight’s purpose is to investigate the “anomaly”, a “blackness of space” thought to be the cause of the loss of the previous mission. This new spacecraft, Lära, however, is not as “Hollywood” as the previous one, it’s smaller and much more compactly designed (although it still has room between the outer hull and the walls of the inner chambers for a member of the crew to hide). One of the twins, Mira, is leader of the expedition aboard the spacecraft, the other twin, Tomas, remains on Earth at mission control. The Echo is told entirely from Mira’s point of view, and this is stuff Smythe does really well. I’m still not convinced by his spacecraft (it’s unlikely, for example the twins would have had to invent a thruster system as all present-day spacecraft have used reaction control systems for close manoeuvring for decades) – or indeed some of the science in the book – but there’s an increasing level of creepiness as the novel progresses and that’s where the novel shines. It’s not just the anomaly itself – the title of the book pretty much signals what the crew of the Lära find when they arrive at it – but Mira himself and his thoughts and relationship with his twin brother, and the way he deals with the deaths of Lära’s crew. I think I could have done with a little more verisimilitude, something that nailed down the tech and science, but that’s a personal preference (and, to be fair, no one is selling The Echo on its scientific credentials, unlike the not-as-scientifically-correct-as-advertised The Martian (and that’s a completely unfair comparison anyway, because Smythe is a very good writer and Weir is a shit writer)). The Explorer and The Echo form the first half of the Anomaly Quartet, and I’m very much intrigued to see what the next two books will do.

orbital6Orbital 6: Resistance, Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg (2015). Cinebook have been publishing bandes dessinée in English-language editions now for a decade, and while a number of their titles have in the past appeared intermittently in English – Valérian et Laureline, Lucky Luke, the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, Yoko Tsuno – there are now extended runs of these comics in English published by Cinebook. The Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, for example, currently stands at twenty of twenty-three volumes, Valerian and Laureline at nine of twenty-two… Orbital, however, is one of the several series published by Cinebook which had previously never seen publication in English. It’s a space opera, in which Earth has joined a federation of planets but xenophobic feeling runs high, and Earth is likely to either secede, revolt or just harbour terrorists. There are, of course, a number of alien factions, all with their own agenda. Orbital follows the careers of a diplomatic troubleshooting team comprising a human and a sandjarr (the alien race which defeated Earth). By this sixth volume in the series, everything’s got a bit pear-shaped, and the human member of the pair has developed weird powers and… The artwork is good, the story works, and the background interesting. As a novel this wouldn’t be bad, as a bande dessinée it’s pretty good.

1001nightsOne Thousand and One Nights, Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011). Everybody knows about the Alf Layla wa Layla, how a king would marry a young woman each day and then have her executed the following morning, until Scheherazade asks to marry him and then spends the night telling stories but ending on a cliff-hanger – so he keeps her alive to find out how the story ends. Most people probably also know some of the 1001 Nights’ more popular stories, such as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I actually have a copy of the Penguin Classic edition of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, although I’ve yet to read it. I am, however, a fan of Al-Shaykh’s novels, ever since reading Only in London back in 2002. I believe Al-Shaykh’s version of the One Thousand and One Nights – and it’s only the first few stories of the first volume – started life as a play, but happily it doesn’t read like a play. One thing I hadn’t known until I read this book was how… bawdy the stories are. And how inter-nested. While Scheherazade opens the book, the story she tells contains characters who tell stories which contain characters who tell stories… I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. There are that many levels of framing narratives it can get a little confusing, but the individual tales are amusing and well-told. Recommended.

twentytrillionleaguesTwenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, Adam Roberts (2014). Roberts is a very clever man, and a thoroughly nice chap. But for some reason I’ve never quite connected with his novels. The closest I’ve managed to date was Jack Glass, although I did really like the first half of Yellow Blue Tibia – but, I hasten to add, I’ve not read every novel he’s written, and I still have a few on the TBR. However, I do admire and enjoy his short fiction. Unfortunately, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is a novel. A very nicely illustrated novel, too. In 1958, France’s first nuclear-powered submarine, Le Plongeur, is on its sea trials when something goes wrong during a dive, and the submarine continues to descend… to an impossible depth, tens of thousands of kilometres. The meagre crew aboard speculate on their predicament, there are small mutinies, and many mysteries. I very much liked this story – I have in fact written something similar myself in short story form – but felt Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea was marred by too many things that were just plain wrong. Not only does the novel claim nine thousand metres is “nearly a full kilometre”, or that titanium is stronger than steel, or that no part of the sea-bed is deeper than 10,000 metres (Challenger Deep is nearly 11,000 metres, as recorded by a 1951 survey), but a French naval officer would have known of the Trieste, given that the French Navy bought August Piccard’s earlier bathyscaphe FNRS-2 in 1950 (and operated it under the name FNRS-3, even setting a new depth record of 4,050 metres in 1954)… Besides all that, the novel repeatedly confuses metres and kilometres. Le Plongeur sinks at one metre a second, so attaining a depth of 90,000 km in three days is impossible. Ninety thousand metres, yes. But not ninety thousand kilometres. But not only does the prose repeatedly refer to this figure, it also compares it to the diameter of the Earth. There are other small details, like a hatch that open inwards, and so the pressure of the water would be continually acting to force it open; or an airlock on the keel of the submarine; or even a nuclear reactor directly driving the propeller (that’s not how nuclear-powered submarines work – the reactor generates heat, which powers a turbine, which turns the propellor shaft). These slips (also, a character briefly possessing two left hands), which should have been picked up by an editor, aside, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is a typical Roberts piece. There’s a reason Le Plongeur is where it is, and even a sort of scientific explanation for the presence of so much water. There are some odd bits, like carnivorous fish which don’t appear to have an ecosystem to support them, before the submarine and its remaining crew reach their (unbeknownst to most of them) planned destination and the, er, whole point of the book. Given the novel’s title, the identity of the person they meet there should come as no surprise. The reason for the journey relies on a somewhat stretched scientific analogy, but it’s easy enough to swallow. In fact, for a tall tale, and it is very much a tall tale, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is very easy to swallow. Perhaps it feels a bit over-long in places, but the cast of (mostly) grotesques are amusing and well-written, and the final pay-off is worth the long descent. Oh, and the illustrations, by Mahendra Singh, are very good.

in_conquest_bornIn Conquest Born, CS Friedman (1986). I bought this recently to review as it was on the SF Mistressworks list but we had yet to write about it. Mid-eighties space opera, I thought, should be okay. Seems to be well-regarded. But I do wonder how many of its unchallenged assumptions are still acceptable in the twenty-first century. A review will appear on SF Mistressworks soon.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 116


Is that the book you really meant to write?

So that’s A Conflict of Orders, the sequel to A Prospect of War and the second book of my space opera trilogy, handed over to the publisher. Now I’ve got to make a start on the third book. And I’d say I’ve got carte blanche, literally, except I haven’t really, because there’s a plot laid out in the first two books and there’s all that foreshadowing I’ve done and the hints and clues I’ve dropped… But I’ve still got plenty of room to manoeuvre, and after writing the Apollo Quartet I’m going to take every damn inch available. Not just because I can but because I want to.

When I started writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I was trying to capture what it actually felt like to be wearing an Apollo era spacesuit on the Moon. It would be an act of imagination, of course – I’m not an astronaut, I’ve never been to the Moon, I’ve never worn a A7LB. But I’d read plenty of astronaut autobiographies and books about spacesuits and NASA technical documentation from the Apollo flights. And it struck me a Cormac McCarthy-like prose style would be good for evoking the desolation of the lunar surface. So I wrote my novella about a group of astronauts in an Apollo programme which had continued into the 1980s, and who were now stranded at a Moon base after the Earth had destroyed itself during a nuclear war.


I made certain artistic decisions that were, well, not the way you were “supposed” to do things. A long glossary. Astronauts that spoke like real astronauts, with no concessions made to the reader. No quote marks around the dialogue. I had no idea what sort of reception Adrift on the Sea of Rains would receive, but I was dead set on it being exactly the way I wanted it to be…

The rest, as they say, is history.

However, I’d foolishly decided to make my novella the first of a quartet. The Apollo Quartet. It had a nice ring to it. I went through a number of story ideas before eventually settling on what became the second book, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself – and then ditching the original structure after a comment in a review of Adrift on the Sea of Rains – none of which is especially relevant, as the point of this post is… writing sequels.

There are several different types of sequel. The most obvious is the one which continues the story begun in the preceding volume. Some of these can stand-alone, but many read like one humongous book split into several smaller volumes. Other types of sequel may be set in the same universe, and feature exactly the same cast, but follow a different plot – and those various plots may themselves contribute to a greater story arc (or simply fill in more details about the series’ world or protagonist). Some sequels share only a setting, but may reference the events of earlier books in the series.

Of course, a sequel doesn’t have to follow the story or protagonist or setting, the link might be more tenuous. Theme, for example. It might even be extra-textual. As it is in the Apollo Quartet. Although Adrift on the Sea of Rains has no real closure, the story would not be continued in the next novella, it would never be continued. The only link would be that provided by the quartet’s title: the Apollo programme. That’s about as extra-textual as you can get: imagined variations on a real-world space programme.

As for the second book’s story… The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of doing exactly the opposite of what was expected. People had said Adrift on the Sea of Rains was literary rather than science fiction, so I’d write The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to appeal more to a reader of science fiction (but I gave it a literary title because why not). The narrative would be a puzzle, one that no character in the story could solve, and I wasn’t going to explain it either. All the clues would be there, but the reader would have to put it all together themselves. That would likely piss some people off, but that was the plan. Especially since I wasn’t even going to put the main plot front and centre but hide it behind the two narratives. The idea was to write exactly what admirers of the first book weren’t expecting or, from their comments, didn’t especially want.

So I did.

Some liked it more than the first book, some didn’t.

But then I had to do something completely different for the third book.

If Adrift on the Sea of Rains was more literary than sf, and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself was more sf than literary, then book three would be… neither. The Apollo Quartet was based on alternate takes on the Apollo programme, but I’d make this third novella pure alternate history. The Mercury 13 provided the perfect opportunity to do so. But I also wanted to write about the bathyscaphe Trieste, and while I had the perfect story for it – the recovery of a spy satellite film canister – there was no obvious link, or indeed any link, to the Apollo programme. However, since part of the philosophy behind the Apollo Quartet was making the reader do the work, it occurred to me I didn’t need to explicitly document the link. A few hints, and let the reader figure it out. I’d done that in The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, it’s just that in this novella one narrative was not a consequence of the other, because the consequences took place outside the story.


This became Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above (the most Lowry-esque title of the entire quartet).

Right from the moment I’d decided Adrift on the Sea of Rains would be the first book of the Apollo Quartet I knew what the final book would be about: the wife of a real-life Apollo astronaut who wrote science fiction. Because I wanted to juxtapose the invented space travel of her imaginary worlds with the real space travel of his. I also liked the idea of ending a trio of alternate Apollo histories with the real Apollo programme. In other words, this fourth novella wouldn’t even be science fiction.

Except, I went and spoiled things. First, I decided to make it a novel, rather than a novella. I’d originally planned to have two narratives – one would be the protagonist’s real life, the other would be one of her stories. But that felt too much like Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. When I started writing the novel, I decided to namecheck only women science fiction writers, but it occurred to me I could make more of a point by setting my story in a world in which science fiction was a women’s genre. And from that point, I was just throwing stuff in to make reading the novel as rich an experience as possible – not just the names of real-world women sf authors, but also references to well-known sf stories. I put the protagonist’s story in the centre of the novel and used the first half to show the inspiration for it and the second half to reflect its plot. Not to mention hints back to the earlier books of the quartet…

This was All That Outer Space Allows.

So none of the books of the Apollo Quartet are actual sequels according to the commonly-understood meaning of the term. And I approached each one with the intention of surprising, and possibly annoying, those who had admired the previous book. It seems to have worked. And it worked for me too as a way of finding my way into the stories of the quartet. Sometimes, as a writer, you need that. It’s easy enough when the plot of book 1 follows through into books 2 and 3 and 4, all you’re doing then is delaying the resolution – and, since you don’t want those sequels to be pure padding, complicating the resolution. You’re basically lay the groundwork for closure.

But closure is a commercial fiction thing, like transparent prose and sympathetic protagonists. And that’s particuarly true of genre fiction. Readers expect everything to be neatly resolved by the time they reach the last page. The Good King is back on the throne and the Dark Lord defeated. The alien invasion has been rebuffed and it was all because they needed our water. The drop-out hacker has found the secret at the heart of the evil corporation and revealed it to the world, which is rightly appalled (but nothing actually changes, of course).

Thing is, stories don’t actually need to end neatly. They don’t even need to end. And good books are those where it feels as though the universe continues to exist even after you’ve turned the last page. You can have giant novels split into multiple parts of publication, you can have a series where the same cast in the same setting experience different stories… or you can play around with the concept of “sequel”, much as you can play around with narrative and its various constituents. And doing that’s a lot more fun than putting the same old group of people through yet another lot of jeopardy, all in the name of drama.

But what about the space opera, you ask. That’s one enormous novel split into three, or at least that’s what the blurb implies. True, each book doesn’t really stand alone, and they need to be read in order. But even within the constraints imposed by a single story told over three books, I like to think I’ve bent the sequel template a little out of shape. Because a common complaint levelled at the second books of trilogies is that they do little more than move the cast into position for the big showdown in book three. I wanted to avoid that in A Conflict of Orders. So I changed the story. I stuck to the overall plot: evil duke conspires to take the imperial throne, ingenu from the sticks leads the opposition. But instead of continuing the story from the good guys’ point of view, I decided to give equal narrative space to the bad guys. And then I flipped the conspiracy on its head.

Structurally, A Conflict of Orders rings a few small changes. Since A Prospect of War was about putting a force together to combat the Serpent’s forces, clearly a big battle was in the offing. In epic fantasy, this is usually left until the very end, when the forces of good and evil line up against each other and everybody throws everything they’ve got against each other… And somehow or other the good guys manage to win the day. But there was no way I was going to drag the preparations for the final battle out over book two and half of book three. So I made it the centre-piece of A Conflict of Orders. And I described using short chapters, so I had lots of viewpoints of the action. And then, once the battle was over, I moved the plot into second-gear. The Admiral and her forces have won the day, and now it’s all a matter of cleaning up. Except there’s more going on than originally appeared to be the case… And that’s what book three, A Want of Reason, will resolve.

So, in terms of sequels, the space opera trilogy, An Age of Discord, doesn’t follow the typical pattern of a linear plot split over three volumes. In point of fact, there are three nested stories going on, and each volume resolves one of them. It’ll likely do my credibility no good, but this structure was partly inspired by EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. Now they’re not very good books – Smith’s, that is – and the writing in them is mostly embarrassing. I’d also question their historical importance. But one thing they did really well was escalate jeopardy. No sooner had Kimball Kinnison defeated one villainous conspiracy then it was revealed there was a higher level of villains who had been controlling it. (To be fair, this structure was somewhat spoiled by the series being published in book form in internal chronology order, which revealed the over-arching struggle between the Arisians and the Eddorians right at the start.)


I’m not about to reveal the plot of A Want of Reason, and not just because it has yet to be written and even I don’t know how it will probably go. I’m thinking I might have a go at introducing Marxism into space opera, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ve already thrown away the plan I’d had in the back of my mind when I wrote A Conflict of Orders (for the record, it was an historical narrative thread, set 1000 years in the past, which would explain the trilogy’s underlying conspiracy). Having said all that, A Conflict of Orders very much ends, as A Prospect of War did, with the various narrative threads poised to make the jump to the next level. Casimir Ormuz and the Admiral have raised their forces, and they’re about the meet the Serpent’s army and navy in battle… And more than that, I probably shouldn’t say…

You’ll just have to read the book to find out.

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Moving pictures, #23

Still trying to get up to date on these…

femmeUne femme mariée, Jean-Luc Godard (1964, France). I have a theory about Godard. So far I’ve seen about half a dozen of his films. Two of them I loved, the rest I didn’t much care for. The two I loved were both shot in colour – Le Mépris and Two or Three Things I Know About Her – the rest were black and white. So it seems I only like Godard’s colour films. Obviously I need to watch more to determine the truth of this theory, but Une femme mariée is black and white and I didn’t really like it. The married woman of the title is having an affair, and the film opens with her and her lover in bed. Then she leaves him, fetches her young son from school and meets her husband at the airport. He has a colleague with him. They head to the couple’s apartment, where they eat dinner. The colleague leaves, husband and wife then run around a lot and come close to domestic violence (it didn’t much look like a “play-fight”, as Wikipedia has it). And then… This is one of those films where the cast act naturally and it’s all about the dialogue. And like many Godard films, it’s all over the place, and the plot often seems like little more than a vehicle which allows the cast to pontificate on various topics that seem to have little or no bearing on the actual story (which is, I suppose, just as true of Two or Three Things I Know About Her, but in that film everything around the “lecturettes” worked much better and seemed much more interesting). Une femme mariée seems to be generally rated as one of Godard’s best, but I wonder how much of that is trading on its title character.

42ndstreet42nd Street*, Lloyd Bacon (1933, USA). I found this in a charity shop. It’s one of several Busby Berkeley films on the 1001 Movies list, many of which aren’t that easy to find in the UK. Busby Berkeley… a camera placed above the stage and looking down as large numbers of dancers make patterns not unlike those you’d find in a kaleidoscope. Then they wrap a plot around it. In this case, it’s a progenitor of Chorus Line and films of that ilk. I tweeted a line from this, “It’s going to be the toughest five weeks you’ll live through”, and asked people to guess the movie, expecting them to pick Platoon or Full Metal Jacket – which one or two did. No one guessed a 1930s film about putting on a Busby Berkley musical. Which is all beside the point. Ginger Rogers in an early role plays one of the female leads, the plot is fairly standard for the type, the final numbers are the usual over-the-top Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, and it’s easy to see why such films were popular back in the day… and you have to wonder why something similar isn’t equally successful today. Or perhaps that’s just me.

coherenceCoherence, James Ward Byrkit (2013, USA). Some films should hold your interest because they have an intriguing genesis, or a really fascinating idea at their core. And certainly the elevator pitch for Coherence sounded to me like something which would appeal. Unfortunately the end result never quite manages to pull it all together. It’s one of those films where the low or non-existent budget becomes a strength rather than a weakness – it was filmed mostly in the director’s own house. There’s a dinner party, and during it a comet passes over and things turn strange… Strange as in superposition, multiple instances of the same events – which means dinner guests from other alternate universe versions of the dinner party getting mixed up and crossing into alternate universes. So much so that keeping up with who is really who, and from where, becomes near impossible. The cast are generally good, but it’s one of those films where everyone talks over one another, and while real life is certainly like that it does get annoying very quickly in a movie (which is by definition artificial, and it’s the ones which make a virtue of it I tend to prefer), and anyway it sort of worked against what was quite a clever central conceit. The premise demanded a domestic story, but the idea needed to be progressed much faster than it was – the longer you take to develop an idea, the thinner it seems, whether it deserves it or not. Coherence managed to dissipate its drama when it really had more than enough to make a very good film.

broken_blossomsBroken Blossoms*, DW Griffth (1919, USA). This film is also known as The Yellow Man and the Girl, which probably tells you all you need to know about it. Some of Griffith’s other films have been accused of racism, and while Broken Blossoms‘ lead is played by a white man in Chinese make-up, the film was deliberately written to push tolerance during a period of heavy anti-Chinese prejudice. A Buddhist monk leaves China for London, where he finds it hard to promote Buddha’s peaceful philosophy to London’s huddled masses. Especially Lillian Gish, the abused daughter of a boxer. The monk rescue her after she’s been badly beaten by her father, and the two fall in love. But it is not to be. It’s pretty much Romeo and Juliet, even down to the ending, but set among the slums of London, and with Romeo as a Buddhist monk (which, I suppose, in the England of the time makes him no more welcome a suitor than a Montague to a Capulet). Griffith has a number of films on the 1001 Movies list, and while he was undoubtedly a pioneer of the medium, I can’t see what this particular film did to merit inclusion. Maybe it’s just because it’s an historical document…

dark_planetDark Planet, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2009, Russia). The real name of this film is Обитаемый остров, or The Inhabited Island – which is the name of the Strugatskys novel from which it was adapted. Why a random English-language distributor decided to randomly re-title it with the entirely random title Dark Planet is beyond me (mind you, we did better than the French, as it was titled Battlestar Rebellion in France). Because it deserves better. Which is not to say it’s perfect. Bondarchuk – yes, son of the actor – has made plenty of well-received films – I thought his 9th Company wasn’t bad, for example – and while Dark Planet certainly entertains throughout its length, it does feel a little like too much of it ended up on the cutting-room floor, and it’s more notable for the story it could have been, and which is plainly obvious, than for the story it is. A young man of Earth, played by the improbably good-looking (and, according to Bondarchuk, totally untalented) Vasiliy Stepanov, crashlands on a world on which the entire population are held in thrall by towers which broadcast brainwashing signals. You can see how it would have made sense in the novel, although it doesn’t really in the film. The plot is a little haphazard, but the final battle scene is done quite well. It’s a film that feels more like a series of missed opportunities than a coherent narrative – I’m reminded of The Crimson Rivers (Les Rivières Pourpres), in which the film-makers decided to leave some important exposition on the cutting-room floor because it slowed the pace of the narrative… resulting in a film that made a weird and inexplicable leap in its third act. Anyway, Dark Planet: worth a second look, though I’d prefer an edition more in keeping with the film-makers’ intentions than the one I watched. (After I wrote the above, I discovered the original Russian release consists of two parts of 100 minutes and 115 minutes. This UK release is an edited down version of 118 minutes. Why?)

leni_riefenstahlOlympia 1, Fest der Völker*, Leni Riefenstahl (1938, Germany). Riefenstahl, tame director of the Nazis, is a name I certainly know, but I’d never had any real desire to watch her movies. But she’s on the 1001 Movies list, more than once in fact, and her films are not available for rental, so I ended up buying a box set which included the two Olympia films, Triumph of the Will and a pair of other propaganda pieces. So I’m probably now on a list somewhere. Anyway, I watched Triumph of the Will several weeks ago but didn’t think it worth mentioning it here because, well, it’s a film about Nazis and Hitler and while it may have been state of the art in the 1930s, and still holds up reasonably well today, it’s probably only of real interest to historians. Olympia 1, Fest der Völker, however, is a more interesting film because it actually presages the way we watch sports on television, if not lays the actual groundwork for sports broadcasting. It is, as the title states, a film of the 1936 Olympics. So there’s lots of people in quaintly-long shorts competing in various athletic events, with occasional shots away to the wholesome German crowd or Hitler. Of all the events, I found the high jump the most interesting because it predates the Fosbury Flop, meaning the techniques on diplay looked odd and mostly inefficient. There is a second part, Fest der Schönheit, which I have yet to watch.

whosafraidWho’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?*, Mike Nichols (1966, USA). I’d always thought I’d seen this, and had it in my head it was some fluffy rom com much like those Rock Hudson films I love so much. It’s not, of course. It’s a very intense, and really quite mean, three-hour play by Edward Albee cut down to a two-hour cinema outing by Mke Nichols – his first film, in fact. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play a married couple at a small town college. She’s the dean’s daughter, he’s a professor of history whose boat has long since sailed. And now they just snipe at each other. A young couple join the faculty (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) and are invited to dinner by Taylor and Burton. They all get very pissed. Certain truths are aired. There is a lot of very uncomfortable dialogue. And… ho hum. There’s some good stuff in here, some really sharp dialogue – but I’m not convinced Taylor and Burton overcome their Hollywood profiles sufficiently to do the characters justice. Segal is pretty good, though. The film is also long – and it’s shorter than the play. It drags quite a bit in places. Having said that, watching Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? didn’t make me interested in Albee’s work, although this appears to be the only play of his that made it onto the silver screen.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 625


Tomes immemorial

I was really good in August, and bought only two books during the entire month. So, of course, I went a little berserk this month – and we’re barely a week into it! Ah well.

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Some first editions for the collection. I have rather a lot of Ian Watson first editions, many of them signed, but a copy of his first novel, The Embedding, had always eluded me. I found this one for a reasonable price on eBay. Which is where I also found this first edition of DG Compton’s The Silent Multitude, although it was a good deal more expensive than the Watson. Worth it, though.

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One each for the space books and the deep sea books collections. The title of Spaceshots & Snapshots of Projects Mercury & Gemini pretty much describes the contents. A companion volume on Apollo will be published later this month. It’s on the wishlist. Conquest of the Underwater World I found cheap on eBay. It seems mostly to cover underwater archaeology, and I’m more interested in much deeper exploration. Never mind.

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Some proper literature: In Ballast to the White Sea is a lost novel by Lowry, believed to have perished in a fire, but decades after his death it was discovered his first wife had a typescript. Selected Letters is another volume in the DH Lawrence white Penguin series, which brings my total up to twenty-two (of, I think, twenty-seven). Given these editions all date from the 1970s, finding good condition copies is quite an achievement. Not sure where I saw My Fair Ladies mentioned, but it looked like an interesting read so I bunged it on an Amazon order. The subtitle pretty much explains the topic, “Female robots, androids and other artificial Eves”.

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Here’s some recent “genre” novels. Kari Sperring’s The Grass King’s Concubine I’ve been meaning to pick up for ages, and now I’ve finally got around to it. It says “fantasy” on the spine, so it’s definitely genre. The Book of Strange New Things was shortlisted for the Clarke Award earlier this year, but it wasn’t published as category sf. I read Faber’s Under The Skin shortly after it appeared and didn’t like it one bit. I also have several Faber novels sitting on the TBR. I expect this one to be a difficult read. Annihilation is the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy, which mystifyingly seemed to miss out on quite a lot of award shortlists this year. I’ve tried VanderMeer’s fiction before and not got on with it, so we’ll see how this ones goes. Finally, the latest volume in a space opera bande dessinée, Orbital 6: Resistance, and it’s clearly one long story but I think I’m following it. They’re short, so I could always go back and read the preceding five books…

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And here are some books for SF Mistressworks. In Conquest Born is on the actual SF Mistressworks list, but no review of it has yet to appear, so I thought I’d read the book myself. I’ve liked Scott’s two previous novels I’ve read – and it’s a shame I didn’t discover her back in the 1980s as I suspect she would have become a favourite writer – and I saw Dreamships going very cheap on eBay… except it turned out to be an ARC and not the described hardback. I have contacted the seller. I bought Killough’s A Voice Out of Ramah at Archipelacon, read it in Helsinki Airport while waiting for my connecting flight to Manchester, and reviewed it on SF Mistressworks (see here). I liked it a lot, so I thought it worth trying something else by her – and I found these two, Aventine, a linked collection, and the bizarrely-titled, The Monitor, the Miners and the Shree.


Moving pictures, #22

More films. No excuses or explanations. Deal with it. Or not.

captain_bloodCaptain Blood*, Michael Curtiz (1935, USA). An odd film, this. It starts out very German Expressionist, as Doctor Blood (Errol Flynn), is called out in the middle of the night to see to a wounded man. Who happens to be a rebel. So Blood is captured and sentenced to death, which is then commuted to slavery in the Caribbean. But he’s such a smiley charismatic bloke that even as a slave he gets it easy – medical skills help, of course, as does getting sassy with governor’s daughter, Olivia de Havilland. And then he escapes when the French attack, becomes the titular character, and plays the buccaneer against both English and French ships. All this part of the film is, of course, pure Hollywood. Flynn was much better a couple of years later, and in colour, as Robin Hood, although I don’t think he ever lost that shit-eating grin of his. I’m not entirely sure how Captain Blood qualifies for the 1001 Films list – perhaps it’s a seminal work or something, but had it stayed German Expressionist throughout, and less bloody clichéd, it might have been a much more interesting movie.

woman_influenceA Woman Under the Influence*, John Cassavetes (1974, USA). Some films are interesting because of how they were made rather than because of the footage that eventually appears on the screen. This one, for example, was such a difficult sell that Cassavetes ended up financing it himself, with the help of friends (including Peter Falk, who stars as the eponymous woman’s husband). And then he lucked out into a distribution deal, and the film went on to become a favourite of critics and cult film fans. So all’s well that ends well. The film stars Cassavetes’s wife of the time, Gena Rowlands, as a blue-collar mother who begins act increasingly strangely, so much so her husband has her committed. While she is being treated, he must cope with their three children, and learns it’s not as easy as he had imagined. When his wife is released, she’s clearly not been cured, but they decide to continue together anyway. When an industry has been churning out product for decades that is not only artificial but actually revels in that artificiality, as Hollywood does, I can understand why stripping things back to something closer to real life might appeal to many. But we have that here in the UK in our soaps – Coronation Street and Eastenders are not brainless glossy sagas of rich and powerful families like US soaps such as The Bold and the Beautiful and Santa Barbara. Kitchen-sink drama is popular entertainment here and has been for a long time, it doesn’t exist only in the theatres. All of which maybe an entirely unfair characterisation of Cassavetes’s work, but at least explains why I can’t celebrate blue-collar/working-class drama simply for the fact of existing – and I’ve yet to see anything in Cassavetes’s films so far which, for me, lift them above that. Still, he has four movies on the 1001 Movies list, and I’ve only seen three of them to date, so who knows…

man_escapedA Man Escaped*, Robert Bresson (1956, France). There are a number of movies by Bresson on the 1001 Movies list, and I’ve now watched a few of them. But I’m not sure I fully understand the appeal. He seems to like having his leads play their roles completely deadpan, almost expressionless, and it makes it hard to clue into how you’re meant to read their stories. In this one, a young man, a member of the French Resistance, is arrested by the Germans and taken to Montluc Prison. The film then follows the man as he settles into the prison routine and then plots to escape before he is executed by the Gestapo. Which he eventually does. That’s it. The plot. Wikipedia says, “The film is sometimes considered Bresson’s masterpiece”, which is an odd way to put it – it is sometimes, but at other times it’s not? It might well be Bresson’s masterpiece, although I would find it hard to judge, given that of the thirteen feature films Bresson made, I’ve only seen four  – and just now when checking how many, I learnt I’d seen Pickpocket twice… and had completely forgotten that first viewing. Which I suppose tells you as much as you need to know.

dontbothertoknockDon’t Bother to Knock, Cyril Frankel (1961, UK). A fluffy rom com which trades a little too much on star Richard Todd’s on-screen appeal. He plays a travel agent in Edinburgh with an eye for the ladies, which he shamelessly indulges while travelling about Europe checking out destinations for his company. The actual assignations are slyly hinted at but never explicitly described. After the trip, he returns home to his flat, and then a succession of people turn up, with keys he had given them, hoping to stay. His long-time girlfriend, naturally, is none too impressed. But it all works out in the end, because the visitors aren’t really after Todd – well, except for French femme fatale Nicole Maury, and she’s not really serious about it – in fact, she’d sooner Todd and his girlfriend patched things up. One of those slight but charmingly daft rom coms set in a world – despite its age – you don’t actually recognise or believe ever really existed.

hotel_terminusHôtel Terminus*, Marcel Ophüls (1988, France). As is clear from the DVD cover, this documentary is about Nazi Klaus Barbie and his (eventual) trial. Barbie spent much of WWII as the head of Gestapo in Lyons, where he beat, tortured and murdered locals because, well, Gestapo. After the war, he was recruited by the US intelligence services, those bastions of morality, where he instructed them in interrogation techniques and helped in the fight against the dastardly Reds. (As they were fond of saying about the Space Race, the Americans’ Germans were better than the Soviets’ Germans – but what they actually meant was, the Americans’ Nazis were better than the Soviets’ Nazis. Let’s be honest here: principles are the first things to be abandoned when there’s an end in sight. That’s what “expediency” means, after all. Ahem, digression over.) Barbie was a monster – a not unique state of affairs among the Nazis – and lived free and clear for forty years before the French managed to get him extradited from Bolivia in 1983 after a) a change of government, and b) Barbie’s involvement in an earlier military coup. If it’s a truism that the winning side of a war get to pick and choose what are defined as war crimes, and who is charged with them, then Barbie was living proof that principle was worth about as much as a politician’s sworn promise. Barbie should have been in prison serving a sentence for war crimes from 1945, not 1987. Ophüls’s documentary makes a somewhat confused case against Barbie, but it certainly reveals enough of his activities – and the US government’s complicity – to disgust anyone with an ounce of sense. To his credit, Ophüls tries to present a balanced argument, even door-stoppping several interviewees, much as Michael Moore does, and making them look foolish if not complicit. Definitely worth seeing.

hauntingThe Haunting*, Robert Wise (1963, UK). I found this in a local charity shop. It’s not a film I’d normally bother watching, but 1001 Movies list. I mean, I’m a bit squeamish and I really can’t watch all those torture porn franchises like Saw and Hostel and so on. Many years ago, a friend lent me several seasons of The X-Files on DVD and over a period of several months I watched two to three episodes a night. I was paranoid as fuck for a month or two afterwards. Anyway, The Haunting… which is a cult horror film from fifty years ago, and which was apparently a bit of a flop on release but has subsequently been re-evaluated and found very good indeed. It’s based on a novel by Shirley Jackson, and was shot in the UK – but set in the US, with British actors putting on bad American accents – because no US studio would finance it. The end result is a peculiar film that manages its scares effectively, presents a group of interesting characters – including the first openly lesbian character in a mainstream feature film – but never really convinces in terms of setting (it feels too British to be American, in other words). I wasn’t expecting much of The Haunting and was pleasantly surprised by how it went. I think I’ll be hanging onto the DVD to watch it again. I didn’t think it was great, but I think it deserves another watch or two before I form a final opinion. Which certainly puts it ahead of many films I’ve seen on the 1001 Movies list.

viyViy*, Konstanin Ershov & Georgi Kropyachov (1967, USSR). I have seen Ruscico films before, I even have a couple in my own DVD collection. And I think they’re very good, an excellent resource. Viy was a film completely new to me, though I’ve browsed the Ruscico site countless times this one had passed me by… until I spotted it on the 1001 Movies list. It was, apparently, made by a group of students from a film school and is generally considered to be the first horror film released in the USSR. The plot is deceptively simple, well, not really deceptively. A seminary student encounters a witch but escapes. Soon after he is asked to sit vigil for three nights with the dead daughter of a local grandee. Each night, the dead young woman comes back to life and tries to kill him, but he is protected by the holy circle he has drawn about himself. On the final night, she revelas herself as the witch of earlier and calls all the monsters of hell to her aid. It’s all a bit too silly to be proper scary or horrifying, but it’s effectively done all the same, especially for the time. The humour is a bit broad-brush, and though the special effects are crude, they’re ingeniously done and more than suffice. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 621


Breaking the wall, breaking the wall

There comes a moment in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) when Paul, one of the two young men who has invaded the holiday home of a middle-class Austrian couple, turns to the camera and winks at the audience. Breaking the fourth wall is shocking because the compact between film-maker and viewer, or writer and reader, is suddenly revealed as completely artificial and based wholly on trust. Yet that compact exists only as a matter of expectation, because that’s the way stories are. We know the book we are reading, the movie we are watching, is an invention, a fabrication. There might be elements of fact to it – that street in New York really does look like that, for example – but the people whose story we are following, they aren’t real, if we visit New York we’re not going to bump into them, we’re not going to reminisce with them about the events of this story which they experienced and we witnessed… That’s how fiction works.

Kim Stanley Robinson has said that he considers exposition to be “just another narrative tool”. Exposition is important to science fiction and fantasy. Genre stories may take place in entirely invented worlds, ones in which the reader has no actual knowledge or experience, no built-in map to help navigate it and its societies or technologies… And so the author must explain those fabricated details. Otherwise elements of the story may not make sense, or may in fact be completely impossible to parse.

Of course, in most cases, this information is already known to the story’s characters – they know how to navigate their world. This is why the “As you know” conversation, where one character explains something to a second who already knows it because the reader needs to be informed, is the most egregious form of exposition. No one actually does this: “I’m just off to the supermarket, which, as you know, is a large store that sells a variety of foodstuffs at competitive prices.” Even successful authors still use “As you know”. They shouldn’t. It’s a failure of craft. It is also, when you think about it, breaking the fourth wall.

If a narrative is tightly limited, constrained the POV of the protagonist, why should the author need to explain anything? The character already knows it, or has come to terms with the fact they do not need to know. Not everyone who travels by air in 2015 understands how jet engines work, so why should everyone who travels between stars need to understand how FTL works? The problem with exposition is that it can only work by breaking point-of-view. In other words, exposition breaks the fourth wall.


Not an issue, of course, if the narrative is written in third person omniscient, but that voice is much less popular now than it once was, and almost non-existent at the more commercial end of popular fiction. It might also be argued that omniscient POVs pretty much straddles the fourth wall anyway – and there are certainly examples in literary fiction where an omniscient POV is used to make explicit the fictive nature of a story.

And yet… immersion requires a level of knowledge about the world of the story to work, and without a narrative angel sitting on the reader’s shoulder whispering exposition, how is the reader to truly immerse themselves in an invented world?

The point here is not that exposition is necessary, but that it is crude. It is not the techniques used for exposition that are crude – “As you know” conversations, wodges of explanatory text aimed directly at the reader… Exposition itself is crude. It breaks the fourth wall, it exists only because the reader is aware, consciously or subconsciously, of the reader-writer compact. Without the reader’s acceptance of the fictive nature of the story, exposition could not exist. It would make no sense.

That compact, however, is a real thing. And it is possible to make use of it in ways that fiction normally does not. In Apollo Quartet 2, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, for example, I set out the clues to a puzzle which I knew the protagonist of the story could not solve. But the reader could. I did so by using a a device which is so blatantly expositional it can only exist outside the story: the glossary.

In Apollo Quartet 4, All That Outer Space Allows, on the other hand, I decided to do things differently. I had originally intended to write it firmly within Ginny’s point of view, and rely on a general air of familiarity – ie, the USA in the 1960s – to allow the reader to accept those aspects new to them. But I also made some artistic decisions specific to my story – such as naming Ginny’s husband Walden, because All That Outer Space Allows was partly inspired by Douglas Sirk’s 1955 movie, All That Heaven Allows, in which Thoreau’s polemic is prominently mentioned – and it occurred to me that there was no need to rely on the reader’s extra-textual knowledge to spot that connection… Because I could break the fourth wall and make the link explicitly. So I did.

And once I’d done that, it occurred to me there were other aspects of my novel that could be “enhanced” by the sort of commentary open only to the author or a critic. Not to explain the purpose of a scene – that surely should be obvious – but to give some indication of why a particular scene might exist, or indeed provide what would normally be extra-textual knowledge in order to strengthen the novel’s argument.

There is, it has to be said, a fine line to be trod here. Particularly with science fiction. How… porous should the fourth wall be? If well-handled exposition allows the world of the story to leak out into the narrative, and badly-handled exposition is akin to a series of windows in the wall… I chose to build doors in my fourth wall. All That Outer Space Allows is a novel about writing science fiction, and so it seemed especially apposite to draw attention to the fictive nature of the story by breaking the fourth wall and commenting directly on the narrative. And doing so in, and as part of, the narrative.


Reading diary, #12

Recent reads. I think I need to up my game, I don’t seem to be reading at my previous speeds. Admittedly, quite a bit of my reading has been somewhat heavier than is usual…

ghost_countryGhost Country, Sara Paretsky (1998). One of Paretsky’s two non-Warshawski novels, although this one is set in present-day Chicago like the VI books. There’s a world-famous opera singer, who is an alcoholic and slowly losing her grip on reality. Her career is already in the toilet. There’s a doctor who wants to practice psychiatry at a prestigious Chicago hospital, but the highly-respected consultant in charge of the department is more concerned with cutting costs so would sooner give patients drugs. There’s the granddaughter of the cost-cutting consultant, who can’t compete with her older sister, a high-flying lawyer, and runs away from home. And there’s a homeless woman who thinks the rusty water leaking from a broken pipe inside the outside wall of a top hotel’s garage is the blood of Mary, and she worships at a small shrine she has built there. Their stories all, of course, interact, and Paretsky uses them to deliver a stinging indictment of US private healthcare, hypocritical middle-class Christians, and the move to a more right-wing neocon Christian society. None of the men in the novel, with the exception of the psychiatrist, are sympathetic; but neither are they unconvincing. This is not a book to read if you’re looking for mind candy or comfort reading – it will make you angry. True, everyone gets what they deserve, and though the story is bleak the ending isn’t; but it’s still a very angry novel. Worth reading, nonetheless.

The-Sense-of-an-EndingThe Sense of an Ending*, Julian Barnes (2011). Three lads at school in the 1960s are joined by a fourth, a clever outsider called Adrian. The first half of The Sense of an Ending describes those halcyon days, as narrated by one of the three, Tony. After school, the four go their separate ways – Adrian to Cambridge, Tony to Bristol uni. At Bristol, Tony meets a young woman, Veronica, and the two enter into a relationship. She invites him home one weekend to meet her parents. But Veronica is, to put it mildly, hard-going, and Tony and her split. He later hears that Veronica has taken up with Adrian. Tony writes the pair of them a shitty letter. Some months later, Adrian commits suicide. The novel then jumps forward forty years to the present day. A solicitor contacts Tony – who is divorced but on good terms with his ex-wife, and has a grown-up daughter – and tells him he has been left £500 by Veronica’s mother. Also bequeathed to him is Adrian’s diary. But the solicitor does not have this as it’s currently in the possession of Veronica, who is reluctant to give it up. So Tony embarks on a campaign of flattery, cajolery and stubborn persistence, via email, in order get the diary from Veronica. She is enigmatic, arrogant and clearly contemptuous of Tony – repeatedly telling him he “doesn’t get it”. Through Veronica, he meets a group of mentally-disabled people, and then over the course of several weeks insinuates himself into their world… and so discovers that one of them is Veronica’s brother and Adrian’s son. The end. Throughout the second half of The Sense of an Ending, Tony is sneered at by Veronica for not getting something he could never have known about. That he figures it out in the end still makes Veronica’s actions senseless and completely undermines the plot. The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker in 2011, but to be honest I can’t see why. It reads like a more polished Iain Banks novel, and while it’s good, the doggedness of its narrator and Veronica’s behaviour are not well-grounded, which makes it all feel a bit unsupported plot-wise.

Chanur’s Legacy, CJ Cherryh (1992). I read this to review on SF Mistressworks. It’s the final book of the Compact Space quintet, and its story is more of a pendant to the plot of the earlier four books that it is a continuation or closure. Still, I liked it – see here.

all_that_heaven_allowsAll That Heaven Allows, Edna Lee & Harry Lee (1952). The novel from which my favourite film was adapted – and it wasn’t easy to find a copy. Initially, the film seems to follow the novel quite faithfully: Cary’s friend cries off from a lunch engagement, so Cary invites Ron Kirby, the man maintaining her garden, to join her instead. Later, Cary accompanies Harvey to the country club for a dinner party, and there one of her late husband’s friends makes a drunken attempt to kiss her. Cary’s two grown-up kids, Ned and Kay, are pretty much the same in both book and film. Ned is a stuffed-shirt, a Princeton conservative who will no doubt grow up become an arsehole; Kay is more nuanced in the novel, her head still full of juvenile sociology and politics, but sympathetic to her mother’s situation. Ron, however, is more or less a cipher in the novel. He doesn’t have Rock Hudson’s easy charm, and it’s not altogether obvious what Cary sees in him. One thing the novel does show, however, is how cleverly the party scene in the film introduces Ron’s bohemian friends and lifestyle. There is no mention of Walden or Thoreau in the book. And the old mill building Ron restores to make a home for Cary and himself is in the book an old barn. All That Heaven Allows, although it made a great film, is not great literature. It’s by no means pulp fiction, nor some tawdry May-December romance novel; but I’m not really surprised it’s vanished into obscurity and that copies are extremely hard to find. Ignore the book, watch the film.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 116


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