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Moving pictures, #11

Here’s more of those silvery round things with the moving pictures cunningly encoded on them. To date, I’ve watched 520 of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, although many of them I’d seen before I came across the list and decided to make an effort to complete it. (Again, asterisked ones are on the list.)

amourAmour*, Michael Haneke (2012, France) I bought this the moment it was released since I think Haneke is one of the most interesting directors currently making films, but I never actually got around to watching it until recently. I’m not sure why. I think it was perhaps because I’d bounced out of Funny Games the first time I tried to watch it and was afraid I’d do the same with this. I needn’t have worried. A retired couple in Paris, the wife suffers a stroke, and then surgery for a blocked artery goes wrong and leaves her semi-paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, the husband finds it increasingly harder to cope. Haneke doesn’t do cheerful films, but this is a completely cheerless one. Good, but not his best.

Tsotsi*, Gavin Hood (2005, South Africa). The title character is a young hoodlum in Soweto who steals a woman’s car, only to discover her baby in the back. He strips the car but keeps the baby, but soon realises he doesn’t know how to look after it. So he terrorises a young woman he sees at a public water pump into helping him. Meanwhile, the police are hunting for the car thief, and Tsoti’s friends have taken up with the local gangster. No one is really likeable in this film, they’re mostly thugs; but Hood manages to make the title character sympathetic. There’s an especially telling scene where he attacks a disabled ex-miner, but then realises that preying on the weak and helpless is no way to live. Worth seeing.

Stachka*, Sergei Eisenstein (1925, Russia). AKA Strike. This is Eisenstein’s first full-length film, made the same year, but before, Battleship Potemkin. It’s pure propaganda, but I was surprised to see how many modern film techniques, such as jump cuts and montages, that Eisenstein uses. The film depicts a strike in a factory in pre-revolutionary Russia, and its suppression by the capitalist owners and tsarist authorities. It’s pretty brutal in places and, sadly, less than a century later, its premise is not one we can consign to the dustbin of history.

Taza, Son Of Cochise, Douglas Sirk (1954, USA). Sirk made a handful of brilliant films, but he also made a lot of crap ones. This is one of the latter although, to be fair, it was slightly better than I expected – and it is subversive for a western as it’s told entirely from the Native American side and it shows them trying to seek peace with the US. Well, not all of them. The title character, played by Rock Hudson, certainly is, he’s trying to stick to the treaty his father signed, and he even becomes the first officer of the “Indian police”. But one of the other members of the tribe is not so willing to bend over backwards – the Americans have forced the tribe to move onto a reservation, for example – and kicks off a rebellion. The film’s heart may be in the right place, but it’s hard to ignore that so many of the cast are whites playing Native Americans.

zero_theoremThe Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam (2013, UK). It’s been a while since Gilliam made a film that blew me away – in fact the last few have been pretty lacklustre, and I think his most interesting piece in the last two decades has been a documentary on his failed attempt to make a film about Don Quixote. The Zero Theorem has been called a return to form, a phrase which always make me suspicious. I’ve seen mostly positive reviews of the film, which, unfairly, had led me to expect something as good as his earlier masterpieces. It’s not. The metaphor used for the “entity crunching” doesn’t make much sense and Bainsley feels like the sort of character only a dirty old man would think is necessary. But David Thewlis plays his part well, and Matt Damon’s wardrobe is quite amusing.

The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie*, Luis Buñuel (1972, France). This is one of the those films that slowly sucks you into its somewhat off-kilter world. It starts unremarkably enough: two couples turn up to another couple’s house for a planned dinner party, only to discover they’ve got the wrong day and the husband is away that night. So they take the wife to a nearby auberge with a good reputation, but it’s closed. They persuade the maître d to let them – only to learn the proprietor died that day, which is why the restaurant is closed. The film then follows the three couples as they arrange other dinner parties, including one with a contingent of military officers, a party that turns into a play on a stage… and it all becomes increasingly surreal as the film progresses. I had not expected to like this film as much as I did.

Lady For A Day, Frank Capra (1933, USA). Capra later remade this in 1961 as Pocketful Of Miracles, with Bette Davis and Glenn Ford – that was, in fact, Capra’s last feature film. An old woman who sells apples on the street to make ends meet has a daughter she gave away when young and who is now living in Spain. And who now wants her aristocratic Spanish fiancé to meet her mother who, she believes, is well-to-do and lives in a posh hotel. Fortunately, a local gangster considers the old woman is his good luck charm and is happy to help out. So they turn the old woman into the “lady” her daughter believes her to be, rent a big penthouse and organise a big bash… but it doesn’t go quite according to plan. Fortunately, everything works out… The very definition of a feel-good film.

Ponyo, Hiyao Miyazaki (2008, Japan). I find many of the Studio Ghibli films unbearably twee and this one is little different. The title character is a magical fish, who falls in love with a young boy who captures her and so returns to land as a young girl. So it’s basically The Little Mermaid. But Ponyo’s father is not happy, not just with her betrayal but with the humans’ pollution of the ocean. Happily Ponyo’s mother, the Goddess of Mercy, saves the day.

Sansho_Dayu_DVDSansho Dayu*, Kenji Mizoguchi (1954, Japan). Feudal Japan, and a manorial estate managed by the titular character has a slave labour force, among which are the children of a disgraced governor. Once the children reach adulthood, they manage to escape – at least the man does, the woman gives herself up to distract their pursuers. The young man goes looking for his mother, who was sold into slavery elsewhere. En route, he runs into his old mentor, who gives him a letter to prove his identity as he wants to appeal to the Chief Advisor. After proving his bona fides, the young man is made governor of the province containing the manor which Sansho manages. The young man tells Sansho he is outlawing slavery, Sansho retaliates, but the young governor’s soldiers prevail. Slow, but affecting.

Brüno, Larry Charles (2009, USA). If I thought Sacha Baron Cohen playing Borat in redneck country, USA, was stupidly dangerous, then playing Brüno, a camp and very dim fashionista, in Jerusalem is, well, I’m surprised he got out alive. And I certainly hope the interview with the terrorist group leader was faked. Other parts clearly weren’t – especially those where he interviews celebrities after moving to LA. Much like the earlier film, there were some moments of comic genius – the velcro suit was classic; some of the cinema verité parts were scary; and other bits weren’t so good. Although I did think it held together better overall than Borat.

The Lost Weekend*, Billy Wilder (1945, USA). Ray Milland is such an alkie he hangs his bottles of whisky out of the window on a piece of string so his brother doesn’t find them. Or his girlfriend, Jane Wyman, for that matter. Milland claims to be a writer but he’s not written a word. When his brother leaves him alone in the flat for a weekend, he finds the money left to pay the housekeeper, and goes on a binge. I’m completely mystified as to why this is considered a classic, it was pure temperance propaganda, and so overwrought I’m surprised Milland’s liver didn’t spontaneously explode. I don’t think Lowry need have worried about this movie, his novel is hugely superior.

imposterThe Imposter, Bart Layton (2012, UK). In 1994, a thirteen-year-old boy disappeared from a Texas town. Three years later, a teenager in Spain claimed to be that boy, and the family flew him to the US and welcomed him into their home as their missing son – even though this teenager spoke with a French accent, was seven years older than the missing boy, and had brown eyes and dark hair instead of blue eyes and blond hair. It took a suspicious private investigator to realise something was wrong. The teenager turned out to be a con man, who had been impersonating other children for years. A very odd documentary, it’s quite astonishing the family were blind to the differences – although, as a few in the film suggest, they might have been keen to welcome the imposter to hide the fact they murdered the missing boy.

Gion Bayashi, Kenji Mizoguchi (1953, Japan). I hadn’t planned on watching this, as I hadn’t actually put it on my rental list. But it was part of a double set with Sansho Dayu, and I only discovered this when I received the disc and thought, hang on, I don’t remember this one… And, after all that, I enjoyed it more than I did Sansho Dayu. A teenage girl has left her uncle, who was supposed to look after her but instead tried abusing her, and instead up at an okiya and asks the geisha, a friend of her late mother, to take her on as an apprentice. The geisha initially refuses, but then agrees after getting a loan for the cost of tuition from her old tutor. But when the teenager, shortly after graduating from geisha school, fights off a client, it jeopardises an important business deal and she and the geisha are ostracised. Set just after WW2, the Japan depicted is on the cusp of change – the okiya and the geishas are traditional, but most of the men wear Western clothing and are involved in engineering. Really enjoyed this one.

failsafeFail-Safe, Sidney Lumet (1964, USA). This film was adapted from the novel of the same title, which also inspired Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, and was released in the same year as Kubrick’s film. An unidentified plane crosses the DEW line, fighters are sent to intercept – these are the days of SAGE, by the way – and squadrons of “Vindicator” bombers head off to their rendezvous points to await the order to attack the USSR with their nuclear bombs. The UFO proves to be an off-course airliner, but the stand-down message gets garbled when sent to one of the Vindicator squadrons. Which promptly heads for Soviet airspace at supersonic speeds to drop an atom bomb on Moscow. The US president is understandably upset at this, and the USSR premier is understandably sceptical that this is actually a horrible accident. WW3 must be averted. The film was all a bit intense, Walter Matthau’s hawkish political advisor character was annoying, the Vindicator bombers were actually B-58 Hustlers… which meant the interior shots of their cockpits was all wrong… And, well, I can understand why Dr Strangelove was more successful.


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Reading diary, #10

With all the dipping into books I’ve been doing for research for All That Outer Space Allows, I’ve not been reading as much as usual – although I have managed to fit in several reads for review for SF Mistressworks. And, er, several books which I’ve actually written about at greater length… which is something I’ve not done on here for a while either.

Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid, Malcolm Lowry (1968). My love of Lowry’s prose remains undimmed. I wrote about this book here.

Women as Demons, Tanith Lee (1989). I reviewed on SF Mistressworks – see here.

my_name_is_red1My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998). I originally picked up this book for a world fiction reading challenge a couple of years ago, but got bogged down about halfway in and gave up. I eventually decided to give it another go, and this time I managed to finish it. In Istanbul in the late sixteenth century, the Sultan asks a retired and highly-regarded miniaturist to manage the creation of a book to celebrate his reign. But this book will not be illustrated in the Persian style, as is considered proper and religiously correct, but in the European style (depictions of people and animals is haram in Islam; hence Islamic art’s focus on calligraphy and architecture). But one of the miniaturists secretly approached to provide illustrations, or part of the illustrations, disagrees with the project and murders one of the other miniaturists. The novel is structured as first-person narratives by all those involved, including the murdered victims, the daughter of the man managing the project, and a young man who has returned to Istanbul after years in the provinces to ask for the daughter’s hand… It’s not the fastest-paced of murder-mysteries, and Pamuk seems fond of presenting the same piece of information from several different viewpoints so they more or less contradict, or at least, confuse each other. But I did think My Name is Red was very good… although I wasn’t so taken I plan to seek out Pamuk’s other novels.

mindjammerMindjammer, Sarah Newton (2012). This novel set in the world of a sf role-playing game of the same name and is, I believe, chiefly intended to support the RPG rather than vice versa. Which no doubt explains some of its set-up, like ,for example, the fact that it follows the adventures of a group of four military specialists from varied backgrounds (ie, both above and below the law). They’ve been sent to a rediscovered human polity as a Security and Cultural Integrity Force team by the New Commonality of Humankind in order to ensure everything about the newly-discovered world, Solenius, is exactly as it seems. Except, of course, it’s not. The plot of the novel basically comprises the four SCI agents stumbling from one violent encounter to another, interspersed with fact-filled info-dumps, while a number of villains twirl moustaches and gloat evilly. Mindjammer is space opera turned up to eleven, which is both its appeal and its worst problem. Space opera needs those clunky wodges of exposition, it needs a relentless plot filled with violence, discovery and violent upsets, it needs to rely on clichés because there isn’t much room for anything else… And when you have a space opera based on what is clearly a rich and lovingly-designed role-playing game universe… One for fans of the subgenre as much as it is for fans of the RPG; but yes, one for fans, I think.

Sanctum_zoomedSanctum, Xavier Dorison & Christophe Bec (2014). I picked up a copy of the first part of this a few years ago, but it’s only recently an omnibus edition of all three parts has appeared in English (I was tempted to buy it in French, but never got around to it). Sadly, after all that wait, I can’t really say it was worth it. Some things it does very well, but it also fails quite badly in other respects. The opening section, in which a US submarine stumbles across a wrecked Soviet sub in an underwater chasm off the coast of Syria is done well… Except it all takes place at 4,000 feet, and you can’t have people diving that deep – the pressure would crush them. And should you somehow manage to saturation dive at nearly 120 atmospheres, you’d be decompressing for weeks afterwards. The US submarine is also infeasibly large inside, and reminded me of the Russian mining submarine in the BBC’s execrable The Deep (which I wrote about here). Near the Soviet wreck, the divers find the entrance to an ancient temple. Which is where the story turns all Lovecraftian, as the temple proves to be a magical prison for a Sumerian demon, which the Americans inadvertently release. The art is uniformly good throughout – it was intended to be cinematic, and it works well in that respect – and the story does hang together, even if the pacing is a little slow. But the author should have done a little more research and not sacrificed plausibility for drama.

All Those Vanished Engines, Paul Park (2014). I am a big fan of Park’s fiction. I wrote about this book here.

Isaac Asimov’s Space of Her Own, Shawn McCarthy, ed. (1984). I reviewed on SF Mistressworks – see here.

A Month Soon Goes, Storm Jameson (1962). The first read in my informal project to try a number of British women writers from the first half of the twentieth century. And I enjoyed it very much. A polished piece of work. I wrote about it here.

suicideexhbThe Suicide Exhibition: The Never War, Justin Richards (2013). This was a freebie from Fantasycon, and I only picked it up after spotting the Nazi Black Sun and flying saucers on the cover. And this was despite recently reviewing Graeme Shimmin’s A Kill in the Morning, another occult Nazi alternate history, for Interzone and not being very impressed. A secret section of the British intelligence services called Station Z crops up in various places, intriguing a man and a woman who are plainly intended to be the series main protagonists. They are duly recruited and learn that Station Z is fighting against Reichsführer Himmler’s new secret occult weapon, ancient technology some of his Ahnenerbe officers have discovered in ancient barrows scattered across Europe. Unfortunately, also in said barrows are alien creatures which are, well, are completely ripped off from the hand-creatures in Alien, and some sort of alien parasite which keeps the ancient kings interred in the barrows still alive, sort of – and who promptly go on a violent rampage once released. Oh, and there are some flying saucers too, which may be linked to the ancient aliens. It’s all complete tosh, and appallingly researched. Incidentally, the title refers to an exhibition laid on in the British Museum for the duration of the war and which the Museum didn’t mind losing should the Germans bomb the crap out of the building. It’s also mentioned later as a metaphor for Station Z or something, but its presence in the story is so trivial it seems completely undeserving of providing the title. Avoid.

Across The Acheron, Monique Wittig (1985). I reviewed on SF Mistressworks – see here.

towersThe Towers Of Silence, Paul Scott (1971). This is the third instalment of Scott’s Raj Quartet. I must admit to a little confusion when I started the book. I was pretty sure I’d not read it, but the story seemed very familiar. At least, it sort of did. And when the narrative referred to something I remembered clearly from an earlier book in the quartet, but here it all happened off-stage, I realised that Scott was covering ground previously described but this time from different characters’ viewpoints. So, for example, when Sarah Layton goes off to Calcutta and has her adventures there, The Towers Of Silence remains behind in Pankot and, in the person of Barbie Batchelor, we get to witness Mabel Layton’s death at first hand. Barbie, incidentally, is a superb creation, an ex-Mission teacher who has retired to Pankot and shares Rose Cottage with Mabel as her companion. She’s played in the television series by Peggy Ashcroft, who is the best thing in the programme, and captures Barbie perfectly; although the rest of the series is a little disappointing as it misses so much interiority out that most of the characters comes across as unrepentant racists. The books, however, are built on cleverly-nuanced character studies, so they’re vastly superior to the TV series.

sweeneyA Pictorial History of Oceanographic Submersibles,, James B Sweeney (1970). I picked this up cheap on eBay, and it proved to be ex-library so I got a partial refund. I should have sent it back – while it covers the early history of submarines reasonably well, as soon as it reaches WW1 it’s almost as if the world shrinks to only the US and its concerns. The chapter on WW2 is especially bad – it reads as though only the USA and Japan operated submarines, with only brief mentions of German U-Boots (which are not U-Botes, as the book writes at one point) and British mini-submarines. It’s also deeply racist – the Japanese are referred to as “the little people from the land of the Rising Sun” and dropping an atomic bomb apparently caused Hiroshima to be “blasted into immortality”. The writing throughout is terrible, and while I’ve spotted no blatant inaccuracies there is plenty that is given such an American emphasis it mendaciously implies every single advance in the field was made by that country.


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All Those Vanished Engines, Paul Park

I’ve been a fan of Park’s fiction since first reading Coelestis (1993), a copy of which I bought in 1994 in a book shop I used to frequent when I lived in Abu Dhabi. It has been a favourite genre novel ever since. Over the years since, I’ve tracked down copies of his other books – first editions, natch – and read them. So when I learnt he had a new novel due, six years after the fourth and final book of the Princess of Roumania quartet, The Hidden World (2008), well, I was pretty excited. I discovered the book actually comprised three linked novellas, one of which had originally appeared in F&SF in January 2010 under the title ‘Ghost Doing the Orange Dance’, but had then been revised and published by PS Publishing in January 2013 under the same title. I’d read the PS version early in 2014, and even nominated it for a Hugo. There was also a short story, which shared the title of the new novel, that had originally been commissioned to accompany a sound installation by Stephen Vitiello at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in September 2011.

all-those-vanished-engines-paul-park-base-art-co

Clearly, All Those Vanished Engines the novel was going to be something of a fix-up. And if Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance was any indication, it was also going to meta-fictional. Fix-ups fell out of favour several decades ago, but they were very popular during science fiction’s first few decades. AE van Vogt’s entire novel output, for example, is arguably comprised of fix-up novels. But as both the market for short genre fiction and genre novels has changed, so fix-ups have become increasingly rare. But All Those Vanished Engines is actually not much like a fix-up novel. Nor is it like another well-known science fiction novel comprised of three linked novellas, Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972). Or indeed much like another sf novel of three novellas, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Icehenge (1984). Chiefly because All Those Vanished Engines is not much like a novel as such.

All Those Vanished Engines opens with the line,” Maybe the first part of the story would be called The Bracelet, or else Bracelets would turn out to be the better name”. In point of fact, we already know it is called ‘Bracelets’ – the title is given on the preceding page. The bracelet which supplies the title for Paulina’s story is comprised of “intertwining strands”. Which is a not only a fair description of ‘Bracelets’ the novella, but also the novel as a whole. And the use of the name Paulina is also telling. Not only is it a female version of the author’s name, Paul, but Park used it himself as a pen-name on a Forgotten Realms tie-in novel for Wizards of the Coast, The Rose of Sarifal, as by Paulina Claiborne and published in May 2012. The writing of The Rose of Sarifal also features in All Those Vanished Engines‘ second novella.

Paulina lives in an alternate 1881, and she is writing a story set in 1967 – “Paulina had a habit of slipping away into an invented world over which she might pretend to have control” –  in a form of fractured English, featuring a boy called Matthew. As Paulina’s story progresses, her world and Matthew’s world begin to intertwine, so much so that Paulina’s own life’takes on the form of the sort of story she is imagining for Matthew. An assassin gatecrashes the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Mardi Gras ball and kills many of those present. Paulina is rescued by her cousin, Colonel Adolphus Claiborne, CSA, who reveals she is the daughter of the Yankee empress, and the assassin, Lizzie, is her clone, and that he plans to use Paulina in an assassination plot against the empress. But Paulina escapes, meets up with Matthew, and the two end up hiding from an invasion of Wellesian Martians… By two-thirds of the way through ‘Bracelets’, the two narratives – Paulina’s real adventures, and her invented ones – have become so entangled, we’re no longer sure if the protagonist is Paulina or Matthew. The world of the story seems to have changed to accommodate Paulina’s inventions; she has lost control of her invented world.

The second novella is titled ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’, and it opens with the line: “This is how the second part begins…” There then follows the text of the short story from the MASS MoCA sound installation. After that is an explanation of the origin of the short story, in which Park himself describes how he met Vitiello and offered him “a list of rhetorical devices, from which he chose onomatopoeia and, to a lesser extent, strategic repetition”. (This is clearly a joke – the story is to accompany a sound installation, after all.) At the opening of the exhibit, Park meets a woman who tells him that the subject of his story is still alive, and living in a nursing home. She also reveals that she was a student of Park’s late mother, and likely met Park when he was a teenager. Park goes on to write The Rose of Sarifal for Wizards of the Coast, and to first take, and then teach, creative writing at a local college. In his class is a woman called Traci, who is writing a novel which Park realises is a thinly-disguised version of Traci’s relationship with Park’s mother, which echoes Constance’s relationship mentioned earlier. In Traci’s book, Park himself is called Matthew. Park discusses her novel with her, making suggestions regarding technique that he himself is using in the narrative of All Those Vanished Engines.

The sound installation is real, The Rose of Sarifal is an actual published Forgotten Realms novel, Park does indeed teach writing, albeit science fiction (at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, according to Wikipedia). Some of the biographical details of Park’s life – a mother who was a published literary professor, a partner whose mother was born in Bucharest, an autistic sister – may also be true, although which is which cannot be determined without further extra-textual knowledge (in a 2000 interview on infinity plus, for example, Park mentions that his mother taught literature). But then the three poles of ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’ are entirely extra-textural – the sound installation, The Rose of Sarifal, and Park’s own life. Just as Paulina and Matthew’s lives are intertwined in ‘Bracelets’, so are Paul’s and Matthew’s in this novella – and again, in both narratives, one world is presented as fictional (Paulina’s “invented world”, Traci’s novel), while the other is the first-order fictional narrative of the novel we are reading, which contains sufficient actuality to nail it into place in the real world.

The final novella is ‘Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance’, and the title is a reference to a painting which Park, the narrator, believes represents his grandfather’s encounter with extraterrestrials. The story itself is about Park’s family, his parents and grandparents, and their ancestors (the PS Publishing edition helpfully includes a family tree). It opens with a potted history, and the telling admission that “every memoirist and every historian should begin by reminding their readers that the mere act of writing something down … involves a clear betrayal of the truth”, which echoes the opening to Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969): “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination” (Park’s novel, Coelestis, it is worth noting, covers broadly similar ground, both conceptually and in terms of the physical journey by the two main characters, to The Left Hand Of Darkness).

As Park discusses his family’s history, so he reveals more of his own circumstances – and they do not entirely match those given in ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’. In this novella, for example, Park takes a class in writing meta-fiction, his partner is different, his sister is called Katy not Elly, and the novel from Park’s real-world oeuvre he makes mention of is A Princess of Roumania (2005). As the story progresses, it is slowly revealed that this is not the world we know, but a near-future dystopia, which ends with an invasion by the dead in a chilling link back to the first novella of the novel. Park spends much of his time untangling the lives of his ancestors, chiefly to understand the meaning behind the titular painting. But he also spends a lot of time in Second Life, a real-world online virtual world – which, in this novella, forms the overtly fictional world, much as Matthew’s and Traci’s do in the earlier two novellas.

There are so many references to Park’s actual oeuvre in All Those Vanished Engines – not just obvious ones, clearly linked in the text to earlier novels; but also characters named for characters in other of his novels. Then there is Park’s own life, and the mirror images of it which are presented in two of the three novellas. As Dire Straits famously sang, “Two men say they’re Jesus / One of them must be wrong”. Except both Parks in All Those Vanished Engines are plainly not the real Park. They are as much a fiction as the invented worlds, as much a fiction as the presentation of the act of creating those invented worlds.

To describe All Those Vanished Engines as “meta-fiction” feels like labelling any random novel as “a work of fiction”. It misses the extent and – to steal a phrase from Frank Zappa – the “interconnectedness of all things” within the three novellas. However, what makes this novel even more astonishing is that it seems likely it was not originally conceived as a whole. Park has taken elements of his own recent history and knitted them into a work of fiction on the nature of fiction and the act of creating it. The end result is as much about writing genre fiction as it is about the history of the Parks and Claibornes back to 1664. The writing, as you would expect from Park, is lucid, often elegant, and a pleasure to read. All Those Vanished Engines is one of the best genre novels I have read this year, if not for several years. But its very nature means it is unlikely to noticed by the various genre awards (although perhaps the Nebula will shortlist it).

I am myself extremely fond of re-engineering narrative structures in fiction; and of, well, I suppose “pile-driving” is perhaps the best description, the foundations of a story into the real world. I like that everything in a work of genre fiction can be Googled, that the elements used within a story have this extra dimension provided by the real world, a richness that cannot be contained within the pages of a short story, novella or novel. All Those Vanished Engines does both of these, but it also takes it a step further – some of those piles stretch down into Park’s own novels, giving a bedrock of actual published fiction on which the stories in All Those Vanished Engines securely rest. This is a novel which can be reread, and in which a fresh read will always find something new – because as your knowledge of Park in the real world grows, perhaps by reading some of his other novels, so too will that knowledge enrich your reading of All Those Vanished Engines.

And that’s quite a remarkable achievement.

 


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Structural engineering for fiction

There are many ways to be innovative in fiction writing, but the method which appeals to me the most is in looking at the different ways in which narratives can be structured – not simply in order to tell a story, but also in order to direct how the reader experiences that story. It’s something I was conscious of while writing the Apollo Quartet.

The most obvious structure, and the most common, is the linear narrative, in which events are ordered chronologically from start to finish, and typically seen from a single viewpoint. Then there is the multi-threaded narrative, in which different viewpoints all offer differing views of the events described by the story. There is also the time-slip narrative, in which two or more narratives running in different time contexts together lead to, or explain, the resolution. In most of these stories, the resolution offered to the reader is the one experienced by the protagonist. While in a multi-threaded or multi-viewpoint narrative, the reader might be possessed of more information than the protagonist, and so have a better understanding of the reasons for, or the nature of, the resolution, the end of the story is still immersive inasmuch as it takes place within the story.

structure-axo-q-theatre

While writing the Apollo Quartet, I decided to play around with the concept of narrative structure. I started out with a variation on common narrative structures, but with each instalment moved the focus of narrative understanding further out of the story and closer to the reader – while still maintaining what appeared to be a typical narrative format.

Corkscrew chronology with double twist
Adrift on the Sea of Rains has two narrative threads, one moving forward in time from the first line of the novella, and the second a series of flashbacks which are presented in reverse chronology. Both feature twist endings – but the twist of the reverse chronology narrative is what kickstarts the forward chronology, in effect forming a closed timelike loop of the entire story.

Delayed reaction external resolution
In The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, there are still two narratives, and they’re time-slipped, one in 1979 and one in 1999, but I wanted the novella to have two resolutions – one experienced by the protagonist, and one that only the reader understood from clues buried in the narrative and ancillary texts. I structured the novella to give what I called “a B-52 effect”, named for the cocktail not the jet bomber. I’d come across the idea of a coda “hidden” behind a glossary in Iain M Banks’s Matter – although I’m told Tolkein did it in The Lord of The Rings – and I really liked the idea of a short section after the end of the story which redefined everything the reader had read. But I decided to take it one level further and not categorically state what it was that redefined the story. I would include clues, scattered throughout the narrative and glossary, and the coda would be the final piece of the puzzle. In other words, the reader figures out the resolution for themselves outside the story.

Narrative action at a distance
And in Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I chose to put more of a burden on the reader. In part, this was a consequence of the stories I was determined to tell. I wanted a narrative featuring the Mercury 13, I wanted a narrative featuring the bathyscaphe Trieste… but how to connect the two? I considered a number of somewhat obvious solutions before having an epiphany one day while making my way to the pub to meet up with friends. I wouldn’t connect them, I’d let the reader find the connection – but I would give hints to that relationship. And the chief element of that relationship is that actions in one narrative world could turn out to have consequences in the other narrative world, despite there being no actual relationship between the worlds – in fact, their only relationship is that they run side-by-side within the pages of Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above. The connection between the two is not only completely artificial, it’s an artefact of the nature of reading.

Narrative context mismatch
I’m reluctant to discuss the fourth book of the quartet, All That Outer Space Allows, in too much detail, but I will reveal that it’s structured according to what I call “narrative context mismatch”. Like the preceding three books, the narrative or narratives will on the surface appear to be straightforward, either chronologically linear or time-slip, but there is more going on than initially meets the eye – and it’s both a consequence of the act of reading and the artificial nature of story.

Novellas, I’ve found, are perfect vehicles for this sort of structural engineering or experimentation. Short stories are simply too short, and while there’s nothing preventing any of the above being used in one, the word-length may make them too obtuse for the reader as there’s simply not enough room to provide all the necessary clues. Novels, you would think, would make for more fertile ground – and there are indeed novels which do some very interesting things with their narrative structures, I’m thinking especially of Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle and Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley. But novels are also a far more commercial format for fiction, and as a result – particularly in genre – they tend to stick to tried and tested narrative structures. The experimentation, if it does exist, typically occurs in the setting or viewpoint.


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The habit of moderation

I have always believed in that old saw: moderation in everything, including moderation. Except when it comes to book-buying. You can never have too many books. You can, however, own more books than you can comfortably read – but, again, there’s nothing actually wrong with that. Sooner or later, you will read those books. It may take a few years, perhaps even a decade or two, but it’s not like you’re never ever going to read them. Because otherwise what would be the point in buying them?

So here are some books I intend to read at some point…

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Given my love of the film, it was only natural that I’d want to read the book from which it was adapted, All That Heaven Allows; but it was bloody hard to find a copy. I managed it though. For my next informal reading project, I’m trying books by British women writers of the first half of the twentieth century I’ve not read before and who could arguably be considered “forgotten”. The Remarkable Expedition doesn’t actually qualify on two counts: a) it’s non-fiction, and b) I’m a fan of Manning’s books anyway. A Month Soon Goes, The Bridge and Devices & Desires, however, all certainly qualify. Finally, some more Joyce Carol Oates, a charity shop find, The Female of the Species

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Some genre by female writers: I’ve not been as completist about collecting the new un-numbered SF Masterworks as I was the numbered ones (so I should be grateful, I suppose, that they are un-numbered), but Her Smoke Rose Up Forever was a definite want from the moment it was announced. After last year’s awards massacre by Ancillary Justice, which I famously liked, I couldn’t not read Ancillary Sword. And after liking the Bel Dame Apocrypha, the same is true of The Mirror Empire. While working on Apollo Quartet 4, I made reference to a story by Josephine Saxton… but I didn’t have a copy of it. So I found a (signed) copy on eBay of The Power of Time, which contains the story, ordered the book, it arrived the next day, I read the story… and discovered it was a serendipitous choice for my novella. The Other Wind was a lucky charity shop find.

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I’m a fan of Palliser’s novels, but I hadn’t known he had a new book out – he’s not exactly prolific, five books in twenty-five years – so Rustication was a very happy charity shop find. I’ve been working my way through the Bond books, hence The Man with the Golden Gun, although I don’t think they’re very good. Kangaroo is another one for the DH Lawrence paperback collection. And Strange Bodies was praised by many last year so I thought it worth a try (despite not being that impressed by Theroux’s also highly-praised Far North).

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Some crime fiction – actually, I don’t think Ghost Country is crime, although Paretsky is of course best known for her VI Warshawski series of crime novels. Murder at the Chase is the second of Brown’s 1950s-set Langham & Dupree novels. I’ve seen the film and the television mini-series, so I thought it was about time I read the book Mildred Pierce.

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I read the first part of Sanctum a few years ago but never managed to track down English translations of parts 2 and 3. I was going to buy the French omnibus edition at one point, but then spotted this English version on Amazon one day. It has its moments, but I’m not sure it was worth the wait. Valerian and Laureline 8: Heroes of the Equinox is, er, the eighth instalment in a long-running sf bande dessinée, and they’re very good, if somewhat short.


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A Month Soon Goes, Storm Jameson

This is is the first book in my informal project to read as many postwar British women writers as I can, particularly ones that appear to have been forgotten. Storm Jameson was prolific and successful, writing around sixty books between 1919 and 1976 – fiction, criticism, biography and history. None of her books appear to be in print now. At least two of her novels, In the Second Year (1936), set in a fascist Britain, and Then We Shall Hear Singing (1942), about a Nazi invasion of an invented country, qualify as science fiction although I’m not aware of them being claimed by the genre. A Month Soon Goes (1962), however, is pure mainstream and, I believe, fairly typical of her oeuvre – though, of course, I will have to read more to say for certain.

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Storm Jameson

Sarah Faulkner is a celebrated diseuse – ie, a female artiste who entertains with spoken monologues – famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Her husband, Edward, is around twenty years older than her, so close to seventy when the novel opens. He lives in a ramshackle manor near the village of Callisfont, which is where Angry Young Man playwright Mark Smith is trying to write a follow-up to his successful debut. He chose the village because his grandmother was born there. Mark meets Edward, and is invited up to Callisfont House for dinner the following day. There, he meets Edward’s daughter, Harriet, who has just turned eighteen, Edward’s secretary, Medbourne, and a close friend of the family, the writer Arnold Hudson, who has not had a novel published in eight years. Mark holds all these in contempt – except Harriet, whom he considers little more than a child – but he becomes a frequent visitor to the manor, not just because the food is better than at the village inn but also because he gets on quite well with Edward. Mark’s complaints also sound somewhat familiar:

“Certain things are better. But nothing is changed. There are still nauseatingly rich people and poor people; power is still in a few hands, class is still a stumbling block, education crazily unequal, social equality a myth.” (p 13)

And then Sarah Faulkner turns up.

She has returned home after four years of touring, and it’s made clear she has been an absentee wife and mother for pretty much her entire adult life. She’s also been having an on-and-off affair with Arnold – and many other men. She brings two staff with her, a masseuse and a personal assistant. Sarah is quite a creation: charismatic, gloriously selfish, and completely aware of the power she has over people and unafraid to use it. She immediately begins making promises to Harriet, which she then later blithely goes back on – eventually deciding Harriet should be married off to a neighbour, a bluff and somewhat dim-witted member of the landed gentry in his forties. Harriet, of course, doesn’t want this. It is soon revealed that Sarah’s visit home has been prompted by her finances – she is notoriously bad at keeping the fortune her act earns her, and wants Edward to sell of a piece off his land to a developer. He refuses to do so. Meanwhile, Mark finds her compelling, Arnold comes to the conclusion he has been used, much like every man in Sarah’s life, and Harriet tries to get either her mother or Mark to take her away from Callisfont…

And then Edward dies in his sleep.

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A Month Soon Goes is definitely the product of a writer with years, if not decades, of career behind them. The prose is polished to a fine gloss, the characters are drawn sharply, and the setting is equally well mapped out. The book does feel most like, however, a BBC Play for Today from the 1960s and 1970s, where every line of dialogue is a barbed insult or a put-down. Though it is set in 1958 – May and June 1958, to be precise, as the jacket copy states – a lot of the commentary still holds true today. Not just Mark’s complaint, mentioned above, of the corruption of the rich and entitled (the complicity of our political masters with corporation seems to be a twenty-first century development; but then the multinationals are the new aristocratic houses), but also some of Sarah’s comments on the role of women in society. While she recognises her lifestyle would be considerably more acceptable had she been a man, she’s also quite hypocritical and happy to marry Harriet off to a local squire (and only so she no longer has to take responsibility for her daughter). But then Sarah’s selfishness really is quite astonishing – she only gets away with because she’s so charming. Jameson, incidentally, doesn’t have to tell us this, it’s there in the way Sarah talks and behaves.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I started A Month Soon Goes. Something like Olivia Manning or Elizabeth Taylor, I thought. If this novel is any indication, then yes, Jameson is indeed a similar writer… although perhaps a tad more commercial than them. I certainly plan to read more Jameson – in fact, I’ve already ordered a copy of The Road from the Monument, also published in 1962, from eBay. Well, it was only 99p for a first edition…


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Moving pictures, #10

And 2014 continues to be the year of the films and I continue to get my money’s worth out of Amazon film rentals. Seriously, would you find the movies I’ve been watching on Netflix? I think not. Annoyingly, this month I discovered that my “region-free” Blu-ray player isn’t actually region-free – well, not for Blu-ray discs, only for DVDs. And apparently unlocking them is a lot more difficult than it is for DVDs. So it looks like I’ll have to buy myself a new properly region-free Blu-ray player… But on with this instalment of films seen…

Again, films from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die are asterisked, although I’ve since found a rival list which actually has more films on it I’ve seen and which I think belong on such a list. And I’ve just checked the list the above links to, which is where I got the list I’m using from in the first place – and the bastards keep on changing it. They’ve added more 2013 films – and so must have dropped others to make room for them. So how exactly are you supposed to see all the films on the list if they keep on changing it? Argh.

Dogville, Lars von Trier (20036, Denmark) Notable chiefly for being the film in which von Trier used black box theatre staging – ie, no scenery, just chalk lines with labels, and only a handful of props. Nicole Kidman plays the girlfriend of a mobster who runs away, seeks sanctuary in the titular small mountain town, where she performs everyday task as payment for sanctuary. But the tasks get more and more onerous, until she’s treated like a slave and then actually assaulted. I enjoyed the film up until the point where the violence started and Kidman was abused. It seemed… unnecessary. Von Trier had already made his point.

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Whisky Galore!*, Alexander Mackendrick (1949, UK). This was based on a novel by Compton MacKenzie, who also wrote the screenplay, which was in turn based upon a real incident. In 1941, the SS Politician was wrecked off the coast of the Outer Hebridean island of Erisday, and the islanders looted it of its cargo of whiskey. In the film, the SS Politican becomes the SS Cabinet Minister, and Eriskay becomes Todday. There are a couple of sub-plots, including a romance, but the bulk of the film is concerned with the battle of wits between the islanders and the authorities over the missing whiskey. Mildly amusing. There is apparently a sequel, Rockets Galore! (1957), which sounds much more kind of thing (but at £145 for the DVD, I’ll not be buying it any time soon…).

The Blair Witch Project*, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez (1999, USA) I’d managed to avoid seeing this for fifteen years, and would happily have done so for another fifteen… if it hadn’t been on the 1001 Films list and if I hadn’t found a copy for £1 in a charity shop. But at least I can now say I’ve seen it. The found footage concept might well have been fresh and exciting back in 1999, but it’s been used, if not over-used, so much since that you end up treating the film as if it were filmed normally. And in that regard The Blair Witch Project does not score well. It is mostly dull, the scares are driven chiefly by the reaction of the cast rather than the situation they’re in, and the ending falls completely flat. There were apparently nine million sequels, but I shall not be bothering with them.

The Man Who Loved Redheads, Harold French (1955, UK) This popped up on one of those “people who bought this also bought…” things when I was buying a DVD and it was very cheap and looked mildly interesting, so I bunged it on my order… It’s based on a Terrence Rattigan play and is very silly for much of its length, but there’s a surprising and quite interesting twist at the end. A man spends his entire life seeking a lost love – a young woman he met as a teenager – and encounters women who look like her at various points in his life, all played by Moira Shearer. It’s all very terribly terribly – he’s in the Civil Service and a baronet or something – although one of Shearer’s incarnations is a shop girl and it’s played smartly.

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The Gleaners and I*, Agnès Varda (2000, France), is one of those documentaries where the film-maker slowly inserts herself into the subject being filmed. It begins by studying people who hunt for edible vegetables among those rejected by farmers, such as potatoes that are too small, or too oddly-shaped to sell to their corporate masters… but it soon moves on to film homeless people in and around French cities. And as Varda involves herself with these people, so she begins to sympathise with them and their attitudes. I had not expected to like this, but I thought it really good. I think I’d like to see more films made by Varda.

The Great White Silence*, Herbert G Ponting (1924, UK) Scott took Ponting with him on his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1910 as the expedition’s photographer, and this documentary was put together from the footage Ponting shot with a cinematograph. There is straight footage of Scott and his fellows as they leave New Zealand and sail to Antarctica, set up camp, and explore the surroundings. The footage of Scott’s fatal attempt on the pole itself is done using stand-ins as Ponting remained at the main camp with the rest of the expedition. There is also some quite effective model work. The whole is a fascinating, and quite affecting, record of Scott’s expedition. Apparently, it was not a commercial success at the time and Ponting died a pauper, but it has been subsequently re-evaluated and has taken its place as one of the great documentaries of all time. Recommended.

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Wadjda, Haifaa al-Mansour (2012, Saudi Arabia) Not only is this the first film made in Saudi Arabia to be entered for international competition, but it was also written and directed by a woman, a Saudi national woman. That’s quite an achievement. The story, about a girl who rebels against societal expectations by demanding a bicycle, is perhaps nothing new but it’s handled well, the cast are uniformly good – especially Waad Mohammed in the title role – and it makes some pointed observations about Saudi society (so much so, in fact, I’m a little surprised the Saudi authorities allowed it – they’re not exactly known for their liberal tendencies).

Star Trek Voyager – Season 1 (1995) Having worked my way through all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it was more or less inevitable I’d eventually find myself doing the same for Star Trek: Voyager. Initially, DS9 was considered the best of the franchises, but it seems time has been kinder to Voyager than it has to the other two. While Voyager’s set-up was just a reboot of the original Star Trek series, and its central casting all come out of, er, Central Casting, with their “back-stories” and “character conflicts”… But it actually hangs together quite well, and the format does give the series a lot more freedom in terms of story-of-the-week. But, of course, this is 1990s television drama, so there has to be at least one story arc… And Voyager falls back on the Trek staple of the omniscient aliens who, well, they’re only omniscient as far as the plot dictates, and then they’re not. Still, you don’t watch Trek for rigour, scientific or dramatic. Actually, I’m not sure what you do watch it for…

Women Without Men, Shirin Neshat & Shoja Azari (2009, Iran), is set in Iran but was actually filmed in Morocco, as director Shirin Neshat has been banned from visiting Iran since 1996. It takes place in 1953, during the US-led coup which put the shah back in power – which the Americans engineered because prime minister Mosaddegh has nationalised the Iranian oil industry. The film follows four women during this period, a prostitute, the wife of a general (ie, part of the secular elite), and an unmarried woman  and her religious friend. It’s been likened to Haneke’s The White Ribbon, but I can’t see it myself. Yes, Women Without Men is an excellent film, although a recurring image of the women walking along a road in the open country seems more The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie than it does Haneke to me.

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Suspiria*, Dario Argento (1977, Italy) I am not much of an Argento fan, I prefer Brava – though I’ve only seen a small handful of movies by either director. On the strength of this film, I see little reason to change my mind. It has its moments, and the mise en scène is… interesting, all Dutch angles and saturated colours and ersatz Expressionist set designs. A young woman joins a strange ballet school, but it appears to be haunted and lots of strange events occur, including a rain of maggots while the pupils are readying themselves for bed, a few gruesome deaths, and the frequent appearances of a mysterious heavy-breather. It was a fun film, but I’m a bit baffled as why it should be on the 1001 films list.

Festen*, Thomas Vinterberg (1998, Denmark). This is not a film to watch if you’re feeling misanthropic. A large and affluent Danish film gather at the country hotel they own to celebrate the sixtieth birthday of the patriarch. During the celebratory dinner, one of the sons accuses his father of sexually abusing him as a child, and of abusing his twin sister – who has committed suicide in the hotel shortly before the celebration. The family try to laugh off the son’s accusation, but as the weekend progresses the family begins to fall apart. This was the first film made according to the Dogme 95 rules, so it’s made entirely with hand-held cameras and natural lighting, which gives the picture a somewhat grainy look throughout. An excellent film.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song*, Melvin van Peebles (1971, USA) I may have an incorrect number of s’s in the title of this film, but I’m pretty sure I’ve got the right number of a’s. A young African American, Sweet Sweetback, working in a brothel is “volunteered” to be arrested as a suspect in a murder – they know he’s innocent, but the police need to arrest someone to appease the community, and plan to release Sweet a few days later for “lack of evidence”. But the police also arrest a Black Panther, who the police beat up, but he’s defended by Sweet and the two manage to escape. Sweet goes on the run, heading for Mexico, and en route has several adventures, including a run-in with a gang of Hells Angels. There’s a definite amateur feel to the film, but the use of montage was done extremely well – and not something you saw in films of that period.

Punishment Park, Peter Watkins (1971, USA) Watkins is a documentary maker, and while Punishment Park is both fictional and more than forty years old, it could easily be a documentary of twenty-first century USA. Hippies, draft-dodgers and other political undesirables are taken out into the desert, charged and sentenced at a kangaroo court in a marquee tent, and then given a choice – a full sentence served in a federal prison, or three days in “punishment park”. This later requires them to cross 53 miles of California desert without food or water in three days, while being chased by armed police and National Guard. If they make it, they can go free. Despite, or perhaps because of, it’s faux-documentary presentation, this was a brutal film. A bit too talky in places, and some of the dialogue felt a little too… not staged, but not natural either, but the sort of dialogue where characters explain their thoughts and feelings and attempt to do the same for others – the sort of dialogue that only appears in fiction, in other words. Nonetheless, an excellent film, and was that really ought to be on the 1001 films list.

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Man of Marble*, Andrzej Wajda (1976, Poland) I saw the sequel to this, Man of Iron, before I was aware of this film. But when Second Run – who I heartily recommend, they have released some amazing DVDs – released Man of Marble, I immediately bought a copy. I like Polish cinema, some of my favourite films are from Poland, and a number of directors I greatly admire are Polish… but Wajda was one I’d mostly missed out, for some unknown reason. I’m now rectifying that. The title of this film refers to a statue of a worker who became a national hero after breaking a record for laying the most bricks in a working day during the building of a new socialist town. A film student is making a documentary about him for her thesis two decades later, but what she discovers – that it was all created and managed as propaganda; and what prompted the hero’s later fall from grace – means it becomes increasingly difficult for her to make her film. Man of Marble follows both the film student and the brick-layer, swapping effortlessly between the two decades. Like Man of Iron, it felt like a television series edited into a single long episode, but with high production values; but that worked in its favour. I really liked this film. And I can’t disagree with its presence on the 1001 Films list.

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