It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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BSFA and Kitschies – the shortlists

Two genre shortlists announced in one day, UK ones too. First, the BSFA Awards, for which I nominated works (see here), and usually vote. The four shortlists look like this:

Best novel
The Race, Nina Allan (NewCon Press)
Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge, (Macmillan)
Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
Wolves, Simon Ings (Gollancz)
Ancillary Sword, Ann Leckie (Orbit)
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Claire North (Orbit)
Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder)
The Moon King, Neil Williamson (NewCon Press)

Well, three of my nominations made it – Hutchinson, North and Williamson. The Allan and and Leckie are no surprise – the first because it’s probably the most talked-about UK sf novel of 2014 among the people who nominate for the BSFA, and the Leckie because of Ancillary Justice‘s huge success. Also, is this the first time the BSFA Award has more women than men on the novel shortlist? I think it might well be. The large shortlist does, however, suggest that the actual number of nominations to make it through were somewhat low. Which, if true, is in one respect slightly worrying, but also heartening in that it demonstrates last year was pretty damn good for UK sf novels.

Best short fiction
‘The Honey Trap’, Ruth EJ Booth (La Femme, Newcon Press)
‘The Mussel Eater’, Octavia Cade (The Book Smugglers)
Scale Bright, Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Immersion Press)

None were nominated by myself. In fact, I’ve read none of them. An all-female list, too. The less said about Sriduangkaew’s presence, the better.

Best non-fiction
Call and Response, Paul Kincaid (Beccon Publications)
‘Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens: A Look at Two New Short Fiction Magazines’, Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture)
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers and the First World War website, Edward James, ed.
‘The State of British SF and Fantasy: A Symposium’, Strange Horizons
Greg Egan, Karen Burnham (University of Illinois Press)

Surprisingly, two of my nominations made it through – Kincaid and Strange Horizons – and while I nominated another blog post from Ruthless Culture, it’s good to see McCalmont getting some recognition.

Best artwork
Cover of The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley, Richard Anderson (Angry Robot Books)
Cover of Bête by Adam Roberts, Blacksheep (Gollancz)
The Wasp Factory sculpture, Tessa Farmer
Cover of Wolves by Simon Ings, Jeffery Alan Love (Gollancz)
Cover of Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall, Andy Potts (Egmont)

Another surprise: two of my choices made it onto the shortlist. I didn’t attend Loncon3, so I didn’t see the Wasp Factory sculpture. Blacksheep won the BSFA in 2013, for the cover of… an Adam Roberts novel (and this is Blacksheep’s third time on the shortlist with a Roberts cover). The Mirror Empire has been much discussed since its publication, although I admit I can’t see the appeal of its cover art. And I see there’s now a hardback edition of Mars Evacuees (US, perhaps?), with much inferior cover art.

Congratulations to all the nominees, and I know who I hope will win each category.

The other UK genre award announced today is the Kitschies, a juried award, which also has four categories: Red Tentacle (novel), Golden Tentacle (debut novel), Inky Tentacle (cover art) and, new this year, Invisible Tentacle (“natively digital” fiction). The shortlists look like this:

The Red Tentacle
Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith (Egmont)
The Peripheral, William Gibson (Viking)
The Way Inn, Will Wiles (4th Estate)
The Race, Nina Allan (NewCon Press)

I’ve read only the Allan and I didn’t think it quite gelled as a novel – which was why I didn’t nominate it for the BSFA.

The Golden Tentacle
Viper Wine, Hermione Eyre (Jonathan Cape)
The Girl in the Road, Monica Byrne (Blackfriars)
Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta (Voyager)
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers (self-published)
The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara (Atlantic Books)

I’ve heard of the Byrne and Itäranta, but the others didn’t even ping on my radar. The Guardian is making a big thing of a self-published novel being shortlisted for the award, conveniently forgetting that a self-published novel won the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel in Australia last year and a self-published novella won the BSFA in 2013. Oh well, yesterday’s news and all that.

The Inky Tentacle
Cover of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin, X (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Cover of A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar, Ben Summers (Hodder & Stoughton)
Cover of Through the Woods by Emily Carroll, Emily Carroll and Sonja Chaghatzbanian (Faber and Faber)
Cover of The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Rafaela Romaya and Yehring Tong (Canongate)
Cover of Tigerman by Nick Harkaway, Glenn O’Neill (William Heinemann)

The only one of these I own is the Tidhar, and  didn’t really like the cover (I liked the book, though). The Faber and Harkaway I’ve seen.

The Invisible Tentacle
@echovirus12 (Twitter fiction), created/curated by Jeff Noon (@jeffnoon), Ed (@3dgriffiths), James Knight (@badbadpoet), violet sprite (@gadgetgreen), Richard Biddle (@littledeaths68), Mina Polen (@polen), Uel Aramchek (@ThePatanoiac), Graham Walsh (@t_i_s_u), Vapour Vox (@Wrong_Triangle)
Kentucky Route Zero, Act III, Cardboard Computer
80 Days, Inkle Studios
Sailor’s Dream, Simogo

Again. congratulations to all the nominees.


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The bookcase is not enough

I was very good in January and purchased only three books, but then I went a little mad once February started. So while the TBR actually shrank during the first month of the year, I’m not sure it will do so this month. I was finding it increasingly difficult to track down copies in good condition of the specific paperback editions of DH Lawrence’s books that I’m collecting – which was not made easier by the big secondhand book sellers on eBay putting up photos of different editions to the ones they were actually selling… But then I discovered that during the fifties, sixties and seventies, Heinemann had published a set of, I think, twenty-six “Phoenix Edition” hardbacks of Lawrence’s books. And there just happened to be someone on eBay selling ten of them as a job lot for a reasonable price… And I bought another one too. Now I’ve got eleven of the books, of course, I’ve got no room for them. So it goes.

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There’s a tale and a half to tell about The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 19: The Time Trap and Amazon Logistic’s inept attempts to deliver it – suffice it to say, I ended up with three copies of the book (one of which is in Denmark). It’s an early story from the series, and not as good as later ones. I’ve been waiting a couple of years for the third volume of The Secret History, so I’m glad it’s finally available. Might have to reread the first two volumes first, though, to remind me of the story… And finally, well, Jodorowsky – what more needs to be said? Jodorowsky’s Screaming Planet is new to me. It’s apparently ten stories Jodorowsky was commissioned to write for Métal Hurlant. I have the first volume of the Megalex series, but the subsequent instalments never appeared in English. I was planning on getting the lot in French, but then Humanoids went and published an English-language omnibus,  Megalex: The Complete Story. Might still the get the French editions one day, though.

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After buying the Phantasia Press editions of The Pride of Chanur and Chanur’s Venture a few months ago after one too many glass of wine, and then discovering that several years ago I’d bought a signed first edition of Chanur’s Legacy, the final book of the quintet (published by DAW but never in a Phantasia Press edition)… Well, I just had to complete the set, didn’t I? So The Kif Strike Back and Chanur’s Homecoming; both of which will, of course, be reviewed on SF Mistressworks some time this year. I have been somewhat lax over the last year or so in keeping up with the SF Masterwork series, chiefly because many of the more recent books have either been reprints from the original series, or are of books I’ve previously read and am not bothered about owning a copy… But but but Heinlein, I hear you cry. Well, I’ve never actually read Double Star, and the last SF Masterwork I bought was the Tiptree collection, so I think it’s allowed. Edge of Dark is an ARC from Pyr, which I reviewed for Interzone. It was a bit meh – as you will no doubt learn should you subscribe to Interzone. Children of the Thunder and Around the World in 80 Days were both charity shop finds.

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I’m a fan of Terrence Tiller’s poetry and have several of his collections, so I was quite chuffed when Unarm, Eros popped up on eBay. It’s also a review copy, and includes the review slip… from 15th January 1948.

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I read Farrell’s The Siege Of Krishnapur over Christmas 2013 and was much impressed, so when I spotted The Hill Station in a charity shop it was an easy decision to buy. I plan to read more Farrell. America Pacifica was, I seem to recall, one of those literary novels that borrows from science fiction and which was talked about a couple of years ago. It was also a charity shop find. A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing was a charity shop find too, and another book I remember being highly praised. Credit Title is by one of the authors from my informal project to read some postwar British fiction by women writers – GB Stern is Gladys Bronwyn Stern – and I suppose I should have guessed from the cover art, but the book cover flap describes Credit Title as a “junior novel”.

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I mentioned the DH Lawrence Phoenix Editions earlier, and here are the eleven volumes I now own, in all their green-jacketed glory. They are: 1 Women in Love, 3 Aaron’s Rod, 5 The White Peacock, 7 The Trespasser, 9 Sons and Lovers, 14 The Short Novels Volume 1, 15 The Short Novels Volume 2, 16 Twilight in Italy, 22 Lady Chatterley’s Lover, 23 Fantasia of the Unconscious & Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious, and 26 The Boy in the Bush. I will certainly be tracking down more…

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I found some illustrations from Beyond Tomorrow online on some blog, and liked them enough to hunt down a copy of the book. It took a while, as it’s quite hard to find. But I managed it. I might well write about it at some point. Postscripts 32/33 Far Voyager is the latest “issue” of the magazine that became an anthology, and I’m in it. In fact, it’s my story which provided the title for the book. The Master Mariner: Running Proud is a favourite novel. A signed first edition popped up on eBay, so I bought it… only to discover I already had a signed first edition. Ah well. At least this new copy is in much better condition. And I guess I now have a signed first edition of The Master Mariner: Running Proud for sale. The Planet on the Table is also signed, but the only edition I already owned was a paperback, so that’s all right. It could do with a new jacket, however.


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Postscripts Far Voyager

My contributor copy of Postscripts 32/33 Far Voyager landed with a thud on my mat this weekend. I’m especially pleased about this one, because my story provided the anthology’s title. (I didn’t get named on the cover, though.) ‘Far Voyager’ is another of my alt space stories, based around the premise that one of the Voyager probes was manned. There are a few clues to the identity of the astronaut, although he’s not actually named.

ps3233

Also in the anthology are many excellent writers, including Paul Park, Ian Watson, Michael Swanwick, Alison Littlewood, Richard Calder and Angela Slatter.


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Moving pictures, #2

More marathon movie watching. I’ll keep the notes on each film short this time, otherwise I’ll end up writing more about films in 2015 than I will books or science fiction…

deepend2dDeep End*, Jerzy Skolimowski (1970, Germany/UK). This was an odd beast. A film set in Britain, with British stars, performed in English, but actually filmed in Germany, using German actors to fill out the cast, and by a Polish director. John Moulder Brown is a bit of a blank as the schoolboy who goes to work at the baths, but Jane Asher is good as the female attendant who’s using the job as a springboard to more. Munich stands in for London quite well, although there are odd moments that seem strangely not-English. Story-wise, it’s nothing new or innovative, just the usual mix of teenage lust and prudery, all a bit Holden Caulfield-ish, although it does turn interesting toward the end. Still, a good film. Definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

night_of_silenceNight of Silence, Reis Çelik (2012, Turkey). Set in rural Turkey, a man in his sixties returns to his village after serving a prison sentence and in order to end a feud between two families, he is married to a child bride. The film takes place entirely on their wedding night. What follows is a sensitive portrayal of both parties – the old man didn’t want the wedding, and he won’t do anything his new bride won’t have of him. But he is also expected to perform. The child bride, of course, doesn’t want to be there at all, and is frightened about what she expects will happen. During the night, the man reveals why he was sent to prison, and it’s unpleasant. Despite all that, Night of Silence succeeds because it treats its topic sensitively and shows how abhorrent it is, without making monsters of its characters. Worth seeing.

herHer, Spike Jonze (2013, USA). A man installs a new OS on his computer and phone, then customises its interface so he finds it more appealing – except rather than just choosing a nice desktop wallpaper, moving a few icons around or selecting a theme, this involves selecting a nice voice and a variety of interests and personal facts, sort of like for a dating agency. And because the man has designed himself an OS personality which will appeal to him – which proves to be, somewhat implausibly, some sort of sophisticated AI – then of course he finds himself liking his OS’s personality very much. Like a girlfriend. Except for the “girl” bit, or indeed any kind of physical presence. And then he discovers that his OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, has instantiated herself an uncountable number of times for other users. I thought this film a bit dull – and, since I work in computing, I’m always wary of movies whose stories depend on it and usually find them wholly unconvincing.

12_angry_men12 Angry Men*, Sidney Lumet (1957, USA). Essentially, a courtroom drama that, er, doesn’t take place in a courtroom. The jury have heard the evidence and closing arguments, now they have to reach a verdict. Except before they do that Henry Fonda pretty much builds a case for the defence, which is what the defendant’s attorney should have done in the, er, courtroom. End result: reasonable doubt. And the “obviously guilty” perpetrator is found innocent. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy about the US system of justice… until you remember what it’s really like. Also, note the lack of women on the jury.

aliceAlice*, Jan Svankmajer (1988, Czech Republic). I’ve a feeling I’ve seen something by Svankmajer before, but I’m not really sure – and given the singular nature of Svankmajer’s vision, you wouldn’t think I’d forget. Ah well. As the title suggests this is Svankmajer’s take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it sticks pretty much to the plot of the book. But some of the visuals are really disturbing. The White Rabbit, for example, belongs on that Bad Taxidermy twitter feed, and its glass eyes haunted me for a couple of nights after I’d seen the film.

transformers4Transformers: Age of Extinction, Michael Bay (2014, USA). Every time I think Hollywood has plumbed the depths of stupid, it manages to surprise me and dig a little deeper. I’m trying to remember the actual plot of this film, but all I have is some vague memory of Optimus Prime as a junked-up truck in an old theatre – no mention of how they got a big fuck-off truck (or a big fuck-off robot, for that matter) into the theatre – and something about a bounty hunter Transformer that’s working with nasty generic national security apparatus to kill all Transformers, but of course they’re really working with the Decepticons. Or something. I do remember the terrible broad-brush racist characterisation, the casual disregard for people’s lives, the way the Transformers were “rebooted” with shiny new paintjobs, and the corporate villain (Stanley Tucci, the only watchable actor in the entire film) doing a Jubal Harshaw when he’s introduced with his blonde, brunette and black-haired personal assistants. Mostly, however, I don’t remember why I watched the bloody thing in the first place.

bowling_columbineBowling For Columbine*, Michael Moore (2002, USA). I often wonder if the USA realises that the rest of the world thinks its attitudes to guns is insane. Not the entire country, of course – as Moore demonstrates in this film. He explores US gun culture, and tries to work out why so many more Americans are killed each year by firearms than in any other nation on the planet. I’m not entirely sure I agree with his conclusion that big business and the media feeds the US populace a solid diet of fear and paranoia, and that this is chiefly responsible. While it’s true Canada may have as many guns as the US, and significantly less gun deaths, pretty much every Anglophone nation’s television is a solid wall of FUD masquerading as news and entertainment. Still, Moore asks some important questions – and, unsurprisingly, he remains unanswered.

SplendorSplendor In The Grass*, Elia Kazan (1961, USA). It’s the 1920s, Warren Beatty is a dim high school football star, the son and heir of a rich oilman. Natalie Wood is a nice girl from a much less affluent family who is going out with Beatty. Oilman wants Beatty to go to Yale and then take over the business; Beatty wants to marry Wood and run the family ranch. Beatty’s sister is a flapper and a girl with a bad reputation. Beatty feels urges but doesn’t want to Wood to be like his sister, nor does she want to be like the sister. The two go their separate ways. Then the Great Depression hits, and oilman is reduced to penury. Later, Wood goes looking for Beatty, who is now happy running the ranch, and is married and a father. This is one of those worthy historical (as in, early twentieth-century American) dramas Hollywood used to bang out during the 1950s and 1960s as Oscar bait. It was nominated for two – best actress and best screenplay, but only won the latter. Didn’t find it all that interesting. I like a bit more melo- in my mid-twentieth century drama.

lucyLucy, Luc Besson (2014, France). I’m convinced this is a comedy, played absolutely straight by its cast. Those opening shots of cheetahs hunting, the sort of ham-fisted cinematic metaphor that were considered old when they introduced sound. The central conceit: we’ve known for decades that humans using only ten percent of their “cerebral capacity” is complete bollocks. Also, amongst Lucy’s first set of powers is the ability to talk to someone in another country using their television… Which is not to say Lucy isn’t an entertaining action-sf-comedy, and some of the special effects are quite effective. Johansson is good in the title role, particularly in the first half where she’s still, well, human. And Morgan Freeman demonstrates why he should handle the exposition in every single film Hollywood ever makes – I mean, he talks complete bollocks, but he actually makes it sound plausible.

thin_red_lineThe Thin Red Line*, Terrence Malick (1998, USA). If I had to pick a favourite WWII film, and I’m not a fan of WWII films, it would have to be Das Boot. But I thought this was very good. From the opening, when a pair of deserters on a Pacific island are recaptured by their company to Nick Nolte’s idiot colonel, determined to prove himself against younger men who have been promoted above him, not to mention the company commander who believes his responsibility is to his men and not to whatever random tactical objective he is ordered to meet. WWII films traditionally present pretty straightforward moral landscapes – GIs good, Japanese bad; Allies good, Nazis bad – but The Thin Red Line shows the US soldiers just as far from the moral high ground as their enemy. Not to mention their general ineptitude. All too often, wars are presented as if everything went smoothly, casualties were, if not expected, certainly unavoidable, and the good guys won because better fighters. It’s all complete crap, of course; and it’s refreshing to see it applied to WWII (it’s pretty much a cliché in Vietnam films, of course).

unearthly_strangerUnearthly Stranger, John Krish (1963, UK). I’m not really sure why I bunged this on an Amazon order, there must have been something in the description which persuaded me it might be worth seeing. It wasn’t a bad call. It’s a melodramatic Brit sf flick, with plenty of stark lighting and Dutch angles, not to mention a healthy dose of Cold War paranoia – although, perhaps in this case, it might be “sex war paranoia”. A scientist on a secret project fears for his life after the mysterious death of his predecessor, and it turns out the scientist’s “Swiss” wife has a number of unusual characteristics – she sleeps with her eyes open, she appears to have no discernible pulse, and she can handle burning hot objects with her hands. A nicely creepy film that just about manages to stay convincing, despite its outlandish premise.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 555


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Welcome to An Age of Discord

What is this, I hear you cry. A space opera? But, Ian, you write hard sf, literary hard sf, the sort of hard sf that needs two pages of bibliography! How can you write a space opera?

Well, it sort of happened like this…

I first started work on A Prospect of War back when I was living in the UAE. I’d previously completed two novels, neither of which were especially good. One was a sort of Dickensian space opera, and the other a first contact novel with a time-slipped narrative. But after working my way through the first seven books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, and failing to understand why they had proven so successful, I decided to write a space opera trilogy which used the structure of an epic fantasy. It took several goes before I was happy with the universe I was building (early versions probably owed a little too much to science fiction role-playing games such as Traveller).

So, I would have a “peasant hero”, a young man of common birth who proved to have some magical ability which resulted in him leading the forces of good against an attempt by a “dark lord” to overthrow the existing ruling dynasty. But I wasn’t quite ready to throw magic into my space opera. In fact, what I wanted was a relatively low-tech civilisation that had managed to build an interstellar empire using only a limited number of pieces of handwavey technology. I didn’t want it all shiny high tech because I needed to justify the rigidly-enforced social classes. You need those class barriers in place for a peasant hero to break through (and to provide yet more jeopardy to justify his eventual victory). And I wanted an atmosphere of fading grandeur and deep history.

I invented a world which reached an early industrial level of technology, and promptly discovered three satellites in orbit. A space race led to one nation – the most socially conservative and repressive of those on the world – getting into space first… where the astronauts found three ancient wrecked starships. And from them they reverse-engineered: a Faster-Than-Light drive, a cheap energy generator, anti-gravity, a powerful directed-energy ships’ weapon, and a force-curtain. (They actually had a little surreptitious help… but that’s a story for another day.) These five things gave that nation first the planet, and then an interstellar empire.

But my story would be set millennia later, after the empire had declined and a new empire, catalysed by a successful war against another interstellar polity, had been carved out of it. The dark lord would be only the latest leader of a conspiracy which has been harbouring a grudge since the defeat of the old empire…

This was getting bloody complicated. I took some time out from writing to do some world-building… and eventually ended up with a couple of hundred MB of spreadsheets, documents and text files giving details on everything from the imperial government to its military to naming conventions to ancient history. I even built a wiki, with the eventual aim of either publishing it online or in book-form as an encyclopaedia.

A generic space opera image from a wallpaper web site

A generic space opera image from a wallpaper web site

Then it was back to writing the story… which never quite went as planned. This was partly because I’d been too clever for my own good. For reasons which now escape me, I decided that FTL travel entailed journeys measured in weeks, but in the real universe the length of time the journey took was longer, on a logarithmic scale. So a journey which for a ship’s passengers might take a week would see them arrive eight days after their departure; for two weeks, it would be seventeen days… and so on. Since I decided to use four main viewpoint characters, and I’d have them travelling about on different journeys… I had to create a giant spreadsheet in order to keep the chronology straight. It was a major headache.

And that epic fantasy template I’d planned on using… that was getting completely bent out of shape too. I had my four protagonists meeting and then separating and then meeting again, just so I could get them all into position for the end of the first novel. To make matters worse, every time I reached for a space opera or epic fantasy trope to incorporate, it would never quite fit, so I had to either rip it apart or subvert it.

Anyway, I eventually finished the first book, after many years of writing and polishing. It was good enough for John Jarrold to take me on as a client. I started work on the second book of the trilogy. This was a mistake. If you can’t sell the first book of a series, what’s the point of writing the second book? A few years passed. I wrote a few treatments for novels, but no one bit. I wrote Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It won the BSFA Award. I discovered I much preferred writing the sort of literary sf that requires lots of research. I wrote the remaining books of the Apollo Quartet (well, was working on the fourth book). Then a small press – Tickety Boo Press – asked to see my space opera. What to do? I’m not writing that sort of science fiction any more. Won’t its appearance confuse readers who have come to expect the likes of the Apollo Quartet from me?

Decision time.

Now, I still stand by A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders. I think they’re good work. And now actually seems like the right time for them to appear. Publishing has changed, the sf market has changed, space opera has changed. Which doesn’t mean I don’t intend to do a little wrangling before they see the light of day. At 200,000 words, A Prospect of War could do with being made a little tighter and punchier. And I changed some background details when I wrote A Conflict of Orders, so I need to retcon them in A Prospect of War. A Conflict of Orders’ 170,000 words will also receive some rewriting. And I’ll finally get around to writing A Want of Reason – which will please some friends, who have been demanding I write it for years.

Space opera is a more commercial, and commercially successful, subgenre than literary hard sf. If An Age of Discord sells well, and encourages people to buy the Apollo Quartet, then it’s all win. There are space operas currently available on Kindle – badly-written and derivative ones – which sell several thousand copies a month. In three years, I’ve sold 1,300 copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. Granted, novellas don’t sell as well novels, but all the same…

An Age of Discord does not mean I’ve permanently decamped to space opera. I still have a number of hard sf projects planned, both at novella and novel length. But I see no reason why I can’t write big fat space operas and literary hard sf. But we shall see how well the trilogy does. Perhaps people will hate it, perhaps no one will buy it. Perhaps its time has not come, after all…

 


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Reading diary, #1

As I did last year, I plan to document my reading throughout 2015. Some books I may pull out and dedicate a full post to, others I will only mention in passing as I’ll have reviewed them elsewhere (chiefly on SF Mistressworks or in Interzone). Again, as in 2014, I’m going to try and alternate genders in my long fiction reading, although from the looks of it I seem to have failed a bit during these first few weeks…

Shades-of-Milk-and-Honey-by-Mary-Robinette-KowalShades of Milk and Honey, Mary Robinette Kowal (2010). I am, I freely admit, a fan of Heyer’s novels, and while I wouldn’t call myself an Austen fan, I’ve certainly read her books. So when I first saw Kowal’s Regency fantasy, I knew that sooner or later I’d be picking up a copy. In fact, I received this book as a Christmas present. And read it during the journey back to the UK. It’s pretty much as you’d expect – old-maid-ish daughter of comfortably well-off provincial family gets all excited when eligible men turn up at the local nob’s house. The difference here is that people can practice a sort of light-based magic, “glamour”, which allows them to create illusions – and this has become a new… well, not art-form, but certainly a form of “accomplishment”. Jane is the plain older sister of beautiful Melody, whose charms are sure to land her a good match, except Jane is gifted at glamour – so cue a pair of “interesting” gentlemen who are drawn to Jane, Melody’s bitterness because she’s smart enough to realise a pretty face is not enough, the return of a childhood friend who proves to be a bounder, a young girl who Jane takes under her wing… It’s a polished piece, perhaps a little too polished – there was something that didn’t quite ring true about it all, not that it prevented me from enjoying it. Kowal handles the relationships well, and the glamour is nicely done – but the story seemed wrapped up almost as an afterthought with a throwaway happy-ever-after ending. At the moment, I’m not sure if I’ll be bothering with the rest of the series.

octopussyOctopussy & The Living Daylights, Ian Fleming (1966). The last of Fleming’s 007 books, and that means I’ve now read the lot. I can now cross them off the list. Yay. Although, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I decided I had to read them all – because it turned out they were all pretty terrible. Octopussy & The Living Daylights is, as the title might suggest, a collection – and both story titles have been used for Bond movies, although the films bear zero resemblance to the source material (as usual). In ‘Octopussy’, an ex-SOE man who was a bit naughty with some gold in Italy just after the war finished is visited at his home in Jamaica by Bond. Certain hints are dropped, but the man accidentally gets stung by a stonefish while feeding it to an octopus he has sort of adopted. In ‘The Living Daylights’, Bond has been charged with killing a sniper who they’ve learnt will make an attempt on a defector who’s making a run for it from East to West Berlin. Bond has always been brutal, but this one is more brutal than most. ‘The Property of a Lady’ sees Bond trying to flush out a Soviet spy during an auction for a Fabergé globe. The last story is a squib in which Bond flies to New York, daydreams about the day ahead… only to cock up the reason he’s been sent there. Meh.

Chanur’s Venture, CJ Cherryh (1984). The second book of the Compact Space quintet. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

TheMirrorEmpire-144dpiThe Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley (2014). I’d been sufficiently impressed by Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha to overcome any reluctance I might have at reading a secondary-world fantasy. I’d also seen a lot of positivity for this book on social media. So it would not be unfair to say my expectations were reasonably high… And yet, as I read it, I just couldn’t get that excited. Partly, it was the casual brutality – in particular, a world in which a people have been enslaved for thousands of years and their masters are now slaughtering them like cattle. Fight-scenes, even battles, are one thing, but the systematic butchery in The Mirror Empire read more like an attempt to up the ante in grimdark’s brutality arms race, and I’ve yet to be convinced such a race is even a good thing. The much-touted five-genders – a neat idea – is only mentioned half a dozen times in passing, and matriarchal societies in epic fantasy are not actually all that new… But. The world-building was mostly done well, even if it does take a while to get the hang of things; and the characters were (relatively) sympathetic, although some were more successful than others. But the plot really does take a long time to get into gear, and you’re two-thirds through the book before any kind of shape becomes apparent. As epic fantasies go, The Mirror Empire is not as innovative as has been claimed, although it’s plainly a notable, if overly dark, example of the genre. More than anything, it put me in mind of Ricardo Pinto’s Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy, although they’re the better books. I don’t think I’ll be bothering with volume 2 of the Worldbreaker Saga. I will, however, give Hurley’s new sf series a go when that appears.

a-man-lies2207A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar (2014). The Nazis were ousted by the Communists in the early 1930s, and now Hitler is scratching a living in London, under the name Wolf, as a private eye. There’s something about the conceit that doesn’t really work – whether it’s Hitler downtrodden in London, or just a Chandleresque PI in 1930s London – but Tidhar nonetheless makes it work. Though Wolf is by definition a nasty piece of work, it’s hard not to sympathise with him as he’s beaten and attacked by all and sundry, even those you’d expect to be on his side. While presented as pulp, Wolf’s narrative is really an excellent black comedy – it uses the language of the former, deliberately spoofing Chandler and Hammet in several places, but it is its shape which identifies it as black comedy. Even those characters whose sensibilities align with Wolf’s turn on him, and eventually the biggest irony of all lands him on a ship emigrating to Palestine under a Jewish name. The title of the novel, however, refers to the other narrative in the book, about a prisoner at Auschwitz, who used to write shund, or Yiddish pulp fiction. Wolf is his invention. Comparisons with Osama are inevitable as both books posit a real-world villain occupying the role of a pulp fiction hero in an invented universe. On finishing A Man Lies Dreaming, I’d have said the earlier novel was the better, but as I came to write this quick review I decided I preferred this one. A Man Lies Dreaming is an effortless read, and Wolf is an excellent fictional creation. It’s easy to overlook how cleverly done it is. Which is a shame.

Skirmish, Melisa Michaels (1985). This was one of only two books The Women’s Press published under their YA sf imprint, Livewire. It was originally published in the US as a sf novel for adults. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here.

Edge of Dark, Brenda Cooper (2015). Although sneakily presented as the first book of a diptych, this is actually part of an ongoing series set in the same universe. I reviewed it for Interzone.


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Moving pictures, #1

The first “films seen” post of 2015… Last year was a bit epic for DVD-watching, and I expect this year to be much the same… Three weeks into the year and I’ve already seen 29 films and rewatched season 1 of Babylon 5. I don’t document every movie I’ve watched in these posts – I mean, the less said about Solar Crisis the better (it was a charity shop find, okay?). Some films were rewatches, some were simply forgettable, and there’s not a lot I can say about Babylon 5 that’s not been said before by many others. So, it’s the usual mix of (mostly) classic films, I’m afraid…

playtimePlaytime*, Jacques Tati (1967, France). I knew very little about this film when I sat down to watch it – I knew who Tati was, of course; in fact, I’d seen Les Vacances de M. Hulot the year before (see here). But I hadn’t known quite how much of an… undertaking Playtime had been, how expensive a production, how enormous a film it proved to be. Apparently, it was a bit of a commercial flop on release, although critics acclaimed it. I loved it. Right from the opening in the mock-up of Orly Airport, with its clean retro-futurist lines. I loved the modernist look of the film, its Brutalist interiors and futurist gadgets. The plot, in which Hulot wanders from set-piece to set-piece, is almost incidental. There are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, more so than I seem to recall from the other Tati film I’d seen. And, of course, it just looks absolutely fantastic. So I bought a Blu-ray of it on eBay.

fearFear Eats The Soul*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974, Germany). Fassbinder famously based this film on Sirk’s 1955 melodrama All That Heaven Allows and, to be honest, I was expecting it to closer resemble Sirk’s movie that it actually did. Partly, this was because it was my first Fassbinder, so I had no real idea what to expect – it was probably also the first New German Cinema film I’ve seen; but I suspect my expectations were unrealistic and likely spoiled by Todd Haynes’ take on All That Heaven Allows, Far From Heaven, which apes the look of Sirk’s film while extending its story. Fassbinder, on the other hand, makes free use of the story, but sets his story in present-day (for 1974) Munich. A widow in her sixties drops into a bar to get out of the rain, and so meets Ali, a Moroccan gastarbeiter who speaks broken German (the film’s actual title, Angst essen Seele auf, is broken German). The widow, Emmi, and Ali become friends, and then lovers, and she invites him to live with her. When the landlord tells Emmi that her lease doesn’t allow her to sublet, she tells him Ali is her fiancé. So Ali and Emmi marry – much to the disgust of Emmi’s adult offspring. But soon Emmi’s attitude toward her husband begins to align with those of her racist neighbours and friends, even though her children have come to accept Ali. Like Sirk’s masterpiece, Fear Eats The Soul shows a conventional woman entering into a relationship that which is uncomfortable to her family and peers, and then choosing to formalise that relationship (although Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson don’t actually get married in All That Heaven Allows). But where Sirk’s film is about class, Fassbinder’s is very much about race, and especially about the presence of gastarbeiters in Germany. It’s a powerful story, and works especially well because of its low-key realist approach (unlike Sirk’s colour-saturated mise en scène, which I admit I love). Having now seen it, I think Fear Eats The Soul is not so much a reflection or homage to All That Heaven Allows as it is a complement to it.

mariabraunThe Marriage Of Maria Braun*, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1979, Germany). Did I mention I received a boxed set of Fassbinder DVDs for Christmas? It’s the Commemorative Collection 73-82 Volume 2. Obviously, I picked out the two best-known films in it to watch first. In The Marriage Of Maria Braun, the title character marries her boyfriend while he is home from the Front, they spend a day and a night together and then he’s off fighting again. Cut to the end of the war, and he doesn’t return home – she doesn’t know if he’s dead or still a POW held by the Russians. She gets a job at a bar that caters to American occupiers, and becomes the lover of one GI regular. At which point, her missing husband turns up and catches the pair in flagrante delicto. A struggle ensues, and Maria accidentally kills the GI. However, the husband takes the blame and is sentenced to prison for murder. Maria is determined to better her lot so when her husband is eventually released they can live a life of comfort. She meets a rich industrialist on a train, and he hires her as his personal assistant/mistress. She proves to have a head for business, and becomes rich. Meanwhile, the industrialist approaches the imprisoned husband, and the husband agrees to leave Germany on his release and not return to Maria. Later, after the industrialist has died, he returns – Maria has inherited everything, and is now very rich indeed. While Fassbinder didn’t evoke post-war Germany especially well – no doubt due to budgetary constraints; although von Trier, I thought, did a better job in Europa, albeit it was more representational – I thought this film a much more subtle piece than Fear Eats The Soul, and much the better for it. Maria Braun is a well-drawn and well-played character, and if the film puts the atrocities committed by the Nazis to one side (and, like Europa, paints the occupying Americans as heartless invaders rather than saviours), Maria’s profound selfishness and determination gives the story a solid anchor. Excellent stuff.

streetcar_named_desireA Streetcar Named Desire*, Elia Kazan (1950, USA). One from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list I watched only because it was on the list. I was aware of the film, and that it had made Marlon Brando a star, but that was about all. And, to be honest, what I knew of it didn’t really make me want to watch it. But it was on the list, so I bunged it on my rental list and, in due course, it popped through the letter-box. So I watched it. And… meh. It’s one of those films made on an indoor set whose stark lighting can’t hide the fact it’s as fake as a theatre flat. Brando was widely praised for his acting in the film, but I just found his put-on voice really annoying. Vivian Leigh was better, and managed to evoke the fragility of her character, but the final descent into madness was pure bathos. I can see how people would have liked it back in the day, but it’s all a bit OTT, a stage play turned up to 11, with much yelling and wailing and outbreaks of sudden violence. Ah well. One to cross off the list.

maleficentMaleficent, Robert Stromberg (2014, USA). The title character is, apparently, the evil queen in the Snow White story, although quite how this dark fantasy fits into the fairy tale is anybody’s guess – I think even Disney’s marketing department gave up on trying to persuade audiences of that one. Angelina Jolie, with prosthetic cheekbones and a pair of big fuck-off horns, plays the title character, who is really just misunderstood and not the evil piece of work the Brothers Grimm et al have painted her. Her peasant boyfriend, on the other hand, is. Evil, that is. Well, nasty. He even gets to be king – which is not how dynastic succession or divine right works, but this is a US film and they’ve never really understood the concept of royalty. For reasons I now forget, said king decides to raze the magic wood near his castle and in which Maleficent and her Thumper-y friends all live. So she seeks revenge by cursing the king’s new-born daughter. But I don’t recall the daughter being put to sleep – it may have been me who was sleeping – but instead she gallivanted about the magic forest and played  with all the weird faery creatures, while being maternally looked over by Maleficent. I’m not really sure what this film is meant to be – it reminded me of that other fairy tale mangled into a dark fantasy, Snow White and the Huntsman; and while I have no problem with using fairy tales as source material, I’m not convinced Maleficent reflects well on the Sleeping Beauty story.

cranesThe Cranes Are Flying*, Mikhail Kalatozov (1957, USSR). I’m a big fan of both Tarkovsky’s and Sokurov’s films, and I’ve seen a number of other Russian movies – including bonkers sf film Kin-Dza-Dza, yet more bonkers Через тернии к звёздам, and even mighty Soviet historical epic Ilya Muromets. But I’d not seen much socialist drama, so The Cranes Are Flying was something new for me. It’s a WWII film, centred around the character of Veronika, a young woman. Her boyfriend Boris volunteers to fight, but is posted missing in action. Her parents are then killed in a bombing raid by the Germans, so Boris’s parents invite Veronika to live with them. Boris’s cousin Mark is also staying there, and he begins to pursue Veronika – she, of course, does not know Boris is dead, and she rejects his advances. He assaults her and shames her into marrying him. The family are moved further east, and Veronika works in a hospital caring for wounded soldiers. After an incident in a hospital, she decides to commit suicide, but at the last minute saves a boy from being hit by a car and adopts him. Boris’s father then learns that Mark escaped conscription by bribing an official, so he boots him out of the house. A comrade of Boris’s then turns up and informs Veronika that her boyfriend died a hero’s death… It’s all very grim, and each of the characters quite clearly maps onto roles played by the people of the USSR during WWII, both good and bad. While Veronika’s ending is hopeful rather than happy, the bad guy is caught and punished for his anti-socialist actions. As propaganda goes, The Cranes Are Flying was entertaining, if a little heavy-handed. The stark black-and-white cinematography was effective, and Tatiana Yevgenyevna Samoilova was good as Veronika. Worth seeing.

timesevenWoman Times Seven, Vittorio de Sica (1967, Italy). Shirley MacLaine has made some odd films throughout her career, and this, I think, qualifies as one of them. It’s an anthology film, in which MacLaine plays seven parts, and they’re pretty much all the same. In the first, she’s a widow following her husband’s hearse to the cemetery, while her late husband’s doctor, played by Peter Sellers, tries to persuade her to marry him. In the second, she’s a young wife who returns home to find her husband (a different husband, obviously; MacLaine is playing different women) in bed with her best friend, so she heads out and meets up with a bunch of prostitutes. In the third, she’s a hippie translator who reads poetry, while naked, to a Scot and Italian who are members of the congress where she’s interpreting. The fourth sees MacLaine married to a best-selling author who is more in love with his fictional character than his wife, so MacLaine tries to become the fictional character, prompting the husband to have her examined by a psychiatrist. In the fifth, a society woman goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure a rival doesn’t wear the same designer gown as herself to the opera. The sixth appears to be set in New York and features a young married couple who are determined to commit suicide, except the husband isn’t quite so determined. And the seventh has MacLaine being stalked by Michael Caine after she meets Anita Ekberg for lunch. An odd film, and not even remotely funny.

affairAn Affair to Remember*, Leo McCarey (1957, USA). Unbelievably, I’d never actually seen this TV perennial, and since it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, I thought I should. I like 1950s melodramas, so I expected to like An Affair to Remember, but… Cary Grant was at his most tea-bag-tan-ish, and didn’t really convince as a French playboy (the former more than the latter). There was a little bit too much singing, and as the film progressed the schmaltz began to heap up in droves. And yet it all started so well – the shipboard romance was nicely handled, with plenty of witty banter. But after Deborah Kerr had been hit by a car… and gives up her singing career to teach poor children (sticks fingers down throat)… Obviously, a happy ending was always going to happen, but McCarey made sure he hit every emotional beat in Hollywood’s lexicon before reaching it. To be honest, it felt like a good 1950s melodrama badly welded to an inferior non-musical remake of An American In Paris.

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