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Your epic fantasy list smells of elderberries

I like lists of books, even if it’s a list of books I’m not much interested in. And while I’ve read a number of epic fantasies – at one point I probably read them nearly as much as I read science fiction – I no longer have much time for the subgenre. A few years ago for one of my annual reading challenges, I tried to read a dozen I’d not tried before. I gave up six months in.

So when Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Justin Landon all posted “50 essential epic fantasies” earlier this week, much as Jared, James Smythe and I did for science fiction a few months ago… I thought: ooh, book list. And then I read the lists and thought, oh…

I’ve actually read very little twenty-first century epic fantasy, and I believe I tried a grimdark fantasy novel once and didn’t think it very good. On the other hand, I’ve never been so desperate for reading material that I’ve had to read a Dragonlance book or anything by RA Salvatore. In other words, I don’t know much about epic fantasy; and when you look at the interminable chronicles that have been published in the past decade or so, then I know even less. But I do know a little bit. And I do have a few favourite epic fantasy novels (of varying degrees of epicity), few of which I saw mentioned on any of the lists presented by Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts or Justin Landon. So here’s a small and humble list of my own. Which is in no way presented in opposition to their lists, or as a shot across anyone’s bows or anything. Consider it a small pendant list. Or something.

I couldn’t think of fifty titles, so here are the few titles I could think of. They’re not in the remotest bit essential, they’re merely fantasy novels that I think are really good. Some of them are a bit obscure. They will not give you a good idea of what the epic fantasy field is currently like, nor will they educate in the history of epic fantasy.

I have split the list into sections, depending on the books’ degree of epical fantasyness. This is a cheat, plain and simple, because it allows me to sneak in some books that are fantasy but not epic, and even a couple that are not even – kof kof – fantasy. In all other respects, I stuck to the rules – ie, one book or series per author, must have read it, etc.

The most epic
1 Lens of the World, King of the Dead, The Belly of the Wolf, RA MacAvoy (1990 – 1993)
Though only slim, the books of this trilogy probably cover more ground than many fat commercial fantasy series (GRMM and Robert Jordan, I’m looking at you). A dwarf of mysterious parentage is taught by a mysterious mentor, rises to power, loses his position, flees, travels around for a bit, and ends up ushering in a new age of science.
2 Isles of the Forsaken, Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2011 – 2012)
The best fantasy I’ve read in recent years. After a war, the Innings turn their attention to their eponymous colonial possessions and try to take them in hand… leading to a war between reason and old beliefs. Brilliantly done.
3 A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Ursula K LeGuin (1968 – 1990)
I shouldn’t have to say anything about these books. I read the original trilogy as a kid and loved them. I came to Tehanu later, but I think it’s still an important part of the quartet.
4 The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston (2004)
This is a superhero story couched in the language of epic fantasy, with a few nods in the general direction of science fiction. I’ve only read the first book of the trilogy, but The Castle Omnibus is on my wishlist.
5 Tales of Nevèrÿon, Samuel R Delany (1979)
A trilogy/quartet of fantasy novels in which Delany in his inimitable way deconstructs the fantasy template. With much chewing of fingernails. I’ve only read the first but I do have Neveryóna and Flight from Nevèrÿon on the TBR (albeit as three paperbacks).
6 The Eternal Champion, Michael Moorcock (1965 – present)
There’s sure to be something in the many thousands of fantasy novels Moorcock banged out and then stitched together into his multiverse. Myself I’ve only read Corum: The Prince in the Scarlet Robe and a handful of the Elric books, but I have Fantasy Masterwork editions of the others.
7 The Chosen, The Standing Dead, Ricardo Pinto (1999 – 2001)
An astonishingly original fantasy, in which a young man of noble birth who grew up in the provinces becomes an unwitting pawn in power-games in the imperial court. There is a third and final book, The Third God, but I’ve yet to read it (it is rather huge).
8 The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium, Viriconium Nights, M John Harrison (1971 – 1984)
Anti-epic anti-fantasy, so of course it belongs on this list. These four books do for ennui what berserker rage did for the Vikings.

Perhaps not quite so epic
9 A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline, The White Tyger, The Hidden World, Paul Park (2005 – 2008)
A beautifully-written portal fantasy in which our world turns out to be the invention. A teenage girl is the hidden princess, but the fight to regain her family’s throne changes her world and herself in strange ways.
10 The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor, Alan Garner (1961 – 1965)
I read these as a kid, I think every kid should read them.
11 The Grail of Hearts, Susan Shwartz (1991)
An intelligent retelling of the Grail King myth with added Arthuriana. When I started reading it, I expected to find myself well out of my comfort zone, but I ended up loving it.
12 The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule, The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter, The Father of Stones, Liar’s House, Lucius Shepard (1984 – 2010)
The Dragon Griaule is one of western fantasy’s more recent great creations. These four novellas are not the only stories Shepard has told about it, though they are the only ones I’ve read. Last year, Subterranean Press brought out a collection of the above four plus a further two novellas, The Dragon Griaule. It is already sold out. I have a copy.
13 The Warrior Who Carried Life, Geoff Ryman (1985)
A strange and poetic fantasy, which bucks the trend in being slim, beautifully-written and allusive.
14 Kirith Kirin, Jim Grimsley (2000)
An evil queen forces the rightful heir into hiding, where he falls in love with a humble villager. An epic fantasy that crashes together a variety of forms and results in something new and interesting. And in the appendices, a larger and much stranger world is revealed…

Just a little bit of epicness
15 Grendel, John Gardner (1971)
I suspect every epic fantasy writer sooner or later falls in love with their dark lord and is often sorely tempted to let them win anyway (I mean, come on, magical messiahs and grizzled warriors are boring). Grendel was the original dark lord (-ish) and this is his story.
16 Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock (1984)
If you go into the woods today, you’re bound to have a surprise… And it’s true, a bunch of animated teddy bears having a picnic would “surprise” anyone. But what you’ll find in this novel’s titular wood is so much more surprising. A genuine British fantasy classic.

Well, maybe epic’s not the best word
17 The Solitudes, Love & Sleep, Daemonomania, John Crowley (1987 – 2000)
Epic is probably the last word you’d think of to describe the Aegypt tetralogy – I’ve yet to read Endless Things, the fourth book – but there is a certain epic grandeur in the way they rewrite history as a fantastical story, in both the present and Elizabethan Europe.
18 Rats and Gargoyles, The Architecture of Desire, Mary Gentle (1990 – 1991)
I remember the fuss when these books first appeared, and they deserved it. Hermetic science is by no means a D20-style magic system but, you know, that’s a good thing. Valentine White Crow and Balthazar Casaubon are one of fantasy’s great couples.
19 Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972)
Bunnies! Oh, and I hate that stupid song. But I love the book.

It’s sf but it’s written in the language of epic fantasy, so there
20 The Sword of Rhiannon, The Secret Of Sinharat, Leigh Brackett (1942 – 1964)
Strictly speaking, it’s planetary romance, but all that sufficiently advanced tech is indistinguishable from fantasy magic anyway, and there are ancient races and weird stuff that most sf commentators won’t even bother to explain away as sf. And the writing is a great many cuts above what was common for pulpish tales of this ilk. Don’t just read the two named novellas, read them all.
21 The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch, Gene Wolfe (1980 – 1983)
People have been arguing whether this is fantasy or science fiction for decades. Obviously, it’s science fiction and so shouldn’t have been in the Fantasy Masterwork series. But it is certainly presented like a fantasy story. Which is why it’s on this list.
22 The Steerswoman, The Outskirter’s Secret, Rosemary Kirstein (1989 – 1992)
The first book reads like fantasy for much of its length, but then you start to realise it’s actually science fiction. The second continues to use the language of fantasy but is quite plainly sf. Both are excellent. There are another two books in the series on my TBR, and a fifth promised some time soon.

Epic moving pictures
23 Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones (1975)
It’s a quest, it counts. It also probably contains more quotable lines than any other ten cult films.
24 Red Sonja, Richard Fleischer (1985)
It opens with a ghost telling Red Sonja that she has just been raped, her parents murdered, and their house burnt to the ground… as if she didn’t know already. Brigitte Nielsen plays the title character with all the expressiveness of a stick of wood, and the story gleefully plunders and mangles clichés from the entire field.
25 The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Peter Jackson (2001 – 2003)
Pretty much the dictionary definition of epic fantasy on the silver screen.
26 Krull, Peter Yates (1983)
Possibly the weirdest epic fantasy film of them all. It’s like someone watched a swashbuckler and thought that’s what fantasy films should be like – except with flying carthorses, one-eyed giants, a giant spider woman, an out-of-focus evil monster, a flying fortress, and a, er, boomerang. Plus every British actor in Equity at the time.

So that’s over two-dozen entries, encompassing 46+ books (where the “+” refers to the several million in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion multiverse), and half a dozen films (which may or may not actually be actually very good films). No doubt you will all now want to mock me for my choices…

(You should, of course, go and read the lists put together by Jared Shurin, Liz Bourke, Tansy Rayner Roberts and Justin Landon, since they actually know quite a lot about epic fantasy and their lists are both educational and entertaining.)


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Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 1

A couple of weeks ago, abebooks.com published a list of 50 Essential SF Novels, about which, of course, there is much to argue. This prompted a discussion on Twitter between Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch, James Smythe of The Explorer, and myself. We decided to each generate our own list of 50 essential sf novels, which we would post over two days – 25 books per day. Jared’s list is here and James’ list is here. The rules were simple: the definition of science fiction up to the individual, novels only (so no collections or anthologies), novellas allowed, graphic novels (or bandes dessinées) also allowed, only one book per author, and only books that you have yourself read.

It proved a harder exercise than I expected. I could have picked 50 of my favourite sf novels – but what made them “essential”? Instead, I chose novels across a mix of science fiction modes and subgenres. I also wanted a gender-balanced list, but unfortunately couldn’t manage it – only 16 of the 50 writers below are female. That one-book-per-author rule did no help at all. There are many women sf writers who probably belong on this list, but whose books I’ve not actually read – such as Octavia Butler, MJ Engh, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, CL Moore, Judith Merrill, Carol Emshwiller, Marge Piercy, Naomi Mitchison… I could only choose those I’d read.

But, the list. Here it is, the first twenty-five novels of fifty that every self-respecting sf fan should have on their bookshelves, given in order of original publication. The remaining twenty-five will appear tomorrow.

1 Frankenstein†, Mary Shelley (1818)
The original proto-sf novel and a bona fide classic of English literature. Of course it’s essential.

2 The Time Machine†, HG Wells (1895)
Another proto-sf novel. Time travel is a well-established subgenre, but which time travel novel is the most essential in a collection? I submit it is this one. Far too many time travel stories use the trope merely to improve matters for the protagonist. Well’s classic describes, and comments on, the time of its writing through the future history of humanity.

3 A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
Edgar Rice Burroughs has a lot to answer for – this planetary romance arguably fixed science fiction as a pulp genre, and it took a good forty or more years for sf to break free. A Princess of Mars is a silly book, with its Gary Sue hero and naked Martians, its magical science and its simplistic set-up… but it is also an essential stop on the road to modern science fiction.

4 Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1926)
One of the genre’s first novelisations – if not the actual first – as it was based on the 1924 screenplay of Lang’s film. It’s all a bit overwrought and florid, in direct contrast to the movie, but its message remains timeless.

5 Last And First Men†, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
It starts in the twentieth century and finishes two billion years later. It also throws away more idea for novels within its pages than any other book in the entire sf canon. Except perhaps Stapledon’s own Star Maker, which I’ve not read yet…

6 Nineteen Eighty-Four*, George Orwell (1948)
For some reason, totalitarian dystopias haven’t been especially common in genre sf – perhaps because this one did it so well; or perhaps because most sf writers and fans aren’t willing to engage with politics that don’t match their own… Where dystopias do appear in sf (they’re more common in literary fiction), they’re generally little more than background, a dim setting against which some noble-browed hero can shine.

7 The House That Stood Still, AE van Vogt (1950)
Like many early sf writers, van Vogt was hugely prolific. Also like them, most of his stories and books were not very good. In this one, van Vogt crashed together noir and pulp sf, and the result is something which stands above everything else he wrote (despite the occasional characteristic silliness). It’s essential because it’s emblematic of genre fiction of the period. If Philip Marlowe and Flash Gordon had a baby, it would look like this book.

8 The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett (1953)
Planetary romance as a subgenre is hard to take seriously. We’ve put robots on the surface of Mars, we know there are no ancient civilisations, no canals, etc. But Brackett was an order of magnitude better than most writers working in this subgenre, and it shows. This is probably her most characteristic planetary romance.

9 The Stars My Destination†, Alfred Bester (1956)
Thinking about it, I don’t know why this book is “essential”, but I do know that any sf book collection without it feels incomplete. It is in many ways the distillation of 1950s sf, a crazy pulp re-imagining of The Count of Monte Cristo, which revels in its pyrotechnic prose.

10 Solaris*, Stanisław Lem (1961)
The Anglophone world is not, of course, the only one with a sf tradition. Many countries have strong sf traditions. Such as Poland – and Solaris is perhaps the best-known Polish sf novel by the Polish sf writer best-known outside Poland. It’s also an excellent film (but that was made by a Russian).

11 Dune*†, Frank Herbert (1965)
On a prose level, Dune is not especially good. It’s also unevenly structured. But its world-building is second to none, and it is the first truly immersive sf novel. All that praise for its ecological theme is just hogwash to disguise the fact that most males when they were teenagers wanted to be Paul Atreides.

12 A Torrent of Faces, James Blish & Norman L Knight (1967)
Overpopulation is a common theme in sf, and the first three-quarters of the twentieth century were awash with Malthusian nightmares. This one shows its age somewhat, but its prose is very nicely detailed and its story is well-balanced.

13 Camp Concentration, Thomas M Disch (1968)
People do things – mostly nasty – to other people, and sometimes sf writes about it. This is not the best-known sf novel about an experiment to increase the intelligence of a human being, but it is the best one.

14 The Fifth Head of Cerberus†, Gene Wolfe (1972)
You’d think that a genre of fiction with the word “science” in its name would be clever. But it isn’t always. Sometimes, however, it can be very clever. Like The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is a sort of cunning puzzle in fictive form.

15 Rendezvous With Rama*†, Arthur C Clarke (1972)
Some people think sf is all about Big Dumb Objects, and Clarke’s Rama is probably the most iconic BDO of them all. A mysterious alien vessel, seemingly dormant, enters the Solar System and then leaves it. This is sf as fiction of the ineffable. Ignore the inferior sequels.

16 Crash, JG Ballard (1973)
Good sf is about the real world, no matter when and where it is set. Or what happens in the story. Crash is avant garde, it is brutal, it can and will offend. But it also says something important about people’s relationship to technology.

17 The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe†, DG Compton (1973)
A quarter of the world’s CCTV cameras can be found in the UK. It is the most-surveillanced nation on the planet. And yet it’s not some horrible Stalinist totalitarian state – as sf insists would be the case. (Our current lords and masters seem to prefer Dickens as a model.) The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe shows the ultimate in paparazzi – a reporter who has had one eye secretly replaced with a television camera. His subject just wants to be allowed to die in peace. But it’s not going to happen. A sf novel that says something important, now more than ever.

18 The Dispossessed†, Ursula K LeGuin (1974)
Too much sf ignores politics, content to describe some simplistic system which meets the needs of either story or writer. Given the breadth of the genre and the size of its toolbox, it’s a shame sf doesn’t try more often for meaningful political commentary in its fictions. Happily, some writers have made a career of doing so, and LeGuin is among the best at this. As this novel demonstrates.

19 Dhalgren†, Samuel R Delany (1974)
There aren’t many sf novels which could legitimately make it onto a list of twentieth-century literary classics, but Dhalgren is one of them.

20 The Female Man*†, Joanna Russ (1975)
This is not just a book about women-only worlds, it is also an excellent explanation of why such worlds need to exist. Sf is far too useful a tool to be merely tales of action/adventure in outer space. This book demonstrates why, and does it in a way that cannot fail to affect readers.

21 Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975)
There are not that many sf novels in which humans never appear – possibly because it’s a difficult trick to pull off well. But Coney manages it in this beautifully-written coming of age story set on an alien world.

22 A Scanner Darkly†, Philip K Dick (1977)
One word: drugs. This is Dick’s best novel – perhaps not his druggiest, or funniest, or most paranoid; but certainly the one where all three elements work together most effectively. Happily, it doesn’t read like he made it up as he went along, even if he did. Which is more than can be said for the bulk of his oeuvre.

23 The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley (1977)
Varley set three novels and a number of novellas and short stories in his Eight Worlds universe. In it, mysterious aliens have destroyed human civilisation on Earth, leaving only those on the other planets and moons of the Solar System to survive – as best they can. Happily, they have access to advanced technology beamed in blueprint form from Ophiuchi. A silly conspiracy plot provides the excuse for a travelogue through the Eight Worlds, before reaching an ending that actually throws away an entire novel’s worth of ideas. But this novel is an excellent example of sf’s penchant for optimism in the face of adversity.

24 Gateway†, Frederik Pohl (1977)
Another one of sf’s better-known Big Dumb Objects. The space station of the title is a mysterious depot for alien FTL starships, which humans use Russian roulette-fashion to fire themselves off into the rest of the galaxy, hoping to return with riches. It’s like the National Lottery, but with aliens off-stage somewhere (instead of hosting the prime-time game shows).

25 The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart (1979)
There has been a strong tradition in sf throughout its history of women-only utopias – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in 1915 through works by Francis Stevens, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sheri S Tepper, Nicola Griffith, and others. Sadly, it’s been marginalised by a readership who would sooner read about derring-do by manly men. The Wanderground is not entirely women-only – the men still live in the cities, and they’ve not changed their ways much – but the women-only settlements in the hills are something very much different. Perhaps there’s a bit too much magical powers about it all, but this novel possesses a great deal of charm.

The remaining twenty-five essential sf novels will be posted here tomorrow.

note: * means the book is also on abebooks.com’s list; † means the book is in the SF Masterworks series.


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30 words on 30 books

I shamelessly stole this idea from Pornokitsch, who did the same yesterday. Since I’m not doing my readings & watching posts this year, I thought thirty words on the last thirty novels I’ve read might be a good way of mentioning my recent reading. But 30 words is actually harder to do than it looks…

Final Days, Gary Gibson (2011)
Discovery on planet orbiting distant star reached by wormhole suggests future is fixed and immutable. World starts to fall apart. Nice Apollo re-enactment but otherwise not that much stands out.

The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers (1946)
Tom Sawyer-ish Frankie daydreams of brother’s wedding. A GI mistakes her age, wants to get frisky. Lovely writing, though it’s hard not to suspect Frankie is wrong in the head.

Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot, Jacques Tardi (2010)
Graphic novel adaption of French thriller set in the UK. Assassin like father like son. With guns. And gore. Not much more to be said. Tardi is definitely worth reading.

Bodies, Jed Mercurio (2002)
Incompetent doctors get away with murder on the NHS. New houseman is horrified. He learns to work with the system. A favourite writer but it will scare you off hospitals.

City of Pearl, Karen Traviss (2004)
First human colony disappears, rescue mission discovers aliens protecting them. Mix of hard sf and space opera. Nice heroine, not so interesting aliens. Oozes competence without suggesting more. Review here.

The Bender, Paul Scott (1963)
Should have been a film with Dirk Bogarde. 1960s wastrel goes begging for cash and sparks family crisis. Great wit, great writing, and an astonishing postmodern interlude. Recommended. Review here.

Leviathan’s Deep, Jayge Carr (1979)
Freak alien resembles humans. They want to conquer her planet and fall in love with her. She scuppers their plans. Somewhat old-fashioned sf, though protagonist well-drawn. Review on SF Mistressworks.

The Bookman, Lavie Tidhar (2010)
Literary and pulp potage which stripmines steampunk tropes. Orphan adventures, starts cleverly in Victorian Lizard London but loses steam about halfway through before Bond-esque Vernian finish. The first of three.

Omega, Christopher Evans (2008)
Man recovering from terrorist bomb explosion dreams himself into alternate self in a world where WWII never ended. Very cleverly done, alternate world very real, great writing. Recommended. Review here.

Angel At Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987)
Princess pilot, a hot-shot of course, proves to be catalyst which rejoins three sundered races on three separate planets. Interesting debut, though perhaps a little over-egged. Review on SF Mistressworks.

The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung (2009)
China prospers while rest of world in financial crisis. Interesting window on Chinese society, though unsatisfactory as a novel – the plot is explained in a final chapter info-dump. Review here.

The Fall, Albert Camus (1957)
Pompous ex-lawyer monologues at stranger in Amsterdam bar and over several days tells him of his somewhat boring fall from grace. Mercifully short, though there’s some insightful writing in it.

Selected Poems, Lawrence Durrell (1956)
It’s a book of poems. And they were selected. By Lawrence Durrell. He did this several times. Except when he wasn’t collecting his poems for his Collected Poems. More here.

Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994)
A story told through several stories – including a superb pisstake of Taggart, and a righteous skewering of Jeffrey Archer. Superbly done, though perhaps needed the stories tying together more. Recommended.

Leviathan Wakes, James SA Corey (2011)
Solar system shenanigans as alien virus wreaks havoc for corporate profit. Who needs New Space Opera? Regressive: no diversity, old school sexism, implausible villainy. Mostly right physics. Avoid. Review here.

Native Tongue, Suzette Haden Elgin (1984)
Men repeal rights of women, so they secretly develop women’s language. Interesting linguistics, good female characters, though characterisation of men not so convincing and world-building weak. Review on SF Mistressworks.

This Island Earth, Raymond F Jones (1952)
Manly engineer saves the galaxy by demonstrating good old US engineering know-how. Womanly PhD does his ironing and cooking. Happily they don’t write them like this any more. More here.

The Lady in the Lake, Raymond Chandler (1944)
Mixed-up femme fatales don’t fool Marlowe in hunt for rich man’s missing wife. Not the cunningest murder-mystery plot and Marlowe often gets away with murder. Strong on place and time.

The Door, Magda Szabó (1987)
In Hungary, writer hires housekeeper, who proves to be old school peasant and a right character. Fascinating portrait of housekeeper, thoroughly enjoyed it. Soon to be major film. Review here.

The Unorthodox Engineers, Colin Kapp (1979)
Collection of sf shorts in which lateral thinking engineers solve seemingly intractable problems. Dated, problems not especially unsolvable, nor especially original. Entirely forgettable, in fact. Hard book to find, though.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Jules Verne (1864)
Story not as good as Nemo’s though text is more pleasingly detailed. Science horribly dated, of course, and often wrong. Characters bizarrely emphatic – except for phlegmatic Icelandic guide. Historical document.

Arkfall, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2008)
Novella set on human-colonised Europa-like planet with interesting socialist society. Woman and male tourist find themselves on unintended journey after seaquake. Promises more than it delivers but still worth reading.

Kamikaze l’Amour, Richard Kadrey (1995)
Kadrey channels Ballard and Shepard in rock star epiphany in California overrun by Amazonian jungle. Not sure how original was 17 years ago but is not now. After Metrophage, disappointing.

Smart-Aleck Kill, Raymond Chandler (1958)
Collection of four shorts. Simple direct prose, strong on place and time, though plotting something of a direct line and characterisation sketchy. More for noir fans than normal readers, possibly.

Embassytown, China Miéville (2011)
Truthful aliens get hooked on impossible Ambassador’s speech. World falls apart. Narrator teaches aliens to lie and saves planet. Interesting ideas but old-fashioned science fiction. Likely award-winner. Sigh. Review here.

Dr No, Ian Fleming (1958)
Bond in Jamica. Again. Racial stereotype has evil plan to do evil. Bond foils, with help of trusty local. He nearly dies in the process, but he gets girl. Again.

The Incal, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Moebius (1981)
Seminal bande dessinée allegedly cobbled together from failed Dune film project. Light and dark Incal combine to save galaxy from evil Darkness. Completely bonkers. Lovely art. Everyone should own copy.

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood (1997)
Character study of true life murderess from 1840s. Clevery done – never quite determines innocence or guilt, though very detailed on life and crime. Lovely writing. Possibly Atwood’s best novel. Recommended.

The Planet Dweller, Jane Palmer (1985)
Hot flushes and giant aliens that live inside planets. Cartoon aliens that want to conquer galaxy. Hit and miss comedy, but too fantastical for sf. Review soon on SF Mistressworks.

The Ginger Star, Leigh Brackett (1974)
By-the-numbers swords and planets. Manly hero brought up by animals battles way across barbarian planet to save mentor. Been there, done that. Yawn. Review soon on SF Mistressworks.


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Readings & watchings #10, 2011

This is the final post detailing the books I read and the films I watched during 2011. I don’t think I’ll bother doing these in 2012 as I suspect I’m stretching myself a bit thin with them. They’re also a bit long, which probably puts some people off reading them. Perhaps I’ll just blog about individual books or films I consider worthy of recommendation on an ad hoc basis. What do people think?

For the time-being anyway, here it is, the culture (and I use the term loosely) I consumed right up until the 31 December 2011…

Books
Time to Live, John Rackham (1966) / The Man Without a Planet, Lin Carter (1966), was an Ace double I picked up at a convention chiefly, I seem to recall, because Rackham was a British sf writer of the 1960s and 1970s I’d not read. (Though he also wrote as John T Phillifent, his real name, and I think I’ve read one of his books published under that name.) And so… Well, it’s hackwork right from the first page. Time to Live opens with an amnesiac protagonist, and the entire story feels like it was made up as Rackham wrote it. The amnesiac is wanted for murder, but he didn’t commit it, of course. And the native race on the planet on which this takes place are all preternaturally good-looking, have psychic powers, are near-immortal, and have willingly turned their backs on high technology. The native woman who rescues the amnesiac when his car crashes quickly realises he is innocent and later falls in love with him. Of course. This is not a book that will ever make the British SF Masterworks list. Lin Carter, on the other hand, was not a Brit, and he also seems to have made a career from writing pastiches of sf and fantasy from an earlier age. His Callisto books, for example, take off Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom stories, and his Thongor is Conan in all but name. The Man Without a Planet belongs to Carter’s History of the Great Imperium trilogy, and it’s real swords & spaceships stuff. The protagonist is a naval hero who returns to his home world but doesn’t like what he finds there. He is reluctantly pushed into the arms of a displaced empress who wants her planet back. It’s all stupid cod mediaeval dialogue and most of the cast wearing next to nothing as manly men battle to protect feisty females and ensure that what is right prevails. I have to wonder how many readers lapped it up and didn’t realise Carter was taking the piss.

The Silent Land, Graham Joyce (2010), is likely to end up on a few short-lists this year was on several short-lists last year, though I ultimately found it an unsatisfactory read. A young couple are on a skiing holiday and get caught in an avalanche. They manage to rescue themselves, but when they return to the village where they’re staying, they find it deserted. Certain things don’t seem quite as they should, or as they remember them – candles don’t burn down, meat doesn’t go off, things don’t taste as they ought… and whenever they try to leave the village they find themselves circling back to it. The couple and their relationship are drawn exceedingly well, but most readers will probably figure out what’s going about halfway through, and it’s the lack of a final unexpected twist that left me slightly disappointed. Otherwise, a book definitely worth reading.

The Nemesis from Terra, Leigh Brackett (1951), was originally published in Startling Stories in 1944 as Shadow Over Mars, and that earlier title strikes me as the better of the two. Much as I like Brackett’s Mars stories, I don’t think this is one of her better ones. It’s pretty much a Western set on the Red Planet. Take away the mention of Mars’ ancient civilisations – and the trip to the Thinker’s dome at the pole, which adds little – and it’s not even science fiction. Most of the dialogue reads like Brackett was trying it out for her movie scripts, and the story is predictable from start to finish. Disappointing.

The Last Battle, CS Lewis (1956), is the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia. I can now cross them off the list. The battle of the title is the great battle for Narnia… Er, well, no: it’s not actually a “great” battle at all. There are less than a hundred on each side. A Talking Ape finds a dead lion and persuades his somewhat dim Donkey companion to dress up in its skin and pretend to be Aslan. Of course, everyone is taken in by the disguise – so much so that the King of Narnia is very surprised when he learns someone is chopping down the dyads’ trees. That someone proves to be Talking Animals in thrall to a group of Calormene. Who are, of course, smelly and evil and foreign. But then Eustace and Jill appear and help the king discover what’s really going on. Then a few more Pevensies turn up and there’s a small battle and Aslan turns up and Narnia gets rolled up and everyone ends up in a walled garden which has the whole world inside it including friends and loved ones who have died even those back in the real world because it’s really Heaven and if everyone is jolly nice then that’s where they’ll end up when they die. So there.

Solaris Rising, Ian Whates (2011), I reviewed for SFF Chronicles here. It’s a good showcase of contemporary science fiction, and Whates lets the stories speak for themselves.

The Witches Of Karres, James H Schmitz (1966), was short-listed for the Hugo Award in 1967, and appeared in three Locus All Time Best (SF) Novel polls. It was originally published in 1949 as a novelette, but expanded to novel-length in 1966. It is also shit. In fact, looking at that 1967 short-list, there’s perfect reason to be embarrassed at the poor taste frequently shown by the Hugo voters. That short-list included Babel-17 and Flowers For Algernon, both very good sf novels, but instead they gave it to… The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But The Witches Of Karres… Captain Pausert is a humorously incompetent space captain, trying to make a living and prove a point by operating a merchant starship. He inadvertently finds himself buying three slaves, all young girls whose owners are more than glad to get rid of them. That’s because the girls are witches from Karres. Which means they have mental powers. Sort of. Among which is the “Sheewash Drive”, a super-fast star drive powered by the three of them. Everyone else wants this magical drive, but Pausert – with much help from the witches – manages to prevent them from getting it. And, as a result, he becomes embroiled in a plot to save the galaxy from some worm-like aliens from an alternate dimension. The writing is bad, the world-building is bad, and the science fiction is bad. At one point, Pausert’s ship detects another “just ahead, some nine light years away”. That’s 85 trillion kilometres. People writing this sort of crap sf seem to think space is no bigger than the Atlantic ocean. The Witches Of Karres is a definite contender for Shittest Book To Be Short-Listed For A Hugo Award, a list which, it must be said, is far far longer than it should be.

Blood Count, Robert Goddard (2011), is the latest of Goddard’s potboilers, which, for some reason, I continue to read. His books are the sort which win the WH Smith “Thumping Good Read” Award, and I generally prefer fiction with somewhat higher aspirations. But never mind. There’s no point looking in Goddard’s novels for deep meaning, wonderful prose or profound insight. Instead, you get an everyman made victim to a conspiracy and which he must puzzle out to save himself. In Blood Count, the protagonist is a surgeon who performed a liver transplant on a Serbian warlord. Years later, the warlord is under trial at the International Court of Justice. The warlord’s daughter blackmails the surgeon into approaching the warlord’s ex-accountant who has control of the family’s ill-gotten gains. But it’s all a plot within a plot within a plot, and people get murdered and the warlord escapes and… Goddard’s books are fast mostly entertaining reads, and this one, I have to admit, was one of his better ones.

Engleby, Sebastian Faulks (2007), I wrote about here. It’s an improvement over On Green Dolphin Street, but not as good as Charlotte Gray or Birdsong.

The Manual of Detection, Jedediah Berry (2009), I wrote about here. An odd book that to my mind didn’t entirely work.

Black Swan Green, David Mitchell (2006), I wrote about here. Good, but nowhere near as good as Cloud Atlas.

Of Men and Monsters, William Tenn (1968). The Earth has been conquered and the remains of humanity now live like rats in the walls of the giant aliens’ dwellings. Eric the Only is a hunter in the forward-burrow tribe that calls itself Humanity. It’s his job to leave the tunnels and fetch alien food or artefacts – or, at least, small enough such things that he can carry them. It’s a conceit that doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny – aliens so large aren’t that plausible, nor is a human civilisation surviving as household pests. Still, Of Men and Monsters is a neat little fable and an easy read. I’m not entirely sure whether it’s a bona fide SF Masterwork, though there are certainly worse books already in the series.

Shadows Of The Pomegranate Tree, Tariq Ali (1992), is the first book of the Islam Quintet, and opens in 1500 CE in Moorish Spain. The Catholic Spaniards reconquered Granada eight years previously but now a new archbishop has arrived and is determined to stamp out Islam. This is in direct contravention of the treaty signed between the Moors and the Castilian king and queen. But never mind. I mean, he’s doing it for God, so that’s all right isn’t it? That makes it okay to kill women and children, to burn books, to forbid the Moors from speaking Arabic or wearing their customary dress, to steal their lands from them, to torture them into confessing crimes/sins they have not committed… The story is told from the viewpoint of a single Muslim family, and it’s strong stuff. Ali’s frequently inelegant prose often works against the story, but never mind. I shall probably read the rest of the quintet, though I won’t be dashing out immediately to buy them.

The Recollection, Gareth L Powell (2011), was my final book of 2011. There’s a lot in The Recollection that’s typical, if not characteristic, of contemporary British commercial sf. It opens in the near-future, when strange arches appear throughout the world. Ed Rico’s brother, Verne, disappears into one such arch in a London Underground station, and Ed vows to find and rescue him. Meanwhile, four centuries hence, trader starship captain and black sheep Kat Abdulov has been welcomed back into the bosom of her powerful family because only she is in a position to beat a rival trader to the centennial Pep harvest on the world of Djatt. Throw in an enigmatic alien race inhabiting a vast slower-than-light starship, and the Bubble Belt, a mysterious BDO comprising millions of small habitats orbiting the Gnarl, an unknown energy source. And then there’s the eponymous Recollection itself, a “cloud” which devours everything in its path as it travels throughout the galaxy. I’d initially thought Powell was trying for Light territory with his two plot-threads separated by centuries, but the two tied up far too neatly for that. And besides, Kat’s space opera future was a little too generic for my taste, and the introduction of the Recollection then saw the book drift into Peter F Hamilton-esque sf. If The Recollection is a mélange of contemporary UK sf tropes and concerns, it’s a well put-together one. It did promise more in its early pages than it managed to deliver, but nonetheless a lot of people will find much to like in it.

Films
Star Trek: The Next Generation season five (1991) sees the USS Blanderprise continue in its ongoing mission to bring insipid sf to the masses – or to its fanbase, at least. As in previous seasons, the episodes all blur into the televisual equivalent of beige, with no real episodes standing out – not even the double-parter in which Spock contacts the Romulan underground because they want to reunite with the Vulcans. On the other hand, there are a number of embarrassingly bad ones. ‘The Outcast’, in which Riker falls in love with a member of a single-sexed race… though the story still manages to impose binary gender sensibilities on the neuter aliens. Or ‘I, Borg’, in which emotional attachment is seen as a perfectly valid reason not to commit genocide. Much of the writing in the series remains poor and ill thought-out. Ethics and morality take a back seat to story needs, and there’s often little consistency between the various ethical and/or political stances taken by the characters or various institutions from episode to episode. But that, I think, is a failing of all the Trek franchises, and may well be a result of US television’s habit of writing by committee.

Rosebud, Otto Preminger (1975), is a strange film. It’s a mostly forgettable euro-thriller, despite its director, albeit with a star-studded cast. Peter O’Toole plays a Brit ex-CIA agent currently working as a stringer in Rome. When the daughters of three European plutocrats are kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists, he is employed to get them back in one piece. The girls are played by Lalla Ward, Isabelle Huppert and Kim Cattrall. The villain of the piece is Richard Attenborough, as an ex-SAS man convert to Islam. It’s all played very flat and affectless, and so despite its cosmopolitanism it seems bizarrely charmless.

Red Sonja, Richard Fleischer (1985), may well be the best high fantasy film ever made. When Sonja – who doesn’t actually do anything during the film to earn the sobriquet “red”, though she does have improbably red hair – comes to beside the smoking ruins of her parents’ house, a ghostly creature helpfully explains to her in voice-over exactly what she has just experienced. Which Red Sonja already knows, of course, but the film has to get the story across to the viewer. It makes “As you know, Bob” dialogue look positively sophisticated. Then there’s Red Sonja herself, played by Brigitte Nielsen, who actually resembles a skinny boy with a bad mullet for much of the film. And the villainess lives in the Land of Perpetual Night, though it’s often daytime there. Not to mention that Red Sonja is allegedly a superlative sword-fighter – and is shown as such early in the film – but seems incapable of winning a duel against a man and must always be helped out by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character. Though Red Sonja does insist no man “can have her” unless he defeats her in a sword-fight – so the only man she manages to hold off with a sword is Schwarzenegger, as he wants to get into her chainmail pants. The climax of the film sees the world falling to pieces but the villainess of course insists on hanging onto the magical device causing the destruction because, well, because with it she can rule the world. Even, er, if there isn’t one left. Red Sonja is a gloriously inept sword & sorcery movie, which appears to have been written by a pair of drunks. Admittedly, the production design leaves a bit to be desired – the makers could have had so much more fun, but perhaps they reined it in for a PG certificate…

The Valley of the Bees, František Vláčil (1968), is a Czech film about the Teutonic knights, and for much of its length I thought it a little dull. Having said that, it presents a complex moral landscape, and so proved itself so much more satisfying than the likes of Star Trek: The Next Generation season five. The film is black and white throughout and evokes its period well, but it’s also very slow. It’s been a few weeks since I watched it, and I can remember little about it. Having said that, I’d rather be bored by a film like The Valley of the Bees than have my intelligence beaten into submission by your typical Hollywood blockbuster…

The Man with the Golden Arm, Otto Preminger (1955), scored Frank Sinatra an Oscar nomination for the title role, though he lost out to Ernest Borgnine in Marty. That may well be because The Man with the Golden Arm deals with heroine addiction. Sinatra plays a small time crook who has just come out of rehab and dreams of being a drummer with a big band. But he soon picks up his drug habit again and his life duly falls to pieces. For all its plaudits, I found the film slow and not especially involving. Sinatra’s character is too self-centred to sympathise with, and the general dour tone of the story could only really appeal to masochists. Given that I disliked Kerouac’s On the Road when I read it, then it’s no real surprise that I didn’t enjoy The Man with the Golden Arm.

The Time that Remains, Elia Suleiman (2009), I picked as one of the best films I watched in 2011, which is no real surprise as I count Suleiman as one of my favourite directors. He’s only made three feature-length films, and all three deal with Palestine / Israel in more or less the same fashion. They’re a commentary on the Occupation, built up from vignettes, some of which are taken from Suleiman’s own life. The Time that Remains is mostly the story of Suleiman’s father, and opens in 1948 with the Israeli invasion of territory mandated to the Palestinians. It continues through the decades to the present day, where Suleiman appears as himself. There are some excellent scenes, displaying some very funny black humour and an overall sense of very Arabic fatalism that only makes the story even more poignant. Highly recommended.

Sanctum, Alister Grierson (2011), I bought because it’s about an expedition to explore some underwater caves and I thought it might appeal. And it did. A little. Unfortunately, in amongst all the excellent photography of the underwater caves was a dumb father-son story filled with macho bullshit from start to finish. Manly explorer has neglected his son and thinks little of him. But they all get trapped deep underground when a monsoon hits, and must escape by following an underground river through a (astonishingly-filmed) flooded cave system. Son duly proves his manliness to father, who dies a happy man as his thrusting virility will now continue for another generation. This is probably a film best watched with the volume turned off.

Inception, Christopher Nolan (2010), I finally got around to watching a year after everyone else and… Well, there are some astonishing visuals, but the logic of the story doesn’t parse. There’s this Mission: Impossible-type team, led by Leonardo di Caprio, and what they do is invade people’s dreams to try and ferret out their secrets. But they can also do the opposite, though it is considered near-impossible: they can plant ideas in people’s heads in their dreams. This is known as an “inception”. To ensure the implanted idea takes in the head of their victim, the team play a shell-game, using dreams within dreams within dreams. But it all goes a bit wrong and di Caprio and victim end up in “limbo”, a dreamworld from which people rarely return (and in which years might pass in a matter of minutes). Given that di Caprio has only agreed to such a risky venture in order to be able to return to his family in the US, naturally everything in the film in some way links back to said family. And it’s implied at the end of Inception that what the viewer has been led to believe is actually just another layer of dream – and this is suggested by a token di Caprio uses to remind himself he’s dreaming. Except, of course, when he used it before it worked fine and did exactly that. There’s a sense throughout Inception that the film wants to have its cake and eat it. It pushes so hard to confuse reality and dream that it only ends up confusing itself.

The Colour of Pomegranates, Sergei Parajanov (1968), is on the BFI’s Top 100 films list, which is why I rented it. And… I like the idea of “poetic cinema”, and I’m a big fan of Andrei Tarkovsky… but The Colour of Pomegranates really is a very odd and slow and chiefly plot-less movie. You can’t watch it as you would other films, much as it’s impossible to watch and enjoy a film by Alejandro Jodorowsky while sober. The Colour of Pomegranates sort of tells the story of the life of Sayat Nova, a famous mediaeval Armenian poet. It does this not by dramatising scenes from his life, but by representing them through moving tableaux. They are beautifully staged and shot, but it’s difficult to decide what they’re actually telling you unless you’re familiar with Sayat Nova’s life. Which I’m not. I’m almost certain The Colour of Pomegranates is a film which needs to be watched a number of times. So I suppose I’ll have to go and buy a copy for myself…

Never Let Me Go, Mark Romanek (2010), is an adaptation of the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I read back in 2009. The problem with the book, which you manage to avoid thinking about for much of its length because of Ishiguro’s exploration of his characters, is that the story is predicated on a monstrous practice: human beings are grown specifically to be organ donors to “real” people. The moral implications of this, the fact such a practice would seem to be accepted by the population at large, is largely ignored by the novel, though by showing that the donors are entirely human Ishiguro is making oblique commentary. The film, unfortunately, can’t ignore its world’s central conceit though it tries to do so. The final confrontation between Kathy, Tommy, Ruth and Miss Emily fails to show how evil the world of the story is. There’s some wishy-washy mention of souls, but it’s not even a serious attempt at justification. Nor is “it was worse before and we can’t go back to that” any kind of rationale. The problem with the film – which, it must be said, is pretty faithful to the book – is that it not only fails to comment on the practice of raising humans to act merely as donors, presenting the practice as normal and acceptable, but it also fails to present enough to hooks to trigger outrage. This is not helped by the use of flat washed-out colours or low-key performances by the cast – if anything, these make the film appear more like a comment on the grimness of earlier decades than on the actual world of the story. It’s a bit like the way thrillers and detective television shows have desensitised us to the reality of gruesomely murdered victims to the extent that the outrage the crime itself should engender becomes lost in intellectual satisfaction in the exploration of the murder’s techniques, the investigation, or the world of the story. Sometimes, the bad stuff needs to be put front and centre, if only to stress to people that it is indeed bad.

Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes (2002), is an attempt to “re-imagine” one of my favourite films, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. In Sirk’s masterpiece, a middle-class widow (Jane Wyman) enters into a relationship with her bohemian gardener (Rock Hudson) and is condemned by her friends and grown-up children for doing so. The film is beautifully played and shot, and makes a particular feature of its autumnal palette. In Far from Heaven, Haynes has taken that story and slapped on more, well, more stuff. The gardener is now black, which makes the relationship even more transgressive – except it’s not a relationship in Far from Heaven, the woman (Julianne Moore) is merely being friendly and polite with him. She’s not a widow either. And her husband (Dennis Quaid) has discovered that he is gay and is now having sex with other men. It’s all too much. The black gardener alone would have provided an interesting perspective on Sirk’s original, but to throw in a homosexual husband is over-egging the cake enormously. It dilutes the story’s focus. Haynes manages to recreate Sirk’s palette, and the production design throughout is evocative of the period. And yet… there seems to be something in Far from Heaven which reveals it is as a film set in the 1950s rather than a film shot in the 1950s. A valorous attempt, but it doesn’t quite win the cigar.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher (2011), I saw at the Kino Palæet in Lyngby, Denmark, over Christmas. Cinemas there are much more expensive than in the UK – a ticket cost Kr 100.00, which is just over £11. But then pretty much everything is more expensive in Denmark. But The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo… I’ve not read the book, but I have seen the original Swedish film adaptation starring Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace, and directed by Niels Arden Oplev. The US remake, of course, stars Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, and is directed by David Fincher. There’s little need to rehash the plot as I suspect everyone knows it. From what I remember of the Swedish film, Fincher’s version is broadly similar though better-paced, though I’ve no idea how faithful either were to the book. I don’t recall Salander going abroad and emptying Wennerström’s offshore bank accounts from Oplev’s version but that may just be faulty memory on my part. I do recall the rape scene being more brutal than it is in Fincher’s, however. And I seem to remember Rapace was presented as a more convincing hacker than Mara, though the latter is good in the role. Otherwise, Fincher plays the story straight, with little in the way of frills, though the climax turns brutal in a way that hints at Se7en. Craig is more of an action-man type than Nyqvist but still manages to convince as a journalist, though the relationship between Nyqvist and Salander never seems entirely plausible. After watching both films, I suspect I shall have to finally succumb and read the damn book. Happily, copies are readily available for much cheapness in charity shops throughout the UK…

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season seven (1998), is the end of the franchise, and the first Trek franchise I have watched all the way to the final episode. Though Deep Space Nine had its cringe-worthy episodes – and the Ferengi should have been quietly forgotten after being introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation – I still think it had a more interesting cast and a more gripping story-arc than the rest of the stable. Having said that, I never understood the appeal of the holodeck episodes, and it’s toss-up as to which is less embarrassing: Next Gen’s Dixon Hill or DS9’s Vic Fontaine. Perhaps using Fontaine’s 1960s Las Vegas world as a way of allowing Nog to recover from the trauma of losing a leg showed a different approach to the usual Trek psychobabble, but it made the episodes feel like they were from a bad 1970s detective show. Likewise, the desperate desire to shoe-horn star villain Gul Dukat back into the story by making him some sort of dark messiah just felt like a narrative thread from an entirely different story. And then there were the Breen… In the final season, DS9 introduces a new super-technological race on the baddies’ side, but then decides it best to leave them mysterious. There are so many stories hiding in there, yet the writers blithely ignored them all. In fact, on reflection, the Breen added nothing to series’ story-arc. The season is not all bad, however. The wheels-within-wheels-within-wheels episode set on Romulus in which Bashir becomes an unwilling pawn of Section 31 was quite good. Damar’s gradual transformation from drunken lackey to rebel leader was played well, and even the Klingon political shenanigans managed to maintain my interest. Oh, and the replacement for Jadzia Dax, Ezri Dax was actually quite watchable initially. But then they blanded her out, and not even hot sex with Worf, or the bumbling screwball romance with Bashir, could make her interesting. But, as they say, all (good) things must come to an end, and Deep Space Nine sort of faded away rather than ending on anything that felt like closure. Yes, the various plot-threads were resolved, and everyone did their little speeches on what they were up to next, but it still felt like there should have been more episodes following. I’m also working my way through the Next Generation seasons (see above), but have yet to see anything that challenges the opinion that Deep Space Nine remains the best of the Trek franchises.

Source Code, Duncan Jones (2011), has at its core an intriguing premise, and manages to pull an action-packed 93 minutes from it. Jake Gyllenhaal is sent back in time to earlier that day into the body of a passenger on a train heading into Chicago. A bomb exploded on the train, and the bomber has a second bomb poised to inflict much greater damage within the city. Gyllenhaal has eight minutes to identify the bomber so that the authorities can prevent him setting off that second bomb. Each time Gyllenhaal fails, he is sent back to eight minutes prior to the train explosion. In between time-trips, it’s revealed he’s an Army helicopter pilot sent home injured from Afghanistan. Gyllenhaal’s visits are actually to an alternate timeline since he can’t prevent the train from blowing up in his timeline as it has already happened. Jones manages to get across a simplified version of the Many Worlds Hypothesis without confusing, or insulting the intelligence of, viewers. Personally, I was annoyed by the use of the term “source code” as the explanation for the name doesn’t fit the actual meaning of the term. All things considered, however, that’s a minor quibble. The fact that a helicopter pilot could disarm a bomb so quickly and easily is, however, more problematical. Unless, that is, you consider it a Hollywood convention. I could, of course, complain about the default Hollywood assumption that a time-travel project would be militarised, and that any benefits it might incur would be military. Not to mention the glorification of the military and its exploits. But why bother? Soldiers make for better heroes than scientists, and we know this because Hollywood has spent the last 100 years persuading us this is the case. If not all of us believe that, it must be because we’ve not been watching the right films…

Faces in the Crowd, Julien Magnat (2011), I watched for The Zone, and a review will appear there shortly.

The Ward, John Carpenter (2010), was another review copy for The Zone.


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Readings & watchings 2011 #8

It’s been just under a month since the last one of these, and that one proved to be a somewhat humungous post. So I thought I’d try for a more bite-sized installment this month. Sort of. Anyway, you know the drill: the books wot I have read, the films wot I have watched. Comments thereon.

Books
SS-GB, Len Deighton (1978), is perhaps the classic “Hitler won” alternate history, although it’s by no means the first. A Scotland Yard detective, now working under the aegis of the SS in an occupied Britain, is dragged into several intersecting plots when he investigates the murder of an unknown man in a small flat in London. It’s all tied in with the British resistance’s plan to smuggle the imprisoned King George VI out of the country, the fierce – and often violent – rivalry between the SS and the Wehrmacht, and the Wehrmacht’s secret atom bomb being built by British scientists. Archer, the detective, is a bit of a cipher, and, in fact, much of the cast are blanks. That Deighton has done his research is obvious from the first page, and he paints a convincing portrait of a UK under the Nazis. The writing, sadly, is pretty poor. I’ve read Deighton’s Harry Palmer novels, and his Game, Set and Match and Faith, Hope and Charity trilogies, and I don’t remember his writing being this inept and clumsy. Still, I’m glad I read it, and it can go back to the charity shop now. Incidentally, I wonder if choosing a photo of Hitler in such a camp pose for the cover was a wise decision: his depredations are not something we should make light of, or forget.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2011), is the latest installment in Moore’s slow progress back up his own bumhole. Actually, this one is slightly better than the previous two. The League are now in England Swings territory, and an acolyte of Aleister Crowley, but with very real powers, is trying to bring about the creation of an Antichrist. This will take place during a free concert in Hyde Park. There’s some nice touches, and plenty of in-jokes, but I’m starting to wonder where this series is heading and whether it’s going to be worth it when it gets there.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec 1, Jacques Tardi (2010), I picked up after enjoying Tardi’s The Arctic Marauder. It has apparently been made into a film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, master of Gallic surgary whimsy, and starring Audrey Tatou. And yet there’s little that’s whimsical about the two stories in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec 1. In the first, a pterodactyl is terrorising Paris, and Adèle uses it as cover to help solve an entirely different crime. Which is sort of linked. The final scene, in which a villain turns up and explains the plot, only to be gazumped by another villain who explains another more-encompassing plot, who is then gazumped by another, is completely bonkers. The second story is more traditional: a demon is terrorising Paris, and Adèle tracks it down to a group of cultists associated with a local theatre. If it hadn’t been for that pesky Adele… Fun. And I’ve already ordered another one of Tardi’s graphic novels.

Daily Voices (Author’s Choice Monthly #3), Lisa Goldstein (1989). Back in the late 1980s, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith published twenty-nine collections, each contain no more than half a dozen short stories, by twenty-nine different genre authors. Each book was published in three editions: a trade paperback, a signed and numbered jacketed hardback, and a signed and lettered leather hardback. The stories were mostly reprints. This volume, the third in the series, contains five stories, all originally published in Asimov’s. One, ‘Tourists’, inspired a novel of the same title. These are literary stories, deceptively fantastical, and unsettling. ‘Tourists’ is a case in point: part Hav, part The City & The City (though contemporary with one and predating the other). Nothing especially jumped out at me in this collection, though they are stories it is easy to admire.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang (2010), won this year’s Hugo for Best Novella. Which is hardly a surprise. The only time Chiang doesn’t win is when he withdraws his work. And certainly he’s produced an enviably high-quality body of work over the years. Unfortunately, while The Lifecycle of Software Objects is as well-written as you’d expect from Chiang, it’s also a little dull and doesn’t go anywhere very interesting. A startup produces a new range of heuristic software lifeforms, “digients”, but the amount of work required by customers to parent them proves the company’s undoing. But a handful of people, emotionally attached to their digients as if they were real children, continue to nurture this new form of life. It’s a neat idea, but it does feel in places a little like Chiang wasn’t entirely sure where to take his idea. It’s like someone had invented the cat and had no idea what it was good for. Except the concept of a “better mousetrap” doesn’t appear to have occurred to Chiang. Disappointing, though only because Chiang sets his own bar so high.

Gravity Dreams, Stephen Baxter (2011), is another brick in the great wall that is Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence. In fact, Gravity Dreams brings the sequence full circle as it’s tied into Baxter’s first novel Raft (and the PS novella includes the short story on which Raft was based). Gravity Dreams is a very… expositionary type of story. A man in the unimaginably distant future experiences strange lucid dreams, which prove to be contact with a device in the universe of Raft (where the universal gravitic constant is considerably higher). The people of that universe, and the tech which the dreamer embodies, could prove of use in the ongoing war against the Xeelee. As a whole, the Xeelee Sequence is quite an achievement, certainly greater than the sum of its parts. Which, unfortunately, has the logical consequence that individual parts may not be as exciting, or as interesting, as the whole suggests. I enjoy reading hand-wavey magical cosmological-type hard sf, but not as much as I like reading nuts & bolts engineering-type hard sf.

Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010), appeared on the non-fiction short list for the BSFA Award this year, though it lost out to a series of blog posts on the Hugo novel shortlist by Paul Kincaid. I’ll admit I had somewhere picked up an entirely erroneous impression of Red Plenty. I knew that it was non-fiction told as if it were fiction – dramatisations, if you will, of the life of ordinary Russians during the years of the USSR. But I’d also got the impression from somewhere – perhaps by the use of the word “science fiction” to describe it some place – that it also extrapolated the great Soviet experiment into later decades, as if perestroika and glasnost had never happened. That isn’t the case. Red Plenty ends in 1968. Nor did it affect my enjoyment: I thought the book excellent. Red Plenty follows the lives of a handful of peoples – some real, some invented – through the first half-century of the USSR. There’s a very real sense of utopia in the book, and it is sad to see how it is slowly corrupted. The USSR was one of history’s two great attempts to create a utopian society and, like the other one, Islam, its ideals didn’t last much beyond the first generation. All too often people forget what the USSR was trying to achieve. That it failed doesn’t invalidate the experiment, or its objectives.

Debris, Jo Anderton (2011), I read for review for Interzone. “File under science fiction” it says on the back cover, but I’m not convinced…

Leap of Faith, Gordon Cooper (2000), I reviewed on my Space Books blog here.

Snakehead, Ann Halam (2007), is Gwyneth Jones’ last novel as Halam, although apparently a new one – a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island – will be published next year in the US. Snakehead is a retelling of the Perseus and Andromeda story from Ancient Greece. But slightly different. In the myth, Perseus first meets Andromeda when he returns from slaying Medusa, but in Snakehead Andromeda has run away from home and is taken in by Perseus and his mother Danaë. Much of the novel concerns Perseus’ life, and Andromeda’s introduction to it, on the island of Seriphos. The killing of the Gorgon occupies only a chapter or two towards the end of the book. There is a lovely matter-of-factness about the way the story is presented, the way its strangenesses are streamlined into the narrative. Also good is Perseus’ meeting with his father, Zeus, which reads like pure science fiction. Halam’s novels have always been extremely strong – I’d argue her Inland trilogy is better than Le Guin’s Earthsea books – but may have suffered from their variety. YA book series sell by the boatload, but Halam’s novels have been (mostly) singletons. As an adult reader, that variety is part of their appeal – when else am I going to read a novel treatment of the Perseus myth, for example? – but it may have hampered their success.

The Old Funny Stuff (Author’s Choice Monthly 1), George Alec Effinger (1989), is a collection of short stories from the early 1980s. The collection takes its title from a complaint by a fan of Effinger, who preferred the writer’s comic tales to the ersatz cyberpunk of When Gravity Fails. I vaguely recall enjoying the latter, but I didn’t enjoy any of the stories in The Old Funny Stuff. One story is set in the editorial offices of a genre magazine and reads like it was written in the 1930s. Another story has a mugged couple “assisted” by a variety of fictional detectives and vigilantes… yet all those characters are from the 1940s and earlier, though the story does mention an ATM. ‘Mars Needs Beatniks’ at least successfully pastiches Beat prose, but is unfortunately quite dull. An eminently forgettable collection, but mercifully short.

A Quiet Flame, Philip Kerr (2008), is the fifth Bernie Gunther, featuring the Berlin-based private investigator from Nazi Germany. The One from the Other, the first post-war novel, ended with Gunther on a boat to South America in the company of an ex-Panzer captain and Adolph Eichmann. Though not a Nazi himself, a case of stolen identity had resulted in Europe being a bit too hot for Gunther and so now he’s pretending to be someone else. The trio arrive in Argentina, and Gunther is taken to meet Juan Perón. At which point he confesses his true identity. But that’s fine, because the head of the secret police remembers, and admired, him back when Gunther was a detective for the Berlin police force, and there just happens to have been a recent murder in Buenos Aires which resembles a pair of unsolved murders Gunther had investigated just before Hitler seized power and Gunther left the police. The inference, of course, is that the murderer is a Nazi war criminal who is hiding out in Argentine with all the other Nazis. A Quiet Flame follows Gunther’s investigation into this murder, which soon spirals into an entirely different case, but is eventually resolved, and Gunther’s time in Berlin in the 1930s when the Weimar Republic was booted out of power by the Nazis. An afterword makes it clear that the plot of the novel, while invented, is based on either true events, or plausibly extrapolated ones. It’s one of those books that both makes you angry such things were ever permitted to happen and scared that there are people who would not think twice about doing such things. I thought it so good I moved the next book in the series, If the Dead Rise Not, up the TBR pile.

The Coming of the Terrans, Leigh Brackett (1967), is a pretty clumsy fix-up. Half a dozen of Brackett’s Mars stories have had dates stuck on them, and then placed in order as if they were part of a coherent future history. But ignore all that, because the stories in this collection are excellent stuff. Brackett’s sf doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere – it uses the tropes of early sf but is written with the sophistication of much later genre fiction. So we have Mars, populated with ancient civilisations and dying races, but stories that are considerably more than just swashes being buckled, uppity natives being quelled, or righteous pioneers carving out homesteads. The upstart Earthlings who come to exploit the Martian races rarely end up on top. This is not the gung-ho adventurism of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but its antithesis.

Charlotte Gray, Sebastian Faulks (1998). I’m pretty sure I tried reading this shortly after it was published. I’d have borrowed it from the Daly Community Library in Abu Dhabi. I think I gave up on it because I found the pacing so glacial. Later, I saw the film. Now that I’ve read it I’m sorry I didn’t persevere all those years ago. Yes, it’s a slow book. The title character volunteers for a department of the Special Operations Executive because she speaks French like a native. She is parachuted into Vichy France to courier some radio crystals to a member of a British network, but stays on because her lover, a RAF pilot, is missing in action somewhere in the country. For much of Charlotte Gray, she does little except pine for her lover and help out the local resistance. But the final third of the book more than makes up for that. Before returning to the UK, she tries to track down two Jewish children taken by the Germans, and discovers something of the truth behind their fates.

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood (2003), is not science fiction, of course it’s not. It’s speculative fiction. Yes, well. Atwood’s idiosyncratic categorisations aside, I think most people would classify Oryx and Crake as science fiction. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. There’s some sharp prose in it; there are also some embarrassingly bad neologisms. Some time in the future, rogue genius Crake unleashes a plague on the world, killing off everyone except his friend Jimmy and the Crakers, a handful of genetically-engineered humans he has bred. Now calling himself Snowman, Jimmy acts as a beneficial god/shaman to the Crakers, while trying to survive in a world in which he no longer fits. His life is interspersed with flashbacks detailing his friendship with Crake, how we went to work for him, and how the world became as it is. Most of the satire is so blunt as to be ineffective. And the “trendy” names Atwood uses for all the corporations, like RejoovEsense, annoy mightily. I preferred The Blind Assassin.

Films
51, Jason Connery (2011), I watched for The Zone, but I’ve yet to finish my review.

Time to Leave, François Ozon (2005). I like Ozon’s films, but only when he’s being playful not when he’s being serious. Except, perhaps, for Under The Sand, which I did like. But, Time to Leave (AKA Le temps qui reste): a gay fashion photographer learns he has three months left to live. He keeps this secret, telling only his grandmother (played by French screen legend Jeanne Moreau). The protagonist is, frankly (no pun intended), selfish and unlikeable, and his eventual change of heart feels overly sentimental and clichéd. Not one of Ozon’s best.

Leviathan, George P Cosmatos (1989), is another film set in a mining installation at the bottom of the ocean. This one, however, does not rip off Outland. It rips off Alien, instead. A reasonably good cast for the time – Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, Amanda Pays, Ernie Hudson, Hector Elizondo, Daniel Stern – unwittingly release some old Soviet bio-experiment aboard their habitat, and it tries to turn everyone into some sort of Cronenberg-esque monster. But Weller and Pays manage to escape. Leviathan makes a decent fist of imagining its environment, but the plot is by-the-numbers from start to finish and the characters are not allowed to develop much beyond clichés.

Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper (1985). I remember going to see this at the cinema when it was released. I didn’t take it seriously then, and I couldn’t take it seriously this time. A space mission to Halley’s comet finds a giant spaceship in its coma. Aboard are a pair of naked humans: a beautiful young woman and a handsome young man, both in hibernation. The astronauts take both aboard their Shuttle and head back to Earth. On arrival, mission control can’t reach anyone aboard the spacecraft, so they send up a mission. The crew is dead, and the Shuttle has been gutted by fire. The only survivor is the naked young woman. so they take her back to Earth, to London. But she’s a space vampire – the film is based on Colin Wilson’s novel, The Space Vampires – and she brings about a plague of zombies to the UK. All those people who claimed 28 Days Later such an astonishing film because it showed zombies running rather than shuffling along should watch Lifeforce. Zombies run in it too. It’s about all the film does have in its favour, however.

The Taming of the Shrew, Jonathan Miller (1980). I’ve been enjoying these Shakespeare plays, but every now and again you have to wonder what was going through the Bard’s head when he wrote them. Like this one. Everyone wants to marry Bianca, but her father has decided that she will not entertain suitors until her older sister, Katherina, is wed. But Kate is a “shrew” – i.e., an independent woman, not afraid to voice her own opinion, and far from the demure mistress apparently valued in Padua. Along comes Petruchio (played by John Cleese), who decides to woo Kate, for reasons never satisfactorily explained – the challenge? her fortune? There are several instances of witty banter, though Kate is played disconcertingly as a shrill termagant which often seems at odds with her dialogue. So there I was thinking that the part was just misplayed and The Taming of the Shrew couldn’t be as sexist as it seemed. Only for the final wedding banquet scene to feature speeches by each of the male cast explaining what a good wife should be, and it’s the worst sort of sexist claptrap and I’m surprised Elizabeth I didn’t have their heads off for it. Not one of the Bard’s best.

Predators, Antal Nimród (2010), is yet another sf franchise getting the reboot. Which is a creative process I find hard to understand. The Predator and Alien franchises were munged together into a series of increasingly rubbish films, and that should have killed them stone dead. Instead, we got Predators, and Ridley Scott reported working on a prequel to Alien. To be honest, of the two, I always much preferred the latter, though none of the films were as good as the first. Predator, on the other hand, was just an uglier Rambo. And Predators is just I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here with guns. A group of scumbags are parachuted into a jungle. They’ve no idea where they are, how they got there, or even why they are there. It doesn’t take long before they discover they’re being hunted by aliens, the Predators, for sport. But never mind, they’re Men, the horneriest critters in the universe, and of course they can beat someone who is both phyisically and technologically superior because they’re Men. It’s Neanderthal tosh like this that gives Hollywood a bad name– No, wait, Hollywood already has a bad name. It would be nice to see the occasional sf film of real intelligence from Hollywood, but I’m not holding my breath. It would also be nice to see sf films which didn’t celebrate violence, psychopaths or sociopaths, and which didn’t paint all aliens (that’s everybody outside the US, you understand) as fit targets for invasion, repression, dismemberment, or genocide. Avoid.

The Green Hornet, Michel Gondry (2011), I’d heard mixed reports on, but I rented it anyway. I’m not a big fan of the Seth Rogen / Judd Apatow style of humour, though I do like superhero films. Sadly, the humour outweighed the appeal of the superhero aspect, and I hated this. I hated Rogen’s character, I hated the stupid jokes, and I hated the concept, which was even more implausible than your average superhero movie. Rubbish film. Avoid.

Damnation Alley, Jack Smight (1977), I reviewed for The Zone. See here.

Underground, Emir Kusturica (1995), I wasn’t initially sure what to make if. It opens during World War II, with the Germans bombing, and then invading, Belgrade. A pair of local wideboys become heroes of the resistance, more by accident than by design. They’re out for themselves, but somehow or other that helps the resistance. And then one of them, Blacky, is injured, so the other, Marko hides him, and the rest of the resistance cell, in his cellar. But he never tells them when the war ends. As Marko rises in Tito’s government in post-war Yugoslavia, so those in the cellar continue to believe WWII is ongoing. They make weapons, which Marko sells. Eventually Blacky manages to escape, but he stumbles on the set of a film re-enacting the climactic raid in which he was injured. He kills the actor playing the part of the German officer, and runs way. Later, after Tito’s death, he is the leader of a militia in the former-Yugoslavia. Marko, meanwhile, disappeared when Tito fell, and is now an international arms dealer. Underground opens with the Germans bombing Belgrade Zoo, and initially seems like a somewhat clumsy comedy. But as movie progress, so does the comedy turner blacker… and blacker… and more surreal. And the end result is superb. Recommended.

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