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Readings catch-up

And here we are, the last books I read during 2013. As usual, it’s quite a mix – some category science fiction, some literary fiction, and a handful of bandes dessinée. Make of them what you will.

exultantExultant, Stephen Baxter (2004). This is the second book of the Destiny’s Children trilogy, and I quite enjoyed the first, Coalescent (see here), so I was expecting to enjoy this one too. But… oh dear. The earlier book had two main narratives, one set in the present day and the other in Ancient Britain. Exultant is set wholly in the distant future, when humanity is at war with the Xeelee, and has been for over a thousand years. A pair of teen soldiers become involved in a series of attempts to strike a final blow against the Xeelee, and destroy the huge black hole at the heart of the galaxy, called Chandra, which the Xeelee use as a base. The novel opens with fighter pilot Pirius escaping destruction by a Xeelee nightfighter through some “timelike curve” manoeuvre which results him and his crew travelling back in time several years. This is apparently not unusual on the front line – and because Pirius disobeyed orders, he is sentenced to serve in a penal battalion. His earlier self is also punished, even though he hasn’t done anything. Er, yet. But visionary Commissary Nilis (isn’t a commissary somewhere to buy food?) rescues the “innocent” Pirius from punishment and takes him to Earth to help with his crazy schemes to strike decisively at the Xeelee. Meanwhile, time-travelled Pirius experiences life as a ground trooper in the war against the Xeelee. This is science  fiction as boy’s own adventure, with a side-order of Big Idea cosmology. Baxter leaves his story for chapters at a time to explain how the universe began – and, in the process, created races like the Xeelee. The characters are drawn with the broadest of strokes – Nilis is a stereotypical dotty old professor, even down to the lack of personal hygiene; a female aide is a stereotypical beautiful but cold bitch; Pirius and his girlfriend, Torec, are everyman teenagers. The way the war is prosecuted doesn’t seem at all convincing, the explanations for it and the Xeelee are dull, and the link with the preceding book is so tenuous it’s a stretch to consider this book a sequel. Exultant is sort of like distilled Baxter, but one where the distillation process has taken out all the stuff that makes most of Baxter’s works interesting. I’ll be reading the third book, Transcendent, but I’m not really looking forward to it.

Betel-thumb-300x413Betelgeuse 1: The Survivors, 2: The Caves and 3: The Other, Léo (2000 – 2005). This is the direct follow-on from Léo’s Aldebaran series, and was originally published in five volumes:  La planète, Les survivants, L’expédition, Les cavernes and L’autre. There are two more sequences, Antares, of which four of the five volumes have been published in English, and Les survivants, which currently comprises two volumes and neither of which has yet to be translated into English. Kim, one of the two teenagers who was invited to join the group of immortals in Aldebaran (see here), has spent the last few years studying on Earth. Now she’s back on Aldebaran, and is recruited to join an expedition to regain contact with a lost colony on a world orbiting Betelgeuse. On arrival at the planet, they find the colonists’ ship, but when they dock to it a computer virus destroys their ship’s systems. They descend to the surface, where they meet up with the surviving colonists – who, like on Aldebaran, have created a society in which women are second-class citizens, justified by both religion and a desperate need for population growth. But there is another group of colonists, led by the ship’s captain, who are more interested in investigating the world than subjugating women – and who the men from the first group blame for the computer virus. Kim finds herself caught between the two – the first group expect Kim to join their village and become yet another brood mare, but she’s there to discover what happened and why. It’s all tied in with the creature, the mantris, from the first series – another of its type exists on Betelgeuse, and is part of the life-cycle of the local animals known as “iums” (and who may actually be sentient). Kim learns their secret, solves the problem of the computer virus, but there is still a greater mystery to be solved. I picked up the Aldebaran series on a whim, but I must admit I’m enjoying these books. The art is good, the setting is interesting, and if Léo has a tendency to fall back on macho sexist pigs for his male villains, at least they get their just deserts. Good stuff.

unexplodedUnexploded, Alison MacLeod (2013). I saw this novel on the Booker Prize long list, and something about it seemed like it might appeal. So I bought a copy. And… well, it read a bit like a parody of your typical middle-class literary novel - a couple’s marriage slowly implodes, a child unwittingly betrays someone, which leads to a shocking end… The only difference is that the story is set in Brighton in 1940, much is made of some Brits’ admiration of Hitler (not to mention their blatant anti-semitism), and Virginia Woolf makes an appearance. The story is told chiefly from the point of view of the wife, Evelyn, who enters into an affair with a Jewish painter expelled from Nazi Germany as a “degenerate”, whom she first meets in the refugee camp – a de facto prisoner of war camp – superintended by her banker husband. Yet, for all that I enjoyed the book. MacLeod evokes her period well, the cast are beautifully-drawn, and there’s some lovely writing. If it’s all a bit obvious plot-wise, at least the narrative maintains your interest. I’m not entirely sure it belonged on Booker long list, however.

timebeingA Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013). This novel, of course, made it to the Booker short list, and it’s also one of those literary novels that makes free use of science fiction tropes. Unlike Exploded, its description didn’t especially appeal, but I stumbled across a secondhand copy on a table of books being sold for charity in, of all places, my local Wilkinson. So I bought and read it. And I thought it was very good. Perhaps comparisons with David Mitchell’s number9dream are inevitable – both are set (chiefly) in Japan, both have very chatty narrators – but I think A Tale for the Time Being is by far the better of the two books. And that’s not just because of its core conceit, or its framing narrative. It opens as the diary of a young Japanese girl, Nao, who has grown up in the US and, on the family’s return to Japan, no longer feels Japanese. She is bullied at high school, and her father can’t find a job and has tried to commit suicide. She documents her attempts to find herself  - including spending a summer with her great-grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, whom she idolises, but also a short period spent being paid for sex by men. The diary was discovered by a writer, Ruth living on a small island off the west coast of Canada. She thinks the diary is debris from the tsunami, and tries to contact Nao, only to discover she can find no trace of her or her family. Ozeki has thrown a lot into A Tale for the Time Being – not just Japanese culture and history, but also things like the Many Worlds Hypothesis, eco-terrorism, barnacles… There are footnotes and appendices. And it all works. Both Nao and Ruth are likeable and well-drawn characters, the mishmash of tropes actually gloms together to create an interesting story, and the prose is excellent throughout. Ozeki didn’t win the Booker – it went to Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (which is on the TBR) – but I would be happy to see it on the BSFA and Hugo shortlists this year.

redstationOn a Red Station, Drifting, Aliette de Bodard (2012) I should have picked up a copy of this at the Eastercon, and I’m not really sure why I didn’t. Anyway, I rectified that error at Fantasycon. This is well-crafted heartland science fiction set in a Vietnamese universe. The story opens with the arrival of Linh on Prosper Station, after the rebels have taken the world which she administered as magistrate. But now she’s a refugee and dependent upon the kindness of distant relatives she has previously had little or no dealings with. It also transpires that Linh had written a letter to the emperor, criticising his conduct of the war with the rebels, and a faction at the court who share her sentiments have decided to use her in a play for courtly influence. Complicating matters is the fact she’s not welcome on Prosper Station, and that the station is having trouble coping with the refugees it has taken aboard. The story was apparently inspired by The Dream of the Red Chamber (AKA The Story of the Stone) by Cao Xueqin, one of China’s “Four Great Classical Novels”, and dating from 18th century. While I’m familiar with some classical Arabic literature, I’m not with Chinese – though I might well give it a go (like I really need more books to read…). Anyway, On a Red Station, Drifting was certainly worth the cover price, and I really must catch up with the other Xuya stories.

orbital5Orbital 5: Justice, Sylvain Runberg and Serge Pellé (2012) The continuing adventures of the Human-Sandjarr diplomatic team comprising Caleb and Mezoke, though the last volume left them in a bad place – Caleb in a regenerative c0ma and Mezoke on trial for high treason. This is very much a continuation of the story, and quite confusing if you’ve not read – or can’t remember the plot of – the previous volumes. There’s lots of political manoeuvring going on, and it seems the Earth-based politics of earlier volumes is part of a much wider galactic conspiracy. There’s also a team of masked assassins wandering round, making matters worse. This is pretty much space opera bande dessinée, and if it feels relatively unexceptional in terms of world-building or the tropes it deploys, it at least presents a unique vision – through Pellé’s art – of its universe. On occasion it looks like it owes a little too much to media sf, especially Star Wars and Babylon 5, but the story is surprisingly twisty-turny for the subgenre and format. There’s  a sixth book, Résistance, due out in French this year, and I expect Cinebook will follow with an English edition about a year later.

krishnapurThe Siege Of Krishnapur, JG Farrell (1973) And speaking of the Booker Prize, The Siege Of Krishnapur won it in 1973. I must admit I hadn’t realised this novel was forty years old when I started reading it, but it’s moot anyway as the story is set during the Indian Rebellion in 1857. The Collector, his family, a handful of officers and men from a nearby garrison, plus the remaining English residents and visitors from the town barricade themselves in the Collector’s Residence and are besieged for four months by the rebel sepoys. As expected, the food runs out after a couple of months – leading to an auction of all the foodstuffs the survivors have been hoarding, a number of attacks by sepoys take their toll on the defending soldiers, and then there’s an outbreak of cholera. To make matters worse, there are two doctors in the Residence, one who believes cholera is caused by a miasma, and a dour Scot who is much more progressive. The two hate each other, and differ widely in their treatments to injury and illnesses. The Collector himself is a progressive sort, very much taken with the many devices he saw on display at the Great Exhibition a couple of years earlier. Despite that, he is also very Victorian… which leads to one of the book’s stranger elements: the women are treated as either precocious pets, or perfectly capable of standing alongside the men and contributing to the defence of the Residence. Often, it’s the same woman which provokes these contradictory sentiments – such as Lucy, who had been “compromised” by an officer some weeks before the Mutiny kicks off; but despite feeling almost theatrically sorry for herself since her prospects have been reduced to zero, she proves to be made of sterner, and quite manipulative, stuff, and is one of the few women to play a major part during the siege. I don’t recall why I picked up this book to read – yes, I admire Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet a great deal, but this is set a century earlier and the Victorian age doesn’t appeal to me all that much (which is one reason why I’m not a fan of steampunk). And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed The Siege Of Krishnapur and thought it very good. I think I’ll even read some more Farrell.

a-possible-life-jacket-faulksA Possible Life, Sebastian Faulks (2013) Or rather, five possible lives. The first is a young man who joins one of the many secret agent services during WWII, is captured, ends up as a trustee at a death camp but escapes, and the rest of his life is changed by his experiences in Germany – even though he returns to his pre-War career as a teacher at a boarding school. A father sells his son to a workhouse, the son prospers, buys his way out, sets himself up in business, and eventually becomes a well-to-do (if somewhat shady) business in Victorian London. A young woman in Italy a decade or so hence is obsessed with discovering the biological source of human awareness (a fascination Faulks also clearly shares, given this and his novel Human Traces). An orphaned girl in nineteenth century provincial France lives an unexceptional life looking after a family’s children. A retired rockstar discovers a new talent and nurtures her career, becoming her lover and manager, but the pressure proves too much for her. Faulks’ ideas on human awareness are interesting, but there’s not enough connective tissue between the five stories to define that idea as this book’s central conceit or even give it structure. The writing is your standard Brit-lit-fic prose, and while the settings of some stories convince, others do less so – especially the rockstar one. All in all, a pretty weak effort.

GoodbyeRobinsonCrusoeGood-bye, Robinson Crusoe, John Varley (2013). I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since first stumbling across one of his short stories back in the early 1980s. A couple of those stories still remain favourites to this day, though neither are in this retrospective collection. But it was the fanboy in me who shelled out for this signed and numbered limited edition copy from Subterranean Press (who do lovely books), even though I have all but one story in other collections – and some of them in two collections. What Varley did back in the 1970s and and 1980s, he did very well – his novels from that period are still in print for good reason – and surprisingly many of his stories have withstood the test of time quite well – ‘Equinoctial’, for example, could have been written a handful of years ago. Some of the others fare less well – ‘The Unprocessed Word’ is a silly joke that probably wasn’t very funny when it was first published in 1986, and just feels quaint now. ‘Blue Champagne’ feels like a heartland sf story of its time; ‘In the Bowl’ still stands up; as does ‘Lollipop and the Tar Baby’, although a sentient black hole is a little, er, hard to swallow. In hindsight, this is a book for fans of Varley’s fiction. The most recent story dates from 1986, so it’s hardly an introduction to his current fiction (he has a new novel, Dark Lightning, out this year). If you want to see what Varley’s fiction is like, The John Varley Reader from 2004 is a better look at his career than this book, even if it’s not as attractive an object.


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The groaning floorboards

Yet more books purchased since my last book haul post. For some of them, I have an excuse – it’s research, dammit! or, it’s for SF Mistressworks; or, I read the first x books in the series, so… But some of the others: nope, sorry, no excuse, no idea why I bought them. Oh well, never mind.

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Some non-fiction: Faulks on Fiction because it’s one of the few books by him I’ve not read; Ages in Chaos from the closing down sale of my local book shop because it looked interesting; Diver is a charity shop find to go with the other books on deep sea exploration; Mission to Mars is for the space books collection and is signed; and Project Terminated because Cold War aircraft that never made it off the drawing-board or beyond prototype – such as the Avro Arrow, North American Aviation XF-108 Rapier or BAC TSR.2 – are cool.

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Some research books for Apollo Quartet 3: The Death of the USS Thresher because the bathyscaphe Trieste was used to investigate the wreck; Jerrie Cobb – Jerrie Cobb, Solo Pilot and Woman Into Space – is a major character; and Pilot in the Fastest Lane because once I started writing the novella I realised Jackie Cochran played a much more important role than originally envisaged.

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Some science fiction, because I do still read it, you know. A pair of SF Masterworks: Wasp, which I’m pretty sure I read years ago; and The Caltraps of Time, which is new to me. In fact, I’d never heard of Masson until this collection appeared in the SF Masterwork series, and I consider myself well-read in the genre. A pair for SF Mistressworks: Mooving Moosevan is the sequel to The Planet Dweller, which I reviewed on SF Mistressworks here; and A Spaceship Built of Stone and Other Stories is a collection of Tuttle’s short fiction and will also be reviewed at some point.

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More science fiction. Fireflood and Other Stories for SF Mistressworks; Spin I bought at Edge-Lit 2 because I like Nina’s fiction; Boneshaker was a freebie from Edge-Lit 2 and while I’m no fan of steampunk I might give this one a go to see what all the fuss is about; and The Secret People was really difficult to find and the only reason I wanted a copy was so I could read the original version before I read the spiced-up Beacon Books’ version, The Deviates. I really must make a start on my Beacon Books reading project one of these days…

20130728dAnd finally some mainstream fiction: a short story collection from DH Lawrence, Love Among the Haystacks, though I might have read some of the contents elsewhere – I’m pretty sure I’ve read the title novella; After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is another from my local book shop’s closing down sale, picked up because M John Harrison recommended Rhys ages ago; and Kingdom of Strangers is the third in a crime series set in Jeddah and I quite enjoyed the earlier two books.

(Again, except for one small press title and a couple of OOP books all the links on this post go to Foyles.)


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The grateful mantlepiece

Something must be wrong with me. How else to explain it? It’s been over a month since my last book haul post, and look how few books I’ve bought since then. The mantlepiece, at least, is grateful, as its load was somewhat lighter as I was putting together this post. And the rate of increase in the TBR has decreased a little. You know you’re in trouble when you’re measuring the rate of change in the TBR rather than the actual number of books you own but have yet to read. So it goes.

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Some non-fiction: Spacesuit I fancied the look of, chiefly because it includes spacesuits from fiction; but we’ll see how it stacks up against the other books on the topic I own. The Astronaut Wives Club is research for Apollo Quartet 4, and it’s nice when you decide on a topic to write about and someone then goes and publishes a factual work on that very subject. DH Lawrence: Triumph to Exile 1912 – 1922 is the second volume of a three-volume biography of the writer and belonged to my father. I have the first, but now I’m going to have to see if I can get hold of a hardback edition of the third book.

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Haynes have branched out from car owners’ workshop manuals, and while I can understand them applying the same formula to various famous aircraft, such as the Avro Vulcan and Supermarine Spitfire, or even the Space Shuttle and Lunar Rover, some of the fictional “vehicles” they cover make less sense – like the U.S.S. Enterprise, the Millennium Falcon, or Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds. Still, I’ve been a fan of Dan Dare for years, so I thought the Space Fleet Operations Manual worth a go. It’s… okay. Cutaways of the various spacecraft, thumbnail sketches of the characters and alien races. There’s not much detail. Ah well. The Secret of the Swordfish, Part 1 is the fifteenth volume in the series, and there’s only a few to go before it’s all done. This is the first Blake and Mortimer story, originally published in 1950, and it shows. The artwork is Jacobs’ usual ligne claire style but the story is neither as complex nor as clever as much later volumes.

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For the collections: Murder by the Book is Eric Brown branching out into crime, and I’m looking forward to reading it (especially since I know what one of its touchstone works was). I was kindly sent an ARC of The Lowest Heaven but after reading the first story by Sophia MacDougall I decided it was worth buying the limited edition. So I did. Review to follow shortly-ish. The Quarry I bought from Waterstones, and it’s not like I was never going to buy the book in hardback. Five Autobiographies and a Fiction I bought direct from Subterranean Press. Idiot HMRC decided to charge VAT on it, even though books are exempt. I have applied for a refund but it’ll be weeks before I get it. So, of course, they did it to the next book I ordered from the US. I’ve been buying books from publishers and eBay sellers in the US for years without a problem, and then twice in one month they wrongly stiff me for VAT. Stupid HMRC are stupid.

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Some charity shop finds: Persepolis, a graphic novel about a woman growing up in Iran. I’ve been there, you know: Persepolis. It was in the early 1970s, we went on holiday to Iran, and stayed in Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran. At one point, we went to see the ruins at Persepolis. I really ought to see about digitising the cine film my father shot when we were there. Beside the Ocean of Time was a lucky find – I’ve been interested in trying something by George Mackay Brown since seeing him mentioned on, I think, Eve’s Alexandria. Before I Go To Sleep I vaguely recall being one of those literary/mainstream novels based on a sf idea from a couple of years ago. I can’t actually remember what people said about it, however. I guess I’ll find out for myself. Skin of the Soul is a Women’s Press anthology of horror stories by women writers. I wavered on this one – I mean, it’s not sf so I can’t review it for SF Mistressworks; and I’m not a huge fan of horror, anyway. But then I saw Suzy McKee Charnas and Karen Joy Fowler on the TOC, and I decided to buy it.

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Finally, two books I bought from Waterstones’ “buy one get one half price promotion”. Guess which one I got for half price: is it HHhH at £8.99 or A Possible Life at £12.99? I really wanted HHhH as I’d heard so many good things about it, but as is always the way with these promotions finding a second book proved difficult. Yes, I did want to read A Possible Life, but not enough that I’d pay near enough thirteen quid for the trade paperback. But there was nothing else that looked remotely interesting. I must have been in a good mood.


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Recent Readings

Considering I think of myself as a science fiction fan and the stories I write I classify as science fiction, I don’t seem to read that much of it – only two sf novels since my last reading round-up post. (Actually, it’s four as I read a further two for SF Mistressworks (here and here), so I’ve not mentioned them in this post.) I suspect by the end of the year, however, genre will still form more than half of my reading. [Checks spreadsheet of books read] Ah, so far this year, 57% of the books I’ve read were science fiction. Well, there you go: this last lot of books must have been an aberration. No matter.

untitledField Grey, Philip Kerr (2010) Bernie Gunther seems to have settled in Cuba after the events of If the Dead Rise Not, except things take a turn for the worse when he finds himself having to say no to either the Cuban secret police or his gangster boss. So he skips town in a boat; but is pulled over by a US Navy cutter out of Guantanamo, and once (they think) they’ve identified him, they summarily imprison him for a bit and then send him back to Germany to stand trial for war crimes. Only it transpires that what the Amis really want is his help in identifying a French war criminal who is being repatriated from the USSR, where he was a POW. Except that’s not what they really want… And this has to be the most confusingly-plotted of Kerr’s novels I’ve read, with its plots-within-plots-within-plots, er, plot. It’s excellent on detail, as usual – when Bernie spends time in a Soviet gulag, for example, it’s clear Kerr has done his research. With nine books now in the series, Kerr is building up quite a back-story for Bernie – like some of the others, Field Grey spends as much time on Bernie’s war-time exploits as it does in the 1950s when the story opens. Good stuff.

fatalThe Fatal Englishman, Sebastian Faulks (1996) I’ve now read all of Faulks’ books, except his first, A Trick of the Light, which is impossible to find, and his latest, A Possible Life (which I bought in Waterstones only this last weekend). Birdsong is obviously his best, though I did like Human Traces a lot as well. The Fatal Englishman, however, is non-fiction, and about three men who all died at a relatively young age, though their lives to that point had promised much. The first is Christopher Wood, a talented painter in the 1920s, who fell foul of opium just as he was beginning to produce his best work. Richard Hilary was a Spitfire pilot during the Battle of Britain and was horribly burned in a crash. He underwent pioneering plastic surgery, and then wrote a book on his experiences, The Last Enemy, which made him famous. He desperately wanted to return to flying fighters, but his injuries made it difficult. He did manage to wangle a posting flying night fighters, but died in a mysterious crash some weeks later. The last of the three is Jeremy Wolfenden, son of Jack Wolfenden of the Wolfenden Report. Extremely clever, a bit of a rebel, homosexual and a heavy drinker, Wolfenden was expected to go far but got himself mixed up with the intelligence services while serving in Moscow as a journalist in the 1950s. He fled the USSR for the USA, got married and seemed to be dealing with his drinking. But it killed him at the age of 31. He never even got to see the Wolfenden Report published, which would have legalised his sexuality.

MoonstarOdysseyMoonstar Odyssey, David Gerrold (1977) This has been on my wishlist so long, I’ve forgotten why I put it there; and having now read it I’m even more mystified. The world of Satlik has been terraformed and shallow seas now cover its lunar-like landscape. The climate is maintained by a number of orbital mirrors, which also provide day and night. The inhabitants are not ordinary humans, however, but remain genderless until puberty, or “blush”, when they choose which sex they will be as an adult. Moonstar Odyssey is allegedly about Jobe, who is “different”, and while the stories and accounts which make up the novel repeatedly say as much, there’s little in there to suggest it. For a start, the plot doesn’t actually start until three-quarters of the way in, and when it does Jobe doesn’t actually do that much – she doesn’t save the planet, her family, a group of strangers, or anything. While Gerrold has built an interesting world in Satlik, he hasn’t written a story anywhere near as interesting in Moonstar Odyssey. Rather than working in its favour, its palimpsest nature leaves you waiting for much of the book for something to actually happen.

sonsSons and Lovers, DH Lawrence (1913) I’m slowly working my way through Lawrence’s oeuvre and am continually surprised I’d not read him years ago. Perhaps knowing of him and his work from a young age – my father was a huge fan of his books, so much so he dragged my mother to see Lawrence’s shrine in Taos on a visit to the US – I heard enough about him to think his works would hold no interest for me. After all, they’re around a century old, and it’s proper literature which, like most kids, I’d only read if I was told to. I finally read Lady Chatterley’s Lover a few years ago, and loved it. So now I’m reading all of his books. Opinions are divided as to which is his best: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Women in Love or this, his third novel, Sons and Lovers. I’ve only read two of the three, so I’m unable to judge the matter; but certainly Sons and Lovers seems a more human story than Lady Chatterley’s Lover – perhaps because it isn’t simply focused on a central love triangle, but is more of a family saga (albeit focusing a lot on Paul Morrel and his relationships, especially his relationship with his mother). If The White Peacock felt a bit arbitrary and haphazard in places, Sons and Lovers is a remarkably controlled novel. While the story skips forward in uneven chunks at times, and the change in focus from eldest son William to second son Paul is a little disconcerting at first, the handling of the characters is beautifully done and the Nottingham of the time feels like a real, historical place. After finishing the book, I watched the 2003 ITV adaptation starring Sarah Lancaster as Mrs Morrel, but it was more Barbara Taylor Bradford than DH Lawrence and seemed to miss the point of the book. It also changed the story’s chronology, so that it ended on the even of World War I. I initially read Lady Chatterley’s Lover because it’s a classic of English literature, and was surprised to find I really liked it. I decided to read more of Lawrence’s works because my father was a fan and I wanted to read them for him. Having now read Sons and Lovers, I’m turning into something of a fan of Lawrence’s fiction.

UnderTheVolcanoUnder the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry (1947) I’m glad I read some of Lowry’s short fiction and Ultramarine before I read Under the Volcano. Lowry is a very autobiographical writer, and part of the fun in reading him is spotting those parts of his life he’s used before in stories. In this book, for example, some of the background of the brother, Hugh – specifically his time at sea – echoes both Lowry’s own time as a seaman and the events in Ultramarine. The plot, as is true for much of Lowry’s fiction, is relatively simple: Geoffrey Firmin used to be the British Consul in the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac, but has been let go because of his excessive drinking. He is, in fact, killing himself with booze. The Consul’s wife, Yvonne, had left him but she has now returned. Also visiting is Hugh, the Consul’s step-brother. It is the Day of the Dead in 1938, and the three visit the nearby town of Tomalin by bus to view the local celebrations. And then things sort of happen. Lowry is another author I discovered via my father’s book collection, and who has since become a favourite – although I admire his prose more than I do Lawrence’s. I love its discursive nature, its occasional bouts of postmodernism, the way Lowry immerses you in the character of the narrator, no matter who that narrator is. And like both DH Lawrence and Lawrence Durrell (another favourite writer), Lowry’s descriptive prose is often very beautiful, especially when describing the landscape.  Under the Volcano is considered an important book in English literature – in fact, Modern Library ranked it number 11 in their list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century (ignore the Readers’ List, which has clearly been poisoned by moronic right-wingers and Scientologists).

quetThe Quiet War, Paul McAuley (2008) I’d been looking forward to finally reading this and so about a quarter of the way in was somewhat surprised to discover that I really didn’t like it. It’s not that it’s a bad book – on the contrary, it’s very well done, and paints a convincing portrait of life on the Jovian and Saturnian moons. But, for me, The Quiet War fares badly in comparison to Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, probably because it’s a far more traditional sf novel, and that’s not something I especially value in my reading at this time. I didn’t like the future McAuley was writing about, with its technological feudalism ruled by families of (pretty much) gangsters; I didn’t like that McAuley had his characters justifying that political set-up; I didn’t like that the political systems on Callisto and Ganymede and the other moons were often characterised as foolish or immoral. Having said that, I did like the technological side of McAuley’s future and thought it quite inventive. But still, it’s a novel about a war, and a war for the thinnest and most repugnant of reasons, and no amount of eyeball kicks can hide the bad taste that leaves. That the end of the story somewhat redeems it is in the book’s favour, and leaves me more likely to consider the sequel, Gardens of the Sun, than I would had The Quiet War ended a chapter or two earlier. All the same, I’d much prefer to read near-ish future novels which don’t rely on stupid wars for their narrative impetus, and which seem to recognise that people are products of their environments and that such future environments would be greatly different to the present day – and so the people living in them would be too. I don’t much see the point in extrapolating sociologically from the nineteenth century and pretending the twentieth century never happened, even if some days the last one hundred years do feel a bit like a great social experiment that has now ended…

rise_coverRise, L Annette Binder (2012) I received this as a birthday present from my sister and was a little puzzled why she’d bought it until I remembered it was on my wishlist. Then I wondered why it was on my wishlist. A small press collection of literary/fantasy stories – not my usual choice of reading material. I eventually worked out – with help – that I’d seen a review of it on Larry Nolen’s blog and it must have taken my fancy enough for me to wishlist it. And yes, it was a pretty good call. The fourteen stories in this collection hover on the edge of the fantastic. Some are slipstream, some are explicitly fantasy, and some contain no fantastic element at all. They are also very domestic. All of them are beautiful written, although Binder does have a tendency to cut things short and several of the stories seem to end somewhat abruptly. The level of observation and sharpness of detail is especially impressive. The opening story, ‘Nephilim’ is among the more fantastical and very good. ‘Shelter’ is heart-breaking, as is ‘Mourning the Departed’. Also very good is ‘Dead Languages’. Definitely worth reading.

calvinoInvisible Cities, Italo Calvino (1972) A book I’d wanted to read for a long time, although I knew nothing about it. But it appears on lots of 101 Book You Must Read Before You Die and 100 Best Books of the 20th Century lists, so clearly it’s thought to be very good indeed by very many people. I eventually scored a copy on readitswapit.co.uk, bunged it on the TBR… and finally got around to reading it. It took me a day. It’s a thin book, only 148 pages and many of the pages aren’t even full. Marco Polo is at the court of Genghis Khan, and he tells him of the various cities he has visited. A framing narrative in italics comments on the interaction between the two, and the effect on Khan of Polo’s tales. The remainder of the book is organised in short chapters, often no more than half a page, in which Polo gives allusive descriptions of the cities he claims he has been to. And they really are wonderful. None of the cities are real, but they could be – and yet this is not a travelogue of an invented place(s), like Jan Morris’ Hav. Having said that, as I was reading it, I kept on thinking, this is what The City & The City should have been if only Miéville had not stuck on that silly mystery plot. I’ve no idea if Invisible Cities was an inspiration for The City & The City, but I suspect it might have been. This is a book everyone should read. Go out and buy yourself a copy.


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Some recent readings

It’s been a while since I last documented what I’ve been reading, other than the occasional book I’ve reviewed here – such as those for my reading challenge. Not every book I’ve read not previously written about recently is worth mentioning, but here are a few that are:

Roadside Picnic, Arkady & Boris Strugatsky (1972)
The edition I read was the SF Masterworks edition – that is, the original SF Masterworks edition, No 68 when they were numbered, which I think uses the 1977 translation. Gollancz are about to publish a new edition, using a new translation. This is doubly annoying because the new translation is apparently greatly superior to the old one, but since the edition I own is part of a numbered series I’m reluctant to replace it… Because while I love the central premise of Roadside Picnic, and I’m a huge fan of Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of it, I’m not sure why a Russian novel had to read like bad US pulp fiction. The story is set in an invented Commonwealth country, but reads like it’s set in the US, and a somewhat backwards area of the country at that. It is also rife with continuity errors and, I see from the Wikipedia page, that the internal chronology has also been completely garbled. I’d like to read the new translation to see how much of an improvement it really is, but for now I’ll stick to the film.

The Martians, Kim Stanley Robinson (1999)
This has been sat on my bookshelves since it was originally published in 1999, and I’ve been meaning to read it for years. But with one thing then another, and other books, it seemed to get shuffled further down the TBR. But since I needed to read up on Mars for Apollo Quartet 2, I took the opportunity of finally reading it. And I’m glad I did. The centre of the book is the novella, ‘Green Mars’, which was originally published in Asimov’s in 1985 but which I’d read in the early 1990s as one half of a Tor double (with Clarke’s ‘A Meeting with Medusa’). ‘Green Mars’ is about an expedition to climb the 22,000 ft escarpment which surrounds Mons Olympus (the diagram prefacing the novella, incidentally, has the distances all wrong: Mons Olympus is not 226 kms high, that would be stupidly huge). It’s basically a climbing story, and while Robinson succeeds in getting across the strangeness of the environment he curiously fails to mention the low gravity except in passing. Other stories in The Martians describe encounters between the two main characters of ‘Green Mars’. Some stories are alternate takes on the Mars trilogy – including one, in fact, in which the First Hundred were never sent. Some pieces read like deleted scenes from the Mars trilogy; others read like a working-out of scenes which did appear. As a companion volume to Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars, The Martians does the job interestingly and well, without reading like some sort of horrible RPG supplement.

The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles (1949)
I watched the Bernardo Bertolucci movie adaptation of this book, loved it, then read the book, and then watched the film again… and hated it. So much had been missed out, and the Lyalls had been reduced to comic caricatures. The film seemed to rely more on its scenery than its characters’ situation. In direct contrast to the book. The Moresbys have arrived in North Africa in the late 1940s to go “travelling”. As they journey deeper into the sub-Saharan interior, so they come further adrift from the world they have left behind. This eventually results in Port Moresby dying and his wife, Kit, falling in with some Tuaregs and being taken as a wife by one. The Sheltering Sky is neither a positive nor an especially active book. The Moresbys are jaded and languid, and even their African surroundings fail to generate any enthusiasm in them. There’s a good reason why this book is a classic. Incidentally, the book’s Arabic followed French spelling rules, which meant I had to translate each word twice – ksar, for example, is usually Romanised in English as qasr – ﻗﺼﺮ: it means “palace”.

A Usual Lunacy, DG Compton (1978)
Published by The Borgo Press in the US, although a massmarket paperback was later published by Ace. For some reason, a few of Compton’s books were never published in the UK, even though he was a British writer. But he’s not the only UK sf writer that has happened to. A Usual Lunacy is pretty much pure Compton – near-future, satirical, two-handed narrative (one male and one female viewpoint character), and based around a single idea. In this case, the idea, alluded to in the title, is a viral form of l’amour fou. The existence of which is then used in an insurrectionist plot in a somewhat totalitarian near-future UK. The story is initially presented as a court case, and only through the testimony of experts and witnesses, and then flashbacks, does it reveal that it’s all to do with an aeroplane hijacking, done in order to release a rebel leader from prison. It’s not one of Compton’s best works – the background is thin, the plot is rushed, and the central conceit seems a little arbitrary. But the characterisation is spot-on, the writing is as good as ever, and it’s still a great deal better than anything Compton’s more popular contemporaries ever produced.

August, Gerard Woodward (2001)
Woodward is a poet who has to date written four novels and a collection of short stories. August is his first novel. I forget where I saw mention of Woodward, but wherever it was it persuaded me his fiction might appeal so I kept a weather eye open for copies in charity shops… and one afternoon scored three – August, I’ll Go To Bed At Noon and A Curious Earth – for 99p each in the same shop. Having now read the first book, I’ll definitely be reading the other two. I thought at first that August was trying a bit too hard, there were a few too many adjectives, a few too many instances of precious prose… but it soon settled down and turned good. From the 1950s through to the 1970s, each summer a family from London spend three weeks camping in a field belong to a particular farm in Wales. August is the story of those holidays, and of the family, and of what happens to it, both in Wales and London. There’s some lovely writing in it and the cast are handled especially well.

Body Work, Sara Paretsky (2010)
I’ve been a big fan of Paretsky’s novels for years. The last few, however, have felt a little disappointing. This one made a desperate effort to sound relevant, with its mentions of Twitter, Facebook and other social media, but was still based around a form of performance art that felt more 1990s than twenty-first century. Admittedly, the underlying plot – US security firms in Iraq, corporations which cheat and lie to maintain profits – is very much of this century. Warshawski’s support staff continues to grow, which makes her feel more grounded a character than before, but she doesn’t quite have that sense of belonging that Grafton gives Kinsey Milnhone. Paretsky’s books are always worth reading, but Body Work didn’t quite manage the levels of anger of the preceding Fire Sale, which is a pity.

It doesn’t look like much does it? And I suppose the number of notable books I’ve read is not especially high. But along with the above, I’ve also read Blue Remembered Earth, which I plan to write about in more depth; some research for Apollo Quartet 2 – Mission to Mars, The Mars One Crew Manual, The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning (that last one made my brain hurt); several books reviewed for SF Mistressworks; a terrible Bond collection by Fleming, For Your Eyes Only; The Piano Teacher for my reading challenge (see here); and a possible British sf masterwork, DF Jones, Implosion (it’s no masterwork, see here); some Sebastian Faulks, Human Traces (see here) and A Week in December; Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, see here, and Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion, reviewed on SFF Chronicles; two reviews books for Interzone; and a so-so Raymond Chandler. Of course, I’ve also been busy working on the aforementioned Apollo Quartet 2, and every time I finish a section and mark it finished, I think of something that needs layering into the prose…


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Science fiction traces

I firmly believe that a reading diet of only genre fiction is bad for you. It’s the equivalent of trying to live off junk food. For a writer, it’s even worse, perhaps even dangerous – certainly, it’s detrimental to their career. I used to break up my consumption of genre with modern literary fiction novels, though I’ve increasingly found I much prefer postwar fiction, especially British – Lawrence Durrell, Malcolm Lowry, Paul Scott, and the like. But I do still read some of the better-known modern literary fiction authors, even if their novels have proven somewhat samey in recent years.

One of those literary fiction novelists is Sebastian Faulks. I recently finished his Human Traces (2005), which is about the early years of psychiatry. Sort of. It begins in 1876, with the introduction as boys of its two main characters, Jacques Rebière in France and Thomas Midwinter in England. The two meet when in their early twenties, become great friends, qualify in medicine, and open a sanatorium in southern Austria. Later, the two disagree over the direction the nascent science of psychiatry should take, beginning a feud which only ends after the First World War.

Human Traces is historical fiction. Its characters are invented but a number of real historical figures make appearances. It is about a variety of mental conditions, their historical diagnoses, and what we now know them to be. (Most asylums in the nineteenth century, for example, were filled with syphilis victims.) But Human Traces also contains at its core a very science-fictional idea.

Some three-quarters of the way through the book, Midwinter proposes a theory to explain why some people hear voices. It is his theory that psychosis is inextricably linked to self-awareness, and that it is the advent of self-awareness which created human beings. Early humans, he contends, heard voices as a matter of routine. In a speech given at his sanatorium, he outlines his theory:

… of how man, after he had learned language, had been able to conjure instructive voices in his head; and of how, after the invention of writing and under the influence of huge population upheavals, the ability to summon such voices had become rarer. (p 497)

This theory had been inspired by a number of things – not the least of which was Midwinter himself hearing voices when younger – but it was on an expedition to Africa that it began to gel:

But how could men without consciousness – a modern sense of time, and cause and other people – have done this? Picture your shepherd far away in the hills with no sense that he is a man, no idea of time in which he can visualise himself and his situation… How does he know he must keep tending his sheep? Why does he not forget what he is meant to do – as an ape would forget? Because under the anxiety of solitude, under the pressure of fear, he releases chemicals in his brain that cause not sweating palms, or racing heart, though perhaps those as well – but the voiced instructions of his king. He hallucinates a voice that tells him what to do. (p 450)

Midwinter contents that language was not a development of self-awareness, that self-awareness did not lead to civilisation; but that language and civilisation both came into being before humanity had consciousness. It was only the development of writing which led to self-awareness. He references a number of mythologies in proof – the Ancient Greeks in conversation with their gods, God speaking to Abraham in the Bible, and so on…

It’s not a conceit which sits well as the core of a realist novel. Nor is it one which really stands up all that well to scrutiny. It’s an interesting idea, certainly, but perhaps better suited to the sort of thought experiment for which science fiction is best suited. We know that writing developed in Mesopotamia around 8000 BCE. It has been estimated that Abraham lived around 1800 BCE, and the Greek pantheon has been traced back to sixth century BCE Greece. So writing had been around for several millennia before the examples Midwinter gives to demonstrate his thesis. And for those thousands of years, if his theory is correct, humanity had not been wholly self-aware…

It doesn’t really work. The weight of history stands against it. However, it would make for an interesting creation myth for a fantasy novel; or, perhaps, first contact could be the trigger from one state to the other for an alien race in a science fiction novel. Aliens of differing degrees, or variable degrees, of self-awareness have been used in sf before – in Peter Watt’s Blindsight, the aliens are not conscious; in the GDW role-playing game 2300AD, one of the alien races increased their intelligence from normally very low levels as their fight/flight reaction.

Having said all that, there’s perhaps an interesting idea to explore at the intersection of Midwinter’s theory and the City Burners. Between 1200 and 1150 BCE, the Late Bronze Age civilisations around the Eastern Mediterranean collapsed. From what little documentary evidence that has been found, raiders from the sea – known as the Sea Peoples or the City Burners – invaded a number of city-states and destroyed them, propelling civilisation back to illiteracy. Imagine if those Sea Peoples had been Midwinter’s unconscious humans, driven by the voices in their heads to destroy those civilisations who, through the widespread use of writing, could no longer hear the voices…

There’s a novel in there somewhere, if someone wants to write it.


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One-liners

It’s been a while since I last noted here what books I’d read. Yes, I’ve given up on the readings & watchings posts, but I’d still like to record what literature I’ve consumed throughout the year. Here I shall attempt to do it in a single line per book (occasionally through the creative use of punctuation, I must admit).

A Torrent of Faces, James Blish (1967) Pleasingly detailed, somewhat dated, but a much more interesting sf novel than I’d expected.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson (2005) Oof – worse than I’d expected (though I’ve heard the translation was rushed), but Blomqvist is a Gary Stu and the attempts to drag in references to the original title (Män som hatar kvinnor, Men Who Hate Women) are hamfisted to say the least.

The Immersion Book of SF, Carmelo Rafala, ed. (2010) Small press anthology of, er, science fiction; some contents better than others, though nothing stands out especially.

The Ghost, Robert Harris (2007) Blair’s biographer is murdered so pro ghost writer is drafted in and discovers something rotten in the ex-PM’s career– oh wait, it’s not Blair, it’s a made-up politician…

Devil May Care, Sebastian Faulks (2008) Faulks does Fleming and makes a pretty good fist of it – also: a Caspian Sea Monster!

Diadem from the Stars, Jo Clayton (1977) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961) Some astonishingly good novellas, some not so good short stories; planning to read more Lowry.

Islands, Marta Randall (1976) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

If the Dead Rise Not, Philip Kerr (2009) Bernie Gunther in Berlin after leaving the Kripo; and decades later in Cuba – and it’s all about corruption by US mobsters over building work for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Eastmodern, Herta Hurnaus (2007) Bratislava, home to some surprisingly interesting-looking Modernist buildings; as this book amply demonstrates.

The Omcri Matrix, Jay D Blakeney (1987) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

Dulcima, HE Bates (1953) I read it but I’m not sure why it was written; apparently they made a film of it too…

The Maginot Line, Rob Redman, ed., (2012) Literary paperback anthology, contains some good stories, including one by a bloke called Sales.

Goldfinger, Ian Fleming (1959). A bit like the film, but with added homophobia and sexism! – Bond turns ice-cold lesbian Pussy Galore into a warm and loving heterosexual with a good rogering; plus a half-page homophobic rant by 007.

The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011) Reviewed on Daughters of Prometheus here.

Oscar Niemeyer Buildings, Alan Weintraub (2009) Does what it says on the cover: lovely photographs of lovely buildings.

Building Brasilia, Marcel Gautherot (2010) Yet more lovely Niemeyer buildings – they should let Neimeyer design the entire world.

Jerusalem Fire, RM Meluch (1985) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

So Long a Letter, Mariama Bâ (1980) April’s book for my reading challenge; I wrote about it here.

Girl, David Thomas (1995) Man goes into hospital but through implausible mix-up gets vaginoplasty; played for laughs, manages some sensitivity, but definitely from the male gaze so nothing learned.

The Maquisarde, Louise Marley (2002) Reviewed on Daughters of Prometheus here.

Machine, Jennifer Pelland (2012) Read for review in Vector; interesting approach to the central conceit, though a little muddled in execution.

Disguise for a Dead Gentleman, Guy Compton (1964) Actually DG Compton: murder most foul at a public school; some nice-ish writing but a bit all over the place structurally.

Two Sides of the Moon, David Scott & Alexei Leonov (2004) Reviewed on A Space About Books About Space here.

The Summer Book, Tove Jansson (1972) Not a Moomin in sight, just grandma and granddaughter having fun and games among Finland’s islands; simple, elegiac.

Impact Parameter & Other Quantum Realities, Geoffrey A Landis (2001) Variable collection by Analog/Asimov’s stalwart; contains a couple of good ones, but a few are surprisingly poor given their initial publication venues.

Time Future, Maxine McArthur (1999) Reviewed on SF Mistressworks here.

Valerian 3: The Land Without Stars, Mézière & Christin (1972) English slowly catches up with famous French lightweight space opera bande dessinée series.

The Jagged Orbit, John Brunner (1969) Even in 1969, Brunner should have thought twice about this – a near-anarchic over-armed US with voluntary racial segregration; painfully, embarrassingly and datedly hip.

West Coast Blues, Jacques Tardi (2009) Bande dessinée about a man who goes on the run after being mistakenly targetted by hitman; astonishingly nihilistic.

In Great Waters, Kit Whitfield (2009) European history re-imagined with mermen, sort of; a slow start, drags even slower for the first third, then gets moving… and proved actually rather good.

The White Peacock, DH Lawrence (1911) His first novel: structurally weird and the viewpoint lacks rigour, but some lovely prose and it all feels very local to me; will definitely be reading more.

Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2012) Read for review in Vector – sequel to Isles of the Forsaken (see here), and not quite the expected story; some excellent bits nonetheless, though the plot feels a little problematical.

Starship Winter, Eric Brown (2012) Third in a quartet of seasonal novellas set on the world of Chalcedony; shenanigans at an art exhibition; the weakest of the three so far.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009, Alan Moore (2012) Third and last (?) in the Century series, which sees the League sort of re-unite to defeat a stoned Antichrist.

Aliens of the Heart, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2007) Reviewed on Daughters of Prometheus here.

The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch (1978) Published in 1978, from the characters’ ages would appear to be set in 1968, feels like it was set in 1958; Booker Prize winner, though felt far too long and flabby to me.

Starshadows, Pamela Sargent (1977) Collection of early short fiction with a patronising introduction by Terry Carr; will be reviewed on SF Mistressworks soon.

‘À Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ & Other Essays, DH Lawrence (1961) English literature’s one true Puritan wibbles on about masturbation (bad), the right sex (good), marriage (sacrosanct!) and obscenity (“moi?”) – he really was a dirty old reactionary…

Griffin’s Egg, Michael Swanwick (1990) Novella about, er, a group of astronauts stranded on the Moon after a nuclear war on Earth – not an inspiration, honest; nor anywhere as good as I’d vaguely remembered it.


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New Year, new books

It would have been nice if I could have made a New Year’s resolution to buy no books in 2012. But that was clearly impossible as there were a number of 2012 releases I wanted. I’ll just have to try and limit my purchases instead. Sadly, I’ve not been entirely successful in that regard – only one month into the year and look what’s been added to the bookshelves all ready…

Three new releases: Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds, In the Mouth of the Whale, Paul McAuley, and Dark Eden, Chris Beckett.

Three for the collections: Homage to QWERTYUIOP, Anthony Burgess, which is signed; The Steel Albatross, an underwater thriller by Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, which is also signed; and Selected Poems, Lawrence Durrell, from 1956, which is not signed.

Another of Jacques Tardi’s bande desinée: Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot is an adaptation of a French thriller novel and pretty good. Mission to Mars is for the Spacebooks collection, and also for research for a short story.

A bunch of paperbacks from my father’s Penguin collection… Twilight in Italy is travel-writing, ‘À Propose of Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and Other Essays is, er, non-fiction, and The Woman Who Rode Away is a short-story collection. I think I have quite a lot of Lawrence on the TBR now. JP Donleavy, on the other hand, I have never read before and know very little about – so I’ll give A Singular Man, The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman, and The Onion Eaters a go. He doesn’t appear to be in print in this country anymore.

And more paperbacks from my father’s Penguin collection: another McCullers, The Mortgaged Heart, a collection, though I wasn’t that much taken with her The Member of the Wedding; a pair of Camuses (Cami? Camopodes?) Exile and the Kingdom and The Fall; and a collection of essays by Orwell, Decline of the English Murder. To the left is Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground, a Women’s Press sf paperback kindly donated to the SF Mistressworks collection by Una McCormack, for which much thanks.

And three non-fiction works from my father’s collection: The Fatal Englishman by Sebastian Faulks is biography, of a sort; Leavis’s The Great Tradition and The Common Pursuit are both literary criticism.

Two books for this year’s reading challenge – world fiction (see here): The Fat Years, Chan Koonchung, from China, and which you can see from the bookmark that I’m currently reading; and The Door, Magda Szabó, from Hungary. High-Rise joins the other nice 4th Estate paperback editions Ballards on my bookshelves.

Some science fiction… A pair of SF Masterworks: RUR & War with the Newts, Karel Capek, and Sirius, Olaf Stapledon. Colin Greenland’s Spiritfeather, one of the volumes from the four-book Dreamtime YA series published in 2000. There was a bit of a fad for Brit sf authors contributing to YA series at that time – not just Dreamtime, but also The Web, which boasted books by Stephen Baxter, Ken MacLeod, Peter F Hamilton, Eric Brown and Pat Cadigan. And, finally, Mission Child, Maureen McHugh, a charity shop find I plan to review for SF Mistressworks.

And here is The Monster Book for Girls, an anthology of dark fantasy and horror from theExaggeratedpress, which looks very nice indeed, but also…

… contains my story ‘Dancing the Skies’, which is the ATA/Spitfire story, which required much research on the Air Transport Auxiliary and WWII fighters and bombers.


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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 #9 2011

Despite making a compulsion of reading every day, the TBR pile looks no smaller – and, in fact, might well have grown. If I was smart I’d institute a policy of only buying a new book if I’ve read one from the TBR. Sadly, I’m not. Maybe I should get a Kindle or something – at least then the books wouldn’t take up as much space. Mind you, it would make my book haul posts look a bit silly…

Anyway, here are the books I have read in the past month or so; here are the films I’ve watched in the past month or so. Some were good, some were bad, some were meh. And so it goes. Apologies for the length of this post; I really should do these more frequently.

Books
Hardball, Sara Paretsky (2009). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s novels since first reading one back in the early 1990s. Perhaps their chief appeal is that Paretsky wears her politics on her sleeve, and VI Warshawski’s investigations always end up uncovering something interesting about Chicago’s political landscape and history – and often as commentary on the US as a whole. Hardball, a slight return to form after the disappointing Fire Sale, is no different in that respect. Warshawski is asked to track down a young black man who disappeared during Martin Luther King’s visit, and the subsequent riot, in 1968… and discovers some unwelcome facts about the city’s police department of the time. Of which her late father was a member. There are a lot of angry men in Hardball – in fact, it often seems like the entire male cast are angry at Warshawski, and not always for good reason.

Shadow Man, Melissa Scott (1995), was September’s book for my reading challenge and I wrote about it here.

Valerian 1: The City of Shifting Waters (1970) and Valerian 2: The Empire of a Thousand Planets, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1971), are the first two English translations by Cinebook of a well-known sf bande dessinée series. Valerian is a spatio-temporal agent and, with his sidekick Laureline, gets involved in various adventures throughout the universe and history. In The City of Shifting Waters, he’s sent back to 1980s New York, which is flooded after a global environmental disaster, to prevent an evil villain from a nefarious plot to prevent the creation of the agency for which Valerian works. In The Empire of a Thousand Planets, Valerian and Laureline are sent as diplomats to a thousand-world planetary system (!), but discover that some strange group controls all the planets and seems determined to wage war on Earth. These books are not entirely serious – there’s a gentle humour running throughout them, though it’s not very subtle. Laureline, the sidekick, for example, is the clever one, who always gets Valerian out of his scrapes. There’s some inelegant info-dumping, and some of the story and art of The Empire of a Thousand Planets looks suspiciously like a direct inspiration for Star Wars (as an afterword points out tongue-in-cheek). Fun, though.

On Green Dolphin Street, Sebastian Faulks (2001), I’m fairly sure I tried reading when I was living in Abu Dhabi, but gave up a couple of chapters in because nothing seemed to be happening. This time, I ploughed on and… nothing happened. The van Lindens are a diplomatic couple in 1959 USA. Charlie is an analyst at the British Embassy, and was something of a wunderkind. But his star is now waning, mostly as a result of his drinking. When Frank Renzo, an acquaintance from Charlie’s visit to Vietname years before, re-introduces himself at a party, it results in an affair between Renzo and Mary van Linden. This comes to a head when Charlie has a breakdown during a trip to Moscow, and Mary has to go and fetch him. I was expecting a final section like that in Charlotte Gray – another Faulks novel which ambles along at a geriatric pace – but there isn’t one in On Green Dolphin Street. Charlie has a breakdown, Mary rescues him. That’s it. There’s some nice writing, but it’s not really enough to keep you reading. Disappointing. I’ve got four more novels by Faulks on the TBR. I hope they’re better than this one…

The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 11: The Gondwana Shrine, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2011), is another addition to Edgar P Jacob’s series, and follows on directly from the two The Sarcophagi of the Sixth Continent volumes. It’s drawn in Hergé’s ligne claire style, but is very talky with great speech balloons filling up many panels. The plot is completely bonkers, as Blake & Mortimer stumble across evidence of a secret base in Africa of a civilisation which existed on Gondwana millions of years before the first humans left the Rift Valley. Sometimes, you get the impression Yves Sente is a bit too clever for his own good…

Ascent, Jed Mercurio & Wesley Robins (2011), is a graphic novel adaptation of Mercurio’s excellent novel of the same title. The hardware is well drawn, but the rest looks a bit rubbish and amateur. Disappointing.

The Kings of Eternity, Eric Brown (2011), has been receiving lots of positive notices, though I think it’s unlikely to bounce Brown’s career to the next level. It’s very good, but it’s far too considered a novel to have broad genre appeal. It’s also not space opera. A reclusive writer living on a Greek island in 1999 falls in love with the painter who has moved in next to him, but only reluctantly opens himself to her. Four friends in 1935 meet at the country home of one of them, and in the woods nearby witness the opening of a portal from another world and rescue the creature which comes through it. The link between the two narratives is not difficult to guess, but that doesn’t spoil any enjoyment this novel might have. The narrative set on the Greek island has a somewhat Fowlesian feel to it, though it’s perhaps more sentimental than anything Fowles ever wrote. The other narrative is very Wellsian, though it uses Wellsian-type tropes with the sophistication of a twenty-first century sf writer. Is this Brown’s best novel? Hard to say. I still like Kéthani a lot, though The Kings of Eternity is certainly a very good novel. Perhaps my reading of it was spoiled slightly as a result of reading the novella on which it was based, ‘The Blue Portal’, some years ago.

Silicon Embrace, John Shirley (1996), however, is not a good novel. I like Shirley’s fiction, but he can be very slapdash. And Silicon Embrace is one of the slapdash ones. It’s a post-apocalyptic US crossed with UFO mythology, featuring a Damnation Alley-style journey across California and Nevada, with a secret underground base staffed by a military in league with the Greys. Then the story heads for New York, and turns into something slightly different. This book was poorly edited, with far too many ellipses left in the dialogue, and a number of silly mistakes, like mention of “Neil Stephenson” (sic). Disappointing.

It Was the War of the Trenches, Jacques Tardi (1993), is a bande dessinée treatment of WWI from the point of view of the soldiers. Tardi has picked out some of the worst and most horrific stories, and given them a graphic novel treatment. Such as the one about the Sicilian soldier who could not speak French and so didn’t go over the top when ordered, and was subsequently tried and shot as a deserter. Or the officer who ordered machine-guns to open fire on his own men because they were being mowed down by the Germans and were trying to get back to their trenches. The more you learn about the First World War, the more you realise the wrong people were killed. Anyone who reads this and continues to glorify war and the military is clearly an idiot.

Maul, Tricia Sullivan (2003), was October’s book for my reading challenge and I’m still working on a blog post about it.

The Joy of Technology, Roy Gray (2011), is a chapbook published by Pendragon Press. The author is a friend of mine. The technology in question is that used in sex clubs in Germany in order to better titillate customers. The customers, in this case, are a coach-load of football fans from the UK, visiting Germany as their team is playing away. A father introduces his son to the joys of travelling onto the Continent to see a footy match, and also to the delights to be had before and after the match. Gray pulls no punches, and if his story dehumanises its characters I suspect that was its intent. It does trail off a bit towards the end, and perhaps would have been improved by a punchier finale.

Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968). A blinding novel by a much-underappreciated writer. I wrote about it here.

Dead Girls: Act 1 – The Last of England, Richard Calder & Leonardo M Giron (2011), is a graphic novel of part of Calder’s novel of the same title. I’ve read that novel – in fact, I’ve read the trilogy – and it’s very good. The graphic novel is also very good. The style of art suits the material perfectly. The story is actually the flashback from the novel, which actually makes the world of the book easier to understand. I’m looking forward to seeing the next installment.

The Unit, Ninni Holmqvist (2006), has lots of praise on the covers of my paperback copy of this book, and I’m not entirely sure why. In a near-future, or alternate present, Sweden, anyone over the age of fifty without children, or who has not made a significant contribution to culture or industry, is deemed “dispensable”. They are taken to luxurious centres – such as the “unit” of the title – where they have free housing, food and healthcare, and are encouraged to use the copious leisure facilities. While there, they must volunteer for medical experiments and, over a period of years, donate whenever necessary their organs. Dorrit is one such woman. Something of a loner, inside the unit she finds friendship, and then love. At which point, of course, she no longer wants to be dispensable. The concept of the unit is, I admit, quite neat, though it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. From the description, it would cost far more to run than it returns in the form of drug testing or donated organs. The rules on who is dispensable are also open to abuse, especially for those who are childless but have contributed in some highly-recognised fashion. Also, the fact that survival is predicated on having children will also push women back into their traditional roles, undoing decades of feminism. None of this seems to have occurred to Holmqvist. She makes Dorrit a bit mannish, but has her enjoy being passive and feminine as if it were something to aspire to. I also thought the writing was very clumsy in places, though that may be more the translator’s fault than the author’s. I suspect this is one of those books where people can see little beyond the central conceit – like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, which has a brilliant central idea but is appallingly written. And yet those same people will sneer at science fiction because so many of its fans look only at its ideas and ignore all else in a text.

Warlord of Mars Vol 1, Arvid Nelson, Stephen Sadowski & Lui Antonio (2011). I have a love-hate relationship with John Carter. Or rather, with the books in which he features. Barsoom is a great invented land, but the prose is often quite painful to read – not only is the style horribly dated, but Edgar Rice Burroughs was a hack. But there’s something in John Carter and Barsoom which fires the imagination… even if every incarnation of it to date has yet to match expectation. This miniseries is an attempt at a more faithful comic adaptation of the first book of the series, A Princess of Mars. However, like all such it stands or falls on the quality of its art… and here it’s not too bad. Okay, so Dejah Thoris is improbably bosomed and near naked – though, to be fair, in ERB’s novel all the character are naked all the time. And the Tharks do bear a suspicious resemblance to the Tharks in Marvel’s 1978 John Carter, Warlord of Mars comic. Overall, this is quite a good adaptation, though it does make the source material appear more shallow than it actually is. Meanwhile, I’ll have to wait until Pixar’s film adaptation is released in March 2012…

The Uncensored Man, Arthur Sellings (1964), I read as part of my British sf Masterworks investigation, and I wrote about it here.

Warlord of Mars, Dejah Thoris Vol 1: Colossus of Mars, Arvid Nelson & Carlos Rafael (2011), is much better than the adaptation of A Princess of Mars by the same writer mentioned above. The artwork is lovely, though Dejah Thoris is still implausibly pneumatic. And mostly naked. But Dejah Thoris is certainly the heroine and drives the plot from start to finish. The story is set hundreds of years before John Carter appears on Mars, when Greater and Lesser Helium were at war and both owed allegiance to another city-state. The jeddak of that state finds an ancient colossus and goes on a rampage, but Dejah Thoris manages to ally the two Heliums and leads a force to defeat him. I’ll be keeping an eye open for the next book in the series.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Jane Rogers (2011), was, I believe, longlisted for the Booker, but since the plot summary made it clear it was sf-written-by-a-mainstream-author I picked up a copy just before Waterstone’s abolished their 3-for-2 promotion. And it’s certainly sf, in the same way The Handmaid’s Tale or The Children of Men are. Or even Nineteen Eighty-four. At some point in the near-future, a virus is released which infects everyone. But when women become pregnant, it turns into full-blown Creuzfeld-Jakob Syndrome and is always fatal. In other words, women can’t have children anymore – or they die. And it’s a particularly horrible death, as their brain dissolves in their skulls over a period of weeks and sometimes days. Jessie Lamb is 16-year-old whose father works at a clinic attempting to find a cure to Maternal Death Syndrome. While around them the world slowly falls apart. The first section of the novel, in which Jessie tries to come to terms with the world, and in which the role of women in society slowly erodes, is very good indeed. But about halfway through Jessie volunteers to become as “Sleeping Beauty” – she joins a programme which will keep the mothers in comas so the babies can be born safely, though, of course, the mothers will not survive. At which point, the novel turns into YA story and is all about Jessie trying to convince her parents that her choice is the right one. Yet the trigger for that choice doesn’t seem especially obvious. The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a pretty good book, but it’s also half of what could have been an excellent one.

The Garments of Caean, Barrington Bayley (1978). Bayley’s fiction was always slightly odd, and this one’s no exception. It’s 1970s hackwork, but it starts from a point, with a conceit, that no self-respecting sf hack would ever have tried. But Bayley makes it work. Sort of. In the Tzist Arm of the galaxy there are two major cultures, the Ziode cluster and Caean. The Ziodeans are just like contemporary Anglophone Westerners, but with spaceships and few other sf trappings of the day. The Caeanites, however, are entirely different. They have developed tailoring to such a degree – they call it the Art of Attire – that clothes do indeed maketh the man. So when a black marketeer liberates a cargo of Caeanic clothing from a crashed spaceship, it threatens the already minimal relations between the two groups. The prose veers from serviceable to the odd piece of fairly good writing. About two-thirds of the way through, the plot takes a turn that makes a nonsense of the book’s set-up up until that point. And there’s a casual mention of rape which is really quite offensive in this day and age. Not one of Bayley’s best. There were much better books written by British sf authors during the 1970s. Don’t bother with this one.

Films
The Big Heat, Fritz Lang (1953), is one of Lang’s noir films from his Hollywood period. Glenn Ford plays the white knight, an honest cop, who tries to bring down the mob boss who runs the city. While the film is generally considered a classic of the genre, it does suffer heavily from simplistic morality, the righteousness of its hero, and the characterisation of women as either duplicitous or victims (Lang’s While the City Sleeps has a woman beat the shit out of a serial killer who attacks her). The Big Heat is especially brutal in this last regard, when mobster lieutenant Lee Marvin throws boiling hot coffee into the face of his girlfriend because she was seen talking to Ford. And she’s not the only victim of Ford’s relentlessness. He continues to harrass the mobster – ignoring due process, evidence, etc. – despite being told not to by his lieutenant, and as a result is suspended. But still he carries on. And he gets his man in the end, no matter who suffers or perishes in the process. Of the Lang noir films I’ve seen, The Big Heat is the least interesting – it’s too formulaic, has little or no ambiguity, and, let’s face it, Marvin’s brutality is no reason to celebrate a film.

Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik (2010), I vaguely recall hearing good things about, though I think I kept on getting it confused with Hanna. I’ve no idea why – the only thing the two films have in common are a teenage girl as protagonist. Anyway, I put it on the rental list, several weeks later it dropped through the letter box, I picked it up and looked at it and thought “meh”. One weekend night I stuck it in the DVD-player… and it proved to be one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. A teenage girl is visited by the local sheriff, who tells her that her father, whom she has not seen for weeks, is due in court soon. He has put up his house as surety for his bail and if he doesn’t appear, then the girl, her young brother, and their mentally ill mother will be put out on the street when the bail bonds company seizes the property. So she goes looking for her errant pa. The film is set in the Ozarks, among poor families who live on subsistence farming and cooking methamphetamine. It’s an insular society, ruled by the threat of violence, in which women live in fear and even kin asking questions is unwelcome – and punished by threats and then violence. Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as the girl. Winter’s Bone is a scary film, set among very scary people. I now want to read the novel by Daniel Woodrell on which it’s based. In fact, I’d like to read all of his books. This is not always a good move: for example, Hitchcock’s Marnie is greatly superior to Winston Graham’s, and the film of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments is much better than the book. But I’d still like to read them.

Black Heaven, Gilles Marchand (2010), I reviewed for The Zone and it was meh. See here.

The Wedding Song (Le chant des mariées), Karin Albou (2008), is one of those films that occasionally appears on my rental list but I forget why I put it there. Perhaps it was because it’s set in Tunisia, and I’ve seen many excellent North African films. The Wedding Song is set during WWII after the invasion of Tunisia by the Nazis. Two teenage girls, one an Arab Muslim, the other Jewish, are friends, but the Germans’ demands on the population soon push them apart. Not helping this are the Arab girl’s fiancé, who goes to work for the Germans identifying the local Jews, or the Jewish girl’s mother who marries her off to a wealthy doctor much older than her. This is not a pacey film, it’s far more about developing the characters in order to better understand their responses to the Nazi depradations. I’ve seen the film presented as a lesbian film, which it isn’t. The two girls are childhood friends, though that doesn’t prevent one from betraying the other – and later saving her. The Wedding Song is as much about the Nazi invasion’s effect on Tunisia as it is about the effect on the two girls. An excellent film.

Summer Storm, Douglas Sirk (1944). I’ve always thought that Sirk was to the melodrama what Hitchcock was to the thriller. But while Hitchcock never made a film that wasn’t entertaining, Sirk’s oeuvre is not so consistent. It’s not just later-period fluff like 1957′s Battle Hymn, but even earlier works such as this adaptation of Chekov’s novella, ‘The Shooting Party’. It just seems… weird. It’s melodramatic, and very much a mid-1940s melodrama. But everyone is dressed in nineteenth-century Russian costumes, and they all have Russian names. It makes for a weird disconnect between story and presentation. George Sanders plays a provincial judge ensnared by a scheming peasant beauty (Linda Darnell). First she marries the local aristocrat’s estate manager – and the aristocrat throws a party and invites all his effete peers as a joke – but Darnell’s sights are set higher. There’s probably a good script hiding in Summer Storm, but I kept on getting thrown by the fake scenery and American jocularity.

Thor, Kenneth Branagh (2011). Of all the heroes in Marvel’s stable, you have to wonder why they chose Thor for a movie adaptation. He’s one of the least interesting. He’s a Norse god with a big hammer, and in his secret identity he works as a doctor. The Thor from Norse mythology had much more interesting adventures. Of course, Thor is one of the Avengers, and The Avengers is next year’s Marvel tentpole release (the preview trailer actually looks quite boring). In order to introduce Thor, Branagh ripped off the plot of Superman II, but flipped it so that the good guy is exiled to Earth rather than the baddies. Thor’s brother Loki schemes for Odin’s throne, and big dumb Thor falls for his dastardly tricks, and a sa result is exiled to Earth. Where he happens to land in the lap of scientist Natalie Portman. For much of the film, Thor’s superpower appears to be stupidity, though he quickly learns to be a nice person, which not only gets him back to Asgard and allows him to defeat evil Loki, but also returns him to the loving bosom of his father. Because, of course, Thor is a father-son film. Admittedly, the film looks good – especially the bits set in Asgard, though it seems to have ditched the whole Norse mythology thing and implies that Asgard is an alien world / alternate dimension sort of place that just happens to be populated by humanoid Viking-types. I can’t see much point in trying to rationalise superheroes – it can’t be done. They are nonsense, their powers are magic. And the comics industry has never understood what rigour is, anyway.

Tron Legacy, Joseph Kosinski (2010). Perhaps the desire to update Tron, given the current state of special effects, is understandable. I mean, the original Tron had some good ideas, and an interesting look, but it wasn’t very good. Unfortunately, it was still a damn sight better than Tron Legacy. Yes, the special effects are much improved. But the story is rubbish. And it makes no sense. Jeff Bridges’ son accidentally gets himself digitised and ends up in the virtual world where his father has been trapped for the past umpteen years. In order to escape, they both need to defeat the evil copy of Bridges he created to run the virtual world. This is all supposed to have something to do with microprocessor architecture and programming, but I work in IT and it made no sense to me. anyway, Bridges, as creator, has special powers. But he only uses them in the last ten minutes of the film to save his son. He could have used them at any time. And the only way he can save him is to commit total genocide. Despite the fact he has been fighting his evil copy because said copy committed genocide on some virtual life that spontaneously appeared in the virtual world. Who writes this crap? Oh, and did I mention it’s a father-son film? Well, obviously.

Almighty Thor, Christopher Ray (2011), is the Asylum’s take on Thor. Except it’s completely different. Sort of. Odin and his two sons live in generic semi-mediaeval fantasyland (one of the greener parts of California, by the look of it, with a poor CGI rendering of a castle). Baldir is Odin’s heir, a powerful warrior. Thor, however, is a weakling and not very bright. He doesn’t know how to fight with a sword, either. Then Loki – Richard Grieco, looking like he’s spent the last decade shooting up – invades Asgard, and kills both Odin and Baldir. It’s up to Thor to save the day. Except he’s useless. Happily, Valkyrie Jarnsaxa appears and agrees to train him up. This involves hiding out in present-day Los Angeles – well, those back-streets where filming permits are evidently quite cheap. If the sections set in Asgard looked cheap, the ones set in LA resemble something from public access television. The Asylum are rightly known for making shit films, and the only astonishing things about them are the levels of shitness those film actually reach. Yes, some films are so bad they’re good, but that’s one trick the Asylum has yet to master.

Bonjour Tristesse, Otto Preminger (1958). When I think of Preminger I think of classy noir films from the 1940s, but Bonjour Tristesse, adapted from the novel by Françoise Sagan, is a 1950s melodrama. It opens in black and white, with Jean Seberg describing her ennui in voice-over as she flits from one Parisian night-club to the next, from one wealthy young playboy to the next… The action then shifts to the previous summer, on the French Riviera, and in colour. Seberg is holidaying there with her father, shallow playboy David Niven. Staying with them is a bouncy Swedish blonde playmate… but then Deborah Kerr, an old flame, unexpectedly accepts an invitation to visit. and she manages to tame the playboy father. This unfortunately puts the kaibosh on Seberg’s plans for a life of profligate leisure, so she hatches a cunning ploy. Which has a somewhat unfortunate consequence. It’s all very high-society and irresponsible wealth, and you can’t feel much sympathy for the characters. But it’s an excellently-made film, and both Niven and Kerr are very good in it. Seberg I found too gamine and empty-headed to really convince, and as a result the film for me never quite managed the charm of Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief or the cool sophistication of Antonioni’s L’Avventura.

Princess of Mars, Mark Atkins (2009), I stumbled across one night on Movies 24, but only managed to catch part of it. So I made a note of its next showing, and sat down to watch it from start to finish. It is, of course, an Asylum film, and while it’s currently titled Princess of Mars to cash in on Pixar’s release of John Carter of Mars next March, it was originally titled Avatar of Mars after James Cameron’s blue-peopled epic. In fact, Princess of Mars follows ERB’s novel quite closely – though, like every adaptation ever made, it ditches the nudity. Carter himself is updated to a Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan, and the mechanism which sends him to Barsoom is a military experiment performed on him since he’s at death’s door. But once on the Red Planet, he runs into the Tharks, joins them, captures Dejah Thoris, falls in love with her, and goes on to save the planet and unite the Red and Green Men. Mars itself resembles an Arizona desert, most of the special effects are cheap and nasty, as are the make-up and prosthetics, and Traci Lords as Dejah Thoris is astonishingly bad. But for an Asylum film, this one is actually almost watchable.

Ricky, François Ozon (2009). There’s something about Ozon’s films I find appealing – though, it’s not true of all of them. Angel is garish and amusing, Water Drops On Burning Rocks has that astonishing dance scene in it, Under The Sand is beautifully played… but Le Refuge is a bit dull, as is Swimming Pool, and 8 Women I find a little too OTT. Certainly he’s a director whose films I seek out, however. And happily, Ricky is one of the good ones. A working-class French woman falls in love with a spaniard who works at the same factory. He moves in with her, the woman’s young daughter is upset at having her world altered but gradually comes to accept him… then the woman becomes pregnant. The family dynamic immediately changes. That is until the baby – rickey – is born and when several months old develops bruises on his shoulder blades. The woman accuses the father of hurting Ricky. Hurt and disgusted, he leaves her. The bruises grow worse… and sprout into a pair of wings. Ricky can fly. Mother and father are reconciled. At first they try to keep Ricky’s ability a secret, but he escapes during a trip to the local supermarket, so they reluctantly call in the media. Perhaps Ricky with his angel’s wings feels a little too much like over-egging the new-family-new-baby cake – it’s perhaps a cliché that families always see their new babies as “little angels”. And there’s the daughter to consider too – she goes through the typical cycle of jealousy to acceptance to pride.

X-Men: First Class, Matthew Vaughn (2011), has been much praised as an intelligent addition to the (typically dumb) corpus of superhero films. Which is to forget that the first two men X-Men films directed by Bryan Singer were actually pretty smart movies. In X-Men: First Class – which is, of course, a cunning pun – the action is set in the 1960s and shows the X-Men helping the CIA prevent a conspiracy by evil mutants to use the blockade of Cuba to trigger nuclear Armageddon. Along the way, we get to discover how the above-the-title mutants discovered their powers, and the use they put them to before deciding the patriotic thing to do was work for a bunch of interfering types like the CIA. While X-Men: First Class is a pretty smart film for a superhero film, and it marches along at an energetic pace, look too closely and things start to look less shiny. It’s not just Kevin Bacon’s really bad German accent – which he thankfully drops when he reappears as Sebastian Shaw… or the over-preponderance of semi-naked women throughout the film… or that Banshee, an Irishman in the comic, has been recast as American in the film… or that Angel is now female, though he was male in the comic and earlier films… or that the Soviet villain uses a Bell 47 helicopter to visit his dacha (which looks more like a stately home left to wrack and ruin, anyway)… or why the villains always win in their fights against the good guys until the last reel of the film… or that the X-Men supersonic jet, which has always been modelled on a Lockheed SR-71, apparently has no room in its interior for jet fuel… or that Magneto introduces himself to Nazi refugees in South America by offering to buy them a Bitburger, but no one says “bitte, ein Bit”… But perhaps I’m asking too much of what is essentially pure entertainment. Except, if it’s “pure entertainment”, why try to position it as an intelligent film which comments on real life geopolitical events? Why not just admit it’s men – and women – in tights with logic-defying superpowers trying to remould the planet to fit in with US preconceptions of what Earth should be?

Green Lantern, Martin Campbell (2011). You’d think a story about a man with a magic ring that allows him to defeat evil, and who wears magic tights, wouldn’t be science fiction. But Green Lantern has aliens in it, and lots of lovely shots of galaxies and other celestial objects, and apparently the Green Lantern Corps are the guardians of galactic civilisation. If there’s a genre this film belongs to it’s the genre of tosh. I am a science fiction fan, but even I couldn’t swallow the central premise of Green Lantern. Still, it is a Marvel film. It’s also a Hollywood film, so it’s all about a son and the father he could never live up to. Because all Hollywood films are father-son films. I suspect some powerful studio executive has done way too much therapy. Anyway, Green Lantern was entertaining in a “nice visuals” sort of way, providing you turn off your higher cognitive functions. The story didn’t make much sense, and was filled with pointless scenes. For example, the commander of the Green Lantern Corps beats the crap out of Green Lantern and then tells him he’s rubbish. Well, of course he is. He only put the ring on twenty minutes ago, and no one’s trained him how to use it. And then the super-powerful villain that no one can beat only be defeated by that self-same rookie who has, um, oh hours of experience in the job. Then you have lines such as “The bigger you are, the faster you burn.” Er, no. But why expect accurate physics in a film about a man with a magic ring?

51, Jason Connery (2011), I reviewed for The Zone, and it was shit. See here.

Dr Who: The Ribos Operation, The Pirate Planet, The Stones of Blood, The Androids of Tara, The Power of Kroll and The Armageddon Factor (1978 – 1979), are the six stories which make up the Key to Time sequence, which introduced fellow Time Lord Romana as the Doctor’s companion. The final story also revealed the Doctor’s real name, which is apparently Theta Sigma, so I’m not surprised he insists on being called the Doctor. (According to the mythology, this is a “known alias”, though why someone would use an alias at an academy is never explained. It also transpires that ΘΣ was used in the New Testament as an abbreviation for God, so it’s most likely a case of a scriptwriter having a small joke…). The Key to Time is some sort of magic thingummy which, er, safeguards time or the universe or something. The White Guardian tasks the Doctor with gathering the six pieces, which have been hidden throughout time and space, and giving him the completed Key. Because then it would be safer than being hidden in six pieces throughout time and space. Apparently.

The Ribos Operation is a straightforward sting story. A pair of interstellar conmen try to sell a planet – without the knowledge of its semi-mediaeval natives – to a deposed noble by planting a sample of a valuable mineral and pretending not to understand its worth. The Doctor puts a stop to their con, but also prevents the nasty noble from furthering his own nasty plan.

The Pirate Planet is Douglas Adams’ first Dr Who script, and so is held in high regard. I can’t see why myself. The story has a neat idea but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The titular world is hollow and hyperjumps to enclose other planets. Which it then strips of their resources. These worlds are generally inhabited, except… if the pirate planet was only after the natural resources of a world, then populated ones would probably already be mined out. Uninhabited ones would be a much better prospect. Unless it’s the fruits of their societies – technology, artworks, jewellery, etc – the pirates are after… The Pirate Planet is also infamous for a fight between K-9 and a robot parrot. Which is exactly as silly as it sounds. Incidentally, the hidden segment in this story proves to be latest planetary victim of the pirates. So even if they hadn’t committed genocide, the Doctor would have done so when he transformed the planet into a segment of the Key to Time.

The Stones of Blood feels a little like a return to a slightly older Dr Who story. It’s set on Earth around the time of filming (ie, late 1970s). Two women are researching a local stone circle, but there’s funny stuff going on at the manor, which is now owned by the oily leader of a druidic sect. It’s all to do with some alien that looks like a standing stone – well, which is meant to look like a standing stone, but actually looks a bit crap – an immortal alien, and a spaceship hidden in hyperspace somewhere over the stone circle. It’s one of the better stories.

As is The Androids of Tara, in which Dr Who rips off The Prisoner of Zenda, only with androids impersonating various members of the rival factions for the throne of Tara. It was filmed in and around Leeds Castle, and certainly looks good. It’s Dr Who at its frothiest.

The Power of Kroll, on the other hand, is Dr Who at its wettest. It’s set in a swamp – well, an estuary. With green-skinned humans, who worship a semi-mythical giant squid; and a really crap model of an oil rig, which is supposedly a facility for converting methane into “protein”. Their drilling has woken the giant squid, Kroll, which is actually a couple of miles across. Terror ensues. There’s a lot of really offensive racism against the green-skinned people in this, and while it’s plainly intended to make a point, the writers seem to forget what that point is halfway through.

The final episode, The Armageddon Factor, is perhaps the worst of the six. The story reminded me of one from the classic Star Trek series. Or maybe it was from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Anyway, there are two planets engaged in nuclear war, and it’s all going very badly. The Marshal of one talks to a mirror and refuses to accept the possibility of negotiation. But then the Doctor arrives, and it turns out there’s no one left alive on the other planet and their military machine is all being run by a computer. And there’s this toad-like evil villain called the Shadow who has manufactured the entire situation because he wants the Key to Time. At one point, the Doctor ends up running around some caves in a secret planet, miniaturised. But I think my eyes had started to glaze by that point.

I never saw the Key to Time stories when they were first broadcast (1978 – 1979), though I was in the UK at the time. At boarding-school. So there was no rosy tint watching these, though I admit to being a very small fan of Dr Who, inasmuch as it was an on-and-off part of my childhood. While the six stories in the sequence are not especially good – some of Tom Baker’s other adventures are much, much better – they are interesting because of the presence of Romana (played by Mary Tamm). For the first couple of stories, she actually runs things. Yes, she’s portrayed as a somewhat clichéd bossy, interfering female, but at least she’s not just running around and screaming. Sadly, as the sequence progresses she becomes less of an equal, and more like a typical companion. But perhaps she went on to better things. There’s only one way to find out…

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