It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Leave a comment

Reading diary, #36

My reading seems to have slowed a little, perhaps because I’m choosing books which aren’t quite such easy reads. On the other hand, it could just be that I’ve been quite busy. Anyway, an odd mix this time: two category genre books, one borderline and two classic twentieth century literature; three women, two men; two novels, three collections; three Americans, one Brit and a Dane. I really need to address that latter category a little more – I have a number of translated works on my bookshelves that I plan to tackle, such as Bolaño, Munif, Høeg, Myckle, Vargas Llosa, Gogol, Mallo… All I have to do is schedule them in. It’s easy to read diversely if you plan your reading, after all. Anyway, the five books in this post were all bloody good ones, so perhaps avoiding “easy reads” was worth it. Duchamp and Park are probably two of the best US writers currently working in genre and very much under-appreciated; Green and Dinesen may be from the first half of last century, but they wrote some bloody good stuff; and while LeGui many not always click with me, there’s no denying her importance or the fact she has writing chops we lesser mortals can only dream to possess. In all, a highly recommended handful of books.

laviniaLavinia, Ursula K LeGuin (2008). Who doesn’t love LeGuin’s fiction? It’s almost impossible not to, because it’s so wide-ranging, so clever and so beautifully written. Personally, I prefer her science fiction, and while I’ve enjoyed her high fantasies I’m not so enamoured of her literary fantasies like Orsinian Tales or Searoad. Lavinia, however, is more of an historical fantasy, and falls somewhere between the two stools of genre fantasy and literary fantasy. I have no especial interest in the period it covers, pre-Roman Italy, although a good book would, you’d hope, make me interested (after reading George Mackay Brown’s Beside the Ocean of Time, for example, I spent several hours looking up brochs online, and nearly even bought a book on the topic). Nor am I trained classicist and so familiar with the sources texts uses in Lavinia – chiefly Virgil’s Aeneid. In fact, to be honest, I know very little about Bronze Age Europe – it’s not an era I’ve read much about. The title character is mentioned in passing in the Aeneid as the wife of Aeneas, a Trojan hero who survived the fall of Troy. LeGuin takes Lavinia’s brief mention and runs with it, opening with Lavinia’s childhood, then there’s arrival of Aeneas and his Trojans, their marriage, the founding of Lavinium, war… Throughout, Lavinia visits a sacred grove, where she talks to the ghost of “the poet”, who is clearly Virgil (who lived over a thousand years later – some of the references by him to “the future” do initially suggest something a little more science-fictional, but no). I know some people were very taken with the novel, but it never quite clicked with, although there was no denying its quality.

never_at_homeNever at Home, L Timmel Duchamp (2011). I bought this a couple of years ago after being much impressed by Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle – which, incidentally, is one of the best sf series about first contact ever written – but had never got around to reading it for some reason. Which I have now rectified. Partly, I admit, prompted by the superb story by Duchamp which opens the VanderMeers’ feminist sf anthology, Sisters of the Revolution. That story is not in Never at Home, but those that are range from the merely good to the bloody excellent. It’s been a while since I’ve come across a genre collection as strong as this one, and yet looking at the stories I’m not entirely sure why. They’re not bursting with ideas or “eyeball kicks” – that’s not what Duchamp does – but they’re certainly fascinating, and extremely well-written, explorations of very carefully explored ideas. In ‘A Question of Grammar’, for example, a woman taken from her family (who, it is implied, are considered unpersons by the galactic authorities) is bonded chemically to an alien to act as interpreter. I’m tempted to describe the story as “very”Gwyneth Jones”, high praise indeed from me, but I think that’s probably unfair to Duchamp. Either way, this was the best story in the collection and deserves to be much more widely known. ‘The Nones of Quintilis, Somewhere on the Southwest Slope of Monte Albano’ manages that very difficult balancing trick of being genre but not reading like genre. ‘Sadness Ineffable, Desire Ineluctable’ (Duchamp’s strong point clearly doesn’t lie in titling her short fiction) manages to evoke something like Area X half a decade before VanderMeer’s novels, and do so with more mystery and less fungi (both, it must be said, pluses in my book). This is a superior collection, probably the best genre collection I’m likely to read this year (yes, I think it just edges out Other Stories below). Not only do I recommend it, but I think everyone should also read Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle; and, of course, Duchamp’s Aqueduct Press does sterling work and has published some blinding works of fiction since its founding in 2004.

blindnessBlindness, Henry Green (1926). The authors you love, I’ve found, do not come about due to wide or deep reading of their oeuvre, but from a single piece of work, usually in the first half dozen or so by that author you’ve read. It blows you away… and it colours all your other encounters with that author’s works. With Lowry, it was his novella ‘Through the Panama’, with Durrell it was The Alexandria Quartet, with Blixen it was her story ‘Tempest’… and with Green it was the first novel by him I read, Loving. A pitch-perfect control of voice, a refusal to tell the story using normal narrative techniques, and an excellent eye for detail… what’s not to love? Blindness is Green’s first novel, and concerns a public schoolboy whose bright future is snatched from him in an accident which blinds him (a kid throws a stone at a passing train, smashing a window through which the protagonist is looking). The story is told firstly through letters, then through semi-stream-of-consciousness narratives by the young man and his mother and the young woman (of an unsuitable family) whose company he enjoys… It’s very much a story of privilege and deprivation – the main character is the scion of a wealthy family, with a country seat boasting a large staff (members of which which the mother complains about repeatedly); but the young woman is the daughter of an alcoholic vicar fallen on hard times and, if anything, reads more like a DH Lawrence character (on his good days, that is) than a fit companion for the blind boy. Green had a reputation as “a writer’s writer”, which is generally taken to mean he was much admired but sold few copies. It’s true that there’s a dazzling level of technique on display in Blindness, a facility with prose no writer can fail to admire. And it’s Green’s writing prowess I certainly admire, rather than his choice of subjects or the stories he chooses to tell. But there’s a profound pleasure to be found in reading prose that is just put together so well, and that’s why I treasure Green’s writing.

winters_talesWinter’s Tales, Isak Dinesen (1942). As mentioned earlier, Blixen impressed me with her story ‘Tempests’ in Anecdotes of Destiny (AKA Babette’s Feast and Other Stories), and so resolved to read more by her. (I’d also enjoyed the three films made of her works: Out of Africa, Babette’s Feast and The Immortal Story.) Winter’s Tales contains 11 stories, some of which are better than others, but all of which are good and all of which have an almost mythical feel to them. In some it’s quite overt – ‘The Fish’, for example, reads like mannered high fantasy but is about an actual king of Denmark. Most of the stories are historical, typically set in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. Some are twist-in-the-tale type stories, such as ‘The Young Man with the Carnation’, in which a young husband reconsiders the future of his marriage after the eponymous person appears in the middle of the night at the door of the hotel room he is sharing with his wife. Only later, does the young husband realise he had been in the wrong room (whoops, spoiler). ‘The Heroine’ is a cautionary tale in which a French woman saves a group of travellers from being shot by Prussian soldiers (during the Franco-Prussian War) by refusing the Prussian commander’s offer. There was something quite DH Lawrence about the story. ‘The Pearls’ reminded me of Blixen’s own ‘The Immortal Story’, although its plot was very different. A woman marries a fearless man and her own sense of adventure is abruptly threatened when she realises the two of them skirt much too closely to danger – a realisation embodied in a  string of pearls he gives her and which she inadvertently breaks… There is, as I’ve said, a near-mythical to these stories, almost as if they’re parables. It’s a type of story that seems to have mostly fallen out of favour; and while that does make the contents seem of their time, there’s also a timelessness to them because they’re set in earlier decades and centuries. I’ll be reading more Dinesen/Blixen.

other_storiesOther Stories, Paul Park (2015). I’ve been a fan of Park’s fiction since reading Coelestis back in the mid-1990s, and I still think it’s one of the best sf novels ever written. Like LeGuin, Park’s career has been somewhat varied, albeit considerably less prolific, and his last novel, a metafictional piece that straddles science fiction, fantasy, alternate history and autobiography, All Those Vanished Engines, was for me one of the best novels of 2014. (It didn’t win any awards, of course.) So when PS Publishing announced they were publishing a collection of Parks stories, I was keen to get my hands on it… and it took a while to appear. But it was totally worth it. Some of the stories I’d read before – ‘No Traveller Returns’ was originally published as a signed limited novella by PS Publishing and, yes, I own a copy; ‘Three Visits to a Nursing Home’ forms part of Park’s excellent novel, All Those Vanished Engines. Two stories appeared in Postscripts anthologies in which I also had stories – one of which, I – kof kof – provided the title story (#20/21 Edison’s Frankenstein and #32/33 Far Voyager). As for the rest… they’re slippery things, sliding between fantasy, alternate history and mimetic fiction, and even, in some cases, autobiography. ‘A Family History’ posits an alternate history in which the French Revolution fails and parts of North America remain in French control in the late nineteenth centiry… and the deconstructs the concept of alternate history. ‘Watchers at the Living Gate’ is straight-up fantasy, and while it owes more to Hope Hodgson than Tolkein, it still presents a singular vision. ‘Ragnarok’ is posta-apocalyspe fiction presented as epic poetry (not, to my mind, an experiment that works especially well). ‘Abduction’ is a frankly baffling story about what might, or might not be, alien abductions. But everything in the book is beautifully-written. Park abd Duchamp are both massively under-rated US genre writers, and should be much more widely-read.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 126


Leave a comment

A critical bookshelf, part 2

I did one of these a while ago – see here – but I’ve bought more critical works since then… and here they are.

2016-09-18-12-22-28

Five books on women science fiction writers, most of which I used as a research for All That Outer Space Allows. Galactic Suburbia discusses pre-feminist sf and demonstrates that it was in fact feminist. Daughters of Earth is an anthology, in which each of the female-authored stories is discussed in a following critical essay. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction is about, well, the title pretty much says it all. Partners in Wonder is a history of women writing in genre magazines from 1926 to 1965. The Feminine Eye I found on eBay and contains nine critical essays on authors such as CJ Cherryh, CL Moore, Suzette Haden Elgin and Suzy McKee Charnas.

2016-09-18-12-23-35

Three critical works by some British chap who, I believe, also writes fiction. Sibilant Fricative was shortlisted for the BFS Award, but Rave & Let Die won the BSFA Award. Science Fiction (Roberts) I bought in Stockholm at Fantastika 2016. There is a second edition now available. Science Fiction (Baker) I bought from Amazon. I’m mentioned in two of these critical works.

2016-09-18-12-25-04

Uranian Worlds is an annotated list of genre works which feature LGBT themes or characters. My copy is an ex-library one I bought cheap from a reseller on Amazon. Red Planets is, as the title explains, about “Marxism and”Science Fiction”. I’ve yet to read it, though I’m interested in left-wing sf. My Fair Ladies discusses the depiction of artificial women in genre, although it seems to focus more on media genre than written.

2016-09-18-12-29-53

Some critical works by writers: Starcombing I reviewed for Interzone (I later posted the review on my blog here). In Other Worlds was a lucky find in a remainder shop. The Country You Have Never Seen is apparently now as rare as rocking horse shit, so I was lucky to pick a copy up when I did (there’s a secondhand copy on Amazon for £693.49!). Magic Mommas. Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts I found on eBay. The Issue at Hand and More Issues at Hand I bought from Cold Tonnage. William Atheling, Jr, was, of course, James Blish.

2016-09-18-12-32-25

Every now and again, science fiction throws up these annotated listicle books, ususally with contentious titles like 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels. I wrote a blog post after reading this, which morphed into a correspondence with the author – see here and here. Anatomy of Wonder is currently in its fifth edition and costs £55 new, so I bought an earlier edition for consierably less. Call and Response is Paul Kincaid’s second collection of essays and reviews. And In The Chinks of the World Machine was one of two non-fiction works published under The Women’s Press sf imprint (the other was LeGuin’s The Language of the Night, and I’ve yet to find a copy).


2 Comments

Moving pictures, #46

Yet more movies… All but one are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but two of them I’d seen previously.

solarisSolaris*, Andrei Tarkovsky (1972, Russia). I first saw Solaris back in the early 1980s when I was at school. It was a Sunday afternoon and it was on, I think, BBC2, and the junior common room had a single television set but I somehow managed to persuade a half a dozen of my fourteen-year-old peers to sit and watch three hours of Russian sf film. Whatever leadership qualities I had then which allowed me to manage that have long since gone. But I’ve treasured Solaris ever since. In fact, it was one of a handful of films I was determined to own once DVDs appeared on the market (I never liked VHS, and refused to buy videocassettes). I’ve watched it few times since buying it on DVD back in 2002, but this most recent rewatch was triggered by upgrading my copy to Blu-ray. And I still love the film, although it’s not my favourite Tarkovsky. Despite the odd moment which is wildly implausible – such as when Kelvin’s launches Hari in an escape rocket from the station, and Kelvin survives being in the same chamber as the launch – the entire film looks astonishingly believable. There’s something about the production design (rocket launch notwithstanding) that makes the space station look like a real place. The story is loosely based on Lem’s novel of the same title, so loosely Lem was apparently unhappy with the adaptation; but, to be frank, when having someone of the calibre of Tarkovsky adapting a work it seems churlish to complain it’s not especially faithful. And it’s true the film does mostly ignore the Solaris organism, which is the focus of the book, and instead spends its time documenting the effects of the organisms on the scientists aboard the space station. But it looks gorgeous, and even the moments of black and white – Tarkovsky ran out of colour film stock – seem to fit in with the overall look and feel of the movie. Solaris works so well because it doesn’t do the science-ficiton thing and focus on the novum, the Solaris organism, as the book does, but focuses instead on Kelvin’s relationship with Hari. In the book, the Solaris organism manifests fantastical cathedral-like islands; in the film, it manifests a single enigmatic woman from Kelvin’s past. I know which story I prefer.

deer_hunterThe Deer Hunter*, Michael Cimino (1978, USA). I’d seen this many years ago, but other than it being about Vietnam and involving a scene featuring Russian roulette remembered pretty much nothing of it. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. Because, to be honest, I thought The Deer Hunter merely okay. Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken are two of a group of steel workers who regularly go hunting in the mountains and generally behaving like swaggering macho working-class Americans. And then they sign up to fight in Vietnam and, well, there are a million films about that, in fact until 9/11 it pretty much defined a big part of the US psyche… But things don’t go well in Vietnam and they’re captured together – in one of those coincidences that plots require – and tortured by the Viet Cong… before escaping. But all of them have been damaged by their Vietnam experiences. Well, all except De Niro. Although perhaps he is as he can no longer no shoot defenceless deers when hunting. Christopher Walken forgets who he is and begins playing Russian roulette for money… and winning. John Savage loses both legs and the use of an arm, and ends up in a VA hospital. I can see how at the time this movie took a number of chances, and they paid off. But from forty years later, there’s little in it to impress all that much. It concerns a topic which is the concern of a nation that is not my own and a generation which is not my own. I have to judge it as a film and only that. There is no baggage. And in that respect, it has its moments – Cimino’s ambition is plain, and it mostly works; but the characters are thinly-drawn and there’s too much reliance on the cast to bring them to life (some, notoriously, weren’t even scripted but had to improvise). It’s a good cast, of course, and they mostly went on to greater things, but this is early in their careers. The Vietnam scenes do not compare well with those in other films (my only comparison, of course), and there’s little subtlety in the war’s effects on the characters. I’m in two minds whether this belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. There are better Vietnam films, there are better war films… but it captures something – even if it’s only its director’s ambition – that might be worth preserving.

all_quietAll Quiet on the Western Front*, Lewis Milestone (1930, USA). The most surprising thing about this film, I guess, is that it’s a US film with US actors who play Germans fighting for Germany during World War I. Has Hollywood ever made a movie about Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS soldiers? I don’t think so – at least not where they’re playing the heroes (and we’ll nip the “good Nazi” discussion in the bud right now, thank you very much). All Quiet on the Western Front is essentially a “war is hell” story, and it happens to be written by a German and set during WWI. Which clearly wasn’t seen as a commercial obstacle by Hollywood – although, to be fair, Hitler didn’t seize control of Germany until 1931, but surely it was obvious what was going on in Germany at the time (for a start, half of Britain’s aristocracy were supporting Hitler by then). Despite all that, All Quiet on the Western Front is a fairly unexciting war film, if that doesn’t sound odd. What I mean is, it doesn’t offer any astonishing insights – perhaps it did in 1930, although I find it hard to believe; perhaps it did in 1928 when Remarque’s novel was first published in the Vossische Zeitung, although given the effects of WWI on the German population away from the Front (especially given the blockade by the British Grand Fleet), so maybe not… True, it humanises the enemy of WWI, and that may have been something new to US audiences, which I guess makes it anti-propaganda and not something which Hollywood normally does. And, after all that, the trench warfare it depicts seems a little sanitised compared to the reality as documented, or indeed in later films set during the war.

rivetteDuelle, Jacques Rivette (1976, France). I’ve watched this twice now and I’m still no clearer as to what it’s about. There are apparently two women, the Queen of the Night and the Queen of the Sun, and they fight a magical battle in mid-1970s Paris over a magical diamond. I tweeted while watching this that in most films there’s always a sense the director is playing to the gallery, but that sense was completely absent from Duelle (as indeed it was in Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round too). You feel like a Peeping Tom, watching something without knowing the context. I was, I admit, beguiled by the “limited edition” status of the collection in which this appears, and having been impressed by La belle noiseuse, but two films in and I’m beginning to question my purchase. It’s not that Duelle is a bad film – it’s not, at all, it’s well-shot and well-acted… but, well, it’s a bit like watching someone’s home movie (with extremely high production values, that is). If the synopsis give on Wikipedia is the story Rivette thought he was telling, the film is a little too confused for it to stand as a description of its plot. I quite liked Merry-Go-Round‘s inability to resolve itself – it was very L’Avventura, and I admire Antonioni’s film, and indeed his oeuvre. But Duelle often feels like assorted episodes from an incomplete series. I’m going to have to watch it again, I think; but I’m still convinced I’ll never make real sense of it.

gospelThe Gospel According to Matthew*, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964, Italy). I was looking for something on Amazon Prime to watch on a Sunday afternoon, and stumbled across this, which is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It wasn’t quite the easy watching I was hoping for, but never mind. It’s a pretty much straight-up telling of the eponymous gospel, its southern Italy locations making a good fist of standing in for Biblical Palestine. I’m not entirely sure why the film exists, to be honest. It’s not a new spin on the gospel, and as commentary it’s remarkably thin. The neo-realist style works well with the material, but we’re still talking about a 2000-year-old fantasy that a substantial portion of the world’s population think is historical fact. Here are a few facts: Jesus was a Jewish; he spoke Aramaic; Jesus is not an Aramaic name, so he can’t have been called that; he probably wasn’t born in Nazareth either, because there’s no archaeological evidence the town existed until the third century CE. But then Pasolini’s film tells it as it’s presented in Matthew’s gospel, which was written at least two generations after the Crucifixion, and have undoubtedly been rewritten many times since. But that’s the source material, this is the film. And it, well, it tells a story, and it does well. But the source material is always going to overshadow it, and while I salute Pasolini’s bravery in tackling it, and I admire the understated way he told the story, it does all feel a bit unnecessary. Does it belong on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list? I honestly don’t know.

haxanHäxan*, Benjamin Christensen (1922, Sweden). Um, I could perhaps have better planned my viewing… to go from saying I have no interest in a movie about Christ straight into one about Satan and witchcraft… Especially when Häxan proved well-made and fascinating. I’ve no idea what prompted Christensen to make it – surely Sweden in the 1920s wasn’t that bad a place? Häxan opens with a history of witchcraft, before then illustrating that history with a series of re-enactments illustrating parts of the history. One part iunvolves the trial of an old woman for witchcraft, and the final part of the film attempts to give modern explanations to behaviour classed in less enlightened times as witchcraft. And this is in a film ade in the 1920s. Though it may be difficult for osme to believe, I was not around at the beginnings of cinema. In fact, silent movies were very much a thing of the past when I was born. And I suppose I inherited the general response to them that my generation had – sound was better, so why bother watching silent films? Of course, I’ve seen quite a number of them since then. Indeed, I’ve become a fan of Murnau’s films, and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is a bona fide classic, as is Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia, not to mention Ponting’s The Great White Silence, Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera or Dovzhenko’s Zemlya. Okay, I’m not a big fan of the Keystone Cops, and while I’ll happily watch Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or early Laurel & Hardy, they’re pretty much watch once and enjoy experiences; and that’s even true of early Hitchcock… but there are silent films – and I don’t just mean Metropolis – that every cinephile should have in their collection… and yes, Häxan is probably one of them. Happily, there’s a good edition from Tartan readily available in the UK.


Leave a comment

Culture vulture

I could really do with another bookcase, but I don’t have a free wall to put it against. But then, pretty much every bookshelf I have is double-stacked… which I guess means I actually need more than one bookcase. Oh well.

2016-09-11-10-19-18

Some for the collection. Carrying the Fire is the best of the astronaut (auto-)biographies I’ve read – I reviewed it here – but first editions are usually very expensive. This a lucky reasonably-priced find ($25!) on eBay. Another signed first edition by Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net. And I stumbled across this first edition of Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand for $20 on eBay and thought it worth getting.

2016-09-11-10-18-13

Some non-fiction. Moonport U.S.A. is not the Moonport book from the NASA History series, but a chapbook published by the Air Force Eastern Test Range Public Relations Association. This is the fifth edition. Malcolm Lowry (Contemporary Writers) is one for the criticism bookshelf. And Blackburn Aircraft since 1909 means I now have 15 of these books, and only 5 more until I have all of the UK ones. Brasília: The Modernist Utopia is a collection of photographs of the eponymous city, a place I would love to visit. Unfortunately, it’s a POD book and the print quality of the photographs is not very good.

2016-09-11-10-16-40

One for SF Mistressworks, Murray Constantine’s (Katherine Burdekin’s) Swastika Night. I thought Blixen’s Anecdotes of Destiny so good, I decided to try another of her collections and picked Winter’s Tales. I’m not sure where I stumbled across mention of Nocilla Dream, but it sounded intriguing so I put it on my wishlist… and bunged it on my last order. Finally, a pair of charity shop finds: Perfidia, and Ellroy’s novels are enormous and I’ve no idea when I’ll find the time to read them, and The Spire, the third of the four Goldings I found in a charity shop (I bought two on my first visit, but when I went back a week later someone had gone and bought the fourth, I think it was Lord of the Flies; oh well).


2 Comments

Moving pictures, #45

More movies!

suffragetteSuffragette, Sarah Gavron (2015, UK). I’m surprised it’s taken until 2015 to make a film like this. Actually, I’m not surprised, just disgusted. True, this film is bsed on fictional characters, and real historical people such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Emil Davison do make brief appearances (the former is, in fact, played by Meryl Streep). The film tells the story of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK through a pair of invented characters – a working-class laundress played by Carey Mulligan, who more or less accidentally becomes a suffragette. Well, inasmuch ,as she rebels a clear injustice and that brings her into contact with the suffragettes and so she reluctantly joins their campaign. To me, it seems incredible that women should ever have been denied the vote, but I’m not stupid, I realise that historically men have been complete scumbags, and many still are today. I remember thinking while watching Suffragette that most social progress has come about because of violent action, and that decades of insistence on “peaceful demonstration” has only slowed the rate of social progress – if not driven it backwards, as twenty-first century culture seems in many ways less progressive than that of the twentieth century. I have to wonder sometimes if the twentieth century was only a social experiment, and now it’s over. But I suspect what’s more likely is that WWI killed off great swathes of the upper classes and so opened up management of society to the middle classes, but now the upper classes are back in charge once again. But Suffragrette… An important film, I think, because of its subject, but not a great film; and though played well by its cast and directed well, it did all feel a bit meh. Recommended because of its subject, if not as a film per se.

jeremishJeremiah Johnson, Sydney Pollack (1972, USA). I’m not a big fan of Westerns, but I find myself liking several Western films that don’t follow the usual Western story-lines. Like this one. Not a brilliant film, by any means; but there’s lots of lovely scenery in it, and the story is sufficiently distant from your typical Western story that I found it interesting… but I’m not convinced Robert Redford was suitable for the title role. He looks too, well, urbane. The title character heads off into the mountains for a new life. Fortunately, he stumbles across an old timer before he dies of starvation, and the old timer teaches him how to survive. Taking his leave after learning all this is to learn, he finds a homesteader family that had been attacked by Blackfoot. The wife has been driven mad with grief and she insists Johnson take her young son with him. So he does. He then comes across a trapper who had been buried neck-deep in sand by Blackfoot, and rescues him. They track down the Blackfoot who attacked the trapper and steal back his possessions – and killed the Blackfoot braves. This apparently makes Johnson something of a hero among the other Native American tribes of the area. He ends up married to the daughter of a Flathead chieftain, and they and the boy start to make a life for themselves. But the US Cavalry asks for Johnson’s help to resuce a wagon train, and this requires a ride, against Johnson’s better judgement, through a Blackfoot sacred burial ground. The Blackfoot respond by killing his wife and adopted son. There then follows many years of Blackfoot sending young braves to test their mettle against Johnson, all of whom, of course, he kills. We like to think of the Wild West taking place in the scrub and desert of south-west USa, but there’s other scenery which falls within the genre – the Rocky Mountains in this case. And it’s hard to film such landscapes badly… but when they’re filmed well, they’re gorgeous. Pollack had always struck me as a Hollywood stalwart – a director of commercially successful films, with the odd critical success thrown in, but by no means an auteur. And while Redford may not convince as the title character in Jeremiah Johnson, Pollack does a really good job at presenting the landscape (I can’t say “capture” but I have no personal experience of it). The end result is a superior Western, albeit perhaps high second-tier rather than first-tier. But worth a watch.

uchoUcho*, Karel Kachňya (1970, Czech Republic). I wanted to like this film more than I did. For many reasons. For the fact it was banned for many years in its home country, and only shown for the first time after the Velvet Revolution. For its subject: the lives of people in a totalitarian state. For its story: the paranoia endemic in totalitarian states is heightened for a couple after they return from a party and find their front door unlocked, and that tears their marriage apart. And for its use of New Wave cinematic techniques to tell its story. But something about it didn’t quite click for me. Possibly because I have a positive view of the trappings it presents as totalitarian, which I’ve taken from films like Eolomea and Wings. If that makes sense. This is not to say what happened to the Czech Republic – Czechoslovakia as was – at the USSR’s hands is in any way condonable. But in the Eastern Bloc the signifiers they presented for success and happiness I actually find quite appealing, and though they’re all utopian surface, cleverly hiding the totalitarian reality underneath, it’s hard not to be beguiled by the dream. Which is a bit of a long-winded way of saying that Ucho reveals that horrible reality underneath as a commentary by someone who actually lived it. In terms of technique, Ucho has much to recommend it – the use of ambient light, the tight focus on the central charaters… a variety of New Wave techniques, in fact. But the shifting of focus of totalitarian depradations to married-couple dynamics feels at times like diminuation of what should be a major dramatic point. There is, for example, a point in the film when the doorbell rings and the husband and wife work themselves up into such a frenzy believing the secret police have come to take him away that he walks down to open the gate carrying a suitcase of overnight things. But it turns out it’s only a bunch of drunken colleagues from the minsterial party which opens the film. The threat remains – and the movie is clear on that – but the decaying relationship between husband and wife seems to be used a little too often to ratchet up a more existential fear than is deserved by the story. Ucho is an important film, but it is somewhat disappointing as a piece of cinema. Worth seeing – once, at least.

three_coloursThree Colours: Red*, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1994, France). And so the Three Colours trilogy, and my rewatch of it, comes to a close; and Red is generally considered the best of the three… and so it is, but by considerably more of a margin than I’d remembered. Yes, yes, that final scene where all the major characters from all three films are paraded across the screen is silly and unnecessary; but there’s still a focus and tightness to the story of Red which is so much stronger than that of the other two films. Irene Jacob, who was so good in The Double Life of Veronique, plays a model in Geneva with an absent boyfriend. One night she hits a dog in her car, and it turns out the dog’s owner is ex-judge Jean-Louis Trintignant, who cares nothing for the dog. So Jacob pays for the vet bills and adopts it as a pet. But it turns out Trintignant is a bit of a misanthopric oddball, who listens in on the phone calls of his neighbours… and he draws Jacob into his obsession. But she also has problems of her own. I’d started watching Red expecting something similar to my rewatches of Blue and White, so I was surprised to discover how much better than them it is (final scene notwithstanding). There is, now I think back on it, not much that stands out in terms of cinematography – a lot of use of the titular colour, and some nice photography of night-time Geneva. And, to be fair, the cast in all three films have been excellent – but I think it’s the dynamic between Jacob and Trintignant that works so well and lifts the film above Blue and White. The film is supposed to represent fraternity, yet most of the relationships in it have failed by the end – Jacob and her absent boyfriend, a neighbour and his girlfriend… And the strongest relationship in the film, between Jacob and Trintignant, is between two characters who have nothing in common, in fact Jacob is vehemently opposed to Trintignant’s practice of phone hacking. But when Jacob leaves to visit friends in the UK, Trintignant is the only one to wish her good fortune. This rewatch has amended my opinion of the Three Colours trilogy. They’re undoubtedly good films, but having watched so much more non-Anglophone cinema since I first watched them I find them more excellent examples of a particular type of film than merely excellent films. Kieślowski was a gifted film-maker and left an enviably impressive body of work, but I find myself thinking better of his earlier Polish films than I do his later French ones. Go figure.

waiting_womenWaiting Women, Ingmar Bergman (1952, Sweden). Bergman wrote a number of films about women, and while I don’t know enough to call his attitude to women into question, I do wonder sometimes. In Waiting Women, we have a group of women reminscing about the situation which led to their current state of affairs. And it’s all about relationships. The movie opens with a group of women preparing a meal together, before then flashing back to stories of their relationships, the longest and most memorabe of which is that featuring Gunnar Björnstrand and Eva Dahlbeck – although it does also include a nasty line in misogynistic cracks from Björnstrand. And the infamous elevator scene. Which is, to be honest, one of the highlights. The two are trapped in a lift, and over the course of some ten minutes their rancour turns to humour. The flashback structure at least meant Waiting Women didn’t feel like a televised play, which a lot of Bergman’s films do (even those with scenes that take place outdoors). Not great Bergman by any means, but even his sub-par films are still a cut above most film-maker’s best.

riverRiver of No Return, Otto Preminger (1954, USA). I mentioned in a previous post that Preminger only made one Western… and this is it. And it’s a curious beast. It has many reasons to like it, and yet to fails to, well, impress. The story is an adaptation of The Bicycle Thieves, which is a point in its favour; and the landscape in which the film is set is gorgeous, and often extremely well-photographed… but it’s the things that make it a Hollywood film which spoil it. The close-ups are done in a studio, not on location, and it shows – badly. Marilyn Monroe was a big draw at the time, but she doesn’t bring anything special to this film. In fact, she’s a bit crap – and only seems to really shine when she’s at her most artless (although I guess that was part of her talent as an actress; having said that, by all accounts, she was pretty insufferable during this shoot). Mitchum turns up to a gold-diggers’ camp to pick up his ten-year-old son, who had been left there by arrangement. It turns out the son had been looked after by saloon singer Monroe. Mitchum and son go off to Mitchum’s homestead beside the eponymous river… only for Monroe and fiancé gambler to turn up on en route to stake a claim at Council City. Their raft founders, but Mitchum rescues them. Gambler responds by stealing Mitchm’s horse to continue his jounrey, but Monroe remains behind. Gambler never returns so the three of them make their own way, by raft, to Council City. The location shooting ias lovely, the studio shots anything but. In fact, it seems for much of the film the continuity people were given the day off, as close-up shots often seem to take place in completely different environments. River of No Return is an odd beast. Preminger was a skilled director, and he manages a solid narrative with (mostly) good turns from his cast. But the mix of location shooting and studio shots never quite match and the discrepancy jars badly. One for completists.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 796


Leave a comment

The future we used to have, part 30

It’s been a while since I did one of these, so I thought it about time I added to the series. Photos are now easier to find on the internet, but finding just the right one has become somewhat harder. For some reason, it all appears to be Soviet this time…

air

Tupolev Tu-95 Bear

Tupolev Tu-95 Bear

Yakovlev Ya-28 Brewer

Yakovlev Ya-28 Brewer

Beriev Be-42 Albatross

Beriev Be-42 Albatross

Sukhoi Su-15 Flagon

Sukhoi Su-15 Flagon

sea

An Alfa Class submarine

Alfa Class submarine

A port bow view of a Soviet Kara class guided missile cruiser underway.

Kerch, Kara Class cruiser

kirov

Pyotr Velikiy, Kirov Class battlecruiser

smetlivy

Smetlivy, Kashin Class destroyer

land

ss-15

RT-20 (SS-15 Scrooge) ICBM and mobile launcher

ss-16

RT-21 Temp 2s (SS-16 Sinner) ICBM and mobile launcher

ss20

RSD-10 Pioneer (SS-20 Saber) and mobile launcher

ss-23

OTR-23 Oka (SS-23 Spider) theatre ballistic missile and mobile launcher

wibbly wobbly ætheric thing

1RL134 (P-19 Danube) radar

1RL134 (P-19 Danube) radar

SNR-75 (Fan Song ) radar

SNR-75 (Fan Song) radar

Saturn (P-35 Bar Lock) radar

Saturn (P-35 Bar Lock) radar

1S12 (P40 Long Track) radar

1S12 (P-40 Long Track) radar


4 Comments

The art of brewing fiction

At the end of 2014, I sold a space opera trilogy to Tickety Boo Press. I’d written the first two books a few years before, but had never got around to writing the third. This wasn’t a problem, however. I saw it as an opportunity to prove I could write a big commercial novel in a reasonable timeframe, despite never having tried it before. Unfortunately, I hadn’t factored in two important things: a) real life, and b) even when I start writing commercial science fiction it turns into something else.

Anyway, the first book, A Prospect of War appeared in March 2015, and the second book, A Conflict of Orders, six months later. Everything seem to be going well… Until, in early 2016, the day job dumped a major project on me… and the writing on book three, A Want of Reason, ground to a halt. But – and this is, I hope, the point of this piece – the months off from writing space opera will, I think, make A Want of Reason a stronger and better novel. I may not have been banging out the words, but I’ve never stopped thinking about the story; and I’ve jotted down notes when ideas occurred to me.

When two chargers are set at an angle of 23.7 degrees to each other, they cause a catastrophic distortion in reality: an implosion.

One of my objectives when I set out to write An Age of Discord (the trilogy’s overall title) was to explore the structure of commercial fantasy trilogies. I chose to do this using space opera because I much prefer science fiction to fantasy. A Prospect of War is based on the hero’s journey template, in which a young man of humble birth is elevated to leader of a powerful military force pledged to defend the throne against the evil usurper. (There are a few narrative loops and detours thrown in there too, of course.) For A Conflict of Orders, I wanted to avoid “middle book syndrome”, in which the author just shuffles pieces around the board for the epic final battle in book three. So I made the epic final battle the centre-piece of my second novel. The second half of A Conflict of Orders then covers the lifting of the siege of the Imperial Palace and the aftermath of the attempted coup.

The angle must be precise. A fraction of a degree either way and the two chargers will simply bounce apart, like magnets of the same pole.

But when it came to writing A Want of Reason, some five years after I’d completed A Conflict of Orders… The first thing I did was throw away the original synopsis. I’d planned the novel to have two main narratives: one set in the days following A Conflict of Orders, in which the main characters prepare the Imperial capital for the final act of the 1000-year-old conspiracy which has been driving the trilogy’s plot; and another narrative set 1000 years in the past and describing the events which led to that conspiracy forming. But I decided I didn’t like the idea – for a start, it felt like too much work to create a version of the empire as it was 1000 years earlier, given all the work I’d put into world-building for the empire of the time the main story is set. Instead, the novel would follow on directly from A Conflict of Orders, but I’d take the story in an entirely different direction…

The exact angle is, of course, a closely-guarded secret, known only to a few hundred academicians and munitions artificers.

But I don’t want to write too much about A Want of Reason, because things might still change as I get further into the writing of it. And I don’t want to spoil people’s enjoyment of the novel when it does finally appear. It’s just that recent thoughts I’ve had about the book have led to me thinking about the creative process and how it relates to A Want of Reason and the trilogy. For example, a major part of the first third of A Want of Reason is two characters, Dai and Finesz, each investigating a minor mystery. While it had been clear in my mind right from the start what the answer to those mysteries were, I’d not quite figured out how they linked into the plot of the novel and the story-arc of the trilogy. Later, not only did I come up with a way of fitting them in, but a way of using them to actually advance the plot and add to the world-building.

Marla Dai could not remember when she had originally come across the information, but she was making good use of it now. It had been easy enough to find an unused aerocraft at Kukoi Aerodrome, likely belonging to some noble with more money than sense. It had not flown for months. Less than an hour later, Dai had removed a pair of chargers from its underside and concealed them nearby.

I chose the word “brewing” for this blog post deliberately, because for me ideas often feel like the product of fermentation. I envy those writers who can start writing and ideas just come to them; as well as those who sit down and plan out their writing like a military campaign. But creativity is a subconscious process – I don’t know how many times during the writing of An Age of Discord I’ve come up with what felt like a neat idea, only to find several chapters later it served as an excellent hook for an even neater idea

justi_imagine

There’s that old saw of the writer being asked, “where do you get your ideas from?” There are as many answers as there are writers. For me, it’s lying in bed at night, thinking, “Shit, I’ve got Finesz hunting for Azeel now, so how does she go about tracking her down and what does she discover when she does find her?” And it all has to work within the universe of the book, it has to be rigorous. I know where the story is going, of course; I have a general direction in mind – and sometimes a quite detailed idea of the end – and I know what sort of things I want to write about. I suppose it won’t come as much of a surprise to those who know me, but A Want of Reason is primarily about the fascistic character of space opera empires. I admit a lot of it was about the uniforms when I was writing A Prospect of War, but now, some 350,000 to 400,000 words later, and however many years, and one of the major points I want to make in An Age of Discord is the way space operas always default to the right, and the easy acceptance of same by readers of the sub-genre. And the best way to comment on that, I decided, was to push the empire of the story even further rightwards. It’s there in the final pages of A Conflict of Orders, the forced closing of the civil government and a crackdown on what little political freedom already exists…

The troopers had already subdued most of those inside by the time Inspector Sliva Finesz of the Office of the Procurator Imperial entered the premises. This was not her operation, she had been roped in to help, although no one had bothered to fill her in on the details. She strode into the building, pulling her gloves onto her hands, and found herself in a large workshop room, two storeys high, with a sharply-raked roof supported by narrow iron pillars, and filled with large mechanisms… Printing-presses? The air stank of hot oil overlaid with the acrid tang of some chemical she did not recognise. Troopers held a group of proles at the back of the room. Some of the proles were injured—bruised and bloodied. Above them, half a dozen yeomen peered out of office windows on a mezzanine floor, while a couple of low-ranking OPI officers stood by in attendance.

Although it was not planned, the last six months of fermentation have proven beneficial to A Want of Reason. Last year, I decided the Involutes’ main headquarters would be called the Fastness. But all I had was a name. A couple of months ago, as I lay in bed, natch, an idea occurred to me… and a number of things just started slotting together, not just the Fastness, but the Involutes’ masks, things that had happened in the earlier books… It was like watching a Transformer, er, transform. It may be a dilettante-ish way to write, but it works for me. I once said that if the half-story ever became an art-form, I’ve a body of work ready and waiting. Because that’s how it goes for me. I have an idea, I start on a story… I give up after a few hundred words because it’s not working… And then the story sort of sits there in the back if my mind, brewing away, until one day I pretty much bang it out fully-formed. That’s what happened with ‘Geologic’.

They met an hour after dawn in a secluded corner of a park beneath the wall of jagged hills which separated Gahara from the rest of Toshi. Dew lay heavy on the grass and bowed the thin branches of the trees surrounding the spot they had chosen. A faint mist lay a ceiling across the sky some two or three hundred feet up, the sun a hot diffuse dot of orange above the hills. Despite this, the air smelled cool and fresh, with a faint hint of the sea from the bay below. A young lieutenant from the Honourable Basilisk Company, with more decency than most of the nobility Casmir Ormuz had met in Toshi, acted as second. Ormuz’s opponent, a viscount and the son of an earl, who had not expected a challenge but had responded to it with alacrity, appeared both composed and quietly confident. He either discounted the stories he might have heard about Ormuz, or he had never heard them. His equally doltish second smirked at what he clearly expected to be a quick and victorious bout.

I’d wanted to write a story about saturation diving in a science-fictional context for a while, and had decided that a world with high atmospheric pressure was the best setting. And there’d need to be some sort of alien ruin or something to justify explorers spending so much time in such an inimical environment. But that’s as far as I got. I wrote a few hundred words… and there it sat for several months. Brewing away Until one weekend I sat down and wrote it. A read-through by my beta readers, some cleaning up, and I submitted to Interzone. The magazine bought it, and it appeared in issue 262.

Unfortunately, it’s not always so easy. The final story in Dreams of the Space Age, ‘Our Glorious Socialist Future Among the Stars!’ may have gestated and been born in a similar fashion – “I’m writing a story about Yuri Gagarin crash-landing on Mars and I’m going to pastiche Robinson Crusoe on Mars… and, I know, I’ll have all the dialogue in Russian! And… this is a great idea… I’ll throw in lots of references to Soviet sf!” – but I never managed to sell it to a magazine. Was it the title? The Russian dialogue? The quotes from The Communist Manifesto? Who knows. Although most comments about Dreams of the Space Age single out ‘Far Voyager’ as the best story; and that was originally published in Postscripts, was in fact the title story in Postscripts 32/33: Far Voyager.

People like to ask, what’s the best writing advice you’ve received, and all I can think of is Bob Shaw’s admonition in his How to Write Science Fiction to “read lots of books”. Example and self-experimentation are powerful learning tools. But I’d go one further, and say, read lots of books from lots of genres and modes of fiction. Read too widely outside sf and there’s a danger of being disillusioned with the genre, but that can also feed back into your writing. Science fiction should never be given special dispensation; instead, we writers of sf should strive to lift the genre up to the level where it is taken as seriously as any other mode of fiction. Which is why writers should read widely. (I don’t get that thing about writers who refuse to read other books when working on a project, I really don’t.)

Of course, this is merely in reference to the prose and story-telling. Don’t get me started on research. Assume at least one of your readers is an expert in the subject you are writing; assume they will mock you for getting it wrong. So get it right. Don’t make it up as you go along. In the past, the writer might never have learnt that some people thought him or her an idiot for getting simply physics wrong in a sf novel, but these days, with social media, someone is sure to “helpfully” let the writer know… (Or even bully them over it – it’s scumbag behaviour, but it happens.) But that’s a discussion for another day…

[This post contains some lines from the opening chapters of A Want of Reason.]