It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Reading diary 2020, #13

I remember once upon a time I used to read good books. Something seems to have gone wrong. The Chandler wasn’t bad, and the Cho managed a fair fist of its setting, but the rest were pretty bad. True, my expectations were not high for the Jordan – I’d thought it terrible the first time I read it twenty years ago… although it did seem to be much worse than I remembered it. The Farmer – also a reread, although I’ve no memory of reading it before – was also shit.

Spook Street, Mick Herron (2017, UK). As a writer, you often wonder if it’s possible to tell a story using completely unlikeable characters. But then you grow up and realise no one is interested in a story involving characters who repel them. Unless you’re Mick Herron. In this installment, a suicide bomber kills a bunch of teens in a shopping mall and then one of the Slough House agents is murdered, and the dead agent’s grandfather, the “Old Bastard”, an ex-MI5 bigwig, goes missing… and it’s all to do with a rogue CIA agent who set up a secret school in France to raise kids as terrorists and everyone is surprised when they behave like terrorists… The Slough House books do not score well on plausibility when it comes to their plots, but this one is even less believable than the ones preceding it. Herron seems keen to depict MI5 as a bunch of criminals – although he lavishes real contempt on Tory politicians – but his so-called heroes are all unlikeable incompetents. Sigh. The first book in the series is possibly worth a go, but the sequels are entirely missable.

The Man Who Fell to Earth, Walter Tevis (1963, USA). This is one of those rare cases where I’ve seen the film – several times – before I read the book. And the film isn’t exactly a faithful adaptation. It covers the main points, but the movie is very much about its visuals and the book is just a bog-standard early 1960s sf novel that’s actually set in the early 1960s. Which at least means mean wearing hats is plausible. The title character is Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from Anthea – implied to be Mars – who has infiltrated Earth – ie, the US – in order to save his home world. He introduces technological innovations from his planet and so makes a vast fortune, which he uses to build a spaceship. But the government are suspicious and  eventually arrest him. The CIA eventually uncover his secret, but they keep it from the FBI, who bungle their investigation and blind Newton. The point of the book is that Newton is discovered. And despite a long list of technological innovations introduced by Newton, the government still manages to fuck things up. I’m surprised this was considered a shocking perspective in 1963, especially in the US, a nation famous for its distrust of its government (to be fair, for good reason). But the idea of an alien not being an actual evil invader seems to have struck US sf fans as something, well, entirely novel. Seriously? That says more about US sf than it does this book. Which is otherwise ordinary, and you would be better off  watching the film as it’s more rewarding.

Lord of Chaos, Robert Jordan (1994, USA). I’d say this is where the rot sets in, but given the how the series was put together, I don’t think that’s entirely fair. This is, after all, the sixth novel of a series that was intended to be ten volumes long, but that length wasn’t decided until after the second volume… You can just imagine how the conversation went – RJ: it’s three books. Pub: make it one. Pub: it’s going really well, how does ten books sound? RJ (Ker-ching!): Shit shit fuck fuck fuck. RJ (later): this ten book thing is not working out, can we make it a few more? Pub (ker-ching!): no problemo. It doesn’t help that the title of this book is a title assigned to series hero Rand Al’Thor that has never been mentioned before. Because, of course, why would it? Jordan only invented it when he set out to write this installment. Meanwhile we have the rest of the cast doing exactly what they did at the end of the last book. With added recaps. Lots of fucking recaps. If, perhaps, we had not read the preceding five books… we don’t need to!  Because Jordan explains what happened in them in this book. Several times. Just to make sure. I seem to remember from my prior read back in the late 1990s that book seven was where things started to go downhill, but I’d thought book six, Lord of Chaos, was one of the last good ones. Only, it turns out it’s the first of the bad ones. Although, to be fair, that term is relative. I have this desire to complete the Wheel of Time, and there’s no way I’m going to do that based on my readings of the books from the 1990s. So I have to reread them. Easier said than done, sadly.

Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (2015, Malaysia). I should have been on this like, well, like really quickly, since it is after all a fantasy set in Regency England and I’m a big fan of Georgette Heyer (and, more recently, Alice Chetwynd Ley). But I am not, to be fair, a fan of Regency fantasy. It’s not a large genre – unless you include timeslip romances – and most examples I’ve read have not been especially good, mostly because they’ve been by US authors who haven’t quite understood Regency England (at least not to the extent it convinces an experienced Heyer reader), and while I have mostly positive memories of Sorcery & Cecelia, that was a) pretty much the first Regency fantasy, b) an epistolary novel, and c) I read it a long time ago and would reread it except it’s now in storage. Anyway. Zen Cho is not English, but has lived and worked in the UK for a number of years and is to all intents and purposes an English author. If Sorcerer to the Crown falls over sometimes in terms of its Regency prose, that’s a failure of craft – Cho knows the period inside-out, that much is clear – and Regency diction can be a little convoluted at the bets of times. Having said that, not everything in the plot actually adds up. Britain’s magic has been decreasing, and the witches of Bandar Jaik are partly responsible, but the decrease predates their involvement and is never explained. But Sorcerer to the Crown is more concerned about the race of its title character, the emancipated son of slaves, who takes the title of the, er, title under mysterious circumstances, and his colour of course makes him a number of enemies as well. I wanted to like this book, and I did like it – but I have caveats: the plotting needed to be more rigorous, some of it doesn’t quite add up, and the Regency prose slips on occasion. Heyer, this is not; but then its sensibilities are twenty-first-century and that’s definitely a plus over Heyer. I understand a sequel appeared last year. I would definitely read it. Oh, and apparently there are two sequels to Sorcery & Cecelia, which I didn’t know.

The Long Good-bye, Raymond Chandler (1954). I was introduced to Chandler through my father, who had a collection of his books in Penguin paperbacks from the 1960s. Chandler has always been there for me as an early writer of crime fiction, certainly more so than Dorothy L Sayers or Nicholas Blake or Margery Allingham. So my knowledge of early crime fiction is more California noir than aristocratic sleuths. The Long Good-bye is a well-known title by Chandler, as well as a movie set in the 1970s starring Elliott Gould. I like Chandler’s fiction. I think he’s over-rated – or rather, I think his influence on the genre is greater than he deserved. But I do like his books. One of the things I like is his certitude. Chandler was certain about everything he wrote and how he wrote it. I’m amused by the fact he despised Philo Vance of SS Van Dine’s hugely successful novels, and can only imagine his ire was stoked by Vance, and by extension Van Dine, clearly being gay. Marlowe was, of course, famously a womaniser, and all of Chandler’s novels are predicated on Chandler’s relationship with a woman. Which is not, surprisingly, how The Long Good-bye opens. Marlowe makes friends with a man, and helps the man escape justice when he brutally murders his wife. But then the murderer is murdered in Mexico… Marlowe never believed he was guilty, and never believed the account of his suicide was legit. Throw in a California millionaire (billionaire now), a literary writer who found success as a writer of historical best-sellers but despises himself and has hit the bottle big time, and the writer’s manipulative wife… This is classic Chandler, but it’s also a book that doesn’t go where you expect it to. If you have to read a Chandler novel, it’s a good one to choose; on the other hand, I don’t think it’s especially typical of the Marlowe novels. You might as well read a couple of them. You won’t regret it.

The Day of Timestop, Philip José Farmer (1960, USA). I had it in my mind Farmer was one of those off-beat sf authors of the 1960s and 1970s who never scored big but produced interesting work nonetheless. We’ve all heard of Riverworld, and despite a reread a few years ago of To Your Scattered Bodies Go not exactly impressing, the concept seems to be “high” enough to keep interest in Farmer’s works alive. Sadly, his reputation doesn’t seem to stand up to scrutiny. I’d previously read The Day of Timestop under the title A Woman a Day, because it was also republished by Beacon Books under that title, and I have the Beacon Books edition. Which I have not actually read yet – and, of course, it’s currently in storage. So, anyway, I bought the SF Gateway edition as it was cheap and I was still robbed because this book is really bad. More than a thousand years in the future, after much of humanity was wiped out, the world has split into three main blocs – the religious Haijac Union, the Israeli Republics – because a US author has to promote Israel, even if he’s not Jewish – and I forget what the third one was. Oh, and Marcher, a neutral state in west Europe. The story takes place in the Haijac Union, specifically in Paris, where a Marcher agent has infiltrated the Haijac Union to the highest level – he’s a lamech-man, ie, beyond reproach, beyond suspicion, incorruptible, so pretty much how Tories see themselves despite all evidence to the contrary, you know, like letting kids starve over Christmas – but then Tories are scum – and while Farmer sets up his  world with economy, it makes zero sense, and the plot which follows on from it makes even less. There’s a woman who’s an alien because she has some sort of organic battery wired to her vagina (really!), but then it turns out she’s not an alien. And there are some Bantu who have been literally whitewashed – “depigmentized” (really!) – and they’re some weird sort of hippy Christians, and the initials “JC” seem to refer to half a dozen messiahs – and the title actually refers to one of them, who is supposed to return from his time-travelling on the “Day of Timestop” to trigger Rapture for everyone in the Haijac Union. Everything in this book is wrong – the ideas are complete nonsense, the sensibilities are all over the place and not in a good way, the prose is functional at best, and if the story doesn’t go where you expect it to that’s because Farmer probably didn’t know himself where he was going. A book to avoid.


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Movie roundup 2020, #18

This post’s box-set bingeing has been Morden i Sandhamn, a murder-mystery series set in the Stockholm archipelago, mostly in the village of Sandhamn on an island some 60 km due east of central Stockholm. It’s all a bit chocolate box and heavy with the clichés – they even did that one where a person drowns, and the person giving them CPR gives up, and then gets angry and thumps them on the chest… and brings them back to life – but it’s entertaining enough and a good way to improve my Swedish. Also Miss Truth, a Chinese series set in Tang Dynasty Suzhou, about a young woman who is a forensic examiner and helps an assistant minister in the Ministry of Penalties solve puzzling murders, and who also happens to be affianced to an assassin. It’s got it all: sword-fights and kung fu, cleverly worked out solutions to the murders, colourful costumes, a good-looking cast, and good production values. The subtitles can be a little… creative, however. And, finally, Unforgettable, a US series about a cop with hyperthymesia, who uses her photographic memory to solve murders for the NYPD. It’s entertaining enough, and the gimmick is well-used, but the lead character is just a little bit too good to be plausible. And, unfortunately, they introduced a “kooky” computer forensics technician in episode 11 – going for an Abby Sciuto – and she’s really annoying (she also talks complete bollocks).

I did try watching Mutant X as well, but it was fucking terrible, a knock-off X-Men that still managed to feel more like one of those bad straight-to-VHS sf movies from the late 1980s. Best avoided.

X: The Unknown, Leslie Norman (1956, UK). This is one of the films that helped established Hammer Films as a maker of horror and science fiction movies, and it’s pretty much an exemplar of the sf films they made. A platoon of soldiers are training  to use Geiger counters, in case of nuclear war, in a gravel pit of course, when they discover evidence of a radioactive creature beneath the earth. And, er, that’s pretty much the plot. Radioactive blob from underground wreaks havoc. Hammer Films didn’t get complicated – it was one of their strengths. The US lead here is Dean Jagger, because all UK films of course had to have US leads in order to appeal to the parochial US market. X: The Unknown doesn’t do anything a number of similar films, including later Hammer Films, haven’t done, but one of the advantages of the brand was you always knew pretty much what you were getting. Which was mid-twentieth-century British budget horror. And that was actually a good thing.

Who Killed Captain Alex?, Nabwana IGG (2010, Uganda). My first Ugandan film. And it was reportedly made on a budget of under $200. Unfortunately, the director – who edited the film, and added the special effects, on his cobbled-together desktop PC – wiped his hard-disk to make room for his second feature film. But then a power surge wiped that, so he had to start over again from scratch. Fortunately, DVD copies of Who Killed Captain Alex? survived. Unfortunately, they were “VJ copies”, apparently a thing in Ugandan cinema – films are accompanied by a “video jockey” or “video joker” voiceover, who comments and jokes about what’s happening on screen. Who Killed Captain Alex? is a pretty ordinary overly-violent and overly-cheap thriller about a clash between local police and the Tiger Mafia. The acting is terrible, the special effects are cheap and obvious, but the fight choreography is surprisingly good. There’s also a good musical interlude. Given the budget, and the complete absence of film-making experience in Wakaliga, a suburb of Kampala, Who Killed Captain Alex? is surprisingly watchable. Nabwana IGG apparently went on to make a couple of other films and I’d actually like to see them.

Where’s that Fire?, Marcel Varnel (1940, UK). Will Hay was a big comedy star in the UK from the 1920s through to the 1940s, and inspired a number of comedians I remember from my childhood years. But until watching Where’s that Fire? I don’t actually recall watching a Will Hay movie. It’s not a lack that’s ever bothered me, and after watching this film I don’t think it’s a lack I should ever be bothered about. Which is not to say it’s a bad film. It’s funny. The slapstick is cleverly done, and some of the set-pieces are hilarious. But it posits a village fire brigade with a horse-drawn appliance at a time – WWII, basically – when everywhere else had motorised decades before – see Humphrey Jennings, for example. It feels likes it’s trying too hard for comic effect. I would have preferred a film that was more of its time and not one that tried to pretend everywhere outside London was two decades behind.

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, Otto Preminger (1955, USA). Yes, that Billy Mitchell. The one who’s referred to as “the father of the US Air Force”. And even had a bomber, the B-25, named after him during WWII. Apparently, he wasn’t so well-regarded initially. After WWI, which the US entered late, as usual, and claimed all the credit, as usual, Mitchell was vocal in his desire for a US air force. Unfortunately, his superiors were not so convinced. They set him a test – to sink a battleship with bombs – and he cheated because their conditions made it impossible for him to succeed. So they demoted him, and he spent years on a letter writing campaign. Mitchell is a fascinating subject. Unfortunately, this is not a fascinating film. Gary Cooper plays Mitchell like a teenager, which is really weird, and Preminger’s direction is unobtrusive at best. I suspect Preminger made it because Mitchell continued to be a controversial figure even in the 1950s, but this is far from his best work. An uninspiring biopic.

The Diamond Mercenaries, Val Guest (1976, Ireland). This is one of those films that seems to have been made strictly as a cash investment, and if it returned anything more than a small a profit I’d be very surprised. A handful of big names can’t disguise the cheapness of the film, or the parochial nature of its story. A group of men plan to rob a profitable diamond mine in South Africa – actually, they plan to smuggle out the diamonds collected by a plant inside the mine. They’re up against security chief Telly Savalas. Peter Fonda, a security guard, is persuaded to infiltrate the robbers, but things are not what they seem. An entertaining thriller, with amusingly low production values, that thirty years ago would have been shown on a Sunday afternoon on some cable channel no one watched. And, er, still would be now.

Airplane!, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker & Jerry Zucker (1980, USA). I probably don’t need to describe the plot of this film. Not that it really has one. I’d seen it before – several times – of course, but before I started recording my film-watching. A lot of it is, surprisingly, still funny. It’s aged a good deal better than I’d have expected. I mean, yes, it’s explicitly a spoof of 1970s disaster movies, and in terms of pastiching those it certainly hits its targets, and it’s still very much a late 1970s/early 1980s film, with all that period’s sensibilities, but it’s light on the sorts of those sensibilities and still entertaining viewing in 2020. Which surprised me. Not a great film, and not one that belongs on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list, but good fun with a few beers on a weekend night.

Love and Other Cults, Eiji Uchida (2017, Japan). A young Japanese woman is left at a weird religious cult by her mother, but then the leader of the cult is arrested, and she floats from family to family looking for somewhere to belong and for an identity. The film is nominally told from the point of view of a schoolboy, something of an outsider himself, who meets Ai at school, and then bumps into her at various points during her life. Ai’s life goes from cult member to dutiful schoolgirl to school drop-out to Japanese counter-culture and, to be honest, I have no idea what this movie was trying to say. I enjoyed it, but it felt like it was making a point that completely opaque. The director is not a name I know, and his other films are also unknown to me.


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Movie roundup 2020, #17

Once again, I’ve been mostly binge watching TV series the last few weeks. This time it was Wire in the Blood, a UK crime series based on characters created by Val McDermid. I read a couple of her books many years ago, and thought them quite good. I also saw her interview Sara Paretsky (a favourite author) at a Harrogate Crime Festival programme item – my mother bought tickets for myself and her as my birthday present that year. It was an excellent present. Anyway, Wire in the Blood is okay, but seriously jumps the shark in the fifth season. I also watched Murder Call, an Australian police procedural from the 1990s built around detective Tessa Vance, who solves murders by putting together all of the clues subcobscuously three-quarters of the way through each episode. It was easy viewing.

I also watched Raised by Wolves, the new high-profile science fiction TV series partly produced (and directed) by Ridley Scott, and… It looks good – but that means only that a lot of money has been thrown at it. In terms of world-building and story… Oh dear. Nasty atheists versus nice Mithracists (who bizarrely quote the Bible). Pro-religious bollocks. I shall probably writing about it in more detail in another post.

Meanwhile, some movies…

No Man’s Woman, Franklin Adreon (1955, USA). Minor US noir in which the owner of a small gallery whose profitable, if not entirely ethical (or indeed legal), business is about to end, and so sets out to destroy the lives of all those around her. So, of course, someone murders her. Everyone has a motive, and none of the alibis stand up to scrutiny. But the detective figures it out, and it’s the nasty one wot dunnit. As I said, minor US noir. Interesting that it’s a female-led film – it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours – but the central character is a bit of a misogynistic stereotype.

Plot of Fear, Paolo Cavara (1976, Italy). One of those films that straddles the line between giallo and poliziottesco, which is why I end up lumping the two genres into one. A serial killer leaves illustrations from a kids’ book at the scenes of his crimes – which somehow justifies an erotic animated sequence mid-film. The victims are all members of a high society sex club, but the biggest mystery here is why anyone would care why such people are being murdered. Meanwhile, the detective in charge has sex a lot – with his girlfriend and with one of the witnesses – but doesn’t seem to make much headway in solving the crimes. Tom Skerrit makes a bizarre dubbed cameo as a senior police officer. I do like me some giallo, but it’s not a genre that’s known for its quality. I guess that makes it more of a guilty pleasure. Even so, there are occasions when you still feel like you’ve been had…

Island of Fire, Kevin Chu (1990, China). I watched this because it’s a Jackie Chan film, but it isn’t really. He plays a minor character. I’m not sure what the title refers to – the film is set in a prison, mostly, but the prison is not on an island. Or on fire. Anyway. There’s this sort of gang leader in the prison, played by Tony Leung Ka-fai (who had helped Chan in a dispute on another film and so Chan repaid him by appearing in this movies(, but he finds himself up against the warden, who has this neat little scheme going. The warden sentences inmates to death, but fakes their executions and employs them as assassins. Chinese prison wardens obviously have more power than Western ones. It’s the sort of premise that would make only sense in a Hong Kong movie. Sammo Hung plays an inmate who repeatedly tries to escape, and fails, often comically. There’s lots more going on, of course – corrupt cops, gangsters, gladiatorial fights inside the prison, etc. The film has its moments, but its link to Chan has been oversold.

Invasion, Fyodor Bondarchuk (2020, Russia). Although not marketed as such, the full title, Attraction 2: Invasion, makes it clears this is the sequel to Attraction, and the opening credits retell that earlier film’s story in an animated sequence… Even so, there’s a lot in Invasion that references Attraction, and I should probably have rewatched the first film before watching its sequel. Basically, in Attraction, an alien scoutship crashed in Moscow, and a young woman and its pilot fell in love (while the military was fighting off alien robots around them). The young woman – whose father was the general in charge of Russia’s defence against the aliens – apparently now has near-magical powers. The scoutship was from a much bigger spaceship, which has now been taken over by an EVEN MOAR BIGGA alien spaceship, and the Earth – well, Russia (but hey, makes a change from the US being the whole planet)- is under attack, and the young woman and the scoutship pilot have to find a way to call off the attack… Invasion looks good but is somewhat short on narrative logic. I suspect that’s mostly down to the fact it feels like an episode in a franchise that’s been thoroughly explored in other installments, which, other than the first film is, as far as I know, not the case.

The Magnificent Cuckold, Antonio Pietrangeli (1964, Italy). This is an Italian adaptation of a Belgian play, and while it seems like a good fit for Italian drama, it does play in parts like a transplanted story. Happily, it looks very chic, that sort of Sixties style that came so effortlessly to the Italians and which the Nouvelle Vague tried to hard to emulate, with mixed success. (Happily, the Nouvelle Vague directors were equally interested in US noir, and were much more successful in appropriating that.) A successful business man with a beautiful wife has a one-off fling and, as a result, begins to suspect his wife of being unfaithful. And he interprets everything she says and does in that light. She is, of course, entirely faithful. But his treatment of her results in her having an affair… This is a 1960s Italian movie, so along with the stylishness you have some pretty heavy everyday sexism, signalled pretty early in a scene in which the husband invites another man to ogle his wife’s legs. There are better films, by better directors, from Italy during the decade, and while this one looks good, it’s pretty disposable.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson (2012 – 2014, New Zealand). The Lord of the Rings films became a sort of family ritual. Back in 2001, we wanted to go see a film as a family on Christmas Eve. The Fellowship of the Ring had just been released, with a massive marketing campaign, and while myself and my UK-resident sister had read Tolkien, neither of my parents had. But they were willing to watch the film. The next year, The Two Towers was released at Christmas. And we went to watch it in the cinema. The year after that, it was The Return of the King. And so it became a tradition to watch a tentpole Christmas release at the cinema the day before Christmas. It wasn’t always genre – it depended on what was available. We saw The Golden Compass and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but also Avatar and Australia. Later, when we started celebrating Christmas in Denmark, we still went to the cinema – for the most recent Star Wars trilogy, the remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which, even though I’m in danger of being deported for saying it, I still like more than the original Swedish version), and, er, Aquaman. Which is a somewhat long-winded way of saying I made no effort to watch the Hobbit films and, until all three appeared on Amazon Prime, was not especially bothered about missing them. In hindsight, I made the right call. The problem is the films expand so much on the book, they might as well be a different story. True, Tolkien spent decades working on his legendarium, and seeing more of it up there on the screen might well appeal to Tolkien fans… Middle-Earth is a major artistic achievement, but I’m not convinced it’s well-served by this film trilogy. It doesn’t help that parts of it come across more like a videogame than a film narrative, or that the physics of the final battle – which makes up around, er, three-quarters of the third film – is just wrong all the time. Gandalf is a powerful wizard, so why does he only fight usibg his staff? Zap the fuckers with a fireball, FFS. Orcs swing massive heavy weapons that seem to do little damage, but are felled by one blow from a puny human. It’s bobbins. It’s Hollywood’s sliding scale of power for dramatic effect, as seen in every superhero movie. Objects in the mirror may be nearer than they appear, as the saying has it, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually physically bigger than they appear. Except in fantasy and superhero films…

Killing Cars, Michael Verhoeven (1986, Germany). This is a serious contender for the most 1980s film ever. It opens with Jürgen Prochnow in shades and a white suit, driving a Porsche, being challenged to a street race by a blonde in a Jaguar. He wins the race, drives to a bar, enters the bar, which falls silent when he walks in, crosses to a table, sits down and… starts playing backgammon. Prochnow is the designer of the “worldcar”, an electric-powered speedster, so sort of like Tesla, but corporate shenanigans means the project is likely to be cancelled. Nextdoor to the factory, an anarchist commune has taken over an abandoned building, but the car company wants them out so it can flatten the building and expand. Verhoeven – no relation to the Dutch director – was big on social commentary, and he squeezes it into Killing Cars, for all that the movie is supposed to be a semi-sf corporate thriller. It’s mildly interesting, it’s just that it’s all so very eighties.

Heckle, Robbie Moffatt (2013, UK). A popular comedian – ie, he appeared on a few comedy shows – has pissed off his agent and found himself playing a small pub in Selby. Which is in North Yorkshire. But, weirdly, a few of the cast of this film had Lancashire accents, and one was doing a bad job of hiding a Scouse accent… Anyway, the comedian dies on stage and is heckled by a local woman, who works at a supermarket – actually a Premier Store, which I thought were mostly found at petrol stations, but this is deepest darkest Yorkshire, so who knows. So the woman gets up on stage and does an off-the-cuff routine that impresses the comedian enough he offers to help her apply for the local heat of a national stand-up comedy competition. This is a resolutely local low-budget film, with a no-name cast, and I was surprised to find myself enjoying it. The script relies a little too much on cliché, and the acting wasn’t always one hundred percent, but the characters were relatable and the story worked. I liked it. More than I’d expected to.

Dr M, Claude Chabrol (1990, Germany). I’ve never been a big fan of Chabrol’s film but I may have to rethink that. A Story of Women I rated very highly, and if his others films weren’t always especially good they were at least somewhat out of the ordinary. And out of the ordinary certainly appeals to me. Dr M is a remake of the Fritz Lang film Dr Mabuse the Gambler from 1922, but it doesn’t use its plot. It’s set in the near future – although US critics complained the Berlin Wall still exists in the film, and while the Wall did indeed fall in 1990, albeit not until after the film was made, if Americans assumed the Wall would fall in any future they could imagine that says more about their narrow-mindedness than it does German, or European, history. Imagine thinking the Berlin Wall would not exist in the future, but not predicting 9/11… Anyway, Alan Bates plays the title character, a media mogul. There have been a spate of inexplicable suicides across Berlin and the police are baffled. The detective in charge is convinced Jennifer Beals – whose face is plastered across the city as part of a campaign for a holiday resort called, a thumpingly obvious reference, Thanatos – is involved and, lo and behold, the two of them end up in a realtionship. And in Thanatos. There’s a fascinating aesthetic on display here, very much a future we used to have, and the film’s intellectual payload is a great deal heavier than is common… but the movie never quite gels, and in the latter stages starts to fall to pieces before your very eyes. A noble failure, I think, although it was apparently several years in the making.


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Reading diary 2020, #12

Bit of a cheat this post, as two of the books are graphic novels – well, bandes dessinées. But both are from series I’ve been following. Also here is the third book of Mick Herron’s Jackson Lamb series, which I am no longer enjoying but I bought six of the damn things so I’ll work my way through them, FFS. Who knows, they might improve. Tremain I used to read when I lived in the UAE, and I decided to start reading her again a couple of years ago. Tom Toner I’ve met several times at conventions – we’ve even been on a few panels together – but I’d never read any of his fiction, and last year his debut novel was only 99p on Kindle. Whitely has been getting a lot of critical acclaim in the UK the last few years. Her career is almost textbook… for the 1990s. A decade of short stories in genre magazines, then some novellas and novels from small presses… Next step, a major imprint. While I don’t particularly like the type of genre fiction she writes, there’s no denying she has strong writing chops, and it’s heartening to see writers can still achieve success by actually following an actual career path and not being held up as the Next Best Thing because they happen to be on-message with the fad du jour.

Real Tigers, Mick Herron (2016, UK). While the first book in this series, Slow Horses, was a good, if somewhat off-beat, spy thriller, and the second, Dead Lions, occasionally came close to jumping the shark, Real Tigers hurdles that fish with abandon. Lamb’s PA, Catherine Standish, a recovering alcoholic, once used as a smokescreen by MI5’s biggest traitor, has been kidnapped. And it’s all because the kidnappers want access to MI5’s “grey files”, where all the nutjob stuff – UFOs, lizard Royals, Brexit’s benefits, QAnon – is recorded, and also where the current head of MI5 hid some compromising material. All this leads to a 007-like raid on an underground archive and a pitched battle between a security company’s wannabe mercenaries, actual ex-SAS kidnappers, and Jackson Lamb’s bully boys (ex-members of that MI5 department that kicks in doors, you know, just like Special Branch, except it never gets mentioned in the news because, well, Special Branch usually does it). The Herron books score well on characterisation, unfortunately all of the characters are unlikeable shits. And as the books progress, and those characters display yet more exceptional skills, then the fact they’ve been sent into the outer darkness, AKA Slough House, seems increasingly unlikely. Herron also has a really annoying writing tic, in which the prose steps back and does this hyper-observant, and yet snide, omniscient POV which speculates on what the purported observer might see. It’s over-used. I’m hoping the next book, Spook Street, will be better than this one.

The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain (2016, UK). I read several books by Tremain when I lived in Abu Dhabi, and might even have read one or two before I moved there, and found her an excellent prose stylist, perhaps more interesting at short story length than novel length. A couple of years ago, I decided to reconnect with her oeuvre. That went quite well. So it’s fortunate I didn’t pick The Gustav Sonata at that time. It’s not that it’s a bad book – on the contrary, it’s a good one. But when I look at all the admiring reviews of The Gustav Sonata, all I see is reviewers finding something in the novel that doesn’t, well, exist. The title refers to a boy who grows up in a small unimportant town in post-war Switzerland. His mother has never emotionally bonded with him, and his father lost his prestigious position as assistant police chief after helping Jews fleeing the Nazis. Gustav makes friends with a delicate and musically-talented Jewish boy whose family have recently moved to the town, an affluent family in direct contrast to the straitened circumstances now experienced by Gustav’s family. Gustav tries to provided emotional support to Anton during his piano competitions, but nerves get the better of Anton. The story then jumps back to the early years of Gustav’s parents, but since we never learn who shops his father to the authorities, there seems little point. And finally, the book leaps ahead to Gustav’s and Anton’s forties. Gustav runs a well-regarded small hotel in the town, and still burns a torch for Anton. Who is now a music teacher at a prestigious local school and has obviously never thought about Gustav in that way. Anton is offered the chance to record some piano sonatas – and in a recording studio his nervousness before audiences is irrelevant. And that’s pretty much it. Several interconnected relationships, some of which are left unrequited, some of which are temporary, but all of which have some small impact on those involved. It all felt a bit, well, inconsequential. I will admit that classical music, of whatever kind, as a motif in fiction leaves me completely cold. I know nothing about it and it does not appeal to me. And yet vast swathes of literary fiction seem to treat is as the only genre of music in existence. Where’s the literary fiction about death metal? prog? bubblegum pop? It’s either classical music or, if the author is being really edgy, punk. Disappointment.

Orbital 8: Contacts, Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg (2019, France). This is the second book of the fourth story featuring the mixed human-Sandjarr law enforcement/troubleshooter team of Caleb and Mezoke. The Neuronomes, alien living spaceships, have been launching suicide attacks on Confederation population centres. It’s up to Mezoke and Caleb, now renegades, to uncover why… and it’s all to do with something that’s attacking the original home world of the race which turned themselves into the Neuronomes millennia previously. I like this series, chiefly because it looks good and the world-building is interesting; but the plotting leaves a little to be desired. It’s not that it’s bad, just that it’s so frantic, with a couple of panels of exposition followed by several pages of chase scenes. It makes for somewhat uneven pacing. I have no idea how many more books there’ll be in this series, but given Mezoke is lost at the end of this volume, I’m guessing at least two more…

Streets of Paris, Streets of Murder Volume 1, Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette (2020, France). While Tardi has produced a number of original bandes dessinées, he has also adapted several stories and novels by French thriller writer Jean-Patrick Manchette. He has even tried adapting a couple, but given up after a few pages. This is the first volume of two which publish those complete and incomplete adaptations. The two completes here are ‘West Coast Blues’ (which was also published as a separate volume in 2009 by Fantagraphics, and which I own) and ‘Griffu’. Both are French noir, which is to say American noir but with added existentialism. In ‘Griffu’, a private detective finds himself embroiled in a plot with developers and gangsters. There’s not much in the way of wisecracks, but everything else is there. It’s surprisingly brutal. ‘West Coast Blues’ is equally brutal. An executive finds himself the target of two hitmen through being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He manages to kill one, more by accident than design, then runs away from his family and hides out for months in the French Alps, before being tracked down by the surviving hitman. I’ve been picking up these Tardi volumes published by Fantagraphics as they appear, and they’re definitely worth collecting.

The Promise of the Child, Tom Toner (2015, UK). Titles are important when it comes to books, especially genre books, and I’m really not convinced The Promise of the Child works as a title for a space opera novel. The only clue here to the book’s contents – other than the fact it’s published by a genre imprint – is the cover art, which is sort of vaguely Banksian and does far more to position the novel than its title. And The Promise of the Child is indeed Banksian space opera… mashed up with Warhammer 40k. I’m still unsure what to make of it. There are three types of novel – single narrative, multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is clear, and multiple narrative in which the relationship between the narratives is not clear. (There are more than three types of novel, of course.) In the distant future of The Promise of the Child – the 140th century – a few hundred thousand achieved immortality in the twenty-first century, and those that have survived the following twelve thousand years are now known as the Amaranthine. They rule several star systems and live in hollowed-out planets known as Vaulted Lands. There are also a confusing number of human derivatives, some of which serve the Amarathine, some of which are allied with the Amaranthine, and some of which are independent and somewhat hostile to the Amaranthine. The oldest living human is made emperor of the Amaranthine, but the current incumbent has descended into senility. The appearance of a mysterious figure who claims to be older than anyone else alive – and many of the oldest Amaranthine seem to sort of remember him – has upset the current succession. As has the invention of the Shell, or Soul Engine, a mysterious device which appears to bring people back from the dead. Several narratives run alongside each other, with no seeming connection between them, until the final set-piece, a giant battle. There’s a lot here that doesn’t quite add up – a plot that features too many reverses to easily follow, one narrative that goes from bucolic romance to racist violence without any grounding in the world-building, and an opening act of destruction that is never really justified by the story. I will say I didn’t see the final reveal coming at all, and it was an excellent twist, and clearly sets up the rest of the trilogy. And I did like the prose, which was much better than is typical of space opera… But I couldn’t get on with the Warhammer 40k aesthetics, the steampunk magic technology, and the massively high body-count. I doubt I will read the sequels.

Skein Island, Aliya Whitely (2019, UK). Whitely is clearly a singular talent, and I’m happy her star is currently in the ascendant – not just because she is a female UK genre writer, a group that can never be too big, but also because she seems to have followed a fairly traditional career path. Short stories published in UK small press magazines. Then pro mags. Then books published by small presses. And now the big league. Except not really – Skein Island was published by Titan Books, but her next book, Greensmith, is due from a small press. Whitely certainly has writing chops, and I am all for writers who are known for their writing rather than their world-building. But the latter is not something Whitely will ever be praised for because she writes a sort of unsettling soft fantasy that relies on subtle changes to the real world. It doesn’t always work for me. I am, by temperament, a hard sf reader, and I value rigour in stories. Whitely does write rigorous stories but that rigour follows her own rules – and when those rules are revealed in the text, it works; and when they’re not, I find it less successful. Skein Island falls into the former category. The Fates – or rather, the single mythical figure on which they were based, called Moira – has been imprisoned, as a statue, and so controlled. Water filtered through her is given away in pubs as part of a game involving cubes of four colours – red , blue, green and yellow. Which refer to hero, sidekick, sage and villain. The four roles men play out in that pub game. But only when Moira is safely imprisoned. Once she is released, as she is, men start following their archetypal roles. It’s not an entirely convincing scenario, but Whitely gives it a viable history and is rigorous in its effects on society. Whitely is definitely a name to watch, and this novel made it clear why.


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Reading diary 2020, #11

My reading has been a bit all over the place of late. Not sure why. I’ve enjoyed the last few books I’ve read by North, so she’s a safe read. Herron had been recommended to me several times by various people, and the first six books were a daily deal at 99p each, so I bought them. The Roanhorse was part of the 2019 Hugo Voters Pack, and I finally got around to reading it.

The Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North (2019, UK). To me, the phrase “high concept” feels like it should apply to some profound and intellectually challenging premise around which a novel or film is based, when in fact it just means you can reduce a work’s plot to a simple easily-understood sound-bite. North writes “high concept” sf novels, and yet she manages to put together complex stories based around her “sound-bite” premises. And her plots are buttressed by well-used and extensive research. Her prose has an authority few of her contemporaries can match – and that includes hard sf writers who at least have the laws of physics and known cosmology to underpin their stories. The Pursuit of William Abbey is, ostensibly, framed as a story told by a doctor to a nurse in a casualty clearance station during World War I. She had noticed his suspicious behaviour regarding a particular patient – a young officer who has lost both his legs – and after she quizzes the doctor, he tells her his story. Abbey, the doctor, was cursed during the Boer War when he failed to prevent the murder of a young black man. The murdered man’s shadow now follows him and, when the shadow is close, Abbey can read “truth” directly from a person’s mind. But should the shadow catch up with him, then someone he loves will die. The British Empire has realised the usefulness of people who can read truth from others, and Abbey is press-ganged as a spy. But the British Empire wants to control this ability, and has been experimenting – deliberately “cursing” people with shadows, then lobotomising them and turning them into “truth machines”. The young officer is the son of the man driving the programme. This is the fate they have planned for Abbey. North has taken a fantasy premise and treated it as rigorously as science fiction, but based around a plot inspired by the Great Game (as in Kim). This is good stuff. North is definitely on my list of authors whose latest books I buy.

Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner (1948, USA). There are writers whose works you admire and enjoy, there are writers whose works you enjoy, and there are writers whose works you admire. Faulkner definitely falls into the last category. His novels – and I base this only on a sample of three – are far from easy reads but the writing is absolutely amazing. They’re modernist, and I do like me some modernism, and written in long run-on sentences in great blocks of text in something close to dialect, which makes them difficult to read, but also rewarding, although they’re mostly set in the American South, with all its overt racism, and poverty… The subjects don’t interest me, but the writing is so dazzling, so precise, it overcomes that. Like many people, when I wasn’t reading genre I read contemporary fiction, including exploring back-catalogues – Anthony Burgess, for example, was still being published when I first started reading him. But I’d never really tried reading authors who were active in the first half of the twentieth-century. Perhaps I’d been exposed to some of them at school and so reading them felt like “school work”. Which is not exactly true, as I read The Cruel Sea (1951) at prep school in 1978 or 1979, but in the 1990s sort of rediscovered Nicholas Montsarrat and became a fan of his novels. DH Lawrence’s fiction I’d previously avoided partly because my father was a huge fan (I didn’t feel a need to find something, such as an author we both liked, to connect with my father; we already had a good relationship). But I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover as part of a reading challenge ten years ago, loved it, and decided to explore Lawrence’s oeuvre further… As a result, partly inspired by my father’s collection of 1960s paperbacks, which included some Lawrence, but also also Malcolm Lowry, another writer I became a big fan of, and The Sound and the Fury and Intruder in the Dust, I discovered Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury blew me away. And if the novles by him I’ve read since have not been impressive, I have still found them amazingly written. I will certainly read more Faulkner – he has consistently proven an impressive, although difficult, read. Once, I’d have spent time – and money – tracking down good condition copies of the nice 1960s Penguin editions that match the two I inherited from my father. But these days, I think I’ll just go for the ebook editions. Faulkner is definitely an historical author worth reading.

Slow Horses & Dead Lions, Mick Herron (2010/2013, UK). These have come highly recommended, and I do like me some spy-fi – I’m a big fan of Anthony Price’s Audley/Butler novels, and I also highly recommend them – but Herron is no Price, and, even worse, his schtick does not really survive prolonged exposure. A “slow horse” is a resident of Slough House, which is an off-site office of MI5 where the failures and screw-ups are sent. The idea being that MI5 cannot actually fire them for their transgressions, so instead assigns them to Slough House in the hope that the shit work and drudgery performed there will persuade them to resign. All under the leadership of Jackson Lamb, a fat slob (described repeatedly in the first book as resembling “Timothy Spall gone to seed”, but apparently played by Gary Oldman in the upcoming TV adaptation), who has enough dirt on the current MI5 leadership to do what he wants. Which, fortunately, is not much. In Slow Horses, Lamb’s team inadvertently becomes involved in a plot by right-wing nutjobs to fake an online beheading of an Asian, but it all goes horribly wrong because too many people in the intelligence community have had a hand in creating the situation and their agendas are confusing everything. In Dead Lions, the same crew become involved when it looks like an old KGB sleeper network in the UK known to Lamb has been reactivated and it might have something to do with assassinating a Russian oligarch in London for secret talks with MI5… Herron nails the topical talking-points, but he peoples his novels with a cast of the most unlikable shits this side of the Conservative Party front benches, and it’s hard to care about them. Even Jackson Lamb is such a fucking throwback, you have to wonder why Herron thought he might be considered sympathetic. I don’t want to read stories peopled by arseholes. Especially people who are actually worse than those I meet in real life or on social media or who are running the UK government. Plus, the computing in these novels is complete bollocks. The hacker character is apparently so amazing he can hack “air-gapped” networks and if he were indeed as good as advertised, MI5 would keep him even if he were a completely self-deluded incel troll… which he is. But… unlikable characters, implausible plots… not a deal breaker, especially for a science fiction reader… But when the second book follows exactly the same pattern as the first book. And the third book does too… I’m sorry. I’ve got six of the fucking things to read, I’ve read three to date, and I’ll read the other three, but I can’t in all honesty recommend any but the first.

Total Eclipse, John Brunner (1974, UK). I’ve no idea why I bought this, and even less why I read it. Call it a whim. I’ve read perhaps half a dozen novels by Brunner over the years, and while he wrote some notable sf during his time I’ve never really felt a need to read him. He is, I suppose, a sort of British Silverberg. And, like Silverberg, he produced a handful of  highly-regarded works, a great many potboilers, and a number of solid science fiction novels. Total Eclipse falls into the last category. It’s a straightforward sf mystery, its plot almost a staple of the genre: humans colonise a long-dead world but, despite all their research, cannot figure out what killed off the world’s original inhabitants. Meanwhile, the situation on Earth is deteriorating and it’s no longer certain Earth’s one and only starship will return to Draco Pavonis on its next supply run. Cue a fevered attempt to understand what killed the planet’s indigenes, driven partly by desperation and partly by the arrival of a neuro-atypical archaeologist. Eventually, of course, they find out what happened, but it’s too late to save them. This is not a cheerful book. I liked it. I thought it made a good fist of its premise. The science seemed mostly convincing to me, although actual experts – remember those? people who have actually studied shit and know what it means – might be less forgiving of some aspects of the novel. Overall, it struck me as a solid piece of seventies UK sf.

Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse (2018, USA). Roanhorse’s career has been nothing short of meteoric. Her first short story was nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo, and won the former. She has written two short stories since, both for themed anthologies. Her first novel, this one, was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award. It was followed by a sequel, Storm of Locusts, a year later, then a Star Wars novel, and a middle-grade fantasy from a Disney imprint. With a career path like that, you’d expect something amazing. So it’s a surprise to discover Trail of Lightning is, well, nothing special. It’s a bog standard urban fantasy but with Navajo mythology. Yes, the latter is interesting, and it’s good to see something other than the usual suspects used for world-building. But there’s little else in the book that isn’t entirely cliché. The narrator, Maggie, kills monsters, is emotionally damaged after her relationship with her mentor, a Navajo immortal, imploded, drives a 1970s pickup truck, fetishises over her weapons, and basically gets the entire plot wrong by jumping to conclusions. The book tries to turn the tables by casting a male as the pretty sidekick, but we’ve all seen enough manga and anime to find that one familiar. The prose is a cut above average for urban fantasy, but Laurell K Hamilton was doing the damaged kick-ass female urban fantasy heroine three decades ago – and her prose wasn’t bad either. There’s not enough here to justify the heights Trail of Lightning has achieved. It’s true that Native American mythology has not appeared much in genre, but it has appeared. And there have been Native American genre writers. Less than you can count on the fingers of one hand, true. But there are other modes of fiction, and fiction that privileges Native American culture exists in those. It’s good that genre – science fiction and fantasy and horror – wants to be more diverse and more inclusive, but many cultures have their own literary traditions, and while they may not be positioned as genre, they may be close enough to genre to be of interest to genre readers should they make the effort to look for them. When it comes to Navajo culture, I will freely admit I’ve not made that effort. I suppose in that regard it makes Roanhorse’s novel a gateway book. But had I been interested, I would have made the effort. I’ve done so for other cultures whose literary tradition has interested me. Rather than agitate for people to write sf based in and around those cultures, I’ve sought out the fiction the culture has already produced (where translations exist, of course). The point I’m trying to make is that genre fiction doesn’t have to include all other modes of fiction or cultures. It needs to be relevant to its readers, yes, and so it needs to be inclusive and diverse. But it should never take the place of the literary traditions that already exist in those cultures. It should complement them.

The Return of the Incredible Exploding Man, Dave Hutchinson (2019, UK). There is a short story, ‘The Incredible Exploding Man’, which I don’t believe I’ve read, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this novel is an expansion of that short story, or at the very least is set in the same world and features some of the same characters. It’s a novel set in the US but could have only been written by a Brit, and not just because the narrator is British. Alex Dolan is a Scottish journalist, currently unemployed in the US. He is approached by a billionaire, who wants him to write a book about the his pet project, a supercollider built under a town in Iowa. It’s all a bit shifty, and various personalities seem to both hinder Dolan and make his new life more bearable. It feels a little like a pastiche of US life, albeit from a UK perspective, and it takes a good three-quarters of the novel before the plot even gets going. But it’s a fun read, the dialogue is snappy, and even if the central premise is somewhat familiar, the book is still entertaining. Basically, it’s Doctor Manhattan. They turn on the supercollider, something goes wrong, and Dolan turns into Doctor Manhattan. But there’s been a sort of plot leading up to that point, and the novel after the event is pretty much Dolan repeatedly resolving the after-effects of switching on the supercollider – or, at least, one particular after-effect. The end, however, is surprisingly abrupt. Perhaps there’s a sequel in the works – The Comeback of the Incredible Exploding Man? The Reappearance of the Incredible Exploding Man? The Return of the Return of the Incredible Exploding Man? Anyway, worth reading.


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Movie roundup 2020, #16

I have been bingeing on boxed sets recently, and not really ones I can in any way recommend. I worked my way through all five seasons of The Professionals, and it was all a bit crap but sort of fun. Then I watched three seasons of Hamish Macbeth, and I have no fucking idea what that was about. Ostensibly a murder-mystery series set in the Scottish Highlands, it was as daft as those fringe murder-mystery series the US churns out by the metre, but with added chocolate-box Scotland. Entertaining enough, but also baffling. I tried watching The Diplomat, an Australian miniseries set in the UK but gave up after ten minutes when it was clear the makers hadn’t bothered to research how the police operate in the UK. I watched one episode of Jack Taylor, a grizzled private eye in Galway, but when the second episode opened with him framed for murder in the most obvious framed-for-murder plot twist on the planet, I decided to give it a miss as I have a low threshold for clichés.

Happily, there are feature films. And I should watch more of them, instead of shit TV series.

War Requiem, Derek Jarman (1988, UK). I think it’s pretty obvious I have a somewhat eclectic taste in films, so it’s hardly a surprise I consider Jarman among the ten best directors the UK has produced. I find myself conflicted about War Requiem, chiefly because it’s a staging of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, using the 1963 recording as the soundtrack, and the War Requiem features nine poems by Wilfred Owen, a poet I’ve admired for many years. Interestingly, War Requiem was performed for the consecration of Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral, and I attended Coventry University, whose campus is right next to the cathedral, so I know the building well. Which reminds me – and this is an entirely true story – of a winter night in the early 1990s when I was returning home after some drinks in town and I passed between the new cathedral and the old one (which is little more than a roofless shell). As I walked past the entrance to the old cathedral, I glanced inside it… and saw a naked woman with long blonde hair sitting on a white horse. Lady Godiva, of course, lived hundreds of years ago. Happily, this was no ghost – as I walked on, lights and a camera crew came into view. I never learnt what was being filmed that night, but glancing into the old Coventry Cathedral and seeing Lady Godiva on her horse is not something you forget. But, War Requiem, which opens with Laurence Olivier in a wheelchair in the garden of a sanatorium, but is mostly black box theatre. The music is not to my taste – I’m into death metal not a “mass for the dead” – and while Owen’s poems lend themselves really well to being performed, I’m still more of a reader than a listener. In other words, I like the idea of Jarman’s War Requiem more than I liked the experience of watching it.

Where is the Friend’s House?, Abbas Kiarostami (1987, Iran). Kiarostami is an easy director to admire, even if his individual works are not all that likable. Where is the Friend’s House? is one of his Koker trilogy, along with And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees, all set in and around the village of Koker in northern Iran. A young boy realises he has accidentally taken his school friend’s notebook home, and his friend will be punished if he fails to complete his homework. After an abortive attempt to find his friend’s house, the boy ends up doing the homework himself, and earns his friend a commendation from the teacher. If you’ve seen a Kiarostami film before, you’ll know what to expect. It’s not one of his best – its story is too thin for a feature-length movie – and it’s hard to compare it to other, better, films by Kiarostami. On the other hand, if it didn’t exist there would be no blu-ray box set from Criterion called The Koker Trilogy, which I believe is the first appearance of this film and And Life Goes On on disc. So there’s that.

Venus in Furs, Massimo Dallamano (1969, Italy). Amazon Prime continues to recommend Shameless releases to me, and since I like some giallo, I continue to add them to my watch list. True, giallo is quite a wide genre, although mostly horror or erotic horror, and I tend to lump poliziotteschi films in with it. And, to be honest, it’s Shameless’s releases of Italian sf movies I like best, such as Footprints on the Moon or The Tenth Victim, and I’m not sure they really qualify as giallo. So perhaps I’m misusing, if not abusing, the term. Venus in Furs is straight up late-sixties erotic drama, and if it had a plot I failed to find it. It all seems over-egged, and it’s not hard to believe it’s based on a novel published in 1870 and written by the man whose name gave us the word “masochism”.

Atragon, Ishiro Honda (1963, Japan). We all know Honda’s work, and if not we can at least imagine it. He’s best-known for the original Godzilla movie, but he had a long career directing films that were, well, pretty much the same as Godzilla. Some were more overtly science-fictional than others, but they all featured monsters portrayed by men, and women, in rubber suits. Atragon refers to a submarine – that can fly and tunnel into the earth – invented and built by a submarine captain who disappeared in the last year of WWII. As is revealed when the Empress of the lost continent of Mu, which now exists at the bottom of the ocean, tries to abduct the captain’s daughter from Tokyo. It’s all complete bobbins and makes not the slightest jot of sense, but the model work is pretty cool and the film’s commentary on Japan’s war record is interesting and surprisingly honest (UK and USA, take note). I note that Honda’s film are undergoing a minor revival, with Eureka about to release several of them as limited edition Blu-rays. I am not complaining. They are good stuff.

Sputnik, Egor Abramenko (2020, Russia). I don’t understand why this movie wasn’t named Soyuz. A cosmonaut returns to Earth – aboard a Soyuz – with an unwelcome passenger, an alien parasite. Sputnik means “fellow traveller”, which is apt, but soyuz means “union” and that meaning plays to the plot, too. And, well, the film opens in an actual Soyuz spacecraft. Anyway, a cosmonaut is brought back to earth with an alien parasite and a psychiatrist is brought in to study him. She learns the military have already learnt quite a bit about the parasite, although she refuses to accept the price they paid. She decides to rescue the cosmonaut and rid him of his alien “fellow traveller”. In other words, what we have here is Alien set in 1980s USSR. Expect many reviews to refer to it as  “Alienski”. It’s a good-looking film, but it’s covering ground that has been done better – and not just by Alien.  It all feels a bit tired and predictable, despite its Soviet paint job. Meh.

Invasion of the Astro-Monster, Ishiro Honda ((1965, Japan). This was the second of three Japanese-American collaborations, all three of which were directed by Honda. It’s more overtly science-fictional than the one mentioned above, but is still very much a monster movie. A joint US-Japan mission to a mysterious “dark planet” near Jupiter (sigh) encounters an advanced civilisation, the Xiliens, currently under attack by “Monster Zero”. Earth offers the use of Godzilla and Rodan to defeat Monster Zero, but the Xiliens kidnap those monsters and then use them to demand the earth submit to their rule. I think this is the most typically Honda movie I have seen – it has everything. Like most of his movies, the story trundles along, requiring no more than normal levels of suspension of disbelief… and then falls of a cliff. That, I suppose, is part of their charm. Nonetheless, I would be happy to watch high-quality restored editions of his films.

Bill & Ted Face the Music, Dean Parisot (2020, USA). There is likely no one who said what the world really needed in these troubled times was a third Bill and Ted film thirty years after the last one. But it got one. And, though it pains me to say it, I actually enjoyed it. Another review pointed out that the characters of Bill and Ted were nice and sincere, and that we have few heroes like that in the twenty-first century. Leaving aside the fact we had few like that in the twentieth century, it is still true. Bill and Ted, even in this film, are just gosh-darned likeable. They’re dim, but they’re well-meaning. And the way they explore their own future – including not-so-nice Bills and Teds – is cleverly done. A lot has been made of their daughters, but they only get something like a third of the screen-time, which – unpopular opinion – is just as well as they come across as a pair of young female actors doing impressions of Bill and Ted. The climax of the film sees the daughters put together a band of historically important musicians, and playing a song to save all space and time. The choices for “historically important musicians” are… interesting. Jimi Hendrix. Yup, totally agree. A young Louis Armstrong. Why young? Why not later, when he was at the height of his creativity? Mozart. Right, everybody’s choice for “musical genius” – totally lazy pick. Ling Lun. Who is the legendary founder of music in China (around 300 BCE). Good that the film makes Ling Lun female. Bad that they made her just a flautist. The final member of the group is a cave woman who likes banging things and so is the best drummer ever. I mean, let’s not even go there. Good that the drummer is female, bad that it ignores the entire fucking history of playing drums. Having said that, Bill & Ted Face the Music ends with a really shit song being performed to save the universe. There’s a lot to like in the film – basically, the characters of Bill and Ted, the careful plotting, its diversity – but there’s a  lot of minor stuff here that gets a pass because it does right on some of the big stuff. It’s not that good a film, but it’s entertaining and it’s a surprisingly inoffensive sequel to the first two films.

The Kennel Murder Case, Michael Curtiz (1933, USA). William Powell played urbane sleuth Philo Vance in four films for Paramount, between 1929 and 1933, but he was one of nine actors who played the role over fifteen movies, the last of which, Philo Vance’s Secret Mission, was released in 1947. Vance seems to have been an odd character – sort of a New York version of an English aristocrat sleuth, and coded as gay. The books were best-sellers, but despised by Raymond Chandler. I might try reading one some day. Anyway, a rich capitalist and all-round nasty piece of work is found dead in his locked bedroom, seemingly of suicide. But he seems to have bashed himself across the head with a poker, and then knifed himself in the back, before shooting himself in the temple some time after he had actually died. And then man’s brother turns up dead in the hall closet. Vance solves the “how” pretty quickly – the door was locked from outside using some string and a bent pin – but everyone except those investigating the crime have a motive for seeing the man dead. So Vance plays a trick and forces the murderer to reveal themselves. The Kennel Murder Case is apparently considered the best of the Philo Vance films, which doesn’t say much for the others. I thought the Thin Man movies better, but if any more of the Vance ones pop up on Amazon Prime I’ll happily watch them.

Bleeding Steel, Leo Zhang (2017, China). I think I’ve seen around thirty of Jackie Chan’s films and this is easily the worst one I’ve watched. It’s one of those trans-Pacific near-future sf movies, like The Meg, with a Chinese and Australian cast, and a complete disregard for the laws of physics or plausibility. Jackie Chan plays an officer of the “United Nations Special Forces” who is asked to take a rogue scientist into custody, even though his young daughter, who is dying of leukaemia, has just taken a turn for the worse. While Chan battles some cyborg and his over-equipped troops, Chan’s daughter dies. But no! She doesn’t. The rogue scientist implants a mechanical heart and “bio-engineered blood” into her, and saves her life. Thirteen years later, the daughter, believing herself to be an orphan, is a student in Australia, and Chan has been keeping a surreptitious eye on her. But the murder of an author whose novels bear an uncanny resemblance to the life of Chan’s daughter kicks off a series of action sequences in which Chan fights off assorted baddies – including one fight scene on the roof of the Sydney Opera House. Chan is his usual likeable self, and most of the fight scenes are creatively choreographed, but from start to finish this is piss-poor near-future sf and in a genre which takes care over its fight choreography not even a Jackie Chan film can stand out, other than by putting him front and centre. And Bleeding Steel – and what exactly does that title fucking mean? – does that, but it’s not enough. This is a bad film but, even more shamefully, it is a bad Jackie Chan film.


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Movie roundup 2020, #15

I’ve been bingeing recently on The Professionals, a TV series I remember from my school days. I don’t have any particular memories of an opinion on the programme – violent 1970s cop show with a striking theme tune and lots of action. That’s about it. Watching it now… well, it’s very fascist, explicitly so in the opening episode. Which doesn’t, of course, stop CI5 – motto: “by any means necessary” – taking down the chief constable who has kept his Midlands city crime-free “by any means necessary”. But what stands out more than the terrible scripts – Bodie and Doyle have their Pye PF8 UHF radios with them all the time, except when the story “forgets” about them – and more than the sexist dialogue (although it’s surprisingly not racist for the time and even, on occasion, anti-racist; and equally surprisingly not homophobic, although more by omission, and one episode even features a “Gay Youth Association” treated sympathetically)… what stands out the most is how cheap it all is. A squash court standing in for the visiting room of a high security prison. A hotel room re-furnished as an executive’s office. The fact Bodie’s home is never shown, but Doyle seems to live somewhere different every episode. The Professionals is not a good series. The 1970s aesthetics are sort of fun, but the 1970s politics and sexism are not, and the scripts – particularly in the first series – are really, really bad.

But now for some movies…

Un film comme les autres / British Sounds (See You at Mao), Jean-Luc Godard (1968 / 1969, France / UK). In the late 1960s, Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, among others, formed the Dziga Vertov Group, named for the 1920s director of Man with a Movie Camera (an excellent film, and an important early director), with the aim of making Marxist films. And certainly Un film comme les autres fits that description, as it comprises a group of young people sitting around in a park (I think) discussing politics and the proletariat and revolution, interspersed with archival footage of strikes and revolutionary violence. A review on Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “the first of Jean-Luc Godard’s absurdly unwatchable films”, which is, I think, doing it a disservice, but I suspect the reviewer is American and anything anti-capitalist is guaranteed to annoy and upset Americans. They actually believe their own propaganda. Which makes British Sounds (See You at Mao) doubly amusing. It was commissioned by London Weekend Television – according to imdb.com: “With LWT (in 1968) facing growing criticism for making too many arty TV shows, something from Jean-Luc Godard was thought bound to be a winner”. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? In the event, LWT refused to screen the film Godard made. Which is, more or less, a UK take on Un film comme les autres. No doubt that US pundit would describe it as “absurdly unwatchable”, but I’m fixed in my opinion that Godard is probably the most important director to have come out of France.

Winter’s Child, Olivier Assayas (1989, France). And I would probably also label Assayas as an important French director, certainly amongst the current crop, but the two early films by him made available on The Early Films of Olivier AssayasDisorder and Winter’s Child – are poor indication of the films he would later make. They are, in fact, somewhat ordinary French movies of their time. And Winter’s Child more so than Disorder. The French film industry has made movies about the romantic triangle banal, and Winter’s Child is a case in point. A man leaves his pregnant wife to take up with another woman, but she loves someone else. So I guess that’s more of a romantic quadrilateral – but then that’s to French cinema what stories of adulterous academics are to literary fiction. Meh.

The Gardener, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (2012, Iran). Until watching this film, I will admit I was barely aware of the Baha’i faith, and now, after watching, I am surprised the Baha’i faith even exists. Unlike Scientology or the Moonies, it seems to have come about as a genuine religion – a prophet, a group who followed his teachings, and were subsequently persecuted by all and sundry, and, tellingly, a creed that does not demand signing over all your wealth and influence. My contempt for Scientologists is only marginally less than that for fundamentalists of any religion, but I at least grant that fundamentalists follow actual religions. I do not know what to think about the Baha’i faith. This film, a study of a man who has adopted the religion and now cares for a Baha’i garden in Israel, seems to be chiefly notable because it’s the first time an Iranian film-maker has filmed in Israel. But as I watched The Gardener, and listened to its well-meaning interviewees – most of whom seemed to be American – it occurred to me that what I was seeing was someone documenting a movement to be nice to other people that had been couched as new religion. For whatever reason, simple human compassion is apparently impossible unless couched in religious terms. Which is absolute bollocks. If you need a god, or commandments, to tell you what is moral behaviour, then there is something seriously wrong with you. Killing people is bad, it doesn’t need an edict from a giant sky fairy to tell you that – and the Christian church can’t even decide how important that particular commandment is, as different sects number it from five to seven. Let that sink in. At best, Christianity thinks “thou shalt not murder” is the fifth worst thing you can do. Fifth! I’m not agnostic, I’m an atheist – because I am not willing to hand off my morality to an invented being. Which is all somewhat unfortunately tangential to The Gardener, which is an extremely good-looking film – Makhmalbaf has an excellent eye – and while I cannot sympathise with its subject, I can certainly appreciate how it is presented. Makhmalbaf is a director worth collecting. It is good that more of his oeuvre is becoming available on DVD and Blu-ray.

The Statue, Rod Amateau (1971, UK). At some point, one imagines, all culture will be available online, if not for free then for a fee, and currently English-language culture (and I use the term “culture” loosely) has been prioritised, and even then some of the films that pop up from total obscurity for free on Amazon Prime are… unexpected. The Statue is a British comedy, written by Alec Coppel, based on an earlier play by him, and Denis Norden, who is best known in the UK for presenting It’ll be Alright on the Night for many many years. David Niven invents a new lingua franca, Unispeak, which takes the world by storm. His wife, a famous sculptor, is commissioned to sculpt a piece celebrating his achievement, to be displayed in Grosvenor Square. But the statue proves to be an 18-foot nude of Niven. And Niven is pretty sure the statue’s dangly bits are not modelled on his own. So he sets off on a mission to discover the model for the statue’s genitals. Yes, that’s right – the plot of the film is David Niven travelling around the world trying to look at men’s tackle. It’s a plot that could be resolved today simply by asking, or by creating a female sock puppet account on social media, but in 1971 it’s apparently fertile ground for 84 minutes of nudge-nudge wink-wink. I mean, I’m sort of onboard with the idea of a high profile film whose plot requires a straight man to go around looking at other men’s willies – but it all feels very schoolboyish, and not even the presence of half of Monty Python and two-thirds of the Goodies can turn a joke told to a bunch of thirteen year olds after lights-out in the dorm into an entertaining major motion picture.

The Touch, Ingmar Bergman (1971, Sweden). Bergman did a deal with the American Broadcasting Corporation to make some films for the US market, and The Touch was the first of these. It was Bergman’s first English-language film (although not entirely, as it’s set mostly in Sweden and there is a lot of Swedish dialogue, and I was surprised to find Max von Sydow’s Swedish was not as clear as I’d expected). Elliott Gould plays an American archaeologist researching a church in a village on Gotland, when he make makes friends with a local surgeon (von Sydow) and his wife (Bibi Andersson). The story of The Touch is the affair between Gould and Andersson. And it’s violent and abusive, and even though the story is told from Andersson’s perspective – it is, essentially, her story – it’s still misogynistic. Gould’s character is… well, I can see why he considered the role damaging, even though he was working with Bergman. I wanted to like this film – I generally like Bergman’s films, and if I don’t like them I at least appreciate them – and the 1970s aesthetic and Sweden and the cast… and there’s much to want to like in it… But I really found it hard to watch and very easy to dislike. Gould, at first, is not very good, still figuring out how to act under Bergman’s direction – and it stands out, because the rest of the cast have worked with Bergman numerous times before. But then Gould starts harassing Andersson, and subsequently turns abusive… and I don’t care if this is 1971 it’s still unacceptable. And for all that Andersson controls the narrative, it still seems like the same point could have been made without the abuse. The Touch is not considered a major Bergman film, and was hard to find until released in a nice dual edition by the BFI. It does his legacy few favours.

Ladies Who Do, CM Pennington-Richards (1963, UK). British comedy films from the 1950s and 1960s, unless they were made by Ealing Studios, are often forgotten, but there were some bloody good comedies made back then. Just think of The Early Bird, or indeed anything starring Norman Wisdom. Ladies Who Do has its moments, and a fine conceit underlying its story, not to mention an excellent cast, but it all feels a bit lacklustre. Peggy Mount is a char who rescues an expensive cigar from the bin of an office she cleans and gives it one of her gentlemen, Robert Morley. Who realises that the piece of paper she wrapped the cigar in is insider information. Which he uses to make £5,000 on the stock market (equivalent to about £90,000 these days). Morley and Mount come up with a plan – they form a company of cleaning ladies who hunt for inside information in the offices they clean. Meanwhile, developer Harry H Corbett is trying to demolish the slum street where Mount lives in order to build a block of flats and offices, but she blocks him at every turn. Talk about mixed messages. British – well, English – culture was good at valourising the status quo but had no idea what elements to promote as “progress”. Great Britain: consistently failing since the Romans left. A mildly entertaining comedy that seems to say that success is good, except when it profits the working class.


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Reading diary 2020, #10

I would be dishonest if I’d not wondered this last couple of years why I continue blogging. All I’m posting are book and film reviews, and they’re not even reviews per se, but often turn into mini-rants about various things triggered by the book or film I’m supposedly reviewing. I firmly believe the author is not dead, and if an author says shitty things on social media – hello, JK Rowling! trans women are women! – then reviewers have every right to take those things into account when reviewing their work. The New Criticism only worked when the author was effectively anonymous, and in these days of social media, personal branding and self-marketing, that just isn’t true anymore. The New Criticism is dead, long live the Old Criticism! Context matters, an author’s politics matter… more so in genre, where fans organise into tribes behind authors based on those author’s politics, even if they’re all writing the same old genocidal right-wing space opera…

I should also mention I’ve deleted my account on Goodreads – long story; one day I may share it – so I can no longer cross-post my reviews there. Which seems to be where most people saw them – at least, when I received push-back, it was from people who’d seen my reviews there. Of course, “push-back” usually meant an author telling me how I should review his book. Repeat after me: reviews are not for authors. As an author myself, I understand the thrill of a reading a positive review, but it is not something I can or should police. On Goodreads, that line has become somewhat blurred.

Bone Silence, Alastair Reynolds (2020, UK). This is the final book of the Revenger trilogy, which I seem to remember was intended to be YA but certainly doesn’t read like YA. The story is set millions of years in the future, after the Solar system has been broken up into hundreds of thousands of habitats, among which are “baubles”, which are alien vaults which open up on occasion and can be raided for mysterious artefacts worth much money. By Bone Silence, the Ness sisters captain the most feared ship in the Congregation, but are determined to solve the mystery of the many civilisations which have risen and fallen in the Congregation over millions of years at strangely increasing intervals. Then are the “quoins”, used as currency, but which are now exhibiting strange behaviour… And the various alien races in the Congregation, whose motives and objectives are unknowable… And… and… The previous two books, Revenger and Shadow Captain set up several pretty interesting mysteries, and it would not be unreasonable to expect this final book in the trilogy to explain them. And it tries to. But it doesn’t do a very good job. The explanation for the increasing gaps between successful cycles of civilisation in the Congregation is a bit, well, mundane, and the means of discovering it sacrifices real understanding of the universe for cheap thrills. There’s a great deal of build-up in this trilogy, and the mysteries it sets up are fascinating… but the final instalment does not deliver. For the Ness sisters, yes; but not for the reader who is keen to explore the story’s universe. That doesn’t mean these are bad books. Reynolds is a reliable pair of hands and usually delivers good science fiction. These are among his better books, but not among his best.

The Plague Dogs, Richard Adams (1977, UK). The more I explore Adams’s oeuvre, the more remarkable it becomes. Adams, of course, is best known for his debut, Watership Down, one of those novels which became a cultural phenomenon and continues to be popular today. That’s a difficult act to follow. Adams’s subsequent books sold well but never reached the heights of Watership Down, and few of his books are now in print. Watership Down was followed by a Bronze Age fantasy, Shardik, which reads partly like something already covered many times by genre fantasy and partly like a somewhat sideways approach to fantasy by someone unfamiliar with the genre. And then we have The Plague Dogs, Adams’s third novel, a novel that in precis seems relatively straightforward. Two dogs used in animal research, anthromorphised as the rabbits were in Watership Down, escape the lab and manage to survive in the wild. But this all takes places in the Lake District, and most of the dialogue is written in dialect, including that of some of the animals encountered by the two dogs, Snitter and Rowf. It doesn’t help that the laboratory is called Animal Research (Scientific and Experimental) or ARSE, and that The Plague Dogs actually reads like it might have been intended as a comedy. But not a black comedy. A black comedy would be ironic, and The Plague Dogs is far from ironic. Adams was a singular talent, with an oeuvre worth exploring even now, more than a decade after his last book. His career clearly declined after the mid-1980s, but his books after Watership Down are, I’m discovering, worth reading.

And Go Like This, John Crowley (2019, USA). Crowley occupies a position on the edge of genre – but also highly regarded outside genre, yet highly regarded by some within genre. And yes, most of his output has been identifiably genre. As a prose stylist, he’s one of the best and his Ægypt Sequence is a major literary achievement. Earlier explicitly genre works are also among the top genre works produced during their time. In recent years, Crowley’s career seems to have flat-lined somewhat. Despite the acclaim of the first three books, the final book of the Aegypt Sequence was published by a small press. His last three books from William Morrow, a non-genre publisher, were… variable. I thought Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land was excellent, but was not so impressed with either The Translator or Four Freedoms (although I note the first is out of print but the latter two are not, which is fucked up). I have yet to read Ka: Dar Okaley in the Ruins of Ymr, which I believe is straight-up fantasy. And Go Like This is a collection of Crowley’s most recent short fiction, including two novellas published by Subterranean Press, and which I bought at the time. This is good short fiction, and certainly a better collection than his last, Totalitopia, although some pieces here are more successful than others. There’s something measured, but also slightly bucolic in a peculiarly American way, and which achieves cleverness without seemingly trying for it, about Crowley’s prose, such that reading it is always a pleasant experience. Crowley doesn’t write prose to just carry a story forward, he writes prose to treasure. That’s why I buy his books when they are published.

The Fires of Heaven, Robert Jordan (1993, USA). The fifth book of the Wheel of Time, and it seems Jordan is now fully onboard with the concept of a plot stretching over more than half a dozen books. Which, on the one hand, means not much happens to actually advance that plot; but, on the other, things are actually starting to get moving. Which means, er, Rand al’Thor has brought the Aiel over the Spine of the World because the false Car’a’carn has already left the Waste and started razing cities. Meanwhile, Elayne and Nynaeve are hiding out in a travelling circus. Min is stuck with the stilled ex-Amyrlin Seat and ex-Keeper, and they’re trying to find out where the rebel Aes Sedai have set up shop. It all feels a bit like the middle of a chess game that started out one move away from Fool’s Mate, and has been on the run ever since. It doesn’t help that the villains are turning even more pantomime, and the quirks Jordan uses to identify each character – Nynaeve pulling her braid, for example – have gone way beyond annoying. All the major characters are written like slightly dim teenagers – I don’t understand women, wail the men; you need to boss men about if they’re to be any use, declare the women – and yet they’re supposed to be the leaders in a struggle to save the world. Rand has gone from shepherd to king, with no underpinning for the psychological change. It’s a major failing in a series which has little technically to recommend it. Some of the world-building is interesting, but the plotting is erratic, there’s a lot of padding, and the prose is barely competent at best. Even so, the piss-poor characterisation is probably the series’ biggest handicap. I’ll continue with my reread, of course, because I want to finish the damn thing. And for all the lumpen prose and clangingly duff characterisation, the 880 pages of The Fires of Heaven were actually a quick read.

The First Time Lauren Pailing Died, Alyson Rudd (2019, UK). Every now and again, I check the kindle deals page on the Amazon website. If I see a book going for 99p I have in storage but have not read, or fancy reading again (since it was likely many years since I last read it), I generally buy it. Same too for books that look like they might be interesting, even if I know nothing about the book or author – although I do read the excerpt, just to give me an idea. The First Time Lauren Pailing Died was explicitly likened to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a book I’d enjoyed. And appeared to tell a similar story to Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, a novel which had turned me into a fan of Erpenbeck’s writing. So The First Time Lauren Pailing Died had much to live up to. The fact it fails to do so doesn’t make it a bad book, just not as good as the Atkinson or the Erpenbeck – although, to be fair, those are high bars to clear. As Lauren grows up she often sees silver beams of light, like beams of sunlight, through which she can see alternate versions of her own life. But then she dies in an accident at the age of thirteen. And then the novel follows her family as they deal with their grief and lead their lives. It also follows a Lauren who survived the accident, moved to London, joined an ad agency, married one of its founders… And a Lauren who married a childhood sweetheart, but then wakes up one day after a nap and can remember events from her other lives… The one constant in all three lives is the mysterious disappearance of her father’s boss when Lauren was young. And it’s that which drives the plot. Unfortunately, it’s a weak engine for what is a nice piece of speculation of lives lived in alternate realities and the Many Worlds Hypothesis. Lauren’s narrative is a good read, but making it all about the disappeared man leads a to a weak ending.

Episodes, Christopher Priest (2019, UK). I’m not a huge fan of Priest’s work. Something about it leaves me cold. Mostly. He’s a very clever writer and I treasure that cleverness, but he’s also a writer whose work I can take or leave. I was drawn to Episodes because Priest provides a “before” and an “after” for each story, in  which he discusses how it came about, and what happened as a result of its publication. The stories are from the length of Priest’s career – the earliest was originally published in 1972, the latest in 2017. Some have never been collected before. The stories are… surprisingly gruesome. Obviously, they’re well-crafted… but there’s still something in their careful prose that leaves me mostly unaffected. The annotations to the story are interesting, and certainly add value to the collection. Which is not, I hasten to add, by any means a bad collection. Priest is one of the UK’s best science fiction writers, and he has written a number of excellent novels, and excellent stories too, although only one or two, ‘Palely Loitering’ for example, included here qualify. Episodes is going to appeal more to fans of Priest’s writing than others, and while I can’t call myself a fan, I did think the collection good. Annoyingly, my paperback copy was bound with only 344 of 368 pages – so it was missing the last story and the end of the penultimate story. I pinged Gollancz on Twitter, but no response…


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Movie roundup 2020, #14

I’ve been binge-watching box sets mostly for the past few weeks, hence the gap between the last Movie roundup post and this one. That’s seven seasons of Beck – which I watched partly to improve my Swedish… so, of course, they go and introduce a Norwegian as a major character in series 6… Plus two seasons of Alias – and no, I’ve no idea why I’m watching it. It’s a series that jumps the shark every episode. But that’s JJ Abrams for you. And a rewatch of Farscape, which is holding up pretty well.

Grimsby, Louis Leterrier (2016, UK). Every Sacha Baron Cohen movie seems to have an infamous scene. It’s almost as if his films are designed around them. If you need to ask what the scene is in this film, then you really don’t want to know. It’s ostensibly a spy thriller, with Cohen as an intellectually-challenged football hooligan from Grimsby and Mark Strong his urbane super-spy brother – who is framed for for assassination and has to turn to his brother for help. There are some funny moments, but far too many cringe-inducing ones.

Dhoom 2, Sanjay Gadhvi (2006, India). The first film was relatively low budget, but did so well Bollywood put more money into its sequel. Most of that money seems to have gone into CGI. In this sequel, the police inspector and his ex-bike dealer buddy are hot on the trail of a mysterious thief who robs high profile targets. But then a copycat turns up and, of course, it’s a gorgeous woman, so they partner up and… Whatever charm the first might have possessed has been lost under a desperate attempt to look cool. Even the item numbers are cringe-worthy. True, jumping the shark is just part of Bollywood’s cinematic language, but in Dhoom 2 it reaches heights even home audiences probably found hard to swallow.

Dhoom 3, Vijay Krishna Acarya (2013, India). In Bollywood, big budget movies like to show their budget on screen by… filming in locations such as New York and London. Even if setting the story there doesn’t make sense. Like this one. A bank forecloses on an Indian circus based in New York. Many years later, the son of the owner uses his background to pull a string of daring robberies. Somehow, the Indian police inspector and his dodgy bike dealer mate are brought in to catch the bad guy. The plot completely rips off The Prestige, but what’s most notable is that the lead actor looks like a Vulcan (see below) but behaves completely illogically. To be fair, this trilogy are fun, but you’ve need to go into them knowing what to expect.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Mel Brooks (1995, USA). Leslie Nielsen in the Naked Gun films is funny. Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles is funny. But Brooks directing Nielsen in Dracula: Dead and Loving It is… not funny. It’s pretty much Stoker’s story but with… I hesitate to use the word “jokes” as that would imply they might make you laugh. A desperately unfunny comedy. One to avoid.

Dragon Lord, Jackie Chan (1982, China). This is one of Chan’s period kung fu action/comedies and, to be honest, I prefer his modern films to his period pieces. Nominally a sequel to The Young Master, it has Chan as the wastrel son of local gentry, who gets into scrapes and, well, things happen. Some comic sequences, some fights, and a very thin plot. One for fans.

Boy, Taika Watiti (2010, New Zealand). This was Waititi’s second feature film, although apparently it was a project he worked on for many years before his debut feature film. An eleven year old boy’s father – played by Waititi himself – turns up after being released from prison, with two mates. They’re there to try and find cash they buried after their last robbery. But the boy wants to reconnect with his father and see if the reality matches the fantasy he has come to believe. This film is all about the boy’s voice, and it works perfectly. The humour is that slightly absurd humour Waititi does so well, the cast are mostly okay, although Boy, played by James Rolleston, is excellent, and Waititi and his two henchmen put in good turns. Definitely worth seeing.

With or Without You, Michael Winterbottom (1999, UK). Christopher Eccleston and Derval Kirwan are trying to have a kid but failing, when a French penpal of hers turns up for a visit. She doesn’t like her job, he regrets giving up his position in the RUC to join her dad’s firm, the French guy is easygoing and affable, and the sexual tension between the three is so manufactured you could could cut it with a butter knife. Eccleston manages a passable Belfast accent – to my ear, at least, although actual Norn Irish people might disagree (but at least it’s not Irish – and yes, I can tell the difference between the two). But for all that, it seems a bit 1980s for a 1999 film, although I’ve a feeling it’s actually set then but I can’t actually remember (the song the title references was a hit in 1987). Winterbottom made Code 46, a film which spectacularly failed to make sense of its premise or the world in which it was set. This earlier work is entirely forgettable.

Dodsworth, William Wyler (1936, USA). The title refers to a retired industrialist who takes his wife on a tour of Europe. But she wants more than retirement, she wants a life he is not prepared to give – because she’s afraid that his retirement will age her. Dodsworth is on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and while that list is over-burdened with US movies, many of which actually aren’t that good, this one definitely deserves its place. It’s not that Walter Huston or Ruth Chatterton shine in the lead roles. Or that there’s some nice modernist design set design in the early part of the film, and the direction is good, with shots that are well framed and well blocked. It’s the script… it really is excellent, with some real insight and lines that show real understanding and development of character. Definitely worth seeing.

Latitude Zero, Ishiro Honda (1969, Japan). If you know the name Honda, you’ll have a pretty good idea what this film is like. And yet it’s not as batshit crazy as most of his work. Three men in a bathysphere are rescued by a mysterious submarine when an underwater volcano eruption breaks their umbilical. It turns out their rescuers are from a secret undersea city at latitude zero, peopled by scientists who the world believes to have died or vanished. And their actual rescuer is over two hundred years old. The secret scientific elite who secretly scientifically rule the world, or ignore the world, is hardly a new trope in science fiction, but I’ve not seen it used so overtly in a sf movie since, well, the last adaptation of a Jules Verne novel. There are monsters, of course – well, men, actually usually women, in monster suits – and they look just as risible as in Honda’s other films. But the submarines look sort of cool, and the undersea city looks pretty neat too. And there’s a cool twist at the end.


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How have the Hugos changed?

When you look at the Hugo Award fiction category nominees of the last few years, it seems like the same names keep on cropping up. Only an idiot would deny the Hugo nominees are more diverse than they were twenty years ago, but shouldn’t that mean the award now selects from a wider pool of authors? You’d assume so, given the existence of the internet. True, in recent years, the short fiction categories have been dominated by fiction published on tor.com or Clarkesworld; but in the 1980s and 1990s, the short fiction categories were dominated by fiction published in Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF.

Has anything really changed? I decided to have a look. (I was bored last weekend, obviously.)

There’s little point in comparing the representation of gender, race, nationality, etc, of nominees over the decades, as the awards are clearly far more inclusive. I was interested only in the number of writers considered by Hugo Award voters.

I split the Hugo Awards into three cohorts: early years (1953 to 1970), middle years (1971 to 2000), and present day (2001 to 2020). They’re unevenly-sized cohorts – the 1950s is not a full decade and we don’t have all the nominees for the early awards; in the 1970s, the novelette category was dropped for several years, and… 17 years (no award in 1954), 30 years and 20 years… But the split works when you consider the various cultural movements in sf and sf fandom.

big fish in a small pond

In total, over 67 years, 397 authors have been nominated for a Hugo fiction award – on average, five each in novel, novella, novelette and short story. For 1,256 nominations… 397 is a surprisingly low number. It gets even weirder when you look at how many times individual authors have been nominated. Almost half of those 397 have only a single nomination. Among the others…

The most-nominated author is Mike Resnick, with 30 nominations. The top ten looks like this:

1 Mike Resnick 30 1989 – 2012
2 Connie Willis 24 1980 – 2011
3 Robert Silverberg 23 1968 – 1990
4 Michael Swanwick 22 1986 – 2009
5 Ursula K Le Guin 20 1970 – 2003
6 Larry Niven 19 1967 – 1990
7 Harlan Ellison 18 1966 – 1994
8 George RR Martin 17 1980 – 2012
9= Poul Anderson 15 1959 – 1990
9= Orson Scott Card 15 1979 – 1992
9= Kim Stanley Robinson 15 1983 – 2018
9= Charles Stross 15 2002 – 2014

The years are first nomination to last nomination. The writers’ careers typically lasted much longer.

That’s a lot of old white men. Interestingly, the only author nominated in all three cohorts is Ursula K Le Guin, who had nominations dating from 1970 to 2003.

Among authors who have been nominated only since the turn of the century, the highest number of nominations is for Charles Stross, who managed 15 nominations in 12 years. Seanan McGuire, who has had 13 in just eight years, will likely end up beating his record.

Digging into the Hugo Award nominations for each year, it was surprising how often authors achieve multiple nominations in the same year. Seanan McGuire managed four in 2013, as did Michael Swanwick in 2003. (John C Wright also had four in 2015, but that was entirely due to Sad Puppy bloc voting.)

In early years, it was even more prevalent, with several authors appearing three times across all the fiction shortlists. John Varley even managed an unbroken six-year run, from 1977 to 1982, of two nominations per year.

The one thing the numbers do show clearly is that authors “have their day”. They will be nominated for half a dozen years on the trot, and then disappear. Some pop up a few years later, but most don’t. In some cases, it’s because their career has ended – either retirement or death – but others continue to be published but are never nominated, perhaps because they’re out of fashion or their fans no longer vote for the Hugo. Everything, as they say, shall pass.

But I set off down this rabbit hole to understand if the size of the pool of writers nominated for the Hugo Awards has changed. Overall, 49% of nominees are “one-hit wonders” (a statistic slightly thrown out by the Sad Puppy campaigns of 2014 and 2015), and 16% have had only two nominations.

And when you look at the one-hit wonders, it’s clear present-day voters read much wider: from 1953 to 1970, 51% of nominees appeared only once; from 1971 to 2000, 44% of nominees appeared only once; and from 2001 to 2020, fully 57% of nominees appeared only once (without the Sad Puppies, it would probably be a couple of percentage points lower, but still better than earlier cohorts). I had not expected that. The second cohort, 1971 to 2000, also shows more authors being repeatedly nominated. There were indeed some authors very popular among Hugo voters during this period, such as Connie Willis and Ursula Le Guin, but also Silverberg, Resnick, Varley, Niven and Card. (Lois McMaster Bujold’s success stretched across two cohorts, so she doesn’t score so highly here.)

debut or established?

One other question occurred to me. Present day Hugo voters, it seems to me, like debut novels. Certainly, the industry has changed and debut novels are pushed much harder than they used to be, sometimes even more so than new works by established authors. The whole concept of “building a career” has gone, killed by the need for a quick profit. Best-selling series of the past, like the Wheel of Time or Malazan Books of the Fallen, took several volumes to build up to best-seller levels. That wouldn’t happen now. Instead, we get instant best-sellers, like the Kingkiller Chronicles, followed by a decade-long wait for a sequel. If this is meant to be an improvement, it’s hard to understand how.

But, Hugo nominations can at least show – for best novel, specifically – which nominated novels over the years were debut novels. Popular perception – based on changes in the industry – suggest this is a recent phenomenon. So I went through every best novel shortlist, marking off those which were debuts – as in, the first book the author had published, also including collections. It’s a little difficult to be sure for the first cohort, since novels were often serialised in magazines, and it wasn’t always the serialised version that was nominated but a later hardcover/paperback release, and sometimes even both versions – ‘Dune World’, for example, was nominated two years before Dune, which was a joint-winner in 1966.

The results were… interesting.

I’d have expected a few more debuts in this cohort, given the genre was relatively young. But magazines had been serialising novels from the very beginning, so most well-known authors likely had plenty of novel-length works under their belts by 1953.

There’s considerable overlap between the earlier cohort and this one, and it takes a good fifteen years to fade away. (Perhaps I should have defined my cohorts differently – 1953 to 1965, 1966 to 1985, 1986 to 2015, and 2016 to 2020?) Aside from a blip in the early 1980s, debut novels were not that popular, appearing in only seven of the years. Interestingly, one of the two debuts on the 1985 shortlist was Neuromancer by William Gibson; the other was Emergence by David R Palmer, a fix-up of two novellas nominated for the Hugo in previous years. Palmer published one more novel and then vanished.

Again, there’s overlap from the preceding cohort, and it too takes around fifteen years to fade away. But debuts are also clearly more popular, appearing on the shortlists of eleven of the twenty years, and even making up half of the shortlist in 2020. On the other hand, the one debut novel on the 2004 shortlist was Charles Stross’s Singularity Sky – and he was then nominated each year for further five years. The debut novels nominated in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 were by, respectively, NK Jemisin, James SA Corey (technically not a debut as one of the two authors who write under that name had been previously published), Saladin Ahmed (who has published no novels since), and Ann Leckie. At least two novels I’d thought were debuts – by Paolo Bacigalupi and Yoon Ha Lee – proved not to be, as both had published collections earlier.

in conclusion…

While recent years have seen several authors nominated multiple times, or for several years on the trot, it’s to a lesser degree than was the case in the decades before the turn of the millennium. So it may seem like the same names keep on appearing, but it was much worse in the past. On the other hand, it’s true debut novels are now more prevalent on the Best Novel shortlist than they were previously. I suspect this is a result of both social media and changes in the industry. Sf fandom has always been tribal – does anyone seriously believe Mike Resnick was the absolute best genre author of the 1990s and 2000s? – although I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of writers in twentieth-century Hugo Award shortlists owed their many nominations to logrolling…

Tribalism still plays a major role, of course, with lists of eligible works posted by influential authors, fans basically providing unpaid marketing for their favourites, and authors branding themselves as personalities separate from their novels (rather than “the death of the author”, it’s privileging the author over the work). But this is the world in which the Hugo Award now operates, and it too will likely change over the next decade or two.

additional findings

The most popular middle initial for Hugo nominees is apparently “M”.

The author with the most works published before their first Hugo nomination is Kevin J Anderson, with over one hundred novels or collections. A number of authors had published at least twenty books before their first nomination – Jim Butcher, Neil Gaiman, Frederik Pohl, Bob Shaw, Sheri S Tepper, Philip José Farmer, Michael Bishop, Robert Silverberg, Andre Norton and John Brunner.

The longest unbroken run for best novel nominations is Charles Stross, with six years. Orson Scott Card managed five years in a row.

Only Robert Silverberg has managed more than one novel on the shortlist – two in 1972 (A Time of Changes and The World Inside) and two in 1973 (The Book of Skulls and Dying Inside). He was obviously very popular then. Of course, there was also Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis, which were published as two books, but the Hugo administrator decided to combine their votes, so giving Willis a win in 2011. As I remember, it was not a popular decision.

Only three people have been nominated for a Hugo posthumously for novel-length works. Both Edgar Rice Burroughs (died 1950) and EE Doc Smith (died 1965) were nominated for Best All-Time Series in 1966. Robert Jordan (died 2007) was, with Brandon Sanderson, nominated for Best Novel for The Wheel of Time series. And no, I can’t remember how they managed to swing that, either.