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Reading diary 2019, #11

Winter has definitely arrived and we’ve already had several days of snow. I’m a good deal further north than I used to be, although for much of the year so far that’s not really been apparent – it was hot during the summer, when it wasn’t wet and windy. But there’s definitely less daylight up here now that summer and autumn are over. After fifteen years in the UK, it’s nice to live somewhere that has clearly demarked seasons.

Greeks Bearing Gifts, Philip Kerr (2018, UK). I’ve been a fan of the Bernie Gunther series for many years – and indeed of most of Kerr’s fiction (although, to be honest, a few of his thrillers are complete potboilers). Greeks Bearing Gifts is the thirteenth Bernie Gunther book, and the one following it, Metropolis, is unfortunately the last, as Kerr died last year. (And yes, I do have them all in first edition hardback.) Gunther is working as a porter at a hospital in Munich when he’s recognised by a local cop and blackmailed into assisting with a shakedown of a local bigwig with Communist connections. It goes wrong but gets Gunther a job at a reputable insurance company as an investigator. Which is why he ends up in Athens, investigating a claim for a yacht owned by a German that sank while searching for sunken treasure. Except, of course, nothing is ever that simple in a Bernie Gunther novel: and not only are the circumstances surrounding the sinking dodgy, but so too is the treasure they’re hunting – it’s gold stolen from Jews, basically – but then the owner of the yacht is murdered, and Bernie is up to his neck in events resulting from wartime incidents which he himself experienced but which make him look like a war criminal when he’s actually not one. They’re cleverly done these books, they treat their subject seriously. Kerr does his research and backs it up, and they show – through the point of view of a slightly corrupted witness – the many atrocities the Nazis committed and which people are now all too happy to dismiss. It’s quite simple: anyone who defends the Nazis is a Nazi. They were evil scum, and as the years pass and we learn quite how evil they actually were, so sympathising with them becomes even less justifiable. Bernie Gunther is a sympathetic character, and he worked with many Nazis – including a number of well-known ones, as is thrown in his face at one point in this novel. But he was never a Nazi and never sympathised with their views. And Kerr has used him extensively to criticise Nazi thought and views. It’s just a shame the people most likely to promote Nazi views are too stupid to read Kerr’s novel. Or indeed read books.

Farewell, Earth’s Bliss, DG Compton (1966, UK). Mars has become a new Botany Bay, and convicts are transported there at regular intervals. Life is brutal on Mars – although not as brutal as it would have been had Compton’s Mars been anything like the real Mars – as the latest group of transportees discover on arrival. I consider Compton one of the best science fiction writers the UK has produced. His prose is astonishingly good. But his best work was published in the 1970s and 1980s, and those books are very much of their time – to an extent, in fact, that it becomes part of their appeal. Farewell, Earth’s Bliss was Compton’s second sf novel – he had previously written crime fiction as Guy Compton, and continued for a few more years after his first sf novel. I’ve no idea why he decided to change genre. Perhaps he thought it would be easier to sell novels – although he doesn’t seem to have been discovered by the US until 1969, when his third sf novel, The Silent Multitude (see here), was published in the first Ace SF Special series. Anyway, Farewell, Earth’s Bliss owes much to Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday (see here), at least in terms of its depiction of the Red Planet. The characters are well-drawn but a deeply unpleasant bunch. And there’s a low level everyday racism – although one viewpoint character is black, and his narrative is handled sensitively – that does not sit well with modern readers. But, in common with other novels by Compton, it’s hard to see where the story is going. He was never one for plotting – perhaps that’s why he swapped from crime to science fiction, he couldn’t plot and could disguise that lack in sf – and Farewell, Earth’s Bliss is fairly typical in that regard. It reads like a series of character studies, something Compton did really well, although they work better when they’re in service to a barebones plot, which this novel lacks. It is a rare writer who impresses you with every book in their oeuvre, especially the early ones. Compton remains, to my mind, one of the best prose writers science fiction has produced, but that does not mean every book he wrote was amazingly good. (If you give a book five stars, what if you read one that’s even better? For fuck’s sake, give up with the juvenile “everything is awesome”, you’re not in the marketing department, you’re not being paid to make it easier for some multinational to rip you off.)

Semiosis, Sue Burke (2018, USA). This was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award, and while I often disagree with the jury’s choices, there’s at least some expectation of quality in the books they pick. I mean, this is a national award. For science fiction. They might define the genre a little oddly every now and again, but they at least recognise good fiction when they see it. Except, well, maybe not last year. That was a really shit short list. Happily, the best book did indeed win. This year was quite an odd shortlist – the final book of a trilogy, a book of sf art, a horror novel, a debut novel, a mainstream novel that’s really sf, and… this, Semiosis. Which is certainly science fiction. It is, in fact, a first contact novel, and it says so on the cover. But it’s also surprisingly old-fashioned. I was reading sf like this back in the 1990s. The fact it’s done well doesn’t make it any more twenty-first century. The novel is structured as the diaries of members of a colony that has settled an alien world – a private venture, with very fixed ideas on minimising the colony’s impact on the alien world. The personal accounts follow on one generation from the next, first outlining the accommodations the colonists have made to survive, then the perversion of those accommodations in order to preserve ideals that no longer are relevant. Then the colonists learn there are others on the planet, descendants of colonists from an alien world. Where Semiosis differs from other first contact novels is that the major intelligence the colonists discover is a plant. And it more or less programmes the humans according to its own needs, which happily also result in some degree of success for the humans. That is until the humans meet the descendants of the prior alien colonists. There’s no denying Semiosis is done well, but there’s nothing I can see in it that makes it stand out from other well-crafted science fiction novels that privilege science. And while that may be a rarity in this day and age, it should not on its own be enough to merit appearance on a major genre award shortlist. Semiosis was good but I don’t think it deserved to be a Clarke finalist.

Throy, Jack Vance (1992, USA). So the Cadwal Chronicles comes to a close and it’s pretty much as expected, but this is Vance so it’s the journey that’s been the real source of entertainment. By the start of Throy, the conspiracy threatening Cadwal is pretty much understood. It seems to be driven chiefly by pique – the two sisters Spanchetta and Simonetta Clattuc couldn’t have Glawen Clattuc’s father, so they determined to destroy Cadwal’s society – in other words, the sort of brainless arrogance which seems to have been prevalent in British politics for the last fifteen years. Two factions want to open up Cadwal to exploitation – the LPF faction of the Naturalist Society, which owns Cadwal, wants a feudal society in which they lord it over vast estates of Yips, the planet’s servant race/class; while the two Clattuc sisters simply want to destroy the society in revenge. Unfortunately, the society’s ownership of Cadwal was safeguarded in the second book, Ecce and Old Earth (see here). Which means the two groups are forced to use more violent means to achieve their aims. Happily, the forces of good have a good idea of what is about to go down, and even though the novel is mostly a hunt for clues to resolve a couple of minor mysteries, and there’s a humongous atrocity which is pretty much passed over in a couple of paragraphs, everything works out pretty much as expected, and it’s all done very entertainingly. I’ve enjoyed these three books, more than I thought I would, and that’s despite being extremely familiar with Vance’s career. I’d happily recommend these above other better-known works by Vance.

Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1933, UK). Well, if I’d thought Black Mischief (see here) was racist, it’s almost woke compared to Scoop. And yet Scoop is the Waugh novel which appears on so many best of lists, including “Best British Novels of All Time”. Of course, the people putting together these lists are not the ones who are troubled by the casual everyday racism embedded in them, but things have changed – for the better – and these works really should be re-evaluated in light of present-day sensibilities. And yes, I’m happy to call any right-winger a fascist, even if their views don’t fit the dictionary definition of fascism, let’s not forget taxonomy is a derailing technique and the only people who derail arguments are people who don’t want their views held up to public scrutiny. Because they’re probably fascist. Or racist. Like Scoop actually is. Its story is apparently inspired by real events, but it’s still a story about a white man – a hapless white man, it must be said – who goes to an “uncivilised” African country. Because all brown countries are, of course, uncivilised. At least to 1930s white people. But then, to add insult to injury, the text is filled with a number of racial slurs, not just spoken in dialogue, but in the actual descriptive prose. I lost count of them. The big joke is that a newspaper magnate has picked the wrong man – due to some confusion over names – to be his foreign correspondent covering a civil war in the invented African nation of Ishmaelia, but the Ishmaelians are too stupid and indolent to actually fight and all that happens is a series of contradictory communiques by government agencies. It’s a variation on Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, but written from a British colonialist perspective of the 1930s. Waugh was a terrible snob and a horrible person – it’s well-documented, he was deemed “officer most likely to be shot by his troops” during WWII – but he had a wonderful prose style. It’s a dilemma. His command of English is a joy to behold, but he wrote horribly racist and snobbish books (the latter allegedly presented as “comedy”). Read him and then throw his books away, that’s my strategy.

Planetfall, Emma Newman (2015, UK). These books have been recommended to me several times, although perhaps the third book, Before Mars, more than that others. And I’d had a vague ambition to give them a go, but then Planetfall was reduced to 99p for the ebook version so I though it worth a try. And I’m glad I did. From what I remember of the reviews, I had not thought it would appeal, but in actual fact it was much closer to my tastes in sf than I’d expected. There’s something in Planetfall that recalls a lot of older works – Rogue Moon is an obvious example – but also something very twenty-first century about the treatment. The narrator is  member of a colony on an exoplanet. She is in charge of the colony’s 3D-printers, which has caused problems for her, as the novel slowly reveals. The colony is also sited juts outside an alien enigmatic and uninhabited city. The novel does not explain the alien city, but it uses it and its strange properties to open up the workings of the human colony. Planetfall is not only very readable, it also makes an excellent first of its premise. Perhaps I would have liked the alien city to be a little more explained, but Planetfall is the first in – to-date – a series of four books, and I plan to keep on reading, so how knows what will be revealed…

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


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100 books, part 3

This is the third in a series of posts about the “100 Books That Shaped My World”, as inspired by the list published by the BBC. Parts one and two are here and here.

And so we come to…

The 1990s

The major event in the 1990s which impacted by reading habits was moving to the United Arab Emirates. One of the first things I did on arriving in Abu Dhabi was join a subscription library – the Daly Community Library, run by Jocelyn Henderson – which was a real life-saver… but did not have much of a genre collection. So I was forced to read further afield. I had started reading literary fiction (not a term I like) a few years earlier during my last year in Coventry, but that was more in the nature of exploration. In Abu Dhabi, I  had no choice: if I wanted to take out four books a fortnight, I could not do so if they were only genre, the library simply didn’t have enough of them.

The Innocent, Ian McEwan (1990). I borrowed this book from Coventry Central Library, and it’s one of the first “literary fiction” novels I remember reading. I probably read others before The Innocent, and certainly there were books I studied at school that weren’t science fiction or fantasy, but I’m fairly sure this was the first novel I read I consciously identified as “literary fiction”. I continued reading McEwan for many years afterward, but eventually gave up on his books after reading Saturday and hating it.

Use of Weapons, Iain M Banks (1990). I first met Iain Banks at the second convention I attended, Prefab Trout in Glasgow in 1989, but at the 1990 Eastercon in Liverpool the editor of a magazine called Back Brain Recluse borrowed my hotel room for an interview with Banks. About a dozen of us sat in on it. As far as I know, the interview never saw print. Use of Weapons was also launched at the con, so I bought a copy and got it signed. I think I’d read a couple of Banks’s novels prior to that weekend, but after reading Use of Weapons I made sure to pick up each new book as it was published – both Iain M Banks and Iain Banks. In first edition.

Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990). I remember the fuss when this was published. Greenland had previously published three literate fantasies, was also known as a critic (and a co-editor of Interzone), and was a well-respected name in British sf. Take Back Plenty, word had it, was something very different, a literate science fiction novel that made knowing use of pulp sf tropes. Word was correct. Take Back Plenty showed me that tropes were not only the building-blocks of science fiction but they could also be interrogated. And they could be deployed in a narrative that used literary tricks not commonly found in science fiction. (Many years later on this blog, I would take a second look at the deployment of tropes in science fiction, and the unacknowledged baggage those tropes carried.) Take Back Plenty remains an important novel in British science fiction; and in my own approach to the genre. It’s no longer as popular as it once was, and its importance seems to have been lost in the success of Banks’s space operas. Banks wrote superior space opera, true, but it was less consciously literary than Greenland’s sf; and, of course, Banks published considerably more books.

Raft, Stephen Baxter (1991). I met Stephen Baxter at a convention in the late 1980s, and we would often hang out together. There was a group of us who hung out together at UK cons – some had been published, some hadn’t, but quite a few went on to have careers as science fiction writers and are still being published now. I’d read several of Baxter’s stories in British small press magazines – does anyone remember Dreams and New Moon Quarterly? At that time, a typical sf writer’s career progression went: publish short stories in small press magazines, publish short stories in Interzone, attract interest of genre imprint editor, submit novel or collection… I seem to remember Baxter’s debut was originally going to be a collection of Xeelee stories but his editor decided a novel was safer. Anyway, Baxter added me to a list at his publisher so I’d receive review copies (it wasn’t as easy for an individual to get review copies then as it is now). I was sent copies of his first four books as they were published, but then my parents sold their house and moved abroad. After that, I had to buy my own copies.

The Brains of Rats, Michael Blumlein (1989)
Semiotext(e) SF, Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson & Robert Anton Wilson, eds. (1989). I’d been hugely impressed by Blumlein’s story, ‘Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report’, when I first came across it in, I think, an Interzone anthology. It was shocking but I loved its – no pun intended – clinically sharp prose. Naturally, I bought his first collection when it was published (I upgraded my copy to a signed slipcased edition a few years ago). I was not the only fan of the story among the people I hung out with at conventions at that time (a slightly different group to the one mentioned above). We were all into a particular group of US sf writers who appeared, or were discussed, in the magazine SF Eye and, later, Journal Wired, particularly the more gonzo science fiction writers. And you couldn’t get more gonzo than Semiotext(e) SF. It further helped shape my understanding of science fiction, a demonstration the genre wasn’t limited to the sort of heartland sf found in those books I’d bought from WH Smith and the like in the 1970s and 1980s…

Metrophage, Richard Kadrey (1988). Kadrey was one of the aforementioned SF Eye authors and Metrophage was his debut. I have long maintained its publication pretty much killed cyberpunk as a serious sf subgenre. The 1980s had seen me explore heartland sf widely, discovering new authors and notables works both old and new. During the 1990s, my definition of the genre expanded – well, perhaps not definition, more that my view of sf had been quite “trad” and I’d previously interpreted what I read in light of that view. I had, for example, read Tiptree in the very early 1980s (after she had been outed), but had not read her stories as feminist (feminism was not something I knew of as a thing at that time, although I agreed with its aims and had even internalised some of them). Metrophage was one of the first novels I read which gave me the beginnings of a critical framework for my appreciation of science fiction. I still think the novel is hugely under-rated.

Dreamside, Graham Joyce (1991). I met Graham Joyce at Mexicon 4 in Harrogate during a weekend in May 1991. He was there to help promote his first book, Dreamside. I offered to interview him for a magazine I co-edited, The Lyre, and pretty much read Dreamside in a single day as preparation. Unfortunately, the interview took place on the Sunday, after many of us had stayed up until about 4 am drinking the previous night, and neither Joyce nor myself were feeling particularly smart. Weeks later, I sent him a verbatim transcript, and he wrote back that he remembered the interview as “quite insightful… so who were those two fucking Martians on the tape?”. I lost touch with Joyce after I left the UK, and I was never much of a fan of the genre in which he wrote, although I did read several of his novels. When I first met him, I could not have predicted how important he would prove to British fantasy, but he was a force for good and is sorely missed.

Iris, William Barton & Michael Capobianco (1990). Prior to my departure for the UAE in 1994, I was part of a group of young UK sf fans and writers who attended conventions, were members of the BSFA, read and were published in UK small press magazines, and possessed a mostly homogeneous taste in fiction – which in no way mapped onto the tastes of fans of the previous generation. I had perhaps read more of the older stuff than many of the group, but we were all keen (mostly) on the same US and UK genre writers. Except for William Barton and Michael Capobianco (and, later, William Barton alone). I was the only fan among us of the pair’s books. I’d regularly recommend their books, but either my friends didn’t read them or, if they did, they weren’t as impressed as I had been. And this despite the fact Iris was approvingly reviewed in SF Eye. I suspect Barton and Capobianco were too much hard sf rather than flavour of sf du jour (which was sort of post-cyberpunk), and I’ve always been more hard sf than my friends in fandom. My own writing is no doubt proof of this. But Barton and Capobianco, and later Barton solo, have been for me a mini-fandom of my own within my fandom cohort. (Coincidentally, Barton wrote about Traveller for RPG magazines early in his career.)

A Vision of Battlements, Anthony Burgess (1965)
How Far Can You Go?, David Lodge (1980). A pair of literary authors I started reading because of the Daly Community Library. Lodge I think I started reading because I remembered the TV adaptation of his novel Nice Work. I’m not so big on Burgess these days – he often seemed to obscure his story behind unnecessary linguistics tricks, although there’s no denying either his erudition or facility with prose and language. He just isn’t, in many of his novels, as readable as he could have been. Lodge’s novels I found interesting in terms of their narrative structure, which taught me about different ways of reading (and writing), but as Lodge moved his interest to fictionalising real people and dropped the structural experiments, so I lost interest in his fiction. How Far Can You Go?, his novel about Catholicism, is, I think, his best, perhaps because it’s his most personal. A Vision of Battlements, on the other hand, was a Burgess trunk novel, but it did kickstart my reading of his work, hence its appearance here.

Angel at Apogee, SN Lewitt (1987). Another thing I did during my first few weeks in Abu Dhabi was discover the location of the city’s few book shops, including one that sold remaindered books from the US and UK, less than a block away from my apartment. It was called Isam Bookshop. Many of the books it sold were science fiction and, at 5 Dirhams each, they were ridiculously cheap. I’m pretty sure I found Angel at Apogee in that shop, and liked it so much I tracked down the author’s other books. She unfortunately stopped writing about 20 years ago. They are solid mid-list US sf.

C is for Corpse, Sue Grafton (1986)
Guardian Angel, Sara Paretsky (1992). Both of these books I borrowed from my mother, and subsequently became a fan of their authors. Grafton died in 2017, having only reached the letter Y in her Alphabet series. I didn’t read the first half dozen books in order – which is not really necessary – but I have read all twenty-five of the books. I’ve also read all of Paretsky’s novels, including her two non-VI Warshawski ones. She has a new Warshawski novel out next year. It’s on my wishlist. For some reason, I much prefer female-authored crime fiction, especially those with female protagonists. In the 1970s, when Grafton and Paretsky were beginning, it was a small field. Now it’s enormous, but I feel no urge to keep up. I tried a few other female crime writers during the 1990s – Liza Cody, for example – but never found one to match either Grafton or Paretsky (at least, not until the 2010s).

Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (1957). I knew very little about Lawrence Durrell – I  think I may have read a Gerald Durrell book at school – when I borrowed the omnibus of the Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library. Unfortunately, I didn’t get round to reading it and to return it unread. But I still wanted to read it, so I bought a slipcased set of the four paperbacks during a trip to Dubai (the one pictured, in fact). When I read the books, I fell in love with Durrell’s prose and started collecting Durrell’s oeuvre. In first edition. I now have quite a large collection, including some rare books and chapbooks.

An Exchange of Hostages, Susan R Matthews (1997)
Bending the Landscape: Fantasy, Nicola Griffith & Stephen Pagel (1997). I’m not sure these two books deserve to be lumped together, although I suspect I first read them around the same time. I can’t remember what clued me into Susan R Matthews’s novels – a review somewhere, I suspect – but I’ve remained a fan since reading An Exchange of Hostages. They’re not perfect, and what worked in 1997 doesn’t play as well in 2019, but it’s a remarkable series and worth reading. The Bending the Landscape series, on the other hand, only comprised three volumes – fantasy, science fiction and horror. The remit was simple: genre authors write LGBT genre stories, LGBT authors write LGBT genre stories. The results were… mixed. The idea now sounds seems somewhat quaint, which gives you an idea of the progress made in genre fiction. I value the series because it introduced me to authors I had not previously known. But science fiction as a genre has always been very hetero- and cis- and even in the late 1990s finding commercial fiction that was neither was difficult. The Bending the Landscape trilogy were important in redressing that balance.

Coelestis, Paul Park (1993). I know this was the first Park novel I ever read, and I know I bought it in Abu Dhabi. I suspect it was in All Prints, not Isam Bookshop, as it cost more than 5 Dirhams and was not remaindered. John Clute described it as “Third World sf”, but to me it’s one of the first post-colonial science fiction works. I’m surprised it hasn’t been properly studied. It deserves to be in the SF Masterworks series. It’s been a favourite sf novel for a couple of decades, and Park is a favourite writer. I have all of his books. In first edition.

Holy Fire, Bruce Sterling (1996). I’m not sure which Sterling novel I read first, possibly Schismatrix, but by the early 1990s, after the success of Mirrorshades, the 1986 cyberpunk anthology he co-edited with William Gibson, and the spread of awareness of “The Movement”, Sterling had become something of a cyberpunk guru. Among the group of fans mentioned above, he was known as “Chairman Bruce”. While I read and appreciated his novels, it wasn’t until Holy Fire – arguably post-cyberpunk – that I saw up and took notice. And later went on to buy his novels as they were published. In first edition. Holy Fire remained my favourite Sterling novel until 2009’s The Caryatids – and I was fortunate enough to interview Sterling for Interzone in connection with that novel. It is, I think, my best interview.

Cotillion, Georgette Heyer (1953). For much of the 1990s I was in an APA with a group of well-known UK science fiction fans. It was a bit like a postal forum or group blog. Each month, the members would write a contribution of one or more sides of A4 (you didn’t have to contribute every month, but were expected to do so a certain number of times a year), make 30 copies of it and then send them to the administrator. Who would then put together 30 envelopes containing a copy of each of the contributions for that month, which was then posted to each member. Although the APA was ostensibly about science fiction and fantasy, the discussion often ranged over a wide variety of topics, including other literary genres. I forget who recommended the novels of Georgette Heyer – I think it was after I’d read a Jane Austen novel – but I thoroughly enjoyed Cotillion, and slowly worked by way through Heyer’s historical romances. I still have all the ones I bought and occasionally reread them – they make excellent comfort reading.

The Master Mariner, Nicholas Monsarrat (1978). I remember reading Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea at school as part of a reading group, but I didn’t discover Monsarrat had written other books until I joined the Daly Community Library and saw several of his books on their shelves. The Master Mariner, comprising two volumes, Running Proud and Darken Ship, was Monsarrat’s last work and is unfinished. Running Proud is complete, but Darken Ship consists only of a handful of chapters and notes. They’re excellent and I later began working my way through Monsarrat’s oeuvre, and even collecting them in first edition. I think Monsarrat’s oeuvre told against him, and the fact he’s best known for The Cruel Sea had him pegged as a WWII writer. He wrote across a number of genres, including science fiction. Although rarely mentioned in the same breath, the writer closest to him is probably Nevil Shute, whose profile is much higher. I will admit to a tendency to privilege the underdog (relatively speaking, of course), but that’s perhaps because I find lesser reputations are typically undeserved after reading the author’s works.

The Second Angel, Philip Kerr (1998). I’d come across Kerr very early in the 1990s when I read the first three Bernie Gunther novels, possibly borrowed from Coventry City Library. Kerr later returned to the Gunther series after a 15 year gap in 2006. But he also wrote other novels, some of which it has to be said are bit potboiler-ish, but among them is The Second Angel, which is pure science fiction. And very good too. I thought it so good I started reading the rest of Kerr’s books, and was especially glad he started writing Bernie Gunther novels again as they really are very good. Sadly, Kerr died in 2018. I’ve read all of his books except his last one, Metropolis, a Gunther novel, the children’s books he published as PB Kerr, and his “football detective Scott Manson trilogy.

The Children of Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985). The more observant among you will have noticed that most of the books in this post, and the two preceding, have been by male writers. I did not at that time note the gender of the authors whose books I read. I did read some female science fiction authors – and indeed some were favourites, such as Cherryh – but my reading was predominantly genre books by male writers. The Children of Anthi, and its sequel Requiem for Anthi, are not generally held up as great science fiction, although they’re much better than they should be. Blakeney is a pseudonym used by Deborah Chester for four sf novels published between 1985 and 1990. I’ve never read anything else by Chester other than her Blakeney books, and she used a number on pen-names. The Children of Anthi is an excellent exemplar of one stream of my science fiction reading during the decade, possibly inspired by Angel at Apogee: I actively sought out books by female US mid-list sf authors – at least in Isam Bookshop which, fortunately, seemed to have a good supply. This later fed into SF Mistressworks, a project I kicked off in 2010.


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Moving pictures 2019, #32

An interesting selection of films in this post, even if I say so myself: a giallo, a contemporary German comedy that demonstrates the country has a much better approach to refugees than almost all other European nations, a US movie from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, a well-meaning but turgid biopic by a celebrated US director, and a brand-new Swedish science fiction film based on an epic poem from 1956 by a Swedish Nobel laureate. You won’t find that in an issue of Empire magazine.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet, Dario Argento (1972, Italy). Yet more giallo. I seem to have been on a bit of a run of giallo. Thanks to Shameless. It’s been fun, although gialli are not exactly known for making much sense. In this one, the drummer of a rock group is attacked by a stranger and accidentally stabs him to death. A mysterious man in a mask photographs the incident. But then it turns out the attacker is not dead, and he and the man in the mask blackmail the drummer. And then there’s a dream in which the drummer dreams he is being decapitated in an arena. And it’s all to do with someone who was committed to an insane asylum years before and now appears to be stalking the drummer with the intention of murdering him. But that somehow means just about every other character in the film has to be murdered first. Or something. The title refers to an image photographed from one of the victim’s retinas, which is supposed to be of the last thing they see, but which is of course complete and utter nonsense. I can’t remember what the “four flies on grey velvet” prove to be, but they’re instrumental in the drummer realising who the homicidal maniac is. Argento has made better films than this, although some of them made as little sense as this one. But, I think, is  part of the appeal. Of course, it doesn’t always gel, and I don’t think it does here. Everything in gialli is pretty much broad brushstroke, but parts of Four Flies on Grey Velvet felt cartoonish. One for fans.

Wilkommen bei den Hartmanns, Simon Verhoeven (2016, Germany). The refugee/immigration question is one that has vexed many minds these last few years, and provided the foundation for several scumbag politicians’ careers. I have a simple philosophy: I cannot begrudge people wanting to improve their lives and I’m grateful that opportunities through immigration are possible – and I say that as an immigrant myself – but I also think that when you bomb people’s homes you can’t really complain about them moving into other countries. Germany has decided to interrogate immigration through its literature, films and television – to a much greater extent, it seems, than the UK, where it’s left in the realms of racist polemic. In Wilkommen bei den Hartmanns the titular family want to do something for a local refugee centre that is under threat and are persuaded to take in Diallo, a Nigerian. Diallo is a wide-eyed innocent, wise beyond his years, and the whole thing is played as a gentle comedy that plays as much on Diallo’s perception of German character as it does on the interactions between the Hartmanns and their friends and acquaintances. The father is a surgeon who refuses to admit he is ageing, the daughter is a perpetual student in search of love, and the son is a workaholic involved in some project in Shanghai which has resulted in him neglecting his young son. Diallo, of course, brings the family back together, helps the daughter find love, and the son reconnect with his son. This is feel-good family comedy/drama, but it’s also about a topic important to Europe and it handles that subject well. worth seeing.

Slacker*, Richard Linklater (1990, USA). Whenever film-makers turn their cameras on real people, they hit a problem. Real people are boring. That’s why most films are implausible narratives. Because they make for entertaining stories. Of course, the people in Slacker are actors – but they’re not playing characters so much as they’re playing archetypes. I can understand the artistic impulse that led to Linklater turning his camera away from a structured narrative based on characters with arcs and clear motivations, but the end result is depressingly dull. I also suspect time has not been all that kind to Slacker, as the characters he trails across the screen have since turned into stereotypes and clichés, and I’m not entirely convinced they weren’t stereotypes and clichés when the film was made. I’m not sure why the film was included on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but the list is US-heavy and Slacker is a good candidate for the chop so it can be replaced by a better non-Anglophone movie. But at least I can now cross it off the list.

Kundun, Martin Scorsese (1997, USA). I had not thought it possible until watching this film, and I’m still slightly boggled by the fact it was by Martin Scorsese, but how do you make a biopic of the Dalai Lama that is boring? Actually, I don’t need to know how – because Kundun is it. The film hits the main points of the life up to 19097 of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama – his reincarnation in a village near the Chinese border, the test given him to confirm his identity, his removal to Lhasa, his installation as Dalai Lama, the Chinese occupation, and the Dalai Lama’s eventual flight to India for safety. It’s all very episodic, which is hardly surprising given it’s a gallop through a person’s life from 1937 to 1959. And while the movie looks really nice, with some impressive cinematography, it wasn’t filmed on location in Tibet – for obvious reasons – and Morocco isn’t an entirely convincing stand-in. I’ve seen Kundun on some variations of the 1001 Movies list – if not that actual list in one of its yearly incarnations, then a rival list – but I don’t think it deserves a place. Scorsese has made better movies, and while Kundun tells an important story, it doesn’t tell it particularly well.

Aniara, Pella Kågerman & Hugo Lilja (2018, Sweden). A spacecraft en route to Mars on a relatively routine voyage is knocked off course and its passengers and crew attempt to adapt to a voyage that may be years longer than the weeks originally planned. The movie is based on an epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinsson, originally published in 1956, so we’re not talking about your usual source material. I’ve heard some people complain the film borrows its visual aesthetic from movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. It shows the titular spacecraft as entirely ordinary, more like a hotel/shopping mall than a spacecraft, but that’s hardly an original idea – the RMS Titanic famously shared its interior decor, for the non-steerage passengers at least, with the Hotel Adelphi in Liverpool – and if there’s any style present in the production design in Aniara then’s a sort of generic Scandinavian style, which perhaps echoes the clean lines of 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s production design if not the Soviet modernism of Tarkovsky’s film. Aniara does, however, share a bleakness of vision with Solaris. First, the crew hide the true situation from the passengers. Then, as the ship’s systems begins to break down, so does the ship’s society. There is a brief respite when an alien object appears, and they work together to capture it, in the hope it contains fuel they can use to return to their course. There have been a couple of sf films like Aniara recently – well, maybe only Claire Denis’s High Life, and Amat Escalante’s The Untamed – art-house science fiction films that are as unlike tentpole genre movies as it s possible to be. I didn’t think High Life entirely successful, but it’s hard to tell with directors quite how immersed in genre they were prior to making the film in question. No matter. Aniara is excellent and is like to make my best of the year list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 942


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100 books, part 2

This the second in a short series of posts about “100 Books that Shaped My World”, as inspired by a list of 100 books published by the BBC. The first post in the series is here.

The 1980s

During the 1980s, I further explored science fiction and fantasy. This was chiefly a result of three events. First, I started college (for non-UK readers, that’s not a university, but a secondary school or gymnasium, typically private), and the college had a bookshop. Second, I discovered Andromeda Bookshop, the biggest importer of US paperbacks – almost entirely science fiction and fantasy – at the time. Finally, in the late 1980s, I joined the British Science Fiction Association.

A word about that school bookshop: at the school, one afternoon a week was devoted to “activities, societies and hobbies”, and one of these activities was a bookshop, run by pupils, and at which other pupils could buy from a reasonable selection of titles. (I say “buy” but of course it was the parents who paid – any such “purchases” were added to the bill for the term.) The bookshop had a good sf section, although it was fairly typical for the time, not all that different to what you might find in a large WH Smith. All the usual names, in other words: Clarke, Smith, Asimov, van Vogt, Heinlein, Herbert, Le Guin, Cherryh…

The Undercover Aliens, AE Van Vogt (1950)
The Winds of Gath, EC Tubb (1967). I’ve a feeling I may have read both of these books in the late 1970s… but it might also have been the early 1980s. Having looked up both titles while writing this post, I discovered the edition of The Undercover Aliens I own was originally published in 1976 (the Panther paperback to the left), but the Arrow reprint edition of The Winds of Gath, which is the one I have, only saw print in the UK in 1980. No matter. The Undercover Aliens remains a favourite sf novel, and the only van Vogt I hold in any regard. The Winds of Gath introduced me to Earl Dumarest – and the thirty-one novels Ted Tubb churned out for Donald Wolheim for as long as DAW was happy to publish them. Neither book is, to be honest, great literature, but while the van Vogt is likely forgotten by all but fans – its original title was The House That Stood Still – Tubb’s Dumarest series went on to influence a huge number of things, including GDW’s Traveller RPG…

The Book of Alien, Paul Scanlon & Michael Gross (1979). Alien is one of my favourite films, but at the time it was originally released I wasn’t old enough to see it in the cinema. But I learnt all I could of it through the available books. I suspect it was this particular one which kickstarted my love of the film because of the worldbuilding it documented. From the age of about twelve to fourteen I was really into designing spaceships, spending hours drawing up deckplans on graph paper. This is pretty normal behaviour. It also proved useful experience when I started playing Traveller. But I was deeply envious of professional illustrators, such as Ron Cobb, who could actually draw the interiors of the spaceships they designed; and there were a number of illustrations in The Book of Alien that generated both admiration and envy. I still have my copy of this book.

The Dune Encyclopedia, Willis E McNelly, ed. (1984). Speaking of worldbuilding, one of the premier examples in science fiction is Dune. While Frank Herbert did an excellent job, The Dune Encyclopedia – written by a variety of hands – expanded Herbert’s universe with an impressive degree of originality. Some of the entries show more invention than your average science fiction novel. The Dune Encyclopedia remains, in my opinion, one of the best books of the series, even if it has been labelled non-canon (no brains in jars, you see). I eventually tracked down a hardback edition of The Dune Encyclopedia. It is one of my most treasured books.

The Future Makers, Peter Haining, ed. (1968). From what I remember, by the mid-1980s bookshops in the UK, especially WH Smith, had extensive science fiction and fantasy sections, most of which seemed to comprise books featuring Chris Foss cover art, by authors such as Frank Herbert, CJ Cherryh, Robert A Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. But, for some reason, relatives often gifted me minor anthologies. Including this one. Whose contents are pretty unexceptional, both for 1968 and for the year of publication of the edition I (still) have, the 1979 Magnum paperback: Sheckley, Asimov, Sturgeon, Bradbury, Heinlein and Clarke. Lots of old white men. But it also includes ‘Equator’ by Brian W Aldiss, which has remained a favourite novella to this day. It makes this list because it’s a memorable re-packaging of mostly unmemorable material.

Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany (1975). I’m fairly sure the first copy of this book I bought – I own three or four copies, for various reasons – was at the aforementioned school bookshop. It’s a difficult book, but I’ve loved it since my first read. It probably remains the genre novel I’ve reread the most times. Yes, even more times than Dune. I’ve always appreciated Delany’s prose, and I recognise him as one of the most important figures science fiction has produced, but I’ve no real idea why I love this book so much.

The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe (1979). I’m fairly sure I first read this during the 1980s, but I don’t remember when or where. I’d been interested in spaceflight and astronauts as a kid – I had posters of them on my bedroom walls – but it wasn’t until the 2010s I began to seriously research the topic. The Right Stuff was an early foray into the subject, and impressed because of its topic, not because of its prose or its author – although the prose was good. I have never read anything else by Wolfe, and have no real desire to do so.

The Far Pavilions, MM Kaye (1978). I didn’t always have access to my preferred choice of reading during the 1980s. While visiting my parents in the Middle East for Christmas and Easter, the only reading material was what they had on hand. Books like Lace and I’ll Take Manhattan. Which I did actually read. But also The Far Pavilions. Which I enjoyed so much, I tracked down everything else Kaye had written and read it. The TV adaptation of The Far Pavilions is… okay. True, The Far Pavilions is, like Dune, a white saviour narrative, but it’s also respectful of the cultures of the country in which it is set, which is more than can be said of Frank Herbert, who plundered a variety of cultures for his novel.

Iceberg, Clive Cussler (1975). I’ve a feeling the first Clive Cussler novel I read was Mayday, but the story of Iceberg has remained with me while that one’s story has not. I include a Cussler novel in this list for cautionary reasons. I was a big fan of his formula of readable techno-thrillers for many years. True, Dirk Pitt became increasingly implausible as a protagonist, turning almost superhuman sometime in the mid-1990s. That was sort of forgivable. But Cussler became so powerful a writer, he a) formed an atelier, in which others wrote novels to his instruction, and b) editors refused to touch his prose, which, unedited, was really very bad. Cussler has had an interesting career, but any book with his name on the cover published after 2000 is basically unreadable.

The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists, Malcolm Edwards & Maxim Jakubowski (1983). I am an inveterate list-maker – like, er, this one – and an avid consumer of lists created by other people. The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists is exactly what its title says, and it provided me with the titles of many books I could hunt for that I’d otherwise not known about. And then tick them off once I’d either bought a copy or read a copy. This is the stuff of life.

Radix, AA Attanasio (1981). The copy of this I own is the 1982 Corgi trade paperback, which I likely bought within a year or two of its release. The book made me a fan of Attanasio’s work, but he has had a varied career and I later stopped reading him so assiduously. A fairly recent reread of Radix proved… interesting. While the novel wasn’t as good as I remembered it, I found its ideas much more interesting. These days, I’d probably classify it as an undiscovered classic.

The Barbie Murders, John Varley (1980). This may well have been a purchase from the school bookshop. Or I may have bought it in a Nottingham bookshop. Ether way, I’ve been a fan of Varley’s fiction since first reading it, and the title story remains a favourite sf short story. I have read pretty much everything Varley has written, but I think his best years are behind him. A recent novel was definitely as good as anything he wrote back in the 1970s and 1980s, if not better, but it wasn’t set in the Eight Worlds, and that’s a universe I really love.

Serpent’s Reach, CJ Cherryh (1980). My memory says the first Cherryh novel I read was The Faded Sun omnibus but that wasn’t published until 1987 and I’m pretty certain I’d read her before then. I know Serpent’s Reach was an early read, and one that especially appealed to me. It’s a fairly common narrative for science fiction, and one that no doubt explains the genre’s appeal for many. An outsider proves to have a special talent – it’s always in-built, of course, never learned – that helps her save her world. I’ve been a fan of Cherryh’s books ever since.

The Science Fiction Sourcebook, David Wingrove (1984). The only thing better than a list is, of course, an annotated list. The Science Fiction Sourcebook is a run – well, more of a gallop – through the old and new classics of the genre, with commentary and even a scoring of stars against several criteria (my copy is in storage, so I can’t check what those criteria were, although I remember “literary merit” was one). The Science Fiction Sourcebook introduced me to a lot of sf I had not heard of previously. I’ve not looked at it recently, I admit, and I suspect I would disagree with many of its recommendation. But not all of  them.

The War for Eternity, Christopher Rowley (1983)
Under a Calculating Star, John Morressy (1975)
Where Time Winds Blow, Robert Holdstock (1981). A mixed bunch, but I became a fan, to varying degrees of all three writers. Where Time Winds Blow remains a favourite sf novel, and I had the opportunity to tell Holdstock as much and get him to sign a copy. Rowley was never perhaps a favourite writer but one whose oeuvre I was keen to explore, but unfortunately the bulk of his work was published only in the US, not in the UK. So he was one of the first writers whose books I had to hunt for. Morressy, on the other hand, was published in the UK – at least his Sternverein novels were, and they’re the good ones. Under a Calculating Star is set in a universe Morressy used in several other novels, something which very much plugged into my love of Traveller and science fiction RPGs. (For the record, Morressy’s Frostworld and Dreamfire is a much better novel, and well worth reading.)

Knight Moves, Walter Jon Williams (1985). In the late 1980s, I joined the British Science Fiction Association, after learning of the organisation from an advert in the back of a CJ Cherryh paperback. One of the first things I did after joining was volunteer my services as a reviewer for the BSFA’s review magazine, Paperback Inferno. The editor asked me for a sample review. I’d just read Knight Moves and thought it was terrible, so I wrote a negative review of it. The review was good enough to get me the gig. Through the BSFA, I learnt about fandom and conventions. And also about a great many sf authors, mostly British and recently-published, I had not come across before. (For the record, I later read several other books by Williams, and they were much better. But I never became a fan of his writing.)

Kairos, Gwyneth Jones (1988). I don’t think this was the first Jones novel I read but it was certainly the first that made me sit up and take notice of her – to such an extent, in fact, she has been my favourite sf writer for a couple of decades now. And, in my opinion, she is probably one of the best sf writers the country has produced.

The Space Mavericks, Michael Kring (1980). Back in the day, Woolworths used to have bins of remaindered sf paperbacks for 99p each, or perhaps even less. They were usually by authors you had never heard of. One such book I picked up was Children of the Night by Michael Kring, which proved to be a sequel. I eventually tracked down a copy of the first book of the series, The Space Mavericks. There were no more. Possibly for good reason. The Space Mavericks is notable because on my entry to fandom at Mexicon 3 in 1989 I ended up hanging out with a group of Glaswegian writers (you know who you are) and someone had a copy of The Space Mavericks and several of them tried to act out the fight scenes as described in the book. To much hilarity. The Space Mavericks was also a major inspiration in the creation of the fanzine Turkey Shoot, which was briefly infamous in the early 1990s.

The Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)
The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe (1972)
The Five Gold Bands, Jack Vance (1950)
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (1969). I’m pretty sure I read these books in the 1980s and, for many years, I was a fan of their authors. Some, I still am. But it’s hard to be sure when I read them exactly – although I’m fairly certain they were the first works by those authors I read (at novel-length certainly; I’d read some of Russ’s short stories much earlier). Russ I didn’t rediscover until the 2010s. Wolfe I rated highly throughout the 1990s, but went off him several years ago when ti felt like he was more interested in writing tricks and not narratives. Vance’s oeuvre I explored thoroughly during the 1980s and 1990s, and found much to like; but his last few works were poor and I went off him – only to thoroughly enjoy my first read of his Cadwal Chronicles this year. Le Guin is, well, Le Guin. I have read a lot of her fiction; I should probably read some of her non-fiction. She is definitely in the top five of greatest writers the genre has produced, certainly more so than the likes of Asimov.

The 1980s saw my science fiction reading expand greatly, chiefly through the three reasons given above. I remember reading Neuromancer, and then wondering what all the fuss was about. I remember reading Robert A Heinlein’s late novels and enjoying them, while still recognising their faults. By 1990, I’d started at university, attended two conventions, been a member of the BSFA for a couple of years (and reviewed books for them during that period), and had even tried my hand at writing short stories (with no success). I identified as a science fiction fan and was a member of science fiction fandom.


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100 books, part 1

About three weeks ago, the BBC published a list of “100 Books That Shaped Our World”, comprising titles chosen by a panel “of leading writers, curators and critics”, otherwise known as a radio presenter and literary supplement editor, a broadcaster, three authors and the director of a literary festival. As lists go, it’s a bit, well, establishment, choosing minor titles from contemporary fiction and clonking great bestsellers from genre fiction. A few days later, Nina Allan published a rival list on her blog, and called for others to do the same. Some of my friends have followed her lead.

I like lists. I’ve made no secret of the fact. I’m even responsible for creating one or two that have gone viral, such as the SF Mistressworks list, or the 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women list. So, of course, I decided to have a go myself. But putting together a list of 100 novels which have shaped a person’s reading is hard. Even if you have recorded pretty much everything you’ve read (or, for me, back to the start of the 1990s).

I decided instead to produce an annotated list. And I would organise the list by the decade – one decade per post – during which I encountered the books, giving a sort of history of my reading. While I’d stick to the one book per author “rule”, I wouldn’t limit myself to novels.

It still wasn’t easy. But I managed to put something together. It’s sort of in the order I encountered each book. For the 1970s and 1980s (see next post), it can’t be exact as I didn’t record my reading then. And my recall is good but not that good.

So here is the first installment:

The 1970s

The Golden Bird, Jan Pieńkowski & Edith Brill (1970). I don’t actually recall the books I read before the age of eight or nine, but I do have a vivid memory of this one, particularly its illustrations. Until looking up titles for this post I had, however, thought it was by Joan Aiken, who I do recall reading back then – but not which of her titles.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Alan Garner (1960). This was a British children’s classic for many years and, like many of the books I encountered prior to my eleventh birthday, I read and loved it before understanding what science fiction or fantasy actually were.

Destination Moon, Hergé (1950). I can’t be the only sf fan who was influenced by this when they first read it? Hergé’s star has grown somewhat tarnished in the decades since he died – for the early racist stories, deservedly so – but Destination Moon introduced the iconic rocket that is still recognised the world over today.

Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes, Burne Hogarth (1972). I’ve no idea why I have such a strong memory of this book – it was the 1974 Pan paperback edition – but I was big on Tarzan around the age of eight or nine or ten. Perhaps because the Tarzan television series starring Ron Ely was a fixture on Dubai’s Channel 33 at the time. I also have a very strong memory of reading a Tarzan annual – I later tracked it down as the 1973 annual – in a hotel in London, probably because it was the day before I had an orthodontic brace fitted and that kind of gets seared into your memory.

The Red Moon Mystery, Frank Hampson (1951). One Christmas in the early 1970s, my parents bought me the Hamlyn Dan Dare 1974 annual, which contained ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ and ‘Safari in Space’. I loved it. And it made me a lifelong fan of the adventures of Colonel Daniel McGregor Dare. The book was badly damaged by mice or rats while in storage in the 1980s, but I still hung onto it for a couple of decades afterwards.

Doctor Who and the Zarbi, Bill Strutton (1965). This is the first of the two novels which, I think, led to me identifying as a science fiction fan. My parents bought it me for Christmas in, I think, 1975. I had seen very few episodes of Doctor Who because I only spent the summers in the UK. For several years after being given this book, my relatives would buy Doctor Who novelisations published by Target as birthday and Christmas presents.

Starman Jones, Robert A Heinlein (1953). In my first year at boarding-school – I was eleven – a boy in the same class lent me Starman Jones following a conversation. I had never read category sf before. As soon as I finished it, I wanted more…

Gray Lensman, EE Doc Smith (1951) … and, fortunately, there was another boy at the school – in the year below me – who was an actual sf fan, and lent me some of his books, which he kept in his locker. True, it was EE ‘Doc’ Smith and Asimov… I don’t remember if I read the Lensman books in the correct order… but Gray Lensman I recall being the most exciting of the novels. I also loved the Chris Foss cover art on the books.

The Trigan Empire, Don Lawrence & Mike Butterworth (1965). The same school had a subscription to Look & Learn, a “weekly educational magazine for children”, which included in each issue some pages from the The Trigan Empire sf comic strip. I also had a copy of the Hamlyn The Trigan Empire omnibus published in 1978, but that must have come a year or two later.

Jack of Eagles, James Blish (1952)
Time and Again, Clifford D Simak (1951)
Tactics of Mistake, Gordon R Dickson (1971). These three novels are ones I remember loving during the 1970s. Blish and Simak were also authors I collected then. I no longer read them, although the novels here by them I did reread this century. I’m not entirely sure what I originally saw in them. The Dickson survived an adult reread much better, perhaps because I was more forgiving of its flaws. I still sort of like the Dorsai books, but I wouldn’t hold them up as especially good novels. Fortunately, that’s not what this list is about.

Final Stage, Edward L Ferman & Barry N Malzberg (1974). I think I received this as a present. I don’t think the person who bought it knew what it contained, because some of the contents were a bit adult for a twelve year old. The anthology contains one of my favourite sf stories, Philip K Dick’s ‘A Little Something for Us Tempunauts’, and probably the only Harlan Ellison story I’ve ever really liked, ‘Catman’.

Dune, Frank Herbert (1966). I remember at boarding-school seeing another boy reading this and asking him about it. He told me it was good, I eventually got hold of a copy of my own and… well, every thirteen year old boy wants to be Paul Atreides. My opinion of the book has dimmed considerably in the decades since, but I still maintain it is one of the genre’s premier exercises in worldbuilding.

Traveller: Characters & Combat, Marc Miller (1977). I should really include all three books of the original Traveller RPG box set, especially since I count a few quartets as a single “book” later in this list. A friend at school had bought Dungeons & Dragons Basic Edition (the one in the blue box) and we planned to start up a school RPG society. So I asked for the Traveller basic set – the three Little Black Books in a box – for Christmas… and I’ve been a fan of the game ever since. Its world-building is a bit of a grab-bag, but as a collaborative project that’s been added to for over forty years, it has a depth few other science fiction universes can match.

Next up, the 1980s…


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Moving pictures 2019, #31

I promised to catch up on these, and I’m determined to do so. True, the only person I’m really disappointing by not doing so is myself – don’t all shout out at once, legion of fans – because it’s not as if these are actual film reviews, more general rants about stuff inspired by the film in question. Sort of. I like to think I’m providing some sort of service in as much as I cover a wide variety of films from a wide variety of nations and cinematic traditions. Far too many actual film review sites are all about the Hollywood, and even the good ones are Anglophone plus the occasional critically-acclaimed non-English-language movie. I do not consider language a barrier – although lack of subtitles certainly is (although I could perhaps struggle through unsubtitled movies in three languages other than English…). My point being: I pride myself on watching, and documenting, movies from as many nations as I can lay my hands on – with, I admit, the hope of introducing these films to a wider audience. I like non-Anglophone movies, some more than others. I watch them and I document my watching of them.

And, after all that, somewhat disappointingly, the bulk of the movies in this post are either UK or US. Ah well.

Salome’s Last Dance, Ken Russell (1988, UK). Russell is perhaps the epitome of the creator whose output you want to like but whose individual works you often find you do not like. The idea of Ken Russell is more appealing than the works of Ken Russell, so to speak. Which is not entirely fair. He made a number of films of a very distinctive style, some of which garnered the approval of the cinematic critical establishment – with, I might add, good reason. But he also made some films, of very much the same style, which seem to have been disparaged by those selfsame critics. I am not the sort of person who discounts critics. Anyone who says, “critics are like arseholes…” is, to me, someone who is basically insecure about the quality of their output. It’s that anti-expert thing. Critics generally know what they’re talking about, and it’s at least worth checking the bona fides of any critic before slagging them off (and let’s not forget the creator’s opinion of a work is likely the least useful opinion of that work). But that’s an argument for another day, and a post all its own – celebrate our critics, because everything else is thinly-disguised marketing. But to return to the movie: Salome’s Last Dance was, for me, almost archetypal Russell, which was its chief appeal. It has the meta-fictional narrative, in which Oscar Wilde’s play Salome is performed before him; it has the 1980s UK counter-cultural aesthetic (sort of a gentrified Jarman): and it possesses an enthusiasm, both in the narrative and presented by the cast, that is completely at odds with mainstream Hollywood cinema of the time. And that, I think, is something worth admiring. To those used to Hollywood aesthetics and presentation, most of whom probably know no different, it’s too far from what they know to appreciate. I like Russell’s films, I’ve seen most of them. This struck me as one of the better ones and one of the more explicitly Russell ones.

Captain Lightfoot, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA). There are a handful of films made by Sirk during the 1950s that I count among the best Hollywood has ever made – indeed, All that Heaven Allows, a Douglas Sirk movie from 1955 is my favourite film of all time. Which does sort of present a problem – because directors, especially those who worked during the days of the studio system, were not auteurs, and their output can vary widely depending on the material and resources given to them. Sirk, for example, was at his best when subverting the material he’d been given. But when Sirk was given material not open to his brand of subversion… he struggled to find some way to tell the story other the obvious. Captain Lightfoot lies somewhere in between. It is, for a start, a very much romanticised view of its events, but that was hardly uncommon for Hollywood, or indeed for certain areas of popular culture both in the UK and US. On the other hand, it was partly filmed on location in Ireland, which was not always the case in Hollywood films set outside the US. Which is not to say that its cast convince as Irish, although star Rock Hudson makes a better fist of his Irish accent than I would have expected. (That may not be entirely fair: he was a bloody good actor, one of my favourites in fact, but I have the impression he was mostly viewed as beefcake.) Still, it doesn’t need to be said that Hollywood history is mostly romanticised bollocks, and certainly the British were completely bastards when it came to Ireland, but Hollywood’s weird fascination with Ireland and its history is not conducive to good historical drama. Hudson plays a pillar of the community who is secretly a highwayman. He has the best of both worlds, until a young woman catches his eye and he falls in love. Captain Lightfoot is a surprisingly good -looking film, given its topic and setting, but Sirk was good at working with what he had, and if Captain Lightfoot doesn’t really show his talent for subversion, it certainly demonstrates that technically he was an excellent director. Not one of his best, but worth seeing nonetheless.

Awarapan, Mohit Suri (2007, India). If there’s one thing my somewhat haphazard journey through Indian cinema – Bollywood, Kollywood and Tollywood – has taught me it’s that not all Indian films are boy-meets-girl with item numbers. Awarapan is a case in point. It’s a remake of a Korean thriller, but set in Hong Kong. Shivam is the right-hand man of gangster and hotelier Malik, and runs one of his hotels, successfully, for him. So successfully, in fact, that it earns him the enmity of Malik’s actual son. Not that the son is a fine and upstanding son – he’s a nasty piece of work, and the movie opens with him being upbraided by Shivam for allowing Malik’s dissipated nephew to kill a prostitute in his hotel. You can see where this is going. But this is a Bollywood film, and while it may only be 133 minutes long, that’s not enough plot for a Bollywood movie, and where the hell is the romance? It is, of course, in the subplot which gets most of the screentime. Malik asks Shivam to keep an eye on his beautiful young mistress because he suspects she’s having an affair. Which she is. But when Shivam learns she was sex-trafficked and is pretty much a slave, he helps the mistress and her boyfriend escape. Which brings him into conflict with Malik. And Malik’s brother. And their sons. It’s polished stuff. Emraan Hashmi does moody really well, but doesn’t have the physical presence a Westerner would expect in the role. And the villains are a bit pantomime. But Bollywood has always been good at making use of its locations, and Awarapan does an excellent job with Hong Kong. If you like thrillers, then this is a pretty good one.

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, Otto Preminger (1970, USA). I’m not sure why but I formed a desire to see all the films Preminger had made, and while many of them are definitely worth seeing – his 1940s output is superior 1940s noir – such completism often ends up being less than useful. Especially with old school Hollywood directors, particularly European ones who had careers stretching from the 1920s and earlier. While they may have brought any number of  innovative techniques to Hollywood, they tended to make a certain type of film for much of their career, before having the freedom to make movies you have to wonder why anyone would want to make… Like this one. I argued with a friend on Facebook – somewhat inconclusively, I  must admit – over Preminger’s control over his choice of projects. This was not, I hope, a friendship-destroying argument, even if we never reached agreement – but I maintain that Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon was a film Preminger himself chose to make, as he had enough clout by the late 1960s to do so, and had done before. My friend maintains he was a director for hire. The final result certainly argues for the latter. Because this is not an interesting movie. Liza Minnelli plays a somewhat dimwitted but happy-go-lucky young woman whose face was badly-scarred by an acid attack by her boyfriend. She leaves the institution where she has been recuperating, and sets up house with a gay man in a wheelchair and a man with severe epilepsy. And, er, that’s pretty much it. I didn’t get this film, I didn’t get why Preminger chose to make it. It’s based on a novel, which is hardly surprising, and you have to wonder if Minnelli was a such a fan of the novel she persuaded Preminger to film it. She was on a career high after her previous film, The Sterile Cuckoo, but if that was the case, it backfired as Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon was a flop. Fortunately, Minnelli’s next film was Cabaret. Preminger went on to make three more films, none of which was especially successful.

Body Puzzle, Lamberto Bava (1992, Italy). Giallo does not have an especially good reputation in the Anglophone world, possibly because some of its titles were characterised as “video nasties” in the UK. I don’t know that Body Puzzle was one of those, but it wouldn’t surprised if it was. It’s only mentioned in passing on Bava’s Wikipedia page, for a start. And it is a pretty gruesome movie. A serial killer goes on a spree, and sends a body part from each victim to a young woman. There doesn’t seem to be any link between the victims and the woman. The detective in charge of the investigation finds himself drawn to the woman  – which is pretty much a cliché in police procedurals – but eventually discovers the story behind the murders. It’s… original, but a bit silly. What most people will likely remember from this movie, however, are the gruesome murders. If Body Puzzle had been a twenty-first century film, with CGI and everything, I’d have found it unwatchable. I’m far too squeamish for torture porn. But because Body Puzzle is nearly thirty years old, and a giallo, its effects are far from state of the art. I mean, the murders are not pretty, but they look like they’re the products of special effects, and probably no different in level of sophistication to television shows of the time, albeit a lot gorier. Even for a giallo, Body Puzzle is, I think, more notorious than good. It has its moments, but it’s plain Bava was out to shock and that often gets in the way of the story and the central romantic relationship. Worth seeing at least once.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


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Moving pictures 2019, #30

Wow. It’s been about three weeks since I last posted here. I could claim I’ve been busy the last couple of months – which I have – but one thing you hear about here quite a bit is vintertrötthet, winter tiredness, which no doubt explains the surprising number of energy drinks on sale in Swedish supermarkets… It’s not like it’s significantly colder here than in the UK, at least not in November – although it is somewhat darker: sunrise is about thirty minutes later, sunset is about an hour earlier. True, winter has barely begun, but the shorter day does take its toll, certainly by the time you get home after a day in the office.

I’m going to try catch up with my Moving pictures posts over the next week or so. Fortunately, I’m only four posts behind, because I’ve been mostly watching television series. (I’ve now finished Andromeda, it was a bit pants. And I’ve watched three seasons of Stargate SG-1, two seasons of True Detective, and a season of Modus.)

Anyway, on with the movies…

Fire over England, William K Howard (1937, UK). I couldn’t help thinking while watching Fire over England that it was the perfect Brexit film. It’s set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and is full of the sort of bombastic bullshit with no historical basis that is favoured by Brexiteers. Not that their bullshit about the present has any basis in fact, either. Fire over England hits all the main points of Good Queen Bess’s reign, even the invented and apocryphal ones. It’s told chiefly from the point of view of Laurence Olivier’s character, the son of Sir Richard Ingolby, an invented figure, who escapes capture when his father’s fleet is taken by the Spanish, nursed back to health on a Spanish estate, swears vengeance on the Spanish when he learns his father has been executed by them, and returns to England to urge Queen Elizabeth to fight Spain. Then there was something about a plot by traitors to kill the queen, a secret return to Spain, an encounter with the don’s nubile daughter who had nursed him back to health, and finally command of the fire ships which eventually do for the Spanish Armada. It’s all stirring stuff, and English exceptionalism from start to finish, but well-staged and well-played – hardly surprising, given its top-drawer cast – but some of us have a more nuanced view of history, and see it as more than just raw material to twist into facile justifications for present-day atrocities and political stupidities.

The Boy and the Beast, Mamoru Hosoda (2015, Japan). Sometimes, nothing in your watchlist seems to take your fancy, so you go looking for something new… which is how I found The Boy and the Beast. Anime is usually worth a go, even if, like some people I know, I’m not obsessed with it. But I have found that, while I’ve yet to take fully on board some of the form’s conventions, I’ve enjoyed many of them. So perhaps I’m learning a bit of the language – anime narrative language, that is; not Japanese. In The Boy and the Beast, Ren, a nine year old boy runs away from home when his mother dies and his absent father is not on hand. Meanwhile, in the Beast Kingdom, the current lord is about to transcend to godhood and has picked two successors. One is popular and a skilled fighter. The other, Kumatetsu, is disliked but has the potential to be a great fighter. Kumatetsu takes Ren to the Beast Kingdom and makes him his disciple, though neither really want it. And it is their relationship, and the grudging respect and love that grows between them, that drives the movie. Their relationship is also the making of both of them. Of course, that on its own would be too easy… Ren develops a “void in his heart”, because he has trouble reconnecting with his real father. And the adopted son of Kumatetsu’s rival – also a human – develops something similar, but more powerful, which threatens to destroy the Beast Kingdom. The Boy and the Beast looks similar in style to many recent internationally successful anime properties, and, it has to be said, its story runs along some well-travelled rails… But there’s a lot of heart in The Boy and the Beast, and that’s what it makes it a movie worth watching.

The Limehouse Golem, Juan Carlos Medina (2016, UK). Peter Ackroyd is not a novelist whose books are typically adapted for the cinema, in fact I think The Limehouse Golem, adapted from Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem is his first. (Although apparently a movie based on The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is in development.) And, to be honest, of the Ackroyd novels I’ve read, I doubt I would have chosen it as the most likely to be adapted. I should also read more Ackroyd. The Limehouse Golem is chiefly about an investigation into a series of gruesome murders in Victorian London, which are clearly the work of a single serial killer. The title of the source novel explicitly links the story to Dan Leno, a music-hall star, but the film chooses to open the story at a Leno show and then link the victims to Leno. (I don’t recall if the book did the same.) As a Victorian police procedural, comparisons with any movie about the Jack the Ripper are inevitable… and certainly Ackroyd’s murders are more inventive, and the crimes less ultimately inexplicable. On the other hand, the identity of the killer is not hard to guess, so the final act is hardly a total surprise. Unfortunately, police procedurals are somewhat dependent on the character of the chief investigator, and The Limehouse Golem has Bill Nighy in that role. He’s a good actor, but he plays everything flat – and that simply doesn’t work in this movie. (Alan Rickman was originally cast – and I can see him being much better in the role – but he left due to ill health.) The film looks good, and makes a good fist of its story, but at times it feels like just another retread of Jack the Ripper and Nighy is not enough of a presence to lift it above that. Worth seeing, but you’re probably better off reading the novel.

The Case of the Bloody Iris, Giuliano Carnimeo (1972, Italy). Shameless have been total stars with their policy of releasing some of their catalogue free to view on Amazon Prime. True, giallo is not everyone’s cup of tea, and the genre was never known for its quality, or indeed ever about quality, but I like them and I like the fact they were at their height during the 1970s because I like 1970s aesthetics. (But not actual 1970s materials – I mean, I remember nylon sheets, and they were fucking awful.) One of the appeals of gialli is that their simplistic plots were often so mangled, you have no idea what they’re supposed to be about. In The Case of the Bloody Iris (the original Italian title literally translates as Why those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body?), a young woman moves into a new apartment in London, and is subsequently stalked by a masked stranger who kills her friends and those who interact with her. The film spends the first half glorying in its gruesome murders, and the second half trailing obvious suspects in front of the viewer which never really convince. But then giallo never presented itself as a genre with any real commitment to sense, accuracy, logic, or indeed anything other than visuals. And the last is definitely something that doesn’t always travel – cf “Italian style”. In many respects, these 1970s giallo thrillers remind me of Hammer horror movies from the same decade: they’re cheaply-made, with an aesthetic very much embedded in the decade, and with stories that seem to have been put together with an eye on how they appear on screen rather than any narrative consistency. They are, I suppose, an acquired taste – but I seem to have acquired it, and Shameless have given sterling service in providing for it. If you like giallo, The Case of the Bloody Iris is, I would say, middle-tier: some good mise-en-scène in London, although that I suspect was more accident than design, plenty of less than convincing gore, and a plot that pretends to an intelligence it fails to present.

Theatre of Blood, Douglas Hickox (1973, UK). And speaking of Hammer horror films, which Theatre of Blood is not, but it seems to embody so many of the qualities that made Hammer films so much fun, particularly to a British viewer, that it might as well count as an exemplar of them. If you know what I mean. The plot is simple. Shakespearean actor Vincent Price fails to win a prestigious acting prize and commits suicide. Shortly thereafter, various critics die gruesome deaths inspired by the deaths of major characters in Shakespeare’s plays. This is not meant to be a mystery. It’s actually billed as a “horror comedy”, although it tends more to the former than the latter, and it is familiarity with its cast, the corpus of British horror films, Shakespeare, and UK cinema of the 1970s that definitely – defiantly? – informs the “comedy” aspect. I don’t pretend to know a great deal about any or all of those but… Theatre of Blood was almost a who’s who of UK B-list thespian talent of the 1970s. And seeing those familiar faces, often in unfamiliar roles, was part of the fun. The Shakespeare element is well-explained in the dialogue, but not obtrusively so. The whole thing came across as a spoof that actually played much cleverer than it was intended to be. If that makes sense. It sort of recapitulates Hammer films, without actually being one of them or partaking of them. Which is a good trick. I suspect the appeal of the movie is higher for Brit viewers, especially those who remember (some of) the 1970s, and I definitely fall into that group, but I found it all amusing and cleverly done – for that level of cleverness normally present in horror films of the period. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941