It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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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.


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Movie roundup 2020, #13

Just the one US film, and it’s Netflix. And it was rubbish. Although it seems to have its fans, and I seriously worry about criticism in the genre these days. Otherwise some Jackie Chan, some Shaw Brothers, and some Bollywood.

The Protector, James Glickenhaus (1985, China). Chan tried to break into the US market several times – one has to wonder why he bothered – but most of his attempts didn’t go well. Like this one. A lot of it was re-shot by Chan as he was dissatisfied with Glickenhaus’s work. I think I saw Chan’s cut. Certainly there’s a change in tone from the bad early 1980s New York to later scenes set in Hong Kong. Chan plays one of a pair of cops on bodyguard duty at a fashion show (and this is the 1980s!), when a prominent businessman’s daughter is kidnapped by armed gangsters. Because drugs. And a falling out between each end of a New York – Hong Kong drugs pipeline. So Chan and partner (Danny Aiello) head off to HK to find the missing woman. The final fight scene, on a shipyard crane, is somewhat OTT.

Disorder, Olivier Assayas (1986, France). I’m a big fan of Assayas’s films, hence my purchase of a Blu-ray of two of his early works, Disorder (1986) and Winter’s Child (1989). A group of musicians break into a music shop and accidentally kill someone. Then they get on with their lives. I tweeted while watching this that you could tell the French band in the film were “edgy” because they were singing in English. Other than that, it was all very low-key and a bit meh.

Dhoom, Sanjay Gadhvi (2004, India). The title means “blast”, and I suppose the film was just that, in one narrow sense of the word. A group of thieves on high-powered motorbikes have been robbing banks in Mumbai. With great success. A police inspector enlists the help of a dodgy motorbike dealer, and his friends, in catching the thieves. It’s all very glossy, and a bit silly, and I was never really convinced the high-speed chases were, well, high-speed. But there’s some good comedy in it, and the use of slo-mo in the action sequences is gloriously over the top. There are apparently two sequels.

The 14 Amazons, Cheng Gang & Charles Tung (1972, China). Historic martial arts epic from the Shaw Brothers, in which the family of a general killed in battle, plus an army of volunteers, set off to defeat the enemy. Fans of present-day historical epics will probably find this one disappointing. It was made before the days of CGI, and the Shaw Brothers were never ones to spend lavishly on sets or location shooting. Meh.

Golmaal: Fun Unlimited, Rohit Shetty (2006, India). A friend recommended Golmaal and I put it on my watch list, but it disappeared before I got to watch it – explain to me why streaming is a good thing, again? – but having watched this film I have to wonder if it’s the one he meant. Anyway, four friends run numerous small scams until the only one of them that’s at university… is booted out of university. They move into the house of an old blind couple, and two of them pretend to be the couple’s grandson – one playing the body, the other providing the voice (don’t ask) – because of some treasure or something. But the “treasure” turns out to be the ashes of the grandson, who the old man already knew was dead. Except a gangster hid some diamonds in the ashes and he wants the diamonds back… It’s all completely daft but quite funny.

Deewana, Raj Kanwar (1992, India). This film has to be seen to be believed. It’s basically Dynasty dialled up to 13. At least. Rich popular singer visits small country town and falls in love with a young woman who is one of his fans. His nephew, who wants the singer’s fortune, sexually assaults the new bride. The uncle sends men to kill the singer, which they do, although the nephew is killed in the attempt. Young widow and her mother move to another city. They are run over by the wastrel son of a wealthy industrialist. The son falls in love with the young widow. But then the singer turns up, because it seems he wasn’t dead after all (although since he was shot at point blank range and then fell off a cliff, I suppose it was an easy mistake to make). But the singer is happy to let his wife stay with the wastrel, and the two guys fight off the uncle’s goons in an epic battle. Absolutely bonkers. Even for Bollywood.

Police Story, Jackie Chan (1985, China). I was pretty sure I’d seen this before but when I looked I could find no record of it. So I assume I saw some of it, but not all. Chan made it partly in response to his dissatisfaction with The Protector, and while it’s a little more realistic it’s still not entirely believable. Especially the court scenes. The villain gets off far too easily, and the police are far too quick to believe the worst of Chan’s character. For all that Police Story is said to be one of Chan’s best movies, some of the others I’ve seen were, I thought, better. Worth seeing, nonetheless.

The Old Guard, Gina Prince-Bythewood (2020, USA). This has has had a lot of positive press, which is not unexpected for a new genre property from Netflix. Unfortunately, it’s based on a comic that has borrowed far too much from French bandes dessinées and presents a US-privileged worldview despite being allegedly global. True, every country’s art privileges its home nation, but no one outside the US believes the US has a fucking clue what it’s doing. Anyway, the head of a UK pharmaceutical company learns of the existence of four immortals, who have sort of done various good but secret things for centuries, and he wants whatever it is that means they can’t die. So he sets up a complicated plan to capture them, one which results in a death toll over the course of the film of several hundred people. CEOs do this all the time, of course – extraordinary rendition, kidnap, torture, mass murder… No, wait. That’s US presidents. The whole thing was complete bobbins from start to finish, and high production values can’t disguise a story that’s morally repugnant. Avoid.


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Reading diary 2020, #9

It seems my last Reading diary post upset a few people. I’m not in the slightest bit bothered, of course, because those people are the selfsame ones whose opinions I said I didn’t care about and, er, it’s that which has upset them.

But back to the books. This post includes another Clarke Award nominee. I’m not sure if I’ll read the others. Two I would certainly like to, but there’s something about ebooks… well, I’m reluctant to buy them when they’re priced the same as the paperback edition. I mean, at least you get an object for that money with the paperback. As yet, the three nominees I’ve yet to read have not been on offer on Kindle. I may bite the bullet at some point, but when there’s so much else to read I’m not in a rush.

Meanwhile, I’ve been doing quite a bit of comfort reading – mostly Georgette Heyer, er, when they’re available for 99p on Kindle; although I’m also enjoying novels by Alice Chetwynd Ley – which I don’t bother writing about here. Of the books I have written about below… One was a reread by a favourite writer, although I’ve no idea when I originally read it. One was by another favourite writer, but I found it bitter and disappointing. One is, as mentioned earlier, a Clarke nominee. One was by a writer I’d been meaning to read for many years but had never quite got around to (one of their novels looked interesting, but reviews were lukewarm). And one is another instalment in a series I’ve enjoyed, although I found this one a little disappointing.

Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord (2010, Barbados). This was a freebie, or rather a “BONUS BOOK!”, as a strip of paper tucked into the book informed me. I’d ordered a copy of And Go Like This by John Crowley from Small Beer Press (this was not the John Crowley first edition I accidentally ordered twice, by the way), and they included Redemption in Indigo free of charge. All of which is incidental. I was pleasantly surprised by Redemption in Indigo, although to be fair it has had mostly positive reviews. It’s not my favourite type of story – it is, in fact one I generally avoid. The book is structured as a tale told about a woman in a Senegalese-inspired fantasy world who leaves her husband, is gifted with the power of chaos, learns some important lessons at the hands of the god who previously held that power – as does he, of course – before giving the power back and finding contentment. The story is overtly told, and the identity of the narrator is part of the world-building. There’s nothing especially remarkable about either the story or the world-building. While the prose harkens back to older styles of story-telling, it’s a mode that’s been used quite a lot in fantasy fiction. Fortunately, Redemption in Indigo succeeds because it has bags of charm. Its story is not always nice – horrible things happen – but it feels pleasant, and it makes for an enjoyable read. This is a nice book, despite its plot, and the genre needs more of them.

The Jewels of Aptor, Samuel R Delany (1962, USA). I know I’ve read this before – I’ve certainly had the Sphere paperback edition pictured for several decades – so it was probably back in the late 1970s or early 1980s. And having now reread The Jewels of Aptor, nothing pinged any memories. Oh well. A poet and a sailor sign aboard an expedition to rescue the Goddess Argo’s sister from Aptor, a distant continent of horrors and monsters. They are joined by a four-armed boy who is telepathic. Once Geo and Orson and Snake have explored some of Aptor, it’s clear the continent was once technological and suffered an unspecified “atomic” disaster. Quite how this exists alongside a mediaeval style civilisation on Leptor, which is where Geo, Orson and the Goddess Argo are from, is never explained. Perversely, if the book has a flaw, it’s that it has too many explanations. Whenever something happens, Geo and Orson speculate on what it might mean, or what is being planned. Most of the time they’re wrong; most of the time, it reads more like the author is trying to figure out the plot. But for a work by a nineteen-year-old, this is a better novel than by some current authors twice Delany’s age when he wrote it. Yes, it’s an early work, and the plotting is a bit hit and miss, but the beginnings of the language are there, as is the singular approach to the genre. When I think about what Delany has written over the years… He was a genre stalwart and award winner but has since moved out to the edges of genre, and yet has continued to be one of the real innovators in science fiction, both as a writer and a critic, and more people in genre should pay attention to him.

The Doves of Venus, Olivia Manning (1955, UK). I’ve been a fan of Manning’s writing since reading her The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy (they were adapted for television as Fortunes of War). Manning spent World War II outside the UK after her husband was first posted to Romania… followed by Greece, Egypt and Palestine. She then returned to England, where she remained until she died in 1980. And The Doves of Venus is clearly written by someone who had tasted better and now found the UK miserable and close-minded. I can sympathise. The book is set in the 1950s but is partly based on Manning’s own life in London during the 1930s. An eighteen-year-old young woman tries to make her own way in London. She meets a man, much older, whose wife has left him, and enters into an affair. Her lover’s wife comes back. She makes friends with a woman at work and they visit the friend’s rich uncle in the country. And so a small group of people sort of circle about each other, meeting up unexpectedly, some living hand-to-mouth, but others rich but parsimonious… and I suppose part of the problem with this novel is that its cast is too small for its story, and the way they keep on bumping into each other seems wildly implausible in a city the size of London. The protagonist, Elsie, is well-drawn and refreshingly independent, especially so given the period (and this was written in the 1950s too), although she’s woefully naive when it comes to her lover (albeit not entirely implausibly). But the 1930s casts a shadow over The Doves of Venus its purported setting can’t overcome. I’ve read other novels set in London during the 1930s, set in the same group of people to which Manning belonged, such as Lawrence Durrell’s Pied Piper of Lovers (1935), and it bears more resemblance to The Doves of Venus than, say, many of the films I’ve watched that were set, and made, in 1950s Britain. There’s also that bitter air to the novel, the feeling of constraint and close-mindedness, that is hard to get past. Manning’s books apparently received mixed reviews on release, with The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy generally highly regarded and other books less so. I think she has an oeuvre worth exploring, even if it is variable, and the aforementioned trilogies certainly giver her a huge amount of credit. One for fans.

Cage of Souls, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2019, UK). I’ve now read half of this year’s Clarke Award shortlist. And… oh dear. One nominee is a space opera du jour, also nominated for the Hugo and Nebula (which it did not win), and spends more time on world-building and its protagonist’s love life than it does on plot or ideas. Another is a near-future B-movie, poorly-written hackwork filled with recycled tropes. And now, Cage of Souls… Tchaikovsky is scarily prolific, banging out novels in a range of genres and subgenres with inhuman rapidity. He previously won the Clarke in 2016 for Children of Time, and the BSFA Award this year for its sequel, Children of Ruin. I’ve read the first, but not the second. His other books have been fantasy or steampunk. Cage of Souls is, at least, quite well-written – certainly above average for the genre, but not really stand-out prose – but unfortunately it also reads like a novel Robert Silverberg could have written in the 1970s. It is bizarrely old-fashioned. It is set during the final days of Earth, when only a single city, Shadrapar, remains. So who the stranger in the line, “How can I describe to you, a stranger who will never know it, the place of my birth?”, is something of a mystery. The characters have mostly contemporary names, and are pretty much exclusively European. There are very few women in the cast, and they’re chiefly defined by their attractiveness. The words “man” and “mankind” are used to refer to humanity. And the plot assumes that after hundreds of thousands of years of civilisation, humanity will have regressed to something like late nineteenth-century USA, or, er, early twenty-first century USA. The narrator is sent to the Island, a prison located in the middle of distant swamp, where the inmates are treated worse than slaves, and could be killed by the guards for no reason – the Marshal even murders one of each new intake of prisoners simply to prove that he’s a hard bastard. I honestly thought we’d got this sort of nonsense out of our system. Yes, there’s all those self-published mil sf and space operas, but who takes them seriously? Except recently there have been announcements about new space operas by established writers, and it’s the same tired old genocide in space shit. Is it the times? The US and UK are currently led by half-witted corrupt incompetents who make Nero look “strong and stable”, and both have dismally failed to contain the pandemic, with catastrophic consequences… So the genre starts churning out mindless genocidal crap as some sort of antidote? Seriously? Sf is, I admit, a US mode of fiction, but we are under no obligation to accept uncritically its specifically American tenets. Having said that, it wasn’t until two thirds into this novel I realised Tchaikovsky was riffing off Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, and while I have to applaud the ambition – and my feelings toward Wolfe’s fiction are conflicted – the comparison does Cage of Souls few favours. I looked at the full submissions list for the Clarke Award and it took me no more than five minutes to find a dozen books more interesting than those on the actual shortlist. I’ve not read much Tchaikovsky but I’d consider him a safe pair of hands – and he did win the BSFA Award this year – but I have to wonder why Cage of Souls was picked for the shortlist because it doesn’t feel at all like twenty-first century science fiction.

Valour and Vanity, Mary Robinette Kowal (2014, USA). This is the fourth book in a, to date, five book series about a married pair of “glamourists” in the early eighteenth century. Or, in other words, Austen with magic. Or maybe Heyer. Except… while the husband’s patron is the Prince Regent, the tone doesn’t really match Heyer’s Regency novels. On the other hand, they’re lighter, and more overtly romantic, and less wittier, than Austen. Still, they’re fun. In this instalment, David and Jane Vincent are visiting Italy, chiefly to work with Venetian glassmakers. Their ship is attacked by corsairs while travelling from Trieste to Venice, but it all turns out to have been part of a scam to steal the pair’s secret of invisibility. Kowal manages a mostly English feel to her prose, although the level of emotion is obviously aimed at a contemporary US audience rather than a British one (and certainly not a UK audience of Austen’s or Heyer’s times). However, something about Valour and Vanity never quite gelled for me. Perhaps it was the fawning depiction of Byron, or the excessive interiority, or the overly-complicated convolutions of the plot, or the flatness of the supporting cast. Having said that, to get to book four before delivering a duff instalment is a notable achievement. I’m obviously going to pick up the final book, and I hope more will appear.


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Movie roundup 2020, #12

Oops, a couple of Hollywood films sneaked in – even worse, one is a new Disney film. (Old Disney films are allowed, by the way.) To be fair, I’d assumed the film was Irish, given the mega-selling property from which it was adapted is Irish – but apparently not. The other is by the nearest thing Hollywood has to an actual auteur, although I’ve always found his films unconvincing. Otherwise, your usual international mixture.

Artemis Fowl, Kenneth Branagh (2020, USA). Nope, didn’t get it. Fairy land is real and lies deep in the earth, but they have magic – so why do they need high tech? Which they have, much higher than us poor surface folk. The title character is the eleven-year-old son of a man who shares the same name, and apparently both are criminal geniuses. So we are told. But not shown. Then there was something about fairies and dwarfs and trolls and a powerful weapon that wasn’t a weapon, and none of it made the slightest bit of fucking sense, and it was clear Branagh had reached for the visuals in every scene, but it wasn’t enough to give the material any kind of sense or character. I’ve heard mixed reports about the books, but everyone has said the film is bad. Hard to disagree.

Dragon Fist, Lo Wei (1979, China). Very early Jackie Chan film in which he is a student of a kung fu master who is killed in a grudge match, then Chan later stumbles across the killer, whose clan is in conflict with a nasty evil clan, and discovers the killer has reformed so much so he even cut off one of his legs. It’s a bit silly, yes, and the showdown where the villain’s brainiac henchman explains his plan is even sillier. But there are some excellent fights, and the generally strong story line keeps things simple. One for fans, I think, though.

Dragons Forever, Sammo Hung & Corey Yuen (1988, China). Jackie Chan plays a lawyer hired to prevent a fishery from closing down a chemical plant after complaints of pollution, except the chemical plant is really a drugs plant and Chan falls in love with the environmentalist helping the fishery… A film mostly notable for being very 1980s, until you realise that Chan’s associates, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, have an entire comedic routine going on between the two of them that nearly derails the film. Also, Chan’s climactic fight with Benny Urquidez has to be one of his best, if not the most physical the two ever performed – and, to my mind, better than the one in Wheels on Meals. A must for Chan fans.

The Kinsman, Doris Ariole (2018, Nigeria). Nollywood is the third biggest cinema on the planet after Indian (Bollywood + Tollywood + Kollywood, etc) cinema and Hollywood, but its output is not easy to find. In some respects, this is a good thing – most Nollywood films are really, really bad. But occasionally it throws up some gems. While “gem” may be far too strong a word for The Kinsman, I did enjoy it, for all its clichéd story and amateur performances. Widow and nubile daughter return to Lagos, and presume on an acquaintance of her late husband to, first, get the daughter a job, and, second, match-make between the two. But the acquaintance, Mr B, is more than double the age of the daughter, and reluctant to get romantic. Add in a pair of female sidekicks, one of whom is deaf and uses sign language throughout, and you have a rom com that ended up more interesting than the usual fare. I enjoyed it, and I didn’t expect to.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Kundan Shah (1983, India). There are not many Bollywood films inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni movies – in fact, this might be the only one. Two unlucky owners of a photographic studio/shop find themselves embroiled in a corruption conspiracy when they accidentally photograph a wealthy developer murdering a corrupt municipal commissioner. But this is Bollywood, so a lot of the film is an extended joke on keeping the commissioner’s corpse out of the hands of the bad guys. It’s all very Bollywood and very 1980s, with pantomime villains and luckless heroes. The end sequence, in which the heroes and villains take over a theatre production of the Mahabharata is considered a classic of Bollywood comedy, and rightly so. It’s brilliantly done, and it’s worth seeing the film for it alone.

The Legend of Rita, Volker Schöndorff (2000, Germany). Of all the nations on this planet, Germany has probably interrogated the violence of its recent past the most. Admittedly, it did significant damage to Europe during the 1930s and 1940s, but it has taken responsibility for those crimes in an intelligent and moral way. Which is more than can be said for other European nation. One of the consequences of the position Germany found itself in after WWII resulted in a forty-year campaign of terrorism, which Germany has addressed many times in film. (This is not to say Germany is a complete paragon – it has yet to address the quiet rehabilitation of Nazis which took place in the years following WWII.) The Legend of Rita is based on a true story of a terrorist who escaped to East Germany and was protected by the Stasi. But it all came to an end after reunification…

Gantz, Shinsuke Sato (2011, Japan). Two young men are hit by a subway train and awake to find themselves in an apartment with a giant black ball, which tells them they must kill aliens to earn points. The film is then structured as their encounters with various aliens. But they also have their own lives to navigate – and while I’ve seen reviews of this film complain about the characters development, it strikes me as overly harsh given the situation itself is never really explained. True, Gantz drags quite a lot in places – in far too many encounters, the characters seem completely clueless and stand around waiting to be killed, when the film has already shown what needs to be done. But it’s a neat idea and it’s handled well, and if there are any problems, it’s in the pacing.

Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mike Newell (1994, UK). This is on the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list and while I’d definitely seen it many years before, I didn’t have a date against it. So when it popped up on Amazon Prime, I decided to watch it. I’d forgotten how much I despise Hooray Henries, and their collaborationists, such as Richard Curtis. Hugh Grant’s character is clearly living off overdrafts – the minimum spend for Andie MacDowell’s wedding present is £1000 and he asks what is available for £50. The cars he drives are cheap clunkers. But he has rich friends. And he is posh as fuck. This is all as representative of 1990s UK as Downton Abbey is of the UK at any time. True, John Hanna’s reading of Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ still moves, but that’s due to the poem, not the film or actor. I fucking despise “chocolate box England” movies, and Four Weddings and a Funeral was among the first of them. Burn it, burn it to hell.

A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick (2019, USA). If you make a film in which a person is arrested and condemned to death for not doing what his country and society want him to do… who is the villain? Given that this film is set in Austria during the late 1940s, a sensible person would say: the Nazis. Except Malick doesn’t show the Nazis doing anything bad. True, there’s no such thing as a good Nazi – but if you don’t make their evil explicit, then you’re helping rehabilitate them And we know people are stupid enough in this day and age to defend the Nazis. While those sort of people are unlikely to watch a Malick film, anything involving Nazis should not be morally neutral. Three hours of fucking dull ambiguity does no one any favours. There is, it must be said, some lovely photography in A Hidden Life. There is also a lot that is unconvincing. And the most unconvincing thing is Malick’s commitment to his premise. Still, this is hardly surprising – Malick’s films have generally been visually strong but intellectually weak. A Hidden Life feels like Malick’s attempt to make The White Ribbon, while completely missing the point of Haneke’s film…


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Movie roundup 2020, #11

Just the one US movie this time, and that’s from nearly thirty years ago. To be honest, I had a feeling I’d seen Demolition Man before, but having now watched it I’m still not sure – and I generally have a really good memory for movies…

These Movie roundup posts – and their precursors, the Moving pictures posts – don’t seem to be as popular as my book reviews, but I think it’s important to demonstrate to Anglophone readers there are shitloads of really good films out there that are tons better that the latest glib and simplistic Hollywood blockbuster. Put a bit of intelligence into your movie watching and you will find they can be as intellectually and artistically rewarding as books.

Bacurau, Kleber Mendonça Filho (2019, Brazil). Not entirely sure what to make of this one. It’s Brazilian. But it stars Udo Kier. It’s supposedly set in the near-future, but I don’t recall much that signalled as much. A remote village begins to fall apart after the death of the matriarch, and random strangers turn up and kill people. It probably deserves a second watch, but I didn’t get much out of it – and I’ve seen a number of Brazilian films.

Demolition Man, Marco Brambilla (1993, USA). Risible near-future action from Hollywood, in which Wesley Snipes overplays a violent criminal defrosted in a utopian California in 2032 but has been secretly programmed to sabotage the utopia in order to turn it into a dictatorship. Unfortunately, the authorities defrost his historical enemy, Sylvester Stallone, to catch him and Stallone demonstrates the freedom to starve is worth more than utopia, and he’ll kill to prove it. The whole thing plays like an advert for Reaganomics. No thanks. A story based on a bullshit argument from the rich people who have the most to gain from it. Avoid.

Tiger on the Beat, Lau Kar Leung (1988, China). Hong Kong cop duo action comedy, with Chow Yun-fat as a lazy and ineffectual police officer teamed up with by-the-book go-getter Conan Lee. Takes a while to get going, but there’s some good comedy, and the final fight scene with chainsaws has to be seen to be believed.

Tokyo Raiders, Jingle Ma (2000, China). This was apparently the last film ever released on laser disc, although there were many films released in that format that have never made it to DVD or Blu-ray. With the success of streaming, recent years have seen DVD/Blu-ray labels turn boutique and specialise in collectible and cult films. Which I applaud. A man misses his wedding, and the bride-to-be teams up with an interior decorator who is owed money (yes, really), and they head to Tokyo to track down the missing man’s business partner, who is apparently wanted by gangsters, and there’s a private detective with three female sidekicks, and the story goes round in so many circles it’s astonishing it makes some sort of sense at the end. Worth seeing.

The Sister of Ursula, Enzo Miloni (1978, Italy). Another giallo. Two sisters visit a seaside hotel, indulge in much nudity, while a mysterious killer stalks and kills the female guests. A review on imdb probably describes it best: “spends too much time on the rumpy-pumpy and not enough on the stabby-stabby”.

The Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven’s Palace, Soi Cheang (2014, China). I tweeted while watching this that it seemed to be some unholy mashup of Avatar and Cats. And, a week later, that’s pretty much all I can remember. Monkey is a common and popular figure in Chinese mythology, and variations  of him have worked their way into Western culture. I admit I know little about him, so my view of this film is pretty much based entirely on the visuals. Which were… weird. I think the film was shot entirely in green screen, with CGI backgrounds, and to be honest I lost track a bit of whose side Monkey was on, with demons fighting angels but the demons acting like they’re the good guys. All very strange.

A Better Tomorrow I & II, John Woo (1986 and 1987, China). I’ve been aware of Woo’s influence on Hong Kong cinema since first seeing Hard Boiled back in the mid-1990s, and Chow Yun-fat’s popularity as an action star, but it’s only after watching several 1980s Woo movies on the trot recently that I’ve come to appreciate precisely how much he changed Hong Kong, and then world, action cinema. In A Better Tomorrow, the brother of an enforcer for a gangster joins the police, but then their father is killed in a bungled attempt to kidnap him to put pressure on the enforcer after a fall-out with a Taiwanese gang. The enforcer gives himself up after a drug deal gone wrong and spends three years in prison. When he gets out he wants to go straight but everyone else is determined otherwise. A good solid thriller. The sequel is more of the same, but in New York. Chow Yun-fat’s character, who died in the first film, was so popular he was resurrected as his twin brother in the second. While both movies are knotty thrillers, the fight scenes, particularly in the second, weren’t as good as some I’ve seen in other films. But it’s weird seeing how Woo “Americanised” Hong Kong thrillers so effectively that later HK thrillers would be remade by Hollywood…

Bahu Begum, Mohammed Sadiq (1967, India). A classic Bollywood film – and there are a surprising number of them available free to watch on Amazon Prime – set in Lucknow, which was apparently a popular setting. A woman falls in love with one man but is married off to another, not realising until the ceremony it’s a different man. Um, that sounds a bit dumb but it makes sense in the film. I was surprised to see Johnny Walker playing a serious role, as most of the Bollywood films I’ve seen him in he plays comic characters.

Andaz Apna Apna, Rajkumar Santoshi (1994, India). This film was apparently so successful it’s become a cultural phenomenon. Certainly, if its humour were any broader, it would rival the Indian Ocean. An heiress from London visits India to find a husband. Two wastrels decide to win her hand and end up in competition. Complicating matters is the fact the heiress’s assistant is really the heiress, but somehow or other one of the wastrels transfer his affections to her. This is definitely one of the funniest films I’ve seen for along time, despite being such a hackneyed plot.