It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Leave a comment

Moving pictures 2019, #29

Still trying to catch up. An even more mixed bunch than usual. If that’s possible.

Tschick, Fatih Akın (2016, Germany). The title is the nickname of a new boy who joins fourteen year old Maik’s class at school. Tschick is a Russian immigrant, with less than fluent German, and what appears to be a drink problem. Maik is the class misfit – he lusts after the most popular girl in the class, but she completely ignores his existence, so much so she throws a party and invites everyone in the class except Maik. On the night of the party, Tschick turns up in a stolen Lada 4WD and the two decide to head south to Walachia to visit Tschick’s grandmother. So you have a road movie, in which the two protagonists are fourteen years old but end up in escapades little different to those experienced by older characters in similar films, except perhaps for the lack of alcohol. And it works. The book on which it’s based is a YA novel and critically acclaimed. Its author was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour in 2010 and committed suicide three years later. He was 48. None of which is especially relevant, particularly since the film does not come across as YA material. This is not like The Hunger Games. The two leads are good in their roles, and their adventures are believable. Definitely worth seeing.

Circus of Horrors, Sidney Hayers (1960, UK). I have of late been sampling many mid-twentieth century British horror films. I’m not a fan of horror films, I’m far too squeamish. But old school horror I quite enjoy, if only because its effects are so obviously effects. And old British ones – especially Hammer – I also find appealing because, well, they’re so British. Circus of Horrors is not a Hammer film, although it’s much like their output of the time (which may tell you something about the success of their formula). A plastic surgeon is forced to flee after his operation on a famous actress goes wrong. He stumbles across a travelling circus in France. The owner’s daughter is badly scarred on the face, so the surgeon operates, and consequently joins the circus as part-owner, as he believes it to be a perfect cover for his continued explorations into plastic surgery. Except, when you think about it, it’s not. How can you move a sophisticated surgical suite around with a circus? It’s not like circuses are known for their cleanliness and hygiene. Anyway, everything seems to be going well, but then the circus crosses the Channel, and then someone recognises the plastic surgeon… Circus of Horrors is not really a horror film, although it does feature a circus. I’d say it was more thriller territory, unless you consider facial scars horrific – although this is a 1960s British film – but as a thriller its story is a bit, well, silly. It is in fact altogether a bit silly, but it keeps a straight face throughout and its commitment to its premise is quite impressive. I enjoyed it, but I suspect its appeal is limited.

The Wandering Earth, Frant Gwo (2019, China). The story is based on a novella by the first Chinese author to win the Hugo Award (Cixin Liu, in 2015 for The Three Body Problem), although it makes a number of changes. There was a big thing in US science fiction a couple of years ago for Chinese authors, and despite Chinese authors having written genre fiction for many years, and occasional novels being translated into English, although not always published by genre imprints, not to mention Chinese-made genre films from both Hong Kong and mainland China being not especially hard to find in the West for at least three or four decades, some of which were science fiction… I mean, the Chinese language science fiction world is bigger than the English language one but some people seemed to think they were doing Chinese authors a favour by giving them the red carpet treatment in the West. And this film is a perfect illustration of how dumb those people were. It’s a big budget Chinese science fiction movie designed partly to ape Western science fiction movies – and its financing was difficult at best – but even then China has been busy investing in Western genre movies like The Meg, so much so “trans-Pacific” is almost becoming a genre of its own, when it all means nothing because The Wandering Earth will be judged by most of its viewers as a science fiction movie (except for those fuckwits too dumb to watch a movie that has subtitles, of course). And, as a science fiction movie, The Wandering Earth looks amazing but doesn’t really make much sense. So, just like a Hollywood big budget sf movie, then. Scientists discover the Sun is about to turn into a red giant, which forces the nations of Earth to unite – a long-running wet dream of science fiction – and  build thousands of giant fusion engines to push Earth out of its orbit and on a trip to Alpha Centauri, 4.2 light years away (and probably not a good choice for a destination anyway but never mind). One of the engines breaks, the planet doesn’t have enough power to escape Jupiter’s gravitational pull (and it would take decades to reach Jupiter but never mind), and everyone runs around frantically try to fix shit (and it all seems weirdly manual but never mind). It’s all completely manufactured jeopardy because we’re following the rules set by the writer, whether or not they make sense, and that may well be a defining characteristic of science fiction as a genre, but as far as cinema goes at least eighty percent of the appeal lies in the visuals, and in that department The Wandering Earth scores highly. For all its production problems, this is a good-looking state of the art science fiction cinema as practiced both in the East and the West. It wouldn’t surprise me if it appears on a few genre award lists next year – and it might actually deserve nomination.

In the Shadow of the Moon, Jim Mickle (2019, USA). There is a film, a British documentary, with the same title, which is about the Apollo astronauts. This is not that film. It is, in fact, a US high concept sf thriller. In 1988, a Philadelphia cop with ambitions to become a detective becomes interested in a series of seeming accidents in which those who caused the accidents apparently had their brains turn to liquid. A mysterious young woman in a hoodie is seen in the vicinity. Similar events occur at nine-year intervals, each time investigated by the cop as he rises up the ranks. It turns out the accidents are murders, perpetrated by an assassin from the future, who is actually travelling backwards in time, so her future is the policeman’s past (this is not a spoiler). The science behind this is the usual movieland technobollocks, but the concept is handled well, and there are several twists which are well-placed and still surprising. The film seems to take a while to get where it’s going, when anyone familiar with sf will figure out what’s going on pretty quickly. True, it might seem obvious to the viewer – but that’s because the viewer knows t’s fiction and somewhat different rules apply, but if the characters are being true to their world they’re hardly going to spot that their murderer is a time traveller. Yu know what I mean. In the Shadow of the Moon would have benefited with a little more pace, and a faster approach to its central premise, but it was still well-handled and well-played. Worth seeing.

The Fall of the Roman Empire, Anthony Mann (1964, USA). This movie is often named as one of Hollywood’s greatest historical epics, from that time when Hollywood churned out more historical epics than you could shake a reasonably-sized, well, historian at. Although a box office flop on its release, it now enjoys a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. True, as Hollywood historical epics go, it’s as Hollywood historical, er, epic-al as you can get. It still holds the record for the largest set ever built. The most bizarre thing about watching it, however, is that Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, which pretty much everyone has seen, is more or less a remake of The Fall of the Roman Empire – mostly unacknowledged – and that lends the latter a weird sense of déjà vu despite it being the earlier film. (This may not be true for people now in their seventies or above.) Anyway, both cover the same period of Roman history, ie the death of Marcus Aurelius at the hands of a cabal of plotters, and the ascension of his dissolute son Commodus, instead of his chosen heir, the general Gaius Livius. Commodus promptly goes full-on batshit crazy Roman emperor and has himself declared a god, leading to what was the first of many raids on the empire by the Goths, the last of which a century or two later eventually brought it down. They say those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it, and while the UK may well have been a Roman province at one point, the history of the Roman Empire is hardly the islands’ history… but it’s tempting to point at the shit going down these days and wonder if one or two senior politicians have not got a touch of the Commodus. But, the movie… It’s very much what it says on the tin: mid-twentieth century big budget historical epic, peppered with big names and familiar faces, a glib if not irresponsible retelling of historical events, and an example of pure Hollywood spectacle that proudly displays every dollar of its massive budget onscreen. They do not, as they say, make them like that any more. And more’s the pity. The Fall of the Roman Empire is not a great film – Gladiator makes a better fist of the same material – but it is a great viewing experience. Worth seeing.

All the Colours of the Dark, Sergio Martino (1972, Italy). I do like me some giallo, and Shameless Video have done an excellent job of making them available on DVD or Blu-ray, and even on Amazon Prime. True, most of the giallo films are not very good, although the genre has thrown up the odd gem, such as Footprints on the Moon (still a favourite). The Shameless releases on Amazon Prime are mostly those films starring Edwige Fenech, who was undoubtedly watchable, but I would prefer their choice to be driven by plot rather than actress. But no matter. In All the Colours of the Dark, Fenech playsa young woman who is haunted by a stalker, and somehow finds herself joining a Satanic cult, initially to protect herself from the stalker but then it turns out he’s one of them, but what is real and what is nightmare is very much left for the viewer to decide. The film has its moments, but it does often feel like an extended episode of Hammer House of Horror – a favourite TV series from the 1980s; get the DVD collection if you can – chiefly because it was filmed in the UK. As an episode of a Hammer House of Horror-like TV series, despite its feature-film length, it succeeds quite well. It is, naturally, very seventies. Almost definingly so. Which was part of its charm. The plot spends much of its time trying to present occult happenings only to fall back on a quotidian explanation, which is not a criticism and might well be a characteristic of the genre. It works for me. The low production values, the often-poor script… these are part of giallo’s appeal, and All the Colours of the Dark has it to a notable degree. I like these films, and among them this does indeed stand out as a good one (among the admittedly few I’ve seen). Set your expectations accordingly, and you will enjoy and appreciate this movie.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


Leave a comment

Moving pictures 2019, #28

Catching up with my movie posts…

Inseminoid, Norman J Warren (1981, UK). This film has an amazingly detailed write-up on Wikipedia, which is surprising given it’s a crappy UK rip-off from of Alien. Something the Wikipedia entry is at surprising pains to deny. It doth protest too much. On an alien planet, a team are investigating alien ruins found in an extensive cave system (actually filmed in Chislehurst Caves). One of the team is injured in an explosion and mysterious crystals embed themselves in his flesh. He’s taken over by an alien intelligence, which sets out to kill everyone else. It’s all wrapped up in some juvenile metaphysics and really cheap production values. I can understand why it might have a cult following, in as much as it’s so bad some people might mistakenly believe it’s good. It’s not, believe me. The acting is terrible, the special effects are cheap, the script is terrible, and the story is far too reminiscent of the far superior Alien (one of the best sf films ever made). Perhaps the only thing in Inseminoid‘s favour is that Chislehurst Caves make an effective setting. Quite why Inseminoid warrants such a detailed entry on Wikipedia is a mystery. The film is very much of its time, a straight-to-video rip-off of an innovative Hollywood sf movie, the sort of thing Roger Corman spent several decades doing (with the occasional surprisingly good result). I suspect the making of Inseminoid would make a more interesting movie than Inseminoid itself. But perhaps it’s worth seeing at least once.

Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure, John Korty (1984, USA). There are many puzzling things about this movie, the first of which is: why did I even watch it? However, the most puzzling thing is: why was it even made? It’s set on the Ewok world which featured in The Empire Strikes Back and whose name currently escapes me, and features a cast composed chiefly, unsurprisingly, of Ewoks. So, animated teddy bears. In creepy rags. And there are some rebels who spaceships crashes and the adults are abducted by some giant monster. The two kids are rescued by the Ewoks, who they persuade to help them rescue their parents from the giant monster. So they do. The end. Perhaps it’s me misremembering the Star Wars film, but the Ewoks in Caravan of Courage, well, their masks weren’t animatronic and so were fixed – ie, they didn’t change expression or their eyes blink at all. It was weirdly disconcerting, like watching a cast of animated toys designed by some deranged toymaker. Even the most ardent Star Wars would be disturbed by Caravan of Courage. It wouldn’t surprise me if the two child actors needed years of therapy after performing in it.

Aadai, Rathna Kumar (2019, India). Not all of the Indian films I watch are Bollywood ones. Some of them are Tamil-language, so Kollywood. Although just to confuse matters, many recent ones have been released in Hindi and Bengali as well as Tamil. Sometimes with different titles. The version of Aadai I watched was the Tollywood, Telugu-language, one and titled Aame. A young woman who presents a prank reality show tricks her way onto being an anchor for a serious news programme and impresses her bosses. That night, the television station vacates their offices for new premises. The woman and her friends break into the empty offices to celebrate her birthday. With mushrooms. When she wakes, she is locked in, her friends have vanished, and she has no clothes. The prankster has been pranked. But it’s played as tense drama, and the “prank” is actually well-deserved revenge. Although the film started off feeling a bit amateur, perhaps even deliberately so given it was aping a reality show, it improved pretty quickly. At 199 minutes, it’s probably stretched beyond its natural length, but this is Indian cinema and their definition of natural length is, well, longer. Not a bad thriller. Worth seeing.

Murder, Anurag Basu (2004, India). I had to check the year of release when watching this film because it all felt very 1990s. Not just the plot, but the set dressing too, the entire look and feel of the film. True, it’s only just twenty-first century but it seemed like an older film. Young woman marries her late sister’s widower chiefly to be a mother to her nephew. But the husband is a workaholic and doesn’t seem interested in her. She bumps into her old college boyfriend – the film is  set in Bangkok, incidentally – and the two embark on an affair. And, well, you can pretty much see where this is going and it’s only a matter of waiting for the twist, there’s always a twist, and hoping it was worth the wait, and… Meh. The film was a massive hit according to Wikipedia, a “super hit” even, and was followed by the imaginatively titled Murder 2 and the even more imaginatively titled Murder 3. Both sequels are free to view on Amazon Prime, so I will probably watch them.

Dragon Blade, Daniel Lee (2015, China). Another random film from Amazon Prime, although not quite as Chinese as it appeared. The two main roles were played by John Cusack and Adrien Brody. Plus Jackie Chan. Chan is the leader of a troop dedicated to safeguarding the Silk Road, but he is framed for a crime and sent, with his men, to Wild Geese Gate to join the slave labour there. Then a bunch of Roman legionaries, led by Cusack, turn up, having got a bit lost, and help out using their Roman engineering ingenuity (like the Roman Empire could teach the Chinese anything…). Which is fortunate because bad Roman Brody wants to kill young boy Cusack is guarding so he can seize the throne, and has tricked the Parthians into an alliance. The historical basis for the story is apparently flimsy at best, and despite Chan playing the most senior character it still comes across as a mostly white saviour narrative. But it’s also a Chinese historical epic, which means pretty much everything is dialled up to eleven and there’s more CGI than you can shake a very tall Roman standard at. Watching Chan and Cusack go mano a mano is… not something I’d have imagined doing. It’s entertaining enough, although about as plausible as the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, Abrar Alvi (1962, India). I’m a big fan of Guru Dutt, the so-called “Orson Welles of India” and, like Orson Welles, he acted as well as directed. Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is a film in which Dutt appears but did not direct. Which is a bit weird because admiring someone as a director is not the same as admiring them as an actor, and the two roles have very little obvious overlap when it comes to creating movies. However, it seems there is some controversy over who actually directed the film, with some saying Dutt was responsible not Alvi, although both denied it. The film is certainly similar in style to the movies Dutt directed, but as star and producer, and director of the musical items, he probably had a great deal of influence. It was also Alvi’s directorial debut, but he’d worked as writer on four previous films directed by Dutt. Sahib Bibi aur Ghalum opens with Dutt wandering through the ruins of a Kolkata haveli, a nineteenth-century town mansion, which is being pulled down. The film then flashes back to when the house was occupied, and charts the adventures of a country yokel who joins the household and becomes the confidant of the young wife of one of the owning family (it’s all a bit Downton Abby, to be honest). He ends up a witness to her failing marriage, if not an inadvertent cause of it. The film is very Dutt, which I don’t consider a problem, obviously. The framing narrative is… odd, but gives the movie a poignant ending it would otherwise have lacked. Apparently Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam was a critical success but a box office flop. Fortunately, it has aged well. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 941


Leave a comment

Moving pictures 2019, #27

Another selection of recent movies.

Spider-Man: Far From Home, Jon Watts (2019, USA). I watch these sort of films because they don’t interfere with my drinking on a Saturday night – which I probably phrased wrong, but you know what I mean: they’re brainless, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve had to drink, you can still follow the simplistic story and marvel at the expensive sfx, and if you can’t remember the details the follow morning then how is that different from if you’d watched the movie sober? This third – or maybe fourth, or fifth, or thousandth, I’ve lost count – reboot of Spider-Man has him cast as a callow youth who hero-worships Iron Man. But then The Avengers: Endgame had the whole universe hero-worshipping Iron Man, and it was a bit disappointing to see Marvel’s cinematic arm twist the company’s entire corpus into a prop for Robert Downey Jr’s ego, but there you go. Spider-Man: Far From Home is more of the same, despite Tony Stark having died before the film begins and appearing only briefly in it. But that appearance involves him gifting some soft of space-based weapon system to Peter Parker, because of course such weapons should be in private individual’s hands, especially a sixteen year old’s hands, and could the MCU get any more fucking ridiculous and fascist? Perhaps not, but it certainly can’t get any more American… than a bunch of US high school kids, including Parker, on holiday in Europe (Europe is not a country) displaying an unsurprising level of ignorance about any country other than their own. Which is purely incidental as the actual plot is about some hero from an alternate universe who turns out to be a special effects wizard who has faked an attack by supervillains, and faked his own superpowers, in order to steal control of the aforementioned space-based weapon system. It is, if that is possible, even less believable than actual superpowers. And while the movie tries hard to stick to its high school template, that doesn’t play well when they’re being Ignorant Abroad, and even less well when shoehorned into a MCU superhero movie. So rather than drink not spoiling the viewing experience, Spider-Man: Far From Home actually results in the film spoiling the drinking experience. Despite all the gloss and polish and money. One to avoid.

Kaal, Soham Shah (2005, India). There have apparently been several films with this title released by Bollywood, but this particular one is about man-eating tigers in an wildlife park. The film opens with a musical number starring Shah Rukh Khan and Malaika Arora, neither of whom are actually in the movie. I have since learned these are called “item numbers”, and are becoming more prevalent in Bollywood films. Some actors only appear in item numbers, not feature films. Anyway, a researcher for National Geographic is sent to Jim Corbett National Park in northern India is sent to investigate. He bumps into a group of thrill-seekers who are planning to hunt the tigers. But it’s not tigers that have been killing people in the park, it’s a mild-mannered guide. Who is some sort of supernatural spirit or something. I wasn’t entirely sure. Watching Kaal was a chore – everything seemed so amateur. The acting was awful, the script was bad, and it all looked terrible, like it was filmed on a cheap video camera. One to avoid.

Anna, Luc Besson (2019, France). It’s been a while since Besson last directed a thriller film, even though his entire thriller output seems to have been attempts to remake Nikita. And Anna is the latest of these. It’s set during the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, although you’d be hard-pressed to spot it. In fact, if anything, it leads to a weird disconnect: it appears to be a contemporary thriller… and then the KGB make an appearance. Er, what? Oh, wait, it’s set in the 1980s. Anna is a young woman recruited by a department of the KGB and trained as an assassin. Her cover is a top model for an agency in Paris. I hadn’t thought films like this were still being made but, having learnt that they are, it comes as no surprise to discover that Besson was the director. This sort of glossy misogynistic violent thriller went out with shoulder-pads and power-dressing, and for good reason. Anna was promised five years of service and then her freedom. But, no shit, they lied: the only way out of the KGB is in a coffin. Not what you want to put on the recruitment posters, is it? And, seriously, the KGB was corrupt as shit but it wasn’t La Cosa Nostra. Anyway, Anna’s drive for freedom happily aligns with the ambitions of Helen Mirren, who wants the KGB top spot. So they make a secret alliance and… yawn. It’s glossy, it’s violent, it’s wildly improbable, it’s the sort of crap glamorous Euro thriller they were making thirty years ago, but with twenty-first century production values. Another movie, in other words, that probably won’t interfere with your drinking…

Bidaay Byomkesh, Debaloy Bhattacharya (2018, India). Byomkesh Bakshi is a well-known fictional detective in Bengali literature, and was first adapted for film by Satyajit Ray in Chiriyakhana in 1967 (see here). He’s appeared in 32 stories and novels since 1932, and 19 movies and six TV series. If Wikipedia is to be believed. Most of the stories appear to be available on Kindle, so I think I might give reading them a go. Anyway, Bidaay Byomkesh, which means “Good bye Byomkesh”, is a later instalment in the series, although not its last. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to all of the films in the series, or indeed the actual books or short stories, at least not in English – and I’d certainly like to explore the series further. I read an anthology of Tamil pulp fiction last year, and it was an interesting read even if the quality of the prose was pretty poor. I have also read Bengali literary fiction – Adwaita Mallabarman’s A River Called Titash is a novel I like a lot, and the film adopted from it is a favourite movie… which is a long-winded way of saying I have had some exposure to the culture which produced the Byomkesh Bakshi stories – but, on the other hand, far from enough to fully appreciate it. But certainly enough to see how it plays off Western traditions. Bidaay Byomkesh is not your typical Bengali film, as far as my experience goes. It’s very… serious. Almost po-faced. And given that the title character is played by a much younger actor in age make-up, it goes to show this is a serious film. And, perhaps, had I been more familiar with the character, I might have appreciated it more. But to someone with or little no knowledge of Bakshi, it felt like a film that took itself a little too seriously. Admittedly, that’s watching it as an Indian film after a diet of Bollywood, Kollywood and Tollywood movies, which is not entirely fair as I admire India’s third cinema, which this is closer to. A good film, and it almost certainly demands a rewatch – although I’d prefer that to be part of a watch of the entire series.

The Belle of New York, Charles Walters (1952, USA). I do love me some 1950s Hollywood rom com, and if it features stars like Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen. I mean, this is feel-good cinema at its height. Now we’d sooner dismember someone in graphic, and all too realistic, detail, but half a century ago – more, in fact- Hollywood preferred to entertain people by dancing a lot and presenting shameless white boy gets off with white girl narratives. Which is totally exclusive, but at least didn’t involved people being chopped into bits. I can rue the whiteness of classic Hollywood films – it was not universal, cf Carmen Jones – but there are films from other countries. Like India. Which is not an excuse for Hollywood’s failings, merely a suggestion that Hollywood is not and never has been the only cinema on the planet. It’s good to look further afield and that’s on you. But, sometimes, Astaire tap-dancing his way through some Hollywood rom com is just what you need. And Astaire was a good leading-man, who made some really good films. This was another one on the genre of “rich person amends their ways in order to win the love of poor person”, which given the number of times Hollywood has used that plot you’d think it would have sunk in that rich people are basically shits and always have been, and they only care about poor people when they can exploit them. But Hollywood has spent just as long promoting the American Myth, that anyone could become rich through hard work, which we all know is complete bollocks and the majority of the super-rich these days inherited their wealth. But 1950s Hollywood is not the place for arguments about the equity gap or neoliberalism, and with Astaire you always get good entertainment – although I prefer Ginger Rogers as a partner; actually, I just prefer Ginger Rogers, she’s one of my favourite actresses – and The Belle of New York does feature a remarkable sequence in which both leads literally dance on air, which I quite enjoyed. The film apparently flopped on release but has since been re-evaluated. Astaire wasn’t happy with it, thinking the dancing on air was sequence was “silly”, but it plays surprisingly well in the twenty-first century. I can see why it failed in the 1950s: I can also see why it’s better regarded these days.

Hope and Glory, John Boorman (1987, UK). Boorman is a name known to me for many years, if not decades, although perhaps chiefly for Excalibur and Zardoz, both of which are films it is easy to like in a sort of ironic way, although in the last couple of years I have found myself appreciating Zardoz without irony… but otherwise I’m not that familiar with Boorman’s oeuvre. Hope and Glory I had certainly heard of, and may well have seen before many years ago. But no memory of it remained. So I watched it again, and it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. If anything, it reminded me of a Ken Russell film. For a start, it’s a comedy. About a family broken up by World War 2. It’s allegedly semi-autobiographical, and certainly the scenes of the kid playing with friends on the bombed outhouses, and forming gangs who go on barely legal scrounging sprees, seems entirely likely and true. But the characters are somewhat caricatured and played for laughs – especially the sixteen year old daughter who gets dressed up every night and goes partying with servicemen… But Boorman has always been an excellent director and Hope and Glory is an extremely well-made film. It belongs to a small genre of movies (because its concerns are not American, of course), but it is a superior example of that genre. The humour is low-key, very British, and quite black in parts. A good film. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


1 Comment

Reading diary 2019, #10

I really should read more classic literature as I seem to be spending most of my time reading science fiction and a lot of it has been pretty shit. But, well, I’m a sf fan, and sf gives me something classic literature does not. Unfortunately, it doesn’t give me good writing. And all too often it doesn’t even give me good science fiction. Sf that’s well put together is getting harder to find – because that’s not a commercial quality and it is commercial qualities which determine whether a) books are published, and b) they are successful and so everyone talks about them and they’re easily available. Back in the day, when the NBA existed, editors could curate their lists, and publish books that might not sell many copies but were actually good. Now they have to chase the the bottom line. This is not a change for the better. It’s like privatisation: it never fucking works. Still, it makes the rentiers happy – and that’s basically what society apparently exists to do, so there you go.

Splintered Suns, Michael Cobley (2018, UK). Mike is a mate of many years, decades even, and I’ve followed his career from the beginning. Unfortunately – if that’s the right word – he’s a better writer than his books would suggest. Partly this is because he’s determined to write commercial genre fiction – fantasy initially, now space opera – and in order to get work accepted by publishers, he’s had to work within those constraints. With his Humanity’s Fire trilogy, he wrote a smart British space opera, based a little too obviously on the works of Iain Banks – which is hardly a crime – but with enough invention to hold its own. And if the descriptive prose and characterisation were a cut above what were typical for the sub-genre, well, that was all to the good. But these pendants to that series – Ancestral Machines (2016) and Splintered Suns – on the one hand haven’t done the trilogy any favours, but on the other are likely to have introduced new readers to the series. They’re weaker books – or rather, they’re lighter books, lacking the heft of the trilogy, with more adventure-oriented plots, explicitly so in Splintered Suns. Both make extensive use of a Big Dumb Object, but Splintered Suns is the more inventive of the two. And its plot is better suited to its cast. Who are the misfit crew of a trading ship which is often involved in less than legit business. And who remain still mostly irritating – especially the captain of the Scarabus, Brannan Pyke – and had they been players in a RPG the GM would have lied about their dice rolls very quickly to ensure they were killed off… Totally unfair, of course, as space operas like Splintered Suns are just as much about their cast as they are their setting. The plot, however… Not only do you have the crew of the Scarabus trying to track down a legendary two million year old giant spaceship, and when they find it they have to navigate a shifting set of time streams and alternate realities to do the space opera maguffin thing, meanwhile there are a set of copies of the crew stuck in a VR fantasy RPG who have to work their way up the levels to kaibosh the space opera maguffin from within. Cobley manages his cross-cut plots with impressive aplomb, although the dialogue does occasionally drift towards parody. Splintered Suns is, as I said, a better book than its predecessor, and it certainly demonstrates there are many stories to be told in the Humanity’s Fire universe.

Ecce & Old Earth, Jack Vance (1991, USA). I used to think Vance was great, one of the actual real great writers of science fiction, although these days that label seems to be handed out to books on a daily basis. Then I sort of went off Vance – the plots often seemed the same, the prose was variable, the invention a little too obviously copying from earlier works… There are great Vance works, but there are also a lot of mediocre ones. I still like the Alastor Cluster books, but the Demon Princes series is badly plotted. Happily, Ecce & Old Earth, the second book in the Cadwal Chronicles, a part of the Gaean Reach loose series, is good. It’s also late Vance, from a time when he was no longer at his prime… or so I had thought, except… I really enjoyed the first book of the trilogy, Araminta Station (see here), and thought it read like Vance on form. Happily, the same is true of Ecce & Old Earth. The plotting is not quite as solid, and the invention does not spark as much, but both seem more than suitable for the story. The world of Cadwal is protected by a charter held by the Naturalists’ Society, but the society is moribund and it seems the charter may have been sold decades before by an unscrupulous secretary. The plot of Ecce & Old Earth is compared by its characters to a ladder – one character starts from the bottom, the other from the top, both hope to discover who currently owns the charter and so safeguard Cadwal’s future. Most of the novel takes place on Earth, and Vance’s inventiveness fails him to some extent as he present Earth towns pretty much as they were at the time of writing (or at least some romanticised version of them from the time of writing). But then Vance was always one for recycling the real world, and even then he manages to give the quotidian a touch of the alien. But you read Vance for the prose style, not for the plotting, and Ecce & Old Earth is Vance in fine voice. And the wit seems a little funnier than I remember from other series. The Cadwal Chronicles have rekindled my respect for Vance’s works. I’ve already bought an ebook copy of Throy so I can complete the trilogy.

Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee (2016, USA). This was shortlisted for the Hugo Award in 2017, and its sequel in the year following, and the third book of the trilogy this year… so this is science fiction which is highly regarded by that small section of fandom which votes for the Hugo. I wasn’t planning to bother reading the trilogy – I’d bounced out of Lee’s short fiction enough times that trying it at novel-length didn’t appeal at all. But I was given a copy of the third book as part of this year’s Hugo Voters Pack (but not the first two books, even though the Machineries of Empire trilogy was nominated for Best Series), and the first book went on sale at 99p, so… Ah, why the fuck did I bother? This is pretty much fantasy with a spaceship on the cover. Also, it’s not very good, certainly not worthy of a Hugo nomination. In the space opera universe of the series – and assorted short stories, now collected – humanity has split into a variety of factions, six of them in fact, the “Hexarchate”, and they all make use of a specific calendar and “calendrical mathematics” to magically generate things like FTL or exotic weapons. Imposing this calendar is what allows the Hexarchate to maintain control. Except when one of its core fortresses decides to use a heretical calendar, and introduce democracy, so jeopardising the existence of the Hexarchate. Which responds by bonding the mind of the Hexarchate’s most successful general, a criminal psychopath whose mind is held in secure stasis, with that of a mathematically-gifted Kel (ie, military) officer. And the pair of them are charged with taking the fortress from the rebels. Most reviews I’ve read have praised this book’s worldbuilding, and the density of it, but it’s meretricious nonsense. The whole calendrical thing is no different to a RPG magic system. The plot of Ninefox Gambit consists chiefly of the two protagonists lecturing each other. And the whole thing exhibits the sort of mindless brutality and callousness at which even sociopaths would blanch. A calendar that requires ritual torture as reinforcement? Sounds a bit fascist. The Kel have “formation instinct”, which is where the individual Kel are neurologically programmed to obey orders. Sounds a bit fascist. There used to be seven factions, but one of them rebelled so the other six committed genocide. Sounds a bit fascist. It transpires the psychopath general objected to this and felt the Hexarchate – the Heptarchate as was – might not be such a good thing. So, Ninefox Gambit suggests towards its end, and the blurbs of the two sequels suggest it’s the story arc of all three books, he chose to do something about this. But the only way he could live long enough to bring down the Hexarchate was to be put in stasis as a criminal. So he commits a huge massacre. WTF? Not even the most cynical Jesuit could rationalise that means as justifying the ends. It would be like dropping a nuclear bomb on London to bring down Boris Johnson’s government and then writing it up as if the bomber were a hero. Welcome to US space opera. Abu Ghraib means nothing; Gitmo means nothing. With a total lack of irony or reflection, US space operas are willing to bake into their worlds the sort of shit George W Bush was happy to sign off on, even if as individuals they are committed to opposing neocon politics. What doesn’t seem to have occurred to them is that putting shit like that in sf novels only helps normalise it. They need to take responsibility for the worlds they build. I don’t care what the politics of the writer may be, but if they’re writing Nazis in space then their book is no different to anything written by an actual Nazi. It’s one thing to present bad ideas and then argue against them, but space opera doesn’t do that. It presents them as normal. And that is more damaging. To read the works of an author who is explicitly not fascist but whose works embody concepts that are fascist is… exactly the same as reading the works of a fascist. No art is created in a vacuum; no art is consumed in a vacuum. You cannot separate the art from the artist. You should not give a free pass to those creators whose personal politics you approve but whose works contain politics you do not approve… without commentary. The Machineries of Empire trilogy, which renders fantasy as space opera, normalises a level of brutality which differs from grimdark only in the gruesome destructiveness of its invented arsenal. And people nominate this for awards! Had Ninefox Gambit been brilliantly written, had it provided a morally-balanced commentary on its worldbuilding, then perhaps it might have been worthy of nomination. It is, and does, neither. The prose is about average for genre writing, the commentary is focused almost exclusively on the characters within their world. The whole idea of democracy being a bad thing is a wink at the reader – or rather, a knowing nod at what the author imagines is an enlightened reader. If there’s one thing the Sad Puppies debacle has taught us, it’s that not all sf readers are enlightened. Not on a literary level, not on a political level, not on an intellectual level. Indeed, some of them actively reject being enlightened, particularly on an intellectual level. The Sad Puppies were defeated and I am glad of that, but I do worry that science fiction learned nothing from the skirmish. It was presented as a battle for the heart and soul of science fiction, but it looks very much like it was a fight between authors who held different personal politics but were happy to write down exactly the same political line in their sf stories. A hollow victory indeed.

Kon-Tiki 2: Parasites, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2018, UK) and Kon-Tiki 3: Insights, Eric Brown & Keith Brooke (2019, UK). Both authors are friends. I’ve known them for many years, and their fiction has always struck me as good, but it never seems to garner the acclaim needed to raise their profiles. They’re craftsmen – what they write is well-written; but sometimes it lacks that additional inventiveness required to bounce it to the next level – and when it does, it doesn’t matter because they’re boringly ordinary people with very low, if not zero, online presences. PS Publishing have regularly published Brown’s novels and collections, as well as the novellas he’s written in collaboration with Brooke (and they’ve been collaborating, every now and again, for at least thirty years). The Kon-Tiki Quartet is about the colonisation of an earth-like exoplanet by an Earth very close to catastrophic failure from climate crash. The gimmick here is that copies of the colonists are sent and “printed” on arrival. Leaving the originals behind in. In Kon-Tiki 2: Parasites, the colonisation ship arrives at “Newhaven”, only to discover it was beaten there by a more efficient vessel. And so the crew – or rather, the handful the story concerns – discover they have copies of themselves, with different histories. If that isn’t enough, one of them has been researching the local fauna and discovered it has a form of hormonal telepathy which is compatible with human chemistry. And so an unregulated experiment becomes the means to untangle a love triangle, and some of its nasty secrets, including the murder which formed the plot of the first book of the quartet, while also presenting a magic bullet that will present all future human interactions in a different light. Which, unfortunately, certain movers and shakers on Newhaven have a problem with in Kon-Tiki 3: Insights. Because they have plans for Newhaven, which they intend to take back to Earth, and if everyone could read everyone else’s thoughts, experience their actual being, then not only are their plans jeopardised but their entire lives are rendered useless. And they don’t want that. Which does, unfortunately, give the novella more of a thriller plot – albeit on an alien world – than a science fiction plot. And the central premise, that people might be “printed” into bodies other than copies of their originals, is not really explored, other than as an enabler for infiltration of government offices. In many respects, the Kon-Tiki Quartet is almost the dictionary definition of traditional sf: it’s ideas-based, and carefully worked out and well-presented… but it’s also Eurocentric, with a cast of almost entirely white people, and concerns that apply chiefly to them. This is hardly unexpected, given the authors’ backgrounds. But a series about a project to safeguard humanity by settling an exoplanet you would expect to mention more races and cultures. Of course, this is all a bit Scylla and Charybdis – which is more damaging to the reputations of the authors, the lack, or including it and not getting it right enough for some readers? Given the authors’ lack of online presence, it hardly matters. What happens on Twitter only really matters to people on Twitter. I feel like I’m damning the Kon-Tiki Quartet with faint praise, when if in fact it’s a well-constructed series of four novellas (well, three to date) that occupies the heartland of Atlantic, albeit more UK than US, science fiction. It does what it does with a degree of accomplishment you’d expect of its authors. It may well be a shame neither are not better-known, either side of the Atlantic, but, to be honest, this is not the work to do that. One for fans – but I do recommend becoming a fan of both authors.

The Dragon Reborn, Robert Jordan (1991, USA). The reread continues, and most of the time I have to wonder why I’m bothering… The story arc is still bouncing around, trying to work out what length the series will finally be (and even then, Jordan had pretty much no clue right up until his death), most of the characters continue to be very irritating – or rather, Jordan’s repetitive way of presenting them is hugely annoying – but the worldbuilding, despite being somewhat identikit fantasy, is starting to come together. After the big battle which ended the previous book, and actually resolved very little, book three seems to be mostly explanations of what might happen. Rand al’Thor has declared himself as the Dragon Reborn, and is afraid he’ll go mad from channelling the One Power (as has every other bloke who could since the Age of Legends). But he’s determined not to be controlled by the Aes Sedai, or rather the small group of Aes Sedai who actually believe he is the Dragon Reborn. So he’s run away to Tear, partly driven by bad dreams and partly by the onset of madness caused by using the Source. The three young women, Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve, are on their own adventure – approved this time – to find the escaped Black Ajah, who have gone to ground in Tear. Moiraine, Lan, Loial and Perrin are hot on Rand’s tail, but having adventures on their own. And Mat, cured by the Aes Sedai, has been sent to Caemlyn to deliver a letter to the queen, but then heads for Tear after overhearing a plot to murder Elayne… In other words, the plot is eighty percent travelogue, with plenty of history lessons, before everything comes to an explosive head in Tear in the final chapter. Nynaeve’s constant tugging of her braid is getting really fucking annoying. Rand is pretty much a blank, chiefly because his viewpoint appears very little – amusingly, the Wikipedia describes The Dragon Reborn as “unique at the time” in the series because of this. It’s the third book in the series, FFS. Anyway, The Dragon Reborn is a definite improvement on the preceding two books, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear. I can see why people became invested in the Wheel of Time as this is the first book of the series which actually feels like part of a series. And that’s not just because the end clearly slingshots into the next book. It’s like the setting is starting to develop a third dimension. That doesn’t stop it from being 75% identikit, but it’s like that tilt-shift thing where a flat backdrop sort of refocuses and… Hmm, isn’t that effect used in the opening credit sequence of Game of Thrones? Anyway, next up: The Shadow Rising. Although I think I will continue with my Dune reread before tackling it.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 135


1 Comment

Moving pictures 2019, #26

Just when I was getting close to being up to date with my film posts, I stop posting for a while and get a bit behind…

Ek Hasina Thi, Sriram Raghavan (2004, India). I’ve been watching quite a few Indian films these last few weeks. There’s loads of them available on Amazon Prime, both classic and twenty-first century. Annoyingly, not all of them have English subtitles. I think I’ve moaned about this before. Anyway, Ek Hasina Thi is a neo-noir thriller set in Mumbai. A young woman meets a man, whirlwind romance, they get married. He asks her to fly a parcel to another city. The parcel contains drugs, she’s caught, sentenced and imprisoned. She discovers her husband had set her up… so when she is finally released, she goes all out for revenge. In Hollywood, the story would make a taut thriller of around 100 minutes, but this is Bollywood so it comes as a surprise that Ek Hasina Thi is only 120 minutes long. Nor do I remember any musical numbers. I do recall the acting was a bit OTT and the plot had more than its fair share of moments that were a little hard to swallow. But if you’re going to watch a thriller, you might as well watch one from India than from the US.

I Am Mother, Grant Sputore (2019, Australia). A colleague at work recommended this film, and I admit I’d initially passed it by as probably not worth seeing. But after the recommendation I decided to give it a go. And… It looks good, but its ideas are not new and the plot twists are piss-easy to guess. Worse than that, however, it’s one of those films – and this is also true of novels – which uses genre as a delivery vehicle for some really dodgy philosophy. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t make a big deal of its message, using it more as a “twist” than a raison d’être. A young woman is born artificially and raised by a robot she calls “Mother” in a vast underground complex containing millions of embryos intended to repopulate an earth in which humanity were pretty much wiped out some forty years earlier. The young woman begins to wonder about the outside, especially when Hillary Swank starts banging on the bunker’s main entrance. On the one hand, the film doesn’t go for the obvious twist here, but goes for a later reveal on which is  actually going on… and it’s not all that much more original an idea. But it all looks very pretty, and Mother – a man in a robot suit – is pretty convincing. Unfortunately, some of the stuff Mother teachers the young woman – and it’s some of this which does drive the plot – is the sort of sophomoric philosophy far too many science fiction writers seem to think worthy of commentary. While pushing this commentary into the background may have saved the intelligence of the film’s viewers, it does make the movie a bit of a slog as very little happens for much of its length. Fortunately, as mentioned earlier, the production design is impressive, so it might be slow but it’s also good-looking and slow.

Game, Abhinay Deo (2011, India). Oh look, another Bollywood film. The plot of Game reminded me of another film, but for the life I can’t remember which. A billionaire invites four people to his exclusive Mediterranean island hideaway: a nightclub owner and druglord from Istanbul, a (ethnic Indian) prime ministerial candidate from Thailand, an Anglo-Indian journalist, and a Bollywood leading man. None of them know why they’ve been invited. He explains that three of them were instrumental in the degradation and death of his long-lost daughter. The Thai politician ran the child-sex ring that bought the daughter when she was very young. The nightclub owner introduced her to drugs, and the Bollywood actor hit and killed her while driving drunk and then hid the body. The journalist is the billionaire’s other long-lost daughter. The next morning, the billionaire is found dead, apparently from suicide. A detective is called in from an international police organisation based in London, and she determines – with the help of the nightclub owner, who it transpires is an undercover police agent – that it was actually murder. But by whom? The politician? The actor? Perhaps even the daughter, who now stands to inherit… Game certainly made a four-course meal of its premise, with flashbacks explaining the backstory of each of the major characters, and people flying back and forth in order to make sense of the murder. The whole thing was very slick and polished, although the nightclub owner’s transformation from sleazy druglord to leading man was asking a bit much. And the sleazy politician was even sleazier than a roomful of Tories MPs, which probably would have been a little hard to swallow prior to this year. But it’s a flashy thriller, so never mind. Worth seeing.

Madame Bovary, Sophie Barthes (2014, Germany). There are some works which have such high standing in the canon of European literature that adapting them for film often feels like some sort of initiation rite for ambitious directors. I’ve not read Flaubert’s novel, but I do know it’s been adapted for the cinema at least a dozen times, first in 1932, and including a Bollywood version, and even one by my favourite director, Aleksandr Sokurov. And while it’s all very high drama, it’s very much about interiority – as Wikipedia puts it, the novel “exemplifies the tendency of realism, over the course of the nineteenth century, to become increasingly psychological, concerned with the accurate representation of thoughts and emotions rather than of external things” – which doesn’t exactly make for the most riveting of plots. Woman starved of affection by her husband, a country doctor, invests emotionally in buying nice things, which she can’t pay for, and having affairs with unsuitable men, and not being very subtle about it. And then it all comes crashing down. I’d have said it was a role to die for, but the biggest name I can find who has played the title role is Isabelle Huppert (in Chabrol’s 1991 adaptation). Several adaptations seem to describe Emma Bovary as “child-like” – explicitly so in David Lean’s very loose adaptation Ryan’s Daughter – but the books seems not to. And in Barthes’s Madame Bovary, Mia Wasikowska plays the title character as more ambitious and calculating than anything else, sort of like Vanity Fair‘s Becky Sharp. It does make of the film a more traditional period drama, but fortunately it does a good job of presenting the time and place. Which pretty much means that if you like period dramas, particularly nineteenth-century ones, then you’ll like this adaptation of Madame Bovary. Personally, I preferred Sokurov’s.

The Amazing Adventure, Alfred Zeisler (1936, UK). This is one of those stories that probably started out as a fairy tale but has been told so many times since its iterations have lost all sense of individuality. Given The Amazing Adventure was released in 1936, that makes it one of the earliest cinematic outings for the story, although probably not the actual first. Basically, rich man who wants for nothing suffers from crippling ennui and accepts a bet to go undercover and earn his own living for a year. Where he meets a young woman and falls in love. And, er, that’s pretty much it. Along the way, Grant lands his employer a huge contract, gets his revenge on a nasty garage-owner, and meets a bunch of people he later helps out financially when he returns to his riches. This version is probably notable for Grant, working as a chauffeur, being hired by a con man who has  been sublet Grant’s luxury apartment by his butler, because Grant-the-chauffeur resembles Grant-the-playboy (of course) and the con man wants him to pretend to be Grant-the-playboy and cash some forged cheques. Which ends up with an extended fist fight, during which Grant and the con man pretty much trash the apartment. A light-hearted comedy which documents life in 1930s UK quite well, although the message – rich people are nice people too – is a bit fucking much.

Yesterday, Danny Boyle (2019, UK). Failed pop star is hit by a bus and when he wakes up in hospital it seems he is the only person who remembers the Beatles. In other words, he’s in some sort of alternate reality in which the Beatles disappeared without trace before becoming famous. So he writes their songs from memory and presents them as his own… and becomes a global pop star. If I said the script was by Richard Curtis, you’d have a pretty good idea how fucking horrible this film is. For a start, the Beatles were a huge pop sensation seventy years ago. Pop has changed a lot since then; the world has changed a lot since then. And to suggest their songs possessed some magical quality which means they would be global hits in 2019 is fatuous and insulting to every songwriter who has ever lived. Then, of course, there’s the fact the failed songwriter, while presented as a fan of the Beatles’ songs, apparently knows most of the band’s oeuvre by heart (bar a few lapses of memory played for laughs), certainly well enough to faithfully reproduce them. All this is wrapped around the most obvious boy-doesn’t-realise-girl-loves-him boy-gets-girl plot in existence, the one they probably teach in the first lesson of Rom Com 101, and then explain Bollywood has probably rung every conceivable change on it so only a fucking idiot would bother using it… Yesterday is just… bland. Its cast is bland, its story is bland, it renders the music of the Beatles bland (well, even more bland than decades of being played in supermarkets and elevators has already rendered it). The digs at the recording industry are obvious and trite, the depiction of the UK is the usual twenty-first century slightly-battered chocolate box England, and the climax is so cringe-inducing it causes actual pain. Avoid.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 941


4 Comments

Airs of empire

I have for the last few years documented my reading in Reading diary posts, where I typically write about – “review” is probably too strong a word – half a dozen books. I haven’t written a blog post about a single book for quite a while – chiefly because I sort of lost the habit of blogging regularly enough for me to write about a book within days of finishing it.

But sometimes books, or films, make good springboards for more general commentary on genre, and I think that makes for a more interesting blog post than a straight-up review. In this particular case, it’s a relatively recent space opera novel which triggered some thoughts on twenty-first century science fiction, particularly space opera; and that space opera novel is Heirs of Empire by Evan Currie, published in 2015 by 47North. It’s the first in a two-book series and is followed by An Empire Asunder (2016). I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to buy and read Heirs of Empire, to be honest. The 99p price point certainly helped. Or it could have been the fact it’s a space opera which features knights. I’ve been there, done that, so there was a certain curiosity in seeing how Currie had handled it.

But. Oh dear. Heirs of Empire reads like a self-published novel. 47North, Amazon’s own publishing imprint, is a reputable publisher – it published last year’s Arthur C Clarke Award winner! – but I find it hard to believe Heirs of Empire was actually edited. It’s not just that the prose relies overly on cliché for cheap and easy description. Or the dialogue is completely tin-eared. Or the characters are stereotypes, and not very interesting ones at that. Or even that the world-building is cobbled together from assorted past science fiction works…

A general of the emperor’s personal hyper-trained elite, the Cadre, is being transported to a remote high-security prison after a failed attempt on the throne. The train, which is travelling at hypersonic speeds, is derailed by the usurper’s confederates. He escapes, steals an advanced super-secret warship, and uses it to attack the imperial palace and seize power. Even though he failed once – or perhaps he was captured before he made his move, I forget – apparently he can still throw together a successful rebellion. He kills the emperor, but the youngest members of the imperial family, fourteen year old twins, escape. Eventually the twins are discovered by loyalist forces, and are instrumental in retaking the throne. And that’s it. The plot. Pretty much.

It doesn’t take a savvy sf reader to figure out the story is set on the inside surface of a Dyson Sphere, although the empire is bounded on all sides by an impassably high “God Wall”. Several items of technology used by the empire are also artefacts of an earlier civilisation and not understood. Much like the author and science. There is suspension of disbelief and then there is a completely inability by the writer to present anything remotely plausible even in an invented universe. That earlier hypersonic train crash? The villain survives it, losing a leg and an eye and suffering a few minor injuries. That’s: a hypersonic train crash. A few days later, sporting a prosthetic leg a few inches too short, he manages to defeat the emperor, a highly-trained swordsman, in single combat. Later, another hypersonic train is hijacked by loyalist pirates (don’t ask). But this one is pulling 30 million tons of carriages. It’s like Currie added a couple of zeroes to every figure in the story and so rendered them completely implausible. There’s a missile that apparently accelerates at 40,000 G, not to mention some parachuters who are identifiable by their terminal velocity. And cannons which can shoot 10,000 feet straight up.

In other words, the science in Heirs of Empire is complete bollocks. There’s an attempt at some sort of steampunk atmosphere, with the ships having sails and poop decks and cannons, but none of it really fits together.

It occurred to me that deploying physics uncritically – ie, without any understanding of how it works – as Currie has done in Heirs of Empire is little different in principle to deploying science fiction tropes uncritically. Which is something space opera routinely does, even twenty-first century space opera, if not especially twenty-first century space opera. Those tropes have meaning and history, they have baggage. Spaceships are basically cruise liners – and not the floating hotels of today, whose passengers rarely step foot on land during their holidays; but the cruise liners of the early twentieth century, with their “exotic” destinations and colourful posters which blatantly othered the inhabitants of those destinations. Robots are either a metaphor for slaves (in the US sf tradition) or possibly service (from a UK perspective), but given the history of automata, the trope could also be seen as a metaphor for biddable women. Real robots, CNC machines, are perfect production line workers, but you don’t see them in science fiction.

It hasn’t always been this way. New British Space Opera introduced four new elements to space opera, each one embodied by a germinal work. Consider Phlebas (1987), in fact all of Iain M Banks’s oeuvre, introduced a left-wing sensibility to a right-wing subgenre. Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty (1990) made knowing use of its science fiction tropes. Eternal Light by Paul J McAuley melded space opera and hard sf, applying a high level of rigour in the world-building. And… it’s a cheat, but John Clute’s Appleseed (2001), for its use of literary metaphor as signifiers for genre tropes, and which has definitely influenced current space opera, although it was published too late to be classified as New British Space Opera. Which is a term that has apparently been wiped from genre history, thanks to The Space Opera Renaissance, which repositioned it as American and re-labelled it as simply New Space Opera.

We have been here before, of course: the New Wave.

New British Space Opera was new, but not everything it introduced took hold – Alastair Reynolds has had a great deal of success with melding space opera and hard sf, for example; but where are all the left-wing space operas now that Banks is gone? New Space Opera, the US re-imagining, was a step backwards. The only element it kept was the one introduced last, the use of metaphor to disguise tropes. Yet tropes are themselves metaphors. When a space opera author uses the word “moth” to refer to spaceships, they’re applying a metaphor to a metaphor.

True, space opera was not the first to do this. When you use your computer’s graphical user interface, you’re using a metaphor of the way the computer stores and accesses data. Cyberpunk took that and invented a second-order metaphor: cyberspace. Twenty-first century space opera no longer bothers with rigour, left-wing sensibilities or a knowing use of genre tropes, but it certainly does love its second-order metaphors.

It also apparently loves overt slavery, inequality, psychopaths and sociopaths, mega-violence and seven-figure bodycounts.

There have been some improvements, however. Space opera is now a much more diverse subgenre. There are no more Men In Fucking Hats™. This can only be applauded.

It could be argued that Currie’s appalling grasp of physics in Heirs of Empire is not so much a lack of rigour in a space opera universe than an outright rejection of it, inspired perhaps by the film industry’s creative approach to the laws of physics. And so too, by extension, for twenty-first century space opera: the use of metaphors to disguise genre tropes could be seen as a rejection of what those tropes actually represent. Mind you, given that space opera seems more than happy to incorporate uncritically what was being represented in the first place… Tropes have become decoupled. All is subject to authorial fiat. Physics has become magic; space opera has become fantasy.

Space opera has thrown away the hats, but it has also thrown away the science. And these days we need science more than ever.


1 Comment

Fantasticon 2019

Fantasticon happens every year in Copenhagen, usually in September. It’s not the only con of that name, but it is the only Nordic con of that name. This year was my third Fantasticon. For the past few years, it’s been themed, and for 2019 the theme was Afrofuturism, and the guest of honour was US writer Nisi Shawl.

On previous visits – I’ve now visited the city over a dozen times – I flew from the UK, but now I’m resident in Sweden, and there’s a regular train service between Stockholm and, as we say here, Köpenhamn. Train travel is much superior to flying. And Swedish train are vastly superior to UK trains. In the company of Johan Anglemark, who had not attended Fantasticon since it moved to its current venue, I caught the train from Uppsala to Stockholm Central Station, and changed there onto the train to Copenhagen. The trip was unsurprisingly stress-free. We sat on the train for about five and a half hours, and though we crossed an international border we didn’t have to show any ID. This is not something I’m happy to give up just so a handful of very rich old white men won’t have to pay their fair portion of taxes. Fuck’ em. Better yet: lock them up.

Do you know how difficult it is to take a good photo of the Öresund while crossing the bridge on a fast-moving train?

We were joined on the train at Malmö by a Swedish fan from Göteborg, Patrik Centerwall. On arrival in Copenhagen, we trekked along Vesterbrogade from the main station to our hotel, where we bumped into a couple more familiar faces. After checking in and dumping our stuff in our rooms, we headed for the Serapions Order, where the con was taking place. It’s the lodge of a sort of Danish Masonic order, in Frederiksberg, a weird sort of enclave within Copenhagen. No sooner had we met up with various other fans, then around a dozen of us, led by Danish fan Sanna Bo Claumarch, caught a bus for the now-traditional Friday night oysters, at a French restaurant, L’Éducation Nationale. Some people also had snails. I played it safe and had entrecôte. We stayed until the restaurant closed, and a group of four of us – Johan, myself, Sanna and Sidsel Pedersen – set off to walk back to Frederiksberg, a distance of about 2 km. We stopped off en route at another bar. And closed that. And then Sidsel had to catch a taxi to Valby because Edmund Schluessel’s key wasn’t working on the entrance door to his hotel. The three of us left walked back via Sankt Jøgens Sø, and I was in bed by about 3 am.

The next day, I spent the morning briefly at the con, then headed into the centre of Copenhagen – basically a march the length of Vesterbrogade to Rådhuspladsen, where I met my sister. We went for a bite to eat, followed by a wander around the comics branch of Faraos Cigarer, and then the games branch. I returned to the con in time for a programme item celebrating Samuel R Delany and his work.

Saturday evenings at Fantasticon are typically taken up with a banquet, at which the guest of honour gives their speech. I’ve attended at all three of the Fantasticons I’ve, er, attended, and the food has been excellent. After the meal, there is filk. I am, I admit, not a fan of filk. I don’t get the appeal of rewriting the lyrics of folk songs so they refer to science fiction works or fannish traditions. Apparently, the Nordic filk tradition is very much a singalong style, unlike the UK and US traditions. Unfortunately, the person invited to lead the filking did not know this. So there wasn’t much of a singalong. Also unfortunately, the lyrics to the half-dozen songs performed, which were projected onto a screen, were hardly appropriate: one featured the term “nancy boys” and jocular references to rape. The most recent sfnal reference in them was Return of the Jedi (1982). Fortunately, I’d spotted a racial slur in the lyrics sheet as the projector was being tested, and asked for it to be removed. Which it was. Shit like that should not be happening in 2019.

After the banquet, and filk, had finished, a group of us headed to Vesterbro Torv. The bar we’d visited the year before had gone, replaced by some sort of posh pizzeria. So we ended up at a bar next door, which was not as good. At midnight, they packed up the outside tables, and only Sanna, Sidsel and myself moved inside. After we’d finished our drinks, we made our way to Mikkeller, probably my favourite bar in Copenhagen (in my defence, I have not visited that many). I was back in my hotel bed by about 2 am.

View of Tycho Brahe Planetarium across Sankt Jørgens Sø

Sunday morning demonstrated I really am getting too old for this shit. I had a bit of a lie-in – but still managed to catch hotel breakfast. I sat about and socialised for much of the day until my interview. 2019 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and I am allegedly knowledgeable on the subject – which no doubt explained why I was put on four panels about Apollo and the Moon at Worldcon this August, including two featuring an actual NASA astronaut (one of which I moderated). This likely explains why Flemming Rasch interviewing me about the Apollo programme, and my Apollo Quartet, was added to the Fantasticon programme. Amusingly, Johan had told me earlier that day about his experience at a con some years previously interviewing Iain Banks. He’d been asked to interview Banks for the programme booklet and had done so. On arrival at the con, he was then asked to interview Banks again as part of the programme. But, as he pointed out to Banks just before the programme item, he’d already asked the questions he wanted to ask. So he asked Banks if he would cooperate… and Johan admitted he asked only four questions and Banks gave 15 minute answers to each…

Which is sort of what happened in my interview. Flemming asked a question… and I was off. He managed to squeeze in another three questions. And even then he had to cut me short because the hour was up. I hadn’t actually prepared for the interview, so everything I said was completely off-the-cuff. I’m of the opinion that writers discussing how they write is boring, so instead I decided to focus on what I wrote – which I thought was interesting in its own right: the Apollo programme, Mercury 13, bathyscaphe Trieste, astronaut biographies… Plus, of course, how I came to write the Apollo Quartet, and the many non-genre inspirations I folded into it: the films of Douglas Sirk, Michael Haneke and James Benning; the fiction of Cormac McCarthy and WG Sebald… I enjoyed myself and it seemed the audience found it interesting. I was actually surprised at how much I’d managed to retain (although apparently not enough to turn straight to a page in All That Outer Space Allows to read an excerpt to demonstrate a point; oh well). Of course, as soon as the interview was over and I was back in the lounge area, I thought of loads things I could have mentioned…

View from Frederiksberg Have

Finally, there was the closing ceremony, in which con chairperson Knud Larn handed the baton over to Flemming. And then there was the dead dog party, which takes place in Cafe Asta, next to Hotel Fy og Bi, in Valby, a 2 km walk from the con venue. (Fantasticon used to be held around the corner from Cafe Asta. Fy and Bi were a Danish silent film comedy duo.) A group of us took a route there through Frederiksberg Gardens, which features one of Copenhagen’s few hills. After sushi, we joined the others at the Cafe Asta. Which closed at half past nine. Boo. Sanna, Johan and I walked back to Frederiksberg, this time detouring through the Carlsberg Brewery, which is in the process of being gentrified into posh offices and apartments. Johan and I looked for a bar that was still open in Vesterbrogade but without success. So it was an early night. Which was probably just as well as our train back to Stockholm departed at 8:23 the next morning.

Somewhere in the Carlsberg Brewery

So that was my third Fantasticon. Nisi Shawl was an excellent guest of honour, extremely approachable and friendly, and very knowledgeable. I purchased three books – well, four, as one was an Ace double – for 5 Danish crowns each (the con was selling off a late fan’s book collection of old sf paperbacks). That’s better than I did at Worldcon. Even if three of the books I already have in storage back in the UK. There’s definitely a Nordic fan group coming together, one that attends cons in all five Nordic countries, numbering between a dozen and two dozen people. You can always be sure of spotting a familiar face, whether the con is in Reykjavik or Helsinki. One of the excellent things about this group is its multilingualism, even if it often uses English as a lingua franca. At Fantasticon, I witnessed a Danish fan and a Swedish fan in conversation, and they were each speaking in their native tongue. Of course, the Scandinavian languages are to some extent mutually intelligible, although not to everyone; but I certainly found myself understanding more Danish than on previous visits after studying Swedish for four months.

Fantasticon is not a big convention – around sixty to seventy people – but it’s a friendly one. And Copenhagen is a lovely city. It’s definitely worth attending. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open to learn what next year’s theme will be and the identity of the guest(s) of honour…

(Apologies for not name-checking everyone I met and spoke to during the weekend.)