It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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We’re Supposed To Be Looking Forward To This?

In my last post on obscure sf films, I wrote:

In fact, with the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still due for release later this year, and recent news that J Michael Straczynski is working on a “sequel” to Forbidden Planet, you have to wonder when Hollywood will get the message.

According to the LA Times, a remake of When Worlds Collide is due in cinemas next year, as are new additions to the Terminator and Robocop franchises; and, possibly, Ghostbusters. Also due in 2009 is a remake of Creature From The Black Lagoon, and a year later Fahrenheit 451. And plans are afoot to remake Flash Gordon, Logan’s Run, and Westworld.

So there you go. It’s the 21st Century and we’re strip-mining the 20th Century for culture.


Top Ten Obscure SF Films

I’ve not written about sf for a while. Or posted a list. People like lists, if only to argue over. So here’s one likely to generate some debate: the best ten obscure science fiction films*. My definition of “obscure” alone is probably open to interpretation – at least three of films below I also included in my list of best sf films since 1991. I also wouldn’t, for example, describe Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris as an obscure film, especially as it’s been remade by Hollywood. The same is true of Open Your Eyes by Alejandro Amenábar. Mind you, I wouldn’t call Tarkovsky’s Stalker obscure either. Or Alphaville by Jean-Luc Godard. All good films, of course. Well, not the Hollywood remakes. They’re not very good, and are best avoided. Stick to the originals.

In fact, with the remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still due for release later this year, and recent news that J Michael Straczynski is working on a “sequel” to Forbidden Planet, you have to wonder when Hollywood will get the message.

Anyway, below are ten science fiction films for which I feel the word “obscure” is a reasonably accurate description. One or two might be considered turkeys – certainly you’re only likely to find them in budget sf movie DVD sets, or being broadcast at 2 a.m. on some TV channel no one ever watches. That doesn’t mean they’re not good films, just that you have to dig a little harder to understand why they’re not bad films. Trust me on this.

The list is in chronological order by year of release, not order of merit.

The Silent Star, dir. Kurt Maetzig (1960) – AKA Der Schweigende Stern. Which should clue you in that this film is German. In fact, it’s East German, one of four sf films made by East German studio DEFA. It’s perhaps best known to US audiences by the title of its badly-edited and -dubbed English-language version, First Spaceship on Venus. The story is based on a novel by Polish sf author Stanisław Lem, and concerns a message discovered embedded in a crystal found at the site of the Tunguska Event. The message is partially decoded, and appears to have originated on Venus. An international crew of the best scientific brains is recruited – Soviet, German, Indian, Japanese, “African”, Polish, Chinese – and sent on the rocket Kosmokrator to Venus. En route, they finally decode the message fully… and learn it is a plan to invade Earth. But what they find on Venus is not at all what they expected… The sets of Venus are bizarrely alien, the model work is excellent, and the whole film has a peculiarly Soviet scientific internationalist atmosphere.

Queen of Blood, dir. Curtis Harrington (1966) – this film’s low beginnings are a matter of record. It’s one of many Russian films bought by Roger Corman, edited, dubbed in English, and with additional scenes starring US actors added, which American International Pictures released in the 1960s. Queen of Blood was based on Nebo Zovyot, and it looks weirdly compelling, despite its B-movie story. I reviewed it last year here.

Galaxy Of Terror, dir. Bruce Clark (1981) – it’s plain from the start of this film that Roger Corman’s New World Pictures intended it as a cash-in on the success of Alien. Yet what they managed to produce was something entirely different. A spaceship is sent to a mysterious planet to rescue the crew of a crashed ship, but they crash themselves. And the crew they were sent to rescue are all dead. They determine that the cause of their own crash was a huge alien pyramid just over the horizon. They decide to explore it… and are subsequently killed off one by one. The special effects are a bit rubbish – one of the alien monsters looks like cheap rubber tentacles – and the cast are better known for their roles on television. But the story works really well – and often reminds me of the first third of John Morressy’s novel, Under a Calculating Star (and, I suppose, Alastair Reynolds’ Diamond Dogs). The ending comes as a real surprise. James Cameron, incidentally, was a unit director on this film, and responsible for some of the production design.

Humanoid Woman, dir. Richard & Nikolai Viktorov (1981) – AKA To The Stars By Hard Ways. This is a Russian film and, sadly, the only edition I have is a badly-mangled English-dubbed version released by some cut-price B-movie re-packaging studio in the US. Even so, the film is clearly bonkers. The opening scenes, in which a team of cosmonauts explore a derelict alien ship in space were plainly filmed underwater. But at least it looks like zero gravity. They find one member of the ship’s crew still alive – Niya, played by the weirdly alien Yelena Metyolkina in a strange wig. The film is sort of a love story, and sort of a first contact story, and sort of a cautionary tale of ecological catastrophe. It has to be seen to be believed. It can’t really be described. I’m told the original Russian version is very good indeed, and a new director’s cut was recently released by the late Richard Viktorov’s son. Unfortunately, no edition with English subtitles is available.

Le Dernier Combat, dir. Luc Besson (1983) – an early film by the director of The Fifth Element. There’s something very Moebius about the look and feel of the film, but I don’t believe he was involved. A man tries to survive in a post-apocalyptic city, while being menaced by another (played by Jean Reno). Filmed entirely in black and white,Le Dernier Combat contains no dialogue whatsoever. And yet it works. It’s also very funny in parts.

Delicatessen, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro (1991) – this has been a favourite of mine since I first saw it back in the early 1990s. It’s another French post-apocalypse film. An ex-circus performer moves into an apartment block owned by a butcher. He’s intended to be the residents’ dinner – food is extremely scarce – but the butcher’s daughter falls in love with him and helps him escape. Sort of. There’s a superb set-piece in which one resident tries to commit suicide. And fails. A wonderfully strange film.

Until The End Of The World, dir. Wim Wenders (1991) – there’s not much more I can about this film that I haven’t already said here. And I still want the 3-disc director’s cut DVD.

Possible Worlds, dir. Robert LePage (2000) – I vaguely recall buying this because it looked quite interesting. It proved to be a cleverly-done and subtle sf film. The film opens with a murder – a man is found dead, his brain missing. He proves to be only the first such victim. The film shows how the murder came about – it’s all to do with alternate realities. Beautifully shot and acted, the ending perhaps lets the film down, but it’s definitely worth seeing. It’s apparently based on a stage play, which was adapted for the cinema by the author.

Avalon, dir. Mamoru Oshii (2003) – Oshii is better known for anime, but this is a live action film. Shot in Poland. With a Polish cast. It’s one of those films which opens with jaw-dropping visuals, and whose story – while not entirely original – doesn’t let the film down. Some time in the near-future, people are addicted to a VR war game. One player, Ash, hears of a secret level and tries to find it. Avalon is filmed in sepia tones and looks gorgeous. Its pacing is perhaps slower than many find acceptable (not to me: I like Tarkovsky’s films…), but the visuals are more than enough to keep your attention.

Natural City, dir. Byung-chun Min (2003) – this is a Korean film and, like Avalon, sort of a live-action anime. Again, the visuals are stunning, even if the plot isn’t all that original. In the near-future, a pair of agents hunt down and kill cyborgs – the “borrowings” from Blade Runner are deliberate and overt. And, like Blade Runner, Natural City creates an entirely plausible future world on-screen.

(* in my own DVD collection, of course)


In Which The Author Does His Verse…

This last year, I’ve had an occasional bash at writing poetry. I don’t think I’m any good, despite having read quite a bit of it recently (see here, for example; and here). What I – try to – write is science fiction poetry. Because, well, I like science fiction. And it’s as fit a subject for poetry as anything else.

So here’s one of my meagre efforts.

Observer Effect
As functional and contained as coffins,
ships hang like bats against the void
while captains haggle for air,
for fuel and supplies.
At rest but forever in motion,
they spin about the stars,
painted by the light of other suns.

A beacon flashes,
urgent in the void, as
one ship slips her mooring.
The gentle blown breath of her
manoeuvring thrusters, and she slides
easily and inevitably
from the station’s replenishing fold.

With illusory speed, she flees –
there are no visual cues against
the thrown cloth of black, vaster than empires,
and pierced by pinpoint furnaces which stare
unceasingly from the deep heavens.

she’s gone –
in pursuit of otherwheres,
I can see her destination,
a tiny dot of distant brightness.

I know she will be there much sooner
than the spent light of that remote sun
has taken to reach me.

If I could collect the photons from that distant star
and render the images the quanta encode…

I’d see the past as present:
dinosaurs thundering across a fetid Earth.


More Catching Up With The Challenge

October’s book for my 2008 Reading Challenge was Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. Like many of the books I chose for my challenge, I knew almost nothing about it. I knew it existed; I’d probably seen mention of it in various places, not to mention catching sight of it on the “classics” shelves in my local Waterstone’s. But I knew nothing about Ford – who he was, what part he played in English literature, or even what was the general reputation of The Good Soldier. And that’s one reason why I chose it. The other reason is that it’s a slim novel – I’d have liked to try a James Joyce novel, and I have a copy of Ulysses… but it’s huge (I also own Anthony Burgess’ Here Comes Everybody, his study of, although there’s little point in reading about, unless I’ve read Joyce, Joyce, Joyce*).

However, The Good Soldier

The novel is set just prior to World War I and is narrated by John Dowell, a wealthy American mostly resident in Europe. He and his wife, Florence, spend several months each year at Nauheim, a spa in Germany. While there they’re chiefly in the company of another couple, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, who are English. Edward is the good soldier of the title. Dowell’s narrative skips about in time, describing incidents in no particular order from the decade or so during which the Dowells and Ashburnhams are friends. What Dowell does not initially reveal – although it’s later clear that he knows it at the time he is recounting the story – is that Edward is a philanderer and having an affair with Florence. And she has also had a succession of lovers – beginning with a blue-collar thing, Jimmy, whom she was sleeping with when she married Dowell.

As The Good Soldier progresses, Dowell reveals more and more of the peculiar dynamics between the two couples. When Florence learns that Edward has fallen in love with Nancy Rufford, the ward of Edward and Leonora, she commits suicide. Edward also commits suicide later, when Leonora sabotages Nancy’s burgeoning love for him.

Ford originally titled the novel The Saddest Story, and Dowell repeatedly describes the story as the saddest he knows. Perhaps too often. I can understand how a chronologically non-linear narrative might have been seen as something new and astonishing in 1915, when the book was first published, but it’s an unremarkable technique nowadays. The same is also true of using an unreliable narrator (if you’ve read anything by Gene Wolfe, you’ll be only too familiar with unreliable narrators). Which means that much of what’s interesting about The Good Soldier is no longer the case. The book does, however, give a good indication of what life was like for wealthy Edwardians – for example, Edward is almost sent to prison for kissing a maid on a train. That “consorting with the lower classes” was a crime then seems completely bizarre.

Ford’s maintenance of Dowell’s voice throughout The Good Soldier is impressive. Not once does he let his character slip. Unfortunately, far too much is told rather than shown. I suppose in part that’s the nature of a recounted narrative. It’s also perhaps the fashion of the time. But it reads somewhat distant to a modern reader.

In all, I find it hard to consider The Good Soldier as good as its reputation. I enjoyed reading it, and it’s a clever evocation of Edwardian England. But its two innovations – a non-linear narrative and an unreliable narrator – are neither as remarkable as they were in 1915. It’s by no means a difficult read, although it is difficult to care about the characters – which is hardly unsurprising, given that they’re hardly pleasant people. “Good people”, perhaps, but not pleasant. Having said that, I think I rate The Good Soldier higher than some of the books I’ve read during my challenge. But The Jewel in the Crown remains the highwater mark, and A Question of Upbringing a distant second.

* to spoof Burgess’ infamous: “He breathed baffingly on him, for no banquet would serve, because of the known redolence of onions, onions, onions” in Enderby Outside.

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I’d Just Like to Thank…

… the person who threw seafood all over my yard last night.

I left the house this morning to be confronted by a carpet of prawns, cockles, mussles and calamari. I suppose they could have been deposited by a storm, or a tsunami, but I very much doubt either would have shelled the prawns. Or the cockles and mussels. Not to mention cutting the squid into rings.

Um, perhaps there’s a story in there somewhere…


Truth from teh interwebs

You can find the strangest (SFW) things out there. Some of them even approach the truth…

Ian Sales’s Dewey Decimal Section:

885 Classical Greek speeches

Ian Sales = 91491259 = 914+912+59 = 1885

800 Literature

Literature, criticism, analysis of classic writing and mythology.

What it says about you:
You’re a global, worldly person who wants to make a big impact with your actions. You have a lot to tell people and you’re good at making unique observations about everyday experiences. You can notice and remember details that other people think aren’t important.

Find your Dewey Decimal Section at

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More Music

Saw Anathema live last night. I first saw them two years ago in Glasgow, but this time it was local. Not a big gig. Intimate, almost. But very loud. And excellent. Definitely one of the contenders for the best gig I’ve attended this year.

Here they are playing their “hit single”, ‘Fragile Dreams’. It’s from their Were You There? live DVD.

I can’t wait for the new album.

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Walking the Same Road?

One of the things which really annoys science fiction fans is non-sf authors writing science fiction novels but refusing to admit they have done exactly that. There have been plenty of examples – PD James’ The Children of Men, Maggie Gee’s The Ice People (of which Jeremy Paxman said it couldn’t be science fiction because it was good), and pretty much anything by Margaret Atwood which doesn’t feature “squids in space”…

Of course, the reverse is also true to some extent. We fans of science fiction are happy to claim for the genre works which we feel fit the genre’s remit, even though they were not written by sf writers, or even identified as sf by their authors. Such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. Admittedly, Burgess was not unfriendly to sf – albeit not as friendly as Kingsley Amis or Michael Chabon – but he preferred to think of it as “futfic”.

Which brings us to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

It’s a mainstream novel by a mainstream author. Literary fiction, if you will. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. And yet comparisons with sf novels are inevitable – George R Stewart’s Earth Abides and Walter M Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, especially.

Incidentally, I dislike the term “literary fiction”. It’s mis-used too often as a genre tag, a handy way to label fiction some people don’t like. So rather than being descriptive, or perhaps even aspirational, it becomes a barrier, a shorthand for “I won’t read this book because I read a book once that wasn’t a simple escapist tale and I didn’t like it, so all books like it must be rubbish”.

I prefer to think of fiction as occupying a scale similar to food. At one end you have fast food – junk reading, intended to entertain but doesn’t require much thought. At the other end, you have gourmet reading – prose to savour, books to think about after you’ve finished them, products of great talent and skill. And, of course, there’s everything between those two extremes.

But The Road… Comparisons to sf are inevitable because of The Road‘s subject. It is a post-apocalypse novel. Something destroyed civilisation, and most of the life on Earth, years before. A man and his son walk from somewhere in the north of the United States towards warmer climes at the coast. En route they encounter other survivors – some have turned to cannibalism, others to violent tribalism. But there is no hardy community of back-to-nature survivors.

Few sf novels, even ones about the end of the world, are as bleak as The Road. Perhaps that’s because science fiction – despite much discussion of late claiming the contrary – is an inherently optimistic genre. It takes as axiomatic that problems can be solved, that phenomena are open to explanation. It’s pure optimism to assume – to operate on the assumption – that the universe is explicable. And malleable. And part of the bleakness of The Road stems from its refusal to explain the cause of the apocalypse.

In fact, there’s very little in the way of explanation in The Road. The man and the boy are not even named. The man also displays knowledge from a variety of fields – medicine, engineering, woodcraft – but his background is never described.

And then there’s the prose. Which is a great deal better than that you’d expect to find in a sf novel. There are indeed well-written (gourmet, so to speak) sf novels, but the genre is not known for the quality of its writing for good reason. McCarthy’s prose is spare, often stark – frequently forgoing even verbs – and is as responsible for the novel’s sense of bleakness as its dour premise. Some of it works really well:

The soft black talc blew through the streets like squid ink uncoiling along a sea floor and the cold crept down and the dark came early and the scavengers passing down the steep canyons with their torches trod silky holes in the drifted ash that closed behind them silently as eyes.

Some is less successful: the occasional odd verb, such as “… glassed the valley below them with the binoculars” or bizarre terms like “the snow lay in skifts all through the woods” and “the snow stood in razor kerfs atop the fencewires”. Skifts? Kerfs?

McCarthy’s punctuation is also… odd. Paragraphs are formatted as they would be on-line, with no indents and a line or two of space between them. But dialogue in a single paragraph is indented, and does not use inverted commas. This lack of quotation marks does somewhat distance the speech, which may have been the intent. McCarthy clearly doesn’t want the reader to get too close to the man or the boy. Or he would have named them.

I can think of no good reason, however, why he chose not to use apostrophes for certain constructions. The apostrophe is there in “there’s” and “they’re”; but not in “wont” or “cant” or “wouldnt”. I don’t understand the logic in not using it only for the elided “o” in “not”.

The Road is a very good novel indeed. But, despite its prizes, despite its acclaim, despite the film being made of it, The Road is not an important novel. It will not alter the way we think of post-apocalypse novels, it will not affect the relationship between sf and mainstream literature. At least, it will certainly not do that within the genre. Perhaps non-sf readers might think differently, but I suspect not.