More reading and watching over the past few weeks…
The Affinity Trap, Martin Sketchley (2004), is solid twenty-first century British space opera: take some Banks, mix vigorously with Reynolds, add a pinch of Morgan, a soupçon of McAuley and garnish with a sprinkle of Warhammer 40K. Which is not to say that the end result is not done well. If my TBR weren’t already approaching Olympian heights, I’d be tempted to pick up books two and three in the trilogy begun by this novel.
Guardians Of The Galaxy: War Of Kings Book 1, Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning (2009), is the further adventures of the “re-booted” Guardians of the Galaxy sfnal superhero team from Marvel. The plot thickens, the dialogue continues to entertain, and the art is (mostly) high quality. I’ll admit I don’t understand why Marvel change artists from episode to episode on these mini-series things. I’d have thought consistency would be best. But perhaps they have to spread the work around to hit the planned publication date.
A Fair Day’s Work, Nicholas Monsarrat (1964), is a potboiler which paints its characters with a little too broad a brush to be entirely plausible. It’s set aboard a liner on the eve of departure from Liverpool. Except the new “breed” of stewards – the first post-war generation, in other words – are lazy goodfornothing union layabouts, and they keep on staging strikes to delay the ship. It’s up to the captain – the best-drawn character in the book – to sort it out. Which he does.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (2005), I read on the train travelling up to Glasgow for Satellite 2. It was not the book I’d expected it to be. Set in an alternate recent past, it posited a UK in which clones exist as an underclass to provide replacement organs. They’re treated worse than slaves. Except for those at Hailsham, a boarding school where they were given special treatment. I suspect Ishiguro has never attended boarding-school. And a stylistic tic, in which the narrator mentions some event or past incident, and then breaks from the main plot to to describe it, became increasingly irritating as the novel progressed. But it was nice to read a science fiction novel with real characters and lovely prose, even if it was a very thin on ideas. Why can’t we have sf novels with all three, eh?
Atomised, Michel Houellebecq (1999), I read on the train travelling down from Glasgow after Satellite 2. An odd book, and I’m not entirely sure how successful it was. It’s certainly bleak, and the didactic tone of the early part of the novel made for an interesting read. But when one character started telling their life story to another character for no good reason, my sense of disbelief began to falter… and when I got to the final section in which a narrator describes Michel’s work following the years described in the rest of the novel, well, at that point my suspension of disbelief just gave up the ghost and expired. I like the idea of a postscript which changes all that has gone before, but you have to do the necessary preparation for it. Atomised didn’t. I’d still like to read more by Houellebecq, however.
Open Your Eyes, Paul Jessup (2009), describes itself as a “surreal space opera”, but I was reminded more of Delany’s early works than anything else – especially Nova, Babel-17 and ‘The Star Pit’. This is not a bad thing; they are fine antecedents. The universe of this novella was weirdly original, the writing worked more often than it failed, and the ideas may not have been entirely original but were given interesting spins. Unfortunately, the characters were a little flat. Nevertheless, a good novella, and I think it’d make a more interesting nomination for an award next year than most of those which end up on shortlists.
The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan (2008), is a book which promised so much before its arrival, but seems to have slowly faded from sight in the year since its publication. Morgan Does Fantasy. You can understand why this made many salivate – high fantasy as a genre is turning moribund, and after Black Man I can’t think of another writer better suited to inject some fresh vigour. But. Morgan made some interesting choices for his novel – his protagonist, Ringil Eskiath, is an out homosexual, in a world in which such a sexual orientation is a sin and illegal; his world is high fantasy, but hints at an underlying science-fictional nature; he begins his story with his “hardy band of adventurers” (so to speak) leading separate lives, so it takes a while to get them together for the climax…. Morgan wields his genre clichés as though they were morning stars, dirty great maces with heads covered in lethal spikes – blunt trauma and puncture wounds. It all makes for a high fantasy novel which struggles to escape the straitjacket of its genre trappings and succeeds only in rolling about loudly on the floor. All the same, The Steel Remains is a superior example of its type, and I’m a little disappointed its brightness seems to have waned over the past twelve months.
The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde (2001), was a book of which I had high hopes. I was told it was funny, and I do like literary metafictional tricks – even populist stuff like Lost In Austen (but not, I have to admit, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). So The Eyre Affair promised much… but delivered very little. It’s a first novel, and it shows. Fforde breaks out of PoV all over the place, telling the reader stuff his narrator could not know; he can’t decide whether to focus on his alternate world with its 130-year-long Crimean War and high literature pop culture, or on the “Prose Portal” which allows characters to visit the world’s books; and there were a couple of places where the logic of the story broke down. Oh, and the puns were bad too. It didn’t help that I read a US edition, so the shoehorned-in references to US cultures, such as car models, just seemed really odd. I’ll not be bothering with the rest of the series….
Taxi Driver, dir. Martin Scorsese (1976). I consider Scorsese the second most over-rated director after Tim Burton. His first few films weren’t bad, although they were pretty much the same movie with the same cast playing different parts. Once he stopped making his wiseguy picture, he started churning out Hollywood “product”. Taxi Driver is about the best of Scorsese’s early works, and if you have to watch one film by him then, yes, I’d say it was this one.
The Sheltering Sky, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci (1990), I didn’t expect to like very much. It was slow to start, and the characters were really unlikable. But then scenery began to take over the film… and for the second half I was hooked. Now I want to read the book.
Fata Morgana (1971), Heart Of Glass (1976), The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), and Stroszek (1977), dir. Werner Herzog, are four of the five films in the Werner Herzog Box Set, and I was a bit surprised at which I discovered I liked and which ones I didn’t. Fata Morgana sounded as though it would appeal – it has no plot, and consists solely of footage shot in Africa while a voice reads out creation myths, strange observations, song lyrics, etc. Despite the arresting photography, it proved uninvolving. It probably needs a second attempt at watching it. Heart Of Glass is notable chiefly because the entire cast acted their parts while under hypnosis. It’s… odd. Not the story, but the way the cast behave. Not a very successful experiment, I suspect. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser was held together by Bruno S’s bizarre performance. It’s a more traditional film than the previous two, but for Bruno S and his odd declamatory method of acting. It’s certainly easy to understand why Herzog was so taken with him that he went on to write Stroszek specially for him. And that last film proved the most watchable and involving of the four. Bruno S is released from prison, is bullied by his prostitute girlfriend’s pimps, and leaves with her for the US. In deepest, darkest Wisconsin, he struggles to survive as the American Dream drowns him in debt. Bruno S is still odd, and his peculiar acting style gives Stroszek a near-documentary feel which works in its favour. Easily the best of the four.
Lions For Lambs, dir. Robert Redford (2007), is one of those movies Hollywood releases at intervals as a sort of “sorry for being so venal and mercenary” note. It attacks Bush’s Administration with all the impact of a wet haddock across the face, is as wishy-washy in its criticisms as Bush’s government was in its justifications, and is basically little more than muddled moralising from a high ground no more than one step up from its target. Hollywood should stick to brainless action movies.
Time Regained, dir. Raoul Ruiz (1999), is, I think, the only cinematic adaptation ever made of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. And even then it’s not especially faithful to the books; although, I suspect, it is in spirit. I have the novels on my bookshelves, but I’ve yet to read them. The film is surreal in parts, and a relatively straightforward historical movie in others. Definitely a film which bears rewatching. It’d be interesting to see it again after I’ve finally got round to reading the books.
The Quiet Man, dir. John Ford (1952), is a film from the Time Out Centenary Top 100, and I have absolutely no idea why. John Wayne returns to the Irish village where he was born, and woos fiery spinster Maureen O’Hara. The village is populated by stage Oirish stereotypes, Wayne happily beats O’Hara when she refuses to do his bidding – a female villager even offers him a stick as a weapon! – and even the film’s colour palette seems better suited to Oz than Eire. Most blarney is more plausible than this old-fashioned, offensive rubbish.
Pierrot Le Fou, dir. Jean-Luc Godard (1965). The version I watched was dubbed rather than subtitled, and it’s amazing how much more pretentious Nouvelle Vague films seem when the dialogue is in English. You can more or less forgive the pretentious bollocks most of the characters speak when you’re reading a subtitle or puzzling out the spoken French. But when drawled in American English, it sounds like the sort of stuff that makes you doubt the sanity of the speaker. Mind you, I’m not a big fan of the Nouvelle Vague – I quite like Alphaville, but not those of Godard’s other films I’ve seen; I love Fahrenheit 451, but have not enjoyed any of Truffaut’s other movies; and Last Year In Marienbad is tosh. Give me Tarkovsky any day of the week.
10,000 BC, dir. Roland Emmerlich (2008), is the latest film by a director who seems to have carved out a career making films which present in believable detail worlds which are complete and utter tosh. In this one, slavers on horses attack the village of a tribe of mammoth hunters, and cart off several. The film’s hero, a Hollywood Cro-Magnon with good teeth and male model looks, follows them to effect a rescue. This means crossing a huge mountain range, stumbling into the territory of a Nilotic race, trekking through a jungle and then through a desert, to reach… the pyramids of Egypt. Er, hang on. Caucasian Cro-Magnon travels south to the Nile via a jungle, the African plains and a desert? Not to mention all the fauna he meets, most of which went extinct a million years before 10,000 BC. And the stupid put-on accents didn’t help, either. Gah.
eXistenZ, David Cronenberg (1999), is a film which has sort of passed its sell-by date. Perhaps there were people out there ten years ago who would have found the nested virtual realities of eXistenZ‘s story confusingly impressive. But it’s old hat now, and the “are we still in the game or not?” mind tricks of the film are ho-hum and predictable. But, this is a Cronenberg film, so there’s a patina of strangeness which sort of makes the movie less dated than it should be. Jude Law’s bad America accent throughout is a bit annoying, though.