I seem to have been a bit busy lately, which is why I’ve not posted here recently as often as I have done in the past. Here, anyway, is another catch-up post on what I’ve read and what I’ve watched.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985), I bought in Abu Dhabi, so I’ve had it at least seven years. I’ve no idea why it sat there neglected on my book-shelves for so long, because I expected it to be a good book. And so it proved to be. Admittedly, I’d also expected it to be a more straightforward approach to its premise – a US theocratic dystopia – that it actually was. But couching the story as the reminiscences of the narrator I thought worked very well. Some of the scenes were especially powerful. For all the bollocks Atwood talks in trying to distance herself from sf, it can’t be denied that she’s a very good prose stylist. An excellent book. Now I’d like to see the film.
The Power Of Starhawk, Stever Gerber (2009), is the second of Marvel’s collection of early Guardians of the Galaxy comics. These ones are at least better than the previous collection (see here). The Guardians are an odd group – they weren’t popular on their debut in 1969, but in the years following various people have tried to revive them – Gerber in 1976 (collected in this volume), Jim Valentino in 1990, and now Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning from 2008. It’s the Gerber ones – from Marvel Presents #3 to #12 – that I remember from my childhood. The artwork is typical of Marvel for the period, and the story has its moments. One for, er, fans, I suppose.
Sicilian Carousel, Lawrence Durrell (1977). I adore Durrell’s writing, and there’s plenty of good stuff in this one to salivate over. It’s one of his Mediterranean travel books, which, of course, are not travel books per se. In Sicilian Carousel, Durrell joins the eponymous package tour of Sicily, and writes as much about his fellow travellers as he does the island. As usual, he evokes place with near-perfect prose, and characterises his companions with a mixture of affection and pomposity. Typical Durrell – brilliant, in other words.
De Secretis Mulierum, L Timmel Duchamp (2005), is a novella originally published in F&SF magazine in 1995, but now available from Aqueduct Press as one of their “Conversation Pieces” series of fiction and non-fiction. A time-viewing project discovers that Leonardo da Vinci was a woman masquerading as a man… and that the same was also true of Thomas Aquinas. A female history doctoral student, against the wishes and advice of her sexist controlling male professor, continues with her thesis on da Vinci. I liked the central conceit, and the discussion of history and women’s roles in it that the conceit generated… but the professor was such a complete wanker he seemed a little as though he had been deliberately made so as a counterpoint to the conceit. A very good novella.
The Buonarotti Quartet, Gwyneth Jones (2009), is also a Conversation Piece, and is a collection of four short stories set in the same universe as Jones’ excellent Spirit, or The Princess of Bois Dormant (see here). The four stories are ‘Saving Tiamaat’ (originally published in The New Space Opera, edited by Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan), ‘The Fulcrum’ (Constellations, edited by Pete Crowther), ‘The Voyage Out’ (Periphery: Erotic Lesbian Futures, edited by Lynne Jamneck), and ‘The Tomb Wife’ (F&SF, August 2007). The last story was also shortlisted for the 2008 Nebula Award. Like the novel, these are rich stories, and while sometimes that richness feels like it’s obfuscating the story, it also helps create a physicality to the invented universe. Of the four, I liked ‘The Fulcrum’ the best, although some of the characters felt as though Jones was having too much fun with the space opera furniture.
Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, Samuel R Delany (1984), I read for the LibraryThing sf reading group and… it was a bit of a slog. Delany is a writer I admire, and his Dhalgren (see here) has long been a favourite. But for some reason I find Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand really hard to get into. I tried three times to read it back in the 1980s when it was first published, and failed. This time at least I finished the book. I’m not sure what it is that gives me so much of a problem – perhaps it’s the way the story gets heavier and heavier under the weight of accumulated detail, and so the plot gradually grinds to a halt. Perhaps it’s the bizarre society Delany has invented – in which everyone is addressed using the female gender, but the masculine gender is reserved solely for objects of lust – and which Delany seems determined to explain as much as possible about. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand doesn’t feel like a novel. It’s not just that it’s half of a diptych – which is unlikely to ever be completed – but it reads like 500 pages of set-up, of prologue, and the real novel, which would probably rival anything by Peter F Hamilton in size, isn’t there. One day I may have another go at reading it.
Renaissance, AE van Vogt (1979), is late van Vogt and… oh dear. There’s something I find entertainingly bonkers about van Vogt’s fiction, but his later novels are embarrassingly bad. This one is based on a premise so slight, so badly put together, and so stupidly old-fashioned in its attitudes, it made for a difficult read. Aliens have conquered Earth, put women in charge, and through the use of a drug made all men near-sighted so they are forced to view the world through “rose-tinted” spectacles (which have made them meek and mild and non-sexual). But when one man’s glasses are broken, he starts to regain masculine mastery, shows his wife who’s boss, and goes head to head against the aliens. If this had been written in the 1940s and 1950s, the attitudes in it might have been understandable. Definitely one for laying down and avoiding.
Orbital Vol 1: Scars, by Sylvain Runberg & Serge Pellé (2009), is one of the many French sf comics Cinebook is publishing in English editions. It’s not unlike Valérian: Agent Spatio-Temporel (see here), which I like very much. A couple of hundred years from now, Earth joins a galactic federation, although a faction of isolationists still cause trouble. A human and an alien Sandjarr are teamed together as diplomats, sort of federal marshals and mediators, to resolve a dispute between a human colony and their world’s owners, the alien Jävlodes. There’s a nasty info-dump in the middle of the story, but otherwise this is pretty good stuff. The sequel is on my Amazon wish list.
Nights of Villjamur, Mark Charan Newton (2009), is a debut-that’s-not-a-debut which landed earlier this year with quite a splash. (Newton’s actual first novel was The Reef, published in 2008 by small press Pendragon Press.) Nights of Villjamur was very well-received – except here, where a negative review caused a bizarre backlash in the comments thread. So, is the book worth the hype? Sadly, no. Newton has created an interesting world, but there are infelicities in the prose – caused, I suspect, by him trying too hard; his writing’s better when he sticks to plain language – and a couple of the narrative threads didn’t seem to add much to the plot. It shows plenty of promise; and yes, it’s a better book than The Reef. While it’s certainly a respectable debut, I’ll be surprised if we see it on any shortlists next year.
One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing, dir. Powell & Pressburger (1942), is one of the Archer’s wartime films, and while it’s done with wit and style the heavy hand of propaganda flattens parts of the story. The crew of B for Bertie, a Wellington bomber, bail out over the occupied Netherlands when their plane is damaged by flak – but it flies on, unmanned, to cross the Channel and crash in England. The Dutch resistance take the downed crew in hand and smuggle them to the coast, where they’re given a boat and must row for Britain. Bizarrely, the film ends, and then a series of title cards appear on screen explaining that the cast, crew and everyone associated with the film wanted to know what happened to the crew of B for Bertie after their rescue. So there’s a brief epilogue showing the airmen doing their bit for Blighty.
Nosferatu, dir. FW Murnau (1922), is a famous silent film, the first to put Bram Stoker’s story of Dracula on celluloid – the names were changed because it was an unauthorised adaptation. I have yet to quite figure out how to approach silent films. I find them slow, and often my attention begins to wonder… but afterward I want to be able to watch them again. Nosferatu was a rental DVD, but I’m tempted to buy a copy of my own so I can watch it again. While the presentation – silent, black & white, the odd mugging style of the acting in those days, dialogue carried on infrequent intertitles – is something of a barrier to someone used to cinema as it exists now, that difference also forms part of the appeal.
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, dir. Jamoril Jires (1970), is like Jodorowsky meets Buñuel. I didn’t understand one bit of it. The titular Valeria floats about; there’s a vampire-like figure who pops up every now and again, and who might or might not be her father; there’s her mother, who gets bitten by the vampire and grows younger; and… lots of other bits and pieces I couldn’t quite fathom, It’s all very dream-like… which is the apparent intent. I like strange films, but for some reason this one didn’t really appeal to me.
A Comedy of Power, dir. Claude Chabron (2006), stars the excellent Isabelle Huppert. In this films she’s a judge heading an investigation into a government-supported body which donates money to other nations for large infrastructure projects – the French equivalent of the Overseas Development Agency, in other words. And, like the OSDA, just as corrupt. There’s not much that’s actually funny in A Comedy of Power, despite its title; except perhaps the drôlerie of a system in which corrupt officials are protected by officials who are themselves corrupt… except for the one they’ve decided to sacrifice, of course. A surprisingly lightweight thriller.
Outland, dir. Peter Hyams (1981), may be High Noon in space – well, on a moon of Jupiter – but it never pretends to be anything else. Sean Connery plays the local marshal, who uncovers a conspiracy at the mine. So the mine owners send a team of assassins to Io to rid themselves of the troublesome sheriff. Mostly, it works; except for repeated instances of people exploding in vacuum. That doesn’t happen – in fact, it’s believed a person can survive for about three minutes in vacuum. Even then they won’t inflate like a balloon and then burst. If it hadn’t been for that, and the mysterious earth-like gravity (on a moon with a diameter 3,642 kilometres) – oh, and the lack of vulcanism on Io’s surface – Outland might have been quite a good sf film.
Let The Right One In, dir. Tomas Alfredson (2008), is a vampire film from Sweden, which has deservedly won a bunch of awards. Oskar, a twelve-year-old boy, is being bullied at school. He makes friends with the girl who has just moved in next door, Eli, and who only appears at night and seems a bit odd. I’m not a big fan of horror films, or vampire films for that matter – notwithstanding Nosferatu above – but Let The Right One In really is very very good. It’s perhaps slower than I’d expected, more of a drama than a horror film per se. But it’s very effective, and definitely worth seeing.
Event Horizon, dir. Paul WS Anderson (1997), I remember first seeing at the cinema in Abu Dhabi. I wasn’t impressed then, and I’m still not impressed after watching it again more than a decade later. There’s nothing wrong with the central premise per se – Earth’s first FTL ship goes missing on its maiden voyage, and it transpires its FTL drive opened a portal into another dimension, Hell. Yes, the eponymous ship is little more than a haunted house in space; but the “hauntings” are effectively done. But that doesn’t mean it has to look like a haunted house. It should look like a spaceship. It doesn’t matter how cool it looks, it still has to look plausible.
Equilibrium, dir. Kurt Wimmer (2002), I’d heard vaguely good things about. So it came as a bit of surprise to discover that this film was rubbish from start to finish. The opening exposition is clumsy. The main character (Christian Bale, putting on a terrible American accent) is a “Grammaton Cleric”, which sounds like something out of a fourteen-year-old’s Dungeons & Dragons campaign. The story is ripped off from 1984. The final reveal that “Father” died years before is obvious right from the start. Throughout the film, everyone is supposed to be emotionless, thanks to a wonder drug called Prozium, yet all the dialogue references feelings and emotions. Even the “Gun Kata”, the firearm/martial art, is daft – watch any of the firefights and there’s no way any of the clerics could have survived. The film is stupid nonsense from start to finish.
Ordet, dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer (1955), is a film from the Time Out Centenary Top 100 Films list. It’s also very grim and dour. Perhaps that’s because it’s Danish (joke). It’s filmed in black and white, with a small cast, none of whom ever seem to smile. Anders Borgen wants to marry Anne Petersen, but their parents won’t allow it because each family belongs to a different Christian sect. The Borgens are, ironically, “Glad Christians”, while the Petersens are “Inner Mission”. Then Anders’ sister-in-law, Inger, suffers a stillbirth and then dies. Petersen relents and allows Anders and Anne to be betrothed. Then Anders’ older brother, Johannes, who is mad and believes himself to be Christ, reappears after vanishing earlier, and resurrects Inger. He also appears to be sane. Despite the flatness of its presentation – the sparse décor of the interior sets, the black and white film stock, the monotonous landscape – Ordet is a study in opposites: one faith against another, science against religion, sanity against insanity…. Perhaps it’s the straight face, which never cracks a smile, with which the film is played that makes the final scene so affecting.
Even Dwarfs Started Small, dir. Werner Herzog (1970), is the final film in the Werner Herzog Collection and… I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. The entire cast are dwarfs and the plot is, well, there’s little plot, in fact (no pun intended). A bunch of dwarfs are behaving anarchically outside an institution, and demanding the return of their leader who is imprisoned within by another dwarf. One dwarf rides round on a motorbike. Later, he hotwires a van and ropes the steering-wheel so it drives round continually in a tight circle. Another dwarf, Helmut Döring, has the most bizarre chuckle I’ve ever heard. Some films you are better if you have a bottle of wine or a few cans of beer as you watch them; Even Dwarfs Started Small is one of those films which are better if you have a bottle of wine or a few cans of beer before you watch them.