2009 has finished and 2010 has begun. Who knows what the next twelve months will bring? I do know, however, what the last few weeks brought. I may have done my Best of the Year (see here), but my last reading and watchings round-up was back on 8 December (see here). So, here’s a rundown of the books and films I consumed between then and the last day of 2009.
Black Widow: The Sting Of The Widow, by many and various Marvel hacks, including Stan Lee himself (2009). Richard Morgan’s reinvention of Black Widow a couple of years ago (see here) piqued my interest in the character, and so I’ve trawled back through her history. This hardcover “premiere” volume contains some of Black Widow’s earliest appearances – from her origin as a Soviet spy who, for some strange reason, wore a mask, to the black-clad super-athlete with her “widow sting” bracelets. This is far from sophisticated stuff, but Black Widow has had a more interesting history than many Marvel characters.
Resistance, Owen Sheers (2007), was recommended by someone, but unfortunately I’ve forgotten who. Perhaps I just saw a positive review of it somewhere. It’s an interesting spin on an alternate history staple. The Normandy landings fail, the Germans invade Britain, and by 1942 the UK is an occupied country. Resistance is set in a Welsh valley, where a Wehrmacht patrol has been sent on a mission. All of the men in the valley’s scattered farms have left, slunk off into the hills to fight a guerrilla war against the Germans. During the course of a fierce winter, the Welsh wives and German soldiers draw closer together and… Well, that would be telling. A nicely-written novel, although on occasion the prose felt like it wasn’t quite as strong as it needed to be. Worth reading.
Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A Heinlein (1961). Yes, I know, I still haven’t written about this. Soon. I promise.
Minority Report, Philip K Dick (1987), or Volume Four of the Collected Stories. Which is not to be confused with any other PKD collection which might happen to be titled Minority Report. Still, at least it’s not as confusing as van Vogt’s collections… A couple of gems in this, but a lot of crap too. Strangely, I’d always thought of Dick as something of an outsider, not really a part of sf fandom, but one story in this collection, ‘Waterspider’, has sf writer Poul Anderson as the protagonist. All the same, it’s probably a book for completists only.
Fire Sale, Sara Paretsky (2005). One of the reasons I like Paretsky is because she wears her politics on her sleeve. This novel is no exception – evil Wal-Mart-like corporation treats the South Chicago poor like slaves, and no good comes of it. Perhaps Paretsky painted the wealthy as a bit too evil (and stupid), and the ending was bit too pat, but she always makes good points. I’m surprised no one’s thought to make a TV series of her books – although they did make a film with Kathleen Turner of one of the VI Warshawski novels.
Stone, Adam Roberts (2002), is only the second book I’ve read by Roberts, although on the strength of it I shall certainly read more. The narrator of Stone, Ae, is a rare criminal in a far-future interstellar utopian society. He is broken out of an inescapable prison in order to murder all the inhabitants of a world. But he doesn’t know why. And Roberts does not reveal why until the end of the book. A nicely-paced narrative, with an interesting narrator. There are some good ideas in the book too – fast-space (the Local Bubble, perhaps?), the solitary mode of FTL, the various worlds Ae visits… Not sure about the nostril-sex, though. Or some of the terms in the glossary: “span-ton”? “spik-en-span”?
Collected Poems, Richard Spender (1944). Spender is another World War II poet who didn’t survive the war. He’s less well-known than Bernard Spencer (see here), and probably even more obscure than John Jarmain (see here, here and here). But, well, he’s not very good. There are one or two good poems in this collection, but most of them are pretty forgettable.
The Handmaid’s Tale, dir. Volker Schlöndorff (1990), I watched simply because I’d read and liked the novel (see here). The film is low-budget and it shows, but is nonetheless done well. Perhaps not everything in it was how I’d imagined it – for some reason, I thought the novel took place in a small town rather than a large city – but the world it showed certainly worked. A good film.
Pather Panchali, Styajit Ray (1955), is another film from the Time Out Centenary Top 100 Films. I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much. It was long, didn’t seem to have much plot, and was not very involving. Ah well.
Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009), I saw at the cinema in 3D. What can you say about this film that’s not already been said? It looked fantastic, although perhaps its visuals owed a little bit too much to the cover art of various albums by Yes. The story, however, was rubbish – old-fashioned, with some cringe-inducing dialogue, racist (only white man can show blue man how to save himself), and in parts completely logic-free. The floating mountains, for example, clearly did so because they contained “unobtainium”. So why not mine them instead of blowing up the Na’vi hometree? And the great “warrior” of Clan Jarhead (i.e., Jake Sully), his best tactic against the attacking corporate forces is… a frontal assault. Against superior weapons. Fortunately, the planet steps in to save them all. Ah well. Avatar is by no means as colossally dumb as Star Trek XI, but a sf film with great visuals and a modicum of intelligence would be nice…
Quantum of Solace, dir. Marc Forsters (2008), pleasantly surprised me. Its plotting is chaotic, and it looks like it was edited by someone with Attention Deficit Disorder. But it is eminently stylish, and some of the set-pieces are excellent. Bond leaves an astonishing trail of destruction behind him wherever he goes – were Sean Connery, Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan ever this destructive? The anti-corporate politics were a bit old-fashioned, and the shadowy organisation which drove the plot felt as though most of it had been left on the cutting-room floor. But I liked Quantum of Solace better than Casino Royale.
Impostor, dir. Gary Fleder (2001), is yet another film adaptation of a Philip K Dick. Something about Dick’s fiction seems to appeal to Hollywood – I believe he has had more works adapted than any other sf writer. Admittedly, few of the adaptations much resemble their original source texts. I’ve not read the short story, also called ‘Impostor’, on which this film was based, so I can’t say how successful an adaptation it is. But its story is certainly Dickian. Spencer Olham is a weapons researcher who is fingered as a Centauri walking bomb – the unseen alien Centauri have replaced Olham with a replicant, who thinks he is the real Olham, and who will explode when he meets the Chancellor on a planned visit by her. Olham is arrested by the secret police, but manages to escape. And it’s a straight run from there to the final twist.