It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Oops, I did it again

Long time readers of this blog may remember a piece I wrote back in 2008, in which I took apart Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ and explained why I felt it wasn’t the greatest science fiction story ever – you can read it here. It received a lot hits. About two months’ worth in the space of a weekend, in fact. And it provoked quite a reaction.

So a couple of days ago, in response to a number of best sf series lists I’d seen, I posted a list of The Worst Science Fiction Series (here). It received a lot of hits. About four months’ worth in the space of two days. And the reaction this time was a bit more severe.

And yet that reaction was essentially for the same thing: I dared to suggest that Asimov was a crap sf writer.

There are other writers named in my Ten Worst SF Series post. Some people felt their inclusion was undeserved. Just as others felt they’d earned their place. But the biggest amount of bile was generated by those who were upset at my comments about Asimov.

For the record, I’ve been reading science fiction for thirty-five years. Yes, that includes Asimov and EE ‘Doc’ Smith. I also review books for Interzone (see the non-fiction tab above). So when I write about science fiction, I do know what I’m writing about. I’ve even written the odd bit of science fiction myself, and I plan to write more.

For those whose reading comprehension is clearly wanting, I shall say it again: Asimov owed his high place on my list because he so frequently appears in best of lists. “Best” means “of the highest quality”. It does not mean “seminal”. It does not mean “made a good fist of it for his debut”. Let me repeat that: “highest quality”. In other words, the writing is the best the genre has to offer, as is the invention, characterisation, world-building, etc.

Do you really think that’s true for Foundation, and its sequels and prequels and mid-quels and side-quels and inter-quels, etc.?

That’s why Asimov was at #2 in my list. Because it is not of the “highest quality” but is repeatedly claimed to be. Yes, the Mission Earth books are worse than the Foundation books – but no one is stupid enough to suggest they’re the best books in the genre.

I wish I could respond to all of the comments that were made about my Ten Worst SF Series list, but a great many were just too stupid. (There are one or two such in the comments thread to my actual post.) However, I do want to make one important point: I did not include the Wheel of Time, or David Eddings, or Terry Goodkind, because the list was “Ten Worst Science Fiction Series”. Not “Ten Worst Science Fiction and Fantasy Series”. I titled the piece The Worst Science Fiction Series because it was about science fiction.

I’d also like to point out that my list was intended to be light-hearted. There were clues in the phrases I used – “powered by a million hamsters running around a million wheels”, for example – which is not an expression typically used by critics or reviewers. I stand by my opinions – I have a low regard for Asimov’s writing – but my list was written to amuse.

Having said all that, I’d like to thank everyone who dropped by, and everyone who linked to my post. It’s clear to me that Asimov is some sort of sf sacred cow, and you tip him at your own peril. That kind of uncritical adulation is not good – for readers, or for the genre. We need more debate – proper debate, the sort that doesn’t involve calling the other person a moron, questioning their sexuality, or confusing opinion with fact (people do that all the time. Fact.).

Finally, for my next trick I will post articles here explaining why: a) the Dune series books actually increase in quality after Dune, b) Robert Heinlein is plainly a fascist, and c) The Search For Spock is the best of the Star Trek films… So don’t forget to come back often and read my posts… just in case I ever do get around to writing the articles.


The Worst Science Fiction Series

Yet another site puts together a list of the “greatest science fiction book series” and has Asimov’s Foundation series in the number one spot. (I won’t link to the site because my anti-virus software didn’t like it.) Sigh. Do people honestly think that’s the best the genre has to offer? A badly-dated trilogy with perfunctory world-building and cardboard characters, and written in prose which possesses all the charm of a dead badger? “Best” means “of the highest quality” – not something you remember enjoying when you were twelve and still believed in the tooth fairy. Foundation plainly isn’t “of the highest quality”, not by any sane or accepted yardstick.

However, in the spirit in which that original list posited Asimov’s lumpen opus as the best sf book series, I shall now present the very worst of the genre. The following are science fiction book series whose label as science fiction embarrasses me, whose continuing popularity puzzles me, and whose fans I feel deserve a smack upside the head with a very large and nail-studded cluebat.

10 Honor Harrington, David Weber
These start well enough but, like a well-known fantasy blockbuster series currently being demolished by Adam Roberts on his blog, they soon turn obese, turgid and dull. The title character also becomes increasingly implausible, and I would not be surprised if the final book in the series – should it ever appear – has Harrington magically transform into a goddess and create an entirely new universe using some wildly implausible authorial hand-waving. Read the first two or three by all means, but ignore the rest unless you want your will to live to be slowly drained from you.

9 Four Lords of the Diamond, Jack Chalker
I could have chosen any Chalker series, to be honest. They’re all pretty much the same. And every series feels like a novelette stretched out to fill three or four novels – with this happened and then that happened and then they all sat around and talked about it for a bit before that happened and this happened. The rambling plot usually leads to a weak resolution, which makes you wonder why you bothered reading the books in the first place.

8 Grand Tour, Ben Bova
I like the idea of these books: a series of hard sf novels about the gradual colonisation of the Solar system. But they’re a real slog to read. Bova’s prose is not so much workmanlike as bolted-together. If prose should be a sleek and powerful Italian sports car, then Bova’s is a great lumbering tank powered by a million hamsters running around a million wheels.

7 Pern, Anne McCaffrey
I’ve never understood the attraction of these books. They have dragons in them. But they’re not fantasy. Honest. They are, however, gooey. McCaffrey’s writing makes your teeth rot. Reading them is like eating a bucket of candyfloss – insubstantial, sticky, and so sweet the slightest sudden movement makes you feel nauseous.

6 Projekt Saucer, WA Harbinson
The central premise of this series is a well-documented conspiracy theory and quite loony. It goes like this: during World War II, the Nazis invented flying saucers and they used them to flee in 1945, and have, variously, either a base on the Moon or in Antarctica. In Harbinson’s series, written in the finest deathless prose, the saucers were actually invented by an American genius who went to work for the Nazis, and he is now the head of a secret scientific organisation with a hidden headquarters in the Andes. From there, he plans to take over the world, muahaha. Despite their cool premise, these books are painful to read.

5 Lensman, EE ‘Doc’ Smith
I could have picked any of Smith’s series, but the Lensman series – despite being out of print – still seems to be popular. It was written a long time ago. A long, long time ago. And it shows. Back in those days, sf was written by dirty old hacks or spotty teenagers. Women were either alien creatures or centre-folds. They certainly weren’t as clever or resourceful as men. A lot of them were naked too. These books are in no way representative of sf in the twenty-first century. They’re not even representative of sf as a genre.

4 Saga of the Seven Suns, Kevin J Anderson
Sadly, this series might well be representative of sf in the twenty-first century. Kevin J Anderson is a fiction machine. He churns out books by the metre. And his prose has all the wit and grace of prose written by a machine. Except he doesn’t actually write his books. He dictates them as he hikes around his backyard – otherwise known as the state of Colorado. It shows. These books do not contain carefully-chosen words, but the sort of words you pick as you scramble up a hill being chased by a goat.

3 Mission Earth, L Ron Hubbard
Anyone who thinks that Battlefield Earth is the greatest sf novel ever written is either a Scientologist or brain-damaged. Or perhaps both. But Battlefield Earth is, amazingly, better than the Mission Earth “drekology”. Rumour has it Elron was dead when he wrote the Mission Earth books. It shows.

2 Foundation, Isaac Asimov
This trilogy, while not as actually bad as some of those lower down this list, deserves its high place because it appears as number one in so many “greatest sf book series” lists. It’s not the greatest science fiction book series ever published. It’s not even very good. Asimov’s prose is like tofu – it is bland and tasteless, and when you find it in your food you’re never entirely sure what it is.

1 Legends of Dune, Kevin J Anderson & Brian Herbert
These books get the number one spot not only because they are badly-written, were cobbled together out of sf furniture stolen from 1930s pulp magazine covers and 1950s B-movies, and feature characterisation on a par with Dan Brown… No, they get the number one spot because they took a large dump from a very great height on a very good series of books. Frank Herbert’s Dune novels are excellent; I would happily include them in a list of the greatest science fiction series. But the Dune books were never completed – Frank Herbert died before starting work on “Dune 7”. So KJA & Herbert Jr wrote it for him. In order to bolt on their own ending – it was all the fault of a Giant Computer Brain, apparently – they first had to rewrite Dune‘s back-history. And they put brains in jars in there. That looked stupid back in the 1930s. It’s even more stupid now. There are many, many things wrong with these books – every single word in them, in fact.

Yes, there are worst books than those above – and some of those I picked are no longer in print for, one would hope, good reason. But whenever people promote science fiction, some of the series I’ve chosen are the ones they use. And I find that incomprehensible. When there’s so much good stuff out there, why push the badly-written crap you liked once upon a time. It may well have been your entry into the genre but you were a kid at the time. The ten series above are, I suppose, an anti-list. They are the books which should never appear on any “best of” or “greatest” list.


Those who don’t know their science fiction are doomed to repeat their history

While there are between three and thirty-six plots depending on your source, and no such thing as a new idea in science fiction… that’s not what this post is about. Those are topics for another day. Possibly.

Instead, consider this: if a One True Science Fiction FAQ existed, it would consist of a single question: “what if?” Of course, this pretty much holds true for all fiction. But there are two particular types of story, common in sf, that “what if?” inexorably leads to: the thought experiment and the cautionary tale. (Which is not to say that a story can’t be both types.)

The author posits a situation – an invented future, or an invented world – and then tells a story set in it. It might be what will happen, or what has happened. Whichever it is, the author is offering insight into the consequences of the fictionalised situation. The usefulness of that insight depends on whether or not you accept the author’s argument – even if the author’s sensibilities run counter to your own. At the very least, it should provoke thought.

Some people think fiction should be solely for entertainment. It should have no greater ambition than to keep the reader amused. Rubbish. No artform should be just bread and circuses. It needs to engage with the real world, not ignore it. “You watch your X-Factor while we assemble this police state around you.” Why on earth would an author encourage people to turn their backs on what’s happening around them? Good fiction has something to say, whether you agree or not with what is being said.

Science fiction, as a genre, was initially created to do more than merely amuse. Hugo Gernsback intended sf to be both didactic and predictive. It’s no longer either of those – which is not necessarily a bad thing. They were limiting. But that doesn’t mean sf readers should privilege escapism over “message stories”. Besides, there’s no such thing as a “message story”. There are stories that engage with the reader qua reader, and stories that don’t. It’s the ambition of fiction to do the former. Yes, entertainment is important, but it shouldn’t be the one and only aim of a piece of fiction.

Yet despite its infrequent moments of outspokenness, sf’s cautionary tales and thought experiments are often taken as nothing more than amusements. And they’re then pillaged for terms to label the very situation they cautioned against. But if readers are unwilling to attach real-world significance to a sf story, then it’s hardly surprising its concerns are only validated after the fact.

Perhaps sf needs an agenda once again. Perhaps the genre needs to shine a brighter light on the real world, and then document what it sees.


The Gatekeepers of Genre

My friend Bob approached me the other day. It’s not his name, but I call him that and he doesn’t seem to mind. Bob reads a lot, but he’s not an adventurous reader. In fact, he tends to avoid anything that smacks of genre. His preferred reading material is contemporary fiction. That’s what he likes and that’s what he reads. So, anyway, Bob comes up to me and tells me he’s decided to give thrillers a go.This is something of a shock. Perhaps it was a full moon – I couldn’t tell as it was a bright sunny day. But, whatever wires had crossed in Bob’s brain, the ensuing conversation went something like this:

“You know all about them, so what book do you think I should read?”
“That’s easy. Moonraker by Ian Fleming.”
“Sounds interesting. When was it published?”
“So it’s over fifty years old?”
“Er, yes.”
“Why would I want to read a book over half a century old? See this book?” He brandished a copy of A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks – somewhat threateningly, I thought. “It was published six months ago.”
“But Moonraker is a classic. Everyone’s heard of it. They even made a film of it.”
“Ah, right. I think I remember that. James Bond? Space shuttle in the Amazon jungle? Space station?”
“That’s the one.”
“Actually, that sounds pretty cool.”
“Er, they’re not in the book.”
“The book’s different?”
“Surely Bond is the same?”
“No, not really. He’s, well, he’s pretty sexist in the book. And racist too. And there aren’t any gadgets.”
“But it’s a classic?”
“Oh yes. Everyone’s heard of Moonraker.”
“I’m not sure. What else do you suggest?”
“Um, well, there’s Live and Let Die.”
“When was that published?”
“Who wrote it?”
“Ian Fleming.”
“So it’s another Bond novel?”
“Er, yes.”
“I don’t want to read a book about a racist, sexist spy from the 1950s.”
“But you said you wanted to read a thriller. The Bond books are the quintessential thrillers.”
“Oh well, in that case… Now where did I put my copy of Ian McEwan’s Solar…?”

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s a conversation that takes place about science fiction on a regular basis. I’ve said before – on many occasions – that sf fans who recommend old (alleged) “classics” to readers new to the genre are doing those readers and science fiction a disservice. Old sf bears little resemblance to media sf, and those wanting to move from film and television sf to book sf are going to be turned off the genre if recommended Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein or EE ‘Doc’ Smith. No one does the same for fantasy – ask a fantasy reader to recommend a novel, and you’re as likely to hear Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss or Brandon Sanderson, as you are Tolkien, Robert Jordan or Stephen Donaldson. Is it any wonder science fiction is suffering from declining sales? We’re our own worst enemy.

Leave a comment

Nineteen Turns: authenticity and appropriation

The dictionary definition of “authentic” is “entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience; having the origin supported by unquestionable evidence”. At first glance, this doesn’t seem relevant when discussing science fiction or fantasy. Where are the “known facts or experience” in an invented world? Where is the “unquestionable evidence”?

Authenticity determines how immersive a story’s world is – the more real the world feels, the more immersive it is. Any wrong detail which trips up the reader prevents immersion. And, conversely, any detail which has the ring of authenticity makes immersion more likely. Because for an invented world, the story and its setting has to feel real. It has to convince, from large to small. The world of the story has to seem hermetic, a thing in and of itself. It has to seem as though it would continue to exist independently of the story set in it. (Unless not doing so is a deliberate artistic choice, of course.)

In October 2008, I read We Have Capture, the autobiography of astronaut Thomas Stafford (see my review here). In that book, Stafford describes the death of Soyuz 11 cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov. He writes:

Seeing that the front hatch was still sealed, the crew realized that the leak was probably coming from that ventilation valve, which was located under Dobrovolsky’s seat. They tried to crank it shut – there was a backup master valve, but this unit, like a basic steam valve, was mounted over the crew’s shoulders and took nineteen turns to close.

That “nineteen turns” is authentic. It’s the sort of detail which tells you the author knows what they are writing about. It’s not a commonly-known fact; nor do many people have experience of the Soyuz spacecraft. But by including that one small detail, Stafford’s description is “entitled to acceptance or belief”.

But not all sf or fantasy stories are set in invented worlds. Equally, those invented worlds might well be based upon something real. In such cases, authenticity will to some extent be inherited from the real world. Yes, there’s still room for “nineteen turns”, but the broad strokes of the world are likely to be known by most readers. The little-known details will only add verisimilitude, and the authenticity is a product chiefly of those broad strokes.

But there’s another issue which has to be considered in such cases. Artistic integrity demands that the story’s setting be as close as possible to the real world, or real-world model, for “acceptance or belief”. It should not rely on clichés, myths or misinformation, or pander to prejudices or stereotypes. Bad research is bad research. If a writer is going to appropriate another culture for their world or model, courtesy alone suggests they should do so as accurately and as considerately as possible.

To most sf fans, “hard sf” refers to the branch of science fiction which is rigorous in its use of the “hard sciences” – physics, chemistry, biology, etc. But for genre writing to be authentic, all of it has to be “hard”. Science fiction or fantasy. The selfsame rigour that hard sf authors used with the sciences has to be applied to every element of world-building. A successful story has to convince in every aspect, and if it takes “nineteen turns” to do that… then the author has to go and hunt down that detail.

To do otherwise would not only insult any appropriated culture, but the readers too.

Leave a comment

You’ll have to speak up a bit…

Last night, I saw one of my favourite bands perform live: Persefone. They’re from Andorra. Yes, Andorra. They’re currently touring Europe with Obituary. Persefone were excellent and, halfway through their set, they suddenly broke into the theme tune to Star Wars, including the Cantina Band tune. After their set, I went to buy a T-shirt from the merchandise stall. One of the guitarists from the band was behind the table, chatting to the person manning it. When I confessed I’d actually come to the gig to see them and not the headliners Obituary, he was so chuffed he gave me a hug.

It was clear, however, that most were there for Obituary. By the time they appeared on stage, there were about four or five times as many people as there had been for Persefone’s set. I’d never heard Obituary before. I knew they were an old Florida death metal band, dating back to the beginnings of the genre. And I like a few bands from that period – such as Death and Morbid Angel. Sadly, Obituary were nothing like those two. They also seemed to be only going through the motions. And they looked a bit like a shampoo advert…

Anyway, here’s a bit of Persefone to enjoy. It’s from their 2009 album, Shin-Ken. I gave it an honourable mention in my best of the year post here.


It’s time for… “dark science fiction”

Now that Waterstone’s has decided to shelve urban fantasy / paranormal romance separately as “Dark Fantasy” – and I’ve also heard mention of a “Dark Romance” book shop category – I thought perhaps it might be time for…

“Dark Science Fiction”.

We’ve had Mundane science fiction and optimistic science fiction and New Space Opera, so why not a new one?

I see “dark scifi” (which is no doubt what it will be shortened to) as a very specific subgenre. It will feature feisty kick-ass heroines battling rogue robots and having cybersex with AIs. Lots of cybersex. And maybe a few cyberdates as well. The stories will take place in futuristic cities, which may not necessarily be on this planet. Some stories, I expect, might even be set in space stations. Or on mile-long spaceships. Wherever there are rogue robots that need their asses kicking.

You may be thinking there’s not much that’s actually dark about “dark scifi”. Well, no. But then there’s not much that’s dark about “dark fantasy”. Yes, it’s all werewolves and vampires and zombies, rather than Peasant Heroes and Hidden Kings and Dark Lords, but…

Um, perhaps, our feisty heroines should kick rogue zombie robot butt, then. And maybe we should throw in some cyber-vampires and were-aliens.

It’s the literature of the future. I think it could be a winner.

1 Comment

Readings & watchings

Off we go again. I’ve been getting quite a bit of writing and stuff done of late, but I still managed to read a lot of books and watch many DVDs. Not that the To Be Read pile is getting any smaller…

Moonraker, Ian Fleming (1955), is actually the third of the Bond novels, and is very much a book of its time. The first third is about a bridge game Bond plays with Hugo Drax – who cheats – and was completely lost on me as I don’t know how to play the game. The rest of the book is about Drax’s “atomic rocket” – what we would call nowadays a “nuclear missile” – and the plotting is like one of those dot-to-dot pictures where the dots are so close together it’s bloody obvious what the picture is. The writing throughout is dreadful – Drax is introduced via one of the clumsiest info-dumps I’ve ever come across… and I read science fiction. Having said that, the Bond of the books is a more interesting character than the Bond of the films.

Nova War, Gary Gibson (2009), is the second book in the space opera trilogy begun with Stealing Light. There are some really good bits in this – a nuclear-warhead-powered Project Orion-type spacecraft landing on a planet is one scene that sticks in memory – but I found it a less satisfying read than the preceding novel. The lead Shoal character, Trader in Faecal Matter of Animals, started to really irritate me. It didn’t help that while his language rightly stuck to marine turns of phrase (he’s a giant fish, after all), every now and again he’d use a sailing expression. Fish don’t sail. There were also a few “As you know…” conversations, and one construction I especially hate in sf novels: “If Trader had ever seen a terrestrial bat, he might have recognized a certain passing resemblance.” This is breaking voice, and it stands out in a sf novel like a fart in a spacesuit. Having said that, the introduction of the Emissaries – another alien race, and the giant fishes’ enemy – is… Really! Very! Funny! This book sees the plot escalated to a level I think might be difficult to sustain in the final book of the trilogy. Nevertheless, Nova War is pretty much a textbook example of High-Stakes Bloody Great Huge Idea space opera, written with wit and invention… but a bit rough in patches.

The Science Fiction Poetry Handbook, Suzette Hayden Elgin (2005), I bought and read because of my own poetry here. Elgin’s background in linguistics is clear in the detailed analysis she performs on her sample poems. This was an interesting and, I hope, useful, read.

Mission to Mars, Michael Collins (1990), is by that Michael Collins, yes – the one who went to the Moon in 1969 but stayed in the CSM in lunar orbit. I reviewed this book on my Space Books blog here.

The Desert King, David Howarth (1965), is a biography of Ibn Saud, the man who founded Saudi Arabia. It read like Dune without the sandworms. Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdul-Rahman al Faisal al Saud, was a prince of one of the two royal houses of the Bedouin who occupied the central regions of the Arabian peninsula. But he was an exiled prince, living in Kuwait since the House of Rashid had thrown his father out of their home town of Riyadh. Ibn Saud won back his kingdom, united the Bedouin, defeated the Rashidis, and eventually took over the Hijaz, the southern strip of land in which are located Mecca and Medina. He was helped by the British, although he never fought for them. It was the Sherif of Mecca with whom TE Lawrence fought against the Turks during World War I. Ibn Saud sat out the war; and the Second World War, too. Having grown up in the Middle East – although I never lived in Saudi – I’ve always been fascinated by the area. Even so, I was surprised at how fascinating a read The Desert King proved to be.

From Saturn to Glasgow: Fifty Favourite Poems, Edwin Morgan (2008), is a collection of Morgan’s poems, chosen as favourites by a poll of Scots. Each of the poems in this book has a small paragraph by someone, explaining why it is their favourite. I’m in two minds about Morgan’s poetry – it’s very clever, but the language often feels too prosaic. Some of them in this book I like; some of them, I can’t see the appeal.

Assassin’s Apprentice, Robin Hobb (1995), was February’s book for this year’s reading challenge. I wrote about here.

Buck Rogers – A Life in the Future, Martin Caidin (1995). In 1988, TSR created a role-playing game based on the character of Buck Rogers. That lasted half a dozen years. Then, for some reason, they published a “re-imagining” of the character by Martin Caidin. In Buck Rogers – A Life in the Future, Rogers is an airline pilot who is fatally injured in a re-enactment of a WWI dogfight, and put into suspended animation in a secret government project. He is woken, and cured of his injuries, in the twenty-fifth century. Where he finds himself working for the military of the Federation of Amerigo against the Mongol Empire on an Earth only just recovered from a nuclear war a couple of centuries before. Oh, and there’s Atlantis, which is some sort of ancient history extra-terrestrial civilisation. It’s hard to describe quite how crap this book is – everyone is perfect, it’s sexist, Caidin’s attempt at science and technology is risible, the writing is appalling, and it’s put together in so slapdash a fashion the author contradicts himself from chapter to chapter. I have now read two sf novels by Caidin, and they were both shit. I won’t be reading any more by him. He gives hacks a bad name.

Exhibitionism, Toby Litt (2002), is a collection of short stories, most of which felt a little too self-consciously clever to work. When Litt stuck to more traditional narratives and structures, he was at his best – as in ‘My Own Cold War’ and ‘The New Puritans’. Not an embarrassing collection, but not an especially memorable one, either.

Voices Of A Distant Star, dir. Makoto Shinkai and Steven Foster (2003), is a 25-minute sf anime and would have been really good if it hadn’t been so, well, dull. A pair of friends – boy and girl – separate when she goes into space to fight in a war against aliens. They keep in touch by texting each other. It’s all very poignant, and some of the imagery from the space war is pretty good. But the pace is so slow that its short length feels like twice as long.

Secret Ballot, dir. Babak Payami (2001), is probably going to appear in my top five films of the year list. It’s an Iranian film and, like one of my favourite movies, Divine Intervention, it’s deadpan absurd humour. A female election agent is dropped off on a remote island to collect the votes of its inhabitants. She is accompanied round the island by one of the local soldiers. He’s as laconic and cynical as she is idealistic and voluble. It’s very funny. Recommended.

Superbad, dir. Greg Mottola (2007), is another Judd Apatow comedy, and as unlikeable and dumb as his others. The two main characters are prats, who do prattish things. With much foul language. One or two set-pieces are vaguely amusing, but it’s one of those films that fails to entertain because five minutes in and you just want a bus to appear and drive over the two leads.

Outlander, dir. Howard McCain (2009), I reviewed for The Zone – the review hasn’t gone up yet. I’ll link to it when it has.

Travelling Man – The Complete Series, Granada Television (1984), I reviewed for VideoVista – see here.

Death Race, dir. Paul WS Anderson (2008), is yet another film by a man who doesn’t have a decent film in his oeuvre. It’s a remake of Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 from 1975, and I can think of no good reason why the original should have been remade. In this version, the drivers are all prisoners, and the company which runs the prison makes huge profits from the race. Most of the film is taken up with the titular contest – which involves lots of crashes and people getting killed in various gruesome ways – and then star Jason Statham stages a jailbreak. Yawn. If by-the-numbers didn’t imply the ability to count to more than three, I’d have described Death Race as by-the-numbers…

The Interceptor, dir. Konstantin Maximov (2009), I reviewed for VideoVista – see here.

A Sound Of Thunder, dir. Peter Hyams (2005), surprised me. It is actually dumber than Star Trek XI. I didn’t think that was possible. But then, I hadn’t considered someone trying to make a film adaptation of a short story in which a man steps on a butterfly during a time-travel trip to the Cretaceous, and returns to his present to find the world changed. Because, of course, that’s a story that’s pretty much immune to adaptation. So instead, this movie has “time waves” sweeping through the city every twenty-four hours after the butterfly-squashing incident, and these result in man-eating plants sprouting everywhere. And armoured reptilian baboons. Every time one of the characters attempts exposition, they open their mouth and complete and utter bollocks comes out. This is definitely a film to avoid.

The Apartment, dir. Billy Wilder (1960), won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars in 1960, and is in the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films. As a satire, it seems a bit feeble, although the world in which it’s set holds a certain fascination. Jack Lemmon plays a clerk in a New York insurance company (which employs over 35,000 in a single skyscraper). He allows a group of four executives to use his apartment for trysts with their mistresses and girlfriends. This arrangement comes to the attention of the director of human resources, who wants to join in. Lemmon is suitably rewarded – an office on the 27th floor, a key to the executive washroom – for agreeing. Meanwhile he’s fallen for elevator girl Shirley Maclaine, who also happens to be the director’s mistress… There are no real surprises in the plot, but it’s witty, well-played by its cast, and ends well.

Rien ne va plus, dir. Claude Chabrol (1997), is the second of Chabrol’s films I’ve seen, both of which I’ll happily admit I rented because they starred Isabelle Huppert. And both of which proved to be fairly ordinary thrillers, In this one, Huppert and her father (played by Michel Serrault) are con artists. They decide to rip off a courier who is carrying five million Swiss Francs to the Caribbean… but the owners of the cash prove to be somewhat less business-like and, well, legal, than they’d anticipated. The plot is as twisty-turny as a twisty-turny thing, but the mechanisms are all set up well in advance so it rolls along like a well-oiled machine. A well-made thriller, certainly; but not an especially memorable one.

Flash Gordon – Complete Series 1, Sci-Fi Channel (2007), has been roundly panned by all and sundry. But the more I watched it, the more I found it growing on me. It’s sort of like a high school version of Flash Gordon, put on by a group of people who didn’t actually know much about Flash Gordon in the first place. But what they’ve come up with actually works quite well. Unfortunately, the cast aren’t especially good. John Ralston plays Ming well, but the character is too erratically written. Amanda van Hooft plays Princess Aura as petulant and, er, that’s about it. But Karen Cliche as Mongo bounty hunter Baylin and Jody Racicot as Dr Zarkov aren’t bad. The world of Mongo makes more sense in this series than it does in the original – and has an interesting back-story – although it does look cheap and under-populated. It’s not great television by any means, but it’s less embarrassing than I expected it to be. A shame it got cancelled…

The International, dir. Tom Tykwer (2009), is a film of two very distinct halves. It starts off well, as a European thriller about international banking and the arms trade. A Luxembourg-based bank, the International Bank of Business and Credit – gosh, do you think that could be based on the BCCI? – is buying weapons, and both Interpol and the New York attorney’s office are interested. Then the action moves to New York… and the film turns into some implausible over-the-top Bruce Willis-type action movie. An Italian arms magnate backs out of his deal with the bank, and so the IBCC has him assassinated. Clive Owen and Naomi Watts, the two stars, track the assassin to New York. Owen and a NYPD officer follow him to the Guggenheim, where he meets his handler from the IBCC. When they try to take them into custody, they’re attacked by fifty Uzi-wielding thugs, who shoot up the museum. Bah.

Atomised, dir. Oskar Roehler (2006). I read Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised last July, and thought it good. I hadn’t known it had been made into a film, until I spotted this going cheap in HMV. So I bought it. It’s an excellent adaptation of the novel – especially the use of colour in the flashback sequences – and is as bleak as the source text. But, where the novel tried to turn the narrative on its head in an epilogue, the film tries to do the same with two paragraphs of text before the end. And it doesn’t quite work. I always felt the epilogue was meant to redeem the story, but in the novel it didn’t quite succeed. The film feels like it handles the story’s emotional arc better, but then flubs the epilogue. I’m not sure if this film will make my best of the year list, but it’ll probably get an honourable mention. Recommended.

Ministry Of Fear, dir. Fritz Lang (1944), is based on the novel of the same name by Graham Greene. Which I read many years ago. Which means I can’t recall its plot. But surely it can’t have been this WWII clone of The Thirty-nine Steps? Ray Milland is released from a mental hospital after serving two years for assisted suicide. He stops off at a village fête, is mistaken for someone else by the fortune-teller and so given the cake from the Guess the Weight stall. It’s all to do with a spy ring based in Britain, with a contact in one of the ministries, and which for some bizarre reason uses village fêtes as dead letter drops. There’s some excellent camera-work and mise-en-scène, which lift this above other films of the period. It’s just a shame the plot is a by-the-numbers wartime thriller.


Getting to grips with the short stuff

This year, a number of people in the sf blogosphere have vowed to read more short fiction, or are blogging their way through issues of sf magazines. I’ve decided to do something similar. But I’m not going to blog about every short story I read, I’m just going to try and keep up to date with the magazines I subscribe to/follow. And if I come across any stories I think are particularly good, then I’ll mention them on my blog.

The magazines I read include Interzone, Jupiter, Postscripts, The Hub, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Clarkesworld, Futurismic, Daybreak… plus any others I might stumble across.

I’m now up to date with my short fiction reading. Three stories from the magazines named above have especially impressed me. They are – and this wasn’t planned – of three different genres: science fiction, fantasy and steampunk. All three are also from online magazines.

The stories are:

I’ll probably post something like this again in another couple of months. Meanwhile, if anyone wants to suggest sf/fantasy magazines I should try – online or print – or has a recommendation for a short story published in the last two months that I should read…


Somebody out there likes me…

…or rather, likes one of my stories. Tangent Online has reviewed Postscripts #20/21 ‘Edison’s Frankenstein’ here, and it’s a mostly positive review of the anthology/magazine. Steve Fahnestalk says of my story ‘Killing the Dead’ (you have to scroll about halfway down the page):

“I particularly liked this story as it was pure SF that couldn’t happen in a different context; that is, the reasons for the terrorism could only exist at that time in that place, and the arguments for and against made perfect sense in context; as well, the Inspector’s conclusions were in keeping with his personality and his role aboard ship. Highly recommended.”

Which I’m particularly happy about… because if you can change the setting of an science fiction story and it still works, then it’s not science fiction. And I write science fiction.

The “Highly recommended” is very nice, too.