It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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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…

Books
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.

Films
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.

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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…


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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.


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Fantasy Challenge 2: Assassin’s Apprentice, Robin Hobb

Assassin’s Apprentice was not unknown to me when I picked it as one of my dozen fantasy novels for this year’s reading challenge. I knew that it was popular – the first book in a best-selling fantasy trilogy, in fact. I knew that Robin Hobb was a pen-name, used by Megan Lindholm (whose real name is actually Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden). I’d also heard that Lindholm, after ten fantasy novels, found it difficult to sell her next project as her sales had been declining. So she used the pen-name Robin Hobb instead. And Assassin’s Apprentice, her first book under that name, went on to become a best-seller. (A more cynical person than myself might have suggested that the perceived gender of Robin Hobb played a part…)

I’ve no idea how true how that is. Certainly some authors are deemed “category killers”, and subsequently find publication easier under a pseudonym. It seems more likely that Lindholm used the pseudonym simply to distinguish Assassin’s Apprentice and its sequels from her earlier work as it was a very different type of fantasy. Nonetheless, it did feed into my perception of the book…

Which was that Assassin’s Apprentice was a stereotypical secondary-world fantasy.

Except. The book is written in the first person – which is not typical of secondary-world fantasies. But it has a map – which is typical of secondary-world fantasies. I am, I admit, not a big fan of maps in books. I think they’re unnecessary… although I confess there’s a childish amusement to be gained looking up on them the places mentioned in the story. Also, the map in Assassin’s Apprentice did not bode well. I complained last month about Edding’s use of names in Pawn of Prophecy (see here). But at least he made an effort. Hobb instead chose to give the various parts of her fantasyland the most boring names ever – Near Isles, Mountain Kingdom, Neat Bay, South Cove, Cold River, Blue Lake… The characters’ names are no better: King Shrewd, Prince Chivalry, Prince Verity, Lady Patience… (It doesn’t help that Verity is a female name.)

But, the story: Fitz is the apprentice of the title. He’s the bastard son of Prince Chivalry, dumped on the royal family at the age of six. They acknowledge him as an illegitimate son, and he’s left in the charge of Burrich, the Stablemaster. Fitz grows up in the royal castle, Buckkeep Castle, learns how to look after animals, how to scribe, and becomes secretly apprenticed to the king’s assassin, Chade. Much of Assassin’s Apprentice covers Fitz’s childhood and early teen years – his various minor adventures, escapades and learning experiences during that time.

But it is only when he reaches the age of fourteen that the plot of the novel actually begins… Prince Verity is busy using his telepathic Skill to keep the evil Red Ship Raiders from the shores of the Six Duchies (which is the name of the kingdom). But his father, King Shrewd, has decreed he must marry. So Verity’s younger brother, Prince Regal, a nasty piece of work from the first chapter, finds him a bride, Princess Kettricken of the Mountain Kingdom. As part of a powerplay, Regal lies about Kettricken’s brother, the heir to the throne of the Mountain Kingdom, and so persuades King Shrewd to send Fitz with the wedding party to off the Mountain Kingdom prince.

It’s all a heinous plot, of course. And the nasty villains get their comeuppance. And you know they’re villains because they’ve been nasty since they first appeared. Although Hobb makes a decent fist of characterising her cast, she does signpost a bit too blatantly where the reader’s sympathies should lie.

As a secondary-world fantasy, Assassin’s Apprentice fails the immersion test. The world Hobb has created is, frankly, a bit dull. The convention of giving everything prosaic names evokes nothing, and suggests only a lack of imagination. The world itself is pretty much your bog-standard cod mediaeval world – although unlike the real Middle Ages, the royal family are just an ordinary bunch of folks with a bit more responsibility than most. Which seems a bit… egalitarian – a fault of many fantasies by US authors. There’s very little actual fantastic content – a mention of dragons, the Skill (telepathy), the Wit (empathy with animals), and the world itself. It seems odd that the world should feel as though it were painted in washed-out colours, given that over half of the book is essentially world-building.

Despite all that, I found myself enjoying Assassin’s Apprentice. It was an easy read, and Hobb has an engaging voice. I wasn’t convinced by Fitz, the narrator – the action starts when he’s fourteen, but he came across as somewhat older. It was certainly a better book than Pawn of Prophecy, but even so I’ve no plans to continue with the trilogy. Or indeed any other books by Hobb. There are some hints in Assassin’s Apprentice of a bigger story-arc and more interesting revelations. But. While the book is fairly typical of the genre, it also felt a lot like a fantasy with training wheels. It’s too much like a mediaeval boy’s adventure, sort of King Arthur meets Tom Sawyer, with very little actual secondary-world fantasy content.

A step up from last month’s read then, but still disappointing.