I’m going to number these Reading & Watchings posts from now on. This year, they’re working out at sort of monthly, but I don’t want to keep to a regular schedule – as it depends on how much I’ve read and watched since the last post. Numbering them seems like an acceptable compromise. Anyway, since the last Reading & Watchings post – number 3, obviously – I have read the following books and watched the following films:
Pashazade, Jon Courtenay Grimwood (2001), surprised me by holding up well for a book nearly a decade old. It’s cyberpunk, but it’s set in an alternate world – so that may be why. It provided enough of a spin on cyberpunk tropes for them not to feel like they were past their sell-by date (although the nine-year-old hacker did generate a small wince). But the novel is well-written, pacey, very good on place, and the world is put together well. I borrowed the copy I read, but I plan to keep an eye open for the remaining books in the trilogy. Incidentally, the edition I read wasn’t the one that had the back-to-front Arabic incorporated into the cover design…
Solaris, Stanislaw Lem (1961). I like Andrei Takovsky’s film adaptation of Solaris, although Lem apparently hated it. Steven Soderbergh’s more recent adaptation I found somewhat dull. And the book, now that I’ve finally read it… is surprisingly dull too. The writing is clunky – although I’m reliably informed that’s because it’s a bad translation (from the French, which was translated from the original Polish). Lem also goes off on these long info-dumps in which he references lots of made-up scientific papers, which have a tendency to make your eyes glaze. I’m glad I read Solaris, but I’ll stick to Tarkovsky’s film, I think.
The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster (1985), was my first Auster. It is, as the title suggests, compromised of three linked novellas, all set in New York. In the first, “City of Glass”, a man is mistaken for a detective (called Paul Auster) and accepts a case to watch a recently-released felon, whose daughter-in-law is afraid will harm her husband. The ersatz detective, Quinn – actually a writer of mysteries – finds himself so wrapped up in the puzzle of the case that his identity begins to unravel. This story worked well… up to the point where Quinn meets Auster, which felt like the story’s theme blundering its way into the plot. “Ghosts”, the second novella, is less successful. Blue has been tasked by White with watching Black; and that’s all he does. Until his own life falls apart because of his monomaniac focus on Black. When – against White’s wishes – he engineers a meeting with Black, he discovers that the case is less straightforward than he had imagined. “The Locked Room” is the best of the three. The narrator is contacted by the wife of Fanshawe, a childhood friend. Fanshawe disappeared six months previously, and it was his wish that his wife contact the narrator in order to manage the many unpublished poems and novels he’d left behind. Fanshawe’s work proves to be excellent, and is subsequently published. The narrator also falls in love with Fanshawe’s wife. She divorces the missing man, and they marry. Then the narrator is commissioned to write a biography of Fanshawe, and begins to investigate what happened to him. Along the way, he tries to determine the identity, and eventual fate, of the man he is writing about. I liked this one and I liked its enigmatic ending. I might try more by Auster.
Empire of the Atom (1956) and The Wizard of Linn (1962), AE van Vogt. Of all the Grand Old Men of sf, the one I will still happily read is van Vogt. And yet he’s as bad as the others – and often worse. But his books are so bonkers, I often find their complete lack of coherence entertaining. That’s not true of all of them, of course. Many of them are just plain awful. Empire of the Atom and The Wizard of Linn fall somewhere in the middle, although a little towards the crap end of the scale. They’re set in 12,000 AD on an Earth reduced to barbarism. But it still has spaceships, and colonies on Mars and Venus. Science is the province of temples dedicated to the “atom gods”. A “mutation”, Clane, is born to the ruling family of the Linn Empire. Clane is allowed to live, and grows up to be extremely clever. There are assorted dynastic struggles, which, typically for van Vogt, are just thrown in as the author thinks of them. Empire of the Atom carries on in that vein for 150 pages, and then takes an abrupt turn into metaphysics. And then ends. The Wizard of Linn continues on where Empire of the Atom finished. Except the implied atomic war which reduced the Earth to barbarism turns out to have been an invasion by the alien Riss (which actually contradicts several scenes in the earlier book, but never mind). Clane, in a giant spaceship captured from the Riss, goes looking for their home world. He finds a pair of human planets, like “giant twin moons” (wtf?), where everyone can teleport and is telepathic; but they won’t help him. He continues on, and finds a Riss world, which is also home to an underground civilisation of humans. He then returns to Earth and persuades the Riss invaders to leave by threatening them with a mysterious doomsday weapon he’s had knocking around since the last third of Empire of the Atom. End of story. Like most of van Vogt’s novels, if these two were made into a film they’d be brilliant if you watched them when you were pissed.
Black Widow: Deadly Origin, Paul Cornell (2010). Yet another UK genre author tackles a Marvel property, and runs up a story which successfully manages to munge in all the previous – and often contradictory – incarnations of the character. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning did with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Cornell has done it here with the Black Widow. This is not a Black Widow story like the one written by Richard Morgan, this is much more embedded in the Marvel universe, more in tune with Marvel sensibilities. I liked it. Perhaps not as much as Morgan’s, but I did like it.
The Worlds of Frank Herbert, Frank Herbert (1980), is the Gregg Press hardback edition of a paperback first published in 1971. The stories in this collection first appeared in Galaxy and Analog magazines, between 1958 and 1966. They show their age. Collection opener ‘The Tactful Saboteur’ is a Jorj X McKie story and not too bad. But some of the others have dated badly. ‘A-W-F Unlimited’ starts well enough as a sort of 1950s spoof of advertising, but then flops over into bad 1950s gender stereotypes. ‘Escape Felicity’ has an interesting premise, but the execution is dated, ‘Old Rambling House’ reminds me of a Heinlein story but seems to have a bit of van Vogt about it, and though ‘Mating Call’ shows its age it also is quite modern. The others are pretty forgettable. The book also has a good introduction by William M Schuyler, Jr.
Space Stations – Base Camps to the Stars, Roger D Launius (2003), will be reviewed this month on my Space Books blog. I usually try to read one space book a month, but I seem to have splurged a bit on them in the last few weeks.
The Age of Zeus, James Lovegrove (2010), was a review book for Interzone.
Agent of Chaos, Norman Spinrad (1967). Poor old Spinrad has been getting some hate in the blogosphere recently after an ill-judged article on world sf in the April/May issue of Asimov’s. Which came as something of a surprise, as I’d never thought him the type to wedge his foot in his mouth so effectively. I’d also imagined him to be one of the stalwarts of the New Wave. So Agent of Chaos proved another surprise – it’s the sort of badly-written, badly-dated tripe sf authors churned out in the 1950s. It has all the rigour and inventiveness of a van Vogt novel, without the madcap plotting. There’s a Solar system-wide totalitarian state ruled by a council, a pro-democracy underground fighting the state, and a Brotherhood of Assassins who commit random acts of senseless violence as some sort of defence against social entropy. Or something. And in the end, they escape on a big spaceship to Alpha Centauri. Or somewhere. Best avoided.
Gilbert and Edgar on Mars, Eric Brown (2009), is great fun. GK Chesterton is leaving the Athenæum Club after dinner with HG Wells and GB Shaw, when he is accosted by a short gnome-like man… and whisked off to Mars. Where he finds himself in the clutches of the Six Philosophers. He’s rescued by an American, Ed, and together they flee for the city of Helium to seek the aid of John Carter. It doesn’t take much intelligence to work out who Ed is, or why Mars strangely resembles Barsoom. But Brown manages a convincing pastiche of Chesterton’s style, and the phrase “I am in need of sustenance of a hoppish nature” has become my new favourite euphemism for “I could murder a pint”.
The Proteus Sails Again, Thomas M Disch (2008), was, I believe, Disch’s last written work. It’s a novella from Subterranean Press, and a sequel of sorts to the earlier The Voyage of the Proteus. The narrator – Disch himself – is back in his New York apartment, and about to be evicted, after his adventures during the preceding novella. The Greek sailor Socrates from that book and Disch’s Reader appear, and they go on a jaunt through a post-apocalyptic New York in a yellow cab. And, well, any resemblance to reality is clearly intentional. As is any non-resemblance. Not a comfortable read, given what happened to Disch.
Rescue Dawn, dir. Werner Herzog (2006), is based on a true story – a US naval aviator who was shot down over Laos in 1965, was taken prisoner by the Pathet Lao, tortured and then imprisoned at a camp somewhere in the jungle. But he managed to escape, becoming the first American to do so. His fellow prisoners – five in the film, six in real life – didn’t make it. Like many Herzog films, Rescue Dawn was clearly a logistically difficult film to make. It’s also quite harrowing in places. But Christian Bale, who plays Dengler, is just so annoying throughout, it’s hard to really care. Rescue Dawn apparently did quite well on release and had good reviews from critics, but I much prefer Herzog’s other films.
Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 2 (1988), or, as Adam Roberts told me he calls it, Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Nadir. And it is pretty dismal stuff. Having watched five seasons of Deep Space Nine, these early seasons of Next Generation seem crude sf telly by comparison – and Deep Space Nine is hardly the height of media sf sophistication. Some of the episodes in this season were embarrassingly bad. Like “The Outrageous Okona”, in which the Enterprise encounters a lovable interstellar rogue – Okona, O’Connor, geddit? – who proves to be secretly a Good Sort. Or “Up the Long Ladder”, with its lost colony of lovable Oirish rogues. Or “Pen Pals”, when Picard disobeys the Prime Directive yet again. Or “The Measure of a Man”, in which a hearing is convened to determine whether Data is a person or property, and in which the prosecution’s “killer” argument is that he has an off switch… These episodes are more than twenty years old now and they’ve not withstood the years well. I remember the excitement when they first came out – proper serious sf telly, not like Dr Who with its wobbly sets and wobbly scripts. In fact, it was a bit like the excitement new Who generated a few years ago. But watching season 2 and you can see how much anticipation made you overlook the episodes’ flaws, and how nostalgia had you remembering them as better than they actually are. Star Trek: The Next Generation did manage some good television sf drama during its seven seasons, but none of it is in season 2.
Schindler’s List, dir. Stephen Spielberg (1993), I’d never actually seen before. Which is why I rented it. I’m not a fan of Spielberg’s films, and I can’t think of one less likely to appeal to me than his take on the Holocaust. In the event, I thought he handled the subject well. Ralph Fiennes came across as a bit like a comedy Nazi, Liam Neeson wasn’t too bad in the title role, and the supporting cast played their parts well. The decision to film in black and white worked, although the girl in red felt like a gimmick. Anyway, I’ve now seen it, so I can cross it off the list. But if you want to watch a film about the Holocaust, then Andrzej Munk’s Passenger is better.
The Bothersome Man, dir. Jens Lien (2006), I rented, but when it arrived I couldn’t remember why I’d stuck it on my rental list. I don’t normally seek out Norwegian films, and the director and cast were unknown to me. Perhaps it was this review by Jonathan McAlmont that caused me to add it to my rental list. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I did. The Bothersome Man is an excellent film. Andreas jumps in front of an underground train. When he comes to, he is on a coach, which lets him off at a garage in the middle of nowhere. He’s welcomed by a man in a suit – who had even put up a welcome banner – and then driven to a city, where he is given a job and a flat to live in. But everything in the city seems flat and washed out. Andreas tries to live a normal life, but he can’t cope with the lack of emotion and sensation. He tries to commit suicide by jumping in front of an underground train – leading to one of the film’s funniest scenes. Eventually, in the cellar rooms of another man, he finds a crack in the wall from which issues beautiful music. So the two of them widen the crack and dig a tunnel to the source of the music… Recommended.
Taste Of Cherry, dir. Abbas Kiarostami (1997), is an Iranian black comedy like the excellent Secret Ballot. Mr Badi needs someone to do a job for him, and drives round Tehran and its environs looking for someone willing to do it. But no one will. The job is to bury Badi, in a grave he has already dug, after he commits suicide. Eventually, he finds someone who agrees to do the deed if he finds Badi dead in the grave the following morning. Badi lies down in the grave that night. A thunderstorm starts… And the film cuts to camcorder footage of Kiarostami filming Taste Of Cherry. A good film, but Secret Ballot was better.
Gabrielle, dir. Patrice Chéreau (2005), is an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad short story, ‘The Return’, which I have not read. I watched the film because it stars Isabelle Huppert. It’s set in late nineteenth-century Paris. A respected publisher’s wife leaves him for her lover, and then returns several hours later having been rejected. The film then dissects their life together. Gabrielle looked great, its cast were superb, and the dialogue was sharp. But dragging the story out to 90 minutes also made it really slow, and it was hard to stay interested and my mind wandered quite a bit as I watched it. Worth seeing, but I’ll not be dashing out to buy the DVD.