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… it just has to sound plausible

readings & watchings 2011 #2

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Oops. Been a while since the last one of these, so this is going to be a bit of a marathon listing. You know how it goes…

Books
American Adulterer, Jed Mercurio (2009). I thought Mercurio’s Ascent was excellent when I read it several years ago, and was much impressed by his intense, meticulously-researched prose. Admittedly, I was initially drawn to Ascent because of its subject – Russian fighter pilot becomes cosmonaut on secret mission – but even so I resolved to keep an eye open for anything else by Mercurio… And so I did. His third novel (his first, Bodies, is on the TBR) couldn’t be more different in subject. It’s a retelling of John F Kennedy’s presidency, couched as a medical report and focusing on his addiction to sex. JFK is often referred to throughout as “the subject”, and the prose dwells a great deal on his poor health. As in Ascent, Mercurio writes with impressive authority – I’m no expert on JFK, but I believed every word in American Adulterer. Mercurio is definitely a writer I’m watching.

People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks (2008), was lent to me by my mother. The book of the title is a haggadah, a Jewish religious text used during Passover. In this somewhat melodramatic novel, a haggadah from the fourteenth century is uncovered in Sarajevo just after the collapse of Yugoslavia (the haggadah is apparently a real one). This particular one is unusual because it is illustrated, something which was previously unknown for such documents in Moorish Spain. An Australian manuscript restorer who specialises in haggadah travels to Sarajevo to verify and restore the document. She finds various bits of, well, stuff, in its binding. These spark off chapters describing, in reverse chronological order, the history of the book – the Balkans during WWII, Vienna, and so on back to Spain. Meanwhile, the restorer is having mother issues. An interesting novel for what it said about the haggadah, but the story wrapped around it was too much of a soap opera.

A Far Sunset, Edmund Cooper (1967), I read for my ongoing series on British SF Masterworks, and I wrote about it here.

Empress Of Outer Space, A Bertram Chandler (1965), is the first in the “Empress Irene” series by Chandler. It’s also a very short novel, one half of an Ace double. Oh, and it’s crap. Empress Irene has just put down a rebellion by a Navy captain who has set himself up as a demigod on a primitive world, when her yacht is stolen. So she commandeers a cruiser and hares off after it with a crew of seven. The narrator is her captain. They track the ship to a world, land, and captain and empress become trapped in a carpet of moss which emits an hallucinogen. They undergo a series of dream-like “adventures” conflated from 007, Shakespeare and ERB’s Barsoom, before eventually escaping. There’s much room here for commentary, but Chandler’s clanking prose treads all over it with a leaden foot. Eminently avoidable. Which is what I should have done…

To Open the Sky, Robert Silverberg (1967), has not aged especially gracefully, though it has a neat idea at its core. A new religion, Vorsterism, which seems pretty secular despite its creed, promises its followers real biological immortality (courtesy of a well-funded research programme which has yet to bear fruit). A glossed-over schism creates the Harmonists, who become not-so-friendly rivals and whose focus instead is human ESP. Because Noel Vorst, founder of Vorsterism, believes that the only way for humanity to survive is to settle the stars. And that can only be done using teleportation by immortal humans. The Vorsters control Earth, but the Harmonists control Venus, and there’s a bit of cunning plottery to heal the rift and so “open the sky”. Not one of Silverberg’s best, but not one of his worst either.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2007). There’s an interesting process at work in Moore’s comics and graphic novels in which he slowly disappears up his own backside. He’s always been a very referential writer, but this one takes it to an extreme. The series conceit, understandably, references all manner of other writers’ works – well, the characters are all well-known fictional characters. And there are even more references in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. Plus, who else but Moore would print a section of a book in 3D, and include a pair of cardboard-cutout 3D glasses for the reader? Not to mention a Jeeves & Wooster / Lovecraft pastiche. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier is great fun. It’s a sort of reference module/interim work in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen universe, partly explaining the strange change in the story universe which resulted in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century: 1910 from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Book 2. Good, if sometimes baffling, stuff.

Oasis: The Middle East Anthology of Poetry from the Forces, edited by Almendro, Victor Selwyn & David Burk (1943), is the first of the Salamander anthologies of, well, poetry from those serving in the forces during World War 2. Good condition copies of this 64-page chapbook are hard to find, but I managed it (and yes, I have Return to Oasis and From Oasis into Italy, the other two Salamander anthologies). Oasis: The Middle East Anthology of Poetry from the Forces is, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag. Some known names provide some good stuff, but there are less successful poems by others. Given that the Salamander people were stationed in Cairo, many of the poems feature the desert, Egypt, or Cairo itself. Not all of the poems are war poems – in fact, there’s a quite a spread of subjects.

Winterstrike, Liz Williams (2008), was the second book of this year’s women in sf reading challenge. I wrote about it here.

Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, David Pringle (1985), does exactly what it says on the tin. Except for that “best”, of course. Pringle explains his choices in a lengthy introduction, and freely admits that some of his picks are not actually very good, nor does he like them very much. But he considered them important so he included them. He also points out that sf as a whole is not an especially well-written genre. I would guess about 70% of the books mentioned I’d classify as rubbish, and their stature within the genre is, to me, no good reason to hold them up as “best”. Um, there’s an idea for a project: my own choice of 100 best novels, posted here one a day…

Stretto, L Timmel Duchamp (2008), is the fifth and final in Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle. I plan to write about the entire quintet in more detail at some point. Certainly they are amongst the most political science fiction novels I have ever read. They are also very good.

Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro (2009), is a collection of five stories featuring Ishiguro’s trademark self-deluded, and never entirely likeable, narrators. The five stories all feature music in some fashion, and are set variously in Venice, London, Malvern Hills and Los Angeles. Like most of his fiction, the story-arc seems to dribble and die rather than actually concluding, but the writing is very good throughout. I suppose if you wanted an introduction to Ishiguro’s writing, this collection would be a good place to start.

An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro (1986), was Ishiguro’s second novel and an improvement on his first, A Pale View of Hills. The book is set in Japan in 1948 and 1949, and the titular artist, about to marry off his twenty-six-year-old daughter, reflects over the events in his life before and during the war. Something he did may cause the marriage negotiations to fail (as they had done once before), but as usual Ishiguro doesn’t say what and only circles around the topic. In fact, An Artist of the Floating World is even more discursive than other books by Ishiguro I’ve read. The narrator is, typically, self-deluded – and, in this case, hugely self-important too. The book would have been much improved by a resolution.

Voices from the Moon, Andrew Chaikin (2009), is a glossy coffee-table book published during Apollo 11’s fortieth anniversary. I reviewed it on my Space Books blog here.

Son of Heaven, David Wingrove (2011), is the first book, and a prequel of sorts, to the newly-relaunched, re-written and revamped Chung Kuo series. What was eight volumes is now twenty. And by the looks of it Corvus are doing an impressive job on these new editions. I read the book, and interviewed the author, for Interzone.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, CS Lewis (1952), is the third book of the Chronicles of Narnia. The third book as written, that is; but the fifth following internal chronology. I’m way too old for these books, which is probably why I find them so annoyingly patronising; but I’d like to think I’d have felt the same if I’d read them when I was eight or nine. This one is at least better then the previous two, and has a bit more of a plot. Lucy and Edmund, plus horrible cousin Eustace, fall into a painting and find themselves aboard the titular ship with Prince Caspian. He’s heading east for the edge of the world to find seven missing lords and, perhaps, Aslan’s Land. They have adventures en route, and Eustace learns how to be a nice chap. What little charm these books possess has aged badly, but Lewis certainly proves he can stick the knife into his “muggles” so much more effectively than Rowling ever managed: “They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarian, non-smokers and teetotallers and wore a special kind of underclothes.” Best line in the entire book, and it’s in the opening paragraph…

The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer: The Sarcophagi of the Sixth Continent, Part 1, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2011). I don’t normally include graphic novels in these lists because they’re such quick reads. But this one is worth mentioning: the characters of Blake and Mortimer were invented by Belgian Edgar P Jacobs in the 1946 and first appeared in Hergé’s Tintin magazine. Blake is a captain in MI5 and Mortimer is a nuclear physicist, and together they’ve had numerous semi-science-fictional adventures. Sente and Juillard have, since the millennium, been adding to Jacobs’ series, and they’re doing an excellent job. Sente’s scripts are very much grounded in the period in which the stories take place – the 1950s – and real-world events are cleverly used. In this one, it’s India’s struggle for independence which drives the plot. The books still have a tendency to fill the frames with dialogue, and often use text boxes to describe what’s obvious from the art; but I much prefer these new stories to Jacobs’ originals.

The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson (2010) does exactly what it says on the cover. The stories were selected, and the collection edited, by Jonathan Strahan, but KSR himself provides an afterword giving brief notes on each of the included pieces. The first three – ‘Venice Drowned’, ‘Ridge Running’ and ‘Before I Wake’ – are not especially strong, but ‘Black Air’ and ‘The Lucky Strike’ then demonstrate only too well why KSR is such a bloody good writer. There’s a sf baseball story, and I’ll never understand the appeal of the game or of writing about it. The remaining contents are strong, with some better than others. The final story, ‘The Timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic, 1942’, is original to the collection. I wasn’t entirely sure why it was genre… which is, I suppose, one of the reasons KSR’s fiction appeals so much. Definitely a collection which belongs on the book-shelves of any self-respecting sf fan.

Time of Hope, CP Snow (1949), is the first book, internal chronology-wise, in Snow’s 11-volume Strangers and Brothers series. Lewis Elliott is the son of a bankrupt in an unnamed provincial Midlands town during the early 1920s. After leaving school with good exam results, he becomes a local government clerk in the education department. But he dreams of better things. After making friends with George Passant, a qualified lawyer working as a legal assistant in one of the town’s practices, Eliot decides that the law is the career for him – but not as a solicitor, as a barrister. He crams for the Bar examinations, passes them, uses contacts to get himself into an Inn, and so progresses his career. Meanwhile, he’s fallen in love with – and eventually marries – the neurotic but beautiful Sheila Knight. He also develops “pernicious anaemia” and is very ill for a while. But when this is re-diagnosed as “secondary anaemia”, he seems to miraculously recover – probably the only false note in the novel. Snow draws deep psychological portraits of his characters – it’s all told from Elliott’s point of view, but he’s a deeply analytical person. I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected. I certainly plan to track down the remaining ten volumes and read them.

Films
Tell No-One, Guillaume Canet (2006), is a French adaptation of a novel by US writer Harlan Coben. Which pretty much explains why this film didn’t work. It’s not a French film. It feels like a US film played by a French-speaking cast. As a thriller, it’s not bad, but that dissonance between expectation and implementation made for an unsatisfactory viewing experience.

Fringe season 2 (2009), continues the 21st century “X-Files” as, in this season, the mythology is deepened as Olivia visits the alternate world at war with our world, and more of her background – and Walter’s experiments – are revealed. Walter’s ex-partner and semi-nemesis, Bell (played by creaking Leonard Nimoy), also features prominently, popping up in several episodes to explain what it is that’s actually going on. Fringe remains gripping telly, and I’ll be picking up season 3 when it hits DVD.

Julius Caesar, dir. Herbert Wise (1979), is the seventh of Shakespeare’s plays I’ve now seen. After watching it, I jokingly posted to a forum that it was a rip-off as Caesar dies halfway through. But then, of course, it’s not so much about Caesar himself as it is the plot which removes him and the power vacuum he leaves behind. Charles Gray played a somewhat effete title role, but the supporting cast were uniformly good. It’s a very manly men type of play – you’d expect the theatre to reek of sweat and blood if you saw it live. I must admit, from the ones I’ve seen so far, Shakespeare’s tragedies have been better than his comedies. Perhaps the comedy simply hasn’t travelled across the centuries, but tragedy is timeless. Still, Julius Caesar is a strong play and worth seeing.

The Racket, dir. John Cromwell (1951), is a somewhat preachy near-noir film I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Splice, dir. Vincenzo Natali (2009), is a remake of any one of the numerous Frankenstein movies that have been made over the decades. Sort of. Two research scientists create an artificial lifeform – they’re trying to create an artificial lifeform that can manufacture pharmaceuticals – but this latest one they’ve added some human DNA to the mix. It grows up – very quickly – into a strange-looking young woman (she certainly wouldn’t pass unnoticed on a busy street). But it all goes horribly wrong when male scientist cannot resist the monster’s charms, but is unfortunately caught in the act of boinking her by his wife, the other scientist. The monster then goes berserk. A cleverly-done film, but it never really struck me as quite as clever as it thought it was. It’s more like Frankenstein as if no one had ever written it before and it had been newly-thought-up in the twenty-first century. But since Mary Shelley got there first in 1818, the commentary all feels a bit obvious and old-hat. Worth watching, nonetheless.

Water Drops On Burning Rocks, dir. François Ozon (2000), is actually based on an unfilmed script by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (I really must watch some of his films some day). It’s not an easy film to describe… A middle-aged man arrives home with a twenty-year-old man, who becomes his live-in lover. Everything goes swimmingly for a while, but then the relationship begins to pall. When the older man is away on business, the younger man’s ex-fiancée turns up. This causes ructions, which are further exacerbated when the transsexual ex-girlfriend of the older man arrives. There’s a scene in the film, remarked on by all the critics, in which the four characters dance to a horrible piece of German pop. It is… astonishing. And while it may not sound like much, it’s worth the price of admission alone. Water Drops On Burning Rocks is one of those odd films that pulls you in and refuses to let go.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, dir. Elijah Moshinsky (1985), makes it eight. I’m sorely tempted to buy myself a copy of The BBC TV Shakespeare Collection boxed set, so I’ll have all of the plays on DVD. Except if I did that I’d probably never get around to watching them. But because I rent them, I feel obligated not to send them back unwatched (and it’d be a waste of money too). So perhaps for the time-being I’ll keep on doing that. Anyway, Love’s Labour’s Lost is a comedy, and not an especially good one. although set in the Kingdom of Navarre, which existed from 824 to 1620, but the cast all wear eighteenth-century dress. The king and his men friends have decided to swear off all pleasures and devote themselves to scholarly study for seven years. This means no women. Which does not go down well. Unfortunately, along comes a princess of France on a diplomatic mission, and she’s unhappy at being told she cannot stay in the palace but must camp in a field outside it. So, of course, the men fall in love with the women, there’s some mistaken-identity comedy, a very strange play-within-a-play, and, strangely, an ending which defers the real ending for “a year and a day”. An odd play, and not the most enjoyable of those I’ve watched. According to Wikipedia, it’s often assumed that the play was written for student lawyers, which probably explains it.

Choose, dir. Marcus Graves (2010), is a low-budget thriller I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Millennium season 1 (1997), was Chris Carter’s new project after The X-Files. Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) is an ex-FBI profiler with a gift: he can see what the killer saw. Unfortunately, this led him into a nervous breakdown and early retirement. So he moves back to his hometown of Seattle, and is recruited by the Millennium Group, who consult with the police on difficult murder cases. The series is as much about the mysterious agenda of the Millennium Group as it is about Black and his gift, or his relationship with his wife and young daughter (who may also have the same talent). While the IT in the series dates it, Millennium actually holds up really well. Except for those dial-up modems and CRTs, it could have been made last year. Despite being high-quality television, the programme only lasted three seasons. Happily, I have the Seasons 1-3 boxed set. (Bizarrely, search for “Millennium” on Amazon, and it doesn’t return the Seasons 1-3 boxed set. But search for “Millenium” and it does – despite the title clearly have two “n”s. Stupid search engine.)

The Innocents, dir. Jack Clayton (1961), is an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, starring Deborah Kerr as the governess who is terrorised by her two strange charges. This is on a list of Top 100 British Films I found somewhere online but, to be honest, I found it a bit dull. Kerr may have been good in her role, but any film in which the lead character spends most of her time running around with a look of horror on her face – with no apparent agency, in other words – is not going to keep my interest. Perhaps I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d read the book.

Star Trek The Next Generation season 3 (1989), was actually the last full season on ST: TNG I’d seen. When I lived in the UAE, Star TV, Murdoch’s satellite channel for India, and the middle and Far Easts, bought the programme. They broadcast season one. The following year, they broadcast season one followed by season two. And the year after… You can probably guess. Star TV’s English-language channel then turned Hindi (and Baywatch in Hindi is actually better), and the new English-language channel was subscription only. So, as a result I’ve only seen scattered episodes of ST: TNG season 4 to 7. To be honest, I’d forgotten most of the episodes from season 3, although the few stand-outs I remembered were from this season. Especially ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’, which is still a good piece of science fiction telly. Other episodes are less successful, but at least the season is a damn sight better than season two was.

Ajami, dir. Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani (2009), is an excellent Israeli film I review for VideoVista here.

If…., dir. Lindsay Anderson (1968), is another film from the Top 100 British Films list. I thought I’d actually seen this before, but on watching it discovered I never had. I’d just lived it. Sort of. I went to a public school not unlike the one in the film – but more than a decade later so many things had changed. Certainly the whole way of life was familiar to me, and I thought Anderson captured it well. The ending… well, perhaps it was shocking in 1968, but it all seems a bit meh these days. Perhaps it’s been copied so many times, it’s lost its power. A good film, with some very strange bits in it, and worth watching.

Bad Lieutenant – Port Of Call New Orleans, dir. Werner Herzog (2009), is one of those films that almost defies criticism. Certainly Nicolas Cage in the title role defies any kind of commentary. He plays his character as a bucket of twitches and tics topped by a bad toupee. And yet it bizarrely seems to suit the film. The plot is a bog-standard thriller, with little to recommend it. But there is one scene that’s worth the price of admission alone, where Cage’s character says of a man he has just shot dead, “His soul’s still dancing”, while a doppelgänger of the dead man breakdances behind the corpse. Genius. I knew going in that a Herzog thriller was not going to be an ordinary thriller, but even then Herzog confounded my expectations and made it a Herzog film in ways I had not considered. Which was pretty foolish of me in the first place – this is, after all, the director who made a film with a cast who were all under hypnosis…

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