Despite making a compulsion of reading every day, the TBR pile looks no smaller – and, in fact, might well have grown. If I was smart I’d institute a policy of only buying a new book if I’ve read one from the TBR. Sadly, I’m not. Maybe I should get a Kindle or something – at least then the books wouldn’t take up as much space. Mind you, it would make my book haul posts look a bit silly…
Anyway, here are the books I have read in the past month or so; here are the films I’ve watched in the past month or so. Some were good, some were bad, some were meh. And so it goes. Apologies for the length of this post; I really should do these more frequently.
Books Hardball, Sara Paretsky (2009). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s novels since first reading one back in the early 1990s. Perhaps their chief appeal is that Paretsky wears her politics on her sleeve, and VI Warshawski’s investigations always end up uncovering something interesting about Chicago’s political landscape and history – and often as commentary on the US as a whole. Hardball, a slight return to form after the disappointing Fire Sale, is no different in that respect. Warshawski is asked to track down a young black man who disappeared during Martin Luther King’s visit, and the subsequent riot, in 1968… and discovers some unwelcome facts about the city’s police department of the time. Of which her late father was a member. There are a lot of angry men in Hardball – in fact, it often seems like the entire male cast are angry at Warshawski, and not always for good reason.
Shadow Man, Melissa Scott (1995), was September’s book for my reading challenge and I wrote about it here.
Valerian 1: The City of Shifting Waters (1970) and Valerian 2: The Empire of a Thousand Planets, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1971), are the first two English translations by Cinebook of a well-known sf bande dessinée series. Valerian is a spatio-temporal agent and, with his sidekick Laureline, gets involved in various adventures throughout the universe and history. In The City of Shifting Waters, he’s sent back to 1980s New York, which is flooded after a global environmental disaster, to prevent an evil villain from a nefarious plot to prevent the creation of the agency for which Valerian works. In The Empire of a Thousand Planets, Valerian and Laureline are sent as diplomats to a thousand-world planetary system (!), but discover that some strange group controls all the planets and seems determined to wage war on Earth. These books are not entirely serious – there’s a gentle humour running throughout them, though it’s not very subtle. Laureline, the sidekick, for example, is the clever one, who always gets Valerian out of his scrapes. There’s some inelegant info-dumping, and some of the story and art of The Empire of a Thousand Planets looks suspiciously like a direct inspiration for Star Wars (as an afterword points out tongue-in-cheek). Fun, though.
On Green Dolphin Street, Sebastian Faulks (2001), I’m fairly sure I tried reading when I was living in Abu Dhabi, but gave up a couple of chapters in because nothing seemed to be happening. This time, I ploughed on and… nothing happened. The van Lindens are a diplomatic couple in 1959 USA. Charlie is an analyst at the British Embassy, and was something of a wunderkind. But his star is now waning, mostly as a result of his drinking. When Frank Renzo, an acquaintance from Charlie’s visit to Vietname years before, re-introduces himself at a party, it results in an affair between Renzo and Mary van Linden. This comes to a head when Charlie has a breakdown during a trip to Moscow, and Mary has to go and fetch him. I was expecting a final section like that in Charlotte Gray – another Faulks novel which ambles along at a geriatric pace – but there isn’t one in On Green Dolphin Street. Charlie has a breakdown, Mary rescues him. That’s it. There’s some nice writing, but it’s not really enough to keep you reading. Disappointing. I’ve got four more novels by Faulks on the TBR. I hope they’re better than this one…
The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 11: The Gondwana Shrine, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2011), is another addition to Edgar P Jacob’s series, and follows on directly from the two The Sarcophagi of the Sixth Continent volumes. It’s drawn in Hergé’s ligne claire style, but is very talky with great speech balloons filling up many panels. The plot is completely bonkers, as Blake & Mortimer stumble across evidence of a secret base in Africa of a civilisation which existed on Gondwana millions of years before the first humans left the Rift Valley. Sometimes, you get the impression Yves Sente is a bit too clever for his own good…
Ascent, Jed Mercurio & Wesley Robins (2011), is a graphic novel adaptation of Mercurio’s excellent novel of the same title. The hardware is well drawn, but the rest looks a bit rubbish and amateur. Disappointing.
The Kings of Eternity, Eric Brown (2011), has been receiving lots of positive notices, though I think it’s unlikely to bounce Brown’s career to the next level. It’s very good, but it’s far too considered a novel to have broad genre appeal. It’s also not space opera. A reclusive writer living on a Greek island in 1999 falls in love with the painter who has moved in next to him, but only reluctantly opens himself to her. Four friends in 1935 meet at the country home of one of them, and in the woods nearby witness the opening of a portal from another world and rescue the creature which comes through it. The link between the two narratives is not difficult to guess, but that doesn’t spoil any enjoyment this novel might have. The narrative set on the Greek island has a somewhat Fowlesian feel to it, though it’s perhaps more sentimental than anything Fowles ever wrote. The other narrative is very Wellsian, though it uses Wellsian-type tropes with the sophistication of a twenty-first century sf writer. Is this Brown’s best novel? Hard to say. I still like Kéthani a lot, though The Kings of Eternity is certainly a very good novel. Perhaps my reading of it was spoiled slightly as a result of reading the novella on which it was based, ‘The Blue Portal’, some years ago.
Silicon Embrace, John Shirley (1996), however, is not a good novel. I like Shirley’s fiction, but he can be very slapdash. And Silicon Embrace is one of the slapdash ones. It’s a post-apocalyptic US crossed with UFO mythology, featuring a Damnation Alley-style journey across California and Nevada, with a secret underground base staffed by a military in league with the Greys. Then the story heads for New York, and turns into something slightly different. This book was poorly edited, with far too many ellipses left in the dialogue, and a number of silly mistakes, like mention of “Neil Stephenson” (sic). Disappointing.
It Was the War of the Trenches, Jacques Tardi (1993), is a bande dessinée treatment of WWI from the point of view of the soldiers. Tardi has picked out some of the worst and most horrific stories, and given them a graphic novel treatment. Such as the one about the Sicilian soldier who could not speak French and so didn’t go over the top when ordered, and was subsequently tried and shot as a deserter. Or the officer who ordered machine-guns to open fire on his own men because they were being mowed down by the Germans and were trying to get back to their trenches. The more you learn about the First World War, the more you realise the wrong people were killed. Anyone who reads this and continues to glorify war and the military is clearly an idiot.
Maul, Tricia Sullivan (2003), was October’s book for my reading challenge and I’m still working on a blog post about it.
The Joy of Technology, Roy Gray (2011), is a chapbook published by Pendragon Press. The author is a friend of mine. The technology in question is that used in sex clubs in Germany in order to better titillate customers. The customers, in this case, are a coach-load of football fans from the UK, visiting Germany as their team is playing away. A father introduces his son to the joys of travelling onto the Continent to see a footy match, and also to the delights to be had before and after the match. Gray pulls no punches, and if his story dehumanises its characters I suspect that was its intent. It does trail off a bit towards the end, and perhaps would have been improved by a punchier finale.
Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968). A blinding novel by a much-underappreciated writer. I wrote about it here.
Dead Girls: Act 1 – The Last of England, Richard Calder & Leonardo M Giron (2011), is a graphic novel of part of Calder’s novel of the same title. I’ve read that novel – in fact, I’ve read the trilogy – and it’s very good. The graphic novel is also very good. The style of art suits the material perfectly. The story is actually the flashback from the novel, which actually makes the world of the book easier to understand. I’m looking forward to seeing the next installment.
The Unit, Ninni Holmqvist (2006), has lots of praise on the covers of my paperback copy of this book, and I’m not entirely sure why. In a near-future, or alternate present, Sweden, anyone over the age of fifty without children, or who has not made a significant contribution to culture or industry, is deemed “dispensable”. They are taken to luxurious centres – such as the “unit” of the title – where they have free housing, food and healthcare, and are encouraged to use the copious leisure facilities. While there, they must volunteer for medical experiments and, over a period of years, donate whenever necessary their organs. Dorrit is one such woman. Something of a loner, inside the unit she finds friendship, and then love. At which point, of course, she no longer wants to be dispensable. The concept of the unit is, I admit, quite neat, though it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. From the description, it would cost far more to run than it returns in the form of drug testing or donated organs. The rules on who is dispensable are also open to abuse, especially for those who are childless but have contributed in some highly-recognised fashion. Also, the fact that survival is predicated on having children will also push women back into their traditional roles, undoing decades of feminism. None of this seems to have occurred to Holmqvist. She makes Dorrit a bit mannish, but has her enjoy being passive and feminine as if it were something to aspire to. I also thought the writing was very clumsy in places, though that may be more the translator’s fault than the author’s. I suspect this is one of those books where people can see little beyond the central conceit – like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, which has a brilliant central idea but is appallingly written. And yet those same people will sneer at science fiction because so many of its fans look only at its ideas and ignore all else in a text.
Warlord of Mars Vol 1, Arvid Nelson, Stephen Sadowski & Lui Antonio (2011). I have a love-hate relationship with John Carter. Or rather, with the books in which he features. Barsoom is a great invented land, but the prose is often quite painful to read – not only is the style horribly dated, but Edgar Rice Burroughs was a hack. But there’s something in John Carter and Barsoom which fires the imagination… even if every incarnation of it to date has yet to match expectation. This miniseries is an attempt at a more faithful comic adaptation of the first book of the series, A Princess of Mars. However, like all such it stands or falls on the quality of its art… and here it’s not too bad. Okay, so Dejah Thoris is improbably bosomed and near naked – though, to be fair, in ERB’s novel all the character are naked all the time. And the Tharks do bear a suspicious resemblance to the Tharks in Marvel’s 1978 John Carter, Warlord of Mars comic. Overall, this is quite a good adaptation, though it does make the source material appear more shallow than it actually is. Meanwhile, I’ll have to wait until Pixar’s film adaptation is released in March 2012…
The Uncensored Man, Arthur Sellings (1964), I read as part of my British sf Masterworks investigation, and I wrote about it here.
Warlord of Mars, Dejah Thoris Vol 1: Colossus of Mars, Arvid Nelson & Carlos Rafael (2011), is much better than the adaptation of A Princess of Mars by the same writer mentioned above. The artwork is lovely, though Dejah Thoris is still implausibly pneumatic. And mostly naked. But Dejah Thoris is certainly the heroine and drives the plot from start to finish. The story is set hundreds of years before John Carter appears on Mars, when Greater and Lesser Helium were at war and both owed allegiance to another city-state. The jeddak of that state finds an ancient colossus and goes on a rampage, but Dejah Thoris manages to ally the two Heliums and leads a force to defeat him. I’ll be keeping an eye open for the next book in the series.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Jane Rogers (2011), was, I believe, longlisted for the Booker, but since the plot summary made it clear it was sf-written-by-a-mainstream-author I picked up a copy just before Waterstone’s abolished their 3-for-2 promotion. And it’s certainly sf, in the same way The Handmaid’s Tale or The Children of Men are. Or even Nineteen Eighty-four. At some point in the near-future, a virus is released which infects everyone. But when women become pregnant, it turns into full-blown Creuzfeld-Jakob Syndrome and is always fatal. In other words, women can’t have children anymore – or they die. And it’s a particularly horrible death, as their brain dissolves in their skulls over a period of weeks and sometimes days. Jessie Lamb is 16-year-old whose father works at a clinic attempting to find a cure to Maternal Death Syndrome. While around them the world slowly falls apart. The first section of the novel, in which Jessie tries to come to terms with the world, and in which the role of women in society slowly erodes, is very good indeed. But about halfway through Jessie volunteers to become as “Sleeping Beauty” – she joins a programme which will keep the mothers in comas so the babies can be born safely, though, of course, the mothers will not survive. At which point, the novel turns into YA story and is all about Jessie trying to convince her parents that her choice is the right one. Yet the trigger for that choice doesn’t seem especially obvious. The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a pretty good book, but it’s also half of what could have been an excellent one.
The Garments of Caean, Barrington Bayley (1978). Bayley’s fiction was always slightly odd, and this one’s no exception. It’s 1970s hackwork, but it starts from a point, with a conceit, that no self-respecting sf hack would ever have tried. But Bayley makes it work. Sort of. In the Tzist Arm of the galaxy there are two major cultures, the Ziode cluster and Caean. The Ziodeans are just like contemporary Anglophone Westerners, but with spaceships and few other sf trappings of the day. The Caeanites, however, are entirely different. They have developed tailoring to such a degree – they call it the Art of Attire – that clothes do indeed maketh the man. So when a black marketeer liberates a cargo of Caeanic clothing from a crashed spaceship, it threatens the already minimal relations between the two groups. The prose veers from serviceable to the odd piece of fairly good writing. About two-thirds of the way through, the plot takes a turn that makes a nonsense of the book’s set-up up until that point. And there’s a casual mention of rape which is really quite offensive in this day and age. Not one of Bayley’s best. There were much better books written by British sf authors during the 1970s. Don’t bother with this one.
Films The Big Heat, Fritz Lang (1953), is one of Lang’s noir films from his Hollywood period. Glenn Ford plays the white knight, an honest cop, who tries to bring down the mob boss who runs the city. While the film is generally considered a classic of the genre, it does suffer heavily from simplistic morality, the righteousness of its hero, and the characterisation of women as either duplicitous or victims (Lang’s While the City Sleeps has a woman beat the shit out of a serial killer who attacks her). The Big Heat is especially brutal in this last regard, when mobster lieutenant Lee Marvin throws boiling hot coffee into the face of his girlfriend because she was seen talking to Ford. And she’s not the only victim of Ford’s relentlessness. He continues to harrass the mobster – ignoring due process, evidence, etc. – despite being told not to by his lieutenant, and as a result is suspended. But still he carries on. And he gets his man in the end, no matter who suffers or perishes in the process. Of the Lang noir films I’ve seen, The Big Heat is the least interesting – it’s too formulaic, has little or no ambiguity, and, let’s face it, Marvin’s brutality is no reason to celebrate a film.
Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik (2010), I vaguely recall hearing good things about, though I think I kept on getting it confused with Hanna. I’ve no idea why – the only thing the two films have in common are a teenage girl as protagonist. Anyway, I put it on the rental list, several weeks later it dropped through the letter box, I picked it up and looked at it and thought “meh”. One weekend night I stuck it in the DVD-player… and it proved to be one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. A teenage girl is visited by the local sheriff, who tells her that her father, whom she has not seen for weeks, is due in court soon. He has put up his house as surety for his bail and if he doesn’t appear, then the girl, her young brother, and their mentally ill mother will be put out on the street when the bail bonds company seizes the property. So she goes looking for her errant pa. The film is set in the Ozarks, among poor families who live on subsistence farming and cooking methamphetamine. It’s an insular society, ruled by the threat of violence, in which women live in fear and even kin asking questions is unwelcome – and punished by threats and then violence. Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as the girl. Winter’s Bone is a scary film, set among very scary people. I now want to read the novel by Daniel Woodrell on which it’s based. In fact, I’d like to read all of his books. This is not always a good move: for example, Hitchcock’s Marnie is greatly superior to Winston Graham’s, and the film of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments is much better than the book. But I’d still like to read them.
Black Heaven, Gilles Marchand (2010), I reviewed for The Zone and it was meh. See here.
The Wedding Song (Le chant des mariées), Karin Albou (2008), is one of those films that occasionally appears on my rental list but I forget why I put it there. Perhaps it was because it’s set in Tunisia, and I’ve seen many excellent North African films. The Wedding Song is set during WWII after the invasion of Tunisia by the Nazis. Two teenage girls, one an Arab Muslim, the other Jewish, are friends, but the Germans’ demands on the population soon push them apart. Not helping this are the Arab girl’s fiancé, who goes to work for the Germans identifying the local Jews, or the Jewish girl’s mother who marries her off to a wealthy doctor much older than her. This is not a pacey film, it’s far more about developing the characters in order to better understand their responses to the Nazi depradations. I’ve seen the film presented as a lesbian film, which it isn’t. The two girls are childhood friends, though that doesn’t prevent one from betraying the other – and later saving her. The Wedding Song is as much about the Nazi invasion’s effect on Tunisia as it is about the effect on the two girls. An excellent film.
Summer Storm, Douglas Sirk (1944). I’ve always thought that Sirk was to the melodrama what Hitchcock was to the thriller. But while Hitchcock never made a film that wasn’t entertaining, Sirk’s oeuvre is not so consistent. It’s not just later-period fluff like 1957’s Battle Hymn, but even earlier works such as this adaptation of Chekov’s novella, ‘The Shooting Party’. It just seems… weird. It’s melodramatic, and very much a mid-1940s melodrama. But everyone is dressed in nineteenth-century Russian costumes, and they all have Russian names. It makes for a weird disconnect between story and presentation. George Sanders plays a provincial judge ensnared by a scheming peasant beauty (Linda Darnell). First she marries the local aristocrat’s estate manager – and the aristocrat throws a party and invites all his effete peers as a joke – but Darnell’s sights are set higher. There’s probably a good script hiding in Summer Storm, but I kept on getting thrown by the fake scenery and American jocularity.
Thor, Kenneth Branagh (2011). Of all the heroes in Marvel’s stable, you have to wonder why they chose Thor for a movie adaptation. He’s one of the least interesting. He’s a Norse god with a big hammer, and in his secret identity he works as a doctor. The Thor from Norse mythology had much more interesting adventures. Of course, Thor is one of the Avengers, and The Avengers is next year’s Marvel tentpole release (the preview trailer actually looks quite boring). In order to introduce Thor, Branagh ripped off the plot of Superman II, but flipped it so that the good guy is exiled to Earth rather than the baddies. Thor’s brother Loki schemes for Odin’s throne, and big dumb Thor falls for his dastardly tricks, and a sa result is exiled to Earth. Where he happens to land in the lap of scientist Natalie Portman. For much of the film, Thor’s superpower appears to be stupidity, though he quickly learns to be a nice person, which not only gets him back to Asgard and allows him to defeat evil Loki, but also returns him to the loving bosom of his father. Because, of course, Thor is a father-son film. Admittedly, the film looks good – especially the bits set in Asgard, though it seems to have ditched the whole Norse mythology thing and implies that Asgard is an alien world / alternate dimension sort of place that just happens to be populated by humanoid Viking-types. I can’t see much point in trying to rationalise superheroes – it can’t be done. They are nonsense, their powers are magic. And the comics industry has never understood what rigour is, anyway.
Tron Legacy, Joseph Kosinski (2010). Perhaps the desire to update Tron, given the current state of special effects, is understandable. I mean, the original Tron had some good ideas, and an interesting look, but it wasn’t very good. Unfortunately, it was still a damn sight better than Tron Legacy. Yes, the special effects are much improved. But the story is rubbish. And it makes no sense. Jeff Bridges’ son accidentally gets himself digitised and ends up in the virtual world where his father has been trapped for the past umpteen years. In order to escape, they both need to defeat the evil copy of Bridges he created to run the virtual world. This is all supposed to have something to do with microprocessor architecture and programming, but I work in IT and it made no sense to me. anyway, Bridges, as creator, has special powers. But he only uses them in the last ten minutes of the film to save his son. He could have used them at any time. And the only way he can save him is to commit total genocide. Despite the fact he has been fighting his evil copy because said copy committed genocide on some virtual life that spontaneously appeared in the virtual world. Who writes this crap? Oh, and did I mention it’s a father-son film? Well, obviously.
Almighty Thor, Christopher Ray (2011), is the Asylum’s take on Thor. Except it’s completely different. Sort of. Odin and his two sons live in generic semi-mediaeval fantasyland (one of the greener parts of California, by the look of it, with a poor CGI rendering of a castle). Baldir is Odin’s heir, a powerful warrior. Thor, however, is a weakling and not very bright. He doesn’t know how to fight with a sword, either. Then Loki – Richard Grieco, looking like he’s spent the last decade shooting up – invades Asgard, and kills both Odin and Baldir. It’s up to Thor to save the day. Except he’s useless. Happily, Valkyrie Jarnsaxa appears and agrees to train him up. This involves hiding out in present-day Los Angeles – well, those back-streets where filming permits are evidently quite cheap. If the sections set in Asgard looked cheap, the ones set in LA resemble something from public access television. The Asylum are rightly known for making shit films, and the only astonishing things about them are the levels of shitness those film actually reach. Yes, some films are so bad they’re good, but that’s one trick the Asylum has yet to master.
Bonjour Tristesse, Otto Preminger (1958). When I think of Preminger I think of classy noir films from the 1940s, but Bonjour Tristesse, adapted from the novel by Françoise Sagan, is a 1950s melodrama. It opens in black and white, with Jean Seberg describing her ennui in voice-over as she flits from one Parisian night-club to the next, from one wealthy young playboy to the next… The action then shifts to the previous summer, on the French Riviera, and in colour. Seberg is holidaying there with her father, shallow playboy David Niven. Staying with them is a bouncy Swedish blonde playmate… but then Deborah Kerr, an old flame, unexpectedly accepts an invitation to visit. and she manages to tame the playboy father. This unfortunately puts the kaibosh on Seberg’s plans for a life of profligate leisure, so she hatches a cunning ploy. Which has a somewhat unfortunate consequence. It’s all very high-society and irresponsible wealth, and you can’t feel much sympathy for the characters. But it’s an excellently-made film, and both Niven and Kerr are very good in it. Seberg I found too gamine and empty-headed to really convince, and as a result the film for me never quite managed the charm of Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief or the cool sophistication of Antonioni’s L’Avventura.
Princess of Mars, Mark Atkins (2009), I stumbled across one night on Movies 24, but only managed to catch part of it. So I made a note of its next showing, and sat down to watch it from start to finish. It is, of course, an Asylum film, and while it’s currently titled Princess of Mars to cash in on Pixar’s release of John Carter of Mars next March, it was originally titled Avatar of Mars after James Cameron’s blue-peopled epic. In fact, Princess of Mars follows ERB’s novel quite closely – though, like every adaptation ever made, it ditches the nudity. Carter himself is updated to a Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan, and the mechanism which sends him to Barsoom is a military experiment performed on him since he’s at death’s door. But once on the Red Planet, he runs into the Tharks, joins them, captures Dejah Thoris, falls in love with her, and goes on to save the planet and unite the Red and Green Men. Mars itself resembles an Arizona desert, most of the special effects are cheap and nasty, as are the make-up and prosthetics, and Traci Lords as Dejah Thoris is astonishingly bad. But for an Asylum film, this one is actually almost watchable.
Ricky, François Ozon (2009). There’s something about Ozon’s films I find appealing – though, it’s not true of all of them. Angel is garish and amusing, Water Drops On Burning Rocks has that astonishing dance scene in it, Under The Sand is beautifully played… but Le Refuge is a bit dull, as is Swimming Pool, and 8 Women I find a little too OTT. Certainly he’s a director whose films I seek out, however. And happily, Ricky is one of the good ones. A working-class French woman falls in love with a spaniard who works at the same factory. He moves in with her, the woman’s young daughter is upset at having her world altered but gradually comes to accept him… then the woman becomes pregnant. The family dynamic immediately changes. That is until the baby – rickey – is born and when several months old develops bruises on his shoulder blades. The woman accuses the father of hurting Ricky. Hurt and disgusted, he leaves her. The bruises grow worse… and sprout into a pair of wings. Ricky can fly. Mother and father are reconciled. At first they try to keep Ricky’s ability a secret, but he escapes during a trip to the local supermarket, so they reluctantly call in the media. Perhaps Ricky with his angel’s wings feels a little too much like over-egging the new-family-new-baby cake – it’s perhaps a cliché that families always see their new babies as “little angels”. And there’s the daughter to consider too – she goes through the typical cycle of jealousy to acceptance to pride.
X-Men: First Class, Matthew Vaughn (2011), has been much praised as an intelligent addition to the (typically dumb) corpus of superhero films. Which is to forget that the first two men X-Men films directed by Bryan Singer were actually pretty smart movies. In X-Men: First Class – which is, of course, a cunning pun – the action is set in the 1960s and shows the X-Men helping the CIA prevent a conspiracy by evil mutants to use the blockade of Cuba to trigger nuclear Armageddon. Along the way, we get to discover how the above-the-title mutants discovered their powers, and the use they put them to before deciding the patriotic thing to do was work for a bunch of interfering types like the CIA. While X-Men: First Class is a pretty smart film for a superhero film, and it marches along at an energetic pace, look too closely and things start to look less shiny. It’s not just Kevin Bacon’s really bad German accent – which he thankfully drops when he reappears as Sebastian Shaw… or the over-preponderance of semi-naked women throughout the film… or that Banshee, an Irishman in the comic, has been recast as American in the film… or that Angel is now female, though he was male in the comic and earlier films… or that the Soviet villain uses a Bell 47 helicopter to visit his dacha (which looks more like a stately home left to wrack and ruin, anyway)… or why the villains always win in their fights against the good guys until the last reel of the film… or that the X-Men supersonic jet, which has always been modelled on a Lockheed SR-71, apparently has no room in its interior for jet fuel… or that Magneto introduces himself to Nazi refugees in South America by offering to buy them a Bitburger, but no one says “bitte, ein Bit”… But perhaps I’m asking too much of what is essentially pure entertainment. Except, if it’s “pure entertainment”, why try to position it as an intelligent film which comments on real life geopolitical events? Why not just admit it’s men – and women – in tights with logic-defying superpowers trying to remould the planet to fit in with US preconceptions of what Earth should be?
Green Lantern, Martin Campbell (2011). You’d think a story about a man with a magic ring that allows him to defeat evil, and who wears magic tights, wouldn’t be science fiction. But Green Lantern has aliens in it, and lots of lovely shots of galaxies and other celestial objects, and apparently the Green Lantern Corps are the guardians of galactic civilisation. If there’s a genre this film belongs to it’s the genre of tosh. I am a science fiction fan, but even I couldn’t swallow the central premise of Green Lantern. Still, it is a Marvel film. It’s also a Hollywood film, so it’s all about a son and the father he could never live up to. Because all Hollywood films are father-son films. I suspect some powerful studio executive has done way too much therapy. Anyway, Green Lantern was entertaining in a “nice visuals” sort of way, providing you turn off your higher cognitive functions. The story didn’t make much sense, and was filled with pointless scenes. For example, the commander of the Green Lantern Corps beats the crap out of Green Lantern and then tells him he’s rubbish. Well, of course he is. He only put the ring on twenty minutes ago, and no one’s trained him how to use it. And then the super-powerful villain that no one can beat only be defeated by that self-same rookie who has, um, oh hours of experience in the job. Then you have lines such as “The bigger you are, the faster you burn.” Er, no. But why expect accurate physics in a film about a man with a magic ring?
51, Jason Connery (2011), I reviewed for The Zone, and it was shit. See here.
Dr Who: The Ribos Operation, The Pirate Planet, The Stones of Blood, The Androids of Tara, The Power of Kroll and The Armageddon Factor (1978 – 1979), are the six stories which make up the Key to Time sequence, which introduced fellow Time Lord Romana as the Doctor’s companion. The final story also revealed the Doctor’s real name, which is apparently Theta Sigma, so I’m not surprised he insists on being called the Doctor. (According to the mythology, this is a “known alias”, though why someone would use an alias at an academy is never explained. It also transpires that ΘΣ was used in the New Testament as an abbreviation for God, so it’s most likely a case of a scriptwriter having a small joke…). The Key to Time is some sort of magic thingummy which, er, safeguards time or the universe or something. The White Guardian tasks the Doctor with gathering the six pieces, which have been hidden throughout time and space, and giving him the completed Key. Because then it would be safer than being hidden in six pieces throughout time and space. Apparently.
The Ribos Operation is a straightforward sting story. A pair of interstellar conmen try to sell a planet – without the knowledge of its semi-mediaeval natives – to a deposed noble by planting a sample of a valuable mineral and pretending not to understand its worth. The Doctor puts a stop to their con, but also prevents the nasty noble from furthering his own nasty plan.
The Pirate Planet is Douglas Adams’ first Dr Who script, and so is held in high regard. I can’t see why myself. The story has a neat idea but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The titular world is hollow and hyperjumps to enclose other planets. Which it then strips of their resources. These worlds are generally inhabited, except… if the pirate planet was only after the natural resources of a world, then populated ones would probably already be mined out. Uninhabited ones would be a much better prospect. Unless it’s the fruits of their societies – technology, artworks, jewellery, etc – the pirates are after… The Pirate Planet is also infamous for a fight between K-9 and a robot parrot. Which is exactly as silly as it sounds. Incidentally, the hidden segment in this story proves to be latest planetary victim of the pirates. So even if they hadn’t committed genocide, the Doctor would have done so when he transformed the planet into a segment of the Key to Time.
The Stones of Blood feels a little like a return to a slightly older Dr Who story. It’s set on Earth around the time of filming (ie, late 1970s). Two women are researching a local stone circle, but there’s funny stuff going on at the manor, which is now owned by the oily leader of a druidic sect. It’s all to do with some alien that looks like a standing stone – well, which is meant to look like a standing stone, but actually looks a bit crap – an immortal alien, and a spaceship hidden in hyperspace somewhere over the stone circle. It’s one of the better stories.
As is The Androids of Tara, in which Dr Who rips off The Prisoner of Zenda, only with androids impersonating various members of the rival factions for the throne of Tara. It was filmed in and around Leeds Castle, and certainly looks good. It’s Dr Who at its frothiest.
The Power of Kroll, on the other hand, is Dr Who at its wettest. It’s set in a swamp – well, an estuary. With green-skinned humans, who worship a semi-mythical giant squid; and a really crap model of an oil rig, which is supposedly a facility for converting methane into “protein”. Their drilling has woken the giant squid, Kroll, which is actually a couple of miles across. Terror ensues. There’s a lot of really offensive racism against the green-skinned people in this, and while it’s plainly intended to make a point, the writers seem to forget what that point is halfway through.
The final episode, The Armageddon Factor, is perhaps the worst of the six. The story reminded me of one from the classic Star Trek series. Or maybe it was from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Anyway, there are two planets engaged in nuclear war, and it’s all going very badly. The Marshal of one talks to a mirror and refuses to accept the possibility of negotiation. But then the Doctor arrives, and it turns out there’s no one left alive on the other planet and their military machine is all being run by a computer. And there’s this toad-like evil villain called the Shadow who has manufactured the entire situation because he wants the Key to Time. At one point, the Doctor ends up running around some caves in a secret planet, miniaturised. But I think my eyes had started to glaze by that point.
I never saw the Key to Time stories when they were first broadcast (1978 – 1979), though I was in the UK at the time. At boarding-school. So there was no rosy tint watching these, though I admit to being a very small fan of Dr Who, inasmuch as it was an on-and-off part of my childhood. While the six stories in the sequence are not especially good – some of Tom Baker’s other adventures are much, much better – they are interesting because of the presence of Romana (played by Mary Tamm). For the first couple of stories, she actually runs things. Yes, she’s portrayed as a somewhat clichéd bossy, interfering female, but at least she’s not just running around and screaming. Sadly, as the sequence progresses she becomes less of an equal, and more like a typical companion. But perhaps she went on to better things. There’s only one way to find out…
Oh well. The nanowrimo novel stalled at 15,715 words a week or so ago. It was the wrong month for it. Not only was I putting together the TOC for Rocket Science, but I also had a 650-page anthology to read for review. Plus spending a weekend in Nottingham at Novacon. And November seems to be an especially good month for gigs, with four bands I want to see playing locally during the four weeks.
Also, the novel needed structure and, well, a bit more of a plot. I still think Into The Dark is a workable prospect, but writing it from the top of your head is not the way to go about creating it. Too many people – and nanowrimo fosters this attitude – think writing is about words. It’s not: it’s about the right word. I like to live with my story and my characters during the writing process – and “writing process” doesn’t always mean sitting in front of the computer and banging on the keys. If you know what you’re doing, if you have it all plotted out, if you’ve done your research, if you’ve got your notes ready… then yes, bashing out the words is what you need to do. And should I attempt nanowrimo again, I’ll make sure I’m clear in my head what I’m writing.
For the time-being, those 15,715 words of Into The Dark will go into the bottom-drawer while I think about how I want to structure the story. And, given that it was intended to be the first in a series, I shall also think about the next book and the series’ story-arc. Meanwhile, I have plenty of other stuff to be getting on with – not just the aforementioned review, or line-editing the contributions to Rocket Science, but also some other writing projects I’ve been working on for considerably longer than a month. And I really need to get those finished.
This is it. The moment everyone has been waiting for. Well, the first of two, I hope, because you’re all waiting for the book’s actual publication as well.
Anyway, I’ve spent the last three months wading through the slush pile, and I’ve carefully picked out the gems. And here they are. Some familiar names and some unfamiliar ones. But all good. I promise you.
It’s time I started thinking about what my reading challenge will be for next year. Put simply, each month I read a book from a list of a dozen and then blog about it. In the past, I’ve done my favourite sf novels, classic literary writers I’ve not read before, the first books of epic fantasy series, sf novels I loved as teenager, and sf by women writers. The point is to introduce me to writers new to me and/or read books I wouldn’t normally read.
I asked for suggestions on Twitter, and recevied a couple of sensible ones. I like the idea of reading books by Asian writers, but perhaps I might instead expand that to reading books by writers from countries whose literature I’ve never before tried. I’m not an avid reader of world fiction, though I’ve read a number of European and Arabic writers, so it would certainly be a challenge.
Another person suggestion modern crime/noir fiction, but I was less keen on that idea. Having been impressed by the movie Winter’s Bone, I’d like to try one of Daniel Woodrell’s novels, but I don’t usually get on that well with modern crime fiction. I like Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton and Philip Kerr, but I’ve gone off a lot of the crime writers I used to read, such as Reginald Hill, John Harvey or Patricia Cornwell. Having said that, there are many published crime writers I’ve not read that I might enjoy and, I have to admit, they would at least be pretty quick reads…
I promised yesterday I’d put up a post showing the books I bought at Novacon, and so here it is. Also included are those books purchased since the last book haul post. Embarrassingly, it’s more than I thought it was. Oh well. Time to learn to speed-read…
More recent books from Novacon. And you can’t get more recenter than the brand new Solaris Rising collection. The Matthew Farrell of Thunder Rift is actually sf author Stephen Leigh, and the Adam Roberts of The Snow is actually top parodist A.R.R.R Roberts.
Some charity shop finds. Marilynne Robinson’s Home I’ve been keen to read after being impressed by her Gilead. Not sure why I picked up Touching The Void – possibly because it’s on the World Book Night list. Adam Thorpe is an excellent writer and his Hodd is a retelling of the Robin Hood legend. John Banville I’m not especially keen on, but I thought I’d give his Eclipse a go.
Some new books. Songs of the Dying Earth I have to review for Interzone. I’m about a third of the way through it. The Ascendant Stars is the third and final part of Mike Cobley’s jam-packed space opera trilogy. Prague Fatale is the eight novel featuring German detective Bernie Gunther. I’m guessing it’s set in the Czech Republic…
Some sf graphic novels. I finally got round to buying a copy of Dead Girls, the first part of the graphic novel adaptation of the novel of the same title. It’s very good. Dejah Thoris: Colossus of Mars is an original story set in Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom, featuring John Carter’s improbably bosomed wife and set long before he appeared stark naked on the Red Planet. It’s actually quite good – keeps to the spirit of the books, gives Dejah Thoris very much a starring role with agency, and has some lovely artwork. Warlord of Mars, an adaptation of ERB’s A Princess of Mars, is less successful. The art is a little variable, and ERB’s prose was never very good. But then the idea of ERB’s Barsoom novels was always better than their implementations.
Finally, a book about Ridley Scott’s Alien. It’s full of lots of fanboi goodies, like behind-the-scenes photographs, production design sketches, fold-out plans of the Nostromo, and all that sort of stuff. Cool.
The Zone SF has recently posted up some of my reviews of genre films. There’s cult classic Damnation Alley, based on the Roger Zelazny novel – review here. And Black Heaven (AKA L’autre monde), a French thriller about MMORPGs – review here. And finally, 51, a really crap film set at Area 51 – review here. I can’t in all honesty recommend any of the three films, though Black Heaven wasn’t too bad.
Well, that was a busy weekend. Two cities in two days, each in the opposite direction from home.
On Friday night, I was in Manchester, at the Academy to see Opeth perform live. The support act were Pain of Salvation. While I like bits of Pain of Salvation’s two Road Salt albums, I’m not really a fan of their music. Live, they put on a good show, but they struck me as bit posey and frontman Daniel Gildenlöw seemed to think he was Lenny Kravitz.
Rumour had it the Opeth set would be taken entirely from the new album, Heritage. Which is entirely progressive rock. Given that I still think that Blackwater Park is the band’s best album, and that Heritage is an album that is only slowly growing on me, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, even though this was the fourth time I’d seen them perform. And the set did indeed open with some tracks from Heritage. But then Mikael Åkerfeldt started bantering with the crowd – that night it was a lightly sarcastic paean to Kiss – and I knew that despite the new “direction” Opeth hadn’t really changed. The band then performed some older songs, although the entire set featured only clean vocals. In the case of ‘A Fair Judgment’ from Deliverance (a favourite track of mine), this wasn’t an issue as the album version features clean vocals. But ‘The Face of Melinda’ from Still Life is certainly different when it has all the growl vocals taken out. Still, Opeth are superlative musicians, and I suspect I’ll find myself liking Heritage a bit more after being reminded live just how good they really are.
The gig was my first in Academy 1. Last year, I’d seen Ghost Brigade, Orphaned Land and Amorphis in Academy 3, which is the smallest of the four venues. Academy 1 is like a small aircraft hangar. We were up near the front for Pain of Salvation’s set, and that wasn’t a problem – you could still get out to visit the bar or the toilets. But about five songs into Opeth’s set I felt the call of nature, and it was a real battle to get out of the crowd in front of the stage. And once I was done, there was no way I was going to be able to get back to where I’d been standing. That was annoying. (Also, I was wearing my Mithras Forever Advancing Legions T-shirt that night, and someone said, “Nice T-shirt” to me.)
So, Manchester meant getting home after midnight. And the next morning I was up and off to Nottingham for Novacon. I’d checked train times, both there and back – I was intending to only spend the Saturday at the convention, but I did take toiletries and a change of clothes in case I decided to stay the night. The last train home was at 23:15 but it didn’t get in until… 10:16 the next morning. Essentially, it dumped you in Derby, and you then had to wait for the first train the next morning. That’s not a viable journey, and you’d think railway timetable websites would recognise that. However, there were some direct trains between 20:00 and 21:30, so I had until then to make a decision.
I arrived in Nottingham at 11:00. Back in the late 1980s, I lived in Mansfield, my home town, and spent many weekend nights pubbing and clubbing in Nottingham. I’ve only been back a handful of times, but even so I know the geography of the city pretty well. I noticed a few changes in the city centre, but Mansfield Road, which is where Novacon’s hotel was sited, looked exactly as I remembered.
I bought a day membership on arrving at the hotel, and then headed straight into the bar. The first familiar face I spotted was Chris Amies, who I’d not seen for many years. After a chat, I left my bags with him and hit the dealers’ room. The usual suspects were all present: Porcupine Books, Cold Tonnage, Replay Books, Murky Depths, NewCon Press… I was at the Porcupine Books stall, when I spotted a couple of Women’s Press sf titles I didn’t own, and reached out for them. The stranger standing next to me turned to me and said, “You must be Ian Sales.” Which was a pretty good trick: my day membership badge didn’t have my name on it. The stranger proved to be Colum Paget, who has a story in Rocket Science. After a few more chats with various people, I returned to the bar… Which is where, as usual, I spent much of the con.
I had conversations with Al Reynolds, Ian Whates, Terry Martin, Kim and Del Lakin-Smith, Caroline Mullan, Fran and John Dowd, John Meaney, Leigh Kennedy, Janet Edwards… There was quite an intense discussion on utopias with Charles Stross, Justina Robson, Kev McVeigh and myself. I also remember a long talk about Uriah Heep (the band, not the Dickens character) with Swedish fan Bellis. The only programme items I attended were a 15 to 1 quiz and the second book auction (but I didn’t bid on anything). By about six o’clock, it was clear I’d be better off staying the night, so I checked into the hotel. I was quite impressed with the room – it was small but very modern. The shower – there was no bath – had a huge showerhead set flat again the ceiling, which was quite odd.
I was up at my usual time the next day, wolfed down breakfast, and then just hung around – in and out of the dealers’ room – throughout the morning. I was planning to leave later in the day, but was offered a lift home by Kev leaving at noon-ish, so I decided to accept it.
So that was the weekend. I caught up with a band I’ve liked for many years and caught up with some friends I don’t get to see very often. I didn’t feel up to much when I got home on the Sunday, so I’m now horribly behind on nanowrimo. But never mind. I bought almost a dozen books at Novacon, but I’ll put up photos of them in a separate post.
When I put together my list of British SF Masterworks last year (see here), a number of eligible authors were suggested to me that I’d never heard of before. One such was Arthur Sellings who, I discovered, had written six novels and numerous short stories (many of which were collected in two collections) between 1953 and 1970. He died suddenly in 1968 of a heart attack, “just as he was gaining more and more notice” according to his entry in the SF Encyclopedia here.
Although I actually put Sellings’ 1970 novel, Junk Day, on my British SF Masterworks list, I have so far only managed to acquire The Silent Speakers (1962), his debut novel, and The Uncensored Man (1964), his second novel. It was the latter I read.
Dr Mark Anders is a physicist at Jarwood, a secret British weapons laboratory. He is married to Ruth, who also works there, but their marriage is faltering. Ruth is too perfect, and too much a perfectionist, and whatever spark their relationship had possessed has long since dissipated. In an effort to cheer himself up, Anders goes visits an old friend who is a doctor in a distant town. While there, he witnesses a teenage patient of the doctor’s have an epileptic fit, wake up and talk for a minute in German, and then fall into a light coma. But the boy has learning difficulties and has never been taught a foreign language. Intrigued, Anders investigates further, but draws a blank. Then his brand-new computer spits out a page of Greek writing instead of the expected experimental results. He gets this translated, and it proves to be a quote from the Book of Revelations.
Mystified, and suspecting he may be suffering from some psychological condition, Anders visits Dr Nowatski, A Polish psychiatrist he met briefly at a party years before. Nowatski gives Anders a shot of LSD – it was legal, in those days. Under the influence of the drug, Anders… visits a parallel world and meets its human inhabitants. The remainder of the novel describes Anders attempts to learn the truth of this alternate Earth, his run-ins with Jarwood’s security stemming from his association with Nowatski, and his subsequent development of mental powers.
The Uncensored Man is tosh, but it’s quite well-written tosh. The central premise – the origin and reason for existence of the alternate Earth – is neither plausible nor convincing. While Anders is a nuclear physicist working on neutron bombs, Sellings gives no information on his actual work. And though the reason why his computer spouts Greek is explained, how it actually does so is ignored. The book lacks authenticity.
However, Anders is a well-drawn character. Likewise Nowatski. The two women – Ruth, and Nowatski’s wife, Anna – are less rounded, though their treatment is sympathetic. In fact, they are repeatedly shown to be better persons than their menfolk. The prose is also good – in other words, it is typical of British sf of the 1960s, and so much better than US sf of the same period. US authors of the time may have had the ideas, but British sf authors had the writing chops.
The Uncensored Man is a very British novel, and very much a novel of its time. These days, it’s little more than a curiosity. It’s no masterwork, and it remains to be seen which of Sellings’ novels belongs on my list. It’s an interesting read, but not one, I think, that would have set the genre alight.
As mentioned earlier, I also have a copy of Selling’s debut, The Silent Speakers (published as Telepath in the US), and if I see other novels by him I’ll no doubt pick them up. But he was neither as good as Compton, nor as prolific as other British sf authors of the time, such as Tubb, Brunner or Cooper. Like Rex Gordon and Leonard Daventry, the fact he’s now forgotten does not seem entirely surprising. But it would not have done the genre a disservice to have had the likes of Sellings and his peers representing it rather than some of the sf novels we now consider to be classics.
On 8 November, Phobos-Grunt, a Roscosmos mission to a moon of Mars, launched. Unfortunately, soon after achieving orbit the rocket engine designed to boost the space probe out of Earth orbit and on its journey to the Red Planet failed to fire. Engineers are working hard to fix the problem. They have until 12 November. After that, the space probe will not have enough fuel to make the trip.
Phobos-Grunt is an interesting mission. Yes, it’s a robot, and a crewed mission would have been much more exciting. But. It is a sample-return mission. Phobos-Grunt will land on Phobos, scoop up some of the regolith, and then a small section of the space probe will return the sample to Earth. The trip to Mars will take almost a year. And the same back again. In order to return some 200 gm of soil from a moon only 26.8 by 22.4 by 18.4 kilometres in size. It will be the first space probe to return an extraterrestial sample to Earth since Luna 24 in 1976.
Mars at its closest approach to Earth is 56 million km, when Earth is at aphelion and Mars at perihelion. John Carter might be able to travel there in the blink of an eye – and lose all his clothes in the process – but Phobos-Grunt is having to make the journey the non-magical way using a Hohmann Transfer orbit. That puts the distance it needs to travel closer to 200 million kilometres. Phobos-Grunt will leave most of itself behind on Phobos and only a small capsule will return to the surface of the Earth.
Perhaps a detail or two there need to be stressed. 200 million kilometres. That’s roughly the same as travelling from London to New York about 36,000 times. If you did that continuously, refueling in the air, you’d be flying constantly for around 30 years. And then, once you’d completed your journey, you’d present scientists with a handful of dust. This is not to stress the inefficiency of the Phobos-Grunt mission, but its difficulty. Or rather, the near-impossibility of space travel to other planets. Which is something science fiction has traditionally ignored. Unless, of course, you count arriving stark naked at your destination a “difficulty”…
Looking closer to home, there are places which present real challenges to explorers. Such as, er, Challenger Deep. It’s considerably closer than Phobos, but it’s still 10,900 metres beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean. That’s more than the height of Everest (which is 8,848 m). Challenger Deep has only been visited three times, and only once by human beings (see here). Two subsequent visits by robotic vehicles, in 1995 and 2009, took samples from the ocean floor. But Challenger Deep presents its own difficulties. The trip there might be relatively trivial. You just sink. But the pressure down there is something else. It’s over 1000 atmospheres, or 1250 kilograms per square centimetre. For Phobos-Grunt, the reverse is true: though extreme heat and cold, and radiation may cause problems, the vacuum of space is almost benign by comparison. On the other hand, whatever you send to Phobos has to survive a year-long trip…
It sometimes seems to me that the point of science fiction is to show how science and/or technology could overcome such problems. Not render them trivial, or even completely ignore them. But overcome them. Solve them. When Hugo Gernsback started Amazing Stories in 1926, he saw the genre as chiefly didactic. I don’t think it needs to be that – or rather, it doesn’t need to be overtly didactic. When Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange, he intended for the novel to “brainwash” its reader into understanding Nadsat. That’s what sf should do. And while I don’t subscribe to Kim Stanley Robinson’s “the infodump is just another narrative technique”, I do think a reader should put down a sf text knowing more about something than they did when they picked it up. But as long as the genre continues to ignore the issues which science and technology can address, as long as it turns a blind eye to the obstacles which actually prevent its plots from occurring, then readers will not learn anything new from a sf text.
Does that mean science fiction should comprise only “improving” texts? Yes, why not? It’s not as if learning is a bad thing, after all.