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Fresh month, fresh books

The start of a new month and so time to place an order with a large online retailer of books (and other stuff). Last month’s purchases were mostly catching up with books published in 2016 I’d not got around to buying last year. This month, it’s widening my reading to include authors from some countries I’ve not previously tried. Plus a few favourites.

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Three British writers. I read the first book of Ali’s Islam Quintet, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree back in 2011, and though I enjoyed it I never got around the reading further. Hence book 2, The Book of Saladin. Snowdrift is a new collection from Heyer, and I do love me some Heyer, it must be said. Back in the UAE, I read several books by Tremain, but stopped when I returned to the UK. No idea why. I thought it was time I started reading her again, so The American Lover.

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Some fiction from around the world. The Captive Mind is from Poland, not the Czech Republic, as I mistakenly tweeted a week or two ago. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost is from Albania. The Conspiracy and Other Stories is from Estonia. And A River Called Titash, from Bangladesh, is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted.

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The latest Blake and Mortimer. Volume 24, to be precise. I actually think this series has improved since the series creator, Edgar P Jacobs, died. The plots are much more closely tied to the real world. This one, for example, is about a rivalry between two societies who disagree over the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.

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Non-fiction. Now that I have volume 19 and volume 20 I have complete set of Wings of Fame. All it took was patience. And I’m patiently waiting to complete my set of Heinemann’s Phoenix Editions of DH Lawrence’s books. Sadly, this copy of Studies of Classic American Literature is ex-library, and was not described as such by the seller on eBay, but it’ll do for now.

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Finally, some science fiction, old and new. Naked to the Stars / The Alien Way is #31 in Tor’s series of back-to-back novellas from 1989 and 1990. That’s why I bought it, not because I’m a fan of Dickson’s fiction (okay, so the Dorsai trilogy is still kinda pulpy fun). At the Speed of Light and The Enclave… Well, I bought The Iron Tactician by Alastair Reynolds because I like Al’s fiction… and then I saw it was one of a set of four novellas published by NewCon Press, and the last one was by an old friend, Neil Williamson… and I’ve read one of Anne Charnock’s novels and it was very good and I’ve seen Simon Morden tweet that he was keen to get the science right in his novella… so I went and bought the other three. The Memoirist, the fourth novella, has yet to be published, however.

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Reading diary, #44

Having found myself no longer enjoying genre fiction as much as I once did, I went and read a load of it – four science fiction books and one fantasy novel. The lone mainstream is by a Norwegian writer, and I doubt I’ll be bothering with any more books by him.

memoirs_spacewomanMemoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962, UK). One from my Women’s Press SF collection and read for review on SF Mistressworks – see here. It felt more fabulist than science-fictional, with a chatty narrator and an almost childish approach to genre trope, although the book is anything but childish. The prose is a good deal sharper than is typical of the genre, but not, it must admitted, of the novels published under the Women’s Press SF imprint. I’d like to read more Mitchison, I think, and her The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) is, according to Wikipedia, “regarded by some as the best historical novel of the 20th century”.

rimrunnersRimrunners, CJ Cherryh (1989, USA). Also read for SF Mistressworks, although the review has yet to appear there. I’ve always been a fan of Cherryh’s writing, and have been reading her books since first stumbling across them in the early 1980s. She used to be ubiquitous in the UK back then, you’d see a dozen or so titles in your local WH Smith, back when WH Smith was better known for selling books than selling stationery. I’ve got quite a few Cherryh first editions, some of them signed. When I lived in the UAE, I used to order her books from Amazon as soon as they appeared, and I’ve been half-heartedly collecting her ever since. I really ought to see about completing the collection – but the science fiction only, I’m not interested in the fantasy novels.

marauderMarauder, Gary Gibson (2013, UK). I’ve known Gary for a couple of decades now, and I’ve been buying his books and reading them right from the start. Marauder is a return to the universe of Stealing Light (2007), Nova War (2009) and Empire of Light (2010), and is in part an extension of that trilogy’s plot. Gary does some things very well, sometimes a little too well, and that can result in him over-doing it. And the thing he does well is: scale. These are stories that cover thousands of light years, that throw out mentions of histories going back millions of years. But this sense of scale is also one of the things that really annoyed me about Marauder… and which also fed into some thoughts I’ve been having recently about science fiction in general. The title refers to a vast starship from a machine civilisation – so we’re in Fred Saberhagen, Greg Benford and Alastair Reynolds territory here – which once aided a civilisation hundreds of thousands of years before and raised its tech level substantially in a short period of time. Meanwhile, in the recent past, the Three Star Alliance has had to hand over its FTL starships to the Accord, a much larger and more powerful human polity, because the FTL nova drive is also the deadliest weapon known to humanity, the nova mine. This seriously pisses off the plutocrats who run the TSA and they decided to try and negotiate with the Marauder, having figured out where it is, for some of that ancient high tech. The pilot on their mission is Megan, a machine-head (ie, she has implants), and the leader of the expedition uses her best friend as a conduit to speak to the Marauder, burning out his brain in the process. The mission is a failure and the Marauder destroys their starship. Megan manages to escape. Some years later, her new ship is hijacked by the same people (who, it seems, were eventually rescued), because they’re determined to try again. Meanwhile, there’s Gabrielle, who has been born for a specific purpose and now, aged twenty-one, it has come upon her: she must go to the Magi (another ancient alien race with FTL, now extinct) starship which crashed on her planet, Redstone, and try to eke more technological goodies out of its AI’s databanks for her theocratic regime. This is all good stuff, and the two plots not only slot together pleasingly but there’s a nice twist that serves to tighten the links between them. It’s all good space opera, but sometimes the vast distances feel a bit too much and the sense of scale sort of fades from 3D to 2D, if you know what I mean. But that over-egging of scale is also what spoiled the novel for me, as mentioned earlier. Gabrielle, it transpires, is important to the TSA’s return visit to the Marauder. But they can’t just invite her along, because of her role in the theocracy. So they kidnap her. But they don’t just send in a special forces team and abduct her. No, they arrange for something – a huge starship carrying antimatter – to crash into the planet and cause a tsunami which kills tens of millions of people, just so they can kidnap Gabrielle in the confusion and hope everyone assumes she died in the disaster. This is one of the things that pissed me off about Leviathan Wakes, and why I’ve never read further in the series. Seriously, killing tens of millions of innocent people just to kidnap one? WTF? I find it hard to believe someone would consider that a defensible plan. I get that the leaders of the TSA are desperate (and, from their later actions, it must be said, also unbelievably psychopathic; but even with the Accord running things, they’d still be rich and powerful, so why behave like monsters?), but when your story covers millions of years and thousands of light years there’s a tendency to upscale the villains too. And I think that’s not only wrong, it also feeds into the whole right-wing mindset of science fiction. Good sf is not about extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, it’s about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances – and that includes the villains too. Science fiction needs to scale back on the bodycounts and fascism, otherwise it’s just one of the many things in popular culture normalising such behaviour.

rubiconRubicon, Agnar Mykle (1965, Norway). My mother found this in a charity shop somewhere, and asked me if I’d be interested, I said go on then, so she bought it and gave it to me. And… Well, after going on a rant about normalising fascism, Mykle sets a quarter of his novel in your actual Nazi Germany of 1939 and doesn’t manage more than a handful of back-handed criticisms. True, the book is more about the narrator’s home circumstances, from which he is fleeing, and his romantic ideas about Paris, and clearly positioned as comedy – there’s even a scene in which he encounters a French toilet for the first time. The narrator is painted as part-naïf part-idiot part-bumpkin, and while his romantic misconceptions provide a good base for some of the humour, some of it is also a bit too, well, adolescent, male adolescent. Mykle died in 1994, and his last novel was… Rubicon – chiefly, it seems, because of the controversy caused by an earlier novel, 1957’s The Song of Red Ruby (which resulted in an obscenity trial in Norway). I’m tempted to have a go at that controversial novel – secondhand copies in English seem to be readily available – but I can’t say that Rubicon motivates me to track down a copy. Rubicon is a well-crafted novel, with a good control of voice, but it all felt a bit meh to me. Incidentally, inside the book I found an Air France boarding card dated January 1978. It’s not the oldest bookmark I’ve found in a book. I found one once dated 1945…

elegy_angelsThe Graveyard Heart / Elegy for Angels and Dogs, Roger Zelazny / Walter Jon Williams (1964/1990, USA). I have almost a complete set of the Tor doubles, which I started collecting after finding half a dozen of the early ones in a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi. I’m not convinced there’s been a consistent editorial agenda with this series – which topped out at 36 books in two years – given that earlier volumes were just two novellas back-to-back (tête-bêche, to be precise), but that was dropped in favour of printing both the same way up, as if it were an anthology of two stories. Some of the later ones also featured classic novellas with modern sequels by another hand, as this one does. ‘The Graveyard Heart’ by Roger Zelazny is from 1964. ‘Elegy for Angels and Dogs’, a direct sequel, is from 1990. To be honest, I’ve never really understood the appeal of Zelazny’s fiction. He’s reckoned to be one of science fiction’s great wordsmiths, and while he may be a great deal better at stringing a sentence together than many of his peers, I’ve never really understood why his prose is held in such high regard. It’s… okay. And in ‘The Graveyard Heart’, some of it is actively bad. In the novella, a subset of the jet set, a group of rich young party animals sleep in cryogenic suspension for most of the year, and only appear for exclusive and expensive social events. They are the Party Set. So while they live the sort of life capitalist society continues to valourise, they also travel forward through time, experiencing years in subjective weeks. But then one of them is murdered and… yawn. Dull murder-mystery in totally unconvincing setting ensues. Williams’s sequel moves the action forward a couple of centuries, tries to show the changes in Earth society the Party Set are missing (and that does, in fact, drive part of the plot), but also throws in a couple of murders for good measure. The result is something which isn’t sure how direct a sequel it should be. It’s more inventive than its inspiration, the language is plainer and better for it, but its lack of focus tells against it. Both are no more than average.

lord_slaughterLord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK). I bought the first book of this series, Wolfsangel (2010), at a convention after meeting the author, and got it signed. But I’ve been continuing with the series, despite my general apathy toward fantasy, and especially urban fantasy, because they’re actually bloody good. They’re more like historical novels, but based on Norse mythology and featuring werewolves. This one is set in Constantinople during the reign of, I think, Basileios II, 953 – 1025 BCE, certainly an  emperor of that name appears in the book. A wolfman sneaks into the emperor’s tent just after a battle and asks the emperor to kill him. Instead, he takes him prisoner, and throws him into the Numera, Constantinople’s chief prison. Somewhere in the caves under the Numera is the well of knowledge, from which Odin drank, and for the privilege he paid with an eye. And that’s how the story plays out. Aspects of Odin, hidden in two of the characters, along with aspects of the three Norns, all descend on the well, while chaos rages in Constantinople. Because the Norns want Fenrir released so he will kill Odin, but Odin is not ready to die just yet and is happy for his aspects to be reborn throughout history, all with a vague desire to cause death and destruction. The story’s told from a variety of viewpoints, some of which are instrumental in the final showdown, some of which are just enablers. The setting is convincing, and if the characters have a tendency to blur into one another a little, it doesn’t detract from the story. This is superior fantasy, assuming you can define historical novels with werewolves and Norse gods as fantasy. And why not. There’s a fourth book available in the series, Valkyrie’s Song, which I plan to buy and read. Good stuff.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


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Moving pictures 2017, #6

This was going to be a post without a US film… But I had to do a bit of juggling after realising that  I’m going to have watch The Name of a River again, which is a sort of drama-documentary about Ritwik Ghatak’s films, before I can write about it. So I bounced that film into my next post, and pulled Midnight Special into this one… and spoiled my entirely non-US run. Oh well.

baaxzBaaz, Guru Dutt (1953, India). I do like me some Dutt, but I wish there were decent transfers of his films available. Yes, they’re over sixty years old, and Bollywood has not been as assiduous in preserving old films as Hollywood has – and Hollywood has been far from perfect in that regard anyway. In fact, no one has, to be fair: just think of all those TV series from the 1940s and 1950s the BBC went and erased… But Dutt’s works are definitely worth restoring, although as far as I know none of his work has been earmarked for restoration. True, I’d sooner Ritwik Ghatak’s entire oeuvre was restored and made available first, but Dutt would be my second choice for such a project. Having said that, Baaz is perhaps the most disappointing of Dutt’s films I’ve seen so far, and that’s chiefly because it’s an historical movie. It’s set in the sixteenth century, when the Portugese had conquered parts of India, and is in most respects a swashbuckling tale recast locally. Yes, I know, not an entirely fair description as it’s based on the real history of India. But Dutt’s genius lay in his ability to reshape Western movie templates to suit an Indian audience. And that’s what he has done here. The local Portugese potentate is a nasty piece of work who cracks down on local traders. A handsome prince, played by Dutt himself, is sent to Portugal for tutoring, but is captured en route by a local firebrand turned pirate, the daughter of an imprisoned merchant, the two fall in love, and the story falls out precisely as you would expect. This is not a brilliant print, although that’s unsurprising for an Indian film more than sixty years old. And the production is occasionally of its time – in one scene, Dutt and his lover ride a horse along a beach… over the tyre tracks left by the film crew’s vehicle. This is not Dutt’s best film, probably one for completists, but I’ve yet to find any evidence to contradict his label as “India’s Orson Welles”…

marketa_lazarovaMarketa Lazarová*, František Vláčil (1967, Czech Republic). I watched this twice before sending it back to LoveFilm, and now I’m tempted to buy the Second Run František Vláčil box set because I think it’s a film that bears, if not requires, rewatching. The film is set in the Middle Ages, and opens with a group of bandits attacking a caravan travelling through the countryside in winter, in deep snow, in fact. They slaughter most of the caravan but take one hostage, the son of the Bishop of Hennau (not a Catholic bishop, then), although the bishop himself escapes. The plot then dives off into an attempt by a troop from the king to wipe out the bandits, and it’s not until half an hour into the film before the title character appears. She’s the daughter of a local, and the son of the bandit chief falls in love with her. It’s not worth giving a plot summary, not because it’s especially complicated but because the bits don’t quite join up – you can get a full summary on Wikipedia. The fact the story seems more like a group of characters blundering from one plot to another doesn’t actually detract from the film, and, if anything, adds to the chaotic nature of the time and place it depicts. The movie is brutal, in the way that many films about the Middle Ages are, and uncomprising in its depiction of greed, corruption and all the baser instincts of humanity. In parts, it reminds me of similar films I’ve seen, including Vláčil’s own The Valley of the Bees, but also in some weird way Aleksei German’s Hard to be a God. Marketa Lazarová‘s stark black and white cinematography, like in the other two films, suits the material well, especially given it takes place entirely in winter, with deep snow on the ground. And now I’ve been thinking about this film as I write this, I’m even more inclined to get that box set…

hometownPickpocket, Jia Zhangke (1997, China). The second film in the Hometown trilogy box set and, I have to admit, these films are proving a little disappointing after Jia’s A Touch of Sin and 24 City. Like Unknown Pleasures – and, I later found, PlatformPickpocket follows a group of disaffected young people in an industrial town in north China. In this case, it’s mostly the title character, who ran with a gang of pickpockets as a teen but now just drifts aimlessly about while his peers are all settling down (such as the one who gets married, but doesn’t invite Xiao Wu, the title character, and the film’s alternative title, to the wedding celebration; and Xiao Wu is incensed when he finds out). Xiao Wu enters into a half-hearted relationship with a prostitute, but she soon drops him for someone with more of a future. Eventually, Xiao Wu, who has refused to change his ways, is arrested for theft, and it seems his punishment will be especially harsh. Pickpocket is Jia’s first feature-length movie, shot on 16mm, and with an amateur cast. None of that can be held against it, even though it lacks the crisp cinematography, and the more expansive eye, of his later films. But its biggest flaw is, I think, the fact it’s a glum film. That didn’t seem quite so bad when watching Unknown Pleasures, perhaps because that film had a bit life to it, if only from the Mongolian King beer marketing events with the singing and dancing, and some of its characters felt a little more lively. Jia is definitely a name worth watching, and I’m keen to see his latest, 2015’s Mountains May Depart, which, because this country is so shit, is not yet available here…

jaujaJauja, Lisandro Alonso (2014, Argentina). I saw a trailer for this on a rental DVD and stuck it on my list as it looked like it might be interesting. And so it was. It’s an Argentine/Danish co-production, and stars Viggo Mortensen as a Danish cartographer in Patagonia in the 1880s. He is there with his teenage daughter, and the lieutenant of the local Argentine army detachment has designs on her. But she’s already in love with a soldier. She runs off with him into the desert because the soldier has been dared to provide proof that a missing officer, Zuluaga, is now leading a troop of bandits. Mortensen heads off in pursuit to rescue his daughter. Eventually he meets an old woman living in a cave, and it seems she is his daughter. As can undoubtedly be seen from the DVD cover art, Jauja looks very distinctive. The aspect ration is almost square, with rounded-off corners, and the colour palette has been clearly heightened. There’s also an odd theatrical aspect to the staging of each scene, even though almost all of the film takes place out in the country, either in the Patagonian desert or among the rocks by the shore of… a lake? the ocean? I enjoyed this. It was nicely weird and had some lovely photography. Worth seeing.

fedoraFedora, Billy Wilder (1978, Germany). I bought this as a Christmas present for my mother since Sunset Boulevard is one of her favourite films and this is a belated sequel to it. And even then, despite the similar topic, and the shared presence of both Wilder and William Holden, there isn’t all that much in Fedora that’s an actual sequel of Sunset Boulevard, if anything it’s more of a reboot that shares a similar plot. For a start, it’s set in Europe, rather than Hollywood… although that may well have unintended. Hollywood wasn’t too keen on financing the film, so it was made with Germany money and a pan-European cast… and has pretty much been forgotten since its release. There’s also the fact it’s not all that good. The title refers not to a hat but to a Garbo-esque movie star who inexplicably retired some years before, after a long and illustrious career in which she never apparently aged, and who now lives in seclusion on a Greek island. Fedora opens with news reports of her death – she had thrown herself in front of a train. The film then goes straight into extended flashback, as William Holden, a film producer desperate for a break, tries to arrange a meeting with Fedora so he can persuade her to sign up to his new film project. The two had briefly been lovers back in the 1940s. Holden beards Fedora in the local town. She seems distracted, almost skittish, and tells him she is a virtual prisoner of the Countess Sobryanski, an old woman confined to a wheelchair. The secret to Fedora’s agelessness is not hard to guess, although the fact the plot hinges on Fedora’s affair with Michael York, played by himself, feels more like it belongs in a comedy than a serious drama. I enjoyed the film, but it seems one hell of a come-down for Billy Wilder.

midnight_specialMidnight Special, Jeff Nichols (2016, USA). Annoyingly, I can’t find a copy of the UK DVD cover art for this anywhere online, and even Amazon has the Blu-ray cover art on its DVD page. I’ve seen mixed reviews of the film online, either 1-star or 5-stars, no inbetween, and that’s from film critics in newspapers not your average punter on Amazon. And I can see why it’s polarised opinion, because it’s an essentially daft story that actually looks pretty compelling. And yes, that final reveal is impressive, although it did remind me a bit too much of Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland: A World Beyond. Basically, a young boy is being chased across the US by the members of an evangelical cult and the FBI. He is with his father, and a friend of his father, a state trooper. The cultists want him because they think he can see the future, and the FBI want him because he apparently has access to secret spy satellites. This is because he has magical – perhaps even alien – powers and he can shine blue light out of his eyes. He can also make satellites crash to earth. For much of its length, Midnight Special is a taut thriller with some neat, if not entirely comprehensible, special effects. As the film progresses, the boy reveals he isn’t human and is a member of a race who live “elsewhere” and have been watching humanity for a very long time. (I don’t recall an explanation for why he has a human father, though.) As each group of chasers closes in on the boy – there’s a FBI agent who goes rogue, as well – and at one point the cultists manage kidnap the boy, but the father soon get him back… As they all converge, everything all comes to a head. And, well, I won’t say “everything is revealed”, although it is, sort of, but the resolution does very little to explain the world of the film. I don’t think Midnight Special deserves much of the praise heaped upon it, but I think it’s an above-average film of its type.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 847


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Moving pictures 2017, #5

I’d say this time it was an odd mix of movies, but I’m pretty sure that applies to most of the film posts I’ve been sticking up here…

4_months4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu (2007, Romania). After being embarrassed by a Romanian friend at not having seen any films from his country, I’ve now seen three in the space of a couple of months. And I’d be hard-pressed to pick the best of those three. It’s not only that all three are excellent films – the other two, for the record, were 12:08 East of Bucharest and The Death of Mr Lazarescu – but they all tell stories of importance: about the collapse of the Ceauşescu regime, the pressure the Romanian public health system finds itself under, and, in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the Ceauşescu regime’s handling of abortion. (And no, I don’t consider abortion a sensitive or offensive topic, I consider the choice a right all women should have; on the day I can grow a foetus inside me, then I’ll be qualified to decide whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.) 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is set in the 1980s. A student at university is pregnant and needs to have an abortion. But it is illegal in Romania. She enlists the help of her room-mate, and the two track down someone who is willing to do it secretly for money. He gives them a series of instructions. They manage to screw them up – they book a room in the wrong hotel, they don’t have enough money, they lie about how long the woman has been pregnant… However, while the abortionist’s increasingly offensive demands on the two young women are, well, offensive, what is also scary about 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is the invasive control the Ceauşescu regime had on the daily lives of Romanians. The Ceauşescus were overthrown in 1989 – I was in my early twenties then, and remember it on the news. But I’ve never asked my Romanian friends what they remember of it – they’re younger than me, true, but not too young; and they lived it. Movies like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are important in that they are a window on bad times, and keep the horror of them alive in the hope that no one is daft enough to bring them back. A decade or from now, I suspect there will be a fuckton of films made about the Trump years in the US.

alfredo_garciaBring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia*, Sam Peckinpah (1974, USA). This was apparently a critical and commercial failure on its release, but has since become a cult favourite, so much so it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – but I’m not convinced any “critical re-appraisal” in the years since 1974 justifies a place on the list. The title character is – off-stage – the preferred heir of a Mexican jefe, but he deflowers the jefe’s daughter and flees when her pregnancy is discovered. The jefe issues the titular order. A pair of, it must be said, somewhat effete US goons stumble across ex-GI bar-piano-player Warren Oates, who happens to know Garcia. Oates decides to try for the reward on Garcia’s head himself, a task made easier when he discovers that Garcia died in a car crash and is now buried in a country graveyard. So, with girlfriend in tow, he heads off to find Garcia’s grave, intending to dig him up, cut off his head, and take it to the jefe to claim the reward. Needless to say, it does not go as smoothly as planned. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is, quite frankly, a B-movie – it looks like a B-movie, it plays like a B-movie. True, I’ve yet to be convinced of the genius of Peckinpah, but I can see why Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia flopped on release. In many respects, it feels like a made-for-TV movie, with its stock footage and stock villains, although it is considerably more graphically violent than any US television network would allow. I think you have to be a fan of a particular type of film, which I am not, as should be blindingly evident from the movies I document in these Moving picture posts, to appreciate something like Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, or even to hold it in any kind of positive regard. I have watched films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die which I have subsequently purchased for my own collection, and even some where I’ve purchased everything by the director for my own collection. I won’t be doing that for Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Even if Arrow have recently released a remastered limited edition Blu-ray of the film…

naked_spurThe Naked Spur*, Anthony Mann (1953, USA). This film isn’t available on DVD in the UK, not for rent or for sale, but fortunately, one evening, while flicking through cable channels I found it playing on TCM… So I watched it. Jimmy Stewart plays a bounty hunter determined to capture murderer Robert Ryan and bring him to justice in Abilene, Kansas. He misrepresents himself as a sheriff to an old prospector and an ex-Cavalry soldier, and the three succeed in capturing Ryan. The four, plus Janet Leigh, the daughter of an old friend of Ryan, who had been with Ryan, set off for Abilene. En route, Ryan does his best to undermine Stewart, break up the group and so engineer his escape. And that’s pretty much it – a bunch of cowboys bitching at each other for 91 minutes. Well, except for the last act, where Ryan does escape but dies crossing a river swollen by floods. There are a lot of Westerns on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I can understand that they’re the closest the US gets to a homegrown mythology, and a handful of Western films are bona fide cinema classics but… I’m not convinced this is one of them. There are Western films which mythologise the landscape, there are Western films which have had their story patterns followed by many other Westerns… And while The Naked Spur certainly puts a novel spin on your average Western story, I don’t think that’s enough – despite the presence of Jimmy Stewart – to make this more than just above average. Perhaps a fan of Western films could explain to me why The Naked Spur is one of the 1001 films a person must see.

satyajit_ray_3The Home and the World, Satyajit Ray (1984, India). And that’s The Satyajit Ray Collection volume 3 box set completed, and while I consider fellow Bengali Ritwik Ghatak a genius film-maker, I’m still unconvinced Satyajit Ray is no more than a very, very good one – albeit considerably more prolific. He is, I suppose, an Ingmar Bergman rather than an Andrei Tarkovsky. Which is not to say that neither Bergman nor Ray did not make superior films. But there is more than just their respective positions in my own mental map of world cinema that the two have in common. Like Bergman, many of Ray’s films are theatrical. This is one of them. It is set almost entirely in the home of a Bengali noble in 1907, just after the 1905 Partition of Bengal. A UK-educated noble tries to introduce Western ideas into his home, and into his dealings with his wife, on his return home. But this opens her up to the fiery independence rhetoric of the nobleman’s best friend… which leads to a romantic triangle between the three. Since the marriage was arranged, the noble allows his wife her emotional freedom… which, of course, because this is how such stories pan out, pushes her back toward her husband. The film is based on a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, a prolific Bengali writer, who Ray adapted on a number of occasions. I really need to try reading some Tagore. As for the film, it sets up a fascinating situation, but it slowly settles out into a somewhat stereotypical romantic triangle. On the whole, I don’t think this volume 3 has been of as high quality as volume 1… which does make me wonder what volume 2 will be like and why I bought volume 3 before I bought volume 2…

memoriesMemories of Underdevelopment*, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1968, Cuba). I rented this film from Cinema Paradiso, but a week after sending it back, and when it came to write this post, I decided I needed to watch it again. So I had a look on Amazon and discovered it was one of four films in Mr Bongo’s 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set. The box set also included Lucía, which I already own, but that was no problem, I could give my copy away. So I ordered 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution… The following morning, I remembered I had 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution on my LoveFilm (ie, Amazon) rental list. Oops. I’d better remove it. Too late! As luck would have it, they’d dispatched a film from the box set with my next set of rental DVDs. And it just happened to be… Memories of Underdevelopment. Oh well. Both copies of the film arrived on the same day, but I watched the one I’d bought. And… on second viewing I thought it much better than I had first time around. This has happened before with some of the movies I’ve watched – the appreciating it more on second viewing thing, not the buying only to be sent it on rental as well thing, although to be honest the latter has happened once or twice before too. Anyway, Memories of Undevelopment follows an intellectual, a writer, as he tries to survive and make sense of the new Cuba post-revolution. It does this by focusing on his relationships with women – interspersed with some historical commentary and a long sub-plot about a friend who inherited a furniture store. As the film opens, Sergio’s wife has left him and fled to Miami to escape the revolution. Sergio has stayed. He is, to put it bluntly, something if a lecherous pig. He flirts with his young housekeeper, Hanna, and has a sexual fantasy about her adult baptism. He then meets aspiring actress Elena and seduces her. But her family are far from happy about this, especially since Elena is only sixteen (or seventeen). Sergio promises to marry her, but doesn’t so, he is arrested and charged with rape. I’m still not sure if Sergio’s relationships are intended to be allegories – Alea was apparently pro-revolution, and Memories of Underdevelopment is certainly critical of Cuba’s Spanish occupiers. Which does mean it’s a little hard to tell where the film’s sympathies lie. A negative stand seems too obvious a reading, but then a broadly positive critical reading doesn’t seem to fit either – in terms of the film’s response to the Cuban revolution, that is. Perhaps it needs another rewatch…

classic_bergmanDreams, Ingmar Bergman (1955, Sweden). Havng now seen four of the five films in this “Classic Bergman” box set I’m starting to wonder what “classic Bergman” actually is. After all, his most-celebrated film is The Seventh Seal, and that was made only two years after this one. And Bergman’s first film appeared in 1946 (he did not direct 1944’s Torment, only wrote the screenplay), and the earliest film in this box set is… well, 1946’s It Rains on Our Love, but the latest is 1958’s So Close to Life… Anyway, in Dreams, the owner of a model agency travels from Stockholm to Gothenburg for a commission with her most popular model, Doris. The model finds herself a sugar daddy in Gothenburg, while the agency owner has hooked up with an ex-lover (who turns out to be married). The film has all the ingredients of a typical Bergman film, and manages them all in a typically Bergman-esque fashion. I’ve said in the past that watching a Bergman film is like reading a story by a classic literary author. It’s a good story, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be thinking about it for weeks afterwards. And this is one of Bergman’s films like that – which is why, I guess, it’s in a “Classic Bergman” box set, and not given a premier release, like Smiles of a Summer Night, also released the same year. True, an also-ran from Bergman is always going to be worth seeing, but this entire box sert has shown itself to be more for Bergman fans than cineastes.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 846


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Stinking, outworn, spaceship yarns

These last couple of days I’ve started working again on my space opera, A Want of Reason, the third book of my An Age of Discord trilogy. (Preceded by A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders.) Real life sort of got in the way throughout most of 2016, but now that 2017 is turning out so shit, writing space opera seems a good way to tune it out. Except…

When I originally started writing An Age of Discord, I’d planned to write a space opera using the narrative structure of an epic fantasy. But that wasn’t enough for me, so I started turning space opera tropes upside down to see how they played out. And I also completely buggered up the typical structure of an epic fantasy trilogy – by, for example, putting the Final Battle (TM) in the middle of book two… When I finished A Conflict of Orders back in 2007, I had A Want of Reason plotted out, but after failing to sell the trilogy, I put the project on the backburner.

But then I sold it. In late 2014. And I only had two books of the trilogy written.

In the seven years the trilogy has sat in my bottom drawer, I’d had plenty of time to think about that third book I’d never got around to writing. And the first thing I did on returning to it in 2015 was throw away the plot I’d worked out eight years before. I put together an entirely fresh synopsis for A Want of Reason, and started work on it. A lot had changed in the intervening years; I had changed, as had my tastes in fiction. Previously, the third book had simply uncovered the historical conspiracy underlying the events of the first two books, and explained its genesis. But that no longer interested me – or rather, I didn’t feel it was the core of my story. Now I wanted it to be about the inequalities baked into the typical space opera universe, and I wanted to burn them down and build something new. And that’s what I started writing…

This was back in 2015. I’d done some clean-up work on A Prospect of War and it was published in July 2015. I’d done the same to A Conflict of Orders, and it was published in October 2015. The plan was to write A Want of Reason – all 200,000 words of it – and publish it in March 2016. That didn’t happen. But I started work on the novel, before real life got in the way… And coming back to it this last week… It’s a little frightening how much of it predicts what’s happening in the US. When I wrote this 18 to 24 months ago, my intent was to make my space opera empire swing further to the right in response to a perceived threat (which remained unknown to most of the population). It’s an understandable response: when the bandits ride into town, everyone shutters their windows.

Bit the perception of that threat is an important element of such a response. In a space opera empire, typically feudal in nature, the bulk of the population get no choice in perception or response. But what I could do in my space opera was change the nature of the threat. Yes, it would bring the empire crashing down, but it would replace it with something much more equitable. I’d already presented that argument in A Conflict of Orders when I showed that the villain of the piece was motivated in his attempt to seize the empire’s throne by a desire to improve the lot of the empire’s serfs, or, as I called them, proletarians.

sword_fight

But when you write about a centre-right government cracking down, even if it’s a space opera empire, you end up writing about the sort of crap that Trump has pulled over the last week. I care about politics – of course I do, it affects me in every fucking way – and I like to stay informed… but I was writing space opera and trying to make it more realistic politcially, it never occurred to me this shit would turn real.

Had things gone according to plan, A Want of Reason would have been published last year and everyone would be saying how prescient I was. That didn’t happen, so you only have my word for it that recent events in the real world have uncomfortably reflected events in the plot of A Want of Reason. And had I a recently finished book to sell, then this post might well be considered just another piece of self-promoting bollocks. But A want of Reason is not finished – far from it, in fact. I may have returned to it in the last couple of weeks, but there is still a lot of work to do before it’s ready. And, let’s face it, who’s going to remember this post a week from now, never mind nine to twelve months from now.

I suppose that if I have a point to make, it might as well be this: if you look to science fiction writers for predictions, and those so-called predictions come true, then we are all well and truly fucked. Science fiction has never been futurism, and every sf novel is more about the time it was written than the time it was published or set. When sf novels become just as much about the time they were published…it’s pretty much accident. But a scary accident. Okay, so Random Space Opera Agency in Jackboots doesn’t map precisely onto a real world analogue, so plot points don’t map onto Trump’s Executive Orders… but it doesn’t take a genius see where things are going, and the one thing you can say about sf authors is that they know their invented world better than anyone else on the planet (note: does not apply to shared world universes in which sad nerds are likely to have encyclopædic knowledge, such as SWEU).

If there is a upside to this it’s that space opera can be a useful commentary on the real world. Which is, I guess, a first. Perhaps it just has to wait for the right conditions in real life to pertain. Which is a bit of a fucker. After all, let’s not forget the role science fiction, or “fantastika”, played in the USSR. To put it bluntly, if space opera has become samizdat, then we are well and truly screwed.

And all this, I hasten to add, is post facto. The popularity of dystopias in, for example, YA fiction has bugger all to do with real world political situations, although it might well be predicated on generational feelings of powerlessness. But to claim that The Hunger Games is a “blueprint for resistance” is the act of an idiot.

I didn’t intend for An Age of Discord to reflect the real world as much as it has. It’s a space opera, FFS. The fact that is has done is extremingly worrying.

But it’s also one of those things where you fix the real world, not the space opera.

Remember that.