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Some thoughts about Fantasycon

I’ve seen a few reviews of this year’s Fantasycon, which took place in Chester a couple of weekends ago, and how good it was, and… well, not everyone was quite so impressed. I’m the first to admit Fantasycons are much better than they used to be. I attended one, or it may have been two, when it was at the Britannia Hotel in Nottingham, and it was awful. But starting with the one in York in 2014, there has been a definite improvement. However…

The Queen Hotel was a good venue. The rooms were comfortable, the breakfast pretty good, and there was plenty of space, both function and social. But it was also expensive – not that I can really complain, given I’ve stayed in hotels in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Reykjavík this year. But the hotel didn’t put on enough staff in the bar; or indeed enough beer, as it ran out on the Saturday night. The location was good for the railway station, although it was a ten-minute trek into the town centre. Having said that, finding somewhere to eat in the evening that wasn’t fully booked was only marginally easier than it had been in Reykjavík… I will say this for Chester, however: wherever I went the staff were friendly and helpful, more so than in any other UK city I’ve visited.

So, a good venue – and I’ve not even mentioned the Victoriana, the portraits or the statues. The convention itself, however… The programme was not very appealing; with four streams, which is too many for a con of that size. While individual panel items might have come up with something new, the topics covered were the same ones UK cons have been doing for years. I don’t generally attend programme items – I’m there for the social, more than anything else – but no item in Fantasycon’s programme persuaded me it might be worth sitting through. But then it’s not just Fantasycon. UK conventions as a whole seem to have got into a bit of a rut. (I’m told Nine Worlds is different, but I’ve never been to it.) Having four or five people sitting behind a table just seems boring these days. I like IceCon’s more relaxed approach, where the panellists are in armchairs or on sofas. I think UK cons should adopt it. I also think there should be more talks/presentations given by individuals, and programme items that are just interviews/conversations between two people.

But then Fantasycon has always felt like a showcase weekend for UK small presses, with its back-to-back book launches and dedicated stream of book readings. The entire Sunday afternoon is taken up with a banquet, in which members of the British Fantasy Society hand out awards. Not always to each other. Although one year the best novel and best short story awards were won by the partner of the BFS chairman, and acting awards administrator, and the chairman’s own publishing company won best small press… With four programming streams, this year felt more than ever like it was designed for writers to showcase themselves. But since pretty much everyone else attending was also a writer…

That’s what UK fandom seems to be turning into these days: writers marketing themselves to other writers. Actual fans seem to be a dying breed.

Speaking of readings, I’m not a fan. I’m a person who prefers to look at the words on a page, not hear them. Reading and listening use different parts of the brain – I suspect the former part of my brain is more developed than the latter. Book launches, on the other hand, I no longer attend having done so for years and ended up with bookshelves of books I’m unlikely to read… Well, perhaps that’s not strictly true. But you do feel obligated to buy something at a book launch, whether you really want it or not. Ironically, I bought a book at Fantasycon before the book launch, because I hadn’t known it was being launched at the con…

Which neatly leads into the organisation of Fantasycon. The two organisers have been praised by many. But. There were no programmes available until midday on the Saturday. When I registered on Friday afternoon, all I received was my membership badge. No programme. No goody bag. And the programme, when it did finally turn up, included a story by the convention chairman. Since when was that acceptable? And the programme doesn’t include a list of attendees, so I had no idea who was present. It contains only a partial list of those appearing on panels. It’s also riddled with typos, and even manages to spell the name of one of the Guests of Honour incorrectly. The top half of the second page is an introduction from the con’s “Coodinator”, while the bottom half, ironically, is an advert for a proofreading service…

(However, the volunteers, the Red Cloaks, were omnipresent and helpful.)

I attend conventions chiefly to hang out with friends, I admit it. Fantasycon is friendly, yes, if you know people. And on the Saturday night in the bar, it’s as friendly as any place full of people in various stages of drunkenness who are all gathered in one place for the same reason – and even have handy ID badges hanging around their necks… It is, if you like, a social crucible. A good place to meet people and make new friends. Because you all have something in common. But that’s true of conventions in general, it’s not unique to Fantasycon. And while Fantasycon has much improved in that regard, it’s still no better and no worse than other cons.

It’s starting to sound like I didn’t have a good weekend, when in fact I did enjoy myself. On the Friday night, David Tallerman and myself ended up eating in Koconut Grove, a southern Indian restaurant. Unfortunately, we arrived just after a party of around two-dozen, so it took over an hour for our food to arrive. Walking back to the hotel, we bumped into two people I’d not expected to see: Cristina Macía and Ian Watson. I’d seen both of them back in June, as Ian was GoH at Swecon, but they don’t typically attend Fantasycon. On the Saturday, I went hunting for a supermarket to buy a sandwich for lunch, but found only a street that the 1980s forgot (Brook Street, for the record). Not only did it have shops that sold vinyl, but also two private shops! I ended up having a pint in the Old Harkers Arms at the side of the canal, and it was awful. Worse than Wetherspoons.

After a trek round Chester city centre on the Saturday night – the programme didn’t include maps, not even a map of the hotel, which would have been really useful; with smartphones, who really needs a town map these days? – myself and David finished up in an Italian place on Foregate Street. It was quite good. Cheaper than a lot of the places we passed. However, on both Friday and Saturday night we’d set out relatively early to eat, around six o’clock. Those trying later had difficulty finding somewhere that wasn’t fully booked.

As with any UK convention these days, any shortcomings are thrown into stark relief by the shitness of British public transport, especially the railway. The train journey from Chester to Manchester wasn’t too bad – the train had originated in Chester and was less than half full. But at Manchester Oxford Road, I had to transfer to an East Midland train that was both ancient rolling stock and over-full. I managed to get a seat, but many didn’t. I’d left early, around noon, as I saw no good reason to hang around for the banquet and the awards, which I haven’t done for any Fantasycon I’ve been to. I was home by about 4 pm.

This year’s Fantasycon was a definite improvement on the last one I attended, in Scarborough, but I didn’t think it was, well, an especially good con. I liked the Queen Hotel, and I liked Chester. But the programme was not much different to one you might have found at a UK convention ten years ago. My overriding memory of Fantasycon 2018 is sitting in the bar talking to various people – many of whom I’d known before the weekend, one or two I had not – or trekking around Chester…

There are worse things you could do on a weekend.

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Booktober 2018

After last year’s terrible result with the TBR – ending the year having reduced it by only one book – I’ve tried to limit my book buying this year and increase my reading. I’ve managed the latter, but not the former, and may well finish 2018 with more books on the TBR than I started. Oh well. I definitely need to have a clear out…

Meanwhile, here are the books I’ve bought since my last book haul post:

Some collectables. I read Golding’s Rites of Passage two years ago and was much impressed. I wanted copies of the sequels, but in an edition that matched my copy of Rites of Passage. As you do. But couldn’t find any on eBay, on the few occasions when I looked, that weren’t tatty. And then one evening, I spotted all three books in first editions as a set for £50, which wasn’t much more than two secondhand good condition paperbacks would have cost me. So I now have Rites of Passage, Close Quarters and Fire Down Below in first edition. Golding appears to be quite a good author to collect. First editions of his books are not ridiculously expensive – well, except for Lord of the Flies, of course. The Black Prince, by Adam Roberts and based on an unpublished screenplay by Anthony Burgess, was published by Unbound Books, who crowdfund their titles. I pledged for it in May 2017, and it arrived this month. So that’s nearly 500 days from pledge to book. And that’s one reason why I’m not especially fond of crowd-funding. Plus, of course, there’s the cost – you typically pay over the odds for the final product. The Black Prince cost me around double the RRP of a hardback novel, and four times what Amazon are asking. (To be fair, one of the rewards for my level of pledge was an ebook of reviews of all of Burgess’s novels by Roberts. Which I’m looking forward to reading. Even if it is an ebook.)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been collecting the 1970s Penguin editions of DH Lawrence’s books, and I managed to find another four – Twilight in Italy, Phoenix, Phoenix II and A Selection from Phoenix – and yes, I know the contents of the last book are from the first two, but never mind. It’s a set. The book with the blue cover is from a series of Penguin Critical Anthologies published by, er, Penguin, during the 1970s. This one being on, of course, DH Lawrence.

Some secondhand paperbacks… Odd John is one of the Beacon reprints of sf novels, many of which were “edited” to make them racier – see this post I wrote on them: Sexy Sci-Fi. I now have copies of all of them. The Midwich Cuckoos was given to me by a friend who had accidentally bought a second copy. I know the feeling. The Final Solution was a charity shop find. The Woman Who Loved the Moon was my sole purchase at Fantasticon, a sf convention in Copenhagen I attended last month. And The Sleep of Reason is the tenth book in Snow’s Strangers and Brothers 11-book series, and proved the hardest to find. There were plenty of first editions, mostly tatty, on eBay, but no paperbacks. I found a single paperback on Abebooks from a seller based in New Zealand, but that would have cost £40+ which was way too much. And then one popped up on eBay… for £2.50. Result. I now have the set.

Some non-fiction. I’ve been picking up the Secret Projects books when I find them on eBay, and with Flying Wings and Tailless Aircraft I now have thirteen of them, and only two left to find. Midland Publishing, however, have been reprinting the books with new cover designs, but the new series doesn’t quite map onto the old series. Weirdly. Art & Outrage is a record of correspondence between Lawrence Durrell and Alfred Perlès about Henry Miller. Copies are quite easy to find, but not in good condition. Which this one is.

Finally, my purchases at this year’s Fantasycon in Chester. There were plenty of books to buy – all the usual small presses were there – although no secondhand books. Dealers who specialise in secondhand books don’t seem to bother attending UK conventions anymore. I’ve had better luck at Swedish and Danish cons… There were a number of books in the Fantasycon dealers’ room I quite fancied buying, and in the past I’d have no doubt bought them. And then they’d have sat on my bookshelves unread for a decade or more, before I finally read them or decided to get rid of them. So I limited myself to three: the new Aliya Whitely novel, The Loosening Skin (there was a launch for the book during the weekend, which I didn’t know about when I bought my copy, or I might have gone to it; I didn’t bother to get it signed, even though the author was at the con); a self-published collection by Gary Gibson, Scienceville & Other Lost Worlds; and a critical anthology, Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, which actually won the British Fantasy Award for non-fiction during the weekend.

 


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Moving pictures 2018, #55

No Anglophone movies in this bunch, which is unusual – there’s typically at least one. An odd bunch as well, mostly rental DVDs or Amazon Prime. There’s some good stuff on the latter, but it’s not easy to find. I think I may have said this before…

Casque d’or, Jacques Becker (1952, France). To be honest, I had thought I’d seen more films by Becker. He’s one of those French cinema figures from the 1940s and 1950s whose films I thought I’d watched. Apparently not. It seems Casque d’or is my first Becker. And for all that, it felt like half a dozen directors of the period could have made it. I admit I’m not so knowledgeable on film techniques that I can comment technically on the films I watch. My interest lies in narrative, and my experience is mostly in science fiction; so that’s what interests me. But I also appreciate good visuals, or innovative visuals, and I usually comment on such. But effective, or excellent, use of existing techniques I’m unlikely to notice. And it seems that’s what this film is chiefly known for. I couldn’t even tell you what the story was as it seemed that generic. The title refers to a woman, played by Simone Signoret, who is a celebrated beauty. But she falls for the wrong man, a carpenter, instead of her gangster pimp. And so it goes. The carpenter accidentally kills the pimp and has to flee. The woman goes with him. But the carpenter returns to face justice when he learns a friend has been framed for the murder of the pimp. The final scene of the film, in which Signoret watches her lover’s execution, has been much remarked upon, but I thought there was little there deserving such commentary. It’s done well, and it may well have been seminal in its time, but nowadays the film is very much an historical document. And I freely admit that French cinema from the mid-twentieth century is not a genre that especially appeals to me. Even Godard’s work – it’s the films he made from around 1970s onward I find mostly appealing. Meh.

The Class, Laurent Cantet (2008, France). The title pretty much tells you what the film is about. It’s a faux-documentary set in a Parisian school, based on the director’s own experience teaching at such a school. It’s a school that has a lot of second-generation immigrant children – ie, they were born in France, but their parents weren’t, and they’re a product of two cultures, although perhaps closer to that of their parents. Much, for example, is made of the male pupils’ support of African football and the national teams of the countries from which their parents originate. The same thing is used in this country by racists to browbeat Anglo-Indian or Anglo-Pakistani people because they’d sooner support India or Pakistan at cricket than England. But, seriously, when people show you that you’re not welcome in the country of your birth, why the fuck would you support their cricket team? Racists should shut the fuck up. They’re an embarrassment to the rest of us. But, The Class. It’s not just that the film shows how multiculturalism can fail in small ways as often as it succeeds, it’s not even how it shows the teacher losing his temper because some pupils refuse to behave… It’s that The Class shows that a French school runs on consensus decision-making, with pupils involved, and that the system works so much better than the UK one of top-down management. British education has always been about producing sons of empire or the bare minimum required for working in factories. But “sons of empire” are a breed long past their sell-by date, and a “stiff upper lip” in front of uppity natives was never good for anything other than a justification for punitive action. The British Empire was built on the relationships created by experts, but run by those who knew nothing about the cultures they ruled. And it is the latter the UK always celebrates: Winston Churchill gets a state funeral but no one knows who Gertrude Bell was. Typical. Fuck the British. But The Class is worth seeing.

Presence of Mind, Antoni Aloy (1999, Spain). I’m not sure where the title came from but this Spanish-American film is an adaptation of Henry James ‘The Turn of the Screw’. Shameful admission time: I have never read any Henry James. Some people consider him the greatest writer the US has produced, and certainly he occupies a high place in their canon of literary greats (the one composed of Dead White Males, that is; though I suspect he would also feature in a more diverse canon). Anyway, I didn’t know the story of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ when I sat down to watch this film. And after watching it, I can’t say I’m all that wiser. Sadie Frost is hired, by Harvey Keitel, as governess for two children whose parents have died. The kids are a bit weird, and Frost starts seeing ghosts. And it’s hard to give a shit because none of it really ties together. I can’t imagine James’s story is this bad, and reading up on it, it sounds like an exercise in gaslighting as much as it is a ghost story. Presence of Mind is not that. It’s a director out of his depth with material he can’t handle and a cast he doesn’t know how to direct. Neither Frost nor Keitel are good actors but they’re especially bad in this. It all feels like a private project by someone who fancied himself as a director. This is Aloy’s only feature film. Figures.

Devil’s Three, Bobby A Suarez (1979, Philippines). There’s some right crap hiding away on Amazon Prime, but one of the good things about the platform is that it’s not all Hollywood crap. There are other countries with prolific and well-established film industries and some of their output is available – if you look for it – on Amazon Prime. Like Nollywood. But the two from there I saw really were fucking awful. But also Russia (or rather, the USSR) – see later – and India – see later… And the Philippines. Bobby Suarez is perhaps best known outside the Philippines for his three Cleopatra Wong films, a character designed to appeal to fans of Cleopatra Jones and Hong Kong martial arts films. Devil’s Three (AKA Pay or Die, Devil’s Angels, Mean Business) is the second of three Cleopatra Wong films. If there’s a plot to Devil’s Three, I couldn’t tell you what it is. There was something about a gangster whose daughter is kidnapped, so he hires Cleopatra Wong to recover her. And Wong’s team comprises an overweight woman and a transvestite, and they go up against a gang run by a white man – American? Australian? I don’t remember – and there are lots of clumsily-staged fight scenes. Marrie Lee is fine in the lead role, but this is low-budget film-making and having a lead to act is not enough. I don’t know if the other two Cleopatra Qong films are available on Amazon Prime – I’ve not been able to find them, but finding films on Amazon Prime is next to fucking impossible – but perhaps the earlier two, or at least the one that kicked off the series, is worth seeing.

War and Peace, Part 1: Andrei Bolkonsky, Sergei Bondarchuk (1966, Russia). Back in 1985, I retook my A Levels at a Nottingham CFE. I was living in Mansfield at the time, so this required a 45-minute bus ride to and from college. On arriving in Nottingham, I’d meet up with a friend and fellow pupil at a cafe on Maid Marion Way, a couple of hundred metres from People’s College, for a milky coffee. I remember one day sitting there one morning when a man pulled out a guitar and began to play and sing. It was a bit strange. Anyway, during that 45-minute bus journey, I got lots of reading done. Including Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Which, I seem to remember, took a couple of months. Thirty-three years later and I don’t recall much of the book, other than a few character’s names and a general feeling of having enjoyed it. There have been plenty of adaptations, the most recent of which was by the BBC in 2016. But, well, I never watched any of them. Bondarchuk’s four-film series is considered the best adaptation of the novel, and happily it is currently available for free on Amazon Prime. War and Peace, Part 1: Andrei Bolkonsky covers the (sub-)title character’s career from the moment he joins the Imperial Russian Army, in the war against Napoleon, to the death of his wife and his introduction to Natasha Rostova. This was a high-profile, high-prestige Soviet film project, so it has a cast of thousands. The battle scenes have to be seen to be believed. It also introduced a raft of techniques not used before in Soviet cinema, from handheld cameras to helicopter shots to a six-channel audio track. The end result is… epic. Unfortunately, the copy on Amazon Prime has a somewhat eccentric approach to dubbing – some of the Russian is dubbed into English, some of it isn’t. There are subtitles for the Russian and English… but not for the French. I have fond memories of the book – its enormous cast, its detail, its scope – and although I know this century it’s all about the feels and bringing it down to the personal, I do much prefer stories that tackle the big picture (no pun intended). I’m looking forward to watching parts 2 to 4.

Goynar Baksho, Aparna Sen (2013, India). This is not a Bollywood film but a Bengali one, although it’s so polished it might well be mistaken for one by someone who didn’t realise it was not in Hindi. An eleven year old girl is married and widowed at twelve. Her only wealth is the contents of a jewellery box, 5000 gm of gold. She grows up to become the embittered matriarch of a family sharing a large mansion with another family who claim ownership of it. Then she dies. Her ghost persuades the niece – from a poor family and not a good match – to hide the jewellery box so the rest of the family can’t sell it to enrich themselves. The ghost continues to appear to the niece, telling her not to use the jewellery, but eventually the niece does so in order to set her husband up in business selling saris. And then, when the business hits a cash-flow crisis, the grandmother relents and allows them to pawn more of the gold. This is a film in which the men are uniformly useless – when a cousin manages a shop while the nice’s husband is away in on business, he hikes all the prices and so drives away customers and gives the shop a reputation as a rip-off. The niece has to step in and take over. The ghost is initially depicted as selfish and evil, but as the film progresses she mellows, to the extent she begins helping the niece succeed. I really liked Goynar Baksho. It was funny and the ghost was well-handled (and the sfx were seamlessly done). I see it’s no longer free to watch on Amazon Prime, which is a shame; but it’s definitely worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 932


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Reading diary 2018, #17

Well, my reading didn’t speed up as expected, chiefly because I picked up a 700+ novel – the Goss – and then followed it with a novel by Iain Sinclair. And the latter, despite taking on my trip to Iceland, has taken me over a week to finish… but then it’s pretty dense stuff.

European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Theodora Goss (2018, USA). I enjoyed the first book of this series enough to pick up the second book… And, yes, it’s more of the same. Having said that, the central conceit does seem to be wearing a bit thin, and even though Goss has been hard at work roping in all manner of characters from Victorian horror fiction, she’s rung so many changes on them they might as well have been invented by her in the first place. In summary: in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (see here), Mary Jekyll brought about the creation of the Athena Club – Diana Hyde, Justina Frankenstein, Catherine Moreau, Beatrice Rappaccini, plus housekeeper Mrs Poole and maid Alice – while assisting Sherlock Holmes solve a series of murders in Whitechapel… which ended up being linked to Adam Frankenstein (ie, the Monster) and the Society of Alchemists. In this second book, Mary’s old governess, Mina Harker (yes, that Mina Harker), asks for help to rescue Van Helsing’s daughter (yes, that Van Helsing and, er, his daughter) from a Viennese asylum, where she has been incarcerated after an experiment to turn her into a vampire. It’s all because Van Helsing and his cronies want to seize power in the Society of Alchemists – current president: She, AKA Ayesha – because their experiments in transmutation have been banned. The Athena Cub end up fighting Van Helsing et al. With the help of Count Dracula. Who is a good guy. I love the conceit, and Goss handles it marvellously. She drags in Victorian monsters willy-nilly and then gives them a place in the setting which fits perfectly. The way the narrative is interrupted by conversation between the characters, who explicitly refer to the narrative as a narrative – is cleverly done. But. The prose is all so very light and commercial, and at 720 pages this story is too long. Goss can write, I know she can because I’ve read some of her short fiction. But European Travels for the Monstrous Gentlewoman reads like an airport bestseller or a book to read on a train journey. The prose doesn’t try hard at all. I like the characters and I like the story, but this novel could have been so much better. I hope the third book in the series remembers that picking the right words and putting them in the right order is as important as telling the story.

Landor’s Tower, Iain Sinclair (2001, UK). While I’ve been aware of Sinclair and his fiction for many years, I’ve never tried to reading any of it. Until now. And having now read Landor’s Tower… I’m in two minds. It’s good. Very good. And I like Sinclair’s pot pourri approach to using fiction and non-fiction, throwing in real people as characters, mixing up invented characters in real events… He does it really well, and that melange of fact and fiction, well, I’ve always found it a heady mix in book-form. But… Landor’s Tower leaps all over the place, seeming to tell a dozen different unlinked stories at the same time. It is, ostensibly, about a Victorian eccentric who built a monastery in a remote Welsh valley, based on an earlier legend. But the narrator of the book – a novelist and film-maker called Norton, who is a clear stand-in for Sinclair – bounces around the central premise, while ostensibly researching it for a project, through encounters with a variety of characters. Such as Prudence, of Hay on Wye. Who might or might not be the victim of the quarry murder, re-enacted by Karporal, or maybe real. As he was trying to solve the crime. There’s a fevered, almost hallucinatory, tone to the narrative, which makes it hard to navigate the actual story. Parts of it are brilliant – and not just because I recognised the names involved – but because they read like documentary. But then the narrative would make an abrupt swerve and, despite reference to earlier passages, I’d wonder what the fuck was going on. I wanted to like Landor’s Tower – I’m a big fan of the works of both Patrick Keiller and Adam Curtis, and this novel reminded me majorly of both. But. I felt like I was coming in halfway through a series.  Had I read more by Sinclair, perhaps reading his works in order, or seen some of his films – because this novel feels like one part of a large cross-platform work – then I suspect I might be a fan. But on its own, Landor’s Tower felt like the wrong introduction to an author’s oeuvre, an author whose work I might well esteem. I need to be serious about reading Sinclair’s novels, or it’s not worth bothering. I have two of his books on my TBR, but I’m going to ditch them and see if I can find a copy of his first novel. Then I will try reading them in order.

Inside Moebius, part 2, Moebius (2018, France). This is volumes three and four of the French release of Inside Moebius, the six volumes of which, for some reason, Dark Horse have decided to publish in English as three books. Personally, I don’t much care if it’s six books or three books, although at least doubling them up makes them a little more substantial. Which is more than can be said for their plots. And it’s especially true in this middle volume. As before, it has two iterations of Moebius wandering about “Desert B” (a pun on désherber, slang for giving up smoking, a desire to do which triggered the Inside Moebius project in the first place), along with a group of Moebius’s characters. There are lots of puns and in-jokes – and Dark Horse helpfully provide a glossary of the puns – but little in the way of plot. But then it’s not like there’s all that much need for plot anyway. Moebius is exploring his creative impulse, and using his characters and iterations of himself to do so. Oh, and bin Laden. The artwork is all over the place, some of it crude, some of it as detailed as any of the work he did, for example, in The Incal. Jean Giraud was clearly a singular talent, and a seminal one in the field of bandes dessinées, and there is good insight into his work in Inside Moebius. Which pretty much means it’s one for fans. Those expecting some sf story will be sorely disappointed.

Case of the Bedevilled Poet, Simon Clark (2017, UK). I think this is the first of the second set of NewCon Press novellas, but I bought all four at once so I’ve not been reading them in order. Not that it makes any difference, as I found the first three I read not very satisfying, and this one unfortunately is much the same. It was also full of typos, and one page completely mixed up the characters’ names. But that’s by the bye. The story is set in London during the Blitz. A man, a minor poet from Yorkshire who now works as a screenwriter for a government-sponsored film unit, a protected occupation, is attacked one night by a soldier on furlough, who threatens him for his supposed cowardice with words that sound more like an eldritch curse. Things start to happen that convince the protagonist he is indeed cursed by something or someone supernatural. Then he stumbles across two old gents in a pub who claim to be Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson – their story is they’re real and Conan Doyle only adapted their case histories – and they offer to take on the protagonist’s case. There’s far too much here that doesn’t fit together all that well. Being hunted by some sort of demonic soldier, fine. During the Blitz? Okay, it’s a bit much, but never mind. But then throwing in Holmes and Watson? It’s too much. It weakens a story that was already strong enough on its own. Setting it during the Blitz allows for some good descriptive passages, although it’s not essential for the plot to work; and there’s a bittersweet ending to the Holmes and Watson elements, but I’m not convinced the latter was needed. Unfortunately, this does have the effect of making Case of the Bedevilled Poet feel like a short story padded out to novella length. The fact I’ve found all four of these novellas unsatisfactory is likely chiefly down to the fact it’s not my preferred reading genre. Fans of dark fantasy or horror will probably get much more out of them then I did. But at least they make a nice set.

Five-Twelfths of Heaven, Melissa Scott (1985, USA). This is the first book of the Silence Leigh trilogy, followed in 1986 by Silence in Solitude and in 1987 by The Empress of the Earth. It was later released in a SFBC omnibus edition, The Roads of Heaven. But that’s a pretty naff title for the trilogy, even if it is, well, pretty accurate (it’s also used by the current small press Kindle omnibus). Because in the universe of Five-Twelfths of Heaven, it’s the music of the spheres which allows for interstellar travel. Starship have “harmoniums” (harmonia?) and it is the music they make which drives starships into orbit and pushes them into “purgatory” (ie, hyperspace) at velocities measured in “twelfths of heaven”. Most starships travel at a sixth of heaven, so five-twelfths of heaven is pretty quick. It’s also the speed of the ship, Sun-Treader, whose crew pilot Silence reluctantly joins when she finds herself trapped on a world of the Hegemon after her grandfather dies. Because her grandfather owned the starship she piloted, but her uncle had done a deal with a local merchant so the ship would need to be sold to cover grandfather’s debts and, as a woman, Silence has no legal standing… But Captain Balthasar of Sun-Treader agrees to act as her representative in probate court, and offers her a job afterwards. He needs a female pilot – and female pilots are very rare – because his engineer has fake papers, but if Silence enters into a marriage of convenience with the two of them they can get him proper papers. Polygamy, apparently, is okay, but not same-sex marriage. Silence agrees. Things go reasonably well, but then Balthasar is called to a captains’ meeting of Wrath-of-God, a major pirate combine, and it’s war against the Hegemon. But the attack fails, and Silence and her two husbands are captured by Hegemon forces, and put under geas. Except Silence manages somehow to break the geas – it seems she could well be a magus. And… well, spoilers. Obviously, the main draw of Five-Twelfths of Heaven is the mix of science fiction and magic. It’s  cleverly done. FTL is itself a metaphor, and Scott recognises this and chooses to use a metaphor typically not associated with sf instead. It works because she maintains rigour, her magic system has as many rules, and operates as logically, as some made-up “scientific” FTL drive would. Instead of computers churning out numbers, her pilots have to memorise Tarot-like symbolic diagrams. Instead of laws of physics, she writes about notes and chords and dissonances. Different words for the same things. And a good example why you can’t use tropes to differentiate between science fiction and fantasy. If I’d discovered Scott back in the 1980s, I think it likely she’d have become a writer whose work I sought out. She certainly is now. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this trilogy.

Irontown Blues, John Varley (2018, USA). Back in the early 1980s, Varley was one of my favourite science fiction writers, and I eagerly tracked down and read everything by him I could find. When he returned to his Eight Worlds universe in 1992 with Steel Beach, I was glad; and then again in 1998 with The Golden Globe… Although neither of those two books stacked up against The Ophiuchi Hotline or the many stories set in the Eight Worlds Varley had written previously. Rumours of another book, titled Irontown Blues, had been around for years, but it was only in, I think, 2016 that Varley confessed he was finally going to write it. I mean, you don’t want writers to keep on churning out the same thing over and over again, yet another volume in some interminable series – except, of course, when you do, such as EC Tubb’s Dumarest series (I’m sure everyone has their own favourite)… But it’s not like Varley over-stayed his welcome in the Eight Worlds, only four actual novels set there and each was standalone… To be honest, the other stuff wasn’t always as satisfactory – the Gaea trilogy, yes; but his Thunder and Lightning YA quartet was underwhelming. (Having said that, I do really like Millennium, the novelisation of the film of his short story ‘Air Raid’ (which was originally published under a pseudonym).) Anyway, Irontown Blues is… a cheat. Varley cheerfully confessed to retconning his Eight world universe in Steel Beach, and presented it more as a feature than a bug. And in Irontown Blues, the protagonist is Christopher Bach, offspring of Anna-Louise Bach, who is the protagonist of a bunch of stories set on Luna but not actually part of the Eight Worlds setting. At least, not until now. Bach (Christopher, that is) is a private detective with a love of 1940s noir – so much so, he acts the part and even lives in a suburb tricked out to resemble a noir version of a 1940s US city. His local diner is called the Nighthawks Diner. (But then Varley ruins it by naming his scumbag informant Hopper. Sigh.) Irontown Blues opens, as any story of its type would do, with a woman entering Bach’s office. She tells him she has been deliberately infected with a virulent form of leprosy, a heinous act in a society in which diseases are sometimes fads but are never infectious. Bach is tasked with discovering who infected the woman with “para-leprosy”. He doesn’t trust her, of course, and his attempts to find out who she really is take up half the story. When he does finally track her down, he’s kidnapped and kept prisoner. Before his kidnap, however, there’s a long flashback to the Big Glitch and the attack on the Heinleiners – the events of Steel Beach. Bach was involved and nearly died. The flashback is the reason for, well, the plot of Irontown Blues. And it’s all a bit weak, to be honest. Despite the resolution. Bach, however, is not the only narrator of Irontown Blues. The narrative is also split with his dog, a “Cybernetically Enhanced Canine” bloodhound called Sherlock. These sections are written in simplistic prose, with a deliberately simplistic attempt at humour. I freely admit I’m not a dog person, but even so these sections really didn’t work for me. I mean, there’s something old-fashioned – not, unfortunately, 1940s old-fashioned as Varley probably intended, but more 1970s original Eight Worlds stories old-fashioned – about Bach’s narrative; but Sherlock’s narrative does nothing to give the novel a twenty-first century feel. I admit that much of Varley’s appeal is nostalgia – I loved his work back when I was first exploring science fiction – so perhaps the most disappointing thing about Irontown Blues is that it doesn’t seem to be much of a progression from those earlier works. It could have been written by Varley thirty years ago. Varley has always been a resolutely commercial writer, much like his inspiration Heinlein, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do things better as the years pass – and Slow Apocalypse certainly proves he can – but there’s no evidence of that in Irontown Blues. There are some changes in order to update the setting, or to tie the Eight Worlds Luna and Anna-Louise Bach Luna together… But I’d hoped for something, well, a bit more clever, something with a bit more bang in its payload. And Irontown Blues is not that book. One for fans.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131


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Moving pictures 2018, #54

Some well-known names in this movie post – I’m referring to the directors, of course, although a couple of the titles are probably also well known. A bit of a mixed bunch. Some were better than expected, others weren’t. Oh well.

Solo: A Star Wars Story, Ron Howard (2018, USA). Let’s get the good news out of the way first: I enjoyed this. Yes, I actually enjoyed watching it. But. It didn’t feel like a Star Wars film; and this Han Solo is pretty much an entirely different character to the one played by Harrison Ford. It is, in other words, a fun space opera set in a well-realised space opera universe, that happens to share a lot of commonality with Star Wars films. So, like Rogue One then. Which I liked too. Although that film did at least manage to slot itself into current SW history (which Disney are busy rewriting and retconnning faster than Trump is the history of his disastrous presidency). But, Solo… It’s about, er, Han Solo. Who grows up as a member of a criminal gang on Corellia, but manages to escape (and chooses the name “Solo” because he’s alone – do you see what they did there?). Anyway he ends up in the Imperial infantry, but deserts and joins Woody Harrelson’s gang of thieves, bullshits his way into jobs he has no real hope of completing, fails to complete them, bullshits his way out of it, and somehow or other ends up with Lando Calrissian’s ship, the  Millennium Falcon. It’s all great fun, but all drawn with very broad strokes. There’s no complicated structure here, no weird story arcs, to fuel deep analyses of the film-maker’s intentions (if you find what you’re looking for in a Hollywood film written by committee and rewritten by a director whose strings are being pulled by a studio… what you’re finding probably only exists in your head). Star Wars has gone all diverse, and not before time, and Calrissian’s co-pilot, L3-37 (who is not at all leet, but more L7 – but perhaps the band weren’t so keen on her being called just L7), is presented as one of the highlights and deserves the role. Harrelson and his gang are entirely forgettable. Bettany puts in a quality turn as the villain, but then he’s good at his job and people seem to forget that. He played fucking Vision, FFS. To be honest, I gave up on the plot about 30 minutes in. It didn’t matter. The entire film is set-up. And minor redemption too, of course. All of Star Wars is redemption, of one form or another. But at least Solo, or Rogue One, isn’t the portentous crap George Lucas made of the prequels and Disney is now making of the sequels. It’s not like Solo/Rogue One are ignoring important subjects, like slavery or terrorism, though it’s “commentary lite” on both; but then this is space opera and when it comes to human issues and relevance, space opera has always been light on payload. Solo goes for “character and colour and cosmos” (ie, worldbuilding), which is a wise decision as those three Cs are about all that works in cinematic space opera. I enjoyed Solo. Not a great film, not a great science fiction film, but fun all the same. And not a good Star Wars film. Which is entirely in its favour.

Il Postino, Michael Radford & Massimo Troisi (1994, Italy). From the ridiculous to the, er, mawkish. I should schedule these films better, then I could actually write from “the ridiculous to the sublime” and it might even be true. Il Postino is, as far as I can tell, and I may be mistaken, one of those awful mawkish Italian films that seemed to do really well on the international circuit during the 1990s. Like Life is Beautiful and Cinema Paradiso. It’s not restricted to Italy, of course. French versions include Jean de Florette and La gloire de mon père and no doubt many others, for other nations. The central premise of Il Postino is that the local postman, an aspiring poet, becomes friends with a mystery visitor to a small Italian island, who turns out to be exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. The two form an unlikely friendship. Neruda was indeed famous, but not so much outside the Hispanic-speaking world. He was also equally well-known, in the same world, as a political dissident in a far right regime. Yes, once poets were actually exiled, or worse, for their public commentary against authoritarian governments. They didn’t just write cute advertising copy for building societies. But then the UK has never had a society of intellectuals similar to that of Spanish-, French- or Italian-speaking countries. We’ve been far too class-ridden. Our intellectuals were focused on social climbing – by all accounts, Waugh was a terrible snob; and on professing a desire to write a novel, Fleming was told by some dowager duchess, “Don’t do it, Ian. You’re not clever enough.” The joke being, of course, that the British aristocracy couldn’t muster a working brain cell between the lot of them. And the chances of a British intellectual from the arts running afoul of the establishment are pretty remote because the establishment simply co-opts them. In fact, the idea of art as political seems to be fiercely opposed by the Anglophone world. We saw it in science fiction with the Sad Puppies, who were, ironically, entirely political. But in the English-speaking world satire and commentary are toothless, and we’re all the poorer for it, even it means our so-called intellectuals are unlikely to ever be exiled. And, I suppose, there’s an advantage to that inasmuch no one will make mawkish films about them. Well, not about their exile. There are plenty of mawkish UK films about recent historical figures, like the one about Stephen Hawking. Which is, now I think about it, probably worse. Fuck them all.

King of New York*, Abel Ferrara (1990, USA). I always get this film a bit confused with Scorsese’s King of Comedy – and it doesn’t help that both are on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. It’s the titles, of course, because that’s about the only resemblance between the two. I had also thought I’d seen King of New York many years before, but having now watched it, I’m not so sure. It’s a straight-up mobster movie, perhaps more violent than was common in the late eighties, but it seems a bit tame when compared to twenty-first century Hollywood cinema. Walken plays a gangster who finishes his prison sentence and returns to New York determined to take over everything. Which is what he does. He shoots anyone who disagrees with him. He also mixes in posh circles because his girlfriend is a DA or something. I’m not sure. I didn’t really care. This film has fuck-all to recommend it. Walken plays Walken, the rest of the cast are forgettable, and if it had any historical impact in 1990, that has long since dissipated. It’s by no means the only film to follow the same formula, and if they’re trying to capture a point in time I have to wonder how they saw that particular point… Missable.

A Closed Book, Raúl Ruiz (2010, UK). Ruiz was a highly-regarded director from Chile, although this film was made in the UK, and based on a novel by UK author Gilbert Adair, which he adapted himself. It’s a two-hander – mostly – and a pretty odd one. I don’t think it works, and I’m not sure if that’s because the story is just silly or because the two leads, Tom Conti and Darryl Hannah, struggle to carry it. Conti, a reclusive art critic who lives in a stately pile recruits Hannah to be his amanuensis. He reveals he was blinded in a car crash a few years earlier and has decided it is time he wrote his autobiography. Hannah, however, plays it sneaky and gaslights Conti… and it’s all because her history is linked to his car crash, and… Yawn. This has been done a million times before. Make both of the leads female and they’d call it “grip-lit”. Not that it would make much difference as the two leads here are terrible. Ruiz apparently took a hands-off approach and then they edited the shit out of the film… But it’s hard to see how it could have been improved. The material just isn’t strong enough. Avoid.

Rhapsody in August, Akira Kurosawa (1991, Japan). Kurosawa is, of course, best known for historical samurai films like, er, Seven Samurai, or Throne of Blood or Yojimbo… But he also did other stuff, like the excellent Dersu Uzala, and this one, Rhapsody in August, which I kept on thinking as “Kirosawa does Bergman”, and it sort of fits… A family have left their children with their grandmother, a survivor of Nagasaki, while they visit a dying relative in Hawaii. The grandmother was supposed to go, but refused because she has not seen the relative – her brother – since the war. So you have the culture shock of a Japanese visitor to the US, handled through video letters to the grandmother, and Japanese kids learning about Nagasaki and the very real effect the nuclear bomb had on the country. It’s all good stuff… until Richard Gere appears on the screen. He plays an American, a member of the family by marriage, and he speaks Japanese (and convincingly haltingly), but he just seems out of place. He’s clearly important to the film, and he’s certainly been used to promote it – and it’s true his character’s perspective is important to the story, an American viewing the impact of Nagasaki – but to a Western viewer he brings too much baggage, and not of a good sort. True, Japanese actors bring baggage to their roles, and Kurosawa certainly had his favourites, so Toshiro Mifune, for example, no doubt dragged around a shedload of past performances whenever he appeared in a movie (over 150, apparently, and I’ve probably seen around ten percent of them). Despite all that, the overriding impression I have of Rhapsody in August is Bergman lite. It seems the sort of story he did so much better.

Red Line 7000, Howard Hawks (1965, USA). This is not one of Hawks’s best-known films, and for good reason. It’s all very formulaic, and while it’s set among race car drivers I doubt would many recognise the sport depicted as it’s changed so much since 1965. James Caan plays one of two drivers for an owner. The other had decided to retire and get married and, as is usual for these sorts of films, is killed in a crash in his last race. The hunt is on for a new team member to drive alongside Caan. Which ends up being: a young American man who appears to have no experience or qualifications, but some talent, and fancies the owner’s “masculine” sister (she rides a motorbike!); and a celebrated driver from Europe, who has a French girlfriend in tow. Yawn. The footage of the races uses actual real races – and accidents – which gives it all more of a patina of reality than you usually get with Hollywood films that repeatedly cut to close-ups of the stars in what are patently sets filmed against moving backdrops. And the cars are so crude! They’re just souped-up Plymouths and the like. When they crash, they burst into flames. And kill the driver. It’s watching a dangerous sport in the days when it was outright fucking lethal. And dramatising that lethality. I suspect there are good reasons why Red Line 7000 is not lauded as one of Hawks’s best. It doesn’t help that Caan mumbles his way through his part, far too many of the scenes are studio sets, the female characters are stereotypes, and the plot goes round in circles just like the race cars. Missable.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 932


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Moving pictures 2018, #53

I think I’m starting to suffer from Film Fatigue. I’ve watched so many movies so far this year, I find my attention wandering when I have one playing. So I tried watching television series instead. During August and September, I worked my way through all the past series of New Who, after finding them available on the BBC iPlayer. I was surprised to discover that of all the Doctors since the relaunch, I much preferred Matt Smith. I also tried watching the first season of Andromeda, but I’m not sure how much of it I can take. I like the central premise, and even one or two of the characters, but all the Nietschean bollocks is hugely annoying, not to mention the constant use of twentieth-century cultural references… But then it went and disappeared from Amazon Prime when I was only about ten episodes in. Oh well.

Anyway, here’s another half a dozen movies. I’m a bit behind on these posts, but once I’ve cleared the backlog, I think I’ll slow down a bit on them.

Oliver Twist, David Lean (1948, UK). Although this had been on my list to watch for many years, I’d made no effort to seek it out. So it was good it popped up on Amazon Prime. And an excellent transfer too. I don’t know the book – I’m not a Dickens fan and have read only Great Expectations – although, being English, I’m familiar with the story, as Dickens’s more popular novels are pretty much defining parts of English culture. Oliver Twist is set among the workhouses of Victorian England, and anyone who thinks we  should return to that is a total scumbag and I would quite happily knife. Just point me at them. (Quick note for the police and security services: that’s not an actual threat, although when you finally get around to criminalise thoughts I might have a few problems justifying it…). Anyway, Oliver’s mother dies in poverty and he’s given to a workhouse. After being persuaded to ask for more food – “Please, sir, I want some more.” – he’s apprenticed to a funeral director, where he’s not treated like a slave, but it’s not much better. But he attacks a fellow servant, is promptly whipped, and so runs away to London. Which is where he ends up in Fagin’s gang. The film was criticised on its release for Alec Guinness’s antisemitic portrayal of Fagin. Lean’s defence was that the make-up was intended to make Guinness resemble George Cruikshank’s illustrations from the story’s first appearance. But it doesn’t wash. Cruikshank’s illustrations may well have been antisemitic; Guinness’s portrayal certainly is. The story ends with Oliver being adopted by a family who turn out, amazingly coincidentally, to be the parents of his mother, who had run away from home after becoming pregnant. Oh, and Bill Sykes murders Nancy, but he then accidentally kills himself by falling off a roof trying to escape an enraged mob. The story relies too much on melodrama and coincidence, but Lean’s treatment of it is excellent. His Victorian London is every bit as scary as it would appear to a young boy, and deliberately so. The adult characters are caricatured, not just as written by Dickens, but also visually. I can understand why the film is so highly regarded, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s only the depiction of Fagin that kept it off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Karan Johar (2006, India). This Bollywood film was lent to me by my mother, who has a completely uncritical approach to film watching. Our family connection to Scandinavia means she now watches a lot of films and television from that region, and she’s not at all phased by watching anything with subtitles. I’ve also recommended so many foreign films to her she tends to looks at the story first and not the language. Which, to be honest, hardly applies to Bollywood films as they all have the same plot: boy meets girl, boy loses girls, boy gets girl back again. And Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna sort of follows the formula, except for being set in New York and being about adultery and two relationships that are consequently split apart. Shah Rukh Khan is a successful footballer in the US. He meets Rani Mukerji at her engagement party (his mother is doing the catering). Shortly after curing her of her last-minute nerves, he’s hit by a car and his football career is over. Four years later, Khan is a little league football coach, while his wife is a successful editor of a fashion magazine. Mukerji is a teacher, and her husband runs a successful PA agency. Meanwhile, his mother and her father have met up and started dating. Which brings Khan and Mukerji together, and their friendship soon turns into something else. There are many words you can use to describe Bollywood, but “bittersweet” is not a common one. But that’s what Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna feels like. It takes a while before the two leads finally get together, and they’re all too aware of the fact they’re married to other people. Khan and Mukerji make a good couple, and the supporting roles are well played. It’s a polished piece, more so than many of the Bollywood films I’ve seen. It would probably make a good introduction to Indian cinema to those wanting to try it.

Twelve Chairs, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1962, Cuba). I’ve a feeling there’s a British film which covers the same territory as this, but perhaps it’s just because it’s such a familiar story. The matriarch of a wealthy Cuban family hides the last of her wealth in one of twelve “English” antique chairs. The rest of the film follows her descendants’ attempts to track down the correct chair and so recover their fortune. It smells like an Ealing comedy. But it’s not presented like one. Mostly. It’s Alea, of course, who directed a number of Cuban comedies during the 1960s, although it’s clear here where his inspirations lay. At least it was to me. But perhaps that was because I’d watched a bad British farce starring Alfred Marks – and Bob Monkhouse! And Anna Karina! – only a few days earlier. In many respects, Twelve Chairs seemed of the same comedy tradition as that which led to the UK film (and both were released in the same year). Which is obviously why I’m almost half-convinced there’s a British film with a similar plot… I’ve seen several Alea movies, but this I thought lightweight stuff compared to them. It was only his second feature-length film, and I’ve not see his first, Stories of the Revolution. But he made Death of a Bureaucrat (see here) and Memories of Underdevelopment (see here) a few years later, and they’re both excellent.

Liquid Sky, Slava Tsukerman (1982, USA). I’d heard of this film years ago but never expected to see it. But then a copy popped up on Amazon Prime for free, and it was a good – no, an excellent – transfer… And you know what, it’s actually a bloody good film. Very eighties. Amazingly eighties. I had thought the most eighties film on the planet was Andrzej Żuławski’s L’amour bracque (see here), but I was wrong. Liquid Sky is as fucking eighties as it gets. Anne Carlisle, who plays both the male and female leads, is especially impressive. It’s not like the acting is good throughout, it is in fact mostly terrible, and the plot is total nonsense. There’s a tiny flying saucer, which looks really fake, and lots of parties where people sneer at each other in a very eighties way, and lots of drugs and arguments about drugs. None of it hangs together, but then it’d be a surprise if it did. Carlisle has considerable screen presence in both of her roles. And yet… it’s the 1980s as we see it depicted in film and television, but it’s not the 1980s I remember. I mean, I was there, I even remember a lot of the cultural moments – Duran Duran first appearing on Top of the Pops, Spandau Ballet with those ridiculous rugs over their shoulders, all the “greed is good” stuff, shoulder pads, Dynasty, Bowie, all that shit. I was there. And while Liquid Sky seems to capture the decade’s essence, it isn’t really an accurate portrayal. But that, I think, is the point, and much of the appeal. They say if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there; but I suspect if you remember the 1980s, it’s the later depictions of it you “remember”, not the actual decade. It’s been entirely confabulated. The same will likely happen to the current decade – because, seriously, the shit that’s going down now? You could not make it up.

La captive, Chantal Akerman (2000, France). I need to watch more Akerman. I’m not really sure what to make of her. I mean, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, is a particular type of film and an excellent one too. But it’s almost plotless and just recounts the life of its titular character. La captive, on the other hand, is narrative cinema, with a plot… although that may be too strong a word. A young man lives with his grandmother and his girlfriend, and he is totally controlling. He follows his girlfriend, making sure she is doing what she tells him she is doing, and he is only capable of having sex with her when she is pretending to be asleep. I will admit I was not concentrating all that much as this film – a rental DVD – was playing, and so I came away from it with an impression of a movie that was much like other French dramas of its time, such as those by Godard – a personal drama, shot cheaply on a single camera, without any expansive, or expensive, shots, just the two main characters talking to, or at, each other as they performed everyday actions. In fact, now I think back on it, there was a lot that reminded me of Godard’s twenty-first century films, although perhaps not so experimental – although Akerman was certainly experimental during her career, cf the aforementioned film by her. I need to watch more Akerman. She directed around thirty feature films, but only La captive seems to have been released on DVD in the UK (Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a UK edition of the US Criterion release). I suspect she is another director, like Marguerite Duras, who, despite their reputations, have seen only limited sell-through release in the UK because of their gender. That really needs to change.

The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin, Julio García Espinosa (1967, Cuba). If there’s one thing that’s become clear about Cuban cinema from the dozen or so Cuban films I’ve watched over the last year or so, it’s that they don’t think kindly of their pre-revolutionary days and yet made numerous movies set during those times. Especially historical ones. Amada, for example, (see here) is based on a 1929 novel; two of the three sections of a favourite film, Lucía (see here), are set in the 1890s and the 1930s; and Cecilia (see here) is adapted from a novel published in 1839… On the other hand, Death of a Bureaucrat (see here) pokes fun at the apparatchiks created by the Revolution. The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin, however, is set before the Revolution, but it’s not clear exactly when. The title character is a bit of a chancer who tries a variety of ways to make money, but is eventually declared a bandit by the authorities. Although I may have that wrong. The film opens with Juan Quin Quin cornered in a wheat field by the army. They set fire to the field in order to either smoke him out or kill him. He survives and evades capture. The rest of the film may be flashback, I’m not entirely sure. Because Quin (or perhaps Quin Quin) is next at a cock fight and is inspired to open a bullring. He approaches a circus owner for a bull, ends up working for him, and steals his lion. He then bounces from career to career, at one point ending up playing Jesus Christ in a circus (and the presence of two go go dancers in this section suggest at least one reason why films set in pre-revolutionary Cuba might have been popular in post-revolutionary Cuba…). And, of course, film, especially comedy, was a perfect vehicle for political allegory. At one point during the circus section, a fakir (played by Quin) lies down on a bed of broken glass. The ringmaster asks for volunteers to stand on the fakir’s torso. A large man in military uniform volunteers himself and seems determined to jump onto the fakir’s chest. It’s not the most subtle of metaphors… Quin ends up running a plantation, which brings him into conflict with the owner, and so the authorities, leading to his final career as a bandit, which circles back to the opening sequence… The Adventures of Juan Quin Quin was apparently entered into competition at the 5th Moscow International Film Festival, but lost out to a tie between The Journalist by Sergei Gerasimov and Father by István Szabó. Also entered, incidentally, from the UK was A Man For All Seasons.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931


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A weekend in Reykjavik

Last weekend was Icecon 2, a biennial science fiction convention in Iceland. I was at the first Icecon in 2016, and had every intention then of attending again in 2018. Which I did. There’ll be a third in 2020, but I’ve no idea if I’ll be able to attend. Brexit and all that…

Thank you 17 million stupid voters for fucking up my future so comprehensively.

Anyway, Icecon 2… Which was nearly scuppered by the UK’s useless transport infrastructure. I’d ordered a taxi to take me to the railway station, and given myself forty minutes leeway – plenty of time for a car to travel about 5 kilometres. But no taxi turned up at the appointed time… Ten minutes later, I decided to take the tram, but there was no guarantee it’d get me to the station on time… Fortunately, my taxi chose that moment to appear, so I arrived at the station in plenty of time. And the train even included the coach containing my reserved seat! (Unlike on my trip to Copenhagen.) Even so, travelling by train is just getting too stressful. Fighting to get on board, the worry over your seat, the far-too-common delays… I’d built plenty of leeway into my travel schedule, but even so it came close to falling apart.

The security check – again in the basement – at Manchester was very quick, and the transit lounge was not especially busy. But when the gate for my flight was called, and I made my way there, there were hundreds of people waiting to board the aircraft. The plane was a Boeing 757, so larger than those in which I’d flown to and from Denmark two weeks earlier. And I suspect a good eighty percent of those on my flight to Reykjavik weren’t visiting the country but just transiting through Keflavik to the US and Canada.

As the minibus drove me around Reykjavik from the BSÍ bus terminal to my hotel (or rather, a bus stop around the corner from it), I spotted a lot more restaurants in the area where my hotel, and the con venue, Iðnó, were sited. Things had changed considerably since my last visit in 2016.

I arrived at my hotel – the same one as my previous visit, Hotel Apotek – around half past four. I arranged to meet up with Kisu and Carolina for something to eat before the Icecon meet & greet at Klaustur bar at eight o’clock. Since I had a couple of hours to spare, I looked up real ale bars in Reykjavik… and discovered craft beer culture had arrived in Iceland. There were four craft ale bars with five hundred metres, and even a branch of Mikkeller a couple of hundred metres further away than that. I decided to try Skúli, and had two very nice IPAs from Iceland. I was meeting the others in the American Bar but, confusingly, the Dirty Burger place next to it looked like it was part of the same establishment. And I went in there. So did Kisu. Then Carolina messaged me to say she was in the bar but couldn’t find us. By which point we’d figured out we were actually next door. Ah well.

The meet & greet was the same as it had been at the first Icecon. Although the selection of drinks in the bar had improved. This time, there was no book club occupying one room, but a jazz trio in a corner of the main bar. But they finished and packed up not long after I’d arrived. I chatted to friends I knew from other Nordic cons, talked about writing with an Icelandic fan called Birgir, and about conventions and sf with a Danish fan, Jeppe, who hadn’t attended either of the Fantasticons I’d been to.

I was up the following morning at 7:30. The Hotel Apotek’s breakfast had also improved. It now included several Icelandic delicacies. I tried the gravlax and the cold blood sausage, but gave the dried cod a miss.

I reached Iðnó a bit early – it was only a couple of minutes’ walk from my hotel – and saw that the comfy upholstered chairs from the last Icecon had been replaced with hard wooden chairs. But they had expanded the café facilities and now offered food and beer. And free coffee and tea all weekend for con attendees.

Icecon had only a single programming track and it was in English. It also holds the record – true for both Icecon 1 and 2 – for my attendance at programme items. I missed only three panels, which is astonishing for me. A couple I only caught part of, but never mind. And one, of course, on climate change, I was actually a panellist. (And yes, I mentioned Brexit, of course.) The panels were interesting, although they tended to stray from their topic – some moderators were obviously better prepared than others, which is hardly unusual. But the con had no real socialising area: Iðnó’s cafe was too small, four tables and eight chairs in a tiny room, and Klaustur was only used in the evenings. But there was plenty to explore in Reykjavik if a panel didn’t  interest me. Like the craft ale bars…

I visited one, Microbar, there was a small group of people smoking/vaping outside the entrance. One spoke to me. He had to repeat what he’d said before I understood: “Demilich”. I was wearing a Demilich hoodie. They’re an obscure Finnish death metal band, known for their singer Antti Boman’s vocal fry register growl singing. They released a single album, Nespithe, in 1993. Recently they reformed, and made some new merchandise – like the hoodie I was wearing – available. I was impressed. I’d never met anyone before who’d even heard of Demilich. At the bar, the barman saw my hoodie and asked who it was. “Demilich,” I said. “Ah, Nespithe,” he replied. “Good album.” Two people in the same bar! I suspect that may never be equalled. And I really liked Microbar too. It had an excellent selection of ales. Including two sours – blueberry and rhubarb. I immediately messaged Kisu, who had told me earlier than she only drank sour beers.

At the last Icecon, a group of about ten of us had had trouble finding somewhere to eat on the Saturday night because everywhere was fully booked. We’d ended up at a fairly ordinary Italian restaurant. Which at least managed to cater for the gluten-free member of the party. This year, expecting something similar, I’d floated the idea of booking somewhere on social media, but nothing had come together. On arrival, I’d been encouraged by the increase in eating establishments I’d seen, but that proved illusory… Five of us went looking for dinner in the area around Ingólfur Square – a Swede, an Icelander, a German, a Finn and a Brit – and the first restaurant we tried was closed for a private function, the second was fully booked, and the third, a Tapas restaurant, managed to squeeze us around a table for four. The food was excellent. I had salted cod. Carolina had the same, and complained all evening it was so salty it had made her extremely thirsty. I hadn’t noticed. I suspect I like, and eat, saltier food (ie, less healthily). At one point, Claudia and I had tried to explain to Carolina why we both thought Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was such an amazing novel. It wasn’t easy…

After the meal, I dragged the other four down into Microbar (it’s in a cellar) and Kisu tried the rhubarb sour. Then it was across to Klaustur to meet up with the rest of the con.

I should write something about the programme. It didn’t appear to be themed, although there were a couple of panels on Icelandic genre fiction, or “tales of wonder”, furðusögur, and mythlogy. Other panels covered international fandom, diversity in genre, disability in genre, talking animals, climate change, and gender and race. It was a good broad mix, with plenty of welcome perspectives. My own panel, the climate change one, was a man down, as an attendee had failed to make his flight from Taiwan because of a typhoon. Ironically. I’d not prepared for it, other than continually reminding myself to mention a couple of things. Which I managed to do. I’ve always believed you can tell how well a panel is going by the number of people snoring (it’s happened to me) and the number of people laughing (at your jokes, quips, witticisms, etc.) The latter is obviously better, so I always make sure to throw in a few cracks. I didn’t get a round of cheers this time, but there was plenty of appreciative laughter.

Icecon’s custom of presenting panels as four to eight panellists sitting in armchairs and sofas on a stage – dictated to them by the venue – actually works really well. Most cons I’ve attended put their panels behind a long table, so you have a line of people behind nameplates and it all looks a bit formal and intimidating. Icecon’s more informal approach works really well. True, the con is much smaller – less than a hundred attendees this year, I believe, most of which were Icelandic, but also including several Americans, a Dane, a couple of Finns, a couple of Germans, at least one Irish, and, I think, myself the only Brit (unlike the previous Icecon).

In fact, I got chatting to one of the Americans, a young woman, in Klaustur on the Saturday night. She told me she had arrived in Reykjavik with no plans – I forget where she’d flown from, but it was in Europe – and seen mention of Icecon and decided to attend. That was her life now, flitting from country to country. I asked her if she was a “digital nomad” and she seemed shocked I knew the term. “I’m not that old,” I complained. She explained she didn’t think the term was that well known among all age groups.

I left Klaustur about one-ish, I believe, and I was not the last to leave. I had plans for Sunday morning. Icecon does not programme on Sunday morning, only starting again with a lunch at noon. But this year they’d arranged for Michael Swanwick to give a writing workshop. I didn’t sign up for it. I’m told it was fully subscribed and very successful. I did see Swanwick and his partner waiting for the lift in Hotel Apotek, but never got the chance to speak to him. I’ve enjoyed his fiction for several decades and while I’ve not read any of his later novels I do rate this early ones highly. Anyway, I had plans…

After breakfast, I went for a wander around the harbour area. The area next to the concert hall was a giant hole in the ground on my last visit. Now it looks like this:

Rekjavik, in fact, seemed to be doing very well. There was a lot of construction going on, but also a lot of new places: food and drink and, er, tat, I mean tourist, shops. I revisited Hafnarhús, a modern art museum, which was half-price as only half of the galleries were open. But they were worth seeing. There was a video installation by Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir called “Land undir fót” (take a wild guess what it means). I love video installations, and this was a good one. There was also a gallery of photographs by Ólafur Elíasson (but sadly no book on it in the shop) and an exhibit entitled ‘No Man’s Land’ that I found a bit hit and miss.

I bought myself a souvenir:

I saw the artwork the book covers on my previous visit to Reykjavik, and was much amused by the sticker on the cover.

For lunch on the Sunday, I decided to try the shawerma place I’d spotted on Ingólfur Square. I was later told there are actually two shawerma restaurants next door to each other, and they’re mortal enemies. I, unfortunately, picked the lesser of the two. Their shawerma didn’t resemble any I’d had in Abu Dhabi, and I wasn’t convinced the young woman serving understood what lactose was… And given how I felt later that afternoon, I may have been right to suspect as much…

The con wrapped at six o’clock, although there was a dead dog party, and pub quiz, at Klaustur later. I had to be up at three am to catch my bus to the airport for an eight am flight, so I’d only planned to to attend the dead dog party for an hour or so. Myself, Kisu and Carolina, on a recommendation from Einar Leif Nielsen, ate at Sjávargrillið, a seafood restaurant. The food was excellent, but something I’d eaten earlier had been contaminated and I was not feeling well. The dead dog party was out for me. I remarked at one point that I used to be able to recover from a weekend of drinking and late nights and early mornings in a day or two, but then it started taking a week or so… So what did I do? Started attending Nordic cons – so I now have to cope with jet lag on top of the drinking and late nights and early mornings…

But not for me that night. I went straight back to my hotel and straight to bed. At eight pm. Later, I discovered the Northern Lights had made a rare in-town showing, visible even outside Klaustur. Which was just bloody typical.

I left early the next morning, catching a minibus at 4:30 am, flight at 8 am… then on arrival in Manchester, a massive queue at passport control. Would it be too difficult to put in more electronic passport gates? They’re machines. You don’t have to pay them to sit there when they’re idle. Or would too many machines make the UK too welcoming for EU citizens? One day, someone will come up with a really good explanation for why we need to control our borders, and it will still be total bullshit. Border control is a nineteenth-century invention, so we managed pretty well for millennia without it. Then, to add insult to injury, the taxi I’d ordered was running twenty minutes late. Not the taxi-driver’s fault, it has to be said – his previous fare’s plane had been delayed. I don’t think any plane I’ve flown on this year has arrived on schedule (although this one actually landed twenty minutes early.)

We chatted during the drive over the Pennines. At one point, he asked me what I did for a living because “I knew a lot about a lot of things”. I was tempted to reply it was a sign of a misspent youth reading too many science fiction books. But instead I just said I worked with computers. It’s a lot easier than trying to explain science fiction. In fact, when people asked me why I visited Iceland, I told them I was visiting friends…