It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


1 Comment

Top five science fiction films

I saw someone recently tweet for requests for people’s top five science fiction films and I thought, I can do that. Then it occurred to me I’ve watched around 3000 movies in the past few years, and many of them were science fiction. So those films I think of as my favourites… well, surely I’d seen something that might lead to a new top five? Even if nothing sprung immediately to mind… True, I’m not that big a fan of science fiction cinema, and most of my favourite movies are dramas. And most of the sf films I have seen were commercial tentpole US movies, a genre I like even less…

I went back over my records, and pulled together a rough list of about fifteen films – it seems most of the sf films I’ve seen didn’t impress me very much – and then whittled that down to five. And they were pretty much old favourites. Which sort of rendered the whole exercise a bit pointless.

Or was it?

Top of my list is Alien, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1979. Although distributed by 20th Century Fox, I’ve always counted it as a British film, as it was an entirely UK-based production, and in fact used many of the UK-based talent that had been working on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune movie. I’ve always loved Alien, pretty much since its theatrical release. Which is a bit weird as it was given an X-certificate, and I would have just turned thirteen when it was released. But I read the novelisation by Alan Dean Foster; I had the collectable magazines and books, even Giger’s Alien (published by Big O according to my copy, but by Morpheus International according to the internet). I fell in love with the world of Alien, with the grimy lived-in appearance of the Nostromo, with the weirdness of the boomerang spaceship, with the look of the alien creature itself. Which doubtless explains why I’ve never really rated any of the sequels. Alien did it first, Alien kept it simple, Alien did it best. The less said about the prequels, the better…

But if we’re talking science fiction cinema worldbuilding, there are plenty of other movies which might qualify. I love the production design of David Lynch’s Dune: the uniforms, the spaceships, the sets… It’s just a shame Lynch’s vision was so badly mangled by the studio, and that Lynch himself made quite a few questionable choices when adapting the novel. Other prime examples include Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, Blade Runner, Starship Troopers, Brazil, The Fifth Element, the various Star Trek films, the Star Wars movies… Or perhaps something more recent, such as Mortal Engines, anything from the MCU, Jupiter Ascending, Prospect, Science Fiction Volume 1: The Osiris Child, The Lure… Except the only film out of that lot I especially rate is The Lure, and I’d classify it as horror rather than science fiction. (Oh, Metropolis is good too, of course.)

Of course, those are films that required new worlds built out of whole cloth – there’s even a book about it: Building Sci-Fi Moviescapes (my copy, of course, is in storage). There are those that made do with the real world, making clever, or innovative use, of existing buildings and landscape. Examples include Alphaville, Crimes of the Future, Rollerball, even Interstellar (mostly). One of the most imaginative uses of location for a sf film I’ve seen is Footprints on the Moon, which manages to create a plausible invented country out of a pair of Turkish seaside resorts. Sadly, though I like the film a great deal, it’s not quite good enough to make my top five.

A film which also creates a new world out of clever location shooting makes the second slot on my list: François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. I’m not a fan of the book, but I’m a big fan of Brutalist architecture and there’s plenty of that in the Fahrenheit 451 film. Plus a monorail. And Montag’s A-frame house in its leafy suburb with the silver birches and G-Plan furniture. It doesn’t look in the slightest bit futuristic – especially not now – but I love the film’s look and feel. (Except maybe the fire engine; not so keen on that.) But it’s not just the visuals, you also have Julie Christie playing two roles, the story’s focus on censorship (not television), the fact it ditched the stupid robot dog from the book, and Truffaut’s elegiac ending.

Science fiction films are not all set in the future or invented worlds. Some are set at the time the film was made. Girls Lost, set in early twenty-first century Sweden, might well have made my top five, but its central premise is just too fantastical. And Thelma, set in early twenty-first century Norway… well, telekinetic powers are a science fiction staple. At least they are in written science fiction. They’re more of a horror trope in cinema, and Thelma would also have made my list but it’s clearly a horror film.

An older film, one which depicts a 1980s Sweden, albeit far from any centre of civilisation, is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Offret, AKA The Sacrifice. Like Girls Lost and Thelma, its genre credentials are somewhat wobbly, but the fact it’s about a nuclear apocalypse, a very real concern during the Cold War and one much used by science fiction, pretty much since the genre’s early twentieth century origins, just about clinches it as science fiction for me. Okay, so Erland Josephson makes a deal with a higher power to put everything back and that’s hardly science-fictional, but never mind. Watching Offret is a harrowing experience, and science fiction cinema rarely manages that.

Most people, if they had to pick a Tarkovsky movie – and why wouldn’t they pick one? – would probably plump for either Solaris or Stalker. But the latter’s urban wasteland setting might suit its story but can hardly be called worldbuilding. And I’ve seen too many Soviet bloc sf films from the 1960s and 1970s to find anything special in Solaris‘s production design. They’re both great sf films, but I much prefer the look and feel of Herrmann Zschoche’s Eolomea to Solaris, although the latter is the better movie.

It’s not just actual Soviet and East German films, however. There are also the US ones from the 1960s which New World Pictures cobbled together from Soviet special effects footage, the best of which is Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood (containing footage from Небо зовет).

Offret takes slot number three.

When I wrote about building whole new worlds for science fiction movies, I very carefully didn’t mention one particular film, which takes place on another planet ruled by an entirely invented civilisation… but is actually a very old genre property. 2012’s John Carter. My number four choice. It did badly at the box office and its cast is hardly top-drawer. But it’s a gorgeous-looking piece of cinema, and its script makes some very adventurous decisions about its story-telling which, to my mind, totally paid off (longeurs notwithstanding). I’m not a fan of the books – they’re very much historical documents, and the tropes they introduced have been so extensively used and reworked in the decades since it would be impossible to make them fresh. But the basic story possesses a primal appeal, and although John Carter does complicate its plot with its nested endings, I think it gives the film a contemporary narrative sensibility. John Carter is a seriously under-rated movie, and it’s a pity corporate politics pretty much killed it.

That’s four movies, and the final slot was, as is usually the case, the hardest to fill. I could think of a number of films which almost made the grade. There’s Dredd from 2012, a bona fide, and ultra-violent, science fiction art-house movie, but it’s too thin on plot. Or Cargo, a Schweitzer-Deutsch film from 2009, which is a bit of a hodge-podge of genre tropes, some of which border on cliché, but looks pretty good and is about as science-fictional as you can get. Going a bit further back, there’s Peter Watkins’s Privilege from 1967, which is a clever, and quite funny, dystopian satire. Or Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, in which an alien in the person of Scarlet Johansson drives around Glasgow in 2013 picking up men to provide meat for her home world.

However… I decided to go for a completely left-field choice for movie number five: The Untamed, a Mexican film directed by Amat Escalante, released in 2016. It’s a good example of a type of cinema I especially like, slow cinema. It is enigmatic. It has a documentary feel. And yet you have no idea where it’s going for pretty much its entire length. It also shows that science fiction can be used to illuminate the lives of people in the real world, it doesn’t always need fancy worldbuilding, expensive CGI or imaginative location shooting. Sometimes it just needs the introduction of something strange into the mundane.

So that’s my top five science fiction films. As of 2019. Ask me again in a year or two and it will probably be different.

I’ve no doubt missed out a huge number of eligible movies: I  either because I’ve not watched them, don’t think they’re any good, or just simply didn’t remember (despite trawling back through my film-watching records). I’ve also not mentioned any anime films, although many of them might well qualify. I’ve watched some excellent ones – anything by Makoto Shinkai, for example; or the Neon Evangelion movies – but I don’t love anime as much as I do live-action, and besides they probably deserve a list of their own. Another day, perhaps.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Reading diary 2019, #4

The first book in this post I read before leaving the UK, but I’m not sure why I didn’t include it in an earlier Reading diary. Two of the books I read on my Kindle (well, one was a reread), and the remaining three I brought with me in my 26 kg suitcase.

I’ve been avoiding the English Bookshop here because I don’t want to buy new books just yet. Once I’ve read most of the two dozen I brought with me, then I’ll start buying some more. Although there are a couple of new books I want in hardback… like the last Bernie Gunther novel… and the new one from Nina Allan…

The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 25: The Valley of the Immortals, Part 1, Yves Sente, Peter Van Dongen & Teun Berserik (2018, Belgium). Unlike the Adventures of Tintin, with which the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer are closely linked, Blake and Mortimer survived the death of their creator. Edgar P Jacobs set up a studio to continue the series, and it’s been churning them out ever since. And, to be honest, the studio’s stories have been better than Jacobs’s ever were. Until, it seems, this one. Sort of. The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 25: The Valley of the Immortals is a sequel to one of Jacobs’s most famous stories, The Secret of the Swordfish, which was pretty much a Yellow Peril narrative. To be fair, The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 25: The Valley of the Immortals soon leaves Jacobs’s invented Asian evil empire – actually called the Yellow Empire – behind, and focuses on real Chinese history, specifically the Communists and Kuomintang, both of which are after a recently discovered artefact from third-century BCE China. As is a warlord who plans to use it to declare himself emperor. Mostly, this is all good stuff, but while dragging in the Yellow Empire slots the story into the Blake and Mortimer universe, and gives continuity to the characters, it leaves a bad taste and the book would have been better for ignoring it. One of the good things about the series has been that it has changed with the times. Tintin’s earlier adventures are racist as shit, and because The Adventures of Tintin ended with Hergé’s death, there are no new stories to offset those early works. Because Jacobs founded a studio to continue the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer, we have new stories – more, I think, than Jacobs actually wrote – which have kept pace with sensibilities (and have also become increasingly sophisticated in their stories). If you like Tintin, then you should be reading the Adventures of Blake and Mortimer. There are twenty-five of them, so you’ve got some catching up to do.

To Play the Lady, Naomi Lane (2011, USA). Someone recommended this to me a long time ago, but it was only available on Kindle and at that time I didn’t own one. But now I have one. And To Play the Lady was cheap. So I bought it and, er, read it. And I wish I could remember who recommended it. Because it wasn’t very good. The background is a bit identikit, and there’s doesn’t seem to have been much thought put into it. The protagonist is a complete Mary Sue, and accrues powers as the story progresses. Which is not to say the story doesn’t have its good points. Provincial aristocrat’s daughter is sent to the palace to be a maid of the queen, but she’s a bit of a tomboy and has been taught all sorts of unfeminine things. Her origin brings her into conflict with the other maids – all the daughters of peers of the realm – and her abilities at riding and archery cause problems because they’re not exactly ladylike. And it also turns out she has a rare magical talent and has to be individually tutored by the royal sorcerer… Sigh. There’s a breezy tone to the narrative, which is fun, and having a queen’s maid as the focus of a story gives an interesting perspective, but… Jenna Mallory, the protagonist, is so Mary Sue-ish it gets annoying quite quickly. The book is the first in a series, and the second book, To Serve the King, appeared in 2016. So if this is a trilogy, the final book is not likely to appear until 2021. I may well give the second book a  go, but I’m in no great rush to do so.

Dune, Frank Herbert (1965, USA). It probably doesn’t need to be said that this was a reread. I last read Dune in 2007 and blogged about it here. But I didn’t bother with the sequels on that reread, and since the Gateway ebook collection of all six Dune books was only 99p, I decided to buy it and work my way through all of them. Starting with, er Dune. It’s a book I know well, so I was more interested on this reread in how it compared to what I remembered. And yes, the writing is still pretty terrible for much of its length – especially in sentences that contain the phrase “terrible purpose” – but the worldbuilding is still among the best the genre has produced. However, my reading was focused on the scenes. And… the ones I remember liking rang a bit false, such as the time Duke Leto and Paul fly out to see a spice harvester in action. But other scenes I hadn’t liked, like the banquet scene, I much preferred this time around. What I hadn’t forgotten was the casual misogyny and homophobia, which very much made the book a product of the 1960s. I’d also forgotten how slipshod was Herbert’s worldbuilding: some things he’d made an effort to disguise, but in other places he’d simply slotted the Arabic word straight in. There didn’t seem to be much logic to it. Fifty-five years after it was published, Dune remains popular – Denis Villeneuve, movie flavour of the month in some genre circles – is currently filming an adaptation. In two parts, if rumour is to be believed. And there may well be a television series following on from the movies. But while there is a certain timelessness to the universe of Dune, Dune the novel is very much a book of its time. Had it been re-invented each decade, perhaps it would be an even bigger property that it is. Although I suppose the awful Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson sequels and prequels could be considered “re-inventions” but they’re pretty shite. If I had a Swedish crown for every time I’ve heard someone say they’d read Dune but not its sequels, or that Dune is the best of the series and the rest are not worth reading, well, I’d be living in a Swedish palace. A small one. And yet it’s completely untrue. Frank Herbert conceived the first three books as a single story, so all three really need to be read in order to understand the point Herbert was trying to make. And I’ve always maintained the writing improved, at the sentence level, as the series progressed. This is hardly controversial – the more Herbert wrote, the better he got at it. I’m hoping that particular conviction will survive my reread. We shall see. But the take-away from this reread: the best-loved scenes disappointed, but the scenes I’d not liked as much previously read much better than I’d expected.

Forcible Entry, Stewart Farrar (1986, UK). I’d been after this books for years, although I forget why, when a copy popped up on eBay. The book was only ever published in hardback, and the hardback was published by Robert Hale, which no doubt explains why it had proven so hard to find. Unfortunately, I lost the auction on eBay for the book… but found a copy for less on abebooks.co.uk from a seller in Australia. (I see there’s now a copy on Amazon going for £590. I paid nowhere near that.) And, after all that, was it worth it? I understand most of Farrar’s fiction revolves around witchcraft and Wicca – I believe he practiced it himself – and certainly a coven of witches makes an appearance in Forcible Entry. But the story is mostly about parapsychology research, particularly telepathy and astral projection. Matthew is a professional photographer and dying of cancer. He also volunteers as a test subject at a parapsychology study run by the university. Which is where Sheila, an attractive young woman, works as an office manager. The two prove to be gifted at astral projection. On one such trip Matthew, knowing he is dying, steals Sheila’s body. So while his real body dies of cancer in hospital, Matthew takes over Sheila’s body and feigns amnesia to cover any mistakes he might make in his impersonation (he had been studying her for weeks beforehand). However, Sheila had been an unwitting agent of the CIA investigating an organisation that wants to use people with parapsychological abilities for nefarious reasons. But not everyone is convinced by Matthew’s impersonation of Sheila – especially her American boyfriend, who involves a coven of witches to undo the possession – and when Matthew is forced to kill to defend his secret… It’a an interesting premise, and Farrar’s prose is readable and unremarkable. I’m surprised the book is not better-known – or rather, surprised it never made it to paperback, because there’s certainly a market for it. But then, I don’t think many of Farrar’s novels made it to paperback, so it seems his chief readership was library borrowings. There were a couple of other Farrar novels offered by the seller on eBay who was selling Forcible Entry, and one or two of them looked interesting. But I’m not going to go out of my way to track down his books, although if I see one going cheap I might give it a go.

With Fate Conspire, Mike Shupp (1985, USA). Back in the 1990s, I corresponded online with Mike Shupp. We were members of an online sf novel writing group, although both of us were using the group chiefly as motivation. Anyway, Shupp had published a five-book series, The Destiny Makers, between 1985 and 1991, but nothing else. And nothing since that online sf novel writing group – he was working on something new, and it looked good, but it hasn’t appeared in the years since. To be honest, I suspect With Fate Conspire is not a book that would see publication today. Not because it’s bad – it isn’t, it’s actually quite good. But it makes zero concessions to its readers, and it’s often a struggle to figure out what’s going on. Partly that’s because the plot is about time travel, and partly because it’s set on an Earth 90,000 years from now which is very different. But Shupp further complicates matters by fracturing his narrative. Tim Harper is a Vietnam vet physics student who gets caught in the field of a time machine sent from the future. He figures out how to use it, and travels back to the time it was sent, 90,000 years from the present-day. It’s a world in which some ten percent of the population are telepaths and they are strictly apolitical after two world wars caused by their interference in national affairs. But where Harper ends up is in the last stand-out against a world-state, and they decide to use the time travel technology to change the past and maintain their independence. With Fate Conspire does not make this easy. The narrative jumps about, and does not even mention some of the more important plot elements, and reading the book is a struggle to figure out what’s going on. I don’t have a problem with this, but I suspect present-day editors would. With Fate Conspire is definitely a book a written by an engineer. Happily, I have all five of the series and I brought them with me to Sweden. The next book is titled Morning of Creation. Expect it to appear in a blog post sometime in the next month or so.

Black Mischief, Evelyn Waugh (1932, UK). This was one of a bunch of Evelyn Waugh novels my mother found me in charity shops. In Harrogate. Where they obviously have a somewhat different class of customer to Sheffield. Although, to be fair, it’s a rare charity shop that will keep 1950s Penguin paperbacks on their shelves. And they were pretty tatty copies too. Black Mischief is set in the invented African island-nation of Azania. There are two African language-groups, one native to the island, the other invaders several centuries earlier. Plus Arabs, legations from assorted European nations, churches from the major religions, and a variety of hangers-on and chancers. The current ruler dies and his son, only just down from Oxford, takes the throne. And is determined to drag his country into the twentieth century (the fourth decade of it, at least). Waugh lays out the history of his invented country with impressive clarity. The story then shifts to London and Basil Seal, a character from Waugh’s earlier novels, a dissolute upper class wastrel, who happens to know the new emperor of Azania and fancies getting out of London. So he travels to Azania, hooks up with emperor, and is made Minister of Modernization. He’s in it for what he can get, of course, but he’s out-matched by pretty much everyone else in the country. Had Black Mischief been written a few decades later, it might have aged better. Because it’s horribly racist. It’s not just the language, it’s the treatment of races other than English. Waugh mocks the English quite heavily; and the French too. Especially their legations. But his treatment of the Sakuyu and Wanda relies on racial caricatures, as does his characterisation of Youkoumian, an Armenian Jew. Perversely, the one non-English character who isn’t treated racistly is the new emperor, who comes across as woefully naive, if well-intentioned, and the sort of over-educated naif so beloved of Oxbridge comedies. Not one of Waugh’s best.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 134


2 Comments

Moving pictures 2019, #12

More Amazon Prime viewing. The Blu-rays I brought with me are still in their shrinkwrap, sitting on a shelf across the room and mocking me. Currently, my viewing comprises assorted series from Swedish TV, such as Midsomer Murders (it’s worse than I thought), Antiques Road Trip, Murder She Wrote (known here as Mord och inga visor, Murder without evidence) and NCIS: New Orleans (which is even less believable than all the other NCIS franchises put together). On Amazon Prime, I’ve been watching Andromeda, which is a bit like a TV adaptation of a campaign for a space opera role-playing game played by fourteen-year-olds…

Fortunately, I’ve managed to find some halfway decent – and some quite excellent – movies to watch to keep me sane. And, of course, I’ve been reading books… although I’ve no idea why I decided to reread the Wheel of Time just because I have the whole series on my Kindle (courtesy of Worldcon75) and The Eye of the World is so bad it’s doing my head in…

The Eagle Huntress, Otto Bell (2016, Kazakhstan). The Mongolian nomads in the Altai Mountains use eagles to hunt, particularly foxes, as hunting eagles is now considered more of a traditional sport than a survival skill. Aisholpan is thirteen years old, and she wants to be an eagle hunter. But it has always been the preserve of men. Her father is happy to train her because he thinks she has a real gift for it. Together, they capture an eaglet, which she then trains to hunt with her. She enters the annual eagle hunting competition at Ulgii… and wins. But her critics refuse to consider her a real hunter until she has caught a fox in the mountains. Which she then does. It’s a well-travelled narrative – girl wants to follow traditionally male occupation, demonstrates gender barrier is entirely arbitrary, and even excels at it… But it’s a story that bears telling over and over again. Because some men just do not get it. Women can do everything men can do. And when any man says that some thing is not for women, whether it’s hunting with eagles or programming computers or flying jet fighters, then that’s nothing more than sexism. The fact Aisholpan wins the eagle hunting competition – and okay, the judges might have cut her some slack on some of the events because of her age and gender, but her eagle actually broke competition records in other events – only demonstrates that any gender bar to the sport is complete nonsense. Anyway, The Eagle Huntress is beautifully shot, does an excellent job of presenting the people it documents, and tells a heart-warming story that should be better known. Recommended.

The History of Time Travel, Ricky Kennedy (2014, USA). It seems like an obvious conceit, and the most obvious example of it is the Back to the Future movies, but I don’t think time travel has been given the mockumentary treatment before, particularly time travel that keeps on changing its own history. The History of Time Travel opens with a factual account of the discovery of time travel – it only works to the past, not to the future – by a scientist and a wound-down WWII research project sometime during the 1960s. But the invention proves of little use. There’s some discussion of the Grandfather Paradox, and the ethics of interfering in the past… exemplified by the inventor travelling back in time to save his mother from dying when she gave birth to him… And the mockumentary then continues on from a point where two brothers invented time travel in the 1980s… and one of the went back in time to prevent their mother from dying in a car crash… And with each attempt to change the past, a new present is formed, their effects mostly confined to those associated with the inventors but occasionally spreading out further – leading in one timeline to the event depicted on the poster. And even to a time war between the US and USSR. The History of Time Travel is a shoestring affair, but they’ve taken care over making sure the script is consistent and logical, and that does them credit. Some of the “archive footage” is effectively done, even if the acting isn’t brilliant, and the continual rewriting of history as one or the other or both of the brothers goes back in time to save their mother or father actually works quite well. To be honest, I’d sooner see films like The History of Time Travel – made on the cheap, by people who were clearly invested in it and in science fiction – on the Hugo Award shortlist than some multi-zillion dollar semi-fascist Hollywood MCU tripe. But then the Hugo Award’s dramatic presentation categories have always been both a complete waste of time and a trash fire.

I Remember You, Óskar Thór Axelsson (2017, Iceland). This opens like a fairly typical Nordic noir, with a body found in a church, hanged, with crosses carved into her back. The policewoman investigating the case links it to the disappearance of a boy decades earlier. She finds a photo showing him with eight of his classmates, six of whom have since died in mysterious accidents. And all with crosses carved into their backs. The policewoman is being helped a by a doctor, whose own young son disappeared a few years earlier during a game of hide and seek with friends. Meanwhile, a man and two women – one is his pregnant wife, but he’s having an affair with the other – are trying to turn an abandoned building in an abandoned whaling station on a small island into a B&B. Half of the films made on planet Earth… well, if they’re not about sons having father issues, they’re about fathers trying to deal with the loss – permanent or temporary – of their sons. And 99.9999% of the time it’s supremely uninteresting. I Remember You, however, actually folds the disappearance of the doctor’s son into its plot, it’s not just “motivation” or back-story. Because solving the disappearance from decades before eventually leads to the doctor learning what happened to his son. Despite all that, I Remember You is not straight-up Nordic noir, as many of those involved in the story at intervals, and not entirely clearly, see the first missing boy. The supernatural aspect adds to the noir, making the story even more tense and leaving some things unexplained. I Remember You took a while to get started, but it was definitely worth the wait. Recommended.

Kaashmora, Gokul (2016, India). This is not a Bollywood film, but a Tamil-language movie, so Kollywood. I’ve definitely seen Tollywood films (both Bengali and Telugu-language), but I don’t think I’ve seen any Kollywood films before. Anyway, Kaashmora is from Chennai and Wikipedia describes it as a “supernatural action comedy”, which isn’t far off the mark. The title refers to a TV celebrity ghost-hunter, who is actually a complete fake. A young woman wants to study him for her doctoral thesis. The two of them, plus a handful of relatives, all of whom, it transpires, were born under the same star sign, end up in a haunted palace – where centuries before a princess ran away with her lover, a prince of a rival kingdom, but was brought back by the king’s war hero general… who then murders the king, seizes the throne and takes the princess as his wife. But she kills him, but is killed by him. The two of them, plus twelve henchmen, have been haunting the palace ever since. And now Kaashamora, the doctoral student and assorted relatives, all born under the sing, are present ad the general can use them to lift the curse. Kaashmora starts out as a comedy, but the flashback explaining the back-story is a complete CGI action fest, and when all the principals are in the haunted palace, there’s CGI flying around all over the place, and it’s all quite gruesome but also very funny. Perhaps the film is over-long, but then Indian films do run longer than Western ones. I enjoyed it. Worth seeing.

Icebreaker, Nikolay Khomeriki (2017, Russia). Yes, I know, the DVD cover says The Icebreaker, but I’m pretty sure the credits of the version I watched simply called it Icebreaker. But then Russian doesn’t have articles anyway, so it doesn’t make any difference. The film is set in the 1980s, during the last years of the USSR. A Soviet icebreaker in the Antarctic (although I’m pretty sure at least one subtitle mistakenly referred to it as the Arctic) finds itself trapped after a close encounter with a huge iceberg. The captain is demoted, and a replacement sent out by helicopter. But the helicopter breaks down on landing, so now they’re all completely trapped. And the fuel is running out. The Soviet authorities promise a rescue mission, but they’re dragging their feet because someone in the ministry delayed the ship’s departure and that’s what ultimately created the current situation. You wouldn’t think there’d be all that much drama there – and certainly very little action – but Icebreaker manages to find plenty. I’ve no idea where they filmed it, but it looked very convincing. And it has a happy end, which actually comes as something of a surprise. The Russians have been churning out well-made commercial blockbusters for a number of years now – although, to be fair, even some of the older Soviet big budget commercial movies were worth seeing – and it’s a shame their distribution is so patchy outside the Russo-speaking world. But for Amazon Prime, I’d never have seen Icebreaker, or a number of other films like it, and even then I stumbled across it more by accident than by design. Worth seeing.

The Tundra Book, Aleksei Vakhrushev (2011, Russia). I’m not sure why I ended up watching two documentaries set in areas that were once part of the former Soviet Union. It just sort of worked out that way. Unlike The Eagle Huntress, however, The Tundra Book is set on the Chukchi Peninsula, in the far east of Russia and still part of the country. It’s a desolate place, and the most sparsely-inhabited region of Russia. The Tundra Book is about Vukvukai, a native of the region, who is in his seventies and leads an extended family that manages a herd of some fifteen thousand reindeer. And, er, that’s what the film is about. The cinematography is impressive, but the story isn’t very dramatic. Interesting, yes, but not dramatic. It’s a fascinating look at a way of life that’s about as far from my own as it is possible to imagine, but at 105 minutes it’s perhaps a longer than the subject matter needed. But still good.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 939

ETA: I have it on good (Swedish) authority than “Murder without evidence” is a mis-translation of Mord och inga visor, which literally means “murder and no songs”, and is actually a pun on a Swedish expression ord och inga visor, “words and no songs”, which means “a harsh criticism”. Tack, Johan.


2 Comments

Moving pictures 2019, #11

This is the first post of films watched after my move to Sweden. I brought my Blu-ray player and my Amazon FireStick with me, but unfortunately the television in the hotel apartment I’m renting has no HDMI slot, so I can’t use them. I’ve been watching films on Amazon Prime on my laptop. Which has somewhat limited my ability to write blog posts or, well, fiction. Both of which I planned to do more often when I got here. Ah well. Perhaps when I find somewhere more permanent to live…

The Quatermass Xperiment, Val Guest (1955, UK). I’m pretty sure I saw this many years ago. If so, it was before I started documenting the movies I watched. Certain scenes felt very familiar… but there are number of British films from the same period which are quite similar… so maybe I have seen it before, maybe I haven’t. The Quatermass Xperiment is a film adaptation of a television series, originally broadcast in 1953 by the BBC. A British scientist, played in the film by an American, with no attempt at sounding British, but played by Brits on television, sends three astronauts on an experimental rocket into space. They lose contact… and the rocket later crashes in a field in the country. Only one astronaut has survived – in fact, there’s no trace of the other two. But that one astronaut seems to have caught some sort of space germ, which slowly turns him into a monster and sends him on a murdering spree. The film ends with Quatermass and flunkeys cornering the monster in Westminster Abbey, which has been closed for renovations. I’d like to see the TV series on which this film was based, because the film is a straight up monster movie and though it tries hard to be thoughtful its story is just too B-movie. Meh.

Quatermass II, Val Guest (1957, UK). It doesn’t take a genius like, er, Quatermass, to spot that this movie is a sequel to the one above. And like The Quatermass Xperiment, it was also adapted from a television series from 1955. Quatermass is once again played by American Brian Donlevy (although two different British actors had played the role in the two TV series). This time, small missile-shaped meteorites have been landing in Essex, and nearby is a secret government project researching new sources of food. Except it’s not researching that. Not anymore. As Quatermass soon discovers. The meteorites contain some sort of organism, which takes people, leaving them with a telltale scar, and these alien-inhabited people are using the government project as a bridgehead to take over the Earth. By growing a giant alien inside an oil tank. Or something. Apparently, The Quatermass Xperiment was extremely successful, so makers Hammer Film were keen to capitalise on it. Unfortunately, Quatermass II was outperformed at the box office by another Hammer movie, The Curse of Frankenstein, and so Hammer decided to focus on making horror movies. (They returned to Quatermass in 1967, with Quatermass played by Andrew Keir, a Scot.) Quatermass II is a much better film than its predecessor, although like the earlier film it climaxes with a giant monster. Both are very much films of their time, and while they resemble B-movies they’re generally better thought-through and smarter than US B-movies. But I’d still like to see the original TV series. Incidentally, when searching on Amazon Prime for these films, be careful. There are free versions available and pay-to-play versions. I’ve seen that a few times on Amazon Prime. Streaming, eh?

Mahler, Ken Russell (1974, UK). You’re never entirely sure what you’re going to get when you sit down to watch a Ken Russell film. Some of them are really quite bad, and yet others are absolutely brilliant. Mahler falls somewhere between the two. It looks cheap – despite being set in Mahler’s native Austria, it was clearly filmed in the UK – but there are some impressively-staged scenes. And some outright bonkers ones. It is not, after all, every day that you watch a movie featuring a dream sequence in which a dominatrix in SS uniform whips the protagonist on a mountain-top while he is tied to a giant sword… Robert Powell plays the title role, and the film opens with Mahler returning to Austria on a train, a famous composer and conductor – “I live to compose, I conduct to live,” he tells a reporter. His life story is told in a series of flashbacks – the antisemitism he experienced as a child, his later conversion to Catholicism (for, it is suggested, chiefly professional reasons), the death of his daughter… I know nothing of Mahler’s music and, to be honest, the film has not made me a fan of it. But I am a fan of Russell’s films – well, many of them – and while Mahler apparently, according to Wikipedia, “by 1985 the film had recorded a net loss of £14,000”, I actually liked it a lot. It’s bonkers, but in a good way. Powell is okay, but Georgina Hale as Mahler’s wife is better. There is some lovely photography of the Lake District – okay, it’s supposed to be Austria, but it’s still very nicely shot. I’d been in two minds about Russell’s films about composers, since they’re not people that really interest me, but if the others are like Mahler then I’m quite keen to see them.

Tycoon, Pavel Lungin (2002, Russia). The first film by Lungin I watched was The Island, AKA Остров, which was released on DVD in the UK by Artificial Eye. That was back in 2015. Since then, I’ve watched Tsar (see here), a later film, and now Tycoon, AKA Олигарх, an earlier film. And, to be honest, they don’t much feel like all three were made by the same director. True, those first two are both about faith, although the stories they tell are very different – although Tsar is a lavish historical re-enactment. Tycoon, however, feels like a made-for-TV movie, and it’s somewhat surprising it was allowed to be made, given how critical it is of Russian oligarchs and the government corruption which created, fostered and profited from them. And still does. The film opens with the police seizing the offices of Infocar, the holding company of billionaire oligarch Platon Makovski. On his way home, Makovski is killed by a rocket attack on his car. The film then jumps back to 1985, when four childhood friends attended an economic symposium.. Shortly afterwards, they decide to go into business together, selling jeans they’ve stonewashed. And from there, it’s one business scheme after another, until a Georgian who manages a Lada factory joins then and they become automobile dealers. The film doesn’t really explain how Makovski and his friends became so powerful and rich. The business deals they do on-screen, often put together with the help of underworld contacts, or abetted by the Kremlin, don’t seem the sort to lead to a personal wealth of $5 billion, as mentioned at the start of the film. Through a series of flashbacks, Tycoon shows Makovski’s rise through its flashbacks, while the present-day narrative continues after his death as some of the old guard in the Kremlin move in on the company, with the help of one of the friends. It’s apparently based on a true story, but some of the details are too vague to convince, and the present-day events are a little too byzantine to be realistic. Still worth seeing, however.

Just Another Love Story, Ole Bornedal (2007, Denmark). There are not many films that start with the protagonist lying dead on the street, while he explains that he’s dead. It’s been used plenty of times in written fiction, but I’m fairly sure it’s not all that common in cinema – although I’ve a vague feeling I’ve seen a 1940s noir film that used something similar. Anyway, protagonist Jonas is married with two kids and a life that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. On the road one day with his family, he narrowly avoids an accident – but the woman in the other car was not so lucky and is seriously injured. Jonas goes to see her in the hospital, where he learns she has lost her memory. They won’t let him see her, so he lies and says he is the woman’s boyfriend, Sebastian. But all her family are there in her hospital room, and they’ve never met Sebastian – the woman met him while on holiday in Thailand, and had only just returned to Denmark. They take Jonas at his word. So he begins a double-life: Jonas with his family, Sebastian with the injured woman. But then Sebastian turns up… And it seems he’s being chased by Chinese gangsters because he stole some diamonds from them. Just Another Love Story is a feeble title, but this is a smart modern thriller, with a contemporary twist on a noir-ish story. Worth seeing.

The Dawns Here Are Quiet, Stanislav Rototsky (1972, Russia). During WWII, a detachment of Soviets soldiers who man an anti-aircraft gun in Karelia are spending too much drinking and womanising, and the sergeant in charge complains to his superior officer. So the troop are re-assigned and the sergeant is sent an all-female platoon. Things go well for a while, until early one morning one of the soldiers spots a pair of German paratroopers. So the sergeant picks five of the female soldiers, and they go out to kill the Germans. Except, it turns out there’s a whole platoon of them. But they still have to stopped. And while reinforcements have been sent for, it’s going to be a while be they reach Karelia. The bulk of the film is the cat and mouse game, shot entirely from the Soviet point of view, as the sergeant and five young women try to get themselves into a position where they can ambush the paratroopers, which involves taking a path through a swamp known only to the sergeant, and eventually ends up with a running firefight in which the Soviets are badly out-numbered. For some reason, The Dawns Here Are Quiet has been presented on Amazon Prime as a two-parter, which proved confusing as I hadn’t noticed and the film ended up very abruptly. But it was definitely worth hunting down the second part as this is an excellent film. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1972, but lost out to Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and I’m not entirely sure that film is actually better, or not so much better it would not be a difficult decision to choose between the two. Recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 939


Leave a comment

Moving pictures 2019, #10

This is the last post of movies I watched in the UK, which is why it’s only four films instead of the usual six.

Ten, Abbas Kiarostami (2002, Iran). To anyone who has never seen an Iranian film, I say go out and watch one. Now. Iran has one of the best cinematic traditions on the planet, and a number of excellent directors. Not just Kiarostami, but also Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Asghar Fahadi, Jafar Panahi, Majid, Majidi, Babak Payami, Samira Makhmalbaf, Bahman Ghobadi… But if you were going to watch an Iranian film for the first time, I wouldn’t, er, recommend Ten. It’s good. And a good example of Iranian cinematic narrative techniques – especially Kiarostami’s. But it’s also nothing like Western cinema, and some might find that too much of a hurdle. The film is structured around ten scenes which take place in a car, mostly with the camera focused on the person in the front passenger seat. Who is in conversation with the driver, a woman. The passengers include her son, her sister, and various people to whom she is giving lifts. Sometimes the camera focuses on her. The conversations gradually reveal the driver’s life – such as the fact she is divorcing her husband. If I were to suggest a Kiarostami film to someone who had never seen one before, I’d probably pick Close-Up or Through the Olive Trees, or perhaps, because it’s my favourite of his, The Wind Will Carry Us (but be prepared to struggle finding his films in the UK as only some have been released on sell-through or rental). Kiarostami certainly had a singular vision, even among Iranian directors, and I do find faux-documentary narrative films of the sort he often made very appealing. However, the confined nature of Ten means a lot rests on the words and the actors, and I prefer movies that are, well, cinematic, ie, there’s very much a visual narrative to the story. Ten, like black box theatre, more or less dispenses with that. It is, as I said earlier, a good film, and perhaps quite emblematic of Kiarostami’s oeuvre, but it’s not what I’d call entry-level.

Sherman’s March*, Ross McElwee (1986, USA). So McElwee wanted to make about General Sherman’s march through  George and North and South Carolina during the American Civil War, and the impact his army had on the country through which it passed. But McElwee was originally from that area, and when he turns up with his camera, relatives and old friends are more concerned with match-making because his last relationship has just ended. So the documentary makes a half-hearted attempt to discuss the effects of Sherman’s scorched earth policy, but gets quickly, and often, derailed by McElwee’s pursuit of various women, which usually fail, for a variety of reasons. And then McElwee moves onto the next spot on Sherman’s route. And it sort of happens all over again. Surprisingly, it proved quite interesting viewing, perhaps because it’s a documentary. McElwee does also tackle his subject, and on occasion ties it into his own childhood in the area. I hadn’t expected to enjoy Sherman’s March, and some of the films on the 1001 Movies You  Must See Before You Die list have indeed been chores to watch, but I really did like this one. Recommended.

The Housemaid, Si Si (2014, China). This is available on Amazon Prime in the UK, although not apparently in Sweden – and that seems to apply to a whole bunch of Chinese films that had been dumped on Amazon Prime. Which is a shame. Not, I hasten to add, that The Housemaid, AKA Desire Nanny or Sex Babysitter, is the soft porn the poster suggests. It is in fact not unlike Secretary. Which is, I guess, er, borderline. Anyway, a young woman moves to the big city but has trouble finding work She signs up with a domestic agency, and her first job is to clean the house of a minor gangster. He takes a shine to her, and repeatedly asks the agency to send her. At which point, he starts ordering her to wear particular outfits when cleaning house. And it all snowballs from there. A second narrative covers the gangster’s son and his girlfriend, and their plan to steal money his father. The three parts of the film – social drama, sexual shenanigans with the gangster, and the plans of the gangster’s son – don’t sit together especially well, particularly those first two, where you have something that resembles a film by a Sixth Generation director which turns into some sort of light porn Youtube video. Ah well.

Sleeping Dogs*, Stephen Donaldson (1977, New Zealand). Another film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list but, surprisingly, as indicated above, it’s not a US film. New Zealand cinema is not especially well-known, although considerably better-known after Peter Jackson made the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Of course, there have been a number of films from the country which have international reputation, and Sleeping Dogs must be one of them – although, to be honest, I’d not heard of it before deciding to work my way through the list… Sam Neill, sporting a hairstyle that looks uncannily like a bad wig, is thrown out by his wife and finds his way to the coast, where he rents an abandoned house on a small island. Meanwhile, New Zealand is descending into chaos after the 1973 oil crisis leads to a general strike, civil unrest, the imposition of ever more draconian laws and the formation of a “special police”. Leavers who want a no deal Brexit should take note. A squad of special police turn up one day, bundle Neill into a boat and cart him off to headquarters. He’s thrown into a cellar and left, with no explanation. Some days later, a senior officer, whom Neill knew from school, tells him that a cache of arms, for use by insurgents, had been on found on the island where Neill was living alone. He’s offered the choice of confessing to be a member of the resistance and deportation, or maintaining his innocence, which will lead to his execution. His choice is framed as “upholding democracy or supporting the resistance”, apparently without irony – no democratic society arrests and executes people without due process of law. Neill manages to escape police custody, and goes on the run. He is helped by the resistance, and ends up a handyman at a rural motel. Which is then taken over by a mixed squad of special police and US Army soldiers, led by Warren Oates. The man for whom Neill’s wife left him then appears and proves to be a member of the resistance. He wants Neill to trigger a trap to kill Oates’s men… The film is based on a novel called Smith’s Dream by CK Stead, and it’s tempting to suspect that dream was merely the desire to be left alone. Throughout the film, Neill refuses to choose sides, but is repeatedly dragged into the resistance’s plots. As a result he becomes something a folk hero, although at second-hand. Plot aside, Sleeping Dogs was clearly made with a small budget – despite the appearance of three Royal New Zealand Air Force helicopters and jet fighters – and the acting is pretty bad, even by Neill. But the camera does make good use of the famous New Zealand scenery. I can see why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – as a New Zealand film. Its story might well be more relevant now than it was in 1977, and, while the film has dated, it’s so obviously a seventies film it comes across pretty much as an historical document. But it still looks noticeably cheap in the more dramatic scenes, and that does weaken it. Nonetheless, worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 939


3 Comments

Reading diary 2019, #3

After years of resistance, I have finally succumbed – although it was, of course, more a matter of practicality than choice. I have started reading ebooks. I bought two dozen books (a mix of paperback and hardback) with me to Sweden, but the vast bulk of my collection went into storage (85 boxes!). And I’m not really sure when I’ll see them again. There’s an English Bookshop here in Uppsala – it’s well-known across Scandinavia – but books in Sweden are expensive. And until I get my ID card and a permanent address, I can’t buy books online… So: a Kindle. I’ve ended up buying ebook versions of books I already own – such as Shadow Captain and Crimes Against Humanity below – because my copy has gone into storage, but there are also books I’ve wanted to read for a while which are only available on Kindle. So it’s all working out quite well.

MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood (2013, Canada). I bought this with me in my carry-on luggage and I started it on the plane. To be honest, I’m not sure why I bothered reading it. It’s the third book of a trilogy and I didn’t much like the preceding two books, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Which is not to say that I don’t like Atwood’s fiction – Alias Grace is an excellent novel, and I’ve thought other books by her were very good indeed. But not the MaddAddam trilogy, which reads like really badly-done sf that’s striving for satire but misses every time. The surviving Gardeners from The Year of the Flood have more or less settled down, with the Crakers (a race of genetically-engineered pacifist and dimwitted herbivorous humans created by Crake) and Snowman, who was also part of the project with Oryx and Crake. The two Painballers from the previous book are still at large, and the Gardeners have no desire to fall into their clutches. But MaddAddam is mostly about Toby – and her lover, Zeb, half-brother of Adam, founder of the Gardeners, and his various adventures in the US prior to the release of the virus which killed off most of humanity. And it’s all so very, well, obvious – a dystopian neoliberal US that has been a mainstay of science fiction since cyberpunk. Atwood enlivens it with some jokey branding, but half the time the brands are embarrassingly bad, as if any marketing department on the planet would come up with such crass brands as AnooYoo, and so on. On the other hand, the sections where Toby tells the Crakers slightly mythologised stories about Zeb are quite funny. Which is another reason why I’m not especially keen humorous science fiction for a start, and yet the MaddAddam trilogy doesn’t seem to know whether it’s humorous or serious. It’s impossible to take seriously, which suggests the latter intent; but it’s not comic enough to qualify as the former. Ah well.

Shadow Captain, Alastair Reynolds (2019, UK). This is the sequel to last year’s Revenger, Reynolds’s first attempt at YA fiction. And, to be honest, other than the fact the two protagonists – one of which is the narrator – are teenage girls, it doesn’t much read like YA. The story is set in, I think, the Solar system many many millennia hence. The planets have been broken up into hundreds of thousands of worldlets, many of which have black holes at their cores to provide gravity. There have been successive waves of civilisation in the system, although no one knows what causes them to die off or be re-ignited. There are aliens present, semi-integrated into society, but apparently no FTL, so no real explanation of where they come from. And there are lots of alien artefacts – it is, in fact, the hunt for alien artefacts on uninhabited worldlets, some of which are protected by forcefields which periodically turn off, and which are know as “baubles”, which drives the plot of the trilogy. In Revenger, teenage sisters Adrana and Fura Ness joined the crew of a spaceship hunting for artefacts. They are “bone readers”, which means they can connect telepathically to hardware, still functioning, in giant alien skulls, and which are used by spaceships as a form of FTL communications. By the end of Revenger, Adrana and Fura have beaten dread pirate Bosa Sennen and taken her ships. In Shadow Captain, they need to find a way to let everyone know that Sennen is dead and the two sisters have no plans to follow in her footsteps. Unfortunately, they get involved with a gangster on a minor “wheelworld” while trying to resupply, and end up in no better a situation than when the book began. Along the way, Reynolds introduces a pair of mysteries which are likely to form the plot of the final book of the trilogy – the aforementioned waves of civilisation, and the possibility there may have been many more abortive waves; and the likely existence of some planetary object which swings into occupied space at intervals and wreaks havoc. There’s a distinctive flavour to Revenger and Shadow Captain, a sort of Dickensian steampunk aesthetic, which is appealing – although it does slip in a few places, where some technology exists without anything seemingly underpinning it. And the baubles are pretty damn cool. Reynolds has used something similar before, in Diamond Dogs, and it’s an idea that has always appealed to me (see John Morressy’s Under a Calculating Star and the movie Galaxy of Terror). The third book, currently titled Bone Silence, is due in January next year. I plan to buy a copy.

The Pyramid, William Golding (1967, UK). I’m not sure what to make of Golding. Here’s a writer who’s chiefly known for his debut novel, but went on to write a further fourteen or so books, all of which are generally highly-regarded but nowhere near as popular or well-known as his first novel, Lord of the Flies. Which, to be honest, I read at school, as probably did many UK schoolchildren. But I stumbled across three of his books in a charity shop a couple of years ago and decided to give him a go. And I was extremely impressed by the first one I read, Rites of Passage. And the second (well, third) novel by him I read was The Inheritors, which was odd, and an odd choice of subject, but very good. So I asked my mother to keep an eye open for his books in charity shops, and she found me three more, of which The Pyramid was one. And… it’s not at all what I expected, based on what I’d previously read by him. It’s set in the 1920s in a small town near “Barchester”, although if there are any other references of links to Trollope’s series they’d be lost on me as I’ve never read Trollope. The protagonist of The Pyramid, Oliver, is a young man due shortly to study chemistry at Oxford. Before he leaves, he wants to make out with the nubile receptionist from the doctor’s surgery next-door, who, it is implied, has a “reputation” (it is later revealed she is fifteen). Oliver succeeds – and it’s quite clearly rape, and described as such later, although the narrative seems to brush it off. Oliver returns home a few years later during his time at Oxford, and ends up involved in a local play, where he plays a gypsy violinist (as he plays the piano and violin) and a spear-carrier. But it all goes comically wrong. The final section is set decades later, when Oliver returns home as an old man, and learns the truth about some of inhabitants of the town he knew as a child. I’m not entirely sure what Golding is trying to say with The Pyramid. The various sections are linked by Oliver and place, and some shared characters, but otherwise seem not at all connected. The protagonist is not at all likeable, and his treatment of the teenage girl – and the narrative’s – has not aged well at all. The preoccupation with social class – the title refers to “the crystal pyramid” of social class – reads oddly to a twenty-first century reader, even a British one. To be honest, Waugh writes about class much much better than Golding does here – perhaps because the only intelligent way to write about class is as satire. In all, The Pyramid feels like a minor work, but I’ve more of his books on the TBR and I plan to read them.

The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh (1948, UK). I also asked my mother to keep an eye open for books by Evelyn Waugh – I forget why; I think I’d just watched the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, fancied reading some of his novels and found a couple in charity shops myself… Anyway, I asked her to look out for them, and the next time we met up, she gave me a carrier bag containing a dozen of them. Which was considerably more than I’d expected. Quite a few of them were tatty Penguin paperbacks from the 1950s, which I didn’t mind as these were books I planned to read and pass on. I bought four of them with me to Sweden, including The Loved One. Which is a thin novel, of no great consequence. It’s set in Hollywood during the 1940s, immediately post-war, I think. The protagonist, Dennis Barlow, is a Brit, who worked for a major studio but was let go. He now works for a pet burial service. Which is a career the rest of the British expat community think is diminishes their standing among the Angelinos. This is especially the opinion of Sir Ambrose, who works at the studio which once employed Barlow. And also lets Sir Ambrose go, by simply giving his job to a relative of a manager (this is why employment laws are a good thing). Meanwhile, Barlow has met Aimee, a beautician at Whispering Glades, an upmarket cemetery that could only ever exist in California. And maybe in Florida. Barlow woos Aimee using poetry by assorted great poets which he claims to be his own verse. But then Aimee learns where Barlow works, and she has as low an opinion of the pet burial service as Sir Ambrose. The Loved One is mildly amusing, and Whispering Glades is certainly a good satirical creation, but the Barlow and Aimee are too much the naifs and the rest of the cast are all pretty much caricatures. Still, even second-tier Waugh is pretty damn good prose.

Crimes Against Humanity, Susan R Matthews (2019, USA). I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction series since reading the first book back in the late 1990s (I reread it and reviewed it for SF Mistressworks a few years ago; see here). There’s been quite a gap in the novels’ publication history. The books were originally published by Avon, who dropped Matthews after the opening trilogy and two standalone novels. She was then picked up by Roc, who published a further two Under Jurisdiction novels before dropping her. The next novel in the series came out from Meisha Merlin, who went bust shortly afterwards. That was in 2006. And it wasn’t until 2016, when Baen started publishing her, starting with two omnibus editions containing the six Under Jurisdiction novels, that we started to see new entries in the series: Blood Enemies (see here), Fleet Insurgent (a collection; see here), and now Crimes Against Humanity. This novel follows on from the preceding ones – and it’s get to be quite a  complicated story arc by this point – with Kosciusko settled in Gonebeyond space, and the nine Benches deciding torture is a Bad Thing so they no longer need their military torturers. One of whom hates Kosciusko – for being slapped down in the past after abusing bond involuntaries, because Kosciusko is so much more skilled than him, and because Kosciusko’s actions have pretty much resulted in him, in all torturers, losing his job… So a wealthy capitalist, with lots of fingers in illegal pies, including in Gonebeyond space, and especially including slavery, uses the torturer in a plot to kidnap Kosciusko. It all comes to a head during a raid against the slavers and the rescue of the unsold slaves they abandoned. The plot involves infecting Kosciusko with a tailored virus. Unfortunately, it spreads to all the Dolgorukij (Kosciusko’s race). The story is told from multiple viewpoints, and Matthews does her usual where she throws the reader straight in at the deep end. The narrative has to bend itself over backwards considerably more these days to make Kosciusko a sympathetic protagonist – I mean, even back in the 1990s a torturer as a lead character was a hard sell, but these days, post-Gitmo, post-rendition, post-Bush, it would be almost impossible… Except maybe not, as there’s a shit ton of crap science fiction out there which normalises shitty US tactics like torture. Crimes Against Humanity plays it heavy on taking responsibility and the inappropriateness of forgiveness for such crimes; but it also comes down hard on slavery. Which makes the novel feel more contemporary in sensibilities and not a novel that should have seen print 20 years ago. I do like these books, and the story’s by no means finished, but I’m not sure if there any new books in the pipeline.

You Must Remember Us…, Leonard Daventry (1980, UK). I latched onto Daventry years ago when trying to put together a list of forgotten British sf authors, and found a copy of his best-known novel, A Man of Double Deed (see here), the first book of the Keyman trilogy, the second and third books of which don’t appear to have been published in paperback in the UK, only in the US, and the hardback editions were published by Robert Hale, copies of whose books are as rare as rocking-horse shit these days (apparently because most of their sales were to libraries). My copy of You Must Remember Us…, Daventry’s last novel, was published by Robert Hale, and I was extremely lucky to find a near-mint condition copy on eBay for around £20 a year or two ago. It was one of the books I brought with me to Sweden. And… it’s not very good. The earth has managed to destroy itself, and a last starship has escaped from the UK. The carefully-selected crew, however, didn’t make it to the launch site in Wales in time, so those aboard are whoever was available at the time. And they’re sort of muddling along, managing to keep everything running, for the ten-year journey to Alpha Centauri (the means propulsion is left vague). En route, they come across a deserted alien spacecraft, and four of them explore it but find nothing except a line of enigmatic symbols. The ship then vanishes. Some time later, members of the crew begin to develop extremely fast-growing, and fatal, tumours. There is only one cure: they have to transplant their brains into robot bodies. This doesn’t go down too well, and only fifteen of the crew make the change. They then sleep for twenty years. And when they wake up, they’re orbiting an Earth-like planet inhabited by a Neolithic humanoid people… who see the robot crew as gods. It’s all very British, and surprisingly old-fashioned for 1980. A Man of Double Deed had a flavour all its own, but You Must Remember Us… feels very ordinary. Brains transplanted into robot bodies is a relatively common sf trope, and has been around for a long time – ‘Helen ‘O’Loy’ from 1938, for example – and even made appearance in the execrable Legends of Dune series by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson. These days, of course, it’s not an actual transplant that’s used, more a downloading of the consciousness – the mind as software – such as in Jennifer Pelland’s very good Machine. Daventry’s novel doesn’t add anything to the trope, and I’m not really surprised it never made it into paperback and has been pretty much forgotten. I’d still like to read the rest of the Keyman trilogy, however.

1001 Book You Must Read Before You Die count: 134