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The Hugos 2019, novellas

I attended the Worldcon in Helsinki in 2017 – and had a great time – which meant I was eligible to nominate and vote for the Hugos that year and the year following. I did neither. In either year. I’ll be attending the Worldcon this year in Dublin. Which means I’m once again eligible to nominate and vote for the Hugo Awards. Again, I’ll be doing neither. The Hugos have never really aligned with my tastes, and I refuse to vote for people on shortlists that comprise works. However, as an eligible voter, I have access to the Hugo Voter Pack. Which is pretty much everything on the various shortlists. This year, I decided to actually have a go at reading the shortlisted works. I doubt I’ll finish the novels before the con itself – and, to be honest, I’ve not even started them – but the novellas, novelettes and short stories… those I can do. The other categories I don’t care about.

First up are the novellas. Because it’s a length of fiction I like, both to read and to write. Of the six works on the shortlist, four were by authors whose names I’d heard of before and, in some cases, even read previously. One was vaguely familiar and one was completely unknown to me. In the order in which I read them…

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, Kelly Robson. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Robson previously, but her name sounded vaguely familiar– Ah, she won a Nebula for Best Novelette last year, and is another of the Clarkesworld/Tor.com stable, members of which have appeared on many shortlists in the last couple of years. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach was published by Tor.com. In fact, five of the six novellas on this year’s shortlist were published by Tor.com. Which is a problem. Anyway, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is set on a post-climate crash Earth, in which a much-reduced population live in small high-tech communities. There are people who work on fixing the damage caused by the climate crash, in an effort to create a world that can be repopulated to former levels. The protagonist of this story is one of them. She also has eight prosthetic legs, like an octopus. And she is part of a team, if not its leader, which submits a proposal for an environmental impact study which involves time travel back to Sumeria. It sounds messy as fuck, but Robson manages to make it all hang together. There are problems: it’s not entirely clear what the team from the future are trying to achieve, the personal politics are confused with the wider political situation, and the POV is peculiarly narrow given the world-building. It actually reads like part of a series where much of the world-building was handled in earlier works, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It’s a reasonably well-handled piece, and the prose itself neither stands out nor is an obstacle – and the latter is certainly something that could be said of other nominees. I’m not sure if it deserves to be on the shortlist… but on balance, I’d say its presence is not embarrassing.

Artificial Condition, Martha Wells. Another problem with the novella category – indeed, with the Hugo Awards over the last few years as a whole – is the preponderance of sequels. Martha Wells, previously better-known for mid-list fantasy series, published three of her Murderbot novellas in 2018. (The first was published in 2017.) That’s a series. Artificial Condition is the second instalment. None of them stand alone. There are indeed cases where the second instalment in a series is better than the first, but in this case the first instalment, All Systems Red… won the Hugo Award for Best Novella last year. Come on, people, read a little more fucking widely. It would be understandable if the Murderbot series were astounding, the best sf published for many years… But they’re not. They’re entertaining, and even a little bit clever in places. But fun as they may be, they’re not award-worthy. And if you’re nominating fiction because it was “fun”, you appear to have misunderstood the meaning of the word “best”. The thing about “best” is that you have to recognise something as being of high quality, higher quality in fact than pretty much everything else you read, you don’t necessarily have to have enjoyed it or thought it was fun. The two are quite different. Any old wine will get you pissed, but the good ones won’t have you gagging every time you take a sip. At least not for the first half-dozen glasses. What we have here is a novella that gets you pissed without you actually noticing the flavour of the vintage – and I’d submit that’s not what awards are about, at least not awards that have the word “best” in their title. I enjoyed Artificial Condition. I might even read the rest of the series. But I really can’t see this as award-worthy and its nomination says more about the award than it does the genre.

The Black God’s Drums, P Djèli Clark. Clark won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story this year (the story is also nominated for the Hugo), but appears to have come pretty much from nowhere. True, The Black God’s Drums was published by Tor.com, but his short story was published in a magazine I’ve not come across before. Also true, there seems to be a great love for debuts in recent years’ popular vote genre awards (seriously? why?), but that doesn’t mean the nominated works are necessarily bad. The Black God’s Drums is a bit busy, but it’s an interesting melding of ideas – alternate history, steampunk, voodoo magic and gods – and if it suffers it’s because its ideas makes its plot all a bit too obvious. Streetwise urchin protagonist has connection to powerful goddess; said goddess makes unexpected appearance at story climax to save the day. It’s not quite that simplistic, but the telegraphing here is as blatant as it comes. Obvious foreshadowing is better than none, but a little subtlety goes a long way. The plot is pretty much a staple of, well, fiction in general: nutter steals superweapon to wreak vengeance on city, random people come together to foil the plot (because there’s no organised government response to these sorts of things, ever). Does The Black God’s Drums belong on the shortlist? About as much as the Robson, I think. Its presence is hardly embarrassing, but if this and the Robson are the best the genre can produce in a given year then there’s still a long way to go…

Binti: The Night Masquerade, Nnedi Okorafor. Like Clark, Okorafor also appears twice in this year’s Hugo nominations – for this novella and for the Black Panther comic she scripted. I have to admit I don’t understand the acclaim her fiction receives. She’s a fascinating person and is an excellent role model, but what little fiction by her I’ve read has struck me as simplistic and badly-written. It doesn’t help that Binti: The Night Masquerade is the third and, I think, final part in the Binti series. I read the first, and thought it interesting, if not particularly well put-together. But it was much better than this one, in which this happens and then that happens and then something else happens and then Binti is killed and then she comes back to life and then it all abruptly ends. It doesn’t help that the title refers to a nightmarish figure who appears to Binti, and yet the name of it – the Night Masquerade – clearly indicates it’s a fucking fake but everyone is too fucking stupid to realise. Anyway, Binti returns home but her family are dead, except they’re not really, and there are two races at war with each other but it’s almost impossible to keep straight because Okrafor is more interested in Binti’s feels than she is setting the scene. I’m no fan of exposition, and I disagree entirely with Kim Stanley Robinson’s statement “it’s just another form of narrative”, and “streamlining exposition into the narrative” is another piece of writing advice that gets my back up… Which is not to say there’s zero info-dumping in Binti: the Night Masquerade. There’s plenty. But it’s all about Binti and her culture, or that of her male companion. The rest of the world is so sketchy it might as well have been made-up on the spot by Binti herself. I really do not rate these novellas, and I’m mystified by the love shown to them.

Beneath the Sugar Sky, Seanan McGuire. Yet another sequel. This is the third instalment in the Wayward Children series, about which I know nothing… but can pretty much guess what it’s about from this novella alone. Think Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Sort of. But less clever. McGuire’s prose is so bland it rivals Gaiman’s. Except, that is, for the occasional flight of fancy, none of which actually work. The story is all “poor fat girl who is actually a princess in another reality” tagging along with some friends who try to help a fellow “wayward child” at a school for children who have spent time in other worlds and can’t cope in the real one. The central conceit is, I admit, quite neat, and McGuire clearly has a great deal of fun with it. But it all reads like poor-me fiction and a single idea stretched well past breaking point. The first volume in the series, Every Heart a Doorway, won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2017, and I’m told it’s better than this one. And the second instalment, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, was nominated last year. But Beneath the Sugar Sky‘s presence on the shortlist says more about the power of McGuire’s fanbase than it does the quality of her fiction.

The Tea Master and the Detective, Aliette de Bodard. I’ve been and on-and-off fan of de Bodard’s fiction since first reading one of her stories in an issue of Interzone just over ten years ago. I say “on-and-off” because her science fiction appeals to me much more than her fantasy. And while I remember a number of sf stories set in an Aztec-dominated world, she is best-known these days for her Xuya universe stories, a Vietnam-based far future. (The universe itself is shortlisted for the Best Series Hugo Award, which is not how I thought the Best Series Hugo Award worked, and I’m surprised there’s more than 250,000 words in the short stories and novellas, but no novels, set in the Xuya universe.) Anyway, the “tea master” is a ship mind (more McCaffrey than Banks, if I’ve interpreted the text correctly) and the detective is a woman with a chequered past who hires the ship mind for a simple task. During which they discover a body that clearly did not die of natural causes. The mystery of the victim’s death is intertwined with the mystery of the detective’s past, although one is not a consequence of, or reflects on, the other. But both have satisfying conclusions, and the novella makes good use of its setting. The Tea Master and the Detective is not, as a friend said to me, the best Xuya story de Bodard has written, but it’s a good one. and to my mind, it’s easily the best on this year’s Hugo shortlist.

So there you have it. I’m not going to vote on any of the above, but if I had to choose a winner it would be The Tea Master and the Detective. If I were in a good mood, I’d vote de Bodard, then Robson, then Clark, and everything else below no award. If I were in a bad mood – which is more likely, I suppose – then it’d be de Bodard and everything else below no award.

I had thought this might prove a fun exercise. In fact, I’m discovering why I no longer follow the Hugo Awards. Ah well. Next up, the novelettes…

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Moving pictures 2019, #15

Despite my best intentions, I’ve actually got worse at keeping this blog up to date. But then, it’s been a funny old month-and-a-bit: moving apartment, SFI twice a week, a couple of red days, and then a very long weekend in the middle for Åcon, followed by Swecon two weeks later. Which may explain the delay, but not the pretty odd selection below. It’s just the way it worked out.

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Bruce Beresford (1972, Australia). Remember that time you were down the pub and some bloke told a joke that seemed funny at the time but you were pissed and so was everyone else but but not everyone thought it was funny and in sober hindsight you realise it wasn’t at all funny and was in fact borderline offensive if not outright offensive and if you had been with a more diverse group of friends they probably wouldn’t be friends anymore? Well, that’s this film. Which is why it’s a little embarrassing to write about The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, in which a racist and homophobic young Australian man visits the UK and has humorous adventures, ostensibly at the expense of the English, but he comes across as, well, racist and homophobic, so hardly a good advertisement for Australian manhood. Not that the English behave particularly well, as they’re depicted as either corrupt or even more racist than the Australians. The film was commercially successful but Beresford later said it blighted his career. Making shit films will do that. And just because a film is popular in its time, that doesn’t mean it’s not shit. And I don’t mean “shit” here as in “not well-made” but rather “offensive”. So I can understand Beresford’s complaints. A film to avoid.

Stan & Ollie, Jon S Baird (2018, UK). In the 1950s, shortly before the end of their careers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy toured the UK. This much is fact. It was partly to drum up interest – financially, mostly – in a film project of Laurel’s, a signature reworking of the Robin Hood legend. But the film producer played the comic duo for fools and the UK promoter of the tour did a less than stellar job. It is somewhat disappointing to learn that despite a career in Hollywood Laurel and Hardy were just as easy to fool as those who had stepped off the bus the night before. The film even shows them being smart about contracts… only to have them not actually learn anything from the incident. But that’s real life. And so is this film. It conflates a few things, changes a few minor details, but it’s essentially true to the pair’s final tour of the UK. And their reasons for doing it. But in any biopic, ninety percent of the appeal comes down to the depiction of the subjects, and in that respect Stan & Ollie scores very highly. Steve Coogan has Stan Laurel’s mannerisms down to a tee, although occasionally he does feel more like an actor playing a part; but John C Reilly is a pretty much a perfect Babe Hardy. I’ve seen a lot of Laurel & Hardy films over the years, I have even seen a few documentaries about the pair. And Reilly is extremely convincing. The pair of them make the film, but Reilly more than Coogan.

Sadak, Mahesh Bhatt (1991, India). According to Wikipedia, this film was inspired by Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, although to be honest I didn’t spot the resemblance myself and I’m not sure how closely one maps on the other. The one thing I do remember about Sadak is that it was more like a Hollywood musical in places. Several of the musical numbers had everyone come together on what were clearly indoor sets purporting to be street scenes to sing and dance. And maybe a bit like the TV series Taxi, that one with Danny DeVito and Andy Kaufman. The film centres on Ravi, a good-natured but insomniac taxi driver, who one day stumbles across the beautiful  Pooja, shortly before she is kidnapped and indentured to an evil transgender brothel keeper. One of Ravi’s passengers had been a celebrity cop, so Ravi enlists his help in rescuing Pooja. But it doesn’t go as planned, as nothing does in films of this sort, even Bollywood ones, and the final scenes sees a shootout between the good guys and the bad guys. Ravi is left for dead, but uses the last of his strength to have vengeance on the bad guys and finally rescue Pooja. Happy end. Sadak felt more 1970s than 1990s, although the transfer was much better than would have been usual for a Bollywood film from the earlier decade. I couldn’t decide if the musical numbers were deliberate pastiches – the opening one, for example, reminded me of one of the songs from Grease in its staging. If you’re into Bollywood films, you’ll get an evening’s entertainment out of Sadak, even if it does take some swallowing in places.

Shazam!, David F Sandberg (2019, USA). DC have had real trouble creating a property with the appeal of MCU’s properties. Which is odd, when you think about it, because they’ve got some big super-powered guns in their arsenal. But they’ve rebooted Batman that many times… and Superman too… and only recently did they finally realise that Wonder Woman was commercially viable (despite a successfully syndicated TV series decades ago), and as for the rest… Aquaman is DC, right? I forget. It was complete bobbins, but very entertaining (see here). There was that Justice League movie. I think I’ve seen it (apparently, I have – see here). So it must have seemed to DC like the most natural thing in the world to pick a second-rate hero like Shazam and make a big budget film about him. The central premise of Shazam! is the super-powers are passed from person to person, and the film’s first act sees those powers being given to a fourteen-year-old boy. Who, when he says the magic word – bet you can’t guess what it is – and transforms into a superhero, he’s a grown man but he’s still got the mind of a kid. It makes for a good joke… when used sparingly. The plot is something to do with a previous candidate for the powers who, peeved he was rejected, turns all-out evil and abducts Shazam’s friends and stuff like that. The movie had its moments, but it’s considerably less memorable than Aquaman, even if my overriding memory of the latter is endless battle scenes and a treasure map that required the use of a statue of a Roman emperor who didn’t exist until centuries after the map was made. Oops. Anyway, a bottle of wine and something trashy to eat like pizza, and Shazam! could be considered suitable accompaniment.

Vinyl, Sara Sugerman (2012, UK). Titling films is important. Sometimes it’s why people watch them. So to title a film Vinyl – an over-used title – when it really has nothing to do with vinyl, ie, LPs, seems like a pretty dumb decision. But that’s what they did here. And it’s even based on a true story. Which also had nothing to do with vinyl. But Vinyl is a film about music and bands, so it’s not like there isn’t some link. In the early 2000s, the members of a punk band popular twenty years earlier all meet up at the funeral of a friend. They’ve all got their own lives, not all of which has been successful. After a piss-up, they jam. The following morning, one of them cleans up the song they spontaneously wrote while pissed, and they all decide it’s good enough to give their band a second lease of life. Except the A&R man of their old record label disagrees. He likes the song, but he’s not interested in a band of fortysomething washed-out punks. So the band hire a bunch of young people to play the part of the band responsible for the song. It works. They get a contract. And the single is successful. But then the fake band members decide they’re a real band and they want a proper career… Vinyl was apparently filmed almost entirely in Rhyl, and much of the cast – with the exception of a handful of lead roles – were local players. The end result is a small town British – well, Welsh – comedy, with perhaps a little too much profanity but some good comic set-pieces, and a story that sounds almost entirely implausible despite being (mostly) true.

The White Balloon*, Jafar Panahi (1995, Iran). There are several films from Iran on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although most are either by Abbas Kiarostami or Mohsen Makhmalbaf. (The former actually provided the script for The White Balloon.) The presence of movies from Iran on the list is no surprise – its cinema has some excellent directors and has produced some excellent films. I’m not sure I’d put The White Balloon in that group – I think I preferred Panahi’s later The Circle – as I can think of a number of other Iranian films I thought better. The story involves a young girl who wants a goldfish and eventually nags her mother into giving her the money for it. But she loses the money, and it’s only with the help of a white balloon given her by a street boy selling balloons that she retrieves it. The White Balloon is very much a product of Iranian cinema, which is why it probably didn’t stand out for me all that much. It’s not structurally innovative, which both Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf are known for. It’s as well-acted and as well-shot as any number of Iranian movies I could name – but it seems to lack their mordant wit and black humour. It’s a good film and worth seeing, but I’m not sure it belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Which could be said of many films on the list – and the presence of quite a few of them is downright mystifying.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 940


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Moving pictures 2019, #14

Since moving to Sweden, I’ve pretty much had access only to Amazon Prime. I bought my Blu-ray player with me, and a bunch of discs, but I’ve yet to set it up. Funnily enough, they don’t sell 3-pin to 2-pin electrical plug adaptors here, only the reverse…

A Dry White Season, Euzhan Palcy (1989, USA). This is based on a novel by noted Afrikaner author André Brink, originally published in 1979, and apparently banned in South Africa. Which is hardly surprising. What is surprising, however, is that the book was around for over a decade before apartheid was ended, and the film for three or four years. And while apartheid was rightly reviled and condemned internationally, I’m surprised books and films which showed its true horror, such as A Dry White Season, weren’t more widely known. Which hardly normalises apartheid, but certainly makes international resistance to it by individuals entirely passive and ineffective. Of course, it doesn’t help when your government – for me at that time, that would be Thatcher’s – cosy up to these vile regimes, or even worse, like Pinochet’s, which more or less much makes them criminals by association. So no, Thatcher does not deserve a statue. Anyway, A Dry White Season. A black teenage boy is rounded up by the police during a schoolboy protest, even though he wasn’t involved in it. His father, the gardener at a posh Afrikaner school, tries to have his son’s criminal record wiped as he was innocent. But then is himself arrested as a “black activist” and tortured. He dies during interrogation. One of the school’s teachers, a famous ex-rugby player and “friend” of the gardener, tries to help out and gets embroiled in the whole thing. He decides to get justice for the dead man, which involves taking the state security police to court for his death. He loses the case. Soon afterwards, he is murdered by a state security police officer. This is grim stuff, and all the ore so for being set in a real world regime that behaved pretty much exactly as depicted. Apartheid was an abomination. A Dry White Season makes an excellent fist of its story, and Donald Sutherland, despite a somewhat wobbly accent, is good in the lead role. Worth seeing.

Thadam, Magizh Thirumeni (2019, India). A successful engineer spots a young woman he fancies on his commute to work – in fact, she works in the same building. He tries asking her out, she plays hard to get, but eventually she agrees. The two are very happy together. But then she heads off to a distant city for a celebration of some kind and is never seen again. Rumour has it she ran off with another man. Some time later, a man is brutally murdered in his apartment. The investigating police find a video taken on a phone from the balcony of a neighouring flat during a party – and it clearly shows the engineer on the balcony of the murdered man’s apartment around the time of the murder. He is arrested, but it seems he has an alibi. Meanwhile, it also transpires the engineer has a doppelgänger, who works as a con man and gambler on the streets. He turns up at the police station where the engineer is being held, after being arrested for drunk-driving. So now the police have two identical men, one of whom murdered the victim, but both have alibis. It turns out the pair are twins, who separated when their parents divorced and the two now hate each other. But one of them must have committed the murder, even though both have alibis. The court reluctantly lets them go. This is a clever thriller, and while it’s pretty long by Western standards, it never flags. It kept me guessing for much of its length, although the resolution is hardly a surprise. But if you’re going to watch a polished thriller, why not watch an Indian one?

The Way Ahead, Carol Reed (1944, UK). Given when this film was made, and its topic, I suspect it was partly, if not wholly, intended to encourage more people to sign up to fight. And yet it shows the British armed forces are just as shit and incompetent as Evelyn Waugh’s novels make them out to be – as indeed does their record in both WWI and WWII. (The modern British Army, however, is a highly effective and professional fighting force, often hamstrung by poor equipment bought by politicians.) Anyway, a number of men from various walks of 1940s UK life are conscripted. En route to their barracks, they have an encounter with an army sergeant that does not go well. Lo and behold, he turns out to be their platoon sergeant when they finally reach barracks. And they’re all convinced he – William Hartnell – has it in for them. In fact, the opposite is true: he thinks they’ll make good soldiers. The film follows them through their training, including all their whinging and attempts to shirk, and ends up with them being sent to fight, only to be re-assigned elsewhere before the battle… but their ship is torpedoed and they have to fight to for their lives. This is a surprisingly honest depiction of British conscription during the war, and of some of the characters are closer to caricature that’s hardly unexpected given the broad strokes with which they’re drawn. As WWII films go, it makes a good antidote to the bombastic crap both the UK and Hollywood churned out in the decades immediately following the WWII.

Animal Farm, John Halas & Joy Batchelor (1954, UK). Orwell’s novella seems an obvious candidate to turn into an animated film, but it took nearly a decade before it reached the screen. Perhaps it was too political for Hollywood – this adaptation is British, after all. Except… Hollywood has made plenty of political films, even ones that directly criticised Hitler. The story of Animal Farm, unfortunately, lends itself too well to animation, and what is clearly a political parable becomes something that feels more like a cartoon without jokes. There’s some good animation here, but I suspect afficionados of the artform are going to be the only ones who really appreciate it. To my eye, nothing especially stood out, and Orwell’s message felt like it was tacked on than the actual point of the piece. Worth seeing almost certainly, but be prepared to be disappointed.

Silence, Martin Scorsese (2016, USA). In the seventeenth century, the Japanese shogunate cracks down on Christianity and imprisons, or executes, all the Christian priests and missionaries in the country. Two Jesuits are sent to Japan from Portugal a few years later to search for a priest who chose to renounce Christianity rather than be executed. After all, who wouldn’t? Seriously, if you’re that invested in an idea you’d give your life for it, chances are it’s not a good idea. And religion, particularly Christianity, is not a good idea. It’s caused far more harm and destruction than atheism. Funnily enough. Anyway, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, a pair of naive young Jesuits, are smuggled into Japan, where they discover Christianity flourishing underground despite being outlawed. Yay for risking execution and torture in service to a promise of an afterlife. Like you’ll ever fucking know whether it exists or not. Show me someone who’s  come back. With proof. Heaven is one of the biggest marketing scams in history of humanity. Up there with the divine right of kings, capitalism, trickle-down theory and white supremacy. Anyway… Scorsese is an experienced and accomplished film-maker, so it’s comes as no surprise that Silence is a well-made film. Although it does still feel like a series of longeurs stitched together by brief moments of drama. In part, that’s the nature of the story Scorsese is telling – it’s spread across years, for one thing. The cast all give good performances, but in places there’s just so much open emotion up there on the screen it feels like a wet Sunday in winter. I’ve never been a Scorsese fan – at least not of his films, but very much so of his World Cinema Project and his work to restore and promote non-Anglophone cinema. That’s always made me feel like I should like his movies more than I do. Silence is by no means a disappointing film, and it ticks all the boxes as an historical drama, but it’s not a film I can have strong feelings about.

The Curse of Frankenstein, Terence Fisher (1957, UK). This was apparently the film which established Hammer as a maker of horror films – and they made some classic, if somewhat cheap, horror films during their time. Melvyn Hayes – better known to Brits of my generation as the female impersonator from the sticom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, plays a young Victor Frankenstein who engages Robert Uruquhart, a disgraced scientist, as his tutor. Hayes grows up to be Peter Cushing. And he and Uruquhart manage to recreate life. But Cushing takes it further and creates a human – his monster, played by Christopher Lee. The film takes a number of liberties with the novel, mostly by almost entirely ditching Shelley’s plot. Th end result is pretty much archetypal Hammer Horror material, almost a template for their later movies. The Curse of Frankenstein grossed more than seventy times its production cost during its release, according to Wikipedia, and spawned a number of sequels. It was not especially well-received by critics. It’s not a very good film, and it would take some real mental gymnastics to try to claim it as one. But it’s certainly germinal, and while none of the film it led to ever be classified as works of cinematic art, they did what they did well and with a welcome sensibility. I don’t like modern horror films, I’m far too squeamish. But I’d happily work my way through Hammer Horror’s back-catalogue, and consider myself richer for having done so.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 939