It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Me at Worldcon, with Apollo

So it’s the Worldcon in two and a bit weeks, and this year it’s in Dublin. And I’m going to be there. Last time I was in Ireland was around fifty years ago, so my memories of the trip are pretty much non-existent. Something else that happened fifty years is the Apollo 11 moon landing. And, somehow or other, I seem to have been put on a bunch of panels on that very subject…

My schedule looks like this:

Apollo at 50
16 Aug 2019, Friday 10:00 – 10:50, Second Stage (Liffey-B) (CCD)
Getting men on the Moon was certainly an achievement, but it is nearly 50 years since anyone was there and the Apollo launchers, unlike Soyuz, have been abandoned for years. Beyond the obvious spectacle, was Apollo all for nothing? Was the spectacle itself enough? Panellists consider the legacy of Apollo.
Jeanette Epps, Ian Sales (M), Dr David Stephenson, Geoffrey A Landis , Mary Robinette Kowal

Artemis: Apollo’s big sister
17 Aug 2019, Saturday 11:00 – 11:50, Second Stage (Liffey-B) (CCD)
Recently NASA selected three lunar landers for taking scientific instruments to the Moon. This is the start of many steps towards the goal of returning to the Moon in 2024. What needs to be done, what is planned, and how does this compare with initiatives from other countries?
Jeanette Epps, Becky Chambers, Alan Smale (M), Ian Sales, Geoffrey A Landis

Alternate Apollos
17 Aug 2019, Saturday 13:00 – 13:50, Wicklow Hall-1 (CCD)
We know how the Apollo landings turned out, but it could have gone quite differently. Armstrong and Aldrin could have crashed, or landed safely but been unable to take off again. What might have happened if Apollo 18 and the Apollo Applications programme hadn’t failed? If the Soviet N1 launcher had succeeded, could they have reached the Moon first? Panellists consider alternate histories of Apollo.
Henry Spencer, Ian Sales (M), Dr Laura Woodney, Gillian Clinton

Shoot for the moon: lunar depictions in SFF
19 Aug 2019, Monday 11:00 – 11:50, Liffey Hall-2 (CCD)
For as long as there has been science fiction there has been a fascination with the moon. What role does the moon play in cultures around the world and how do those cultures incorporate it into their speculative fiction? Our panel will discuss why the moon holds such a powerful allure as a subject for writers and whether the discovery of more distant heavenly bodies has had an impact on lunar fiction.
Ian Sales (M), Ian McDonald, Joey Yu, Hester J Rook, Jeffery Reynolds

The good news – sort of – is I’m moderating three of the panels, which means I don’t have to say anything intelligent, just keep the discussion moving. Which is just as well since most of the other panellists are actual rocket scientists. On the one hand, the above are good meaty topics, ones that interest me – one of the reasons, of course, why I wrote the Apollo Quartet. On the other, actual rocket scientists.

The more observant among you will have spotted the names of some successful sf authors above, including a Hugo Award finalist. And, er, also a Guest of Honour. Coincidentally, I’ve read some of their books, although not necessarily the ones appropriate to any of the panels.

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Moving pictures 2019, #18

I still have a bunch of these before I’m up to date. These films are from early June.

A Date for Mad Mary, Darren Thornton (2016, Ireland). Mary has just been released from prison and returns to her home in Drogheda. Her best friend Charlene is about to be married and Mary is one of the bridesmaids. And she needs a date. She also has to run a number of errands for the bride-to-be, such as arranging a hen party. And sorting out the wedding photographer. But Charlene’s friends, and the other bridesmaids, were never really Mary’s friends, and though Charlene insists nothing changed while Mary was inside they are clearly drifting apart. So Mary tries to find herself a boyfriend for the wedding, while trying to ignore that things have changed in Drogheda. Mary bumps into the wedding photographer, the two begin seeing each other, despite neither considering themselves gay. But it’s the wedding photographer Mary takes the wedding. I didn’t know what to expect when I started watching A Date for Mad Mary, but it turned out to be a well-played girl-meets-girl movie, with a good cast, a plausibly story and a realistic setting. Worth seeing.

Captain Marvel, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (2019, USA). This has been one of the most divisive films of the year, if not the most divisive film so far in the MCU. And, typically, all the fuss had nothing to do with its quality. There is a type of fan out there, of comics and of films, who simply can’t accept a story in which a woman is the hero. They are of course male. And intellectually-challenged and immature. Not only upset with a tentpole MCU movie being about a female superhero, they flew into a frenzy when they saw a deleted scene from the sell-through release showed Captain Marvel subduing a biker who’d made a sexist advance to her. It’s not a good scene, and adds little to the film (which is probably why it was cut), but what Marvel did is trivial when you consider that fridging is so prevalent in movies it’s an actual trope. That’s fucked up. I am, as I’ve said before many times, not a fan of the MCU films, or indeed of superheroes in general. One or two of the films I’ve found entertaining, but they’re only really impressive as showcases of the state of the art in CGI, and not always then. Captain Marvel made some odd story choices, likely a result of a difficult production, with far too many throwaways that added little or nothing. The use of de-ageing on Samuel R Jackson and Clark Gregg was weird and distracting. And the plot jumped around all over the place, with the final big reveal being obvious from about ten minutes in and so it pretty much fizzled. But there was a lot to like. Marvel is the most interesting superhero to carry a film, and as an origin story Captain Marvel beats being bitten by a radioactive spider, but the power Marvel has by the end of the film… Why are there zillions of superheroes when you have one that’s so powerful no one can stand against her? It’s like everyone has sticks and there’s one person walking around with a chain-gun. Star Trek used to do it all the time, with its god-like aliens like Q. Despite all that, Captain Marvel was one of the better MCU movies I’ve seen.

The Nugget, Bill Bennett (2002, Australia). Like most of the films in this post, I stumbled across The Nugget on Amazon Prime. It’s a low-budget Australian movie, although star Eric Bana has appeared in several Hollywood movies and even played a memorable villain in the first of the execrable Star Trek reboots. I say “memorable” but just about the only things that were memorable in that film were its egregious ignorance of the laws of physics and lack of rigour. Oh, and its plot, which didn’t make the slightest bit of sense. Happily, none of those are accusations that can be levelled at The Nugget. Three layabout road workers own a plot of land in the bush where they hope to find gold. And then, purely by accident, they discover a massive nugget, the biggest ever found. The story then follows a typical path – it was also used in Ousmane Sembène’s Mandabi (see here) – in which the three men and their wives spend they money they will get from the nugget before they’ve even sold. And they don’t even know how to sell it. And then it goes missing, but they figure out who has stolen it. You can pretty much guess the ending. A fun light comedy. And very Australian.

Images, Robert Altman (1972, UK). This is one of those films that reminds you of other films. The obvious reference is Don’t Look Now, although that was released a year after this one. But critics at the time thought it resembled Polanski’s Repulsion from 1965. A successful author of children’s books, Susannah York, is told her husband is having an affair, although she finds no evidence of it. Every now and again, however, her husband appears to be an entirely different man. So they move to a small cottage in the Irish countryside, in the hopes York will have the peace and quiet to work and recover. But her husband still keeps on changing into that stranger, and she even spots a doppelganger of herself at various times. Little in this film made sense, but I don’t think it was intended to. Perhaps it was supposed to represent York’s decaying mental state, but the ending scotches that reading. When you finish watching a film, you like to think it was worth the two hours it took. Not just the quality, but also the story. And that’s where Images failed. It seemed relatively straightforward, but by the end you had no idea what it was supposed to be about. Avoidable.

Aladdin, Ron Clements & John Musker (1992, USA). I’ve been slowly working my way through the Disney animated films, not to any plan or timetable it must be said, and it’s often surprises me how few of them I’ve seen. Especially those originally released in the 1980s and 1990s. Which includes Aladdin. I know the story, of course – I’ve read 1001 Nights (various versions), but I knew it even before then, from… the pantomime? I’ve no idea – and I had some sort of vague recollection of some details of the film from back when it was released… Aladdin is a humble, but attractive, street urchin. An evil vizier uses him to break into a cave of riches (this part of the film didn’t seem to follow the original story much) but leaves him trapped inside. He manages to escape, thanks to a genie (voiced by Robin Williams). He returns to the city, disguised as a rich prince, and woos the sultan’s daughter. But the evil vizier plans to marry Princess Jasmine himself and so take the throne. The rest of the story was pretty much by the numbers. With songs. The chief draw here is Williams as the genie, and that’s going to totally depend on how much you enjoy Williams doing the Williams shtick. Which, for me, is not that much. The animation was clean, the character designs were, well, nice, and it all seemed a bit, well, bland. It felt like Disney Product. Meh.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs*, David Hand (1937, USA). I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this before, although it must have been when I was a kid because I have no specific recollection of it. But, like a lot of early Disney films, much if its contents have become cultural memory, so it’s hard to know what’s personal memory and what’s learned second-hand.  It’s even harder when you have a story as well-known as Snow White. You know how it goes. Evil queen is told Snow White will eclipse her in beauty, so she has the huntsman take Snow White into the forest and kill her. Which is what you would totally do if someone a couple of decades younger than you turned out to be prettier. The huntsman does not kill Snow White, who runs away and stumbles across a cute cottage occupied seven dwarfs. And so on. It’s all very 1930s, but then classic Disney films were very much products of the decade in which they were made… and I suppose that might also hold true for more recent Disney animated movies, except everything the studio does these seems way more productivised. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is generally considered one of Disney’s best films, if not its absolute best one. It’s definitely top ten, perhaps even top five. Unlike Aladdin (see above), it has bags of charm so it seem churlish to complain Snow White herself is completely insipid. But the dwarfs, happily, are anything but. Still, I wanted to put it at number one, or perhaps even in the top three. It’s very good. But there are a few that are better.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 940


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Reading diary 2019, #6

My reading seems to be all over the place of late. Mostly it’s because I’ve been limiting myself to buying ebooks, and only when they’re cheap. I did bring some books with me, and I bought a few at the recent Swecon, but I put a lot of unread books into storage. So with less to choose from, my reading has proven less planned. Ah well.

X, Sue Grafton (2015, USA). I’ve been a fan of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels since discovering them back in the mid-nineties. As well as being good crime novels with an engaging narrator, Grafton’s decision to keep the internal chronology consistent irrespective of how long it took her to produce a novel has meant each book has slipped further and further back into the past. Even now, thirty-seven years after the series began – or rather, thirty-three years from A to X – and X is still set in the 1980s, albeit towards the end of the decade. Millhone is hired by a local rich woman to check up on the son she gave up for adoption decades before, and who has just been released from prison after committing a string of burglaries. She does as asked but then discovers the man was no relation… and that the rich woman is the estranged wife of millionaire, and the two are trying to screw as much money out of each other as possible. Throw in a string of missing women and the man responsible for their deaths, identified by Milhone, and who then begins stalk her. Plus an elderly couple who have moved into Milhone’s neighbourhood but do not prove to be who they claim… It’s a bit busier than most of the Milhone novels, and the millionaire man and wife plot actually has a happy end; but these are good books and definitely worth reading.

Embers of War, Gareth L Powell (2018, UK). This won the BSFA Award earlier this year, although I don’t chose the books I read because they won awards (ha!). I’d sort of gone off space opera in recent years as none of the stuff being published really appealed – and, to be honest, most of it seems to resemble military sf more than it does space opera. But UK space opera is a different beast to US space opera, and closer to my sensibilities. I’d also heard a few good things about Embers of War… But, well, having now read it, I’m not entirely convinced. Powell’s decision to tell his story using a number of different points of view in short chapters, I think, worked against it. It didn’t help that so many of the voices were similar, including that of the ship’s AI whose story the novel ostensibly is (in fact, Embers of War is the first in a series about the ship; the sequel is Fleet of Knives). Anyway, the ship Trouble Dog used to be a warship but is now a de-armed rescue ship with your typical space opera crew of misfits. A spaceliner is attacked by a mysterious enemy while visiting a planetary system whose planets were all reshaped into giant sculptures by a powerful and long-dead alien race. Trouble Dog goes to the rescue. Meanwhile, the target of the spaceliner attack – and why do sf novels think it’s acceptable to murder thousands in pursuit of just one person? It needs to stop – has managed to survive and finds herself on the surface of the planet known as the Brain (because, er, it looks like one). She discovers a labyrinth inside the planet – this part of the novel reminded me a great deal of a favourite sf short story, ‘A Map of the Mines of Barnath’ by Sean Williams – and so discovers its secret. The real identity of the woman was not hard to figure out, and it’s the reason why people want her dead – although given she was following orders at the time, it did seem a bit like they were going after the wrong person. The last Powell novel I read was The Recollection back in 2011 (see here), and I thought that started well but then turned boringly generic. Embers of War suffers from the latter as well. The world-building is all a bit too identikit and the ideas feel somewhat second-hand (cf my mention of the Williams story earlier). The characterisation is either bland or relies on quirks, and the prose is readable without being memorable. Readers who like BDOs and alien puzzles will find something to their taste here, but for me this is just Extruded Space Opera Product, with little or nothing that makes it stand out.

The Paper Men, William Golding (1984, UK). I’m having trouble making up my mind about Golding. Until a couple of years ago, I knew him only as the author of Lord of the Flies – his debut novel and his most famous, which must have really hurt – but then I read Rites of Passage and was very impressed. I picked up several of his books in a charity shop, so I had more to read. But… I’m reminded of John Fowles’s oeuvre: he wrote a couple of novels that were stunning pieces of work, but also a number that were almost emblematic of the output of a British white middle-class middle-brow male writer and so not so good. I think Golding was a better writer than Fowles, although none of his books, other than his debut, were as successful as either The Magus or The French Lieutenant’s Woman (and while the latter is an excellent piece of work, the former is very much the sort of book that’s admired only by people in their early twenties). So too with Golding: a handful of beautifully-written but quite strange novels, and then some that are pretty much emblematic of the output of a British white middle class male writer, although perhaps never middle-brow. And The Paper Men falls into the latter category. It’s a first-person narrative by a famous writer who has managed to build a successful career out of a critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful novel and a series of much less successful follow-on works. But he’s seen as an important man of letters, and a US academic turns up on his doorstep asking to be his official biographer. The writer refuses. Shortly afterwards, the writer’s marriage breaks up and he heads off to foreign parts. There’s then a sort of hallucinatory chase around the world, with the biographer trying, and failing, to gain permission to access the writer’s papers. There’s something more going on there, or at least it feels like there should be, but if it’s a reference to anything it pass me by. There’s some very male-gazey – well, pretty lecherous – depictions of the biographer’s young wife, and a number of situations with border on farce. In fact, at times The Paper Men feels like it’s supposed to be a comic novel, even though it’s not at all humorous for most of its length. I’ll certainly read more Golding, but the last two books by him I’ve read have been somewhat disappointing.

The Bitter Twins, Jen Williams (2018, UK). I read the first book in this trilogy earlier this year (see here), and only did so because some friends were extremely effusive with their praise of it… I mean, I’m not a fan of heroic fantasy, although I’ve read a lot of it in the past, and I’m pretty sure there’s very little overlap between my taste in genre fiction and that of the one friend who praised these books the most… But I’m happy to read outside my comfort zone because how else would I discover new authors to like and admire? While bits of the first book, The Ninth Rain, didn’t entirely work for me, I do like fantasy worlds that are couched as science-fictional – and vice versa, of course – so there were definitely things to appreciate there. Enough, at least, to read the second book. Which is, I think, better than the first. And middle books of trilogies generally are not that. It’s better because it introduces a mystery in one of its narratives, gives it a satisfying conclusion, and also uses it to reveal some deeper background about the world. On the other hand… there was something about the writing style which didn’t quite click with me. It wasn’t until a chat at a con with the aforementioned friend where she mentioned “cock-blocking” and quoted a particular line from The Bitter Twins that I figured out what it was about the prose that was giving me trouble: it was written like fan fiction. The author was having far too much fun with their characters, to the extent that “having fun with characters” was driving the story rather than the plot. I’m not saying this is a bad thing. That friend? She’s a big fan of fan fiction, so it’s an approach and style of narrative that appeals to her. I don’t have that background – she had to explain what “cock-blocking” was to me – and I prefer my narrative voice distanced (see pretty much every Reading diary post on this blog). Despite that, the world-building in this trilogy remains very good – in many respects, it reminds me of Jemisin’s award-winning Broken Earth trilogy – and while the good guys tend to be a bit too good to be true at times, the villains of the piece are interesting. Worth a go.

Air Force!, Frank Harvey (1959, USA). I think it was the cover art which prompted me to buy this. I do like books about the Space Race, and while a cherry-picker was never used to deliver astronauts to their space capsule – whatever capsule that’s supposed to be on the cover – it all looked close enough to reality to appeal. If you know what I mean. The contents turned out to be somewhat different to what I’d expected. For a start, I’d thought it was non-fiction, a series of essays written for the popular press about the Space Race, or extrapolations of its future. It turned out to be entirely fictional, albeit based on extrapolations of the state of aviation and space technology in the US at the time.  There are eight stories, originally published chiefly in the Saturday Evening Post. One story is about the first X-15 flight to achieve orbit (the X-15 never did), another is about a pilot whose wife is pressurising him to leave USAF and go into business but his successful prevention of a disaster on a flight persuades him to say. Another story has a fighter pilot “demoted” to transport planes but he manages to prevent a fatal crash during a catastrophic failure of his plane’s systems and that persuades his superiors he should be back flying fighters. It’s all very gung-ho and USAF rah rah rah, and while the technical details are spot-on, the extrapolations are closer to the military’s wishful thinking than what actually happened. This is Man In Space Soonest rather than Skylab, if you know what I mean. The prose is not even serviceable, it’s “journalese” and presents each story as a cross between fiction and a personal account. It’s fun, if you’re into mid-twentieth century US aviation fiction, but its appeal these days, ie sixty years later, is going to be limited pretty much to fans of that. Like, er, me.

A Big Ship at the End of the Universe, Alex White (2018, USA). I should have known from the title… and its sequels’ titles (currently A Bad Deal for the Whole Galaxy and The Worst of All Possible Worlds). This is the Becky Chambers school of titling books, and I’m not a fan of Becky Chambers’s novels. Although to be fair, I was unimpressed with A Big Ship at the End of the Universe for a number of reasons, of which its terrible title was probably the least objectionable. The bad news starts pretty much on the first page. This is a far-future space opera universe… and it has magic. There’s no sense to it, clearly it was added because the author it was a cool idea. Half the stuff magic does in the book is also done by technology. Why would they do that, build a technological solution to a problem already solved by magic? It’s like that throughout the story. But, you know, some people like tech and magic; the fact it makes no sense, that it destroys any rigour the universe might claim to possess, is not a deal-breaker for them. It’s certainly a hurdle more easily scaled by some readers than others. Had that been my only issue with A Big Ship at the End of the Universe, then I’d have simply written it off as “not for me”. But… The novel opens with car race on a space station and it’s clear this is a sport all worlds enjoy and follow, and there’s a lot of money and prestige invested in it, much like Formula 1 in the real world. During the race, one of the drivers, the favourite to win the championship, witnesses the murder of her rival by a strange masked magical figure who seems to have EVEN MOAR magical powers than is known to be possible. The driver is charged with the murder, fears for her life, and does a runner (despite belonging to one of the richest families in the galaxy). Meanwhile, a woman who makes a living selling fake treasure maps to gullible treasure hunters finds herself being hunted by unknown assailants. And she is one of those rare people who have no magical ability whatsoever. Both end up being kidnapped by, and then dragooned into, the crew of the Capricious, an ex-warship from the losing side of an earlier war. The map-seller was once a member of the crew but walked away when the war ended. Bad feelings remain. The plot is all about a super-warship that disappeared during the war, and somehow the super-magic assassin is associated with it. After some internal tensions, the crew of the Capricious track down the ship with authorially imposed ease, but then find themselves the targets of a group of super-powerful magicians, including the aforementioned assassin, who seem to have no trouble razing rich and powerful galactic institutions to the ground. And that is this novel’s biggest problem. The villains are super-powerful, and their strategy of slash and burn is at complete odds with the conspiracy’s previous actions, and it all seems EVEN MOAR implausible than having random magic powers in a technological space opera universe. And if that weren’t enough, the hardy band of adventures otherwise known as the crew of the Capricious still manage to win the day. They are massively outgunned, hugely outgunned… But they win. A battle, not the war – as indicated by the presence of sequels. I mean, there’s suspension of disbelief and there’s suspension of disbelief. The presence of magic is stretching it, but I’m willing to go with it. The rest? No! Dial it back, FFS. It’s nonsense. Super-villains taken down by hardy adventurers with no special powers? There’s no rigour here, no attempt at it. It’s like the author just threw “cool” ideas at the page with no regard for what fitted. It’s not like the plot is super original, because it’s not, in fact it’s a pretty standard one for RPGs (and “ordinary” player-characters overcoming super-powered NPCs is also pretty common in RPGs). Anyway, A Big Ship at the End of the Universe is not a good book. I will not be continuing with the series.


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Moving pictures 2019, #17

I am so behind on these. My lack of internet access for a couple of weeks didn’t stop my movie-watching, but it did prevent me from blogging about what I’d seen. Expect a few more of these before I’m up to date.

Asura: The City of Madness, Kim Sung-su (2016, South Korea). It’s been nearly two months since I watched this and, to be honest, all I can remember is it was a well-made Korean gangster film. There was an opening scene, I recall, in which the mayor of a city unveils a a new high-profile development, you know the sort, all skyscrapers for the rich, doesn’t really address any social or economic problems the city might be experiencing, but is supposed to attract investment, although no one says from whom… Anyway, the mayor is physically attacked by the city’s DA (or its Korean equivalent) and it’s made clear there’s some enmity there – and which side of the law the mayor is on. I also remember a fight between two police officers, one of whom was corrupt but I can’t remember which, and a guy falls off a rooftop and is impaled on some steel rods, and it was pretty damn realistic. But that’s about all I recall. A polished piece of work… I should really watch it again.

Ladies vs Ricky Bahl, Maneesh Sharma (2011, India). The daughter of a rich businessman is brought home drunk one night by her new boyfriend. The boyfriend impresses the father with his ambition and business acumen, and admits he comes from a family that fell on hard times when he lost his inheritance, a large villa worth millions, after the tenants took it over and he can’t afford to get them evicted. He does a deal with the father, who buys the villa at a knock-down price and sends in his own heavies… Except the villa never belonged to the boyfriend and he’s now vanished with the cash he was paid. A PA is tasked with buying a particular – and very expensive painting – for a client of her boss, and manages to do a shady deal with a gallery owner to get the painting… Only to be embarrassed in front of the client when it proves to be a fake. The boyfriend and the gallery owner are the same bloke – Ricky Bahl, obvs – and it turns out he has more victims. All young women. So they get together and plan to turn the tables on him. Which they do. Via an elaborate scam. Which doesn’t exactly go according to plan. Most Bollywood movies are fun, but this one I thought especially entertaining. The central conceit didn’t outstay its welcome over the typical Bollywood running time, and it was nice to see a film that privileged the women’s point of view (Bollywood films are good at that, by the way, much better than Hollywood). A good film to watch on a Saturday night with a pizza and beer instead of the latest MCU tosh.

The Colony, Florian Gallenberger (2015, UK). There’s a science fiction film, I think, with the same title, but this movie is based on a true story. The Chilean government, the one run by that evil monster Pinochet, you know, Margaret Thatcher was buddies with him, allowed a German paedophile to set up a “religious retreat” in the south of the country. And the Chilean government used it as a cover for a torture centre. It’s countries like that the US should be invading, but instead they support them. Of course they do. Because they’re all the same. Anyway, a German working for the opposition is taken by the secret police. His girlfriend, also German, tracks him down to the aforementioned cult headquarters, and enrols in the cult in order to rescue him. It’s films like The Colony which make you despise the ruling classes of every country – and with good reason. Pinochet and his regime committed countless crimes against humanity, and yet he was treated like royalty by the governments of most Western nations. He should have been carted off to the ICJ and imprisoned for life. And so should every government leader who treated him like a legitimate head of state. They were fine forcing regime changes in Iran, fucking up Central America and invading Iraq, but they bent over backwards to help a fascist dictator who used a convicted paedophile as cover for a torture centre. FFS. Good film, horrible story.

The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos (2018, UK). I’m not sure what to make of Lanthimos. Dogtooth was very strange but also very good. I wasn’t so taken with either Attenberg or The Killing of a Sacred Deer. And now we have The Favourite, which on the one hand presents as straight-up historical drama, but on the other seems slightly off-kilter throughout. Which is, it has to be said, totally a Lanthimos thing. The story is about Queen Anne (1702 to 1707) and her relationship with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, ancestor of that idol beloved of the right-wing, a supposed man-of-the-people who was aristocracy through and through, but let’s not stop actual facts get in the way of right-wing mythology. Anyway, the Churchills were just as perfidious back in the 1700s as they were in the 1900s, and this is starting to sound like I sympathise with an actual queen of England, which of course I don’t, but… I don’t give a shit about Anne, Elizabeth, Edward, George, whatever name they choose to take… and even less about those with access to royalty and the wit to manipulate that tribe of inbreds. Olivia Colman puts in a star, if not award-winning, turn as Queen Anne. But we’re still talking about a small, and diminishing, gene pool with unsupportable power over the general population based on self-serving myths and the so-called weight of history; and films such as The Favourite – which is indeed well-made – only show how unsupportable and irrelevant that situation increasingly is.

Dhoka, Pooja Bhatt (2007, India). There is a suicide bomber attack at a shopping mall, and a policeman’s wife is among the victims. But then it transpires she was the bomber. And he doesn’t understand this. He had thought he was happily married. He’s shut out of the investigation, obviously, but decides to look into matters on his own. He learns that a corrupt police inspector had arrested his father-in-law as a suspected terrorist and the father-in-law had died during torture. When the policeman’s wife insists on filing a complaint, she is stripped and photographed by the corrupt inspector, and then raped. So she and her brother begin visiting an imam who persuades them to become suicide bombers. The policeman is too late to save his wife, but perhaps he can save his dead wife’s brother. For all that Dhoka covers a sensitive topic – and you don’t see Hollywood making movies about domestic terrorism – it all felt a bit overly melodramatic. True, it is a Bollywood film and melodrama is baked into the formula; but the scenes with the corrupt police inspector were so OTT, it undermined the story. There are hundreds of Bollywood (not to mention Kollywood and Tollywood) free to watch on Amazon Prime, new and old, and more appearing seemingly every day. So there’s plenty to chose from. I’ve generally been lucky with my picks, but this was a rare duff one.

Mary Poppins Returns, Rob Marshall (2018, USA). Before watching this, I rewatched Mary Poppins. I say “rewatched” although it’s been three or four decades, I think, since I last saw it, so it was more like an actual “watch”. But Mary Poppins was a cultural touchstone when I was growing up, so it’s not like I needed to see the film to remind myself what happens in it. And so it proved. Then I watched the sequel. Which, to be honest, I didn’t expect to like. The son from the original film has grown up to become Ben Wishart. He was an artist but now he works as a clerk at the bank his father worked at. And he has two children, who are surprisingly well-behaved (and precocious), but he still ends up with the latest incarnation of Mary Poppins, Emily Blunt, And she’s bloody good. Blunt not only nails Poppins, she redefines it as her own. Jack, a lamplighter and once apprentice of the original film’s chimney-sweep, played of course by an American, although he makes a much better fist of his accent than Dick Van Dyke ever did, seems mostly out of his depth. Not to mention the musical number where Blunt puts on a cockney accent and blows him completely out of the water. There’s a cleverly-done animated sequence, although I seem to remember the one in the original film was pretty good too, but not as comic. Sadly the songs in the new film are nowhere near as memorable, although the fact I remember the original movie’s songs may be because we had a LP of Disney songs when I was a kid and played it repeatedly… I’m glad I took the time to watch Mary Poppins before watching Mary Poppins Returns. I think it definitely added to my enjoyment of the sequel. And I was surprised to find myself enjoying it. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 940


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Apollo 11 x 50

Today is  the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing on the Moon. So the media is full of science fiction writers commenting on the event, many of whom weren’t even alive when it happened. To be fair, I was only three when Armstrong took his “one small step”, and the only Apollo mission I actually remember watching was ASTP. It’s not like science fiction writers are even experts on the Apollo missions, or indeed actual realistic space exploration. Not unless they’ve written a novel about it. Which some have.

I did too. It was a few years ago now. The Apollo Quartet, published between 2012 and 2015.  I’d planned to publish an omnibus edition in time for today, but then I went and moved countries… So, sorry, no omnibus edition. But the four individual volumes are still available on Amazon, in paperback, audiobook and Kindle editions.

1 Adrift on the Sea of Rains

2 The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself

3 Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above

4 All That Outer Space Allows

All four are based on alternate visions of the Apollo programme – except for All That Outer Space Allows, which takes place during the actual Apollo programme (but is still alternate history).

For those wanting more realistic space-based science fiction, there is also Dreams of the Space Age, a collection of short stories.


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The Hugos 2019, novelettes

Apologies for the inadvertent silence. I moved to a new apartment across the city a few weeks ago and the new place didn’t have internet access. So I had to order broadband service and buy a router, and then resolve a few technical issues (which we won’t go into). But the good news is: I’m back online. Obviously. And the new apartment is very nice.

But on with the post…

Let me get this out of the way first: there is no such thing as a novelette. There are novels, there are novellas and there are short stories. I don’t know when the novelette was “invented” but I understand it chiefly came into being in order to pay some writers on a different scale to others. These days, it’s just another category to hand out prizes to friends. The only places you’ll see the term novelette used is on the contents pages of US print genre magazines – and how relevant are they these days? – or on the shortlists of US genre awards – and how relevant are, er… It’s a completely meaningless category. Kill it now.

We still have it among the multitudinous Hugo Award categories. Many of which, incidentally, should also be binned. But that’s an argument for another day. Officially, a novelette is a piece of fiction between 7,500 and 17,500, although I do like Wikipedia’s definition that it’s a “novella, especially with trivial or sentimental themes”. Sounds about right.

I should also point out that while my taste in genre fiction differs from those who currently nominate and vote for the Hugo Awards, there is plenty of sf available that is to my taste. It just doesn’t get nominated for the Hugo Award. Fans of the Hugo like to think they speak for the entire genre, but they don’t. And the award itself likes to think it’s representative, if not emblematic, of the genre, but that’s just marketing bullshit. The Hugo Award is a small oxbow lake in the river of genre, and if it keeps its fans happy then all to the good. But it’s also an award it’s hard for me to escape as I attend conventions and follow the genre on social media. My decision to read, and blog about, the fiction nominees this year was prompted chiefly by a desire to see how far it had drifted from my taste (or vice versa). I admit I read critically. It’s almost impossible not to when you’ve spent decades reviewing books for various magazines, and even written fiction yourself. Not everyone who votes reads critically. Which does not invalidate their vote. Or my comments.

As with the previous post, here are the six nominees, in the order in which I read them:

The Only Harmless Great Thing, Brooke Bolander. Unlike the other nominees, this is the only novelette to have been published independently as a book. By Tor.com. Like a novella. All the others appeared in magazines, online or otherwise. Except this is not entirely true: the Connolly and Gregory below may not have been published in paperback, but they were published as independent pieces of fiction on the Tor.com website. So that’s five of six novellas and three of six novelettes published by Tor.com. Anyway, during WWI the US used women to paint glow-in-the-dark radium on watch-faces and the like, and many of them died from, or were disfigured by, cancer. Bolander has taken this historical fact and run with it. In her story, elephants were involved – and were smart enough to be communicated with using a special sign language – and an attempt by the US to train elephants to work with radium instead of young women results in the death of a nasty piece of work supervisor and the public execution, by electrocution, of the elephant responsible for his death. This is juxtaposed with a near-future narrative in which a young woman wants to genetically engineer elephants to glow in the dark as a warning of the nuclear waste buried beneath land which will be bequeathed to them. None of this last narrative makes the slightest bit of sense, but it’s presented as if its the anchoring narrative thread. Another thread is told from an elephant’s POV and, well, it doesn’t really work. Or feel necessary. There’s a really cool story somewhere in The Only Harmless Great Thing but the way it’s been presented doesn’t to my mind do it any favours. Too much of it is unnecessary – and while I’m all for writers being clever, in fact I both relish and admire it, the cleverness here lies in the narrative set in the past, which are handled well, and not in the near-future narrative or the elephant POV ones. Which is a roundabout way of saying that The Only Harmless Great Thing really didn’t work for me.

‘When We Were Starless’, Simone Heller (Clarkesworld Oct 2018). A friend complained about the lack of translated fiction in this year’s Hugo Award shortlists, which is certainly true. However, Aliette de Bodard is not an Anglophone, although she writes in English; and neither is Simone Heller, who is actually Germanophone, or whatever the appropriate phrase is. Anyway, Heller, although German, writes in English, or certainly has done for this novelette. It’s set on an unnamed planet, perhaps even a future earth, in which the dominant species are some form of chameleon-like lizard, if that makes sense, who make their living from salvaging tech and materials from a dead civilisation. The main character is a scout for a nomadic band, and she stumbles across what appears to be a planetarium with a controlling AI. Everything is filtered through the character’s worldview – so she doesn’t recognise what the building is, and she thinks the AI is some sort of spirit. Anyway, it’s all somewhat predictable: her views are not in step with the rest of the tribe, she strikes a deal with the AI, is subsequently censured by tribe, but when they’re attacked by an endless horde of ravening beasts, she strikes a deal with the AI, which helps save the day. It’s all nicely done, and very science-fictional, but the world-building doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Is it set on a post-apocalypse earth? Where did the lizards come from? Or the monsters which attacked them? ‘When We Were Starless’ feels a bit, well, flash. It’s all surface: a standard plot, a setting that makes little sense… but nice visuals and a nice turn of phrase. I can see how it might appeal to some people, but it didn’t do much for me.

‘The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections’, Tina Connolly (Tor.com 11 Jul 2018). There’s this baker in this random fantasy world who discovers how to bake memories – or rather, triggers for memories, because the memories are personal – into cakes, and the nasty regent forces him to work in the royal kitchens and employs his wife as taster so the baker doesn’t poison the regent. There’s a joke about herbs and thyme buried somewhere in the world-building here, but it’s not worth mentioning and while it may have inspired the novelette the end result is a great deal more, well, something. From the first paragraph, it’s clear the wife has some plot in hand to have her revenge on the regent. But first we have to go through a bunch of recipes, plus associated back-stories for each, as lead-up to the resolution. Which pretty much means your mileage is going to depend on how much you enjoy all the guff about the various cakes. Which I didn’t. I like landscape writing, not culinary writing, And while there’s a clear conceit here that works through its ramifications with admirable rigour, I’m one of those people who find writing about baking pretty dull. And the fantastical conceit here doesn’t make it any more interesting. If anything, its focus on taste and memory tends to overshadow the actual situation – evil regent, brother held to ransom to produce pastries, wife employed as taster, etc. Not my, er, cup of tea.

‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’, Daryl Gregory (Tor.com 19 Sep 2018). The idea of following a character over a lengthy period by describing selected periods in their life many years apart is hardly a new one. I used it myself in a story that was published in a literary magazine (although the story was science fiction). Gregory makes good use of it here in his description of an invasion of Earth by alien “invasive” plant species. And it works, because the alien plant is integrated into the life of the narrator. I don’t have a problem with episodic narratives, whether they have a clear through-line or not; and ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ certainly has a clear through-line. The story opens in 1975 and ends in 2028. The author was apparently ten in 1975 (he’s a year older than me), so it’s unlikely he remembers enough about the year to do a good job of evoking it. And so it proves. (Of course, 2028 is nine years in the future, so how is he supposed to “remember” it?) But this is not a story that bothers much with time or place, using labels to signal setting to the reader. It doesn’t actually matter that much, because the narrative is chiefly focused on LT’s relationship with his partner and their life together. ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ I thought slow to start, but once it got going it was pretty good reading. I liked its episodic narrative, I liked its central relationship, and I liked the way it linked the alien plant to the relationship. Often, genre stories literalise metaphors, or are based around thumpingly obvious metaphors of their premise. ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ falls into the latter category, but it doesn’t make a meal of its metaphor, and leaves it sufficiently open to interpretation. It’s nice to see some restraint.

‘The Thing About Ghost Stories’, Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Nov/Dec 2018). That’s not a title that’s going to make me rush out and buy a copy of the magazine – but that’s because I’m not a fan of ghost stories. Which just goes to show you, as this was the best story on the shortlist. By quite a margin. The narrator is a folkorist who’s studying ghost stories. But the novelette is also about her life and her relationships, particularly her relationship with her mother. As part of her work, the narrator meets a number of mediums (the only time “mediums” is permissible as the plural of “medium”), but of course she is sceptical about their abilities. Her work allows her to come to terms with her mother’s death, as well as celebrate the relationship they had before her death. The story drops in lots of authentic-sounding detail about the folkloric study of ghost stories – which convinced me, and may well have been completely made-up. But the story also handled its central premise extremely well, maintaining a sceptical tone throughout but hinting perhaps there was some truth to it. ‘The Thing About Ghost Stories’ really is a cut above the rest of the shortlist. It’s not like the prose on a sentence level is that much more impressive – it’s good, without being showy (whereas far too much genre short fiction these days is showy without being good); but it unfolds its plot, based entirely on its premise, in an almost textbook-like fashion. Some stories simply strike you as well-crafted, and those are the ones that should be appearing on genre award shortlists. This is definitely that. The last genre work I remember reading that was put together so well, despite being something that would not ordinarily appeal, was Joan Slonczewski’s The Wall Around Eden, which I read years ago and even wrote about for Locus magazine.

‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’, Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog 29 Nov 2018). Unlike the other nominees, this novelette wasn’t published in an explicitly fiction-publishing venue. As far as I can work out, the B&N blog is more of a house magazine, and ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’ is the second of its “SFF Originals”, with one by Ursula Vernon published in 2017. The title refers to an imugi’s attempts to become a dragon (this is Korean mythology), and after two failures, a thousand years apart, it’s inadvertently witnessed by a young American woman of Asian extraction. The sight is enough for her to turn her life around. The imugi, disguised as a human woman, visits the American woman, now an astronomy professor, but is surprised to discover that astronomy is the very subject, “the Way”, it has been studying in order to make it to heaven and become an actual dragon. So it stays. And enters into a relationship with the professor. And the two live very happily for many decades. It’s all a bit glib and the imugi’s characterisation is simplistic at best, but the story has bags of charm and makes good use of its premise. I don’t think it’s especially good, but I enjoyed it – to a degree it overcame its weaknesses, unlike a couple of the novelettes above. I’ve not read anything by Cho before, although I’ve heard mostly positive noises about her debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown (and I do like me some Regency). I’m tempted to give the novel a go. As for ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’, it’s hugely likeable, if not especially impressive on a technical level.

The novelette category, despite my refusal to admit the form has a right to existence, has, for the Hugo Award this year, I think, produced better fiction than the novella category. Which is sort of ironic given the Wikipedia quote above. But some of the above, had they been nominated as novellas, would have made that category much stronger.

As in my novella post (see here), if I were going to vote on the Hugo Award novelette category, I’d put ‘The Thing About Ghost Stories’ at number one, followed by ‘Nine Last Days on Planet Earth’ and then ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again’. The Only Harmless Great Thing, ‘The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections’ and ‘When We Were Starless’ would all go below No Award.