Several weeks ago someone posted a link on social media to a Penguin Classics cover generator. So for a while my Facebook TL was filled with Penguin Classics versions of friends’ books. So, naturally, I had to get in on the act. I posted the covers below on Facebook, as everyone else did; but for those of you who don’t use that platform, here they are… the totally not really bogus Penguin Classics editions of the, ahem, five books of the Apollo Quartet…
You know that thing where you accidentally scheduled a post, even though you hadn’t finished writing it? I seem to have done that with this Reading diary, which is why it briefly appeared a couple of weeks ago. And then I sort of forgot to go back to it and finish it off, so the blog went into an unplanned hiatus for a few weeks. I think after two months of working from home, it’s starting to wear me down. I’m looking forward to getting back into the office.
The Real-Town Murders, Adam Roberts (2017, UK). Well, this didn’t go where I where I expected it to. Adam Roberts is an excellent person, and probably the best genre critic currently active in the UK, and while he writes enormously clever science fiction it is not always to my taste. But The Real-Town Murders has a heroine called Alma and is all about Hitchcock, and I’ve been a huge Hitchcock fan for many, many years, so this was a book I wanted to read. And yes, it starts out like a locked-room mystery, not that Hitchcock made many locked-room mysteries – maybe in Alfred Hitchcock Presents?- but The Real-Town Murders then goes off down a completely different path, which resulted in a very different novel to what I had been expecting to read. Alma is a private detective in a UK where most of the population live in a virtual world and rarely experience “the Real”. A bit like now, I expect. Except for the virtual world. She is called in to solve how a dead body appeared in the boot of a car at an automated factory even though there is complete footage of the car being made and at no time could a body have been placed in it. Alma is led to believe this may have been accomplished by teleportation. And if teleportation were real, then people might start returning to the Real because travel will have become as trivial there as it is in the virtual world. Except, it’s not teleportation (the solution is not hard to figure out, to be honest). And Alma finds herself being harassed by various arms of the government’s security services, which jeopardises the life of her partner, who had been infected with a hacked disease linked to Alma’s DNA and only Alma can prepare a a treatment when the disease threatens to kill her partner every four hours or so. So, not really a murder-mystery. And the plot makes so many swerves, despite being essentially a fugitive story, that at times it’s in danger of burying its ideas. Nonetheless, I liked it. There is apparently a sequel.
A Very British History, Paul J McAuley (2013, UK). It’s almost certainly the case McAuley is one of the best hard sf writers the UK has produced, and yet I find it difficult to connect with his fiction. He should be a favourite author, he writes precisely down the line I appreciate most in the genre. But many of his novels have left me cold, and I can’t work out quite why I finish his books more annoyed than satisfied. This collection, which was, and still is, free on Kindle, although I’d apparently bought the signed limited edition when it was launched at an Eastercon, which is of course currently in storage, the book that is, was I thought a perfect way to explore McAuley’s fiction and perhaps understand why I didn’t connect with it. A Very British History is subtitled “The best science fiction stories of Paul McAuley, 1985 – 2012, so it’s an excellent career retrospective. And the one thing the collection really displays is that McAuley writes to market. Perhaps that’s too severe a way to describe it. It’s more that he writes the sort of science fiction, mostly of the hard variety, that is fashionable at the time of writing. He cuts his cloth to suit what seems to be the “in” thing. He writes with a distinctive voice, and his prose is never less than good, but in the space of half a dozen stories, or novels, his readers can be bounced from far future sf set aboard a vast unimaginably old artefact to neoliberal capitalism in near-future space to cyberpunk-recast-as-fairytale. The reason I don’t connect with McAuley’s fiction, it seems, is because I can’t determine an identity behind it. It sounds like the harshest of criticisms, and I apologise, but it’s not. If you read three unrelated McAuley novels in a row, it would be like reading three novels by three different – but similar – authors in a row. It’s a good trick, and it has resulted in some excellent science fiction, but it doesn’t work for me. One thing notable about the stories in this collection, a consequence of the twenty-six years they cover, is that while some of the sensibilities embedded in them have not aged well (although better than many of McAuley’s contemporaries), the science fiction in the stories has remained timeless. McAuley has been praised throughout his career for ideas and his ability to present them, and it’s true they’re a major factor in the appeal of his fiction. But that lack of consistency of identity behind his work has always proven a stumbling block for me.
Shardik, Richard Adams (1974, UK). Adams is best-known for Watership Down, an excellent novel about rabbits. Two years after that book’s massive success, he published a… straight-up fantasy novel. It wasn’t published as such, of course. If anything, Penguin tried hard to pretend Adams had pretty much invented fantasy with their marketing for the novel. But Shardik is set in an invented land, at a technology level not far above Bronze Age, and is about a giant bear considered to be a god, or an avatar of a god, by a race of people. So it’s basically a fantasy novel. It just happens to be better written than is typical for genre fiction. The title refers to an ancient god of the Ortelgans, personified as a giant bear, who was kept on an island inhabited by priestesses. But the empire fell, the capital Bekla was conquered, and a new empire rose in its place. Shardik died and did not reappear. Generations later, a giant bear appears on the island the Ortelgans, now simple hunter folk, settled on after the fall of their empire. And they see it as the second coming of their god, and use it to take back Bekla and re-establish their empire. But they are not the people they once were. The novel mostly concerns Kelderek, the hunter who discovers Shardik, becomes his priest, and then the priest-king of Bekla. But it’s an empire doomed to failure, and Shardik escapes after an attempt on its life. Kelderek goes after him, and the two travel about the country – there’s a handy map, of course – both sinking further and further from what they were as the book progresses. Kelderek encounters enemies he made while priest-king, and evil people he helped create. It’s all a bit grim, and Adams has this weird trick of referencing culture that would be known to a well-educated Brit in the 1970s, which does sort of kill the immersion. You do not, after all, except to see a mention of Shakespeare in a secondary-world fantasy novel. I suspect I wanted to like Shardik more than I did. It felt like it didn’t try hard enough to be a fantasy, even though the world-building was generally good. The quality of the prose, however, was a definite bonus.
The Green Man’s Foe, Juliet E McKenna (2019, UK). I read The Green Man’s Heir last year and enjoyed it very much. To be honest, I’d been wanting to read some of McKenna’s fantasy for many years but had never got around to it. The Green Man’s Heir was on offer at the time I bought it, and while I’m no fan of urban fantasy I’d certainly enjoyed its Mythago Wood meets Midsomer Murders story. The book proved successful enough to warrant a sequel (which has been nominated for the BSFA Award, but lost out to Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin, which is also a sequel, as indeed was every book on the shortlist.). In an afterword, McKenna writes that The Green Man’s Foe had originally been a completely unrelated story, but had never been finished. But the story proved ideal as a sequel for The Green Man’s Heir, so she rewrote it as such. In this novel, carpenter and son of a dryad Daniel Mackmain is asked to project manage the conversion of an old mansion into a boutique hotel – because there is something weird going on in the attached woodland, and it may be tied in with the house’s history and its link to early twentieth-century British occultism. McKenna introduces a cast of believable and appealing characters, and lets her mystery develop over the length of the novel. There are some odd tonal changes as the story develops – is it a ghost story, an occult story, or does it all plug into the mythology developed in the first book? The answer is, well, all three, and the three aspects at times interfere with each other. It’s also much more Midsomar than the first book, although that is almost certainly a consequence of its location, a Cotswold village. And at times it felt a bit like a British detective series from the 1980s. But they’re minor quibbles. This is entertaining stuff, put together by someone who knows what they’re doing. The cast are likeable, the mythology works, and it all feels like a series with legs. More, please.
Billie’s Kiss, Elizabeth Knox (2002, New Zealand). I think this was on offer, but I’m not entirely sure what it was about the blurb which persuaded me to buy the book and read it. Something about “an Edwardian twist on The Tempest”, and a feeling the novel was sort of magical realism set some 100 years ago in the Shetlands. I knew nothing about the author, or even her most famous book, The Vinter’s Luck. Having now read Billie’s Kiss I can say many of the things its blurb promised it is not, although that does not make it a bad novel. Billie lives with her sister and brother-in-law. She is illiterate (actually dyslexic), a bit of a free spirit, and has been unable to find a situation of her own. Her brother-in-law is hired by a soap magnate, Lord Hallowhulme, who owns one of the Shetland islands, to catalogue the book collection in his castle there. Billie accompanies the couple. As the ferry approaches the island’s jetty, something in the hold explodes and the ship sinks, filling fifteen people. The magnate’s brother-in-law, Murdo Hesketh, a half-Swede who had served with the army in Stockholm but now works on the island, decides to investigate. This is by no means a murder-mystery. It’s the story of the Hallowhulme and Hesketh families, and the story of Billie, an innocent who gets caught up in pretty much everything that’s going on. It’s not an easy plot to summarise, and probably not worth the effort of doing so. Despite not being the book I was expecting it to be, I enjoyed Billie’s Kiss. The prose was generally good, if a little over-wrought in places, as indeed were some of the characters, and one or two of them tended a little toward pantomime. But it handled its time and place well, and Billie proved an interesting protagonist. Worth reading.
I apologise for the increasing length between posts on this blog. I’d hoped moving countries would reinvigorate my writing – not just blog posts and book reviews, but also fiction – but it seems learning your way around a new job, a new country, a new language… And then, the pandemic hit. I shall have to be more disciplined about how I spend my time when I’m not sitting at the dining-table WFH at the dayjob. My reading has certainly picked up – aren’t Kindles convenient? – but my film-watching has slightly decreased… yet I can’t seem to work out why I seem to have less free time…
Anyway, it’s the day before Valborg, which is going to be a strange celebration this year. Normally, the city turns into one giant party, with lots of live concerts, booze and bonfires. I shall probably just watch some movies. Speaking of which, here are some I saw a couple of weeks ago…
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Joachim Rønning (2020, USA). Sleeping Beauty is the best animated film Disney has ever produced, and it’s not a film that ever needed a sequel. But it got one – because no dead horse is not worth a couple more flogs. Except the sequel was live action. Happily, it was removed enough from the original to be an entertaining fantasy in its own right. However, what Sleeping Beauty really did not need was a sequel to the live-action sequel. This is just fucking bobbins. Anyway, after generations of ignoring the Moors (ie, fairies – bad choice of word there, methinks), the humans decide they actually really want their land because otherwise they will all die for reasons, and this is all down to a fake news campaign by the queen. I know it’s a fairy tale and they run on archetypes, but Disney seems to have mistranslated archetype as stereotype, and then they throw in genocide as if it were just another trope. I love Sleeping Beauty, and Maleficent wasn’t all that bad, but this film pushes it to its twenty-first century limit, which is basically: let’s kill the foreigners to death. It’s one thing to posit such a story and then show it fail, but it would be more healthy to not posit the story in the first place. Make it literally unthinkable. But it’s not, of course: it’s actually wishful thinking. Racist bastards.
The Mighty Peking Man, Ho Meng-hua (1977, China). From the, er, CGI to the, er, man in a rubber suit. Well, furry suit. The title refers to a giant yeti who is captured and shipped to Hong Kong to be put on display. This is the story of King Kong pretty much beat by beat. The only differences are that the action takes place in Hong Kong, and the beast’s love interest comes with him from the jungle. The early part of the film features the love interest, a young woman who crashed in the jungle (um, yes, this Yet lives in a jungle), as child – both her parents died in the crash – and she grew up feral. Of course, she’s the only who can calm the beast and, of course, he ends up going on a rampage through Hong Kong. Very much a film of its time and type.
The Cat and the Canary, Radley Metzger (1978, UK). A few days after watching this, in which Honor Blackman had top billing, I heard she had died. It would be an odd coincidence but for the fact I am that age when the cultural icons I grew up with are all approaching their seventies, eighties and nineties, and so their end is not so far away. That’s how it works. Coronavirus has, of course, fucked this up somewhat, among other things, but for the last few years, and for the foreseeable future, I can expect the people who formed the culture of my childhood and teen years to die. Only cartoon characters, with the financial might of Disney behind them, are immortal. Although the with current state of the art CGI and face-capture, who knows? Anyway, The Cat and the Canary is one of those whodunnit plays from the early decades of last century that has been repeatedly turned into movies, so the whole thing feels completely over-rehearsed, and the story runs on rails so well-oiled there’s almost no traction for the viewer. The thesps here are all on form, the bumps in the plot have been ironed flat through repetition, and trying to second-guess what’s going on is an intellectual exercise with almost no sense of satisfaction when guesses prove correct. Meh.
Edward II, Derek Jarman (1991, UK). Jarman’s choice of material may have initially appeared to be eclectic, but on consideration it displays a sort of attempt at validation of a public school education – I mean: Shakespeare plays, philosophy, Roman history, art… None, of the face of it, especially controversial, but neither is it the usual material mined by British art house directors. In Jarman’s favour, he was more concerned with the presentation of stories created by others, and not on creating his own stories; and focusing entirely on presentation is about as auteur as you can get… And Jarman certainly raised that bar as high as he could get away with – not just the casual anachronisms, but also the use of black-box theatre, his casting choices, and so on… In that respect, I suppose Shakespeare’s – or in this case, Marlowe’s – plays are almost perfect fodder because they foreground dialogue. I still find it slightly boggling that I’ve found myself so much a fan of Jarman’s work. When I was a teenager, Blue struck me as massively self-indulgent, but around the same time, the early 1980s, I remember watching Caravaggio and thinking it very good. I suppose I just needed to see more of his oeuvre to truly appreciate it. So kudos to BFI for the two blu-ray box sets of his films. Which I will treasure.
Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (AKA season 3) (2018, USA). I’ve been a fan of Twin Peaks for many years, and was so excited when it appeared on DVD, I kept on buying each new “more” complete edition as it was released. But the last thing I though it ever need was a third season. Nonetheless, David Lynch and Mark Frost went ahead and made one and… it’s probably the best piece of television made in 2018. It is is also completely insane. There is no point in summarising the plot, which I’m fairly sure is impossible anyway. Some of the cast from the original two seasons who appear in this seemed out their depth at times, and didn’t compare favourably with newly-cast actors – but then I think some of them had been retired from acting for many years. Certainly, Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series no longer presented as a soap opera (however strange), but as more of twenty-first century style genre thriller. The cinematography, on the other hand, was just so much better than is typical for a TV series, and perhaps even better than I remembered from Lynch’s films. It’s going to take a couple of watches to fully appreciate this series, however.
Farmageddon, Will Becher & Richard Phelan (2019, UK). Shaun the Sheep, eh? A minor character from a Wallace and Gromit short film. And now we have a feature-length movie about him. Wasn’t there a TV series too? And didn’t the penguin from The Wrong Trousers get a starring vehicle? I mean, I’m not complaining: these are fine comic characters. and Farmaggedon, which feels overly “Hollywoodized” and not entirely necessarily, and has a plot that is way too familiar, is still very entertaining. In fact, the scene where the young alien visits a local supermarket and downs lots of sweets and pop in quick succession had me in stitches. This is good clean family fun, with perhaps a little less wit than Wallace and Gromit, but more than its fair share of slapstick. Fun.
Raja Vaaru Raani Gaaru, Ravi Kirn Kola (2019, India). Low-key – if that term could be used for any of India’s cinemas – Telugu rom com about a young couple in a village. He is unable to express his love, she goes away to get educated, and doesn’t return for three years. So, your standard Bollywood plot: boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. But without the first part. Told in flashback by a pair of comic sidekicks. It’s all so feel-good parts of it feel like an advert for butter or something. A nice film.
The Early Bird, Robert Asher (1955, UK). This was a blast from the past. I remember watching it as a kid – although I’d never remembered its title – and had fond memories of it, and star Norman Wisdom, for many many years. And having now watched it as an adult, it is every bit as funny as I remembered. Wisdom plays a milkman for a small local company, which actually still uses a horse. Their territory is invaded by “Amalgamated Dairies”, who use electric milk floats and dirty tricks… And it’s a story that has played out time and time again in the real world – Stagecoach, anyone? – and yet still successive Tory governments refuse to make such tactics illegal. This film is sixty-five years old! How much longer do we have to put up with this shit? Okay, so everyone – well, every Brit – loves an underdog, and Wisdom plays the ultimate one here. Plus, some of the comic set-pieces are absolutely superb. The scene where Wisdom trashes the house and garden of the head of Amalgamated Dairies had me in tears. It’s gloriously pure slapstick. Which perhaps, on reflection, probably detracts from the message. Or was that all such films were sixty-five years ago? Slapstick, not message? I think of the early Carry On films, and they were deeply critical of British institutions, like national service and the NHS – and, later, beauty contests – but they used humour and were never seen as satire or social commentary. The UK film industry had its Angry Young Men and its kitchen-sink dramas, and they apparently filled that niche. It’s a peculiar blindness where you accept being repeatedly punched in the face, but a custard pie is just “harmless fun” and meaningless. But that’s the British voter for you.
Knives Out, Rian Johnson (2019, USA). Johnson was an odd choice to helm the second film of the new Star Wars trilogy, The Last Jedi, and while he fucked up some things big time – bombs in space, FFS! – he introduced a number of interesting ideas into the mythos, most of which were sadly retconned by creative vacuum JJ Abrams in the final film of the trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker. Whatever. Despite a sad puppy backlash to his Star Wars movie, Johnson came out of the franchise with a mostly positive reputation. And Knives Out, an old school Cluedo-style whodunnit, has only improved it. And yet, like his Star Wars contribution, it’s a genre film that misunderstands its genre but succeeds because it is entertaining. On the one hand, I don’t think Hollywood even bothers with genre as a concept anymore; and on the other, I’m not sure they’re wrong to ignore it. So, first, the whodunnit, especially in its purest form, as repeatedly used by Agatha Christie and Scooby Doo: crime takes place, limited number of suspects, clever detective works through clues, alibis, timelines, etc, to discover identity of murderer. In Knives Out, a private investigator is hired to investigate a suicide, which turns out to be perhaps be a murder – and in true, Cluedo-fashion, everyone has a motive. Except the film spends more time on the dynamics in the family than it does the mechanics of the crime. The twistiness of the plot had its moments, although it did lead to a couple of somewhat implausible set-pieces. Still, the cast were good – although to a non-US viewer, Daniel Craig’s accent sounds more like a parody than an accurate attempt – and Johnson made excellent use of his main setting. But this is not that better than The Cat and the Canary, but without the advantage of several decades of polish on stage and silver screen.
Monsters, Inc., Pete Docter (2001, USA). No, I’d never seen this, although I’ve seen the sequel. Yes, my life would have been entirely unchanged had I never seen it. And yet, for a Pixar film mangled by Disney, it’s not all that bad. Monsters from an alternate universe sneak into kids’ bedrooms and scare them, and the alternate universe is fuelled by their screams. I don’t remember ever being afraid of a monster under the bed or in the wardrobe (UK homes do not have generally walk-in closets; nor did apartments in the Middle East); and if I had, I’d have lain there in silent fear… But this is a kid’s film, with all the logic that implies, and while it makes a good fist of its premise, its whole pastiche of nine-to-five and industrial relations… Well, you have to wonder who it’s aimed it. In fact, the entire movie is like that: a premise that would appeal to kids wrapped around a plot that only makes sense to adults. No wonder the film was successful; no wonder it’s pretty much forgotten twenty years later.
I’ve actually been reading a bit more than usual during these days of self-isolation, chiefly because my “commute” is a two-second walk from dining-table to sofa, and so the half-hour I’d spend on the bus, or walking, home I can now spend sitting comfortably and reading. And it’s been an odd reading selection in recent weeks. The five books below include an old sf novel I’ve wanted to read for several years, a new novel by a friend whose previous books I had mixed feelings about, a volume in an interminable fantasy series, and a debut by a US sf author which persuaded me it was about time I stopped reading debuts by US sf authors since the last dozen or so had all been pretty bad.
Missing Man, Katherine MacLean (1975, USA). I put this on my SF Mistressworks list several years ago based on its reputation, and the fact it won a Nebula, although that was for the original novella, not the novel (although the novel too was nominated four years later). MacLean’s name popped up a number of times in Judith Merril’s (auto)biography (see here) – she was part of the same Futurians group, with Merril and Pohl, banging out stories for the sf mags, which garnered praise from the likes of Damon Knight and Brian Aldiss. So it came as something of a surprise to discover that Missing Man was actually sort of rubbish. George is an idiot savant – an uneducated orphan, physically strong but good-natured, with an unnaturally strong empathic ability. He meets up with a friend from childhood, who is in the Rescue Squad, and is hired as a consultant because he can use his ability to find missing people. Meanwhile, there’s a blackmail plot by a gang of teenagers, who have kidnapped a city engineer (the missing man of the title) and learnt of a design flaw in the city’s systems. As proof of this, they cause the collapse of two undersea cities, killing thousands. MacLean clearly just made shit up as she went along. It’s bad enough that Missing Man, a mid-1970s novel, reads more like a mid-1960s one, but then you come across a line like “The distilled water, being pure and without salts, carried no radiation back from the ‘hot’ place it circulated through”, and it’s clear the author’s grasp of science is feeble at best… But then, from what Merril wrote in her autobiography, they were really quite cynical about writing for money, and would bang out any old crap, knowing that Pohl, as editor, would buy it (although he pocketed half of the fee). I had expected much more of Missing Man, given the author’s reputation. Disappointing.
Beneath the World, a Sea, Chris Beckett (2019, UK). I’ve known Chris for many years, and read and enjoyed his short fiction. I’ve also read several of his novels and, while I’ve appreciated the quality of their prose – which is definitely a cut above what is typical for science fiction – I’ll admit I found their conceits and plots felt a little second-hand. That’s sort of true here, and it gives the novel a slightly old-fashioned feel. But that actually works in its favour, given it’s set in a mysterious place the world has forgotten. Ben Ronson, a British policeman, is sent to the Submundo Delta in Brazil to prevent the locals from killing the indigenes, called duendes. The Submundo Delta is surrounded by the Zone, which, on exiting it, wipes all memories of what happens within it. Partly because of the Zone, the only way to travel to the Submundo Delta is by boat, and so visitors must spend a day in the Zone. The novel opens as Ronson leaves the Zone and enters the delta – and he has no idea what he did when the ship stopped, and is too scared to read the journal entries he made. That fear drives him as he tries to stop the duende killings by the locals and come with some way of preventing them from occurring. This is not helped by the fact the duendes trigger some sort of mental barrage of anxieties and phobias in humans when they are close. Everything in the delta is low tech, like the early decades of the twentieth century. It makes the strangeness of the world seems a little more, well, plausible. But not entirely. Beneath the World, a Sea reminded me chiefly of Paul Park’s Coelestis, a favourite sf novel, although since it’s not set on an alien world it doesn’t have sf’s scaffolding to support its world, and relies more on a Ballardian twisting of mundanity for its setting. The plot is almost incidental – Ronson investigates, Ronson falls prey to the place’s atmosphere, in an almost Graham Greene sort of narrative. Beckett’s novels have always been strong on character, and that’s equally true here – to such an extent, the focus on character actually results in the plot losing its way around midway through. It doesn’t seem to matter much, however, because Ronson’s failure was pretty much obvious from the start. The only duff note is what happens to him in the Zone on his departure from the Submundo Delta. It feels like a twist that needed more set-up and yet was an obvious conclusion from the first chapter. Despite all that, Beneath the World, a Sea is very strong on atmosphere, the prose is excellent, and I thought this one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.
The Shape of Further Things, Brian W Aldiss (1970, UK). Back in 1969, for whatever reason, Brian Aldiss decided the world needed a book in which he discussed a couple of items of interest to science fiction – more so than science – most of which were inspired by the researches of his friend Christopher Evans (who is not the Christopher Evans of Capella’s Golden Eyes, Aztec Century or Mortal Remains, all of which are recommended). Aldiss’s acerbic criticism is very much of its time, although it certainly includes a few amusing and clever aperçus on the science fiction world. What really stands out, however, is how little impact women made on Aldiss’s study. He mentions his wife, and Evans’s wife, but otherwise the entire planet might as well have been inhabited by men. I’m not so daft I don’t recognise this was the (male) worldview back then, but to a twenty-first century reader it paints a bizarrely one-sided view of the planet. I mean, a woman writer actually won a Hugo Award in 1968, and yet Aldiss writes as if the genre were entirely male. As it is, Aldiss’s musings are uninteresting – dreams and dream-logic – or so out of date – computing – to be laughable. Despite some nice writing, this is a book which is pretty much a perfect example of a phrase from his short story of three years previously, ‘Confluence’, one of whose definitions is “a book in which everything is understandable except the author’s purpose in writing it”. One for fans.
The Shadow Rising, Robert Jordan (1992, USA). The reread continues. The plot really does shift into high gear in this volume. I’d almost forgotten what was supposed to be going on. Jordan seems to have realised he hadn’t actually achieved anything in the previous book, and so decided to get things moving. So Rand al’Thor heads into the Waste to recruit the Aiel (fearsome desert warriors totally cribbed from the Fremen). Egwene goes with Rand to learn how to dream-walk from the Aiel. Elayne and Nynaeve head for Tarabon to track down the Black Ajah sisters and prevent them from discovering something there which might threaten Rand. Perrin has heard the Two Rivers is under threat by Trollocs, and so returns there and sets up a local defence – undermined by the most obvious villain yet to appear in the series. Meanwhile, there’s a coup in the White Tower, and the Amyrlin Seat is deposed and stilled (ie, her powers are taken from her), and it’s all done so underhandedly you have to wonder why Jordan decided to make a rival faction behave like the Black Ajah, ie, the people they’re allegedly both dedicated to fighting. But then nuance is not something this series really has going for it, with a cast of stereotypes and archetypes, pantomime villains, and a frankly idiot plot. And yet, and yet… every now and again, Jordan throws in these neat little world-building elements, and you wonder what more he has up his sleeve… Very little, it turns out, as these elements are pretty much irrelevant as far as the main plot goes. In this volume, Rand has to undergo the same magical test as Aiel clan chiefs and Wise Ones, which basically involves reliving episodes from the Aiels’ past, which reveals them to have been cast-offs from a pacifist group who fought back against attackers and so ritualised their approach to combat. It’s all a bit Dune, but Jordan was never ashamed to steal from the best. Thankfully, The Shadow Rising is a surprisingly fast read, if only because you can skim over all the braid-pulling and “Mat would know how to deal with girls” repetitive bollocks. These are without a doubt appallingly written books, and their haphazard plotting was clearly a consequence of Jordan not being in control of his material – he didn’t even know how long the series would be! It continues to astonish me they were bestsellers.
Noumenon, Marina J Lostetter (2017, USA). This had lots of positive blurbs from well-known sf authors and, more importantly, it was 99p for the ebook, so I decided to take a chance on it. What a mistake. I’ve not read a good science fiction debut by a US author for several years but this one failed to make even that low bar. It is 2088 and an astronomer has discovered an unusual variable star. The world is putting together twelve missions to travel into interstellar space, using a “subdimension drive”, which, despite being FTL, will still mean several generations will pass before their destinations are reached. The variable star is chosen as the target of one such convoy. Which comprises seven ships and several hundred thousand clones of the scientists and engineers who put the convoy together. Lostetter uses this somewhat tired set-up to explore a number of banal situations. A young boy doesn’t want a sister. Slavery is bad. AIs can have feelings too. When the convoy reaches its destination, it discovers an enormous alien artefact but does not learn what it is or what it’s for. The author also clearly has a problem with orders of magnitude, as she states Jupiter is one AU wide. And her dimensions of the alien artefact make no sense. She also seems to think sonar works in space (and that subsonic waves can be detected in a vacuum). When two US characters, in the first chapter, enter a traditional pub in Oxford, UK, and a waitress brings beer to their table, I was afraid this was going to be one of those sf novels where the author had done little or no research. That particular faux pas proved to be the least of the book’s problems. Later, two characters watch an episode of Star Trek – yes, this one of those novels set in the future where all the cultural references have relevance only to the author’s generation. The prose is so bland it is entirely forgettable. The science fiction is just complete rubbish from start to finish. The science is made-up. And the whole is in service to a plot which has no end – this is the first book in a trilogy – and whose only quality appears to be triteness. Avoid. In fact, I will go a step further: from this point, I will not read any debuts by US sf authors, say, post-2016. I don’t know what’s happened to US sf publishing, but the books they’ve been pushing over the past couple of years by debut authors have been fucking appalling. As someone or other once said, won’t get fooled again. The same applies to fantasy as well, of course. However, I’m not going to boycott debut sf novels from other nations. I mean, I’m not saying UK sf debuts are better, but UK genre publishing has been pushing fantasy – and YA – debuts for the past few years, and they’re not my thing. Given that more books than ever before are currently being published, when debut novels win major awards… there is definitely something wrong with genre publishing….
Another gallop through the movies I’ve watched over the past couple of weeks. My viewing patterns have not changed much since I started working from home. So how I’m supposed to fit in all this stuff now being offered free while I’m self-isolating is beyond me…
November, Rainer Sarnet (2017, Estonia). Weird fantasy film set in some grim village and filmed in stark black and white. Not sure what I made of this one. It looked beautiful, for all the dirt and grime, and the weird skeleton-like figure made of pipes and things, apparently animated by magic, which the farmer used as a slave. Worth seeing.
Who Saw Her Die?, Aldo Lado (1972, Italy). George Lazenby, in his second film after he turned down Bond, a giallo set in Venice, and which has subsequently been deemed a career-best performance. To be fair, I still think OHMSS was the best Bond film, and there wasn’t much in Who Saw Her Die? that struck me as all that different to the acting in that movie. A sculptor, separated from his wife, has his young daughter visiting, but she goes missing and later turns up murdered. He rushes around, trying to figure out who the killer was, as the police are far too inept. A good use of the setting, but not a very original plot.
The Exception, David Leveaux (2016, UK) is based on one of those novels that rewrites twentieth-century history, specifically Nazi history, and sort of makes the Nazis a little fluffier and nicer, which is of course total bollocks. In this case, Kaiser Wilhelm was exiled to an estate in the Netherlands. A “good” Nazi (it’s hinted he was upset at the Katyn Massacre) is assigned to captain the kaiser’s bodyguard. Where he falls for one of the Dutch servants. But – shock! horror! – she’s really a British spy. Meretricious tosh. A well-made film, well played by its cast, but the sort of invidious rewriting of history that starts to make fascism “friendly”. The Allies in WWII did not just fight a country that broke a treaty, they fought a regime that attempted genocide. Remember that.
The First of the Few, Leslie Howard (1942, UK). And from the irresponsible rehabilitation of past villains to actual propaganda of the time. The titles refers to RJ Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, played by Howard, directing himself. The film covers the main points of his life – he died of cancer in 1937, before the Spitfire entered service with the RAF – and it’s all very rah rah rah, which is hardly unexpected given when it was made. I can’t say Howard ever appealed to me as leading-man material, but he had many interesting strings to his bow and it’s a shame his life was cut short. The First of the Few has some good aerial sequences, particularly of Schneider Trophy flights, and real footage of RAF pilots during the war, but the Wikipedia rabbit-hole it sends you down is more interesting than the movie itself.
Invincible, Konstantin Maksimov (2018, Russia). In July 1942, a Soviet KV-1 tank destroyed sixteen German tanks, two armoured vehicles and eight other vehicles in a battle. The surviving crew were given medals. Invincible is the story of that tank crew in that battle and, while it’s good visceral in-the-thick-of-it WWII tank action, it makes enough errors to alienate those most likely to find the film appealing. I am not a tank fan, I hasten to admit; but that is a thing, especially with the popularity of online MMORPGs like World of Tanks. In Invincible, the Soviet tanks are mostly models that didn’t appear until 1943. Likewise the German tanks. And the KV-1 tank at the centre of the film… every shot it fires at a German tank destroys that tank; every shot fired at it, however, bounces off. Disappointing.
Sholay, Ramesh Sippy (1975, India). There are many best of Bollywood movie lists out there. I suspect this film is on most of them. It is an epic Western, Bollywood-style, and it does it with all the qualities that makes Bollywood Bollywood. In abundance. A thakur, who was once a policeman, asks a warden to track down two small-time crooks he arrested years before – prompting an extended flashback sequence – because he has a task for them. It turns out they’re in prison – where the new warden seems to have modelled himself on a cross between Benny Hill and Hitler – but quickly escape. The thakur wants the crooks to capture a local dacoit, and he will pay them handsomely over and above the published reward. The rest of the film is a long drawn-out war between the two groups. And, yes, it’s epic. Worth seeing.
Fear and Desire, Stanley Kubrick (1953, USA). Kubrick’s first film, which he tried to remove from his cv. A small group of soldiers crash their plane behind enemy lines, and must make their way back, past an outpost occupied by an enemy general. The film stars Virginia Leith as a local peasant woman who is taken prisoner by the soldiers, and Kubrick interestingly makes everything generic so the two countries are unidentifiable. But this is journeyman work, and probably only of interest to Kubrick fans.
Heaven & Earth, Oliver Stone (1993, USA). I’ve a feeling I’ve seen this before, but I can’t be sure. I’m not much of a fan of Stone’s films. He’s had an interesting career, to be sure, and has been very distinctive in the stories he chooses to tell. But it’s easy to see why some succeeded more than others. Heaven & Earth was apparently a flop, and it’s not hard to understand why: for all that it meant well, it’s a dull movie. Young Vietnamese woman suffers depredations at hands of Viet Cong and US forces in Viet Nam War (no matter how true, no matter how often those deeds need to be laid at the feet of the US… American audiences will continue to turn a blind eye), eventually marries a US soldier, returns to US with him, but his life is falling apart, he gets violent and… This is not a bad film, it tells an important story. But neither of its leads have the presence to carry the story through its 140 minutes. A shame. It had something worth saying – which might not be unusual for Oliver Stone, but is for the US movie industry as a whole.
Kidnap Syndicate, Fernando Di Leo (1975, Italy). A poliziottesco, in which a gang kidnap the young son of a wealthy construction mogul, but are attacked by the lad’s best friend, so they take him as well. The construction mogul refuses to pay the ransom, so the kidnappers kill the other boy to motivate him. The dead boy’s father, a mechanic, vows revenge and tracks the kidnappers down. A solid thriller.
Wild Rose, Tom Harper (2018, UK). I tweeted while watching this that I was “watching a feel-good film set in Glasgow so of course it is as miserable as fuck”. The protagonist is a single mum fresh out of a twelve-month stint in prison who dreams of becoming a country singer. She has a good voice but a real attitude Fortunately, the woman she cleans house for takes a shine to her, and arranges for her to meet BBC DJ Bob Harris, and later throws a party to raise funds to send her to Nashville. I don’t much like country music, but I did enjoy this film – it wasn’t really as miserable as all that.
Back in 1989, James Cameron released The Abyss, a movie set (mostly) aboard an oil rig some 500 metres below the surface of the Caribbean Sea. The film was a success, and several similar movies followed: DeepStar Six, Leviathan, The Rift, The Evil Below and Lords of the Deep. In the thirty years since, there have been one or two more, of varying degrees of success and quality: Sphere, Avalon: Beyond the Abyss, Dark Descent…
The most recent of these to hit cinemas is Underwater by William Eubank, actually completed in 2017 but not released until this year. It’s tempting to think the delay was a consequence of the lack of originality of its plot and the complete fucking witless hash it makes of its setting… But then JJ Abrams is a successful film director, so perhaps not.
Tian Industries – despite the name, this is no trans-Pacific production – is drilling for oil in the Mariana Trench, 11,000 metres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Kepler 822, the control centre for the drilling station, is located 1500 metres above the trench’s bottom. It is apparently connected to a surface facility by an elevator and umbilical shaft. Which would be, er, 9.5 km tall.
An earthquake strikes Kepler 822, causing parts of the structure to rupture. The Mariana Trench is part of a subduction system – that’s what actually created the trench – and also part of the Pacific “Rim of Fire”. According to the USGS, around 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes take place in the Rim of Fire. So building a facility there that’s not earthquake-proof would be incredibly fucking dumb.
Sadly, the dumbness does not end there.
I have written on this blog before about deep sea exploration and undersea hyperbaric environments. I have even written about the Mariana Trench and the three – to-date – visits to it. The thing to remember about the Mariana Trench is its depth – approximately 11,000 metres, or 36,000 feet, or seven miles. At that depth, the pressure is intense: nearly 1,100 atmosphere, or 7.5 to 8 tons per square inch. A facility built to operate at those depths needs to be able to withstand that enormous pressure.
Happily, human beings don’t need to survive such intense pressure. They can live and work in nice sealed habitats with internal pressures of one atmosphere. The highest recorded depth reached by a human being, incidentally – and it was simulated in an hyperbaric chamber on land – is 701 metres, or 70 atmospheres. A thousand atmospheres would turn a human being into a smear in a nanosecond. Yet that is exactly how the survivors of the quake escape from Kepler 822: they put on diving suits, take an elevator down to the sea-bottom – where the pressure is 1,100 atmospheres! – and then walk 1.5 kilometres to a drilling station. At least, that’s the plan.
Unfortunately, the plan is complicated by… a monster. Well, monsters. And they kill off the survivors one by one.
Science fiction often talks about something called “suspension of disbelief”, often “willing suspension of disbelief”. In the contract between reader, or viewer, and writer, or film-maker, the reader has chosen to accept something that is plainly either untrue or implausible. They will accept for the purposes of the fiction that the world operates according to that authorially-imposed phenomenon. A universe in which human beings can travel meaningful distances within a single lifetime is itself one of science fiction’s most fundamental tropes and entirely dependent on suspension of disbelief.
In the real world, we have Newton’s Third Law: to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That applies just as much to suspension of disbelief. So, call that reaction – appropriately, given the film under discussion – implosion of disbelief.
Implosion of disbelief occurs when a fiction is set in a world whose governing rules and laws map onto the physical rules and laws of our own world but are inconsistently applied and so break those rules and laws in ways that undermine the workings of that universe. It may well be that some of the tropes which trigger it have become cinematic convention – the starship rumbling as it crosses the screen, starfighters banking in space… Some, I suspect, might be on the way there, but should not be – like, bombs in space. FFS.
Underwater is a textbook example of implosion of disbelief. It makes a point of discussing pressure in dialogue… and then every single example of the effects of high pressure in the movie is completely wrong. When Kepler 822 implodes – and this is in the first ten minutes of the film – the viewer sees a wall of water rush down a corridor. When the USS Thresher (I have mentioned this before) sank in 2,600 metres of water, it has been calculated the two sides of the submarine’s hull met at a combined speed of 75,000 kph. That’s not a “rushing wall of water”, that’s “blink and– splat!”. FFS.
Later, Underwater‘s survivors leave Kepler 822. They put on fancy diving suits – perhaps they’re supposed to be Atmospheric Diving Suits, with 1 atmosphere inside for the comfort and safety of the diver… but the current record for an ADS is around 610 metres… and one capable of surviving 11,000 metres would look like a small tank. But they can’t be at 1 atmosphere inside Kepler 822 because they have a moon pool. Which means the air pressure inside matches the water pressure outside. Except it’s not a true moon pool, because once they’re below water, they must open a hatch… and that causes a huge increase in pressure – enough to implode one of the survivors’ diving suit. FFS.
These are, it turns out, remarkable diving suits. Capable of withstanding 8 tons per square inch, yet their helmets can be smashed open with several blows of a fire extinguisher when the wearer is running out of oxygen. Strong enough to withstand that pressure, yet weak enough to shatter after several sharp blows. FFS.
Oh, and let’s not forget the power-source for Kepler 822, which is some sort of spinning thing, and might be, from the dialogue, a nuclear reactor, although it resembles no known nuclear reactor. Happily, it threatens to explode when an impetus is needed to evacuate Kepler 822, and can be made to explode when the monsters threaten to overrun the facility. Nuclear reactors, of course, do not explode. And explosions, of course, cause pressure waves, even underwater, ones that would not only kill the pursuing monsters but also those being pursued. FFS.
It’s true not every person who watches a movie set in the depths of the ocean knows how that environment operates. The same is also true of films set in space – although the concept of vacuum is perhaps more widely understood than that of a hyperbaric environment. Both are intensely hostile; both will kill you in a heartbeat. Neither needs to be made “survivable” for good drama. Underwater‘s complete fucking misrepresentation of the hadal zone, the parts of the ocean below 6,000 metres, only makes it look like an incredibly fucking stupid film. The fact its plot is a “soggy Alien” is pretty much irrelevant. And the fact the “mother” monster is clearly modelled on Cthulhu, which leads to a shot sure to appeal to Lovecraft fans, not enough to offset the film’s other myriad faults.
It doesn’t matter that most of the cast – Kristen Stewart especially – successfully inhabit their roles, because their roles are badly written. It doesn’t matter that the film manages to cram a four-act plot into 95 minutes with impressive economy, because the plot is wholly derivative. And it doesn’t matter that the cinematography is actually good, because it is photographing something that causes implosion of disbelief.
Perhaps, at a time when it’s easy to turn to things that comfort, we should be looking outside our comfort zone. They say the sales of “bucket list” books are up. So… for films, turn off that Hollywood blockbuster. For TV, put down from that box-set you’ve binged on half a dozen times before already. Try something new.
The following films are not new to me, and one or two may not be new to many people. They are, as of the end of March 2020, my ten favourite films. (The list changes often, but this is what is is now.) The movies appeal to me for a number of different reasons, but the one thing they all have in common is that I can watch them – and have watched them – many times. I love every frame of them, in some cases with a passion that borders on mania. Those that are adapted from books, I have hunted down copies of the books and read them. Those that have been novelised, I have read the novelisation. Neither diminished the appeal of the films.
The films are…
All That Heaven Allows, Douglas Sirk (1955, USA). This one should come as no surprise to people who know me. A 1950s melodrama by a master of the form, starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, and based on a novel by mother and son Edna and Harry Lee. The film looks absolutely gorgeous from start to finish, but is also a razor-sharp skewering of US social classes.
A River Called Titas, Ritwik Ghatak (1973, India). Based on a novel, which is actually more of a collection, by Adwaita Mallabarman, which documents the lives of the villagers who live on the banks of the titular river, and its tributaries, and from which background Mallabarman came. Ghatak was a singular talent and made a handful of remarkable films, but this one is world-class, a harrowing tale about a man who loses his wife, as well as a perfect ethnographic documentary of a lost way of life.
Playtime, Jacques Tati (1967, France). The amount of money spent on this is legendary – the set was so large it was dubbed “Tativille”. But every centime spent is visible there on-screen. The humour is pure Tati, although perhaps less inventive than in other films, but the commitment to the world Tati built for the movie is astonishing.
Lucía, Humberto Solás (1968, Cuba). Cuba has one of the great forgotten cinemas. It has produced a number of world-class movies for more than half a century, and among those films Solás is a name to be reckoned. Lucía, like many Cuban films, is an exploration of the country’s history, through the lives of three women living in three different periods. It is its treatment of its material that is especially impressive. But watch more Cuban cinema, it is excellent.
The Second Circle, Aleksandr Sokurov (1990, Russia). If I have a favourite director, which I do, it is Aleksandr Sokurov. He makes both documentaries and narrative films, and the rigour of his work is astonishing. He is also not afraid to experiment with cinematic techniques, and many of his films use the presentation of the story as commentary on the story. I would be hard-pressed to pick a favourite Sokurov film, but the simplicity of this one has always appealed to me.
Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964, Italy). I’m a big fan of Antonioni’s films post-L’Avventura and his new approach to cinema. But it is only in Red Desert that it really comes into its own. This is motion picture as art. It’s too long to be a video installation, but my love of this film is one of the reasons I love video installations. It is not just a new form ofe cinematic narrative, it is a new cinematic narrative language.
Alien, Ridley Scott (1979, UK). I was too young to see this film in the cinema when it was released, but I had already fallen in love with it because of its production design. And I still love it for that reason. It also has one of the most basic plots on the planet, and manages to present it flawlessly. If it has faults, they are a result of the state of the cinematic art in 1979. Alien kept its story simple and succeeded precisely because of that. None of its sequels have matched it.
Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017, UK). I’m not a huge fan of Nolan’s films. Interstellar struck me as two movies badly welded together, neither of which made much sense. Inception felt like it thought it was cleverer than it actually was. So when I first watched Dunkirk, I was surprised by how much it appealed to me. It’s totally immersive, and yet entirely plotless. It’s far too emotional to be a documentary, yet it has a documentary’s authenticity.
Girls Lost, Alexandre-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden). As mentioned earlier, this list has changed many times over the years, and Dunkirk and these last two films are all recent additions, watched for the first time in 2018. In Girls Lost – Pojkarna, The Boys, in Swedish – three teenage girls who are being bullied at school drink a potion and turn temporarily into boys of the same age. There are numerous Disney films with a similar precis, but Girls Lost certainly does not play its conceit for laughs. Despite that precis, its story feels completely believable.
War and Peace, parts 1 to 4, Sergei Bondarchuk (1966, USSR). There is no good version of these four films in existence, despite its stature, its technical accomplishments, its expense, its sheer sweep and grandeur. The original 70 mm prints were left to rot, and only a 35 mm print, filmed in parallel and adapted for television broadcast, survives. Which makes watching it an odd experience, due to weird flips between dubbing and subtitling, not to mention French and German not being translated at all. But the film series truly is epic and deserves all its accolades. There is supposedly a fully-restored version from a recently-found print released by Criterion, but the only one currently available from them is a previous version.
I don’t need to self-isolate to read books, in fact I pretty much self-isolate every weekend anyway: a trip to my local supermarket on the Saturday, and perhaps a visit to the återvinningsrum, but other than that the front door remains locked. This is not – or has not been – necessarily a good thing: I should get out more, you know, go for a walk in the woods next to my apartment building, for instance. Instead, I read books. Such as these…
Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds (2018, UK). This is a belated follow-on to 2007’s The Prefect – now re-titled Aurora Rising – and while the story is standalone, it makes several references to the events of the previous novel. And uses pretty much the same cast. A figure pops up giving speeches suggesting the various habitats of the Glitter Band should leave the Panoply, which is the implant-driven direct democracy system the habitats have been using for a couple of centuries. Reynolds is not being very subtle here – it’s clear what he’s writing about. But, there’s this universe hanging over the story, all that world-building documented in a dozen or so other novels… The main plot seems to be people whose implants suddenly boil their brains and kill them, and the Panoply – also a police force – is desperately trying to track down the cause and so prevent further deaths. Of course, the two – Glexiteer and brain-boiling implants – are connected, but only because Reynolds apparently has so little faith in democracy he built a backdoor into the “demarchy” he invented for his novels, sothat a powerful elite can alter the outcome of certain votes (which does sort of plug into all the conspiracy theories regarding the 2016 Referendum). Anyway, the two are indeed linked, and through the aforementioned backdoor, which all feels somewhat too convenient when the climax hits. Some nice set-pieces, but story feels like two plots bolted together and the villains are somewhat pantomime.
Journey to the Center (now re-published as Asgard’s Secret), Brian Stableford (1982, UK). I think I read this many years ago, but under its UK title, which would be, er, Journey to the Centre. DAW never published books two and three of the trilogy, although they were published in the UK. And have been subsequently rewritten and published under new titles by a US small press and the SF Gateway (as ebooks). Throughout the 1970s to 1990s, Stableford reliably produced mid-list science fiction with UK sensibilities albeit mostly for, strangely, US publishers like DAW. This book is fairly typical. An adventurer makes his living hunting through the mysterious levels of the world Asgard – which may comprises levels of shells all the way to the centre, some of which could be occupied. It’s a great conceit, and Stableford makes good use of it. I’m reminded of the Kriakta Rift from Robert Holdstock’s Where Time Winds Blow (1981, a favourite sf novel) more than I am Iain M Banks’s much later Matter (2008). The novel is a standalone, but leaves many questions about the world unanswered. Hence the sequels. Which I want to read. I suspect I will have to go for the ebook versions.
The Heiress of Linn Hagh, Karen Charlton (2012, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon, and it was only a quid, so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a crime novel set in Regency England. I’ve always liked novels set in Regency England, such as, er, Heyer, and the occasional Signet and Zebra romance. And the late Kate Ross did write four really good crime novels set in Regency England. Anyway, I bought it, I read it. I think I have less of a problem with the setting and character than many of those reviewing it on Goodreads. The lead was a real historical character and the author admits she wrote him more like a twentieth-century detective than was likely true for the time. But that’s your “suspension of disbelief”, and I duly suspended it as required. Sadly, the book suffered from bad writing and inconsistent plotting. On the whole, I thought Charlton managed the period quite well, and her protagonists were not entirely reliant on cliché, but the poor prose discourages me from reading the rest of the series.
84K, Claire North (2018, UK). Between Jarman’s visions of a post-Thatcherite UK and North’s vision of a post-Austerity UK, I’m not sure I can either tell the difference or see much that distinguishes them. That the Tories have been systematically robbing the UK since 1979 is historical fact. How genre writers have responded to that – at least, the few that actually bothered – is a different matter. UK sf writers of the 1970s built the government’s incompetence into their worlds; later sf writers had plainly drunk too much Tory Kool-Aid (bar a few notable exceptions). But that’s an argument for another time. 84K reads like a cross between 1984 refashioned for a twenty-first century audience and a 1970s consumerism-gone-made satire. Which, sadly, makes it feel like a book out of its time. It has a point to make, and it tells its story well, but it feels mostly like the target at which it’s aimed no longer exists. North is a writer to be treasured, and if not every book she produces hits its mark, she has the virtue of actually aiming at something. I thought The Sudden Appearance of Hope much the better book, for all that 84K ought to be the more relevant book and so more impactful. I will however read more books by North because she is clearly worth it.
In the past week or so, I’ve seen lots of people and companies offering their products – books, comics, films, songs – free of charge to people who are self-isolating. While the sentiment is certainly welcome, I already have more than enough books to last me a couple of months, and I can always download more ebooks without venturing into a shop. I also have access to a couple of streaming services, not to mention a backlog of about fifty Blu-rays to watch. During the day, of course, I’m working – it’s been common practice at my employer for people to work from home quite often, and now the offices are closed and everyone is doing it…
So, I have to wonder: all this free time we supposedly now have, where is it? Mine was already filled with reading books and watching movies. Was everybody else out every evening, every weekend? (Of course, I recognise that some people are actually out of work because of the pandemic, and they have my sympathy.)
Anyway, speaking of films, here’s another roundup of the last few weeks’ viewing. I’ve now finished all ten seasons of Stargate SG-1, and I’m two-thirds of the way through Twin Peaks season 3 (and enjoying it very much). I should also note I don’t mention every movie I’ve seen, since some are just not worth mentioning and others I might have written about previously.
Room at the Top, Jack Clayton (1959, UK). This is generally reckoned to be the first kitchen sink drama, and also holds the record for the shortest on-screen time by an actor to be nominated for an Oscar – Hermione Baddeley, Best Supporting Actress, who appeared on the screen for 2 minutes and 19 seconds. Laurence Harvey plays a clerk who moves from one West Yorkshire mill town to another and a slightly better position. He sets about social climbing – and this is actual class warfare, not whatever Americans think it is, with Harvey’s working-class origins set against upper middle class arrogance (financed by the riches of a working-class man made good). The ex-RAF boyfriend is an especially horrible piece of work. Very good film.
Birds of Prey, Cathy Yan (2020, USA). I’m not a big fan of superhero films. Actually, I’m not a fan of them at all. There are perhaps two or three that are any good, and perhaps a couple more that were genuinely ground-breaking when they were released but have not stood the test of time especially well. These days it’s getting hard to tell the difference between a superhero movie and a Lego movie. Margot Robbie was good as Harley Quinn, in as much as she committed totally to it. But this sort of stuff goes stale really quickly.
My Favorite Brunette, Elliott Nugent (1947, USA). It’s good to know that pastiches of noir are pretty much as old as noir itself, although My Favorite Brunette, a Bob Hope vehicle, sends up far more than just the tropes its Chandleresque plot depends upon. There are several digs at other Hollywood properties, and even at other roles played by some of the cast. Dorothy Lamour is the femme fatale who shows up in a private detective’s office looking for help. Unfortunately, it’s not the PI behind the desk but the baby photographer, and wannabe gumshoe, from across the hall, and he’s completely useless. As he subsequently proves. The story is told in flashback by Hope as he waits for his execution in prison for murder. Better than expected.
Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man, Ruggero Deodato (1976, Italy). Every time I look on Amazon Prime, yet more gialli seems to have been added. Technically, Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man is a poliziottesco movie – the title, which is the best thing about it, is a bit of a clue. Tarantino has apparently praised this film, but there’s very little that’s impressive about it. The movie opens with a group of black marketeers being machine-gunned to death by a gang who control smuggling. A cop who had turned a blind eye to smuggling and the like finds his scruples being abused when it comes to murder and drugs. But he’s in too deep to get out. Unfortunately, his father is an old school police sergeant with a much more fixed view of right and wrong. So the detective ends up killing his father. Meh.
Satte Pe Satta, Raj N Sippy (1982, India). There’s these seven brothers, and they live on a remote farm, there’s lots of singing and dancing, and stop me if you’ve heard this before… The oldest brother controls the other six, who behave like animals, but then he gets married – although his bride has no idea what she’s let herself in for – and her influence gradually humanises them… And then film takes a complete left turn, when the six brothers meet a wealthy paraplegic heiress and her five friends, and it turns out the heiress’s guardian is trying to murder her. And he hires a killer who is the spitting image of the oldest brother (the same actor, obvs). This can only be Bollywood. An attempt on the heiress shocks her into walking again, the killer mends his ways, and everyone lives happily ever after. Except the evil guardian. Has to be seen to be believed.
Rulers of the City (AKA Mister Scarface), Fernando Di Leo (1976, Italy). Another poliziottesco movie. There are these two rival gangs in an Italian city, one of which is run by Jack Palance. A low-level runner in the other organisation comes up with a plan to defraud Palance out of a substantial sum, but it backfires and the two gangs go to war. Surprisingly dull, and the chirpy narrator/lead annoys more than anything else. Avoidable.
Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Freddie Francis (1965, UK). Five men occupy a compartment in a British train, when they are joined by Peter Cushing. Who then pulls out a pack of Tarot cards, and uses it as a prop in order to trigger flashforward stories detailing the horrible deaths of each of the five men. It’s all resolutely 1960s British horror, with its usual mix of familiar faces (to Brits, anyway), bad special effects, slightly off-centre takes on horror tropes, and a sort of theatrical seriousness that only UK films of the period achieved. One for fans of the genre and period – or rather, the genre during that period – which I am sort of finding myself becoming. (Oh, and this is not Hammer, but Amicus.)
Prometheus, Ridley Scott (2012, UK). I remember my excitement when this film was announced – Ridley Scott returning to the Alien franchise! Wow. Alien is one of the best science fiction films ever made, and even though each sequel was worse than the film preceding it, surely Scott could, after 33 years and a highly successful career, make something really good? But oh dear. What a load of fucking tosh. Prometheus looks great, but makes zero sense – from the incompetent sociopathic “experts” hired for the mission, to the risible scene where Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron run away from the rolling boomerang spaceship along the same line it is rolling. The universe of the Alien franchise was, much like that of Star Trek, one that sort of developed as the franchise progressed, but Prometheus, through some bad story choices, ended up not only retconning it but rendering much of it nonsensical. As a standalone film, it looks great but suffers from idiot-plotting and idiot characters; but it did far more damage to the franchise than it did to Scott’s reputation.
Stolen Kisses, François Truffaut (1968, France). It’s nine years since The 400 Blows, and lead Jean-Pierre Léaud is now a young man, fresh from a dishonourable discharge from the army – the general who gives him his papers rightly asks why he bothered to enlist in the first place – and hooking back up again with family and friends. And, er, that’s it. He ends up in a job working for a detective agency, while trying to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend. But he goes undercover in a shoe shop, falls for the owner’s wife, and jeopardises both his job and his relationship with his girlfriend. I like a lot of Truffaut’s films, and there’s no denying his knowledge of technique and cinematic history, but I suspect there’s something about these Antoine Doinel movies that does not translate. Still, two more to go, perhaps they will be better.
Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, Nabil Ayouch (2000, Morocco). This film is on one of those 1001 movies you must see lists, although not the one I’ve been trying to complete, and I can’t remember exactly which one. However, it certainly belongs on as many as possible. It’s not an especially well-made film – the cast are mostly not professional and it shows, and the story feels like it should be guerrilla film-making but the actual production clearly is not. The story is set among the homeless boys of Casablanca. One breaks away from a gang with three impressionable friends. He plans to be a cabin boy on a dhow, and has even secured the friendship of a captain. But he’s killed in an encounter with the rest of the gang. So the three remaining boys decide to have him buried properly, as a “prince of the streets”, and as they attempt this they learn more about his life and dreams and the captain who befriended him. Good stuff.
Return to Oz, Walter Murch (1985, USA). Not being American, I have no particular attachment to Oz. There’s the film with Judy Garland and… well, that’s it. Baum apparently wrote fourteen Oz books, and the first one was adapted numerous times. I’ve not read any of them. Return to Oz, however, is a sequel to the 1939 film and unconnected to the books. It is also a completely bizarre take on the source material. The Wheelers are very 1980s – leg-warmers and roller skates! But Tik-Tok is almost prescient, and his explanation of how his brain works could have come from any twenty-first century sf novel. The use of animation for the Cowardly Lion, Tin Woodsman and Jack Pumpkinhead works much better than expected. There’s a sort of off-kilter approach to the property that actually turns the movie into something much more interesting than the various remakes of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, no matter what gimmick they threw at the camera, like disco or roller-skates. I have a weird liking for this film.
The Tenant, Roman Polanski (1976, France). I know, we shouldn’t be watching Polanski films, the man is still wanted for raping a thirteen year old girl in the US – despite Tarantino’s back-handed attempt to partly rehabilitate him – and The Tenant was the last film he made before that incident. There’s no denying he was a talented filmmaker, although his good films are a great deal better than the rest of his oeuvre. Sadly, The Tenant falls into the latter category. Polanski himself plays the title role and, for whatever reason, he decided to turn his story set in Paris and based on a French novel into some weird US parody of France by casting US actors and giving them dialogue consistent with that nationality. No wonder it was panned when it was released. Avoid.
I seem to be mostly reading science fiction at the moment. Not sure why. I mean, it’s not like I think we’re in a new golden age for genre or anything – in fact, I find a lot of the high profile science fiction being published at the moment completely uninteresting. Having said that, three of the books below, all published last year, are by writers I’ve been reading for decades, and two of them are favourites writers as well.
World Engines: Destroyer, Stephen Baxter (2019, UK). Reid Malenfant, he of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, is awakened in 2469 from cold sleep after a near-fatal accident in 2019 because Emma Stoney, she of Baxter’s Manifold trilogy, who disappeared on a mission to Phobos in 2005… has just sent a radio message to Earth asking for Malenfant’s help. The world of the twenty-fifth century is considerably different to the world we, the readers, know and Malenfant remembers. The great push into space was reversed after native species on Venus and Europa were almost wiped out. There are AIs on the Moon and the other planets, but none on Earth, only “algorithmic-machines” (despite repeated assertions in the text that algorithmic machines are not aware, just sophisticated computers, they’re characterised pretty much the same as the human cast). For a third of the novel, nothing happens. Malenfant mooches about what’s left of Birmingham after 500 years of progress and climate change. But then he decides to go and rescue Stoney – although, from clues in the radio message, she’s a Stoney from an alternate universe, one in which Neil Armstrong did not die of a heart attack shortly before landing on the Moon. Fortunately, it transpires Earth has a sophisticated space capability, it just never uses it. Malenfant, his mentor (a teenage girl) and an algorithmic android (Malenfant’s nurse since he was awakened) head to Mars, meet Stoney, discover a weird tunnel in Phobos which gives access to alternate realities and they end up in one in which the British Empire is triumphant in space and head off with them to the “ninth planet”… We’ve all been here before; Baxter has been here before. The whole thing reads like it was cobbled together from discarded ideas from the Manifold trilogy and Proxima duology. It’s highly readable, but there’s a lot of set-up for very little pay-off. And the continuity is terrible, with characters joining in conversations despite not being present. Baxter bangs books like this out like sausages – an atelier can’t be that far off – and this one was clearly an opportunity to use some of that Britain in Space stuff he researched and wrote many years ago… When you see Stephen Baxter’s name on the cover, you pretty much know what to expect. This is not one of his better efforts, but it’s very much on-brand.
A City Made of Words, Paul Park (2019, USA). Park has had an interesting and varied career. He debuted with a complex sf trilogy set on a world with extremely long seasons and with a somewhat meandering plot. His next novel was postcolonial science fiction, and remains one of my favourite genre novels. He then wrote a pair of Biblical fantasies, followed by a straight-up, but very literary, portal fantasy set in a Romanian empire. Although Park moves effortlessly between fantasy and science fiction, he has always worked at the literary end of both genres. But there has, in recent years, come an increasing narrative playfulness apparent in his fiction. His last novel was, among other things, about the Forgotten Realms novel he wrote under a pseudonym, the history of his family, an art installation he wrote a text for, and, in part, his writing career. A City Made of Words is more of the same. It’s a collection of short stories, most previously published, and an “interview”, and it’s more of the meta-fiction Park has been writing of late. He is one of my favourite writers, and has been for many years, and while for some that – being a favourite writer – means a consistent delivery of exactly the same stuff the reader likes, for me Park is a favourite writer because he is forever changing what he produces. The meta-fiction is not just a progression from earlier works, it’s built on earlier works and it’s extremely cleverly done. I suspect my opinion will be shared by few people but I consider Paul Park one of the best US science fiction writers currently being published.
Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK). I’ve a feeling I read The Female Man back in the early 1980s, although I can’t be sure. I do remember buying a copy of The Adventures of Alyx, the Women’s Press edition, in a bookshop/stationery shop on Hamdan Street in Abu Dhabi in the mid-1990s. It wasn’t until I started up SF Mistressworks, however, that I started reading Russ’s fiction seriously, and the more I read the more I became a fan. Jones, on the other hand, I’ve been reading since the late 1980s, since when she has been one of my favourite genre writers. So that’s a double-win: a writer I admire writing about a writer I admire. Jones does an excellent job of running through Russ’s life and career and the fiction she produced. Jones ties each piece of fiction to events in Russ’s life and to her changes in her views on feminism and science fiction – all backed up by references to letters and essays. I had always known Russ was a clever writer, and a sharp critic, but until reading this book I had not realised quite how prolific she was. I knew her fiction, but not her essays and letters and fan articles… and… Russ was a second wave feminist who eventually accepted third wave feminism (I think I’m getting this right). Jones is also a feminist, vocally so. I get the impression from this book that their different brands of feminism do not quite map onto the other, but I also get the impression that Jones very much admires Russ and her fiction. This is a book that will give you a fresh appreciation of Russ’s work. I was a Joanna Russ fan before reading it, now I am even more of one.
The Flicker Men, Ted Kosmatka (2015, USA). I’ve read several short stories by Kosmatka and was impressed by them, but none of the blurbs to his novels – three to date, of which this is the last – made them sound as if they would appeal to the same extent. But then I started reading The Flicker Men and discovered that its plot was based on the Kosmatka story I’d admired the most. Except. How to…? Okay. There was was this one story in which Feynman’s double slit experiment revealed there were some people who could not collapse the wave function and so were not sentient as such. The Flicker Men takes that premise and runs with it. First, it posits a televangelist using it to prove that foetuses have “souls”, but then it turns out there are people from an alternate reality on Earth who are trying to shut down the experiment… and the novel turns into a somewhat implausible technothriller with the hero constantly on the run. I was… disappointed. The short story is excellent, but this expansion of it reads like it was handed to Tom Clancy as a premise. Okay, Kosmatka is a better writer than Clancy – but this is definitely more like Clancy’s output than the high concept sf I was expecting. Disappointing.