It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


3 Comments

Moving pictures 2017, #9

A mix of the usual suspects this time around, and it sounds good to say that and mean cinema from countries such as Russia, Germany, Japan and China. It seems I’m actually sticking to one of my New Year resolutions.

man_movie_cameraEnthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass, Dziga Vertov (1931, Russia). If there are two words which are likely make me buy something I had not otherwise considered purchasing, they are “limited edition”. I’d seen Vertov’s astonishing Man With a Movie Camera a couple of years ago, but hadn’t been that bothered about owning a copy… and then Eureka! decided to release a limited edition dual-format box set of Man With a Movie Camera plus some of Vertov’s other works. So, of course, I had to buy it. On the other hand, it’s also true I treasure the sort of films in this box set, ie, documentaries of other times and other places… and yes, that’s probably a consequence of my love of Sokurov’s films. But I’m also fascinated by films which see cinema as more than just brainless spectacle, and Vertov was a vocal proponent of cinema as a social tool. And of the films in this box set, Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donblass is a prime example of the type. It’s pure Stakhanovism – a coal mine in the Don region is determined to beat its quota, and Vertov is there to film them doing it. And, er, that’s it. It’s not a silent film, although the others in the set are. It’s also quite astonishing how crude coal-mining techniques were back in 1930s USSR. Men wielded picks against the coal face, ponies pulled carts of coal from the face to the pit-head. I come from a mining background – my grandfathers all worked down the pit, and although my father joined the Electricity Board when he left school, my uncles all went to work for the NCB. Despite all that, I know little about the actual work of extracting coal from underground, and what little I know of early twentieth-century UK coal-mining comes from, er, DH Lawrence. I suspect Soviet techniques were not all that different, and it’s interesting actually seeing them on the screen. All told, this limited edition box set has proven to be a wise purchase.

lisbon_storyLisbon Story, Wim Wenders (1994, Germany). I stuck this one my rental list thinking it was by Manoel de Oliveira, but it’s actually by Wim Wenders, whose films I’m also happy to watch (although I’ve seen considerably more by Wenders than de Oliveira). But de Oliveira does appear in the film, so blame Amazon rental’s search facility… Although, having said all that, I did enjoy the film. Wenders I find a bit variable, but this was one of his better ones. A German director – the same one, in fact, from Wender’s The State of Things (1982) – asks the sound man from that film to make his way to Lisbon. Which he promptly does. But the director is not there. So the sound man wanders about the city, recording ambient sounds, making friends with the director’s friends (a bunch of kids, mostly, and a string group with a female singer). The philosophy underlying the film, as proposed by the missing director, when he appears, is bollocks… but the film is a mostly sympathetic portrait of its titular city and the characters it finds there, and for that reason it’s watchable and sort of successful. I like many of Wenders’s films, and I’d certainly put him in a list of “100 most interesting directors of the twentieth century”, but… The Million Dollar Hotel? Really? It was so bad. Having said that, it’s a bit unfair to write Wenders off on the basis of one film – and I see from Wikipedia, he’s made nearly 20 films since the aforementioned, none of which I’ve seen. So perhaps it’s time I rectified that. Because Lisbon Story, despite being rented under false pretences, is an enjoyable film.

chungking_expressChungking Express*, Wong Kar-wai (1994, China). This was Wong Kar-wai’s breakthrough film, and, according to Wikipedia was shot in six weeks as if it were a student film. And it shows. Admittedly, I say that having come to Wong’s films first through In the Mood for Love and loving it, and so I can’t help but compare Chungking Express to it. And while I found it a good film, I did wonder why it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You die list. Wong deserves to be represented but this isn’t his best film. It’s important in as much as it signals his new direction and aesthetic, but then why not pick a film that is a better representantive of that new aesthetic, such as In the Mood for Love? Chungking Express comprises two stories, both of which revolve around unnamed Hong Kong police officers and their lack of a love life – or rather, the consequences of their lack of a partner and the efforts they go to in order to find one. In the first story, a cop buys a tin of expired pineapple chunks, as you do, on the anniversary of his break-up with his girlfriend, and falls in with a mule for a drug lord. In the second, a cop falls for a young woman who temporarily takes over the fast food outlet from which he buys a “chef’s salad” every night. The film looks like a mix of rushed shots and carefully-framed shots, an aesthetic Wong honed to excellent effect in his later films. The oblique approach to plotting also stood him in good stead in his later films – compare it with Ashes of Time (or even Ashes of Time Redux). Wong is a singular talent, and as such belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but you sometimes have to wonder at the choices from a director’s oeuvre they’ve picked for the list.

late_springLate Spring, Yasujiro Ozu (1949, Japan). Ozu gets to you slowly. You watch one film and then you start watching another, and before you know it you watch more and you become a fan. And yet each film follows a similar plot: a daughter who must be married, and then a slow parade of the reasons why this cannot happen or must happen. And the beauty of Ozu’s films, of the way they are constructed, is that the viewer sympathises with each and every viewpoint. Perhaps it’s just that he builds strong characters on screen, to such an extent you realise how many characters in commercial cinema are little more than ciphers or tags. There’s no point in describing the plot of Late Spring, or indeed any Ozu film, because that’s not the point. They’re not just domestic dramas, they are ur-domestic dramas. They are so rich with detail, they actually transcend drama. Getting lost in an Ozu film is not getting lost in the story but getting lost in the lives of the characters. And that’s not something you can say about many movies. I came to Ozu late, but I’ve come to love his ability to generate drama from the prosaic, the quotidian. The differences between UK society and Japanese society become irrelevant, because Ozu manages to make the viewer care about the situation from the Japanese point of view. And that makes these rare films. I’m collecting all the BFI releases, why aren’t you?

robin_hoodRobin Hood, Wolfgang Reitherman (1973, USA). I’ve seen this named as one of the best, if not the best, of Disney’s animated feature films. So my hopes were high when I slid it into the player. And the opening credits are really quite well done. But I much prefer the Disney films with the clean lines, rather than the more sketched sort of lines of the 1960s and later. But even with that, Robin Hood just seemed… so small a story, with Nottingham depicted as a village, and everything just too small scale for the story as it purported to be. There was some impressive voice talent – or rather, well-known names – in some of the parts, such as Peter Ustinov and Terry-Thomas, and they were good. But it all felt a bit like an unrelated story that had borrowed the trappings of the Robin Hood legend, without bothering to be all that faithful. So far – and I’ve not seen all of the Disney animated feature films yet – I’d rate them as follows: 1 Sleeping Beauty, 2 Cinderella, 3 101 Dalmatians… and er, I need to watch, or rewatch, more Disney animated features to build up that top five. And no, I don’t count the Pixar films. I’ve still got a number of the classics to watch (or re-watch, albeit the last time I saw them was decades ago as a kid), before I can produce a definitive list. All the same, I’m not expecting Robin Hood to score as highly for me as it does for others. Did I mention that I was born in a town that used to be part of Sherwood Forest, so this legend has always felt like part of my heritage? No? Well, it does. Although that’s only a minor part of the problem. I liked the animal characters, even if it was a little worrying that both Robin and Maid Marion were both foxes (no trans-species love affairs in Disney), and some of the non-native species present in the film didn’t really have much reason for being present. And framing the over-arching narrative as some sort of good-ole-boy southern-USA story felt like appropriation. Not one of Walt’s best.

zhao_liangCrime and Punishment, Zhao Liang (2007, China). I loved Zhao’s Behemoth, which is an astonishing documentary that deserves to be seen by everyone. And, one night, having imbibed a certain amount, I decided I wanted to see more by Zhao but the only films available I could find were in a French-released box set. It had English subtitles, so I bought it. And… it’s pretty grim stuff. There are three films, and none of them makes for cheerful viewing. Crime and Punishment follows a small group of police officers in an impoverished town in north-east China. The people they deal with are poor, often not especially smart, and several are habitual criminals. The police officers are, by turns, arrogant, corrupt, violent, naive and not very smart. There’s a lot of shouting in this film, and several instances where the police openly beat up a suspect they’ve apprehended. But it’s the opening sequence to the film which sticks most in memory, a silent sequence in which the police officers fold up their bedding with military precision until each bed contains only a perfectly-formed cube of duvet. With all the guff you see in the press about China’s powerhouse economy and industrial and technological might, it’s worth remembering that the bulk of the country’s population live in poverty – as is amply displayed in Crime and Punishment – and those who don’t are pretty much indentured labour – as seen in Jia Zhangke’s 24 City and A Touch of Sin (which are, admittedly, not documentaries). I may not have been entirely sober when I clicked “buy” for the Zhao Liang box set, but it proved a worthwhile purchase. Which neatly brings my words on this last film in this post back to my words on the first film…

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 850


Leave a comment

Reading diary, #45

The reading further afield thing hasn’t quite kicked into gear yet, with an almost entirely UK set of books in this post – and a lone bande dessinée from Belgium (which is, ironically, about a British writer: William Shakespeare…).

blake_24The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 24: The Testament of William S., Yves Sente & André Juillard (2016, Belgium). I’ve been picking these up as Cinebook publish the English translations, and if that’s not a testament to their quality, then I don’t know what is. Perversely, they’ve improved considerably since the series creator, Edgar P Jacobs, died. In most cases, the originator does it best – Hergé refused to let anyone continue the Tintin series after him; but the Asterix and Obelix series is generally considered to have declined now that both Goscinny and Uderzo are dead. But Jacobs’s stories for Blake and Mortimer were very much of their time – even offensively so: the villains for several stories is the “Yellow Empire”, ffs – and the science fiction elements were complete bollocks. Since the Edgar P Jacobs Studio has been producing the books, they’ve turned into clever alternate history conspiracy thrillers – such as this one. The William S. of the title is the Bard himself, and the story revolves around two societies who have been feuding for decades over who actually wrote the plays and sonnets. One believes it was indeed Shakespeare; the other believes it was the Earl of Oxford. But a clue hinting at vital evidence proving the claim of one of the societies is unexpectedly discovered in Venice, and, since there’s a huge bequeathed fortune tied up in the answer, the race is on to puzzle out the hidden location of the evidence, and either publish it or destroy it. Good stuff.

a_romantic_heroA Romantic Hero, Olivia Manning (1967, UK). I’m a big fan of Manning’s Balkan and Levant trilogies, and always pick up her books when I spot copies in charity shops… which is where I bought this collection of her short stories (her second collection, apparently). I’d not read her short fiction before, only her novels, so I was interested to see how it compared. And, initially, not so good… the two opening stories, written in the 1930s feature two children of impoverished middle class parents (in a collapsing marriage) who live on the coast of Ireland. Fortunately, things pick up quite dramatically, and some of the following stories are excellent, with some lovely prose and sharply drawn characters. One features the semi-autobiographical characters from the Balkan Trilogy; another is set in Cairo during WW2, but I’m not sure if the characters appear in the Levant Trilogy. The stories in A Romantic Hero stretch from the 1930s to the 1960s (and a couple from the 1930s were re-written in the 1960s), but there’s no discernible change in Manning’s writing with each decade. Perhaps some of the earlier ones seem less individual, more like other fiction of the time; but still well-written. A good collection. Worth reading. Although, annoyingly, the book doesn’t have a table of contents.

cover_truth_largeA Thread of Truth, Nina Allan (2006, UK). I’m still in two minds about Allan’s work. I think that what she does is very interesting, I just don’t think it succeeds that often. On a prose level, she is an excellent writer, one of the best currently writing in UK genre fiction, and her ability to blur the lines between genres, narratives and even characters is both a clever and worthwhile schtick. A Thread of Truth is an early collection – her first, in fact – and is a nicely-produced hardback by Eibonvale Press (who do very nice books, it must be said). I found the stories… mixed. Allan’s prose is very good, but I’m not always convinced by her research. Some of the settings she describes are clearly based on personal experience – she knows these places and does an excellent job in conveying to the reader. But in the title story, the narrator enrolls on a Surveying and Land Management course at university because he wants to be a quantity surveyor. Er, that’s not what quantity surveying is. Every now and again in Allan’s fiction I stumble across things like that, and they spoil the story for me. Two of the stories in A Thread of Truth are actual science fiction, although neither to my mind pull it off especially well. ‘Birdsongs at Eventide’ is set on an alien planet, where a team are studying a troop of local creatures which resembles dragons. And ‘The Vicar with Seven Rigs’ reads like mimetic fiction, until the penultimate page where it’s revealed it takes place in a future UK where travel between planets is routine, as if the narrator had sideslipped into an alternate reality. Neither worked for me.

poseidons_wakePoseidon’s Wake, Alastair Reynolds (2015, UK). If there’s one thing that really annoys me, it’s when publishers completely redesign the covers of a trilogy for the last book. As Gollancz did for the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. Now the design for Poseidon’s Wake is a very attractive design, but it’s not the same as the two earlier books, Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze. Argh. And after all that… Poseidon’s Wake proved a disappointing end to what had promised to be a good sf trilogy. The story picks up several decades after the events of On the Steel Breeze. the holoship Zanzibar is now just a belt of rocks orbiting Crucible, the settled planet orbiting 61 Virginis (I think). And then the world receives a message from Gliese 163, a star system some seventy light-years distant, which reads only “Send Ndege”, Ndege being the woman who was responsible for turning the Zanzibar into rubble by playing around with the Mandala and accidentally triggering it. So Crucible sends a mission to Gliese 163, which includes not Ndege but her daughter, Goma, and several others. En route, Goma’s uncle, Mposi, the head of the mission, is murdered, and the evidence points to a Second Chancer (ie, religious extremist) in the team. The ship arrives at Gliese 163 and discovers… that the three taken by the Watchkeepers are still alive – well, two of them are, Eunice Akinya and the uplifted elephant, or Tantor, Dakota – and Eunice was the source of the message. Because she’s fallen out with Dakota. Who now rules a colony of thousands of Tantors in Zanzibar, which was not apparently destroyed but sent on a near-lightspeed journey to Gliese 163. Oh, and there’s a waterworld superearth whose oceans is dotted with thousands of two-hundred-kilometre-diameter metal hoops, whose apexes are almost out of the atmosphere – and the world is protected by a belt of hundreds of artificial moons in complex orbits. This was all built by the Mandala-builders, and is perhaps a clue to their history and technology… so obviously everyone is keen to go and have a look at it. Including the Watchkeepers. But the moons will only let organic intelligences through… I remember enjoying Blue Remembered Earth and On the Steel Breeze (read in 2012 and 2014, respectively), but this was all a bit meh. The characters were mostly unlikeable, and it was hard to figure out if they were meant to be likeable. One character is set up as a possible murderer, but he’s paper-thin and not at all convincing. Even Dakota, the uplifted elephant – and since uplifted even further by the Watchkeepers – doesn’t really come across as an alien intelligence. The prose is sketchy, with very little description (except of planets and stars and suchlike), which I didn’t like. And the book’s big takeaway is that apparently the universe doesn’t offer meaning, life has no meaning – and I’m sorry and everything, but I pretty much figured that out when I was about eight years old. There’s an interesting discussion about intelligence without consciousness, made in reference to the Watchkeepers, who apparently are no longer conscious. Because a feed-forward intelligence is not conscious, and a feedback intelligence, given enough resources, can simulate a feed-forward intelligence… except if A is superior to B, why use more resources to simulate B than A requires? It is, in somewhat apposite words, completely illogical. I didn’t take to Poseidon’s Wake, but no doubt others will.

book_enclaveThe Enclave, Anne Charnock (2017, UK). So I bought The Iron Tactician by Alastair Reynolds (see here), which was the first of four sf novellas from NewCon Press. And when I saw who had written the other three, I decided I wanted them too. The Enclave is actually the third, but I’ve not read the second yet. I read Charnock’s Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind last year (see here) and thought it very good. In fact, it reminded me of Katie Ward’s Girl Reading, which is one of the best novels I’ve read in the last five years or so. Despite that, I hadn’t really known what to expect on opening The Enclave. Happily, it is good, although I’ve yet to decide if it’s good enough to be nominated for an award (although given how few novellas I read in their year of publication… On the other hand, I wouldn’t nominate an unworthy novella just because it was the only one I’d read that year). The title refers to a ghetto in, or near, a UK city, in which live migrants and UK citizens who have refused to be chipped. (It’s not entirely clear what this chipping entails or means in the story, but given The Enclave is set in the same world as Charnock’s novel A Calculated Life, I imagine it’s explained there.) Caleb is a twelve-year-old boy who walked from Spain to the UK with his mother, hoping to find his father who had left earlier. But somewhere in England, he lost his mother, was picked up by Skylark and sold into indentured labour under Ma Lexie. So now he lives in a shack on a rooftop in an enclave. Ma Lexie sells “remade clothes” at a street market, and has three boys to do the sewing for her. But Caleb has an eye for fashion and so Ma Lexie boots out her old overseer and puts Caleb in charge. The story is told first-person, initially from Caleb’s point of view, then from Ma Lexie’s, and finally again from Caleb’s. The characters are convincing, the setting is an all-too-frighteningly-likely consequence of Brexit and the rise in institutional racism in the UK, which means the whole chipping thing does tend to dilute the politics. I’ve never really taken to first-person narrative – it’s always struck me as the weakest, and the one writers with poor imaginations most frequently employ. A first-person narrator who is a Mary Sue (of any gender) is a complete waste of time. Happily, neither Caleb nor Ma Lexie can be accused of that, and the use of first-person here allows Charnock to confine the narrative only to what the narrators know. Although well-written, I’ve a feeling The Enclave could have been stronger, made more of a meal of its setting, said something trenchant about UK politics of the last twelve months. Other than that, bits of The Enclave reminded me, of all things, of Kes, especially the end. And there’s a slight hint of Keith Roberts to it, which is, of course, a plus. I think I probably will end up nominating it next year.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129


Leave a comment

All the awards that’s fit to print

I found myself completely uninterested in genre awards this year, despite being nominated for two last year (and it’s not like I had anything eligible for any of this year’s awards anyway – well, my one published piece was a spoof coda to the Apollo Quartet, but it was probably unreadable unless you’d actually read the quartet). I suppose my indifference is partly a result of the lacklustre shortlists generated by the various awards last year. But there’s also the increasing disconnect between what the awards mean and the works they’re rewarding. Yes, yes, popular choice wins popularity contest, news at ten and all that. And, true, there’s always been a bit of personality cult about the popular vote awards, which is why so few people keep on winning so many awards, and currently it’s a different set of faces to those of ten or even twenty years ago. A more diverse set of faces, which is good, but given the size of the field these days it would not be unreasonable to expect more variety.

And then there’s the way social media has completely fucked up awards, not to mention the cutting back on promotion by publishers which has normalised the sort of grasping self-promotion bullshit, as epitomised by elegibility posts, that is now common. There may have been an element of awards going to people not to works in the past, but now it’s pretty much nakedly out there.

I suspect I’m not alone in my apathy. I saw almost no conversation about the BSFA Award longlist, and last year’s Clarke Award was notable for its lack of commentary…

Which neatly leads into a recent development which plans to address that last: the Clarke Award Shadow Jury, put together by Nina Allan and hosted online by the Anglia Rusking University’s Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Shadow juries are nothing new – hell, we even have a Shadow Cabinet in our government – although I think this is the first time it’s been done for a genre award. And it’s a really strong shadow jury – I actually know more people on it than I do on the actual Clarke Award jury – and I’m looking forward to seeing their thoughts on the books that have been submitted (there’s a list of submissions here).

A quick scan down that submission list, and I can see a number of interesting books… but I can also see a lot of commercial crap that I hope gets nowhere near the shortlist.

And speaking of shortlists… the BSFA Award shortlist has now been announced. And there are some… odd choices. (And they still haven’t sorted out whether it’s named for the year of elegibility or the year the award ceremony takes place. It’s fucked up at least two year’s worth of trophies in the past. It’s not difficult. Fix it.) I understand the BSFA has around 800 members (yes, I’m one of them), and few of them actually bother nominating or voting. I mean, I’m sure Adam Roberts: Critical Essays is an excellent book, but I doubt more than a handful of people have read it – and yet two of the essays in it have made the non-fiction shortlist. And I count six appearances of NewCon Press across the four shortlists.

But the big one is the novel shortlist, and it looks like this:

The Beckett is the third book of a trilogy, the first of which won the Clarke Award in 2013, and both books one and two were also shortlisted for the BSFA Award. The Chambers is also a sequel, and the first book seemed to make every English-language genre award shortlist in existence… except the BSFA Award. Europe in Winter is the third book of a trilogy, and both books one and two were previously shortlisted for the BSFA Award (and the Clarke Award). Sullivan has made the BSFA Award twice previously, in 2004 and 2011, and Occupy Me is her first sf novel since that 2011 nomination. Azanian Bridges is Wood’s first novel.

Quality of the various books aside, that’s an unadventurous shortlist. Seriously, two book threes from trilogies, of which all the previous installments were also shortlisted? True, some of those earlier volumes have also been picked by Clarke Award juries. Yes, I know, small pool of voters, large field, familiar names – and even faces, as half of the shortlist regularly attend the Eastercon (members of the convention also get to vote on the shortlist). And yes, the nominees are good people (and some of them are friends of mine). But I’m not voting for them, I’m voting for the work.

bsfa2012

The BSFA Award is a popular vote award, so I shouldn’t be all that surprised that the same old names keep on cropping up. I look to juried awards to give a better indication of what’s good in the genre in a particular year. But I also remember when the BSFA Award actually used to be a pretty good barometer of what was good in the British sf field in a year. Not so much for the short fiction category, that was always a bit of a crapshoot, but certainly the novel category. And now I find myself wondering: when did that stop being true? I don’t doubt the books shortlisted this year are good books – well, except for the Chambers, as I wasn’t at all impressed by A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – since I’ve read and enjoyed those earlier installments by Beckett and Hutchinson, and have heard good things about the Sullivan and Wood. But I can also see several novels on the longlist (see here) that were more than good enough to make the shortlist. Even then, only thirty-five novels were longlisted. Thirty-five! The Clarke Award submission list is eighty-six novels. (And only twenty-seven nominations in the BSFA Award short fiction category!).

I honestly don’t see the point of awards for short fiction anymore – I wrote as much in an editorial for Interzone back in 2015. I get that awards are a celebration, but what exactly are we celebrating? Back in the day, sf was a ghetto, and it was all reverse snobbery elitism. Awards were an affirmation of that. But it’s been open season on sf tropes now for several decades, and science fiction is still playing the same old game. And this during a period when the field has exploded, not only all over the internet, with way more fiction venues out there now than there were twenty or thirty years ago, but also serious efforts to bring non-Anglophone sf to Anglophone audiences. It’s almost becoming axiomatic that the only people reading genre short fiction these days are other writers of genre short fiction. Sf has always been self-fertilising, it’s one of the genre’s strengths, but that’s ridiculous.

They’ve tried revamping the BSFA Award a couple of times over the last few years, but I’m not convinced their changes have had much impact. For what it’s worth, I think they should drop the short fiction and non-fiction categories, institute a new award for non-fiction/criticism separate from the BSFA Awards, and limit the BSFA Award to best sf novel published in print in the UK and best piece of sf artwork to appear in print in the UK. But leave the definitions of genre up to the voters. No longlist or two-stage nomination process. Just keep it simple. December and the following January each year to nominate five novels and five pieces of artwork each. Top five in either category makes it to the shortlist. Then it’s business as usual: voting and an awards ceremony at the Eastercon. Let’s not just celebrate science fiction, let’s celebrate science fiction in the UK. And with the most visible forms of it – novels, which appear in book shops; and art, which can be plastered all over the internet. That sounds horribly Brexit-ish, which is not my intention at all – I voted Remain, and am hugely pissed off by all this Brexit shit – but the fact remains that when you’re addressing a parochial electorate it’s best to keep it parochial. And let’s not forget that authors from many other nations get published in the UK (although perhaps not as many non-Anglophone ones as we’d like).

I started out this post documenting my apathy toward genre awards, and ended up getting a bit excited about what they could be. And I guess it’s that disconnect, that sense of disillusionment, that fuels my annual awards annoyance. But in the world we have today, and all the shit that’s going to go down in 2017, praying for an asteroid strike is too much of a long shot. And, short of causing every Nazi newsaper in the UK to spontaneously combust, or Corbett and May to give the finger to the Nazi cabal pulling all the strings, we can at least do something positive in the world of science fiction and make a proper job of this celebration-type thing we call an award.


Leave a comment

Moving pictures 2017, #8

This seems to be a mostly classic film post, except for a recent Swedish TV series. One movie is a rewatch (the Herzog), the rest proved not as expected…

adviseAdvise & Consent, Otto Preminger (1962, USA). In the week in which a White Supremacist installed himself in the White House, and his meat puppet president signed whatever Executive Order was put in front of him, well, that probably wasn’t a good week to watch this film, which shows how US democracy works, or doesn’t work. The president has put forward a candidate for secretary of state, Henry Fonda, but it’s an unpopular pick with some of the senators, especially good old boy the senator for North Carolina, Charles Laughton. So Laughton sets out to sabotage Fonda’s acceptance by the Senate. The Party Whip, on the other hand, wants to push it through. So they convene a subcommittee of friendly faces to lightly grill Fonda before accepting his apointment. But Laughton pulls a fast one and introduces a witness who claims Fonda was a communist when at college. Fonda denies it and makes the witness look like a lying fool. He later admits to the president it was true. One of Fonda’s allies subsequently turns on him because Fonda lied under oath, but he’s already being blackmailed over a homosexual affair when in the army. Winston Churchill reputedly said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other ones”, and there’s also that famous poll run by sf editor Donald A wollheim back in the 1960s in which the government of choice of sf fans was “benevolent dictatorship”. In other words, after more than ten thousand years of civilisation we humans still have no fucking idea how to run a society fairly. And despite repeated attempts at utopia – and I consider there to be two great historical attempts at utopia, neither of which remained utopian beyond a single generation – such experiments only work with small communities. Maybe that’s the answer, maybe total devolution to the lowest possible level, say a couple of hundred people, is the answer. There are those, after all who swear by Athenian democracy, as practised in small village town halls across the US during the first half of the twentieth century. But, Advise and Consent… I watched it because I’m trying to work my way through Preminger’s films, but I wouldn’t otherwise recommend it unless you’re interested in historical treatments of Washington politics.

herzogCobra Verde, Werner Herzog (1987, Germany). If I had to pick the most bonkers of Herzog’s feature films, I’d be hard-pressed to settle on just one. Cobra Verde has its moments, but despite having Klaus Kinski in the lead role, is saner than many of Herzog’s other movies. Cobra Verde is, however, a bigger spectacle than many of Herzog’s other movies. Kinski plays a rancher in nineteenth-century Brazil who loses his property to drought, works at a silver mine but murders his boss when he discovers the workers are being exploited, goes on the run as the eponymous bandit (Green Cobra! Sounds like a superhero), before eventually becoming the slave overseer of a sympathetic sugar baron. When Kinski gets all three of the sugar baron’s daughters pregnant, the baron decides as punishment to send Kinski to west Africa to re-open the slave route (and hoping, of course, that he’ll get killed in the process). But Kinski manages to persuade the king of Dahomey to accept rifles for slaves, sets himself up in a local abandoned castle, and all I can pretty much remember is Kinski doing his thing (apparently to such an extent the cinematographer quit, and Kinski and Herzog’s friendship finally bit the dust). There are massive set-pieces, with what appears to be the populations of small towns running around or dancing or fighting. Despite Kinski’s presence, and the over-the-top staging of some of the scenes, Cobra Verde does feel more sane than many of Herzog’s other films. Not dialled back, by any means, just less insane than what Herzog actually went through to realise some of his other movies. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Cobra Verde, and I suspect Herzog’s films are immune to criticism to some degree. Cobra Verde is a good one, but perhaps not a great one, and I’d rate some of his documentaries above it. But if you call yourself a film fan, you should have all of his movies and documentaries anyway.

goddessThe Goddess*, Wu Yonggang (1934, China). This was a lucky find on eBay. Doubly so. I’d ordered one copy I found there, only to be sent a CD of background music for Chinese restaurants. I complained, they sent me a freepost address label to return it, and gave me a full refund. Fortunately, a second copy popped up on eBay for sale, for two-thirds of the price I’d paid before. So I bought it. Annoyingly, the BFI now plan to release a new restoration in April ths year. Argh. It’s a conspiracy, I tell you. The Goddess is a well-regarded silent film from the early decades of China’s film industry. Wikipedia refers to that period as “China’s cinematic golden age”, but I’m pretty sure the country has been having another golden age for the last couple of decades – see Jia Zhangke, Zhao Liang, Wang Xiaoshuai and Diao Yinan, among many others. The Goddess is also known as one of the last films by Ruan Lingyu, one of the most popular actresses of her day (and who committed suicide at the age of 24 in 1935). I tracked down a copy of The Goddess because it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, although I do like many silent films… but The Goddess, to be honest, felt much like the other silent films I’d seen. The setting and cast were, of course, Chinese, but the story itself was one that transcends nations. And the treatment of the story, and the way it was framed, seemed much in line with other silent dramas from other countries. There was no sense of vision, such as you’d get from directors like Carl Theodor Dreyer or FW Murnau – see The Passion of Joan of Arc or Nosferatu – although Ruan Lingyu’s talent was plain to see. I don’t know where The Goddess sits in the history of Chinese cinema – Ruan made over two dozen films before The Goddess, and Wu directed a further eleven films (his last in 1980) after The Goddess, his debut. I suspect there are more important films than The Goddess, but I also suspect  any better candidates have either been lost or are unknown in the US. Which is a shame.

seventh_victimThe Seventh Victim*, Mark Robson (1943, USA). There are some odd choices on the 1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die list, and not just because they’re films I don’t care for, or, while good, don’t seem good enough to be one of the 1001 best films ever. But there are also those films which just aren’t all that good or innovative or important, so why are they on the list? Like The Seventh Victim. Which is a B-movie. A young woman at a residential school is told that her fees have not been paid for several months, and attempts to her contact her older sister, her guardian, in New York have failed. So the woman goes looking for her sister herself – and encounters a mystery. No one has seen her sister for weeks, her cosmetics business is now owned by an other woman, and the sister apparently rented a room above an Italian restaurant which she never used… and which contains only a noose hanging from the ceiling and a chair. It turns out that the sister had been recruited into a Satanic cult – although they’re presented more like Freemasons than the Hellfire Club – but told her husband about them and so broke one of the cult’s laws. Which is punishable by death. So she’s been hiding out, with the help of her psychiatrist. And that’s about it. It’s all very intense and earnest, but the Satanists aren’t in the slightest menacing. The sister’s disappearance adds a noir feel, but that collapses once the actual plot is revealed. There are a couple of earnest monologues on the sort of psychological claptrap Hollywood B-movies loved to lard their films with back in the 1940s and 1950s, but none of it is convincing or insightful. The Seventh Victim is entertaining enough, but it’s no more than a B-movie, and it certainly doesn’t belong on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.

jordskottJordskott (2015, Sweden). I found this in a charity shop, misread its price tag and thought it an excellent bargain, but could hardly refuse to buy it when I got to the till. It was still cheap, however. And I’m glad I bought it, because it proved to be pretty good. It starts off as a Nordic crime series, and then turns into something more like Grimm. Eva is a crisis negotiator with the Piketen special operations police task force in Stockholm – in fact, the first episode opens with her trying to persuade a man armed with a shotgun to give up his hostage, his wife. Afterwards, she learns that her father has died, and so takes a leave of absence and heads to her home town of Silverhöjd. She has not returned there since her daughter, Josefina, disappeared in the forest surrounding the town seven years before. Eva was also estranged from her father. Shortly after her arrival, a young boy goes missing, and she sees a link between his disappearance and that of her daughter. Then another young child goes missing. Eva is heir to Thörnblad Cellulosa, a logging and mining company, which owns much of the forested land around Silverhöjd, and it is the company’s operations in the forests which has led to the kidnappings. It’s all to do with a pact signed in the eighteenth century between Eva’s ancestor and the mysteroious race which lived in the forest. But, Eva’s father, and now the acting CEO, want to mine the area because silver has been discovered underneath it. Eva’s daughter mysteriously returns, but has been infected with a parasite which is slowly taking over her body. It’s this parasite the title refers to – and when “fed” properly, it gives its host heightened senses and much greater strength and endurance. Because it seems there are group of people with this parasite who help protect the various creatures from Swedish folklore which live among humans. The plot lost it a bit toward the end, when a single character starts pushing everyone toward the worst possible end, and Eva’s decision to turn her back on it all felt out of character. I’d also liked to have learnt more about the secret society with the parasite, but perhaps they’re saving that for a sequel (although none has been made so far). The unexpected mix of Nordic crime and Swedish folklore went well together, despite the odd bit that was a little too hard to swallow. Good stuff. And if you see a copy going in a charity shop near you, it’s definitely worth shelling out for.

50_cubanStrawberry and Chocolate, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea & Juan Carlos Tabío (1994, Cuba). This is the second of two films on the 50 Years of the Cuban Revolution box set by Gutiérrez, and the last-but-one film he made. Ill health forced him to enlist the help of a friend as co-director. Although released 1994, Strawberry and Chocolate is set in 1979. The lead character, David, is a student. He stops for an ice cream at a café, and is approached by a gay man, Diego, who tries to chat him up. When Diego reveals he has some hard-to-find foreign books at his apartment, David agrees to accompany him home. Diego is hoping for more, and the two become friends – but nothing more – and David learns about life after the revolution, as seen by someone on the fringes of society. David’s homophobic room-mate, on the other hand, sees the friendship as a chance to investigate Diego and his circle of anti-revolutionary friends, and so denounce them. There’s something astonishingly cheerful about this film, although it does quite emotional in places. The two main leads – and the female lead, Nancy, one of Diego’s neightbour, and who David ends up in a relationship with – are all likeable and well-played. Gutiérrez, known to his friends as Titón, was a film-maker in the New Latin American Cinema, which I think is a sort of umbrella term which includes Brazil’s Cinema Novo. New Latin American Cinema was, as Wikipedia put it, “largely concerned with the problems of neocolonialism and cultural identity”, and put the social usefulness of cinema ahead of artistic considerations such as cinematography or three-act stories or storybeats. It’s certainly true that cinema is a powerful tool in that respect; it’s equally true that most Western audiences appear to prefer brainless spectacle. But even then, there are ways of effecting social change without writing in-your-face social drama. Strawberry and Chocolate is a charming drama, and, to be fair, some of its social concerns are over my head as I’m unfamiliar with Cuban history and society – but it makes an effort. And so few Hollywood movies do. They just re-iterate and valourise and normalise the same old right-wing bullshit that has turned the second decade of the twenty-first century into a copy of the fourth decade of the twentieth century. Art has meaning and cinema is an art. And on the strength of Strawberry and Chocolate, and Guttiérrez’s earlier Memories of Underdevelopment, I’m going to try and see more of his films.

1001 Movies You Must see Before You Die count: 849


1 Comment

Moving pictures, #7

For all my efforts to watch films from different countries, there seem to be a handful that appear more often than others – and they’re all in this one: India, China, Sweden, Germany and the US. And the UK too, of course, although there’s no British film in this post. Having said that, Poland might be turning up in quite a few Moving pictures posts over the next few weeks…

herzogFitzcarraldo*, Werner Herzog (1982, Germany). The thing with special effects is that none of it is real. With physical effects, it’s faked by physical means. These days, with CGI and digital effects, none of it exists outside a computer. But sometimes, film-makers do exactly what they show on the screen. And one of the famous things about Fitzcarraldo is the central portion of the film, where the cast drag a steamship over a mountain ridge from one river to another. And that’s what they actually did. The story of the film seems almost incidental to that one achievement. Basically, the title character – his name is a Hispanisation of “Fitzgerald” – is an opera lover and plans to bring Caruso to the Amazonian town he calls home. In order to do that, he needs money. So he buys a tract of land that cannot be reached by river – or rather, it can, but the river in question is blocked by fierce rapids. So Fitzcarraldo plans to drag his boat over the ridge between the navigable river and the unnavigable one. And he enlists the help of a local Amazonian tribe to do so. Of course, this is a Herzog film, so nothing goes as well as planned. By all accounts, the filming was as difficult as that of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – there is even an equivalent “making of” documentary, Burden of Dreams (due to appear in a Moving pictures post later). And so the film itself is more or less incidental in the face of that central event – which is every bit as astonishing as you would think. They physically drag a steamship of three hundred tons up and over a mountain ridge a good three or four hundred metres high. The whole film screams difficult shoot right from the start, and the fact the film works, is even successful, is probably more due to the insane ambition of Herzog in attempting it and the unforgiving landscape in which he chose to shoot. It’s one of those cases where everyone suffered for their art, but their act of suffering produced art over and above the norm. And it shows. And that’s without Kinski going completely off the rails during the film – so much so, the crew offered to kill him for Herzog. Definitely in the top five of Herzog films.

hometownPlatform, Jia Zhangke (2000, China). The final film in the Hometown trilogy, although, to be fair, I’ve not watched them in the order in which they were released. In fact, the order goes Pickpocket (1997), Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002). Having said that, all three films share a common story: disaffected youth being disaffected youth in different circumstances. In Platform, the cast are a theatre troupe, and they travel about the province putting on state-sanctioned plays. One member forms a relationship with a man, who stays behind when the troupe goes on tour. As China changes, so does the material the troupe performs, until they end up performing rock songs. There’s a definite consistency of vision and approach to the three films in the trilogy, and seeing them in quick succession can feel like too much of a thing in too short a time. Jia has an excellent eye, and his use of mostly amateur cast members and real locations gives the films a documentary feel he has managed to maintain throughout his career so far (both 24 City and A Touch of Sin possess it). I have in recent months found myself becoming a fan of the new cinema coming out of China – not just Jia, but also Zhao Liang, and films like Black Coal, Thin Ice, rather than Hong Kong art house directors like Wong Kar-wai, who I do still like. According to Wikipedia, Jia is a member of the “sixth generation” of Chinese directors, so I guess I should try films by other members of that group…

pat_mikePat and Mike, George Cukor (1952, USA). In classic Hollywood films, there are great screen partnerships, and there are those that occasionally achieved greatness… Tracy and Hepburn made nine films together, and one or two are judged classics, like Adam’s Rib (1949), although I do have soft spot for the one where Hepburn is in charge of a GIANT COMPUTER BRAIN,  Desk Set (1957). Pat and Mike follows a similar pattern to the other films in which the pair appeared – and pretty much to any screwball comedy / rom com of the period. Hepburn plays a natural athlete who wins lots of competitions… providing her husband is not present. As soon as he appears, she slices the ball, hits the net, etc, etc. And so along comes sports agent Tracy, who spots this and needs to keep the two apart in order to profit from Hepburn’s sporting skill. Naturally, the two fall in love. Naturally, this results in snappy dialogue. I’ve watched a lot of George Cukor films, and a lot of them have been very good… but I can’t say I’ve spotted a George Cukor vision, which is not something I’d say of many directors whose careers I’ve been following. Given his oeuvre, I’d have expected something more consistent from Cukor – he has, after all, made some bloody good films, and you’d expect more of them to be of that quality. Pat and Mike, sadly, is pretty forgettable, not a film you’d be reccommending should you find yourself putting together a list of George Cukor films worth seeing. One for fans of screwball comedies.

classic_bergmanA Ship Bound for India, Ingmar Bergman (1947, Sweden). Apparently, “Classic Bergman” means minor Bergman films you will forget ten minutes after watching them. Now, by definition, any Bergman film is worth watching – he’s one of the best directors the twentieth century produced, and that’s a fucking large field in which to excel – but this box set hasn’t really showcased Bergman’s best. “Classic” then, in this case, means “for completists”. And while I’d happily count myself in that category, I’m not so much a fanboy I can actually remember much of this film despite watching it. The main character was a sailor, or wanted to be a sailor, and had a bad relationship with his parents… and okay, I may not have been entirely sober when I watched this film but at least I own the box set so I can watch it again. But from what I remember nothing in it particularly engaged me, so I’m guessing it’s much liked the other films in the box set, ie, a polished theatrical piece shot in stark black and white, starring some of Bergman’s usual stable of actors. I’ll probablyh have to watch it again.

name_riverThe Name of a River, Anup Singh (2003, India). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. I’ve watched it three times now, and I’m no wiser. I had thought it was a documentary on Ritwik Ghatak and his works, but instead it appears to be a somewhat plotless actual feature film, and a nicely shot one it is too, which was inspired by Ghatak’s movies. Parts of it are sort of restagings of some of the scenes in the movies – the ones set on the distinctive fishing boats of the Titas River, for example, I recognised immediately. There are also interviews, staged more like conversations, between members of the films’ casts – such as the two female leads from A River Called Titas. I’ve only seen three of Ghatak’s eight films – although I do have a fourth to be watched now – which is not enough to spot all the references in The Name of a River. But from the section based on A River Called Titas, and the conversation between its two female leads, there’s a lot in here to unpack. I’ve made my opinion on Ghatak more than clear on this blog in other posts, and I admit I was looking for a little more insight into his career than The Name of a River offers – in fact, now I think about it, it didn’t seem to offer any insight at all. I did enjoy it and it is pretty good – it sucessfully replicates Ghatak’s visuals, and makes clear his politics, and there’s some interesting anecdotal stuff from actors who worked with him. But I guess if I want insight, I ought to read Ghatak’s own writings on cinema.

kahaaniKahaani, Sujoy Ghosh (2012, India). This was a surprise, and a very pleasant one. I’ve no idea why I stuck it on my rental list, but when I shoved it in the player I was expecting three hours of typical Bollywood entertainment. And then it opened with a gas attack on the Kolkata Metro in which a carriage full of people died. Well, that was pretty dark. Not Bollywood at all. The story then jumps forward two years, and a pregnant woman flies into Kolkata from London and makes her way to a district police station. Her husband had been sent to the National Data Centre on assignment, and then vanished. She has come to look for him. She enlists the help of Rana, one of the police officer, but their investigation goes nowhere. But then the HR manager of the National Data Centre remembers another employee, Milan Damji, who resembled the pregnant woman’s husband. So they start looking for him. But it all spirals out of control – the HR manager is murdered, an Intelligence Bureau officer turns up and starts ordering people about, and then it turns out Damji’s was responsible for the gas attack two years earlier… Kahaani turned out to be a good film, a solid thriller which made excellent use of ts location, and had an especially good lead in Vidya Balan, who plays the pregnant heroine. There’s neat twist at the end, which, to be honest, wasn’t all that hard to spot. Apparently, there’s a sequel, Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh, released late last year, so it’s not available for rental yet. But when it is, I’ll be sticking it on my list.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 847


Leave a comment

Fresh month, fresh books

The start of a new month and so time to place an order with a large online retailer of books (and other stuff). Last month’s purchases were mostly catching up with books published in 2016 I’d not got around to buying last year. This month, it’s widening my reading to include authors from some countries I’ve not previously tried. Plus a few favourites.

2017-02-11-11-33-38

Three British writers. I read the first book of Ali’s Islam Quintet, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree back in 2011, and though I enjoyed it I never got around the reading further. Hence book 2, The Book of Saladin. Snowdrift is a new collection from Heyer, and I do love me some Heyer, it must be said. Back in the UAE, I read several books by Tremain, but stopped when I returned to the UK. No idea why. I thought it was time I started reading her again, so The American Lover.

2017-02-11-11-32-25

Some fiction from around the world. The Captive Mind is from Poland, not the Czech Republic, as I mistakenly tweeted a week or two ago. Spring Flowers, Spring Frost is from Albania. The Conspiracy and Other Stories is from Estonia. And A River Called Titash, from Bangladesh, is the novel from which one of my favourite films was adapted.

2017-02-11-11-31-08

The latest Blake and Mortimer. Volume 24, to be precise. I actually think this series has improved since the series creator, Edgar P Jacobs, died. The plots are much more closely tied to the real world. This one, for example, is about a rivalry between two societies who disagree over the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.

2017-02-11-11-31-00

Non-fiction. Now that I have volume 19 and volume 20 I have complete set of Wings of Fame. All it took was patience. And I’m patiently waiting to complete my set of Heinemann’s Phoenix Editions of DH Lawrence’s books. Sadly, this copy of Studies of Classic American Literature is ex-library, and was not described as such by the seller on eBay, but it’ll do for now.

2017-02-11-11-29-57

Finally, some science fiction, old and new. Naked to the Stars / The Alien Way is #31 in Tor’s series of back-to-back novellas from 1989 and 1990. That’s why I bought it, not because I’m a fan of Dickson’s fiction (okay, so the Dorsai trilogy is still kinda pulpy fun). At the Speed of Light and The Enclave… Well, I bought The Iron Tactician by Alastair Reynolds because I like Al’s fiction… and then I saw it was one of a set of four novellas published by NewCon Press, and the last one was by an old friend, Neil Williamson… and I’ve read one of Anne Charnock’s novels and it was very good and I’ve seen Simon Morden tweet that he was keen to get the science right in his novella… so I went and bought the other three. The Memoirist, the fourth novella, has yet to be published, however.


Leave a comment

Reading diary, #44

Having found myself no longer enjoying genre fiction as much as I once did, I went and read a load of it – four science fiction books and one fantasy novel. The lone mainstream is by a Norwegian writer, and I doubt I’ll be bothering with any more books by him.

memoirs_spacewomanMemoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962, UK). One from my Women’s Press SF collection and read for review on SF Mistressworks – see here. It felt more fabulist than science-fictional, with a chatty narrator and an almost childish approach to genre trope, although the book is anything but childish. The prose is a good deal sharper than is typical of the genre, but not, it must admitted, of the novels published under the Women’s Press SF imprint. I’d like to read more Mitchison, I think, and her The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931) is, according to Wikipedia, “regarded by some as the best historical novel of the 20th century”.

rimrunnersRimrunners, CJ Cherryh (1989, USA). Also read for SF Mistressworks, although the review has yet to appear there. I’ve always been a fan of Cherryh’s writing, and have been reading her books since first stumbling across them in the early 1980s. She used to be ubiquitous in the UK back then, you’d see a dozen or so titles in your local WH Smith, back when WH Smith was better known for selling books than selling stationery. I’ve got quite a few Cherryh first editions, some of them signed. When I lived in the UAE, I used to order her books from Amazon as soon as they appeared, and I’ve been half-heartedly collecting her ever since. I really ought to see about completing the collection – but the science fiction only, I’m not interested in the fantasy novels.

marauderMarauder, Gary Gibson (2013, UK). I’ve known Gary for a couple of decades now, and I’ve been buying his books and reading them right from the start. Marauder is a return to the universe of Stealing Light (2007), Nova War (2009) and Empire of Light (2010), and is in part an extension of that trilogy’s plot. Gary does some things very well, sometimes a little too well, and that can result in him over-doing it. And the thing he does well is: scale. These are stories that cover thousands of light years, that throw out mentions of histories going back millions of years. But this sense of scale is also one of the things that really annoyed me about Marauder… and which also fed into some thoughts I’ve been having recently about science fiction in general. The title refers to a vast starship from a machine civilisation – so we’re in Fred Saberhagen, Greg Benford and Alastair Reynolds territory here – which once aided a civilisation hundreds of thousands of years before and raised its tech level substantially in a short period of time. Meanwhile, in the recent past, the Three Star Alliance has had to hand over its FTL starships to the Accord, a much larger and more powerful human polity, because the FTL nova drive is also the deadliest weapon known to humanity, the nova mine. This seriously pisses off the plutocrats who run the TSA and they decided to try and negotiate with the Marauder, having figured out where it is, for some of that ancient high tech. The pilot on their mission is Megan, a machine-head (ie, she has implants), and the leader of the expedition uses her best friend as a conduit to speak to the Marauder, burning out his brain in the process. The mission is a failure and the Marauder destroys their starship. Megan manages to escape. Some years later, her new ship is hijacked by the same people (who, it seems, were eventually rescued), because they’re determined to try again. Meanwhile, there’s Gabrielle, who has been born for a specific purpose and now, aged twenty-one, it has come upon her: she must go to the Magi (another ancient alien race with FTL, now extinct) starship which crashed on her planet, Redstone, and try to eke more technological goodies out of its AI’s databanks for her theocratic regime. This is all good stuff, and the two plots not only slot together pleasingly but there’s a nice twist that serves to tighten the links between them. It’s all good space opera, but sometimes the vast distances feel a bit too much and the sense of scale sort of fades from 3D to 2D, if you know what I mean. But that over-egging of scale is also what spoiled the novel for me, as mentioned earlier. Gabrielle, it transpires, is important to the TSA’s return visit to the Marauder. But they can’t just invite her along, because of her role in the theocracy. So they kidnap her. But they don’t just send in a special forces team and abduct her. No, they arrange for something – a huge starship carrying antimatter – to crash into the planet and cause a tsunami which kills tens of millions of people, just so they can kidnap Gabrielle in the confusion and hope everyone assumes she died in the disaster. This is one of the things that pissed me off about Leviathan Wakes, and why I’ve never read further in the series. Seriously, killing tens of millions of innocent people just to kidnap one? WTF? I find it hard to believe someone would consider that a defensible plan. I get that the leaders of the TSA are desperate (and, from their later actions, it must be said, also unbelievably psychopathic; but even with the Accord running things, they’d still be rich and powerful, so why behave like monsters?), but when your story covers millions of years and thousands of light years there’s a tendency to upscale the villains too. And I think that’s not only wrong, it also feeds into the whole right-wing mindset of science fiction. Good sf is not about extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, it’s about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances – and that includes the villains too. Science fiction needs to scale back on the bodycounts and fascism, otherwise it’s just one of the many things in popular culture normalising such behaviour.

rubiconRubicon, Agnar Mykle (1965, Norway). My mother found this in a charity shop somewhere, and asked me if I’d be interested, I said go on then, so she bought it and gave it to me. And… Well, after going on a rant about normalising fascism, Mykle sets a quarter of his novel in your actual Nazi Germany of 1939 and doesn’t manage more than a handful of back-handed criticisms. True, the book is more about the narrator’s home circumstances, from which he is fleeing, and his romantic ideas about Paris, and clearly positioned as comedy – there’s even a scene in which he encounters a French toilet for the first time. The narrator is painted as part-naïf part-idiot part-bumpkin, and while his romantic misconceptions provide a good base for some of the humour, some of it is also a bit too, well, adolescent, male adolescent. Mykle died in 1994, and his last novel was… Rubicon – chiefly, it seems, because of the controversy caused by an earlier novel, 1957’s The Song of Red Ruby (which resulted in an obscenity trial in Norway). I’m tempted to have a go at that controversial novel – secondhand copies in English seem to be readily available – but I can’t say that Rubicon motivates me to track down a copy. Rubicon is a well-crafted novel, with a good control of voice, but it all felt a bit meh to me. Incidentally, inside the book I found an Air France boarding card dated January 1978. It’s not the oldest bookmark I’ve found in a book. I found one once dated 1945…

elegy_angelsThe Graveyard Heart / Elegy for Angels and Dogs, Roger Zelazny / Walter Jon Williams (1964/1990, USA). I have almost a complete set of the Tor doubles, which I started collecting after finding half a dozen of the early ones in a remainder book shop in Abu Dhabi. I’m not convinced there’s been a consistent editorial agenda with this series – which topped out at 36 books in two years – given that earlier volumes were just two novellas back-to-back (tête-bêche, to be precise), but that was dropped in favour of printing both the same way up, as if it were an anthology of two stories. Some of the later ones also featured classic novellas with modern sequels by another hand, as this one does. ‘The Graveyard Heart’ by Roger Zelazny is from 1964. ‘Elegy for Angels and Dogs’, a direct sequel, is from 1990. To be honest, I’ve never really understood the appeal of Zelazny’s fiction. He’s reckoned to be one of science fiction’s great wordsmiths, and while he may be a great deal better at stringing a sentence together than many of his peers, I’ve never really understood why his prose is held in such high regard. It’s… okay. And in ‘The Graveyard Heart’, some of it is actively bad. In the novella, a subset of the jet set, a group of rich young party animals sleep in cryogenic suspension for most of the year, and only appear for exclusive and expensive social events. They are the Party Set. So while they live the sort of life capitalist society continues to valourise, they also travel forward through time, experiencing years in subjective weeks. But then one of them is murdered and… yawn. Dull murder-mystery in totally unconvincing setting ensues. Williams’s sequel moves the action forward a couple of centuries, tries to show the changes in Earth society the Party Set are missing (and that does, in fact, drive part of the plot), but also throws in a couple of murders for good measure. The result is something which isn’t sure how direct a sequel it should be. It’s more inventive than its inspiration, the language is plainer and better for it, but its lack of focus tells against it. Both are no more than average.

lord_slaughterLord of Slaughter, MD Lachlan (2012, UK). I bought the first book of this series, Wolfsangel (2010), at a convention after meeting the author, and got it signed. But I’ve been continuing with the series, despite my general apathy toward fantasy, and especially urban fantasy, because they’re actually bloody good. They’re more like historical novels, but based on Norse mythology and featuring werewolves. This one is set in Constantinople during the reign of, I think, Basileios II, 953 – 1025 BCE, certainly an  emperor of that name appears in the book. A wolfman sneaks into the emperor’s tent just after a battle and asks the emperor to kill him. Instead, he takes him prisoner, and throws him into the Numera, Constantinople’s chief prison. Somewhere in the caves under the Numera is the well of knowledge, from which Odin drank, and for the privilege he paid with an eye. And that’s how the story plays out. Aspects of Odin, hidden in two of the characters, along with aspects of the three Norns, all descend on the well, while chaos rages in Constantinople. Because the Norns want Fenrir released so he will kill Odin, but Odin is not ready to die just yet and is happy for his aspects to be reborn throughout history, all with a vague desire to cause death and destruction. The story’s told from a variety of viewpoints, some of which are instrumental in the final showdown, some of which are just enablers. The setting is convincing, and if the characters have a tendency to blur into one another a little, it doesn’t detract from the story. This is superior fantasy, assuming you can define historical novels with werewolves and Norse gods as fantasy. And why not. There’s a fourth book available in the series, Valkyrie’s Song, which I plan to buy and read. Good stuff.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 129