It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Sunday meme

Okay, so SF Signal posted this last Sunday, but I was in Berlin then, with no access to a computer. And yes, I had an excellent time, despite the weekend’s inauspicious start: getting up at 2:30 am, wandering down to the kitchen to make breakfast and stepping on a slug; and then getting to the airport and realising I’d left my credit and debit cards at home (fortunately, I had plenty of cash). Anyway, the meme…

alanya_coverMy favorite alien invasion book or series is…?
Probably the Marq’ssan Cycle by L Timmel Duchamp, although Gwyneth Jones’ Aleutian trilogy runs a close second. Duchamp’s five novels – Alanya to Alanya, Renegade, Tsunami, Blood in the Fruit and Stretto – document the arrival on a near-future Earth of an alien mission which will only talk to women. Supporting character turned chief villain Elizabeth Weatherall is one of the genre’s best creations. Jones’ White Queen, North Wind and Phoenix Café cover similar ground, but from a more global perspective. It also features, like Duchamp’s quintet, an extremely well-drawn antagonist in Braemar Wilson. Both series are intensely political and among the smartest books in science fiction.

ascentMy favorite alternate history book or series is…?
The Apollo Quartet, of course. But seriously: I’d say Ascent by Jed Mercurio, but naming it as alternate history might constitute a spoiler. It could also be argued that the superb Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle is alternate history. I think I’ve read my fair share of Hitler-victorious alternate histories, and I suspect there are very few changes remaining to be rung on that particular trope. Not being American, I’ve little interest in their civil war and how it might have ended differently. Stephen Baxter’s alternate take on the US space programme, Voyage, appeals for obvious reasons. And many sf novels of the past written about exploring Mars and the Moon may not have been written as alternate history, but they pretty much qualify as it now. Unfortunately, most twentieth-century sf novels about twenty-first space travel, such as those by Steele or Bova, suffer from being, well, not very good. Sadly, early and alternate space travel doesn’t seem to be an area of the genre that has attracted writers with much in the way of writing chops. Which is a shame.

My favorite cyberpunk book or series is…?
Metrophage by Richard Kadrey, the book which folded cyberpunk back into science fiction. Everything that came after is just the twitchings of a dead subgenre.

redplentyMy favorite Dystopian book or series is…?
Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder. If you read Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty, you’ll see that not everyone thought the USSR was a dystopia. And for all the UK’s fabled streets of gold, it’s starting to look more and more like a dystopia each day to those of us living here. As for reading about dystopias… I don’t think it’s been done especially well in science fiction – but then Nineteen Eighty-Four casts a long shadow. Some of DG Compton’s works from the 1970s might be considered dystopian, such as The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe; and in Ascendancies, he manages to find a dystopian story in a near-utopian society. JG Ballard wrote plenty of novels and short stories which might qualify, but no specific title springs to mind – it’s probably best to consider his entire oeuvre as dystopian fiction. And you can’t really go wrong by reading them all.

equator3My favorite Golden-Age sf book or series is…?
AE van Vogt’s The House That Stood Still (AKA The Undercover Aliens), which mixes California noir and pulp sf and just about manages to get away with it, is one of my favourite sf novels. It’s completely bonkers, of course; but it’s one of van Vogt’s more coherent works. Which isn’t saying much. Recently, I’ve read some early sf by women writers and found it much better than the so-called classics I read as a kid – these days, I find EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov near-unreadable. There’s also an early Brian Aldiss novel, Equator, which I really like, though it’s more like spy fiction with added aliens than science fiction per se. Which may be one reason why I find it so appealing.

My favorite hard sf book or series is…?
The Apollo Quartet, of course. But seriously: it’s probably Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I don’t read that much hard sf as such. When I need my real science kicks, I read books about space or deep sea exploration. There are very, very few hard sf novels which come even remotely close to emulating the authenticity those books possess.

nature-beast-richard-fawkesMy favorite military sf book or series is…?
I don’t have much time for military science fiction, though in the past I’ve read my fair share – including David Weber, Tanya Huff, Elizabeth Moon, Jack Campbell, David Feintuch, John Steakley, and probably a few others. The only such books left on my book-shelves, and which may well get purged should I ever get around to rereading them, are Richard Fawkes’ Face of the Enemy and Nature of the Beast, which I remember as quite interesting. Also worth a go is Shariann Lewitt’s debut novel, Angel at Apogee, and her two Collegium novels, Cyberstealth and Dancing Vac. And if any of CJ Cherryh’s books qualify, then they’re certainly worth reading.

kairosMy favorite near-future book or series is…?
I don’t think I have one. I’ve always been a fan of John Varley’s Eight Worlds novels and short stories, but do they count as near-future? Gwyneth Jones’ Kairos, a favourite novel, was near-future when it was published, but that was back in 1988 – and these days it reads more like alternate history. The same might well prove true of Ken MacLeod’s excellent Intrusion a decade from now. Another excellent near-future novel is Maureen F McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, though despite being two decades old it has yet to become alternate history – perhaps because it doesn’t feel like it’s set in a near-future which might well happen.

The_Caryatids_Bruce_SterlingMy favorite post-apocalyptic book or series is…?
To be honest, I’m not interested in how Americans would react should their society collapse, nor do I believe that every single person on the planet would react in that way. Which pretty much discounts ninety-nine percent of post-apocalyptic novels. The only one that springs to mind as different is Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids, which shows the world – all of it – coping with the aftermath of climate crash and nation-state failures. Perhaps the best of the more traditional post-apocalyptic novels is Joan Slonczewski’s The Wall Around Eden, in which mysterious aliens save isolated pockets of humanity. It reads like a masterclass in sf and deserves to be back in print.

My favorite robot/android book or series is…?
Science fiction’s treatment of robots has always been silly. They’re either human in all but name and yet treated like slaves, or blatant signifiers for slaves. In remarkably few sf stories do they actually resemble real robots.

ceres-storm-david-herter-paperback-cover-artMy favorite space opera book or series is…?
I’ve always enjoyed Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, though I think the individual parts are not as impressive as the sum of them. Colin Greenland’s Take Back Plenty has always been a favourite space opera too, and I remember being impressed by Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire when I read it many years ago. Likewise David Herter’s Ceres Storm, which I read back when it was published in 2000. I really must reread it one of these days…

My favorite steampunk book or series is…?
I don’t read steampunk. There’s nothing in it that appeals to me. Airships? Pfft. Give me supersonic jets every time. Brass? Useless metal. And anyway, steel is more emblematic of the British Empire than brass. Difference engines? NASA didn’t put twelve men on the Moon using clockwork computers, did they?

My favorite superhero book or series is…?
I used to read superhero comics by the likes of Warren Ellis and Alan Moore, but went off the whole genre several years ago. I can no longer think of anything nice to say about the genre.

Millennium(1stEd)My favorite time travel book or series is…?
I’m more likely to read and enjoy an historical novel than I am a time travel one. I can’t off the top of my head think of any time travel novels that I hold in especially high regard. I remember enjoying Peter Delacorte’s Time on My Hands, which is set in 1940s Hollywood. And Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships takes Wells’ The Time Machine and runs with it… and runs… and runs… I’m a big fan of John Varley’s short story ‘Air Raid’, and I still have a soft spot for the film adaptation Millennium, despite its godawful production design… which does mean I really like the novel written by Varley of the film adapted by Varley of the short story written by Varley…

My favorite young adult sf book or series is…?
I don’t read YA books. I am no longer sixteen, and haven’t been for a few decades.

My favorite zombie book or series is…?
I don’t read zombie books. I don’t even like zombie films. Maybe one day somebody will do something interesting with the trope, but I’m not holding my breath.

foss_foundation-coversThe 3 books at the top of my sf/f/h to-be-read pile are…?
Last month, I foolishly agreed to read and blog about half a dozen classic sf novels, so I have The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Foundation to look forward to over the next couple of weeks. Other than that, I have some reading for SF Mistressworks, and I hope to sneak in a few more recent genre novels as well, but I’ve yet to decide which ones. In fact, when you have a TBR of around 700 books, it’s often difficult to pick what to read next and I can sometimes spend ten or twenty minutes feeling really indecisive as I wander from one bookcase to the next…

And now I’ve finished this I’ll no doubt think of books I should have mentioned. Oh well. The more observant among you might also have noticed that all the links on this post go to Foyles using their affiliate scheme (except for the one link to a DVD). I found it relatively easy to use – a little fiddlier than Amazon’s, but not unworkably so. We’ll see how it works out.


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The north face of Mount TBR

Owning books can be more fun than simply reading them. At least that’s what I tell myself when I eye the double-stacked book-shelves and piles of books on the floor of my house. Which is not to say that I plan to keep every one of the books mentioned in these book haul posts. Some of them will go to charity shops once I’ve read them, some of them will go elsewhere. But until I actually start reading more books each month than I buy, the piles are only going to get higher…

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New science fiction: Wool I’m reviewing for Interzone. It has come close to being hurled at the wall a couple of times. The Disestablishment of Paradise is a new book by a favourite author, who hasn’t had anything published for a good many years. I should probably have hung on for the UK edition of Rapture, but I do like my trilogies to all match and I already have the Night Shade editions of the first two books. Puck Aleshire’s Abecedary is a small press chapbook I bought on eBay. Helix Wars was sent me by Eric, and In Other Worlds I picked up for £3.99 in a discount bookshop in Wetherby.

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These six paperbacks I bought from Cold Tonnage. I may slag off van Vogt a lot, but some of his books transcend their chaotic bonkersness and I find them weirdly appealling. I don’t know if More Than Superhuman, Children of Tomorrow or The Silkie fit that bill. I guess I’ll find out. Colin Kapp is forgotten and under-rated Brit sf author who, like many of his 1960s and 1970s contemporaries, was chiefly published in the US. The Chaos Weapon and The Survival Game are among the last few of his I didn’t own. And Moonstar Odyssey I’ve been looking for a decent copy of for ages, though I can’t remember exactly why…

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Some secondhand sf. Pirates of the Universe I’ve been after for a while. The last time I bought a copy, I received a refund instead as the book had apparently suffered a “scissors accident” while the buyer was packing it to send. I know nothing about Endless Voyage, but the new Ace special series from the mid-1970s contains some odd books among its eleven titles. I’ve decided to collect them. 334 is a genre classic which I’ve never read, and The Days of Glory is the first book of Stableford’s Dies Irae trilogy. Both the last were charity shop finds.

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Vertigo was a birthday present, but all the rest were charity shop finds. I enjoyed the The Jane Austen Book Club, so I expect I’ll also enjoy The Sweetheart Season. Fowler’s genre work, of course, is excellent. Galatea 2.2 is literary-but-it’s-really-sf novel, which Powers has apparently done a couple of times. Nourishment is  Woodward’s latest; I enjoyed his first, August (see here). I’ve been meaning to try Ronald Frame’s fiction, but it’s taken me a while to find one of his books. And I’ve not checked The Prussian Officer and Other Stories yet, but I suspect I’ve already about half of its contents. But at least that’s half I’ve not read.

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These are research books for the next book of the Apollo Quartet. They might give a clue as to its story.

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Three books for three collections: The Mark Of The Warrior is a first edition, to go with my other Paul Scott first editions; Chariots for Apollo is for the space books collection; and 2,000 Fathoms Down in the Bathyscape joins my (currently very small) collection of books on bathyscaphes and deep sea exploration.


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Notable recent reads

I have been a bit rubbish at posting here over the past month or so, and I’m not entirely sure why. I could claim it’s because I’ve been busy writing short stories, novellas and novels, but that wouldn’t be entirely true. I have been busy – but it’s been other stuff: writing reviews, family stuff. And I’ve only managed to squeeze in a bit of fiction writing in here and there. I have been reading, however. Though not as many books as I’d have liked. Here are some of them – chiefly the ones I’ve not already reviewed, or plan to review, for SF Mistressworks or Daughters of Prometheus

wintersboneWinter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell (2006)
I was interested in reading this after seeing, and being much impressed by, the film adaptation. I was expecting a genre crime novel with a plot much like that of the movie. What I wasn’t expecting was a well-written literary novel, which actually has less plot than the film. Sixteen-year-old Ree’s father has gone missing, and he put up the house and land as collateral for bail. Which means if he doesn’t turn up in court, they lose the house. So Ree goes looking for him. The story is set in the Ozarks, where everyone is related to everyone else and most of the men are involved in brewing up or distributing drugs. Ree’s questions are not welcome – and it takes much of this short novel before she discovers why. If the film is brutal and the people in it scary, then the book is more so. The film adds a scene set at a cattle auction, but loses one where Ree and her best friend help to catch a pig loose on a bridge. There’s some lovely writing in this, Ree is extremely well-drawn, and the setting is, well, just plain frightening. I’m going to read more Woodrell. Recommended.

tyranopolisTyranopolis, AE van Vogt (1973)
AE van Vogt really was a shit writer. He built his career on advice taken from a how-to-write book. And it shows. I still have a soft spot for his fiction because, every now and again, purely by accident, he manages to create something that’s almost mythic. But vast swathes of his oeuvre are unreadable meretricious tosh. He makes stuff up out of whole cloth, and it possesses neither plausibility nor rigour. Tyranopolis is a case in point. At some point in the future, a mysterious dictator rules the entire Earth with an iron fist. But an inventor, er, invents some sort of ray that allows him to see everywhere and be seen everywhere. Knowing the tyrant’s forces are closing in, he gifts the secret to his unborn son moments after the act of conception, by, er, putting it in his DNA or something. I don’t know. It makes no sense whatsoever. Whatever drugs van Vogt was on when he wrote, they were clearly more powerful than those used by Philip K Dick. The writing in Tyranopolis hovers on the cusp of sense, the plotting reads like he made it up as he went along, the central premise is complete nonsense, and yet… and yet… No, there is no “and yet”. Not for this one. It’s a rubbish book. Avoid it.

the-spy-who-loved-me-novelThe Spy Who Loved Me, Ian Fleming (1960)
Fleming was a real pioneer, you know. The Spy Who Loved Me is ground-breaking, you know. Because it’s a Bond novel, but Bond isn’t the protagonist! He doesn’t even appear until about a third of the way in! And, get this, the entire novel is narrated by a woman! I know, shocking. So the title doesn’t refer to some KGB temptress who falls for 007’s manly charms, as it does in the film. Bond is actually the spy of the title. But he doesn’t really fall in love with the narrator. And she knows it – indeed, she says as much. She’s making her way through the US from Canada on a moped and stops off at a remote motel. She stays on to work there, and is made responsible for closing the place down for the winter. Two employees of the owner turn up and it transpires they’re there to torch the place for insurance purposes. Fortunately, Bond suffers a flat tyre nearby, so he’s around to foil their plot and save the girl… You know when an author falls in love with their own creation, and this persuades them that writing a story about said creation from the point of view of a lovestruck young woman is a good idea? That. And they say this is the best of the Bond novels… Pfft.

citiesofsaltCities of Salt, Abdelrahman Munif (1984, trans. 1987)
The lives of the Bedouin of Wadi al-Uyoun are disrupted by the discovery of oil. Eventually, they are moved and rehoused, but some instead move to the coastal village of Harran. Which then becomes the point of entry into the country for American oilworkers, and so the site of their camp and offices. The novel then charts the growth of Harran through the lives of some of its more notable inhabitants. The nation is meant to be an invented Gulf state, but Harran is clearly modelled on Dhahran. Munif is especially critical of the Americans and their interference and ignorance of Bedouin life, but he’s also critical of those Arabs who accepted US largesse and grew fat on the proceeds. I suspect Munif was not especially well served by his translator as some of the prose in Cities of Salt is clunky in places, but Munif certainly shows a sharp eye for characterisation. As far as I can determine, this book, and its two sequels, were never published in the UK – my copy is a US paperback – which is a shame as it’s definitely worth reading. I’ll have to get hold of the rest of the– Um, it’s apparently a quintet, but only the first three books were published in English. I guess I’ll have to start practicing my Arabic again, then…

theexplorer-e1356978432870The Explorer, James Smythe (2013)
A handful of days into the first mission to send human beings as far from Earth as possible, and all of the crew have died except for the journalist, Cormac Easton. The first third of The Explorer explains how these deaths came about – and they’re senseless, mostly preventable deaths – and you start to wonder what the remaining two-thirds will be about… And then the second part starts, and the story kicks into a higher gear. James sent me a copy of this novel (a swap for a copy of Adrift on the Sea of Rains), and he did warn me I’d have to accept a certain lack of… scientific rigour in the set-up. And that’s certainly the case. In truth, the spacecraft seems more like something from a Hollywood film than genuine space fiction, with its mysterious engines, store rooms, and even room inside the walls in which Cormac hides like a rat. When the engines are running, there is no gravity. But when they stop, then there is gravity. Which is not something I can quite get my head round. Though I only saw a couple of episodes of it (but I was given the complete series on DVD for my birthday recently), I was reminded more of Defying Gravity than the Apollo programme, International Space Station or even one of my favourite fictional space television series, Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets. Happily, despite its creative use of space engineering, The Explorer very much worth reading. Cormac is well-drawn, and his descent in to madness is skilfully handled. Perhaps the rest of the crew tread a little close to stereotype, but that’s the nature of space fiction – astronauts are by definition stereotypes. Apparently, there will be a sequel, though I’m not entirely sure how that’s going to work…

The_Warlord_of_the_Air-Michael_MoorcockThe Warlord of the Air, Michael Moorcock (1971)
If you’re a fan of all things steampunk, if you write steampunk, and you’ve not read this book, then you are doing it wrong. Though it starts inauspiciously, with a dirigible dropping ballast to descend, Moorcock’s airship opera is a clever commentary on imperialism framed in the language of pulp fiction. In 1902, Oswald Bastable visits the Shangri-la-like lair of an evil Indian high priest. An earthquake strikes, destroying the lair, and somehow throwing Bastable forward in time to 1973. He is rescued by an airship, and discovers that the Balance of Powers still holds good across the world, with most nations part of one or the other empire, all of which are ruled by means of vast fleets of airships. Bastable ends up inadvertently assisting Socialist terrorist Count Guevera escape the authorities, before being captured by Chinese warlord OT Shaw, who plans a future free of imperialism. This results in Shaw dropping a nuclear bomb, invented and built by his refugee scientists, on the airship yards of Hiroshima. Which throws Bastable back to 1903. The whole story is framed twice – once by Moorcock’s grandfather, who met Bastable and recorded his story, and by Moorcock himself, who found the manuscript in the attic. Bastable appears in another two novels – The Land Leviathan and The Steel Tsar. I’ll have to get hold of copies. Seems the trilogy is being reprinted this year, with nice new cover art.

underworldUnderworld, Don DeLillo (1997)
Many many people had told me this is an excellent novel, so I was quite chuffed to find a copy in a charity shop last year. But its daunting size – 827 pages! – made me somewhat reluctant to give it a go. But at the beginning of this month, I found myself reaching for it and… Well, no one told me it opened at a baseball game. I hate baseball. And I hate fiction about baseball even more. Actually, I hate sport, and I hate fiction about sport. But. Underworld opens at the 1951 game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, and describes the winning home-run apparently known as “the shot heard round the world”, which is a bit rich as only Americans actually give a shit about baseball. Underworld then introduces a number of characters, each of whom shares some link with the baseball from that winning home-run. The chronology bounces all over the place, describing events in various decades in no particular order. Some real world people make appearances – Frank Sinatra, J Edgar Hoover, Lenny Bruce, among others. The writing throughout is mostly lovely and sharp, and the dialogue is especially good – though its particular rhythm does have a tendency to blur some of the characters together. The Lenny Bruce sections I thought the least successful – they didn’t seem a sharp enough commentary on the zeitgeist to warrant inclusion. And it’s long novel, a very long novel. It’s a novel which will merit rereading. But it’s also a novel that’s too big and a bit too flabby to leap into my top ten novels of all time. Oh, and the premiere of the lost Eisenstein movie which gives the novel its title reminded me too much of Burroughs’ Casablanca Film Club and I found it hard to take that section seriously…


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Ian’s 50 essential sf novels, part 1

A couple of weeks ago, abebooks.com published a list of 50 Essential SF Novels, about which, of course, there is much to argue. This prompted a discussion on Twitter between Jared Shurin of Pornokitsch, James Smythe of The Explorer, and myself. We decided to each generate our own list of 50 essential sf novels, which we would post over two days – 25 books per day. Jared’s list is here and James’ list is here. The rules were simple: the definition of science fiction up to the individual, novels only (so no collections or anthologies), novellas allowed, graphic novels (or bandes dessinées) also allowed, only one book per author, and only books that you have yourself read.

It proved a harder exercise than I expected. I could have picked 50 of my favourite sf novels – but what made them “essential”? Instead, I chose novels across a mix of science fiction modes and subgenres. I also wanted a gender-balanced list, but unfortunately couldn’t manage it – only 16 of the 50 writers below are female. That one-book-per-author rule did no help at all. There are many women sf writers who probably belong on this list, but whose books I’ve not actually read – such as Octavia Butler, MJ Engh, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, CL Moore, Judith Merrill, Carol Emshwiller, Marge Piercy, Naomi Mitchison… I could only choose those I’d read.

But, the list. Here it is, the first twenty-five novels of fifty that every self-respecting sf fan should have on their bookshelves, given in order of original publication. The remaining twenty-five will appear tomorrow.

1 Frankenstein†, Mary Shelley (1818)
The original proto-sf novel and a bona fide classic of English literature. Of course it’s essential.

2 The Time Machine†, HG Wells (1895)
Another proto-sf novel. Time travel is a well-established subgenre, but which time travel novel is the most essential in a collection? I submit it is this one. Far too many time travel stories use the trope merely to improve matters for the protagonist. Well’s classic describes, and comments on, the time of its writing through the future history of humanity.

3 A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912)
Edgar Rice Burroughs has a lot to answer for – this planetary romance arguably fixed science fiction as a pulp genre, and it took a good forty or more years for sf to break free. A Princess of Mars is a silly book, with its Gary Sue hero and naked Martians, its magical science and its simplistic set-up… but it is also an essential stop on the road to modern science fiction.

4 Metropolis, Thea von Harbou (1926)
One of the genre’s first novelisations – if not the actual first – as it was based on the 1924 screenplay of Lang’s film. It’s all a bit overwrought and florid, in direct contrast to the movie, but its message remains timeless.

5 Last And First Men†, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
It starts in the twentieth century and finishes two billion years later. It also throws away more idea for novels within its pages than any other book in the entire sf canon. Except perhaps Stapledon’s own Star Maker, which I’ve not read yet…

6 Nineteen Eighty-Four*, George Orwell (1948)
For some reason, totalitarian dystopias haven’t been especially common in genre sf – perhaps because this one did it so well; or perhaps because most sf writers and fans aren’t willing to engage with politics that don’t match their own… Where dystopias do appear in sf (they’re more common in literary fiction), they’re generally little more than background, a dim setting against which some noble-browed hero can shine.

7 The House That Stood Still, AE van Vogt (1950)
Like many early sf writers, van Vogt was hugely prolific. Also like them, most of his stories and books were not very good. In this one, van Vogt crashed together noir and pulp sf, and the result is something which stands above everything else he wrote (despite the occasional characteristic silliness). It’s essential because it’s emblematic of genre fiction of the period. If Philip Marlowe and Flash Gordon had a baby, it would look like this book.

8 The Sword of Rhiannon, Leigh Brackett (1953)
Planetary romance as a subgenre is hard to take seriously. We’ve put robots on the surface of Mars, we know there are no ancient civilisations, no canals, etc. But Brackett was an order of magnitude better than most writers working in this subgenre, and it shows. This is probably her most characteristic planetary romance.

9 The Stars My Destination†, Alfred Bester (1956)
Thinking about it, I don’t know why this book is “essential”, but I do know that any sf book collection without it feels incomplete. It is in many ways the distillation of 1950s sf, a crazy pulp re-imagining of The Count of Monte Cristo, which revels in its pyrotechnic prose.

10 Solaris*, Stanisław Lem (1961)
The Anglophone world is not, of course, the only one with a sf tradition. Many countries have strong sf traditions. Such as Poland – and Solaris is perhaps the best-known Polish sf novel by the Polish sf writer best-known outside Poland. It’s also an excellent film (but that was made by a Russian).

11 Dune*†, Frank Herbert (1965)
On a prose level, Dune is not especially good. It’s also unevenly structured. But its world-building is second to none, and it is the first truly immersive sf novel. All that praise for its ecological theme is just hogwash to disguise the fact that most males when they were teenagers wanted to be Paul Atreides.

12 A Torrent of Faces, James Blish & Norman L Knight (1967)
Overpopulation is a common theme in sf, and the first three-quarters of the twentieth century were awash with Malthusian nightmares. This one shows its age somewhat, but its prose is very nicely detailed and its story is well-balanced.

13 Camp Concentration, Thomas M Disch (1968)
People do things – mostly nasty – to other people, and sometimes sf writes about it. This is not the best-known sf novel about an experiment to increase the intelligence of a human being, but it is the best one.

14 The Fifth Head of Cerberus†, Gene Wolfe (1972)
You’d think that a genre of fiction with the word “science” in its name would be clever. But it isn’t always. Sometimes, however, it can be very clever. Like The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is a sort of cunning puzzle in fictive form.

15 Rendezvous With Rama*†, Arthur C Clarke (1972)
Some people think sf is all about Big Dumb Objects, and Clarke’s Rama is probably the most iconic BDO of them all. A mysterious alien vessel, seemingly dormant, enters the Solar System and then leaves it. This is sf as fiction of the ineffable. Ignore the inferior sequels.

16 Crash, JG Ballard (1973)
Good sf is about the real world, no matter when and where it is set. Or what happens in the story. Crash is avant garde, it is brutal, it can and will offend. But it also says something important about people’s relationship to technology.

17 The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe†, DG Compton (1973)
A quarter of the world’s CCTV cameras can be found in the UK. It is the most-surveillanced nation on the planet. And yet it’s not some horrible Stalinist totalitarian state – as sf insists would be the case. (Our current lords and masters seem to prefer Dickens as a model.) The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe shows the ultimate in paparazzi – a reporter who has had one eye secretly replaced with a television camera. His subject just wants to be allowed to die in peace. But it’s not going to happen. A sf novel that says something important, now more than ever.

18 The Dispossessed†, Ursula K LeGuin (1974)
Too much sf ignores politics, content to describe some simplistic system which meets the needs of either story or writer. Given the breadth of the genre and the size of its toolbox, it’s a shame sf doesn’t try more often for meaningful political commentary in its fictions. Happily, some writers have made a career of doing so, and LeGuin is among the best at this. As this novel demonstrates.

19 Dhalgren†, Samuel R Delany (1974)
There aren’t many sf novels which could legitimately make it onto a list of twentieth-century literary classics, but Dhalgren is one of them.

20 The Female Man*†, Joanna Russ (1975)
This is not just a book about women-only worlds, it is also an excellent explanation of why such worlds need to exist. Sf is far too useful a tool to be merely tales of action/adventure in outer space. This book demonstrates why, and does it in a way that cannot fail to affect readers.

21 Hello Summer, Goodbye, Michael G Coney (1975)
There are not that many sf novels in which humans never appear – possibly because it’s a difficult trick to pull off well. But Coney manages it in this beautifully-written coming of age story set on an alien world.

22 A Scanner Darkly†, Philip K Dick (1977)
One word: drugs. This is Dick’s best novel – perhaps not his druggiest, or funniest, or most paranoid; but certainly the one where all three elements work together most effectively. Happily, it doesn’t read like he made it up as he went along, even if he did. Which is more than can be said for the bulk of his oeuvre.

23 The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley (1977)
Varley set three novels and a number of novellas and short stories in his Eight Worlds universe. In it, mysterious aliens have destroyed human civilisation on Earth, leaving only those on the other planets and moons of the Solar System to survive – as best they can. Happily, they have access to advanced technology beamed in blueprint form from Ophiuchi. A silly conspiracy plot provides the excuse for a travelogue through the Eight Worlds, before reaching an ending that actually throws away an entire novel’s worth of ideas. But this novel is an excellent example of sf’s penchant for optimism in the face of adversity.

24 Gateway†, Frederik Pohl (1977)
Another one of sf’s better-known Big Dumb Objects. The space station of the title is a mysterious depot for alien FTL starships, which humans use Russian roulette-fashion to fire themselves off into the rest of the galaxy, hoping to return with riches. It’s like the National Lottery, but with aliens off-stage somewhere (instead of hosting the prime-time game shows).

25 The Wanderground, Sally Miller Gearhart (1979)
There has been a strong tradition in sf throughout its history of women-only utopias – from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in 1915 through works by Francis Stevens, Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Pamela Sargent, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sheri S Tepper, Nicola Griffith, and others. Sadly, it’s been marginalised by a readership who would sooner read about derring-do by manly men. The Wanderground is not entirely women-only – the men still live in the cities, and they’ve not changed their ways much – but the women-only settlements in the hills are something very much different. Perhaps there’s a bit too much magical powers about it all, but this novel possesses a great deal of charm.

The remaining twenty-five essential sf novels will be posted here tomorrow.

note: * means the book is also on abebooks.com’s list; † means the book is in the SF Masterworks series.


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Whoops, my finger slipped…

There you are, browsing your favourite online purveyor of books and, oh dear, you seem to have bought a bunch of them. That’s what happens to me. Well, that, and being unable to pass a charity shop without popping in to see if they have any decent books on sale. The end result is a book collection which continues to grow and mutate and evolve like some bookish monster out of Quatermass. Or something.

Anyway, here’s the latest additions…

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Some small press goodies: both Downside Girls, a collection by Jaine Fenn, and Entanglement, Douglas Thompson, I bought at Novacon. Unfit for Eden and Eater-of-Bone are both from PS Publishing.

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A few recent first editions – Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine I’ve already written about (see here); likewise Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata (see here). I suspect John Varley is long past his best, but I’ll give Slow Apocalypse a go anyway. Mary Gentle’s Black Opera has been getting some positive notices. I only have the first of Jaine’s Hidden Empire novels, and Queen of Nowhere is the fifth – so it’ll be a while before I read it.

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Some books for the space collection. Riding Rockets and Dragonfly are both signed. I’m told Mullane’s autobiography is a really good one. The Burrough is about the Mir space station. Living in Space was dirt cheap on eBay.

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I love how Haynes have started producing these Owners’ Workshop Manuals for all sorts of things – not just the Lunar Rover and International Space Station here, but also the Millennium Falcon, Avro Vulcan, Thunderbirds, RMS Titanic, USS Enterprise, and even Dan Dare’s Spacefleet Operations. Not, of course, that anyone will ever get to own one of those. Apollo 15 NASA Mission Reports is exactly what it says on the cover. I have quite a few of the books.

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Some books bought at Novacon: Tyranopolis, AE van Vogt; The Quy Effect, Arthur Sellings; and Metaplanetary and Superluminal, Tony Daniel.

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As I’ve got older I’ve found myself appreciating Ballard’s fiction more and more. So I’ve been buying the nicely-packaged 4th Estate paperbacks. Only three more after Hello America and I’ll have the lot. Throne of the Crescent Moon is an ARC, which I’m reviewing for Interzone. I’ve also interviewed the author.

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Charity shop finds: Dancing Girls, a Margaret Atwood collection; Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three was, apparently, mystifyingly shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award; Deborah Lawrenson’s Songs of Blue and Gold may not look like my usual reading fare, but it’s based on Lawrence Durrell and his relationship with his wife when they lived on Corfu; Richard Powers is an author I’ve fancied trying for a while now and The Echo Maker was a fortunate find.

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I recently won a competition on the Gollancz blog, and this was the prize: a package of SF Masterworks – The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Synners, Unquenchable Fire, Riddley Walker and The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. Many thanks.

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These are for SF Mistressworks and were bought at Novacon. I’ve already reviewed Phyllis Gotlieb’s Sunburst (see here). I had a copy of Mary Staton’s From the Legend of Biel and read it many years ago, but gave it away. I fancied rereading it. The Wall Around Eden is from The Women’s Press. I’ve already reviewed a Pamela Sargent anthology and collection, so The Shore of Women will be her first novel to be reviewed on SF Mistressworks.

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Jacques Tardi’s bandes dessinée are really very good. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec volume 2 is completely bonkers. I suspect there won’t be a volume 3. New York Mon Amour is a collection of noir stories set in the titular city and despite the setting there’s something distinctly non-American about them. The Fantagraphic editions are nicely put-together, but annoyingly the books are all different sizes. Argh. ABC Warriors: The Meknificent Seven I bought on the strength of fond memories of the strip in 2000AD. I shouldn’t have bothered: it’s cobbled together from war movie clichés, often with dialogue which doesn’t even reach those heights. Ah well.

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These bandes dessinée are much better. Atlantis Mystery is an original Edgar P Jacob’s story, and very text-heavy. The story is complete tosh too. The Curse of the 30 pieces of Silver, part 1 and part 2, is of much more recent vintage, and is a mish-mash of Tintin-esque mystery-adventure and Dan Brown Biblical conspiracy, with a secret Nazi cabal thrown in as the villains. (Incidentally, Amazon’s database looks completely buggered on the Blake and Mortimer books – it has Atlantis Mystery and The Curse of the 30 pieces of Silver, part 2 down only by volume number, not title; so title searches won’t work.) Welcome to Alflolol is the fourth of the Valérian and Laureline series to be published in English by Cinebook.


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Readings & watchings 11

It’s time for the last report of 2010 from the coalfaces down the side-tunnels of the mine that is popular culture. You know the drill (see what I did there?): these are the books wot I read, these are the films wot I watched…

Books
number9dream, David Mitchell (2001), is Mitchell’s second novel. It’s set in Japan. An orphaned young man is searching for his mysterious father, but inadvertently gets involved with the Yakuza. Like Cloud Atlas, the story doesn’t quite cohere, although about a third of the way in things do start to gel. The writing is excellent, the narrator is engaging, and the occasional over-the-top elements of the story are forgivable. Worth reading.

Intervention, Julian May (1987), sets the scene for her Galactic Milieu trilogy. I remember enjoying May’s Saga of the Exiles when I was in my teens, so I was surprised to discover that I hated this book. It’s basically about the development of super mind-powers among a group of Franco-Americans in New England. It’s supposed to be based on the memoirs of one of these, but breaks away from his narrative far too often for the conceit to stand up. The aliens are silly, the language is melodramatic, and the characters all come across as Mary Sues. Avoid.

Casino Royale, Ian Fleming (1953), is, as any fule kno, the first of Fleming’s James Bond novels. For reasons that continue to elude me, I am working my way through the 007 books. I know they’re not very good, I know they’re nothing like the films. But still I read them. Given the recent film of Casino Royale I had somewhat higher hopes of this novel. Sadly, it’s worse than the others I’ve read. The plot is thin: Bond plays Le Chiffre at cards, Bond wins, Le Chiffre kidnaps and tortures Bond, Bond is rescued. There’s loads of clumsy info-dumps. And Bond is even more offensively sexist than usual – the final line is “Besides, the bitch is dead”. Watch the movie, avoid the book.

Axiomatic, Greg Egan (1995), is Egan’s first collection. I’ve never really been a big fan of Egan’s fiction, but since he receives so much praise I though I’d better have another bash at him. I found this collection in a charity shop, bought it, read it and… I’m still not entirely convinced. He seems to take implausible ideas and stretch them to breaking point; and often beyond. There are some good stories in this collection, but there are many that are quite dull, whose single idea just isn’t worth the story around which it is built. There’s also a sameness to many of the stories. Still, the prose is quite polished.

Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts (2009), has a central conceit that couldn’t help but appeal: in the 1940s, Joseph Stalin asks a group of science fiction writers to design an alien invasion, as part of a plot to create an enemy for the Soviet people in order to justify greater hardships and more invasive state control. You know, like the War on Terror. But nothing comes of it. Then, in the 1980s, it begins to look as though an alien invasion, exactly as planned forty years ago, is actually happening. Unfortunately, Yellow Blue Tibia doesn’t quite meet the promise of the conceit. It’s a very good novel, and the first half is an excellent and very funny satire. But about halfway through it changes direction, and eventually ends up in some sort of metaphysical area that didn’t strike me as interesting as the satire was. Definitely worth reading, however.

Ulverton, Adam Thorpe (1992), is a book I first tried reading over a decade ago, but put down after getting about halfway through it. It’s been sat on my book-shelves ever since. I’d always intended a second go at it, since what I had read had impressed me. But Ulverton is not an easy read. The title refers to a fictional village in the south of England, and the novel is structured as a series of incidents in the history of the village, beginning in the 17th century right up to the present day. Each section is told in the prose style of the time, and Thorpe uses a variety of formats as well – personal reminiscences, a sermon, eyewitness accounts, journals, a script, etc. This is a book that stands or falls on its writing, so it’s good that Thorpe’s prose is excellent. He maintains voice superbly in each of the settings, and gives a very real feel for his invented village. Worth the wait.

Surface Detail, Iain M Banks (2010), is the latest Culture novel and I wrote about it here.

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark (1963), is a slender book. The eponymous girls are all residents of the May of Teck Club, a hostel for single women under the age of thirty. The book takes place in the year following the end of WWII. Spark introduces the girls of the top floor, before leading up to a “tragedy” involving an unexploded bomb. There’s also a framing narrative set in the 1960s, in which various of the girls discuss a man one of them invited a couple of the times to the club, and who since became a missionary and has just been murdered in Haiti. I liked the way Sparks characterised the girls, but didn’t like her overly repetitive prose style. Nor was I especially keen on the framing narrative – not that I could see why it even needed to be there. Don’t think I’ll be dashing out to read any more books by Sparks.

A Pale View of Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro (1982), is Ishiguro’s debut novel, and in no way compares to his later works. A Japanese woman, married to a Brit and resident in the UK, reminiscences about her previous marriage in Japan. Her daughter from that marriage has committed suicide, and her daughter from her second marriage is staying with her for a week. The events in Japan – in Nagasaki – revolve around an upper class Japanese woman fallen on hard times, who has an American boyfriend who has promised he’ll divorce his wife back home and take the Japanese woman to the US. This woman also has a wayward daughter, who was traumatised by something she witnessed during the bombing raids on Tokyo during WWII. The prose is not as sharp as Ishiguro’s later books – in fact, the dialogue is tin-eared throughout. And the plot sort of peters out, rather being resolved. Disappointing.

Ninety-eight point four, Christopher Hodder-Williams (1969), is one of my British SF Masterworks and I wrote a review of it here.

Long Time Coming, Robert Goddard (2010). One day I’ll work out why I continue to read Goddard’s novels (I say that every time, don’t I?). It’s probably because no thought is required – this one took me a day – and they’re usually diverting. Despite being formulaic. His last one was rubbish, but this one is a bit better. A man discovers that his uncle, who he’d been told was dead, had actually been in an Irish prison since 1940 for an unrevealed crime (the book is set in 1976). It’s all to do with some Picasso paintings, which were forged by an ex-IRA painter, used to replace the real paintings owned by a Belgian diamond merchant who dies when the ship in which he was travelling to the US was sunk by a German U-boat. There’s more to the plot than just that, and it does get a bit unbelievable in the middle, but it’s better than some of Goddard’s other novels.

U is for Undertow, Sue Grafton (2009). The central conceit driving this alphabetical series is starting to unravel: the novels are presented as the reports of cases investigated by PI Kinsey Millhone. This one is a case in point: two of the three narrative threads are in the third-person and by those involved in the crime Kinsey is investigating. Which is the disappearance in 1967 of a four-year old girl – she was kidnapped, but not returned by the kidnappers. Like Goddard’s, these books are easy reads – and this one only took a day too. Grafton has rounded out the last few with Kinsey’s complicated family history – she thought she was an orphan, but her dead mother was actually the estranged daughter of a well-to-do matriarch. Sometimes Kinsey’s familial woes feel a bit like padding; sometimes they give her depth. But at no time do they actually add to, or illuminate, the plot of the novel. Grafton is no Paretsky, but never mind.

The Battle of Forever, AE van Vogt (1971), is typical van Vogt. Which is to say: it’s complete and utter nonsense. On good days, van Vogt’s nonsense is pacey and entertaining nonsense. On bad days, it’s just too silly to suspend disbelief. The Battle of Forever was plainly written on a bad day. It doesn’t help that it clearly reads as though van Vogt made it up as he went along – well, much more so than his other novels. In the distant future, one thousand humans are all that remain of the race, and they live as giant heads with atrophied bodies in an idyllic enclave. As an experiment, one of them, Modyun, grows a proper human body and heads out into the outside world as an experiment. He finds an Earth inhabited by the humanoid descendants of animals and apparently ruled by an alien bureaucracy. The novel may have been published in the 1970s, making it late-period van Vogt, but the society depicted seems more 1940s than anything else. Modyun accompanies some new-found animal people friends onto a giant spaceship, has various run-ins with members of the alien race in which they try to out-think each other, learns all the other humans have been killed as part of the aliens’ final act of Earth subjugation and… It all gets a bit wearying after a while, as van Vogt nears the end of each scene and hunts desperately for a hook to continue the story… often manufacturing one out of nothing simply in order to bang out more words. The Battle of Forever is a logic-free freefall through a story which rarely makes sense, and which reads like it was written when movies were black and white. Even for a fan of van Vogt, it’s putdownable.

Films
A Tale Of Springtime, Éric Rohmer (1990), is the first of Rohmer’s Contes des quatre saisons quartet, and the second film I’ve seen by him – the first was Triple Agent, which I thought slow but strangely involving, even though it didn’t seem to reach any sort of resolution. A Tale Of Springtime is much the same. A woman, Jeanne, attends a friend’s party and meets a young woman, Natasha, who befriends her. Jeanne doesn’t want to stay in her boyfriend’s flat while he’s away, and she’s lent her own flat to a cousin, so Natasha offers her a bed for the night and Jeanne accepts. Jeanne subsequently gets drawn into Natasha’s life, especially her father’s relationship with his new girlfriend, who Natasha does not like. This involves several trips to a house they own in a country village, which needs work done in its garden. If someone who didn’t like French cinema wanted to characterise it, they’d probably use A Tale Of Springtime as an exemplar. Yes, it’s a languorously-paced relationship drama, well-played but not dramatic. It’s unfair to describe it, as a comment on imdb.com does, as “not the for the general film-going public”, which seems such a wrong phrase on so many levels. It will not, however, be everyone’s cup of tea. I liked it.

They Flew Alone, Herbert Wilcox (1942), is a biopic of Amy Johnson. I reviewed it for Videovista here.

Brooklyn’s Finest, Anthony Fuqua (2009), is yet another bad New York cop movie. I reviewed it for Videovista here.

The Blue Gardenia, Fritz Lang (1953), is a film noir from master director Lang. The title refers to a club, where Raymond Burr (best known as Perry Mason) takes Anne Baxter, who is out drowning her sorrows after being ditched by her boyfriend. Burr is found dead the next morning, his head bashed in. Baxter can’t remember anything after leaving the club. A reporter believes her to be innocent and so tries to help find the real killer. There’a lot of evidence stacked up against Baxter, but it’s all cleverly shown to be either coincidental or a mistake on the witness’s part. There’s a lot in The Blue Gardenia that’s not dissimilar to While the City Sleeps, a 1956 film also by Fritz Lang. Both feature stalwart newsmen solving murders. I guess reporters were held in higher esteem in those days…

Comédie l’innocence, Raúl Ruiz (2000), I rented because it stars Isabelle Huppert, who is, I think, one of the best actors of her generation. The title of the film belies its somewhat unsettling story. On his ninth birthday, a young boy tells his mother that he wants to return to his “real” mother. He’s not adopted, but instead seems to believe he is the reincarnation – or has been possessed by – a young boy who died several years earlier. The boy’s mother, played by Huppert, tracks down the “real” mother, and, bizarrely, the two start sharing the boy. In parts, Comédie l’innocence is not unlike Don’t Look Now – the chills lie in what is implied, in the way something which has no rational explanation pulls apart domestic routine. The ending does resolve the plot, but it’s a taut journey there. Recommended.

Threads (1984), is a BBC two-part drama, first broadcast in 1984, about the effects of a nuclear war on Britain, and specifically on the city of Sheffield. It’s effectively done. These days, they’d CGI the nuclear explosion itself, and you’d see walls of flame ripping through the city, buildings exploding and falling over, all that sort of thing: nuclear explosion as spectacle. Threads skates quickly past that and onto the aftermath, as survivors eke out a living in the ruins, and succumb to radiation sickness, disease, violence and starvation. I missed this when it was first broadcast, but I’m glad I finally got to see it. A classic piece of British television, and much better than the inferior US takes on the same subject.

This Island Earth, Joseph M Newman (1955), is one of those films which helped define the popular perception of 1950s cinema sf, along with When Worlds Collide, Forbidden Planet, Destination Moon and The Day The Earth Stood Still. This Island Earth is based on a book of the same title by Raymond F Jones. Rex Reason – actors had proper actorly names in those days – plays a scientist who is recruited by a strange think-tank of platinum blond Tefal men. They’re interested in his research on nuclear power generation and are keen to fund his research. But it’s all a plot, because the Tefal men are really aliens from the planet Metaluna – as if their appearance wasn’t much of a clue. Reason and a female scientist played by Faith Domergue are taken by the aliens to their planet, which is at war with another race. There’s a giant mutant creature in there, too. The film was sold using stills of the mutant holding up a fainted Demorgue. This Island Earth is an entertaining piece of historical sf, although the first half of the film is better than the second. Now I have the original novel, I’ll have to see how far it deviates from the source text.

It Happened One Night, Frank Capra (1934), is on one of those Top 100 Films, but I forget which one. It was the first film to win the top five Oscars: best film, director, actor, actress and screenplay. Claudette Colbert plays a rich socialite with an overbearing father. He isn’t happy that she married a fortune-hunting aviator, so she runs away. On a Greyhound bus, she meets Clark Gable, a reporter, who recognises her and smells a story. He helps her to return to New York, although she has no money and he has very little. En route, they fall in love. It Happened One Night is your classic screwball rom com. Enough said.

Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese (2010). I’ve always thought Scorsese an over-rated director. Half the time he makes forgettable crowd-pleasers, the rest of the time he remakes Mean Streets. This falls into the former category and is based on a best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane. The island of the title is the site of a hospital for the criminally insane. One of the prisoners has disappeared, so FBI agent Leonardo DiCaprio and partner are sent to investigate. The twist in the film is obvious right from the start, the Civil War fort which forms the secure wing of the hospital looks like something out of Dracula, and Max von Sydow keeps on popping up and spouting wodges of psychobabble plainly designed to confuse the viewer. Avoidable.

The Colour Of Paradise, Majid Majidi (1999), is an Iranian film, and proved much better than I’d expected it to be. Mohammed, a young boy at the Tehran Institute for the Blind, is picked up by his widowed father and taken to their home in the mountains. The father wants to remarry, but he can’t cope with a blind son. So he takes Mohammed to visit a blind carpenter and apprentices him to him. Mohammed doesn’t understand why he can’t stay at home with his father, grandmother and sisters. He may be blind, but with his Braille books he can keep up with the sighted kids in the village school. But the father is adamant. Then things start to go wrong, and the father’s plans and life unravel… I’ve seen two Iranian films before this – Secret Ballot, which made my top five of the year, and Taste Of Cherry – and they were both very good. As is The Colour Of Paradise. I didn’t expect it to be as affecting as it was, because, let’s face it, the story sounds more “worthy” than watchable. The boy who plays Mohammed is very good, the scenery is beautiful, and the slow unfolding of the story is cleverly done. I’ve already added Majidi’s other films to my rental list.