Several years ago, Shaun Duke and myself challenged each other to produce a short series of themed movie lists, which we posted on our blogs. I bumped into Shaun at the Worldcon in Dublin last month, and during our conversation I suggested we resurrect our film challenges. Shaun agreed. And then, a week or so ago, someone tweeted a link to Screen Rant’s “10 Most Underrated Sci-Fi/Fantasy Films Of The Last 20 Years” [sic, sic and sic], and it’s the usual suspects plus a couple of “they must be fucking joking” choices… But it occurred to me it was a perfect theme for mine and Shaun’s first film challenge.
For the record, here’s Screen Rant’s list, in reverse order:
I’m not going to bother dissecting the list, other than to say I disagree with most of it and strongly disagree with a couple of the movies on it. The list is also boringly Anglophone and surprisingly Anglophilic (even though Snowpiercer to have never had a UK sell-through release).
Twenty years, however, it a bit too long a period to pick ten under-rated genre movies, so for this challenge, Shaun, I’ve decided to limit it to ten years. Also, science fiction and fantasy only – no horror or superhero movies or supernatural thrillers. And, obviously, they can’t be on Screen Rant’s list…
This actually proved harder than I expected. Chiefly, I think, because I’ve watched so many films over the past few years. Some were obvious picks – for me – but selecting others, and making the list well-rounded, was a, er, challenge. Anyway, here they are, in reverse order as above:
10Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011, USA). I’ve been a fan of Brit Marling’s work since seeing her first movie, Another Earth (also 2011), and while Sound of My Voice‘s genre credentials are slim they are certainly integral to the story. A pair of documentary film-makers attempt to infiltrate a cult whose leader claims to be from the future. It’s brilliantly under-stated stuff. And the ending manages to keep the viewer guessing.
9Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo, Hideaki Anno (2012, Japan). I’m not a huge fan of anime but no list of science fiction films would be complete without at least one title (er, I have two). Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo is the third of four films adapted from Anno’s own television series Neon Genesis Evangelion (which I would really like to see but which is really hard to find on DVD). The final film is due next year. It’s all giant mecha and giant weird aliens, but it looks great and it delves deeper into the psychology of its cast than is usual for the genre. True, it probably makes little sense without having seen the first two films in the series – but why not watch them as well?
8Norwegian Ninja, Thomas Cappelan Malling (2010, Norway). This could be considered alternate history, although it’s cleverly structured such that its alternate history is actually a secret history. In the real world, Norwegian minister Arne Treholt was convicted of treason in 1984 for selling secrets to the USSR. In the world of the movie, he was actually the head of a secret ninja force which reported directly to the King of Norway and was at war with a CIA-created stay-behind group that sought to trigger a war with the USSR. The film is a pitch-perfect spoof of 1970s exploitation action movies, with an amazing level of care taken over the production design.
7Cargo, Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009, Switzerland). Switzerland is not a country that springs to mind when discussing science fiction cinema – well, other than HR Giger – but even more surprisingly Cargo is an accomplished piece of science fiction film-making that manages to encompass a whole raft of genre tropes and yet still spin something new out of them. The CGI is not perfect in places, and one or two of the tropes drop into cliché as the story progresses… but this is a good solid piece of space-based science fiction, with an interesting premise and a well-handled climax.
6Your Name, Makoto Shinkai (2016, Japan). Shinkai’s animated films are absolutely gorgeous. I swear, you can see the individual raindrops in them. I also have a soft spot for Japanese high school genre anime stories. And body-swap stories. Your Name does both. A female high school student in a provincial town finds herself randomly swapping bodies with a male high school student in Tokyo. As they learn about each other, so they discover there is a much more at stake. It’s not an easy plot to describe because too much detail would constitute a spoiler. But Shinkai’s animation is simply stunning, so it’s worth seeing any of his films. But this is his best yet.
5Dredd, Pete Travis (2012, UK). I grew up reading the comic 2000 AD and Judge Dredd was its flagship strip (UK comics are generally anthology comics, unlike US ones). He also appeared in a national newspaper. And in a pretty bad movie adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone. That a new film adaptation might actually be any good was not something I’d have thought possible. But Dredd succeeded. Its plot is simple: Dredd and new recruit Judge Anderson are sent to a tower block to investigate three murders by the local drug lord, Ma-Ma. The block goes into lock-down, and Dredd and Anderson fight to survive against Ma-Ma’s heavily-armed troops. Dredd is basically an ultra-violent arthouse movie, and it works astonishingly well. There have been rumours of a sequel. Yes, please.
4Pojkarna, Alexandra-Therese Keining (2015, Sweden). Speaking of body-swap movies… Although the title of this movie translates as “the boys”, the film was released with the English title of Girls Lost. Both fit. Three teenage girls who are being bullied at school order a mysterious plant from an online supplier. They drink its nectar and awake to find themselves changed into teenage boys. And so begin to explore their new, and temporary, existence. There’s a sort of understated acceptance to the central premise that allows the girls to explore their new identities without losing sight of who they are or what they gain from their transformation. And while story drifts a tad toward cliché as it nears its climax, the final scene is one of those which turns a good film into a great one.
3The Untamed, Amat Escalante (2016, Mexico). The Untamed opens with a young woman in a barn having sex with a tentacled alien. Meanwhile another woman is at odds with her homophobic husband, who happens to be having an affair with one of her gay work colleagues. When the first woman introduces the second to the alien, things start to go wrong. The Untamed has a documentary feel, which I find greatly appealing, but more than that it is an excellent example of how a science-fictional conceit can be used to illuminate the quotidian. There are not many examples of good sf slow cinema, but this is one of them.
2John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012, USA). This is probably the most contentious entry on this list. Although plainly the first in a planned franchise, the movie flopped at the box office – thanks to a sabotaged marketing campaign, rumour has it, rather than poor audience response – despite being one of the most narratively sophisticated genre films for quite a while. Having said that, its source material is over 100 years old, which means a lot of the ideas have been re-used so extensively in the century since they’re just not fresh anymore. But the film looks stunning, the plotting is extremely clever and, the odd longeur aside, it’s a crying shame a sequel was never made.
1Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2013, UK). I read the Michel Faber novel of the same title from which this was adapted nearly twenty years ago, and absolutely hated it. So I was somewhat ambivalent about a movie made of the book. To be fair, the adaptation is not particularly faithful, and whatever plot the novel possessed has been stretched so thin in the film it’s pretty much non-existent. Scarlett Johansson is convincingly blank as an alien woman harvesting men in Glasgow for meat, and the guerrilla film-making gives the film a surprising verisimilitude. I’m not convinced the film makes a point as meaningful as it think it does, but at least it tries to say something.
There are another dozen or so films that could have made the above list. Perhaps I’ll save them for a challenge for another day…
I saw someone recently tweet for requests for people’s top five science fiction films and I thought, I can do that. Then it occurred to me I’ve watched around 3000 movies in the past few years, and many of them were science fiction. So those films I think of as my favourites… well, surely I’d seen something that might lead to a new top five? Even if nothing sprung immediately to mind… True, I’m not that big a fan of science fiction cinema, and most of my favourite movies are dramas. And most of the sf films I have seen were commercial tentpole US movies, a genre I like even less…
I went back over my records, and pulled together a rough list of about fifteen films – it seems most of the sf films I’ve seen didn’t impress me very much – and then whittled that down to five. And they were pretty much old favourites. Which sort of rendered the whole exercise a bit pointless.
Or was it?
Top of my list is Alien, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1979. Although distributed by 20th Century Fox, I’ve always counted it as a British film, as it was an entirely UK-based production, and in fact used many of the UK-based talent that had been working on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune movie. I’ve always loved Alien, pretty much since its theatrical release. Which is a bit weird as it was given an X-certificate, and I would have just turned thirteen when it was released. But I read the novelisation by Alan Dean Foster; I had the collectable magazines and books, even Giger’s Alien (published by Big O according to my copy, but by Morpheus International according to the internet). I fell in love with the world of Alien, with the grimy lived-in appearance of the Nostromo, with the weirdness of the boomerang spaceship, with the look of the alien creature itself. Which doubtless explains why I’ve never really rated any of the sequels. Alien did it first, Alien kept it simple, Alien did it best. The less said about the prequels, the better…
Of course, those are films that required new worlds built out of whole cloth – there’s even a book about it: Building Sci-Fi Moviescapes (my copy, of course, is in storage). There are those that made do with the real world, making clever, or innovative use, of existing buildings and landscape. Examples include Alphaville, Crimes of the Future, Rollerball, even Interstellar (mostly). One of the most imaginative uses of location for a sf film I’ve seen is Footprints on the Moon, which manages to create a plausible invented country out of a pair of Turkish seaside resorts. Sadly, though I like the film a great deal, it’s not quite good enough to make my top five.
A film which also creates a new world out of clever location shooting makes the second slot on my list: François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451. I’m not a fan of the book, but I’m a big fan of Brutalist architecture and there’s plenty of that in the Fahrenheit 451 film. Plus a monorail. And Montag’s A-frame house in its leafy suburb with the silver birches and G-Plan furniture. It doesn’t look in the slightest bit futuristic – especially not now – but I love the film’s look and feel. (Except maybe the fire engine; not so keen on that.) But it’s not just the visuals, you also have Julie Christie playing two roles, the story’s focus on censorship (not television), the fact it ditched the stupid robot dog from the book, and Truffaut’s elegiac ending.
Science fiction films are not all set in the future or invented worlds. Some are set at the time the film was made. Girls Lost, set in early twenty-first century Sweden, might well have made my top five, but its central premise is just too fantastical. And Thelma, set in early twenty-first century Norway… well, telekinetic powers are a science fiction staple. At least they are in written science fiction. They’re more of a horror trope in cinema, and Thelma would also have made my list but it’s clearly a horror film.
An older film, one which depicts a 1980s Sweden, albeit far from any centre of civilisation, is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Offret, AKA The Sacrifice. Like Girls Lost and Thelma, its genre credentials are somewhat wobbly, but the fact it’s about a nuclear apocalypse, a very real concern during the Cold War and one much used by science fiction, pretty much since the genre’s early twentieth century origins, just about clinches it as science fiction for me. Okay, so Erland Josephson makes a deal with a higher power to put everything back and that’s hardly science-fictional, but never mind. Watching Offret is a harrowing experience, and science fiction cinema rarely manages that.
Most people, if they had to pick a Tarkovsky movie – and why wouldn’t they pick one? – would probably plump for either Solaris or Stalker. But the latter’s urban wasteland setting might suit its story but can hardly be called worldbuilding. And I’ve seen too many Soviet bloc sf films from the 1960s and 1970s to find anything special in Solaris‘s production design. They’re both great sf films, but I much prefer the look and feel of Herrmann Zschoche’s Eolomea to Solaris, although the latter is the better movie.
It’s not just actual Soviet and East German films, however. There are also the US ones from the 1960s which New World Pictures cobbled together from Soviet special effects footage, the best of which is Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood (containing footage from Небо зовет).
When I wrote about building whole new worlds for science fiction movies, I very carefully didn’t mention one particular film, which takes place on another planet ruled by an entirely invented civilisation… but is actually a very old genre property. 2012’s John Carter. My number four choice. It did badly at the box office and its cast is hardly top-drawer. But it’s a gorgeous-looking piece of cinema, and its script makes some very adventurous decisions about its story-telling which, to my mind, totally paid off (longeurs notwithstanding). I’m not a fan of the books – they’re very much historical documents, and the tropes they introduced have been so extensively used and reworked in the decades since it would be impossible to make them fresh. But the basic story possesses a primal appeal, and although John Carter does complicate its plot with its nested endings, I think it gives the film a contemporary narrative sensibility. John Carter is a seriously under-rated movie, and it’s a pity corporate politics pretty much killed it.
That’s four movies, and the final slot was, as is usually the case, the hardest to fill. I could think of a number of films which almost made the grade. There’s Dredd from 2012, a bona fide, and ultra-violent, science fiction art-house movie, but it’s too thin on plot. Or Cargo, a Schweitzer-Deutsch film from 2009, which is a bit of a hodge-podge of genre tropes, some of which border on cliché, but looks pretty good and is about as science-fictional as you can get. Going a bit further back, there’s Peter Watkins’s Privilege from 1967, which is a clever, and quite funny, dystopian satire. Or Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, in which an alien in the person of Scarlet Johansson drives around Glasgow in 2013 picking up men to provide meat for her home world.
However… I decided to go for a completely left-field choice for movie number five: The Untamed, a Mexican film directed by Amat Escalante, released in 2016. It’s a good example of a type of cinema I especially like, slow cinema. It is enigmatic. It has a documentary feel. And yet you have no idea where it’s going for pretty much its entire length. It also shows that science fiction can be used to illuminate the lives of people in the real world, it doesn’t always need fancy worldbuilding, expensive CGI or imaginative location shooting. Sometimes it just needs the introduction of something strange into the mundane.
So that’s my top five science fiction films. As of 2019. Ask me again in a year or two and it will probably be different.
I’ve no doubt missed out a huge number of eligible movies: I either because I’ve not watched them, don’t think they’re any good, or just simply didn’t remember (despite trawling back through my film-watching records). I’ve also not mentioned any anime films, although many of them might well qualify. I’ve watched some excellent ones – anything by Makoto Shinkai, for example; or the Neon Evangelion movies – but I don’t love anime as much as I do live-action, and besides they probably deserve a list of their own. Another day, perhaps.
In these days of streaming, and obsessive de-cluttering, DVDs probably no longer furnish a room – which I guess means the days of judging a person from their collection of VHS cassettes, DVDs or Blu-rays has passed. Judging someone by their book collection, on the other hand, was never especially useful – if they had more than a dozen books, then they were a reader and that was good. But even then, back in the 1970s and 1980s, people used to have several coffee table books on their wall-units (remember those?) – but they’d probably been given as gifts and never read. Most of the people I knew who collected VHS cassettes collected episodes of television sf series – Dr Who, Stargate, Star Trek, etc. Films never really felt like they were worth keeping. So why do I have nearly 1000 of them? Oh well. Here are a few more that have recently joined the collection…
I still consider Alien one of the greatest sf films ever made, and if the franchise has been on a downward slide ever since I can always hope it might one day match the brilliance of that first film. Sadly, Alien: Covenant doesn’t. It’s even worse than Prometheus. And yet it was given mostly approving reviews. John Carter, on the other hand, was a genuinely good film, one of the best sf films of the past five years, and yet reviewers slagged it off. It has its faults – name a sf film that doesn’t – but it’s both a gorgeous piece of cinema and a really clever script. I decided it was time to upgrade my DVD copy to a Blu-ray. Othello is possibly Welles’s nearly best film – it has some of his most striking cinematography, but it was filmed in bits and pieces over three years and that tells against it. Personal Shopper (see here) is another idiosyncratic movie from Assayas, a director worth following, and a charity shop find.
The Mizoguchi Collection was a gift from David Tallerman. I am not as enamoured of early Japanese cinema as he is – except perhaps for Ozu – but I certainly recognise the quality of the films. Possession was the first of the Mondo Vision re-releases of Żułwaski’s films, and proved quite difficult to find. I now have five of the Mondo Vision limited edition DVDs. A sixth, La Note Bleue, was released earlier this year – it’s on order. Żułwaski is an aquired taste, but Mondo Vision have done a sterling job on their releases of his films. Finally, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project is an excellent film,er, project, and its first volume included a beautifully-restored version of one of my favourite films, A River Called Titas. So no matter what Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 2 included, I was going to buy it because it was likely to include important films – and so it does, by: Lino Brocka, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Yermek Shinarbayev, Mário Peixoto, Edward Yang and Ömer Lütfi Akad.
It looks like this film challenge thing I’m doing with Shaun Duke is becoming a regular, er, thing. After he met my last challenge of five films which complement my Apollo Quartet – see here – he tasked me with coming up with a list of “5 science fiction films which are basically fantasies in space, but which are not Star Wars“. Ugh. That are “in your opinion and by your own criteria, good movies“. I suspect this is not possible – in fact, I know it’s not – so I’m going to cheat a little and pick films that are either good within the confines of their genre, or enjoyable irrespective of their quality. Because you’re not going to get some cheesy space fantasy that stands up there with anything by Tarkovsky or Bergman or Haneke or Kaurismäki or Sokurov or… Well, you get the, er, picture.
As for “fantasies in space”… yes, well, if notStar Wars is part of the definition then it must mean dumb space operas. And I can think of many examples, but they are almost universally pretty bad. There are no doubt lots of Japanese anime examples, and some of them may even be very good, but I’m not that familiar with anime.
Anyway, after much scratching of head and rootling through my DVD collection, I came up with following five. A couple may be obvious, one or two may invoke cries of shocked disbelief, and for a few I had to take “space fantasy” to mean “complete science fiction bollocks”.
John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012). The obvious choice, and one that will no doubt have a few of you choking on your doughnuts. I loved this film from the moment I saw it in IMAX 3D, and I’ve watched it several times since on DVD. The production design is gorgeous, the CGI is seamless (the Tharks actually look almost real!), and the script is polished, with a structure which is far more sophisticated than the material deserved. It’s a crying shame Disney decided to sink it because it could have been the start of a bloody good franchise. But instead we’re going to get endless shit superhero movies, a vast cinematic retconning of the Star Wars universe, and increasingly dumber Star Trek sequels. Yay for tentpole sci-fi blockbuster movies…
Flash Gordon, Mike Hodges (1980). There’s much that cringe-worthy in this film, from the Queen soundtrack (there, I said it) to the cheesy dialogue to half the cast clearly belonging in a much superior film to completely non-entity Sam Jones in the title role. Having said that, you won’t find more sci-fic pomp and silliness in any other movie. Von Sydow, Wyngarde and Dalton plainly belong in a much better film; Topol, Muti and Blessed seem to have found their level. Melody Anderson actually makes a good Dale Arden. It is, in fact, hard to fault Flash Gordon as a piece of cheesy sf camp, but it’s a mistake to consider it anything more than that (and unlike some people, I ask more of my movies and books than they be mere entertainment).
La planète sauvage, René Laloux (1973). No film list put together by myself would be complete without at least one non-Hollywood film. While this is not usually difficult to achieve, for “fantasies in space” it’s proven something of a hurdle. I mean, only the US makes cheesy space operas. But I believe La planète sauvage qualifies because, while it initially describes an alien world in which primitive humans exist only in the wild, it soon turns weird and philosophical and all sort of wishy-washy and bonkers. The animation and production design throughout is distinctive and strange – it’s by Roland Topor – but it suits the story. Laloux’s later animated films were a bit Métal Hurlant, but La planète sauvage displays a unique vision. Definitely worth getting hold of a copy.
Dune, David Lynch (1985). Heresy! Dune as a “fantasy in space”? I mean, I’ve always considered Dune science fiction, in space or otherwise, and I see no good reason to change that since it meets my definition of the genre. But since I also consider Star Wars science fiction, I feel this makes Dune allowable under Shaun’s somewhat baggy definition. And yes, Duneis a good film, and only fails at being a great film because the director couldn’t match his vision. But there are clues there if you watch the “television version” (which includes around an additional 45 minutes). It’s not so much the additional story that’s on the screen, and it’s certainly not the horrible prologue with its awful artwork. But the extended scenes set in the Imperial Court display an overly mannered presentation that works at the lengths shown in the television version much better than it does in the theatrical release. Plus, of course, the production design is superb. In fact, I’ll even forgive Lynch the “weirding module” and the rain at the end because everything looks so much like Duneshould look. I currently own five DVD editions of Dune, so it’s probably about time I got it on Blu-ray. But which is the best Blu-ray version…?
Battle Beyond the Stars, Jimmy T Murakami (1980). Space operas – sorry, “fantasies in space” – don’t come cheesier than this rip-off of Star Wars. But it does possess a certain charm all its own, whether it’s because its plot is a beat-by-beat copy of The Magnificent Seven, or that the hero’s spaceship looks like a pair of breasts, or Sybil Danning’s double entendres, or the fact George Peppard was clearly pissed throughout the film, or that the entire thing looks like a series of episodes from a bad sf television series. But as low budget space operas go, it’s an enjoyable example. And Richard Thomas actually displays some impressive acting chops. The fact the script is by John Sayles also helps.
There are a number of other films I could have chosen, but it would have been stretching a point beyond breaking to describe them as “good” – such as… The Humanoid, Aldo Lado (1979), in which Richard Kiel plays the title role in an Italian Star Wars rip-off with production design that’s a weird mashup of 1970s near-future science fiction, Star Wars and Flash Gordon… Or Starcrash, Luigi Cozzi (1978), which manages to make zero sense but does include the immortal line, “Imperial battleship, halt the flow of time!”… Or Barbarella, Roger Vadim (1968), which has not aged well despite being based on a French bande dessinée… Or even Andrzej’s Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe)… Or spaghetti sci-fi Star Pilot, Pietro Francisci (1966), which apparently inspired some elements of Star Trek…
ETA: After much thought, I’ve decided on Shaun’s challenge. Five non-English language films featuring space travel, not including Solaris. Oh, and no more than two of them from Japan.
So Shaun Duke says Interstellar is one of the best sf films of this century and I’m like no way and he’s like way and so he challenges me to produce my own list of top ten sf films of the last fourteen years… And it’s actually quite difficult as I can think of two dozen off the top of my head that are better than Interstellar, but I have to whittle it down to only ten. Which I did. And here they are…
1Cargo, Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009) I’m surprised this film isn’t better known. Perhaps it makes a little too free and easy with some well-known tropes, but this Schweitzer Deutsch production puts them to excellent use, and still manages to ring some changes.
2Avalon, Mamoru Oshii (2001) A Japanese film made in Poland with a Polish cast. It looks amazing, and the VR game plot with its layers of realities seriously messes with your head.
3Primer, Shane Carruth (2004) Probably the best time travel film ever made. And it’s impossible to work out the plot.
4Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2013) An improvement on the book. Shot guerilla-style in Glasgow, with Scarlett Johansson as an enigmatic alien.
5John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012) Commercially a flop, but there’s much to like in this tentpole blockbuster – it looks gorgeous, the script is far smarter than the material had any right to expect, and the cast all play good turns.
6Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow, Kerry Conran (2004) A CGI-fest which makes perhaps too much of a feast of its source material – while the pulp production design looks wonderful, the pulp narrative didn’t sit well with modern audiences.
7Dredd, Pete Travis (2012) Who knew an art house version of the Mega City One lawmaker would work so well?
9Timecrimes, Nacho Vigalondo (2007) More time paradoxes than you can shake a reasonably large Moebius loop at.
10Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011) A clever study of the cult mentality, with Brit Marling as a “prophet” from the future.
Honourable mentions: Apollo 18 (2011), amazingly accurate rendition of an Apollo mission, with monsters; Gravity (2013), not quite as accurate, no monsters either; Possible Worlds (2000), odd and under-stated many worlds thriller; Natural City (2003), frenetic Korean cyberpunk actioner; Time Of The Wolf (2003), Haneke does post-apocalypse.
It’s that time of year again when I go back through my spreadsheets of books read, films seen and albums bought, and try to decide which are the best five of each. And yes, I do keep spreadsheets of them. I even have one where I record the bands I’ve seen perform live. And no, it’s not weird. It is organised.
Back in June, I did a half-year round-up – see here. Some of the books, films, albums I picked then have made it through to the end of the year, some haven’t. This time, for a change, I’m going to actually order my choices, from best to, er, least-best.
BOOKS 1 Girl Reading, Katie Ward (2011)
This is probably the most impressive debut novel I’ve read for a long time. It could almost have been written to appeal directly to me. I like books that do something interesting with structure; it does something interesting with structure. I like books whose prose is immediate and detailed; its prose is immediate (present tense) and detailed. I like books that are broad in subject; it covers a number of different historical periods. And it all makes sense in the end. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for further books by Ward. I read this book in the second half of the year, so it didn’t make my half-year best. I wrote more about Girl Readinghere.
2 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson (2012)
This year, I’ve actually read eleven genre novels first published during the twelve months, which I think may be a personal record. Having said that, it’s been a good year for genre fiction for me, as a number of my favourite authors have had books out. Sadly not all of them impressed (The Hydrogen Sonata, I’m looking at you). 2312 was everything I expected it to be and nothing like I’d imagined it would be. The plot is almost incidental, which is just as well as the resolution is feeble at best. But the journey there is definitely worth it. It is a novel, I think, that will linger for many years. Again, I read 2312 during the latter half of the year, so it didn’t make my half-year list. I wrote more about it here.
3 The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011)
Some collections aim for inclusiveness, some collections try for excellence. I’m not sure why Aqueduct Press chose the stories in this collection – it’s by no means all of Jones’ short fiction – but as a representative selection, The Universe of Things does an excellent job. I reviewed it for Daughters of Prometheus here, and I opened my review with the line: “Gwyneth Jones does not write many short stories – forty-one in thirty-seven years – but when she does, by God they’re worth reading.” This book did make my half-year list. Now I just have to read PS Publishing’s larger Jones collection, Grazing the Long Acre…
4 Intrusion, Ken MacLeod (2012)
The endings of Ken’s last few novels I have not found particularly convincing. It’s that final swerve from near-future high-tech thriller into heartland sf. Though the groundwork is usually carefully done, it too often feels like a leap too far. But not in Intrusion. The world-building here is cleverly done – I love the pastiche of Labour, with its “free and social market” – the thriller plot works like clockwork, and the final step sideways into pure genre slots straight in like the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Intrusion is another book I read in the second half of 2012, so it didn’t make my half-year list. I reviewed Intrusion for SFF Chronicles here.
5 The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles (1949)
Curiously, I’d always liked the film adaptation by Bernardo Bertolucci, which inspired me to read the novel, but after finishing the book, I tried rewatching the film and found myself hating it. Mostly it was because the Lyalls, who are creepy and villainous in the novel, had been turned into comic caricatures. A lot had also been left out – though that’s not unusual, given the nature of the medium. The Arabic in the novel used French orthography, which meant I had to translate it twice to work out what it meant. And it looks like four out of the five books in this list I read after June, so the Jones collection is the only one from my half-year list that made it through to the end of the year one.
There are, however, a ton of honourable mentions – it’s turned out to be quite a good year, book-wise. They are: The Bender, Paul Scott (1963), which read like a sophisticated 1960s comedy starring Dirk Bogarde; The Door, Magda Szabó (1987), the best of my world fiction reading challenge (which I really must catch up on and finish); Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994), a very clever novel built up from several stories, including a fun spoof of Taggart and a brilliant piss-take of Jeffrey Archer; How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ (1983), which should be required reading for all writers and critics; Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Malcolm Lowry (1961), which introduced me to the genius that is Lowry; Ison of the Isles, Carolyn Ives Gilman (2012), successfully brings to a close the best fantasy of recent years; Omega, Christopher Evans (2008), a long overdue novel from a favourite writer, and a clever and pleasingly rigorous alternate history / dimension slip work; and Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds (2012), the start of a near-future trilogy, which is very good indeed but also stands out because it’s not regressive or dystopian.
FILMS 1 Red Psalm, Miklós Jancsó (1972)
It’s about the Peasant Uprising in nineteenth-century Hungary, and consists of hippy-ish actors wandering around an declaiming to the camera. Occasionally, they sing folk songs. Then some soldiers arrive and some of the peasants get shot. But they’re not really dead, or injured. Then the landowners turn up and start espousing the virtues of capitalism. But the peasants shout them down. A priest tries to explain the “natural order of things”, but the peasants aren’t having it. Then more soldiers arrive and round up all the peasants. The ending is very clever indeed. It’s a hard film to really describe well, but it’s fascinating and weird and beautifully shot. I wrote about it here.
2 Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni (1964)
This was Antonioni’s first film shot in colour and it looks absolutely beautiful. In terms of story, it is much like his earlier masterpieces, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, and, like them, stars Monica Vitti. But also a (weirdly) dubbed Richard Harris. It’s a surprisingly bleak film – although perhaps not “surprisingly”, given that earlier trilogy – but it’s hard not to marvel at the painterly photography and mise-en-scène – who else would have the fruit on a barrow painted in shades of grey in order to fit in with the colouring of the surroundings? I wrote about it here. And I really must write more on my blog about the films I watch.
3 The Circle, Jafar Panahi (2000)
This is one of those films where one story hands off to another one and so on, and in which there is no real story arc, just a journey through episodes from the lives of the characters. Each of which is a woman living in Tehran, and all of whom have just recently been released from prison. They were not, however, imprisoned for doing things that would be criminal in other nations. As the title indicates, the stories come full circle, and the film’s message is far from happy or pleasing, but there is still room for hope. This film won several awards, though the Iranian authorities were apparently very unhappy with it.
4 No One Knows About Persian Cats, Bahman Ghobadi (2009)
It’s not about cats, it’s about two musicians in Tehran who have been invited to perform at a music festival in London. But first they need to find some more musicians for their band, and they also need the necessary paperwork to leave Iran. But western-style music, which is what they play, is illegal in Iran, and there’s no way they’ll be able to get the visas they need legally. So they visit all the musicians they know, hoping some of them will be willing to go to London with them, and they also pay a well-known underground figure for the papers they require to travel. It’s an affirming film, but also a deeply depressing one.
5 Dredd, Pete Travis (2012)
I was badgered into going to see this at the cinema by Tim Maugham on Twitter. I hadn’t really thought it would appeal to me. Even the fact it was touted as being more faithful to the 2000 AD character didn’t mean I’d like it. Although I grew up reading 2000 AD, Judge Dredd was far from my favourite character, and I’ve not bothered buying any of the omnibus trade paperbacks that are now available. But I went… and was surprised to find it was a bloody good film. It’s sort of like a weird munging together of an art house film and a Dirty Harry film, and strangely the combination works really well. It’s violent and horrible and grim and panders to all the worst qualities in people, but it all makes sense and fits together, and despite its simple plot is cleverly done. I plan to buy the DVD when it is available.
Iranian cinema did well this year for me. Not only did The Circle and No One Knows About Persian Cats make it into my top five, but two more Iranian films get honourable mentions: A Separation, Asghar Fahadi (2011), and The Wind Will Carry Us, Abbas Kiarostami (1999). Kiarostami I rate as one of the most interesting directors currently making films. Other honourable mentions go to: John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012), which was undeservedly declared a flop, and is a much cleverer and more sophisticated piece of film-making than its intended audience deserved; Monkey Business, Howard Hawks (1952), is perhaps the screwball comedy par excellence; On the Silver Globe, Andrzej Żuławski (1988), is bonkers and unfinished, and yet works really well; there is a type of film I particularly like, but it wasn’t until I saw Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates that I discovered it was called “poetic cinema”, and his Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors (1965) is more of the same – weird and beautiful and compelling; and finally, François Ozon’s films are always worth watching and Potiche (2010) is one of his best, a gentle comedy with Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu in fine form.
ALBUMS 1 The Weight Of Oceans, In Mourning (2012)
I saw a review of this album somewhere which made it seem as though I might like it. So I ordered a copy from Finland – which is where the band and the label are from. And I’ve been playing it almost constantly since. It’s Finnish death/doom metal mixed with progressive metal, which makes it the best of both worlds – heavy and intricate, with melodic proggy bits. The Finns, of course, know how to do death/doom better than anyone, but it’s been a surprise in recent years to discover they can do really interesting prog metal just as well – not just In Mourning, but also Barren Earth (see my honourable mentions below).
2 Griseus, Aquilus (2011)
A friend introduced me to this one. It’s an Australian one-man band, and the music is a weirdly compelling mix of black metal and… orchestral symphonic music. It sounds like the worst kind of mash-up, but it works amazing well. In the wrong hands, I suspect it could prove very bad indeed. Happily, Waldorf (AKA Horace Rosenqvist) knows what he’s doing, and the transitions between the two modes are both seamless and completely in keeping with the atmosphere the album generates. The album is available from Aquilus’s page on bandcamp, so you can give it a listen.
3 Dwellings, Cormorant (2011)
The same friend also introduced me to this band, who self-released Dwellings. It’s extreme metal, but extreme metal that borrows from a variety of sub-genres. I’ve seen one review which describes them as a mix of Ulver, Opeth, Slough Feg and Mithras, which really is an unholy mix (and two of those bands I count among my favourites). Most of the reviews I’ve seen find it difficult to describe the album, but they’re unanimous in their liking for it. And it’s true, it is very hard to describe – there’s plenty of heavy riffing, some folky interludes, some proggy bits, and it all sort of melds together into a complex whole which is much greater than the sum of its parts. This album is also available from the band’s page on bandcamp, and you can listen to it there. (You’ve probably noticed by now that I’m terrible at writing about music. I can’t dance about architecture either.)
4 Woods 4: The Green Album, Woods of Ypres (2009)
Woods of Ypres was a band new to me in 2012. I first heard their final album, Woods 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light, but at Bloodstock I picked up a copy of the preceding album and I think, on balance, I like the earlier one better. The music is a bit like Type O Negative meets black metal, with oboes. Sort of. The opening track ‘Shards of Love’ is, unusually for black metal, about a relationship, and it starts off not like metal at all and then abruptly becomes very metal indeed. An excellent album, with some strong riffs and some nicely quiet reflective moments. (It’s pure coincidence that I chose it as No 4 in my list, incidentally.)
5 Obliterate EP, Siphon the Mammon (2012)
I have no idea how I stumbled across this Swedish progressive death metal band. It was probably the name that caught my attention. And it is a silly name. But never mind. Anyway, I downloaded the EP from their bandcamp page… and discovered it was bloody good. It’s technical and accomplished, with some excellent riffs and song structures. I particularly like ‘The Construct of Plagues’, which features an excellent bass-line, but the final track ‘End of Time’ is also nicely progressive. And… this is the third album in my top five which is available from the band’s bandcamp page, which surely must say something about the music industry and the relevance of labels… or my taste in music…
This year’s honourable mentions go to: (Psychoparalysis), for a trio of EPs I bought direct from the band, and which are good strong Finnish progressive death metal; Anathema’s latest, Weather Systems, which I liked much more than the three or four albums which preceded, and they were bloody good live too; Hypnos 69’s Legacy, which I finally got around to buying and was, pleasingly, more of the same (this is good, of course); Barren Earth’s The Devil’s Resolve, which is definitely heavier than their debut album, but still very proggy and weird; A Forest of Stars, which is steampunk meets black metal, and it works surprisingly well (check out this video here); Nostalgia by Gwynbleidd, who, despite the name, are Poles resident in New York, and sound a little like a cross between Opeth and Northern Oak; Headspace, I Am Anonymous, another Damian Wilson prog rock project, but I think I prefer it on balance to Threshold’s new album; and Alcest, another band new to me in 2012, who play shoegazer black metal, which, unfortunately, works much better on an album than it does live.
And there you have – that was the year that was. On balance, I think it’s been a good year in terms of the literature, cinema and music I have consumed. There’s been some quality stuff, and some very interesting stuff too. Which is not to say there hasn’t been some crap as well, but it seemed less numerous this year. This may be because I chose to ignore what the genre, and popular culture, value and focus more on the sort of stuff that appeals directly to me – I’ve cut down on the number of Hollywood blockbusters I watch, I no longer read as much heartland genre fiction. There’s always a pressure to stay “current”, but the more I watch genre and comment on it, the more I see that it does not value the same things I do. It’s not just “exhaustion”, as identified by Paul Kincaid in his excellent review of two Year’s Best anthologies here, but from my perspective also a parting of the ways in terms of objectives, methods and effects. I want stuff – books, stories, etc – that is fresh and relevant, that does interesting things and says something interesting. I don’t want the usual crap that just blithely and unquestioningly recycles tropes and worldviews, stories about drug dealers on Mars in some USian libertarian near-future, space opera novels in which an analogue of the US gets to replay its military adventures and this time get the result it feels it deserved…
I mentioned in a post last week that I don’t read as much genre short fiction as I feel I should. After all, my views outlined above are taken from the little I’ve read on awards shortlists and in year’s best anthologies. Just because that’s what the genre values doesn’t mean the sort of stuff I value doesn’t exist. I just need to find it. So by including a short fiction best of list in 2013, I’ll be motivated to track down those good stories, to seek out those authors who are writing interesting stories.
All of this, of course, will I hope help with my own writing. I had both a very good year, and a not so good year, in that respect in 2012. Rocket Science, an anthology I edited, and quite obviously the best hard sf anthology of the year, was published in April. As was the first book of my Apollo Quartet, Adrift on the Sea of Rains. The Guardian described Rocket Science as “superb”, which was very pleasing. And Adrift on the Sea of Rains has had a number of very positive reviews see here. Unfortunately, as a result of those two publications, I haven’t been very productive. I spent most of the year after the Eastercon working on the second book of the Apollo Quartet, The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself. Those few who have read it say it’s as good as Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which is a relief. Everyone else will get to find out in January, when it’s published. But I really should have worked on some short fiction as well. I’m not the quickest of writers – I marvel at those people who can bang out a short story in a week – but each story you have published, irrespective of quality, widens your audience a little more, adds a little more weight to your name. And that’s what it’s all about. No matter how good people say Adrift on the Sea of Rains is, I’ve only sold just over 200 copies – add in review copies… and that means perhaps between 250 and 300 people have read it. Some semi-literate self-published fantasy novels available on Kindle sell more copies than that in a week…
But that’s all by the by. This post is about 2012, not 2013. Sadly, I didn’t manage to reread much Durrell to celebrate his centenary. I’ve had The Alexandria Quartet by the side of the bed for about nine months, and I dip into it every now and again, but then I have to put it to one side as I have to read a book for Interzone or SF Mistressworks… Speaking of which, I had to drop to a single review a week on SF Mistressworks, but I still plan to keep it going. During 2012, I read 41 books by women writers, compared to 63 by male writers, which is about 40% of my reading (this doesn’t include graphic novels, non-fiction or anthologies). I also reviewed a handful of books for Daughters of Prometheus, although I haven’t posted one there for several months. (I’ve no plans to drop either responsibility in 2013.) Just over a third of my reading was science fiction, and a quarter was mainstream – so sf is still my genre of choice. Numbers-wise, I’ve not managed as many books as last year – only 146 by the middle of December, whereas last year I’d managed 165 by the end of the year. But I think I’ve read some more substantial books this year, and I did “discover” some excellent writers, such as Malcolm Lowry, Katie Ward and Paul Bowles. It’s a shame I never managed to complete my world fiction reading challenge. I still have half of the books on the TBR, so I will work my way through them, though I may not blog about it.
But, for now, it’s Christmas – bah humbug – in a week. And then the start of 2013 follows a week after that. Here’s hoping that next year is better for everyone, that the good outweighs the bad, and that every surprise is a pleasant one.
It’s halfway through 2012, and it must be shaping up to be one of the wettest years on record in the UK. But that’s okay because my hobbies are chiefly indoor ones – reading books, watching films and listening to music. I occasionally do a bit of writing too. But, since we’re in June, with around six months to go until the end of the year, it’s time to look back and determine what was the best of what I read, watched and heard in 2012. And it goes something like this…
I seem to have read a lot of books that were good without being great; and possibly a larger number of books that weren’t good at all. Picking the best five proved harder than expected, though one or two titles were obvious…
The Universe of Things, Gwyneth Jones (2011). Jones has been my favourite writer for many years, so this collection’s appearance on the top five is no surprise. I had, in fact, read most of the stories in The Universe of Things before (I even published one; sort of), but rereading them only cemented my admiration of them. Jones has not written many stories, but there are no clunkers among them. This collection is an excellent introduction to her fiction. I wrote a review of the book for Daughters of Prometheus.
Omega, Christopher Evans (2008). I’ve long admired Evans’ fiction, but he seemed to stop writing after 1995’s Mortal Remains… until Omega four years ago. I won’t say it was worth the wait, because it’s never good when a writer whose books you enjoy and admire disappears for more than a decade. But certainly Omega is a good book, a clever alternate history dimension-slip thriller partly set in a world where World War II continued on throughout the twentieth century. I wrote about Omega on my blog here.
The Door, Magda Szabó (1987). This year for my reading challenge I decided to read books by non-Anglophone writers I’d never read before. The Door was the second book I read for the challenge, and I really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, the challenge has got a little bogged down of late – I failed to finish March’s book, read April’s book late, and have yet to even start May’s. Anyway, I wrote about The Door on my blog here.
The Bender, Paul Scott (1963). I read the first book of the Raj Quartet for one of my reading challenges, and thought the book was superb. As a result, I added Scott to the list of authors whose books I track down to read. In first edition. The Bender predates the Raj Quartet and is not as weighty as those four books. It’s a very 1960s comedy, but also a beautifully witty one. I wrote about it on my blog here.
Betrayals, Charles Palliser (1994). I’m surprised this book isn’t better known. It’s an amazingly-put-together series of stories which form a much greater story. It opens with a series of Victorian travellers, trapped on a train by snow, who tell each other stories… and then proceeds to unravel and then stitch together the stories told by those travellers. There’s a superb take-down of a cult semiotician, a clever spoof of the Scottish detective programme Taggart, and a brilliant pastiche of Jeffrey Archer. Perhaps the links between the stories aren’t quite strong enough to carry the story-arc, but Betrayals is a very clever, very amusing, and excellent novel.
I’ve already visited the cinema twice so far this year, which is something of a record for me. One of the films I saw in IMAX 3D makes it onto my top five; the other one was rubbish, so it doesn’t. The other films I’ve seen were all on DVD – some borrowed, some bought, and some rented.
Red Psalm (Még kér a nép), Miklós Janscó (1972). I bought this after seeing a review of the DVD in Sight & Sound. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t a group of hippie-looking Hungarians wandering around a farm spouting socialist rhetoric and singing folk songs, and then getting shot at by soldiers. I loved it. I wrote about Red Psalm on my blog here.
Red Desert (Il deserto rosso), Michelangelo Antonioni (1964). I’ve admired Antonioni’s films since first seeing L’Avventura several years ago. Red Desert was his first film in colour, and it shows – it’s an amazingly painterly film. Unlike in most films, the characters do not over-shadow their world but are very much a part of it. It creates a distance between viewer and cast, but there’s an immersive quality to the mise en scène which renders that of little importance. Films don’t need viewer analogues – that’s just confining the medium to the simplicity of oral storytelling: films use images just like books use words, and that’s where their focus should lie. I wrote about Red Desert on my blog here.
On the Silver Globe (Na srebrnym globie), Andrzej Żuławski (1978/1988). If you can imagine a film that out-Tarkovskys Solaris, then you might have some idea of what On the Silver Globe is like. It’s based on a trilogy of novels published in Poland in 1911 by Jerzy Żuławski, which have apparently never been translated into English. On the strength of this film, they should be. It’s probably evident that I’m not a huge fan of traditional Hollywood-style cinema; it often feels to me like a waste of the medium’s potential. And yet films such as Red Psalm and On the Silver Globe, with their declarative dialogue, often feel like they’re only partway to what film could truly be. I like the painterly mise en scène of poetical cinema, but often find the declarative dialogue as clumsy as science fiction’s crude use of exposition. And so it is in On the Silver Globe – characters run around and gurn at the camera, and then speechify on the meaning of life. However, it’s in the story and the imagery that the film really impresses – enough, in fact, to offset the fact the film was never completed – much like Andrzej Munk’s Passenger. The Polish Ministry of Culture closed down the production of On the Silver Globe when the film was only 80% complete. It was ten years before Żuławski returned to it, and then he could only complete it by using stock footage and voice-over for some parts. It works surprisingly well. I plan to write more about On the Silver Globe on this blog.
John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012). John Carter received a mauling at the US box office, so much so it was officially declared a flop by its studio, Disney. Happily, the world outside the US had more discerning taste and went to see the film in sufficient numbers for it to eventually turn a profit. But the profitability of a film is measured solely on its performance at the US box office – which is both dumb and parochial – so it’s unlikely a sequel to John Carter will ever be made. Which is a shame. John Carter was a spectacle, with a clever script that managed to make something twenty-first century of its early twentieth-century source material. It had its flaws – some longeurs, and an inelegant info-dump to explain the plot – but other parts more than made up for it. I wrote more about it on my blog here.
Honourable mentions go to 8½, Federico Fellini (1962), which after seeing La Dolce Vita many years ago and disliking it, I had expected to hate – I didn’t; I loved it. Troll Hunter, André Øvredal (2010), was another deadpan Norwegian spoof and cleverly done, though not quite as good as Norwegian Ninja. The Third Part of the Night, Andrzej Żuławski (1971), was the first Żuławski I saw, and it’s off-the-wall Hitchcockian style appealed to me greatly (as did Andrzej Korzyñski’s superb soundtrack). Went the Day Well?, Cavalcanti (1942), was a surprisingly brutal piece of wartime propaganda in which a German fifth column try to conquer a small English village. It goes badly. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc Sec, Luc Besson (2010), gets a mention as an entertaining adaptation of Jacques Tardi’s bande dessinée, and though it’s completely silly it was great fun. Finally, some quality telly: Twin Peaks (1990 – 1991), which has not dated at all, and is still great entertainment despite being completely bonkers; and Caprica (2010), which promised so much more than it ever got the chance to deliver.
I knew from early this year that 2012 was going to be good for music. Perhaps few of my favourite bands are releasing albums, or touring the UK, but I’ve stumbled across some bands new to me that have been on almost constant play on the iPod.
Dwellings, Cormorant (2011). The band self-released this last year and it’s a powerful mélange of half a dozen metal genres. I loved it from the first listen, and even went back and got copies of their earlier two albums.
The Devil’s Resolve, Barren Earth (2012). This is the superband’s second album, and it’s a heavier and yet proggier effort than their first. The riffs are not quite as memorable as they are on The Curse of the Red River, but the lead breaks are much more impressive, and the proggy break-outs even stranger. Opeth’s Heritage proved there was a market for 1970s-inspired weird Scandinavian prog, and Barren Earth have taken that and melded it with Scandinavian death/doom to create a winning combination.
The Weight of Oceans, In Mourning (2012). I saw a review of this and it sounded appealing, so I ordered a copy from a Finnish website. It’s death/doom in that way the Finns do so well, but with added slow modern progginess. It’s not proggy like Barren Earth is proggy, inasmuch its acoustic parts feel more of a piece with the heavy parts. I’ve been playing it constantly since it arrived.
Nostalgia, Gwynbleidd (2009). Another band I came across mention of and who I thought I might like. So I bought the album. And yes, I do like them. Very much. They’re a sort of mix between Opeth and Northern Oak, but also not much like either. There are long sustained death metal parts, interspersed with folky acoustic guitar, and it all hangs together exceedingly well.
Legacy, Hypnos 69 (2010). I’ve been a fan of Hypnos 69 since hearing their The Intrigue of Perception several years ago. I’s taken me a while to get hold of Legacy, chiefly because it was released by a small label in Germany and wasn’t available in the UK. Recently I discovered it was on bandcamp, so I bought it from there. It’s Hypnos 69 doing Hypnos 69-type stuff, and I love it.
Honourable mentions go to Finnish death metallers (Psychoparalysis), who have self-released three excellent EPs; Weather Systems by Anathema (2012), which I much prefer to the previous album; Wood 5: Grey Skies & Electric Light by Woods of Ypres, which is folky black metal that sounds a little like Type O Negative in places and includes strings and oboe; and finally, All Spawns, a recent compilation of Czech death metal pioneers Apalling Spawn’s two released from the late 1990s (now, if I can only find a copy of the Sparagmos compilation, I’ll be really happy…).