About three weeks ago, the BBC published a list of “100 Books That Shaped Our World”, comprising titles chosen by a panel “of leading writers, curators and critics”, otherwise known as a radio presenter and literary supplement editor, a broadcaster, three authors and the director of a literary festival. As lists go, it’s a bit, well, establishment, choosing minor titles from contemporary fiction and clonking great bestsellers from genre fiction. A few days later, Nina Allan published a rival list on her blog, and called for others to do the same. Some of my friends have followed her lead.
I like lists. I’ve made no secret of the fact. I’m even responsible for creating one or two that have gone viral, such as the SF Mistressworks list, or the 100 Great Science Fiction Stories by Women list. So, of course, I decided to have a go myself. But putting together a list of 100 novels which have shaped a person’s reading is hard. Even if you have recorded pretty much everything you’ve read (or, for me, back to the start of the 1990s).
I decided instead to produce an annotated list. And I would organise the list by the decade – one decade per post – during which I encountered the books, giving a sort of history of my reading. While I’d stick to the one book per author “rule”, I wouldn’t limit myself to novels.
It still wasn’t easy. But I managed to put something together. It’s sort of in the order I encountered each book. For the 1970s and 1980s (see next post), it can’t be exact as I didn’t record my reading then. And my recall is good but not that good.
So here is the first installment:
The Golden Bird, Jan Pieńkowski & Edith Brill (1970). I don’t actually recall the books I read before the age of eight or nine, but I do have a vivid memory of this one, particularly its illustrations. Until looking up titles for this post I had, however, thought it was by Joan Aiken, who I do recall reading back then – but not which of her titles.
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Alan Garner (1960). This was a British children’s classic for many years and, like many of the books I encountered prior to my eleventh birthday, I read and loved it before understanding what science fiction or fantasy actually were.
Destination Moon, Hergé (1950). I can’t be the only sf fan who was influenced by this when they first read it? Hergé’s star has grown somewhat tarnished in the decades since he died – for the early racist stories, deservedly so – but Destination Moon introduced the iconic rocket that is still recognised the world over today.
Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes, Burne Hogarth (1972). I’ve no idea why I have such a strong memory of this book – it was the 1974 Pan paperback edition – but I was big on Tarzan around the age of eight or nine or ten. Perhaps because the Tarzan television series starring Ron Ely was a fixture on Dubai’s Channel 33 at the time. I also have a very strong memory of reading a Tarzan annual – I later tracked it down as the 1973 annual – in a hotel in London, probably because it was the day before I had an orthodontic brace fitted and that kind of gets seared into your memory.
The Red Moon Mystery, Frank Hampson (1951). One Christmas in the early 1970s, my parents bought me the Hamlyn Dan Dare 1974 annual, which contained ‘The Red Moon Mystery’ and ‘Safari in Space’. I loved it. And it made me a lifelong fan of the adventures of Colonel Daniel McGregor Dare. The book was badly damaged by mice or rats while in storage in the 1980s, but I still hung onto it for a couple of decades afterwards.
Doctor Who and the Zarbi, Bill Strutton (1965). This is the first of the two novels which, I think, led to me identifying as a science fiction fan. My parents bought it me for Christmas in, I think, 1975. I had seen very few episodes of Doctor Who because I only spent the summers in the UK. For several years after being given this book, my relatives would buy Doctor Who novelisations published by Target as birthday and Christmas presents.
Starman Jones, Robert A Heinlein (1953). In my first year at boarding-school – I was eleven – a boy in the same class lent me Starman Jones following a conversation. I had never read category sf before. As soon as I finished it, I wanted more…
Gray Lensman, EE Doc Smith (1951) … and, fortunately, there was another boy at the school – in the year below me – who was an actual sf fan, and lent me some of his books, which he kept in his locker. True, it was EE ‘Doc’ Smith and Asimov… I don’t remember if I read the Lensman books in the correct order… but Gray Lensman I recall being the most exciting of the novels. I also loved the Chris Foss cover art on the books.
The Trigan Empire, Don Lawrence & Mike Butterworth (1965). The same school had a subscription to Look & Learn, a “weekly educational magazine for children”, which included in each issue some pages from the The Trigan Empire sf comic strip. I also had a copy of the Hamlyn The Trigan Empire omnibus published in 1978, but that must have come a year or two later.
Jack of Eagles, James Blish (1952) Time and Again, Clifford D Simak (1951) Tactics of Mistake, Gordon R Dickson (1971). These three novels are ones I remember loving during the 1970s. Blish and Simak were also authors I collected then. I no longer read them, although the novels here by them I did reread this century. I’m not entirely sure what I originally saw in them. The Dickson survived an adult reread much better, perhaps because I was more forgiving of its flaws. I still sort of like the Dorsai books, but I wouldn’t hold them up as especially good novels. Fortunately, that’s not what this list is about.
Final Stage, Edward L Ferman & Barry N Malzberg (1974). I think I received this as a present. I don’t think the person who bought it knew what it contained, because some of the contents were a bit adult for a twelve year old. The anthology contains one of my favourite sf stories, Philip K Dick’s ‘A Little Something for Us Tempunauts’, and probably the only Harlan Ellison story I’ve ever really liked, ‘Catman’.
Dune, Frank Herbert (1966). I remember at boarding-school seeing another boy reading this and asking him about it. He told me it was good, I eventually got hold of a copy of my own and… well, every thirteen year old boy wants to be Paul Atreides. My opinion of the book has dimmed considerably in the decades since, but I still maintain it is one of the genre’s premier exercises in worldbuilding.
Traveller: Characters & Combat, Marc Miller (1977). I should really include all three books of the original Traveller RPG box set, especially since I count a few quartets as a single “book” later in this list. A friend at school had bought Dungeons & Dragons Basic Edition (the one in the blue box) and we planned to start up a school RPG society. So I asked for the Traveller basic set – the three Little Black Books in a box – for Christmas… and I’ve been a fan of the game ever since. Its world-building is a bit of a grab-bag, but as a collaborative project that’s been added to for over forty years, it has a depth few other science fiction universes can match.
John DeNardo posts these regularly on SF Signal and I usually have a go at them. This week it’s the following eight questions:
1. The first science fiction, fantasy or horror book I ever read was:
Technically, it would be Doctor Who and the Zarbi by Bill Strutton, a novelisation of the TV series, which my parents gave me as a Christmas present in, I think, 1974. But the first category sf novel I read was Starman Jones by Robert Heinlein, which was lent to me by a classmate in my first year at prep school – so that would be either late 1976 or early 1977.
2. The last science fiction, fantasy or horror book I read that I’d put in my “Top 20″ list is:
I guard my Top 20 jealously and, sadly, it’s mostly not sf, fantasy or horror. No genre book has made it into the list during the last couple of years. However, if I were to run a category genre-only Top 20, then the last book I read which might make the grade would probably be… Extra(Ordinary) People, a 1984 collection by Joanna Russ, if only because it contains a story, ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’, which immediately became a new favourite. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here. If I were to restrict myself to novels, the last three genre reads with the most stars from me on GoodReads were, in no particular order: Europe in Autumn, The Violent Century, Rapture and Ancillary Justice.
3. The last science fiction, fantasy or horror book I couldn’t finish was:
That would be Palimpsest by Cathrynne M Valente. I’d heard a lot of positive things about it, and was quite chuffed to stumble across a copy in a charity shop. But the reading didn’t go very well at all. I baled around page 100, unable to put up any longer with the over-writing. I think it was something about a character being able to taste a snail’s foot in his mouth or something.
4. A science fiction, fantasy or horror author whose work I cannot get enough of is:
I have my favourites – who doesn’t? Paul Park has a new novel and a collection coming out this year, which has made me very happy – doubly so, in fact. Sadly, Gwyneth Jones doesn’t seem to have anything due out in the foreseeable future. A couple of years ago, I’d heard a US publisher had contracted for a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island (as by Ann Halam), but I’ve yet to see it mentioned anywhere online. I’m also eagerly awaiting David Herter’s new sf novels/novellas from PS Publishing.
5. A science fiction, fantasy or horror author I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read yet is:
But I’ve read everyone! Ahem. Of course, I haven’t really, just rather a lot of them – but many of those I’ve not read have been a matter of choice. I don’t think there’s anyone I’m ashamed I’ve not read – because if I was, I’d have read them; or at the very least I’d have one of their books on my humungous TBR pile. PC Hodgell, for example; or Michael Cisco… I own books by both but have yet to read them. Which reminds me, I really must get around to purchasing a copy of Laurie J Marks’ Fire Logic, as I really want to read it. Um, in fact, now I think about it, there’s a whole bunch of authors I want to read but have yet to buy anything by…
6. A science fiction, fantasy or horror book I would recommend to someone who hasn’t read sf/f/h is:
Easy. The Wall Around Eden by Joan Slonczewski. I reviewed it on SF Mistressworks here, and have been singing its praises ever since. Sadly, it’s currently out of print; but it really needs to be introduced to a new audience.
7. A science fiction, fantasy or horror book that’s terribly underrated is:
Where do I start? Many of my favourite genre novels were highly regarded when they were published, but they’ve never been reprinted since. One or two are now in the SF Masterworks series… so I can hardly claim they’re still under-rated. Instead, I will chose something completely out of my comfort zone – a fantasy novel: The Grail of Hearts by Susan Shwartz (1991). It was never published in the UK, had two reviews on publication (in Locus and amazing Stories), has zero reviews on GoodReads and two on Amazon (including a 5-star one by Katherine Kerr!), Kirkus called it a “formless hodgepodge of a book”, and the first five pages of Google are links to places to buy the book rather than online reviews… I think it qualifies as under-rated.
8. A science fiction, fantasy or horror book that’s terribly overrated is:
There’s a lot of recent sf I think is horribly over-rated – just look at the Hugo Award and Nebula Award shortlists for the past few years. But many of those books I’ve not actually read myself, so my opinion is chiefly the result of other stuff written by those authors. However, I have read Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey, and it was shortlisted for the Hugo Award for 2012, and made it into the top 5 on the Locus Poll for that year. I thought it was terrible, and I refused to read its sequels. I now hear it’s been optioned for television. Sigh.
I’m not sure what triggered it, but the day before yesterday I was reminded of the first science fiction novel I can recall reading. And that got me thinking about the first album I remember buying, and the first film I remember seeing in a cinema. So I decided to write a blog post about them.
I remember reading books on Norse mythology and maritime mysteries, and by Joan Aiken, as a kid, but the first sf novel I remember owning was… Doctor Who and the Zarbi. We were living in Dubai, in a villa in Jumeirah, and my parents gave it to me for Christmas. So it must have been 1975. Because the previous Christmas we were in Qatar, and the following September I started at boarding school in the UK. During my first year at boarding school, I was introduced to “proper” science fiction by a kid in my class called Silver who lent me Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. Then a lad in the year below me named Hopkinson lent me an EE ‘Doc’ Smith novel – one of the Lensman series, I think – and I started buying sf novels myself. In fact, several years later I bought all seven of the Lensman books – the Panther paperbacks with the Chris Foss cover art. I still have them.
I know I saw several Disney films in the main hall at Doha English Speaking School – my clearest memory is of The Jungle Book – but the first film I saw in a cinema was Where Eagles Dare, also in Doha. I remember the cinema was open air and that we sat on folding chairs, and I can remember watching the movie on the screen quite clearly. The film was released in 1968, but it was unlikely to have been available in the Gulf until several years later. We left Qatar in 1974, so it was either that year or the previous one. In which case, I’ll have been seven or eight years old. Of course, Where Eagles Dare is now a Sunday afternoon perennial on television, so I’ve no idea how many times I’ve seen it since. The first genre film I can recall seeing is Planet of the Apes. After leaving Qatar, we moved to Oman and lived in a villa in a small camp outside the Sultan’s palace in Seeb. We would often visit the army barracks at Rusayl, where there was a film club. They’d project films onto the end of a barracks block, in a small area fenced off with barasti and provided with folding chairs.
One of the first bands I can remember owning an album by was Deep Purple. But that was a pirate cassette – you could buy them openly in the Middle East during the 1970s; and, in fact, right up to the mid-1990s. They usually cost less than £1. I remember them being Dh 4/- each during the 1980s when there were about six UAE Dirhams to the Pound Sterling. The first legitimate album I can remember buying was a LP, and I bought it in a record shop on Clumber Street in Nottingham. The shop has long since gone and I no longer remember its name. The album was Cat Stevens’ Foreigner, and I still have it. I don’t listen to it that much, though. The album was released in 1973, and I’m fairly sure I bought it before I started at boarding school in 1976. So I’m guessing it was either summer 1975 or summer 1976 when I purchased it. It might have been the year before.
A message from our sponsors: today’s trip down memory lane has been brought to you by science fiction, the literature of the futures of yesteryear.
Despite making a compulsion of reading every day, the TBR pile looks no smaller – and, in fact, might well have grown. If I was smart I’d institute a policy of only buying a new book if I’ve read one from the TBR. Sadly, I’m not. Maybe I should get a Kindle or something – at least then the books wouldn’t take up as much space. Mind you, it would make my book haul posts look a bit silly…
Anyway, here are the books I have read in the past month or so; here are the films I’ve watched in the past month or so. Some were good, some were bad, some were meh. And so it goes. Apologies for the length of this post; I really should do these more frequently.
Books Hardball, Sara Paretsky (2009). I’ve been a fan of Paretsky’s novels since first reading one back in the early 1990s. Perhaps their chief appeal is that Paretsky wears her politics on her sleeve, and VI Warshawski’s investigations always end up uncovering something interesting about Chicago’s political landscape and history – and often as commentary on the US as a whole. Hardball, a slight return to form after the disappointing Fire Sale, is no different in that respect. Warshawski is asked to track down a young black man who disappeared during Martin Luther King’s visit, and the subsequent riot, in 1968… and discovers some unwelcome facts about the city’s police department of the time. Of which her late father was a member. There are a lot of angry men in Hardball – in fact, it often seems like the entire male cast are angry at Warshawski, and not always for good reason.
Shadow Man, Melissa Scott (1995), was September’s book for my reading challenge and I wrote about it here.
Valerian 1: The City of Shifting Waters (1970) and Valerian 2: The Empire of a Thousand Planets, Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin (1971), are the first two English translations by Cinebook of a well-known sf bande dessinée series. Valerian is a spatio-temporal agent and, with his sidekick Laureline, gets involved in various adventures throughout the universe and history. In The City of Shifting Waters, he’s sent back to 1980s New York, which is flooded after a global environmental disaster, to prevent an evil villain from a nefarious plot to prevent the creation of the agency for which Valerian works. In The Empire of a Thousand Planets, Valerian and Laureline are sent as diplomats to a thousand-world planetary system (!), but discover that some strange group controls all the planets and seems determined to wage war on Earth. These books are not entirely serious – there’s a gentle humour running throughout them, though it’s not very subtle. Laureline, the sidekick, for example, is the clever one, who always gets Valerian out of his scrapes. There’s some inelegant info-dumping, and some of the story and art of The Empire of a Thousand Planets looks suspiciously like a direct inspiration for Star Wars (as an afterword points out tongue-in-cheek). Fun, though.
On Green Dolphin Street, Sebastian Faulks (2001), I’m fairly sure I tried reading when I was living in Abu Dhabi, but gave up a couple of chapters in because nothing seemed to be happening. This time, I ploughed on and… nothing happened. The van Lindens are a diplomatic couple in 1959 USA. Charlie is an analyst at the British Embassy, and was something of a wunderkind. But his star is now waning, mostly as a result of his drinking. When Frank Renzo, an acquaintance from Charlie’s visit to Vietname years before, re-introduces himself at a party, it results in an affair between Renzo and Mary van Linden. This comes to a head when Charlie has a breakdown during a trip to Moscow, and Mary has to go and fetch him. I was expecting a final section like that in Charlotte Gray – another Faulks novel which ambles along at a geriatric pace – but there isn’t one in On Green Dolphin Street. Charlie has a breakdown, Mary rescues him. That’s it. There’s some nice writing, but it’s not really enough to keep you reading. Disappointing. I’ve got four more novels by Faulks on the TBR. I hope they’re better than this one…
The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer 11: The Gondwana Shrine, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2011), is another addition to Edgar P Jacob’s series, and follows on directly from the two The Sarcophagi of the Sixth Continent volumes. It’s drawn in Hergé’s ligne claire style, but is very talky with great speech balloons filling up many panels. The plot is completely bonkers, as Blake & Mortimer stumble across evidence of a secret base in Africa of a civilisation which existed on Gondwana millions of years before the first humans left the Rift Valley. Sometimes, you get the impression Yves Sente is a bit too clever for his own good…
Ascent, Jed Mercurio & Wesley Robins (2011), is a graphic novel adaptation of Mercurio’s excellent novel of the same title. The hardware is well drawn, but the rest looks a bit rubbish and amateur. Disappointing.
The Kings of Eternity, Eric Brown (2011), has been receiving lots of positive notices, though I think it’s unlikely to bounce Brown’s career to the next level. It’s very good, but it’s far too considered a novel to have broad genre appeal. It’s also not space opera. A reclusive writer living on a Greek island in 1999 falls in love with the painter who has moved in next to him, but only reluctantly opens himself to her. Four friends in 1935 meet at the country home of one of them, and in the woods nearby witness the opening of a portal from another world and rescue the creature which comes through it. The link between the two narratives is not difficult to guess, but that doesn’t spoil any enjoyment this novel might have. The narrative set on the Greek island has a somewhat Fowlesian feel to it, though it’s perhaps more sentimental than anything Fowles ever wrote. The other narrative is very Wellsian, though it uses Wellsian-type tropes with the sophistication of a twenty-first century sf writer. Is this Brown’s best novel? Hard to say. I still like Kéthani a lot, though The Kings of Eternity is certainly a very good novel. Perhaps my reading of it was spoiled slightly as a result of reading the novella on which it was based, ‘The Blue Portal’, some years ago.
Silicon Embrace, John Shirley (1996), however, is not a good novel. I like Shirley’s fiction, but he can be very slapdash. And Silicon Embrace is one of the slapdash ones. It’s a post-apocalyptic US crossed with UFO mythology, featuring a Damnation Alley-style journey across California and Nevada, with a secret underground base staffed by a military in league with the Greys. Then the story heads for New York, and turns into something slightly different. This book was poorly edited, with far too many ellipses left in the dialogue, and a number of silly mistakes, like mention of “Neil Stephenson” (sic). Disappointing.
It Was the War of the Trenches, Jacques Tardi (1993), is a bande dessinée treatment of WWI from the point of view of the soldiers. Tardi has picked out some of the worst and most horrific stories, and given them a graphic novel treatment. Such as the one about the Sicilian soldier who could not speak French and so didn’t go over the top when ordered, and was subsequently tried and shot as a deserter. Or the officer who ordered machine-guns to open fire on his own men because they were being mowed down by the Germans and were trying to get back to their trenches. The more you learn about the First World War, the more you realise the wrong people were killed. Anyone who reads this and continues to glorify war and the military is clearly an idiot.
Maul, Tricia Sullivan (2003), was October’s book for my reading challenge and I’m still working on a blog post about it.
The Joy of Technology, Roy Gray (2011), is a chapbook published by Pendragon Press. The author is a friend of mine. The technology in question is that used in sex clubs in Germany in order to better titillate customers. The customers, in this case, are a coach-load of football fans from the UK, visiting Germany as their team is playing away. A father introduces his son to the joys of travelling onto the Continent to see a footy match, and also to the delights to be had before and after the match. Gray pulls no punches, and if his story dehumanises its characters I suspect that was its intent. It does trail off a bit towards the end, and perhaps would have been improved by a punchier finale.
Synthajoy, DG Compton (1968). A blinding novel by a much-underappreciated writer. I wrote about it here.
Dead Girls: Act 1 – The Last of England, Richard Calder & Leonardo M Giron (2011), is a graphic novel of part of Calder’s novel of the same title. I’ve read that novel – in fact, I’ve read the trilogy – and it’s very good. The graphic novel is also very good. The style of art suits the material perfectly. The story is actually the flashback from the novel, which actually makes the world of the book easier to understand. I’m looking forward to seeing the next installment.
The Unit, Ninni Holmqvist (2006), has lots of praise on the covers of my paperback copy of this book, and I’m not entirely sure why. In a near-future, or alternate present, Sweden, anyone over the age of fifty without children, or who has not made a significant contribution to culture or industry, is deemed “dispensable”. They are taken to luxurious centres – such as the “unit” of the title – where they have free housing, food and healthcare, and are encouraged to use the copious leisure facilities. While there, they must volunteer for medical experiments and, over a period of years, donate whenever necessary their organs. Dorrit is one such woman. Something of a loner, inside the unit she finds friendship, and then love. At which point, of course, she no longer wants to be dispensable. The concept of the unit is, I admit, quite neat, though it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. From the description, it would cost far more to run than it returns in the form of drug testing or donated organs. The rules on who is dispensable are also open to abuse, especially for those who are childless but have contributed in some highly-recognised fashion. Also, the fact that survival is predicated on having children will also push women back into their traditional roles, undoing decades of feminism. None of this seems to have occurred to Holmqvist. She makes Dorrit a bit mannish, but has her enjoy being passive and feminine as if it were something to aspire to. I also thought the writing was very clumsy in places, though that may be more the translator’s fault than the author’s. I suspect this is one of those books where people can see little beyond the central conceit – like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, which has a brilliant central idea but is appallingly written. And yet those same people will sneer at science fiction because so many of its fans look only at its ideas and ignore all else in a text.
Warlord of Mars Vol 1, Arvid Nelson, Stephen Sadowski & Lui Antonio (2011). I have a love-hate relationship with John Carter. Or rather, with the books in which he features. Barsoom is a great invented land, but the prose is often quite painful to read – not only is the style horribly dated, but Edgar Rice Burroughs was a hack. But there’s something in John Carter and Barsoom which fires the imagination… even if every incarnation of it to date has yet to match expectation. This miniseries is an attempt at a more faithful comic adaptation of the first book of the series, A Princess of Mars. However, like all such it stands or falls on the quality of its art… and here it’s not too bad. Okay, so Dejah Thoris is improbably bosomed and near naked – though, to be fair, in ERB’s novel all the character are naked all the time. And the Tharks do bear a suspicious resemblance to the Tharks in Marvel’s 1978 John Carter, Warlord of Mars comic. Overall, this is quite a good adaptation, though it does make the source material appear more shallow than it actually is. Meanwhile, I’ll have to wait until Pixar’s film adaptation is released in March 2012…
The Uncensored Man, Arthur Sellings (1964), I read as part of my British sf Masterworks investigation, and I wrote about it here.
Warlord of Mars, Dejah Thoris Vol 1: Colossus of Mars, Arvid Nelson & Carlos Rafael (2011), is much better than the adaptation of A Princess of Mars by the same writer mentioned above. The artwork is lovely, though Dejah Thoris is still implausibly pneumatic. And mostly naked. But Dejah Thoris is certainly the heroine and drives the plot from start to finish. The story is set hundreds of years before John Carter appears on Mars, when Greater and Lesser Helium were at war and both owed allegiance to another city-state. The jeddak of that state finds an ancient colossus and goes on a rampage, but Dejah Thoris manages to ally the two Heliums and leads a force to defeat him. I’ll be keeping an eye open for the next book in the series.
The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Jane Rogers (2011), was, I believe, longlisted for the Booker, but since the plot summary made it clear it was sf-written-by-a-mainstream-author I picked up a copy just before Waterstone’s abolished their 3-for-2 promotion. And it’s certainly sf, in the same way The Handmaid’s Tale or The Children of Men are. Or even Nineteen Eighty-four. At some point in the near-future, a virus is released which infects everyone. But when women become pregnant, it turns into full-blown Creuzfeld-Jakob Syndrome and is always fatal. In other words, women can’t have children anymore – or they die. And it’s a particularly horrible death, as their brain dissolves in their skulls over a period of weeks and sometimes days. Jessie Lamb is 16-year-old whose father works at a clinic attempting to find a cure to Maternal Death Syndrome. While around them the world slowly falls apart. The first section of the novel, in which Jessie tries to come to terms with the world, and in which the role of women in society slowly erodes, is very good indeed. But about halfway through Jessie volunteers to become as “Sleeping Beauty” – she joins a programme which will keep the mothers in comas so the babies can be born safely, though, of course, the mothers will not survive. At which point, the novel turns into YA story and is all about Jessie trying to convince her parents that her choice is the right one. Yet the trigger for that choice doesn’t seem especially obvious. The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a pretty good book, but it’s also half of what could have been an excellent one.
The Garments of Caean, Barrington Bayley (1978). Bayley’s fiction was always slightly odd, and this one’s no exception. It’s 1970s hackwork, but it starts from a point, with a conceit, that no self-respecting sf hack would ever have tried. But Bayley makes it work. Sort of. In the Tzist Arm of the galaxy there are two major cultures, the Ziode cluster and Caean. The Ziodeans are just like contemporary Anglophone Westerners, but with spaceships and few other sf trappings of the day. The Caeanites, however, are entirely different. They have developed tailoring to such a degree – they call it the Art of Attire – that clothes do indeed maketh the man. So when a black marketeer liberates a cargo of Caeanic clothing from a crashed spaceship, it threatens the already minimal relations between the two groups. The prose veers from serviceable to the odd piece of fairly good writing. About two-thirds of the way through, the plot takes a turn that makes a nonsense of the book’s set-up up until that point. And there’s a casual mention of rape which is really quite offensive in this day and age. Not one of Bayley’s best. There were much better books written by British sf authors during the 1970s. Don’t bother with this one.
Films The Big Heat, Fritz Lang (1953), is one of Lang’s noir films from his Hollywood period. Glenn Ford plays the white knight, an honest cop, who tries to bring down the mob boss who runs the city. While the film is generally considered a classic of the genre, it does suffer heavily from simplistic morality, the righteousness of its hero, and the characterisation of women as either duplicitous or victims (Lang’s While the City Sleeps has a woman beat the shit out of a serial killer who attacks her). The Big Heat is especially brutal in this last regard, when mobster lieutenant Lee Marvin throws boiling hot coffee into the face of his girlfriend because she was seen talking to Ford. And she’s not the only victim of Ford’s relentlessness. He continues to harrass the mobster – ignoring due process, evidence, etc. – despite being told not to by his lieutenant, and as a result is suspended. But still he carries on. And he gets his man in the end, no matter who suffers or perishes in the process. Of the Lang noir films I’ve seen, The Big Heat is the least interesting – it’s too formulaic, has little or no ambiguity, and, let’s face it, Marvin’s brutality is no reason to celebrate a film.
Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik (2010), I vaguely recall hearing good things about, though I think I kept on getting it confused with Hanna. I’ve no idea why – the only thing the two films have in common are a teenage girl as protagonist. Anyway, I put it on the rental list, several weeks later it dropped through the letter box, I picked it up and looked at it and thought “meh”. One weekend night I stuck it in the DVD-player… and it proved to be one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. A teenage girl is visited by the local sheriff, who tells her that her father, whom she has not seen for weeks, is due in court soon. He has put up his house as surety for his bail and if he doesn’t appear, then the girl, her young brother, and their mentally ill mother will be put out on the street when the bail bonds company seizes the property. So she goes looking for her errant pa. The film is set in the Ozarks, among poor families who live on subsistence farming and cooking methamphetamine. It’s an insular society, ruled by the threat of violence, in which women live in fear and even kin asking questions is unwelcome – and punished by threats and then violence. Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as the girl. Winter’s Bone is a scary film, set among very scary people. I now want to read the novel by Daniel Woodrell on which it’s based. In fact, I’d like to read all of his books. This is not always a good move: for example, Hitchcock’s Marnie is greatly superior to Winston Graham’s, and the film of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments is much better than the book. But I’d still like to read them.
Black Heaven, Gilles Marchand (2010), I reviewed for The Zone and it was meh. See here.
The Wedding Song (Le chant des mariées), Karin Albou (2008), is one of those films that occasionally appears on my rental list but I forget why I put it there. Perhaps it was because it’s set in Tunisia, and I’ve seen many excellent North African films. The Wedding Song is set during WWII after the invasion of Tunisia by the Nazis. Two teenage girls, one an Arab Muslim, the other Jewish, are friends, but the Germans’ demands on the population soon push them apart. Not helping this are the Arab girl’s fiancé, who goes to work for the Germans identifying the local Jews, or the Jewish girl’s mother who marries her off to a wealthy doctor much older than her. This is not a pacey film, it’s far more about developing the characters in order to better understand their responses to the Nazi depradations. I’ve seen the film presented as a lesbian film, which it isn’t. The two girls are childhood friends, though that doesn’t prevent one from betraying the other – and later saving her. The Wedding Song is as much about the Nazi invasion’s effect on Tunisia as it is about the effect on the two girls. An excellent film.
Summer Storm, Douglas Sirk (1944). I’ve always thought that Sirk was to the melodrama what Hitchcock was to the thriller. But while Hitchcock never made a film that wasn’t entertaining, Sirk’s oeuvre is not so consistent. It’s not just later-period fluff like 1957’s Battle Hymn, but even earlier works such as this adaptation of Chekov’s novella, ‘The Shooting Party’. It just seems… weird. It’s melodramatic, and very much a mid-1940s melodrama. But everyone is dressed in nineteenth-century Russian costumes, and they all have Russian names. It makes for a weird disconnect between story and presentation. George Sanders plays a provincial judge ensnared by a scheming peasant beauty (Linda Darnell). First she marries the local aristocrat’s estate manager – and the aristocrat throws a party and invites all his effete peers as a joke – but Darnell’s sights are set higher. There’s probably a good script hiding in Summer Storm, but I kept on getting thrown by the fake scenery and American jocularity.
Thor, Kenneth Branagh (2011). Of all the heroes in Marvel’s stable, you have to wonder why they chose Thor for a movie adaptation. He’s one of the least interesting. He’s a Norse god with a big hammer, and in his secret identity he works as a doctor. The Thor from Norse mythology had much more interesting adventures. Of course, Thor is one of the Avengers, and The Avengers is next year’s Marvel tentpole release (the preview trailer actually looks quite boring). In order to introduce Thor, Branagh ripped off the plot of Superman II, but flipped it so that the good guy is exiled to Earth rather than the baddies. Thor’s brother Loki schemes for Odin’s throne, and big dumb Thor falls for his dastardly tricks, and a sa result is exiled to Earth. Where he happens to land in the lap of scientist Natalie Portman. For much of the film, Thor’s superpower appears to be stupidity, though he quickly learns to be a nice person, which not only gets him back to Asgard and allows him to defeat evil Loki, but also returns him to the loving bosom of his father. Because, of course, Thor is a father-son film. Admittedly, the film looks good – especially the bits set in Asgard, though it seems to have ditched the whole Norse mythology thing and implies that Asgard is an alien world / alternate dimension sort of place that just happens to be populated by humanoid Viking-types. I can’t see much point in trying to rationalise superheroes – it can’t be done. They are nonsense, their powers are magic. And the comics industry has never understood what rigour is, anyway.
Tron Legacy, Joseph Kosinski (2010). Perhaps the desire to update Tron, given the current state of special effects, is understandable. I mean, the original Tron had some good ideas, and an interesting look, but it wasn’t very good. Unfortunately, it was still a damn sight better than Tron Legacy. Yes, the special effects are much improved. But the story is rubbish. And it makes no sense. Jeff Bridges’ son accidentally gets himself digitised and ends up in the virtual world where his father has been trapped for the past umpteen years. In order to escape, they both need to defeat the evil copy of Bridges he created to run the virtual world. This is all supposed to have something to do with microprocessor architecture and programming, but I work in IT and it made no sense to me. anyway, Bridges, as creator, has special powers. But he only uses them in the last ten minutes of the film to save his son. He could have used them at any time. And the only way he can save him is to commit total genocide. Despite the fact he has been fighting his evil copy because said copy committed genocide on some virtual life that spontaneously appeared in the virtual world. Who writes this crap? Oh, and did I mention it’s a father-son film? Well, obviously.
Almighty Thor, Christopher Ray (2011), is the Asylum’s take on Thor. Except it’s completely different. Sort of. Odin and his two sons live in generic semi-mediaeval fantasyland (one of the greener parts of California, by the look of it, with a poor CGI rendering of a castle). Baldir is Odin’s heir, a powerful warrior. Thor, however, is a weakling and not very bright. He doesn’t know how to fight with a sword, either. Then Loki – Richard Grieco, looking like he’s spent the last decade shooting up – invades Asgard, and kills both Odin and Baldir. It’s up to Thor to save the day. Except he’s useless. Happily, Valkyrie Jarnsaxa appears and agrees to train him up. This involves hiding out in present-day Los Angeles – well, those back-streets where filming permits are evidently quite cheap. If the sections set in Asgard looked cheap, the ones set in LA resemble something from public access television. The Asylum are rightly known for making shit films, and the only astonishing things about them are the levels of shitness those film actually reach. Yes, some films are so bad they’re good, but that’s one trick the Asylum has yet to master.
Bonjour Tristesse, Otto Preminger (1958). When I think of Preminger I think of classy noir films from the 1940s, but Bonjour Tristesse, adapted from the novel by Françoise Sagan, is a 1950s melodrama. It opens in black and white, with Jean Seberg describing her ennui in voice-over as she flits from one Parisian night-club to the next, from one wealthy young playboy to the next… The action then shifts to the previous summer, on the French Riviera, and in colour. Seberg is holidaying there with her father, shallow playboy David Niven. Staying with them is a bouncy Swedish blonde playmate… but then Deborah Kerr, an old flame, unexpectedly accepts an invitation to visit. and she manages to tame the playboy father. This unfortunately puts the kaibosh on Seberg’s plans for a life of profligate leisure, so she hatches a cunning ploy. Which has a somewhat unfortunate consequence. It’s all very high-society and irresponsible wealth, and you can’t feel much sympathy for the characters. But it’s an excellently-made film, and both Niven and Kerr are very good in it. Seberg I found too gamine and empty-headed to really convince, and as a result the film for me never quite managed the charm of Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief or the cool sophistication of Antonioni’s L’Avventura.
Princess of Mars, Mark Atkins (2009), I stumbled across one night on Movies 24, but only managed to catch part of it. So I made a note of its next showing, and sat down to watch it from start to finish. It is, of course, an Asylum film, and while it’s currently titled Princess of Mars to cash in on Pixar’s release of John Carter of Mars next March, it was originally titled Avatar of Mars after James Cameron’s blue-peopled epic. In fact, Princess of Mars follows ERB’s novel quite closely – though, like every adaptation ever made, it ditches the nudity. Carter himself is updated to a Special Forces soldier in Afghanistan, and the mechanism which sends him to Barsoom is a military experiment performed on him since he’s at death’s door. But once on the Red Planet, he runs into the Tharks, joins them, captures Dejah Thoris, falls in love with her, and goes on to save the planet and unite the Red and Green Men. Mars itself resembles an Arizona desert, most of the special effects are cheap and nasty, as are the make-up and prosthetics, and Traci Lords as Dejah Thoris is astonishingly bad. But for an Asylum film, this one is actually almost watchable.
Ricky, François Ozon (2009). There’s something about Ozon’s films I find appealing – though, it’s not true of all of them. Angel is garish and amusing, Water Drops On Burning Rocks has that astonishing dance scene in it, Under The Sand is beautifully played… but Le Refuge is a bit dull, as is Swimming Pool, and 8 Women I find a little too OTT. Certainly he’s a director whose films I seek out, however. And happily, Ricky is one of the good ones. A working-class French woman falls in love with a spaniard who works at the same factory. He moves in with her, the woman’s young daughter is upset at having her world altered but gradually comes to accept him… then the woman becomes pregnant. The family dynamic immediately changes. That is until the baby – rickey – is born and when several months old develops bruises on his shoulder blades. The woman accuses the father of hurting Ricky. Hurt and disgusted, he leaves her. The bruises grow worse… and sprout into a pair of wings. Ricky can fly. Mother and father are reconciled. At first they try to keep Ricky’s ability a secret, but he escapes during a trip to the local supermarket, so they reluctantly call in the media. Perhaps Ricky with his angel’s wings feels a little too much like over-egging the new-family-new-baby cake – it’s perhaps a cliché that families always see their new babies as “little angels”. And there’s the daughter to consider too – she goes through the typical cycle of jealousy to acceptance to pride.
X-Men: First Class, Matthew Vaughn (2011), has been much praised as an intelligent addition to the (typically dumb) corpus of superhero films. Which is to forget that the first two men X-Men films directed by Bryan Singer were actually pretty smart movies. In X-Men: First Class – which is, of course, a cunning pun – the action is set in the 1960s and shows the X-Men helping the CIA prevent a conspiracy by evil mutants to use the blockade of Cuba to trigger nuclear Armageddon. Along the way, we get to discover how the above-the-title mutants discovered their powers, and the use they put them to before deciding the patriotic thing to do was work for a bunch of interfering types like the CIA. While X-Men: First Class is a pretty smart film for a superhero film, and it marches along at an energetic pace, look too closely and things start to look less shiny. It’s not just Kevin Bacon’s really bad German accent – which he thankfully drops when he reappears as Sebastian Shaw… or the over-preponderance of semi-naked women throughout the film… or that Banshee, an Irishman in the comic, has been recast as American in the film… or that Angel is now female, though he was male in the comic and earlier films… or that the Soviet villain uses a Bell 47 helicopter to visit his dacha (which looks more like a stately home left to wrack and ruin, anyway)… or why the villains always win in their fights against the good guys until the last reel of the film… or that the X-Men supersonic jet, which has always been modelled on a Lockheed SR-71, apparently has no room in its interior for jet fuel… or that Magneto introduces himself to Nazi refugees in South America by offering to buy them a Bitburger, but no one says “bitte, ein Bit”… But perhaps I’m asking too much of what is essentially pure entertainment. Except, if it’s “pure entertainment”, why try to position it as an intelligent film which comments on real life geopolitical events? Why not just admit it’s men – and women – in tights with logic-defying superpowers trying to remould the planet to fit in with US preconceptions of what Earth should be?
Green Lantern, Martin Campbell (2011). You’d think a story about a man with a magic ring that allows him to defeat evil, and who wears magic tights, wouldn’t be science fiction. But Green Lantern has aliens in it, and lots of lovely shots of galaxies and other celestial objects, and apparently the Green Lantern Corps are the guardians of galactic civilisation. If there’s a genre this film belongs to it’s the genre of tosh. I am a science fiction fan, but even I couldn’t swallow the central premise of Green Lantern. Still, it is a Marvel film. It’s also a Hollywood film, so it’s all about a son and the father he could never live up to. Because all Hollywood films are father-son films. I suspect some powerful studio executive has done way too much therapy. Anyway, Green Lantern was entertaining in a “nice visuals” sort of way, providing you turn off your higher cognitive functions. The story didn’t make much sense, and was filled with pointless scenes. For example, the commander of the Green Lantern Corps beats the crap out of Green Lantern and then tells him he’s rubbish. Well, of course he is. He only put the ring on twenty minutes ago, and no one’s trained him how to use it. And then the super-powerful villain that no one can beat only be defeated by that self-same rookie who has, um, oh hours of experience in the job. Then you have lines such as “The bigger you are, the faster you burn.” Er, no. But why expect accurate physics in a film about a man with a magic ring?
51, Jason Connery (2011), I reviewed for The Zone, and it was shit. See here.
Dr Who: The Ribos Operation, The Pirate Planet, The Stones of Blood, The Androids of Tara, The Power of Kroll and The Armageddon Factor (1978 – 1979), are the six stories which make up the Key to Time sequence, which introduced fellow Time Lord Romana as the Doctor’s companion. The final story also revealed the Doctor’s real name, which is apparently Theta Sigma, so I’m not surprised he insists on being called the Doctor. (According to the mythology, this is a “known alias”, though why someone would use an alias at an academy is never explained. It also transpires that ΘΣ was used in the New Testament as an abbreviation for God, so it’s most likely a case of a scriptwriter having a small joke…). The Key to Time is some sort of magic thingummy which, er, safeguards time or the universe or something. The White Guardian tasks the Doctor with gathering the six pieces, which have been hidden throughout time and space, and giving him the completed Key. Because then it would be safer than being hidden in six pieces throughout time and space. Apparently.
The Ribos Operation is a straightforward sting story. A pair of interstellar conmen try to sell a planet – without the knowledge of its semi-mediaeval natives – to a deposed noble by planting a sample of a valuable mineral and pretending not to understand its worth. The Doctor puts a stop to their con, but also prevents the nasty noble from furthering his own nasty plan.
The Pirate Planet is Douglas Adams’ first Dr Who script, and so is held in high regard. I can’t see why myself. The story has a neat idea but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The titular world is hollow and hyperjumps to enclose other planets. Which it then strips of their resources. These worlds are generally inhabited, except… if the pirate planet was only after the natural resources of a world, then populated ones would probably already be mined out. Uninhabited ones would be a much better prospect. Unless it’s the fruits of their societies – technology, artworks, jewellery, etc – the pirates are after… The Pirate Planet is also infamous for a fight between K-9 and a robot parrot. Which is exactly as silly as it sounds. Incidentally, the hidden segment in this story proves to be latest planetary victim of the pirates. So even if they hadn’t committed genocide, the Doctor would have done so when he transformed the planet into a segment of the Key to Time.
The Stones of Blood feels a little like a return to a slightly older Dr Who story. It’s set on Earth around the time of filming (ie, late 1970s). Two women are researching a local stone circle, but there’s funny stuff going on at the manor, which is now owned by the oily leader of a druidic sect. It’s all to do with some alien that looks like a standing stone – well, which is meant to look like a standing stone, but actually looks a bit crap – an immortal alien, and a spaceship hidden in hyperspace somewhere over the stone circle. It’s one of the better stories.
As is The Androids of Tara, in which Dr Who rips off The Prisoner of Zenda, only with androids impersonating various members of the rival factions for the throne of Tara. It was filmed in and around Leeds Castle, and certainly looks good. It’s Dr Who at its frothiest.
The Power of Kroll, on the other hand, is Dr Who at its wettest. It’s set in a swamp – well, an estuary. With green-skinned humans, who worship a semi-mythical giant squid; and a really crap model of an oil rig, which is supposedly a facility for converting methane into “protein”. Their drilling has woken the giant squid, Kroll, which is actually a couple of miles across. Terror ensues. There’s a lot of really offensive racism against the green-skinned people in this, and while it’s plainly intended to make a point, the writers seem to forget what that point is halfway through.
The final episode, The Armageddon Factor, is perhaps the worst of the six. The story reminded me of one from the classic Star Trek series. Or maybe it was from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Anyway, there are two planets engaged in nuclear war, and it’s all going very badly. The Marshal of one talks to a mirror and refuses to accept the possibility of negotiation. But then the Doctor arrives, and it turns out there’s no one left alive on the other planet and their military machine is all being run by a computer. And there’s this toad-like evil villain called the Shadow who has manufactured the entire situation because he wants the Key to Time. At one point, the Doctor ends up running around some caves in a secret planet, miniaturised. But I think my eyes had started to glaze by that point.
I never saw the Key to Time stories when they were first broadcast (1978 – 1979), though I was in the UK at the time. At boarding-school. So there was no rosy tint watching these, though I admit to being a very small fan of Dr Who, inasmuch as it was an on-and-off part of my childhood. While the six stories in the sequence are not especially good – some of Tom Baker’s other adventures are much, much better – they are interesting because of the presence of Romana (played by Mary Tamm). For the first couple of stories, she actually runs things. Yes, she’s portrayed as a somewhat clichéd bossy, interfering female, but at least she’s not just running around and screaming. Sadly, as the sequence progresses she becomes less of an equal, and more like a typical companion. But perhaps she went on to better things. There’s only one way to find out…