Am trying hard to get these out of the way before my move. Having said that, I’ve no idea what Sweden will bring. Film-wise, that is. My Firestick will still work, and I’m taking my Blu-ray player and a selection of DVDs and Blu-rays with me, but…
The Airzone Solution?, Bill Baggs (1993, UK). This was an oddity. I found it on Amazon Prime. Apparently, during the 1990s, the BBC released some straight-to-video teleplays under the imprint BBV, including this near-future story by the bloke who voices the Daleks in Dr Who, and which starred four of the actors who had played Dr Who: Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. It’s set in the near-future, which probably means a decade ago, and in which the UK suffers such bad air pollution there are plants around the country to clean the air. Then the government gives a contract to a dodgy company – this may sound a little familiar to followers of the Brexit debacle – to build a new generation of plants. Except an activist (McCoy) discovers the new plants are actually increasing air pollution, and takes the news to documentary maker Davison. They also recruit TV weatherman Baker, because he has the platform. Turns out the company has another plan in mind, one which explains the missing bodies of activists who raided the air plants and some very suspect biological research… It was all resolutely amateur, despite the cast, with almost no effort made to present a future London. It comes as no surprise to discover the whole BBV operation was run on the cheap. Dr Who completists might want to seek this one out, but I can’t think of any other reason why it would be worth watching.
L’Amant double, François Ozon (2017, France). This is the latest from a favourite director. I say “favourite” although I find Ozon’s films a bit hit and miss. And this one was definitely miss. It’s basically Ozon does De Palma, and while he does it with more flair and better cinematography, he doesn’t overcome the, er, genre’s shortcomings. A woman in an intense relationship with her therapist spots him with another woman, only he denies it. It turns out he has a twin brother he never discusses. So the woman tracks down the brother, who is also a psychoanalyst, and ends up in a relationship with him. Then it all gets a bit tricky. It strikes me that for all the very different films Ozon has made throughout his career, they have been at heart pastiches. 8 femmes was a pastiche of Les parapluies de Cherbourg, Angel was Ozon taking off a DH Lawrence adaptation, Potiche was… I’m not sure how some of his other films fit into my theory, but what’s a theory without exceptions? And Sitcom, to be fair, was an overt spoof. Anyway, Ozon is always worth a go, no matter what he’s taking off, and if L’Amant double isn’t among his best it’s because he’s pastiching poor material.
Mission Impossible: Fallout, Christopher McQuarrie (2018, USA). This is bread and butter stuff for Cruise these days, and probably his main source of income, so providing he sticks to the formula it should be almost impossible (see what I did there?) to fuck it up. And, happily, in this instalment McQuarrie keeps the franchise on the straight and narrow. It’s like 007. European locales, lots of action, a femme fatale, a convoluted plot, and an excuse for the hero to behave more morally than everyone else. Mission Impossible: Fallout does all that. There’s a plan to spring some random villain from an earlier film in the franchise from super-secure prison – do such things even exist outside of movies? Given actual prisons these days are mostly privatised and run by for-profit companies that employ from the bottom of the labour pool. Anyway, Cruise is hired, while pretending to be someone else, to spring said nasty. Meanwhile, there are a couple of nuclear warheads floating about, which Cruise needs to take off the market because some secretive international group of anarchists – with which the aforementioned villain is associated – want to use them to blow up various centres of religion. Which is, to be honest, something I can sympathise with, given that not even Trump and Brexit combined can fuck things up as much as religion does on a daily basis. Anyway, Mission Impossible: Fallout is formula stuff, with all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed, the laws of physics routinely flaunted, and a view of geopolitics that invents a villain everyone can be happy to hate. Which is sort of risible, when you think about it, but that’s Hollywood.
Scobie Malone, Terry Ohlsson (1975, Australia). Another Amazon Prime find. This is an odd Australian thriller based on a series of detective novels by Jon Cleary and set in Sydney. The film opens with the body of a woman found in a basement area of the Sydney Opera House. Detective Scobie Malone is given the case, and discovers the woman was involved with a senior politician. While Malone goes about interviewing the various suspects, and pissing everyone off, the film also shows the victim’s life in flashback. There’s not much to distinguish this film from other 1970s cop thrillers, other than its setting, and a pair of really really horrible songs… which doesn’t make it a dull film by any means. I’m not convinced Jack Thompson was especially good in the title role, although apparently several in the Australian film industry thought he was star material. He has certainly had a long and full career, but he was never the breakout he was expected to be. And watching Scobie Malone, it’s hard to wonder why anyone thought he might become an international superstar.
Never Too Young to Rock, Dennis Abey (1976, UK). There is some weird, and embarrassing, shit available on Amazon Prime. And make no mistake Never Too Young to Rock is a national embarrassment. True, it doesn’t feature Gary Glitter, another national embarrassment, and was made after The Glitter Band had split with him, but is there any genre of music more cringe-inducing than glam rock? Er, hair metal, possibly – but that was mostly US anyway. All of which probably makes no sense until you realise that The Glitter Band feature heavily in Never Too Young to Rock, as do Mud, The Rubettes and, er, Bob Kerr’s Whoopee Band (which included members of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band). At the time the film is set, popular music has been banned from television. So an eccentric bloke with a “rock detector van”, driven by Freddie Jones, travels about the country looking for the greatest rock bands for a televisual extravaganza. Quite how this ends up with Mud, The Glitter Band and The Rubettes is a mystery. They were never that big, even in 1976. And the music has not aged well. Although it has certainly aged better than the look. And much much better than the Glitter name. As 1970s UK musical oddities on film go – and the UK produced a number during the 1960s and 1970s – this is definitely bottom tier stuff.
I Vitelloni, Federico Felloni (1953, Italy). When it come to Fellini, I’ve always liked his more indulgent stuff more than his other films, and that includes the Neorealist films, which, to be fair, has never been a genre that’s appealed to me. And it’s that genre I Vitelloni reminded me of more than anything else. The film opens with a downpour interrupting a beauty contest, but it’s all about five twentysomething men in small town Italy, trying to survive in a country still suffering from the effects of the war. It’s much of a piece with other Italian films made during the period, and while it apparently re-invigorated Fellini’s career after an earlier flop, I didn’t find it as appealing as the aforementioned over-indulgent films like Satyricon or Casanova. One of for fans of Italian Neorealism more than fans of Fellini.
1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 935
Some long sought-after films here, and some random stuff that happened to catch my eye at the time. So to speak.
The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, Joseph Green (1962, USA). One of my favourite actresses of the 1950s is Virginia Leith, who made only a handful of films, and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is her last. She plays the fiancée of an arrogant surgeon who thinks he knows better than the entire medical profession. Of course. But then he’s in car crash and his girlfriend is killed, except he saves her head and keeps it alive in his lab at home. But she’s no good to him as a disembodied head, so he goes hunting for a suitable body for her, visiting a nightclub, and then an artist’s model. It’s not like the first time he’s done this, as there’s a monster he created behind a locked door in his laboratory, and his assistant lost an arm and he performed and arm transplant on him. Leith’s character, however, would sooner die, so she persuades the monster to attack her husband. Despite the schlock plot, and the B-movie sensibilities, this wasn’t as bad as I had expected. In fact, it reminded me of Sam Fuller’s films, it had that same sort of underbelly of society feel to it, although the scenes set in the lab with Leith’s head were an odd contrast. A superior B-movie.
Dykket, Tristan DeVere Cole (1989, Norway). One of my “enthusiasms” over the past few years has been deep sea diving, particularly deep sea habitats and saturation diving. But there aren’t that many films based around saturation diving, and the few that do use it in passing – Sphere, I’m looking at you – tend to get it laughably wrong. But Dykket, AKA The Dive, a Norwegian/British production, is actually about divers on a saturation dive. After four months at sea, a diving support ship with three divers aboard – one of whom is Michael Kitchen! – is due to return to port for a refit. But one of Scanoil’s (a stand-in for Norway’s Statoil) sea-bed valves nearby has been turned off by a trawler’s net. The divers are due to return by helicopter to dry land, but since it’s a “bounce dive”, ie, they won’t spend long enough on the sea-bottom at 100 metres (that’s 300 feet, approx, or 10 atmospheres) to require decompression, they decide to give it a try. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong. First, one of the divers is caught in the trawler net, then the bell gets tangled up. So they’re trapped, the ship is running out of gas, and the bell’s reserves have all but gone… The version of this I watched was unfortunately lacking subtitles, and about a third of the dialogue is in Norwegian. But I knew enough about saturation diving to follow what was going on. The underwater scenes are done well, although the incidental music throughout felt more like it belonged to a Euro soap opera than a feature film. But it wasn’t bad. I’m surprised it’s never been release on DVD, not even even in this country – given it stars Michael Kitchen.
Europa ‘51*, Roberto Rossellini (1952, Italy). Ingrid Bergman plays the wife of a wealthy man in post-war Italy. One night, during a dinner party, her young son, desperate for attention, tries to commit suicide by jumping down the apartment building’s stairwell. He ends up paralysed from the waist down. Unfortunately, he dies in hospital a few days later. Stricken by grief, Bergman gets involved with poor people, and helps them out, even taking one woman’s place in a factory for a day. But her husband objects to her activities, and has her consigned to a mental hospital, because when men don’t get what they want from their women they lock them up. The film was apparently inspired by the life of St Francis of Assisi, and Bergman certainly plays her role like a martyr. It’s an odd film, because it’s usually described as Neorealist, and for the first thirty or so minutes it doesn’t at all seem like one. But then Bergman does her ministering angel among the poor bit, many of whom are plainly non-professional actors, and it very much resembles an Italian Neorealist movie. Of the directors associated with the movement, I’ve never really been a big fan of Rossellini’s films, and there’s nothing here to persuade me otherwise, despite it being on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.
Sitcom, François Ozon (2000, France). Ozon’s films are readily available in the UK on DVD. Except this one. For some reason. There’s nothing in it I could see which would prohibit a sell-through release in the UK. And certainly nothing in it that is so unlike the rest of Ozon’s oeuvre it would preclude a release on that basis. The film concerns a family whose behaviour changes after the father brings home a lab rat as a pet. First, the son announces he is gay and completely changes his lifestyle. Then the daughter throws herself out of a window, is paralysed below the waist, and then begins exploring sado-masochism. The Spanish maid begins to act more like a member of the family than a paid servant, and her black husband, a sports teacher, starts sleeping with the gay son. The mother has sex with her son in order to “cure” him of his homosexuality. And the father eats the pet rat and turns into a giant rat. And, er, that’s it. I think the film is supposed to comment on the hermetic families which feature in US sitcoms, not to mention the anodyne humour and narrow-minded sensibilities. Unfortunately, the end result that comes across more like an exercise in trying to shock than any type of pointed commentary. And much of it is too silly to be taken seriously, anyway. I find Ozon a bit hit-and-miss, to be honest – I love some of his films, but others have struggled to keep my interest. This one falls in the latter camp.
The Shamer’s Daughter, Kenneth Krainz (2015, Denmark). The king of Dunark, his wife, youngest son and unborn child are found murdered. His oldest son, Nicodemus, is found drunk and covered in blood nearby. So the Master of Law calls in a shamer, a type of witch who can see everything of which a person is ashamed, but she can’t “see” evidence of Nicodemus’s, guilt. So they fetch her young daughter… who discovers that the son is innocent and his half-brother, Drakan, is the real culprit. So then Drakan seizes power, by throwing the Master of Law down a well – and no one thinks, well, if this is how he starts out, he’s not going to be a good ruler, is he? Of course not, this is fantasy. But the shamer’s daughter, and Nicodemus, manage to escape. The daughter is quickly caught, despite disguising herself as a boy. Because fantasy is all about the girls being rescued by the boys. Sigh. However, the Master of Arms begins to understand that Drakan is a bad sort, so he helps puts together a plot with Nicodemus to rescue the daughter and their mother as they’re thrown to the dragons. (despite being Danish, this film features mountains… and dragons.) The shamer’s daughter cannot get Drakan to admit his guilt – he’s not ashamed of murdering the king and his family – so she turns her gaze on the crowd, and gets them all to realise Drakan is a baddy. In the ensuing confusion, the good guys escape. Interestingly, though Nicodemus has Drakan under his sword at one point, and could end it all with one thrust, he chooses not to, and they all run away. To a nicer place, where the shamer and her daughter are reunited with the rest of their family. The world-building wasn’t bad, and the concept of shaming was a pretty good idea, but… Drakan was a pantomime villain, and it beggared belief that everyone would happily go along with his evil plans… and the title character had virtually no agency despite being the star of the story. Disappointing.
Blindfold, Philip Dunne (1966, USA). I could watch Rock Hudson in pretty much anything, but he pushes your level of tolerance sometimes. He made some outright weird stuff, and some stuff that seemed odd at the time but later turned into a classic, and some some thrillers that might have passed muster back then but really haven’t aged well. Like this one. Hudson’s performances are always watchable, and I now find him far better than Cary Grant, who seem to go from galumph to tea-bag tanned louche overnight in the mid-1950s. Hudson plays a psychiatrist who is recruited by the military to analyse a Soviet defector who refuses to talk. He is blindfolded and taken from New York to a house in the Louisiana swamps. Then someone else turns up and convinces him the general who recruited him is a fake, and he needs to rescue the defector. But Hudson has no idea where they’re keeping the defector because blindfold. It all gets a bit confusing, and ends up with Hudson on the run, with the female lead, Claudia Cardinale, a nightclub dancer, of course, and the sister of the defector… They’re chased through the Louisiana swamps at night, and even though it’s done in a studio, it’s quite effective. But this is a pretty ordinary mid-sixties thriller, and not even its stars can do much with the material. Disappointing.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 916
Managed to tick a few off the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list this time.
Down by Law*, Jim Jarmusch (1986, USA). I don’t get Jarmusch. I don’t get why his films are so highly regarded. A bit like Hartley, then. Both are US independent directors with substantial careers, and I have no idea why anything they’ve made appears on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Having said that, I can see why Down by Law might appeal to some. It stars Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni as three hapless convicts, all of whom have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. They manage to escape, andmake their way through a swamp, before stumbling across an isolated diner run by a young Italian woman. The film runs on the dynamics between the three leads, and it is, I admit, well-handled. The black-and-white photography also looks pretty good, and the soundtrack isn’t bad either. But the story is just a bit, well, tired. Three semi-lowlifes thrown together into a cell (well, Lurie’s character is a pimp, but the other two are a disc jockey and a tourist), and the rest of the story rests on the setting, New Orleans. It’s entertaining enough, but I’m not convinced it belongs on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.
Red Sorghum*, Zhang Yimou (1987, China). Jiu’er is given in marriage to a much older, and leprous, man who owns a sorghum farm and distillery. During the trip to the distillery a bandit attacks the wedding party, but is fought off by one of the sedan chair carriers. Later, on a visit to her parents, the man who killed the bandit abducts and rapes Jiu’er. On her arrival at the distillery, she discovers her husband has died under mysterious circumstances. She takes over the failing business and tries to make a go of it. But when her rapist re-appears, tries to claim her but is rebuffed, he responds by peeing in the jars of liquor. It turns out this actually improves the taste of the liquor, and the business flourishes. I’m not making this up. Years later, after Jiu’er has given birth to a son, the Japanese invade China, and eventually arrive in the region. They take the distillery workers prisoner, and force one of them to flay another alive. When he kills the prisoner instead, they get another distillery worker to skin him. The workers then set an ambush for the Japanese soldiers but it goes wrong. The story is narrated by Jiu’er’s grandson, who frames it as the history of his grandmother. I’m not sure the narration adds anything to the film, because it works pretty well without it. It’s beautifully shot, and looks absolutely gorgeous – something the West seemed to discover big time about Chinese historical and wu xia films after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Red Sorghum won a shedload of awards at film festivals around the world, although that year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film featured entries from Denmark, France, Spain, Italy and Norway – and was won by Denmark’s Babette’s Feast, which is, admittedly, excellent. In fact, a Chinese film wasn’t nominated until 1990, and that was also by Zhang Yimou. But, anyway, Red Sorghum, a good film, and it definitely belongs on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list.
The Dead*, John Huston (1987, UK). I couldn’t find a copy of this to rent anywhere, nor were there any for sale on Amazon. So I ended up buying one on eBay (admittedly for much cheapness), but I now see a seller on Amazon has apparently found a load somewhere… although, to be honest, I wasn’t all that taken with it. Huston was eighty when he directed this film, mostly from a wheelchair, and was on oxygen for much of the time. Certainly, The Dead is not your usual Huston film, although his age at the time is completely irrelevant. The Dead is based on a short story by James Joyce, and while I’ve not read the source text, the film at least possesses the virtues of beginning, middle and end. But, for all that, I wasn’t especially taken with it. It is set in Dublin in 1904 at a party on the Feast of the Epiphany hosted by three unmarried sisters. The great and good of their social circle turn up, eat, drink, dance, listen to recitals and genereally do the sort of things people did at posh parties in Ireland at that time. The story apparently focuses on the memories of Anjelica Huston’s character of an ex-lover, when quizzed by her husband on her sombre mood, but the film seems mostly interested in exploring the social dynamics of the people at the party. There’s no doubt it’s a well-made film, and there’s an economy of technique which evidences a long and illustrious career in cinema… but it’s a film that, for me, seems to mostly appeal to those who like the type of film it is – whether that’s drawing-room dramas or Jocycean adaptations. Not for me, I’m afraid.
Sergeant York*, Howard Hawks (1941, USA). The only copy of this I’d found was on Amazon Prime, but it wasn’t one of its free movies. I had to pay £3.49 to see it – for a “48 hour rental” – which was a bit steep, I thought. I have since learnt that new Hollywood blockbusters cost up to £9.99 to view by streaming. Oof. I get 12 rental DVDs a month for that. Anyway, Sergeant York is based on a true story. A Tennessee hillbilly volunteers to fight in WWI (not the 1917-1918 War, which is a really insulting way of referring to it), and becomes a war hero when he captures 132 Germans. I have a lot of time for the Silver Fox, he made some great films. But this is not one of them – despite being the only one for which Hawks was ever nominated for the best director Oscar. Gary Cooper is too old for the title role, and the scenes set on the Front clearly show Californian hills in the background. But. The scenes set in Tennesse are all studio sets, and they’re really fake and strange and quite weirdly beautiful. It’s all deeply unconvincing – but where that works against the film in the scenes set during WWI, it actually improves the scenes set in the valleys of Tennessee. There’s one particular scene where Cooper is trying to plough a patch of stony ground when the preacher appears and lectures him, pointing to a distant tree in illustration of the point he is making. And it’s like Hawks used tilt-shift on a bonsai tree, it looks so strange and unwordly and quite peculiarly lovely. Sadly, the story is hampered by an over-reliance on sterotypes, Cooper’s miscasting in the title role, and a failure to convince in either of the two chief worlds it presents. It was entertaining, and I’m really taken by some of the cinematography, but, to be honest, Hawks made better films, and the success of this one when it was released feels mostly a consequence of pro-war propaganda.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums*, Kenji Mizoguchi (1939, Japan). Mizoguchi is one of the big Japanese film names, like Ozu and Kurosawa, and while I’ve seen some of his films I’ve never really managed to work out what makes him distinctive. Admittedly, I’ve never really cottoned to Japanese historical films, and though I now find them more enjoyable than I once did, I’ve yet to figure out why, say, I enjoyed Floating Weeds (Ozu) but not Sansho Dayu (Mizoguchi). Of the four films I’ve now seen by Mizoguchi – and I suspect at some point I’ll watch more, whether or not they’re on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list – the one I liked best was Gion Bayashi, which I didn’t actually rent but came with Sansho Dayu as part of a double-DVD set. But The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums… The copy I saw, the Artificial Eye edition, was not an especially good transfer – no doubt due to the lack of a good print to transfer. The story concerns a man, the son of a famous Kabuki actor, who fails to meet his father’s expectations. After becoming involved with a wet nurse at his father’s house, the nurse is dismissed and the son leaves to make his own fortune elesewhere. The son tracks down the wet nurse, and the two live as husband and wife. But times are hard, and he turns nasty. Throughout, the son is presented with a stark choice several times: his wife or his career. When he chooses his wife, he turns bitter; when he chooses his career, his wife dies. It’s hardly a subtle dilemma, and though Mizoguchi wraps it all up in the traditions of Kabuki in the 1930s, this is not a film that treats its characters nicely or seeks to convince the viewer that people are intrinsically nice. It was interesting enough, although I’m doubtful as to the reason for its presence on 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list; but then I much prefer Ozu.
Criminal Lovers, François Ozon (1999, France). I don’t think there’s another director whose films are, for me, so widely variable in quality. Some of Ozon’s movies are bona fide classics, some are totally forgettable; but most are somewhere in between. Having thought about it, while considering what to write about Criminal Lovers, I’ve come to the conclusion that Ozon is most interesting when he’s not trying not be someone else. And in Criminal Lovers, I think, he was trying to be Lars von Trier. A young woman and a young man at a Lycée murder another pupil (an Arab), after the woman claims to her boyfriend she had been raped. They go on a crime spree, before eventually finding a wood some distance from their town in which to bury their victim’s body. But they get lost in the woods while returning to their car after burying the body, and stumble across the home of a poacher. He takes them prisoner, uses the young man for sex, and threatens to eat the pair of them. This is not a cheerful movie. If it fails, it’s because the villain never seems really menacing enough, the two leads never quite charismatic enough, and the cinematography nowhere near as lovely as that of von Trier’s Antichrist. It feels, in other words, like a second-string work from a director who has produced much better. To be fair, it’s an early work, and so I suppose it’s unfair to compare it with later films, but even so comparisons are inevitable. One for Ozon fans, I suspect.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 817
Nerds of a feather have been running a series of posts by its members on “books that shaped me”, and I wondered what books I’d choose myself for such a post. And I started out doing just that but then it stopped being a listicle and more of a narrative, so I just went with it…
These will not be recent books – or, at least, the bulk of them won’t be. Because while people’s attitudes, sensibilities and tastes evolve over the years, some of the books I read back when I was a young teen obviously had more of an impact on me than a book I read, say, last week. Some of the following have in part shaped my taste in fiction, while some have inspired and shaped my writing. Some I read because they seemed a natural progression in my reading, some were books I read because they covered a subject that interest me, some I read because they were out of my comfort zone and I felt I needed to broaden my horizons…
Early explorations in sf
I read my first actual science fiction novel around 1976. Prior to that I’d been reading Dr Who novelisations, but a lad in my class at school lent me a copy of Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones. After that, another boy lent me some EE ‘Doc’ Smith, the Lensman books, I seem to recall (and probably some Asimov, although I don’t actually remember which ones). But during my early years exploring the genre I cottoned onto three particular authors: AE Van Vogt, James Blish and Clifford Simak. And the first books by those authors I recall reading were The Universe Maker, Jack of Eagles and Why Call Them Back From Heaven?. Actually, I may have read The Voyage of the Space Beagle before The Universe Maker, but something about the latter appealed to me more. Sadly, no women writers. A few years later I started reading Cherryh and Tiptree (and yes, I’ve always known Tiptree was a woman), but I suspect my choices were more a matter of availability – Cherryh was pretty much ubiquitous in UK book shops during the early 1980s.
Growing up the sf way
I remember a lad in the year below me at school reading Dune – that would be in 1978, I think – and it looked interesting, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I read it for myself. And immediately loved it. These days, my thoughts on Dune are somewhat different – it’s not Frank Herbert’s best novel, it’s not even the best novel in the Dune series (and we won’t mention the execrable sequels by his son and Kevin J Anderson)… but what Dune is, is probably the best piece of world-building the science fiction genre has ever produced. And then there’s Dhalgren, which I still love and is probably the sf novel I’ve reread the most times. It wasn’t my first Delany, but it remains my favourite. I still see it as a beacon of literary sensibilities in science fiction. Another discovery of this period was John Varley, whose stories pushed a lot of my buttons. His The Barbie Murders remains a favourite collection, and the title story is still a favourite story. Around this time one of the most important books to come into my hands was The Complete Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy Lists by Malcolm Edwards and Maxim Jakubowski. It’s exactly what the title says – lists of sf and fantasy books and stories. But it was also a map to exploring the genre and, in an effort to find books and stories it mentioned, I started actively hunting down specific things I wanted to read. I was no longer browsing in WH Smith (back in the day when it was a major book seller) and grabbing something off the shelf that looked appealing. This was directed reading, and it’s pretty much how I’ve approached my reading ever since.
Explorations outside science fiction
The school I went to had a book shop that opened every Wednesday afternoon, and I bought loads of sf novels there (well, my parents bought them, as they were the ones paying the bills). But when I was on holiday, especially out in the Middle East, I was limited to reading what was available – which included the likes of Nelson De Mille, Eric Van Lustbader, Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran. I think it was my mother who’d been reading Sara Paretsky and it was from her I borrowed Guardian Angel, and so became a lifelong fan of Paretsky’s books. And after graduating from university and going to work in Abu Dhabi, the Daly Community Library, the subscription library I joined within a month or two of arriving, had I poor sf selection so I had to widen my reading. One of the books I borrowed was Anthony Burgess’s A Dead Man in Deptford, and that turned me into a fan of his writing (although, to be honest, while my admiration of his writing remains undimmed, I’m no longer so keen on his novels… although I still have most of them in first edition). I also borrowed Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet from the Daly Community Library, but had it take back before I’d even started it. So I bought paperbacks copies of the four books during a trip to Dubai, and subsequently fell in love with Durrell’s writing. So much so that I began collecting his works – and now I have pretty much everything he wrote. Perversely, his lush prose has stopped me from trying it for myself – possibly because I know I couldn’t pull it off. Much as I treasure Durrell’s prose, it’s not what I write… but his occasional simple turns of phrase I find inspiring. Finally, two non-fiction works which have helped define my taste in non-fiction. While I was in Abu Dhabi, I borrowed Milton O Thompson’s At the Edge of Space from the Abu Dhabi Men’s College library. It’s a dry recitation of the various flights flown by the North American X-15 – and yes, I now own my own copy – but I found it fascinating. It wasn’t, however, until I read Andrew Smith’s Moondust, in which he tracks down and interviews the surviving nine people who walked on the Moon, that I really started collecting books about the Space Race. And then I decided it would be interesting to write fiction about it…
Ingredients for a writing life
When I originally started writing sf short stories, they were pretty well, er, generic. I’d read plenty of short fiction, and so I turned what I thought were neat ideas into neat little stories. None of them sold. So I spent several years having a bash at novels – A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders are products of those years, as well as a couple of trunk novels – and didn’t return to writing short fiction until 2008. It took a few goes before I found the kind of short fiction that worked for me, but it wasn’t until I wrote ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’ (see here) that I realised I’d found a, er, space I wanted to explore further in ficiton. I’d been partly inspired by Jed Mercurio’s Ascent, because its obsessive attention to detail really appealed to me – and when I started working on Adrift on the Sea of Rains, I wanted it to be like that. But I’d also read some Cormac McCarthy – The Road and All The Pretty Horses – and that gave me a handle for the prose style. I’ve jokingly referred to Adrift on the Sea of Rains as “Cormac McCarthy on the Moon” but that was always in my mind while I was writing it. And for the flashback sequences, I wanted a more discursive and roundabout style, so I turned to a book I’d recently read, Austerlitz by WG Sebald, and used that as my inspiration. And finally, there’s a point in astronaut Thomas Stafford’s autobiography, We Have Capture, in which he discusses the deaths of the three cosmonauts in the Soyuz 11 mission – Georgy Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev – and he mentions the 19 turns needed to manually close the valve which evacuated the air from their spacecraft, and that figure became sort of emblematic of my approach to writing Adrift on the Sea of Rains. It’s odd DNA for a science fiction novella – Stafford, Mercurio, McCarthy and Sebald – but there you go…
The next two books of the Apollo Quartet were driven by the their plots, inasmuch as their inspirations were plot-related, and the only books which fed into them were the books I read for research. But I should definitely mention Malcolm Lowry, who I’d started reading around the time I launched Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and the titles of some of his books – Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid – inspired the titles of books two and three of the Apollo Quartet. But when it comes to book four, All That Outer Space Allows, well, obviously, Sirk’s movie All That Heaven Allows was a major influence, but so too was Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which showed me that breaking the fourth wall was a really interesting narrative technique to explore. But there’s also Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, which inspired the whole breaking the fourth wall thing in the first place, and which led to me using art house films as inspiration for short stories, so that ‘Red Desert’ in Dreams of the Space Age and Space – Houston We Have A Problem was inspired by François Ozon’s Under the Sand, and I’m currently working on a story inspired by Lars von Trier’s Melancholia titled, er, ‘Melancholia’, and in which I take great pleasure in destroying the Earth.
Reading for pleasure
Despite all that above, there are authors whose works I read purely because I enjoy doing so. It’s true there might be a bit of DH Lawrence in All That Outer Space Allows, but if I had to pick a favourite Lawrence novel out of those I’ve read I’d be hard pressed to do so. I’ve mentioned Lowry already – for him, the one work I treasure is his novella ‘Through the Panama’ which appears in his collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. And with Karen Blixen, AKA Isak Dinesen, a new discovery for me and becoming a favourite, it’s her novella ‘Tempest’. But I don’t think she’s going to influence my writing much. Neither do I think the writings of Helen Simpson or Marilynne Robinson will do so either, although Simpson has paddled in genre. And much as I admire the writings of Gwyneth Jones, Paul Park and DG Compton, their writing is so unlike my own, their books are just a pure reading pleasure. Jenny Erpenbeck, on the other hand, I think might influence my writing, as I love her distant tone. And while I love the deep personal focus of Hanan al-Shaykh’s novels, she’s reading for pleasure.
To some extent, I think, I treat books like movies. There are the disposable ones – commercial sf, in other words; and you can find many examples on the SF Masterwork list, which is more a reflection on the genre as a whole than it is on the SF Masterwork list. But I much prefer movies from other cultures, and while science fiction scratched that itch to some extent, even though its cultures were invented… the level of such invention wasn’t especially deep – and if I get more of a sense of estrangment out of a novel by Erpenbeck, a German woman, than I do from any random US sf writer, I see that as more a flaw of the genre than of its practitioners. Happily, things are changing, and a wider spectrum of voices are being heard in genre fiction. Not all of them will appeal to me, not all of them will earn my admiration. But I wholeheartedly support the fact of their existence. I do enjoy reading books like that but in the past I’ve had to read mainstream fiction – Mariama Bâ, Abdelrahman Munif, Magda Szabó, Elfriede Jelineck, Leila Aboulela, Chyngyz Aitmatov… as well as those mentioned previously. These are the books and movies which join my collection, and for which I am forever struggling to find shelf space.
I was under the impression I’d knocked a few more off the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list recently, but apparently not. Two of the directors in this post I’m a fan of, and one of them I’m becoming a fan of…
I Want to Live!, Robert Wise (1958, USA). Not only was this film based on a real-life murder case, but the movie makes a right meal of its origin, opening with a screen of text that insists how true it is – it’s even signed by the journalist who broke the story in the first place. So it’s a little off-putting to then learn that the story takes some major liberties with the truth. Like presenting the central character as innocent when she was actually guilty. Bah, Hollywood. The story goes as follows: Barbara Graham is a habitual criminal, whose marriage to a drug addict proves the last straw… so she leaves him and joins up with his associates, only to be arrested for the murder they had committed of a rich old woman, Graham is sentenced to death and then executed. The film presents Graham as a pawn in the actual murderers’ plot to commute their death sentences to life. But in reality, she was just as guilty. Susan Hayward plays Graham in an Osar-winning turn, but when all’s said and done I Want to Live! is a boringly ordinary moral drama. Samuel Fuller did it much better in both Shock Corridor (see here) and The Naked Kiss (see here), on a lower budget and without an Oscar-bait star. Meh.
Sunset Song, Terence Davies (2015, UK). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime, and having been impressed by Davies’s Distant Voices, Still Lives (although I thought the film much older than it was), I decided to give this one a go. It took several goes. It is grim. Majorly grim. Scottish grim. Beautifully shot, but as grim as the grimmest thing in a list of grim things. It looks beautiful – far too beautiful for Scotland, it seems, as part of it was shot in New Zealand. It’s based on a classic Scottish novel by Lewis Gibbon of the same title, and tells the story of a young woman, and farmer’s daughter, in the years up to and including the First World War. Peter Mullan plays family patriarch, and he’s a nasty piece of work. I’m tempted to say it’s like DH Lawrence but with the boinking taken out, but that’s the not the only thing missing. Lawrence was hardly an optimist but his novels are generally more cheerful than Sunset Song. When it wasn’t people growling at each other in Scottish accents, they were either shouting or wailing. It made for a gruelling viewing experience. I think this is a good film, and really quite beautifully shot at times, but its unremitting grimness made it difficult viewing, and some times your appetite for punishment is not quite as high as at other times. You need to be in the right mood to watch this. Recommended, but with caveats.
Kagaaz Ke Phool, Guru Dutt (1959, India). Exploring Bollywood films has been fun, but most of those I’ve seen have been pretty forgettable. A good night’s entertainment, but basically just a Hollywood family blockbuster turned up to eleven. With singing and dancing. So Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa came as something of a surprise… although now I’ve seen him described as “India’s Orson Welles”, his films begin to make more sense. They are clever and well-shot, and make excellent use of Bollywood conventions to tell a story that doesn’t really map onto Bollywood story templates. And this is just as true of Kagaaz Ke Phool, Dutt’s last film. Annoyingly, there don’t seem to be any good transfers of his films – you’d think he’d be a director ripe for a set of remastered editions by Criterion or the BFI (for one thing, he only directed eight films, between 1951 and 1959). Given the lovely job the BFI has done for Dreyer, I’d like to see them do the same for Dutt. And I say that having seen only two of his films. In Kagaaz Ke Phool, Dutt plays a Bollywood director whose career is declining. His wife and her family have always seen his career as beneath them, and he now has no access to his daughter. While secretly visiting his daughter at her boarding school, Dutt bumps into a young woman and gives her his coat to protect her from the rain. Later, she visits his studio to return the coat and he realises she has star quality. She becomes a big Bollywood star, and romantically attached to Dutt; but the daughter would sooner her mother and father got back together again, so the star gives up her career and becomes a teacher in a village. This is well-made stuff, and while it feels somewhat back-handed, and not a little insulting, to describe Dutt as “India’s Orson Welles”, it is a label that fits. After watching Pyaasa, I decided to buy this – and despite being disappointed at the quality of the transfer, I think I’ll be buying more of Dutt’s film. But can the BFI please step up and remaster them all, please?
Going My Way, Leo McCarey (1944, USA). This was the biggest grossing film of its year, and was nominated for ten Oscars, winning seven of them, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. And yet it’s not on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before you Die list. Strange. Or, at least, I thought so… But now that I’ve seen it… It’s, well, it’s sentimental tosh. Bing Crosby plays a young priest sent to the New York parish of St Dominic’s to get it sorted out. The incumbent is old, the church is mortgaged, and both need fresh new management. Which is what Bing does. And he sings too. He turns the local boys’ gang into a choir, sorts out a young woman who has left home, and generally spreads common sense and happiness with his trademark smile and “ba ba ba bum”. He also tries to raise money for the church by selling one of the songs he’s written – performed by an old friend who is now an opera diva. The music publisher doesn’t like the song, but when Bing and choir start singing ‘Swing on a Star’, he likes that one. There’s a relentless cheeriness to Going My Way that fails to offset the schamltzy plot and awful songs. I can perhaps see how in wartime it proved so popular, but its charm has long since dissipated. True, Oscar-winner Barry Fitzgerald isn’t bad as old Father Fitzgibbon, even if his character is a total stereotype. I’ve no idea why I stuck this on my rental list. Meh.
The Boss of It All, Lars von Trier (2006, Denmark). There’s nothing especially original about the plot of this film – it is, I guess, a variation on La cage aux folles. Or maybe something else. A man wants to sell his successful IT firm, but for the ten years it’s been in operation he’s pretended he’s not the actual boss. So he hires a friend actor to play “the boss of it all” in negotiations with the Icelandic buyers of the company. And, subsequently, with the employees. Of course, it gets very complicated, very quickly. It doesn’t help that the actor is a bit of a twit, and completely out of his depth. But von Trier does an excellent job of characterising his cast – in fact, in many respects The Boss of It All is a masterclass in small-cast drama. But that’s not good enough for von Trier, so he decides to present the movie explicitly as a piece of cinematic comedy, by introducing it in voice-over, explaining its aims, and even some of its story elements. The end-result is a post-modern cinematic approach to a post-modern story. I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to like it – but like most von Trier films, it ends up making you wonder: is this rubbish… or genius? And the fact he can elicit that response makes me tend toward the latter. Von Trier is experimenting with the medium, and that should be celebrated. If not every experiment is successful, that doesn’t invalidate the attempt… And it still makes him a damn sight more interesting a director than most of the other directors on this planet.
In the House, François Ozon (2012, France). The near-sociopathic inveigling of a person into another family in this film reminds me of another movie, but I’ve yet to figure out which. Probably because the details are different enough to make comparison difficult. Anyway, I like Ozon’s films – well, I’ve not liked or admired every film he’s made, but I admire him as a director and he’s built up an inpressive oeuvre. In the House is one of the better ones, if not an especially characteristically Ozon film – this is not 8 femmes or Angel or Ricky; but perhaps it’s not so far from 5 x 2 or Jeune et jolie. Perhaps that variety is as much an Ozon trademark as the sensibility which created 8 femmes, Potiche or Le refuge… Whatever; Ozon is certainly one of my favourite directors, so I’m always keen to see his latest. In the House is one of his domestic thrillers, played straight, but with that unsettling edge he does so well. A pupil at a school writes an essay about his weekend for an assignment, and in it describes how he befriended a fellow pupil, went to his house to tutor him in maths, and so ingratiated himself in to the family. The essay ends “à suivre”. The teacher is a failed writer (one novel twenty years ago, nothing since), and encourages the pupil to continue his “story”… And so the pupil becomes more and more involved with the family… until it all goes horribly wrong. A good and unsettling film, with some good performances. Worth seeing.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 773
Continuing the, er, continuing series of blog posts on my movie-watching. Once againm a nother varied selection, not all of which were from the list.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre*, Tobe Hooper (1974, USA). Not a film I’d normally choose to watch, but it was on the list so… And no, I don’t know why it made the list. I don’t know enough about horror films to know if The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was seminal or heralded a sea change in the genre or anything like that. I can only judge it as the movie I watched. And in that respect, it did not fare well. It looked cheap – not necessarily a bad thing, it has to be said, as cheap and amateurish is what drove the whole found-footage craze of the late nineties, and, in most cases, it actually worked quite well (more so, it must be said, for the earlier films, such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, than for Hollywood’s jumps on the bandwagon like Cloverfield). But, anyway. Young hippies travelling across the US run into a bunch of psychotic freaks living in a farmhouse, murderous mayhem ensues. Involving chainsaws. Not being a fan of the genre, I saw nothing to admire or like in this film. I suspect fans of the genre would be hard-pressed too – other than perhaps its position in the history of horror films. Still, at least I can say I’ve now seen it and so can cross it off the list.
Les Girls, George Cukor (1957, USA). Three dancers accompany Gene Kelly (well, his character) on a tour of Europe: a Brit, an American and a French woman. The Brit later marries a member of the aristocracy and writes a kiss-and-tell memoir of the tour. The other two sue her because some of the details are less than accurate. So what we get is the same story, more or less, told from the point of view of the characters played by Kay Kendall, Mitzi Gaynor and Taina Elg, none of which actually agree. This film is, by most accounts, minor Cukor, although it boasts a score by Cole Porter and choreography by Jack Cole. This is a shame. The slightly unusual structure actually adds interest to a relatively straightforward story. The leads are all on top form – especially Kendall – and the musical numbers are quite good, as are the costumes. I’m surprised this film is not better known – I certainly enjoyed it more than, say, Guys and Dolls, which appeared only two years earlier.
The Tree Of Wooden Clogs*, Ermanno Olmi (1978, Italy). If I had to choose a list of favourite film genres – although perhaps “movements” would be a better word – then Italian Neorealism would be somewhere in the top ten, and likely higher than France’s Nouvelle Vague. But this is a film that really strains my liking for that genre. It is, on paper, a movie that should appeal – the life of a peasant family in 1898 in the province of Bergamo, a communist tries to drum up support but is ignored, a young couple are married, and a family is booted from their tenancy by their landlord. Life was brutish and short, although not for those who lived off the labour of the peasantry – a situation the current political class seem determined to return to – and this film simply documents it in a way which cannot fail to garner the viewers’ sympathy. Despite all that, The Tree Of Wooden Clogs was a bit of a, er, slog. It wasn’t that it was slow-paced, as I quite like “slow cinema”, nor that it was unremittingly bleak – I seem to be more tuned to that than I am to mindless optimism, anyway – but that the film seemed to lack focus or movement. I’ll try some more Olmi, but this is supposed to be his masterpiece.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis*, Vittorio de Sica (1970, Italy). And speaking of Italian Neorealism, de Sica was a leading director in the movement but The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is not a movie that qualifies as one (and no, I don’t know why the Arrow DVD cover singularises the family and removes their hyphen). It’s based on a novel by Giorgio Bassani, about a wealthy Jewish family who become victims of the Nazis. It opens in the 1930s, with a group of bright young things, some Jewish, some not, who meet in the titular locale to play tennis and be idle rich (although not all are rich). The film follows Giorgio, a middle-class Jew, who is friends – but hopes to be closer – with the Finzi-Contini daughter. But she has an affair with a man she admits she despises, and then leaves to stay with relatives in Venice. When she eventually returns, most of the Jews of the town have been sent to the death camps by the Nazis. Only the fate of the Gentile characters is shown. While it would be unfair to say the upper classes routinely collaborated with the Nazis, many of them did just that, partly because they shared their views but also as a means of protecting themselves (as if they deserved it…). Not that it was always successful. As The Garden of the Finzi-Continis shows. I much preferred this film to The Tree Of Wooden Clogs, for all that it was an historical drama set during a period for whch the entire human race should be ashamed, and not Italian Neorealism.
The New Girlfriend, François Ozon (2014, France). I admire Ozon as a director, although I’ve not liked or admired every film he has made. Nonetheless, when a new one is released, I stick it on the rental list. Although, for some reason, I actually bought this one on DVD. I hadn’t realised it was an adaptation of a Ruth Rendell short story of the same title, which I read many years ago in a collection, also of the same title. But once I’d spotted that, I also realised that Ozon’s script doesn’t follow Rendell’s story all that faithfully. The basic premise is the same – a woman enters into a relationship with a man who is a transvestite. But from what I remember, the original story ends badly, whereas the film gives us a relatively happy ending. In pretty much all other respects, this is a typical Ozon film – it’s colourful, although not quite saturated, the characters are handled sensitively, and there is a plenty of wit in the script. I can’t say it’s my favourite Ozon, but it’s definitely one of his better ones.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 709
I was looking at my film-watching records – yes, I have a spreadsheet of which films I’ve watched, and when – and I noticed in 2013 I watched on average around 16 DVDs a month. Last year, that almost doubled to 30 DVDs a month. This year, I expect it will be much higher. I have yet to figure out why…
Darling, John Schlesinger (1965, UK). Julie Christie plays a model in Swinging Sixties London, with a nice but dim husband at home, who has various affairs before eventually marrying an Italian count who proves mostly uninterested in her once they’ve tied the knot. The parallels with Grace Kelly’s life are left there for the the viewer to spot. Dirk Bogarde plays Christie’s manager, and he also has an affair with her. Mostly, however, the film is an acid commentary on the more affluent sectors of London society – an expensive dinner to raise money for famine victims, for example; and, oh look, things like that still happen, it’s as if the notion is irony-free, although of course Darling deliberately plays on it. The film starts a little slow, but Christie is good in her role, and things start to pick up as the career of Christie’s character does. A hippie party in Paris is quite amusing, if a little broad in its humour. I stuck the film on my rental list on a whim, and it proved to be a good call.
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort*, Jacques Demy (1967, France). Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg is a much better-known, and better-regarded, film than this but, to be honest, I enjoyed this one much more. The title to refers to a pair of sisters, played by real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, who are looking for love in the eponymous town. A fair comes to Rochefort, one of the exhibitors at which is led by George Chakiris and Grover Dale. When their female stars abscond, they recruit Deneuve and Dorléac. Meanwhile, the sisters’ mother runs a café in the town square and pines for a lost love… who has actually returned to the town after many years and is helping Dorléac with her music (and also promises to introduce her to a famous friend of his, played by Gene Kelly). And then there’s the sailor who’s about to be demobbed, who’s friends with the sisters and their mother. Unlike The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg, the dialogue is not entirely sung – which may be one reason I much preferred this film – but they do break into song pretty much every five minutes. And then there are the big dance numbers. It’s a musical, but it doesn’t really feel like one. Which may be one reason for its charm. After watching this film, yes, I’d like to see more Demy. Again.
James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge, John Bruno, Ray Quint & Andrew Wight (2014, USA). I had to order this from the US as it’s yet to be released in the UK. And on Blu-ray too – in fact, wanting this documentary is one of the reasons I purchased a multi-region Blu-ray player. Anyway, I’ve been fascinated with the bathyscaphe Trieste’s 1960 descent to Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the oceans, for several years. I wrote a story set in Challenger Deep, and it was published in Where Are We Going?, an anthology from Eibonvale Press; and I used the Trieste in the third book of my Apollo Quartet, Then Will The Great Wash Deep Above. No one else had visited Challenger Deep – 7.5 miles down, where the pressure is 7 tons per square inch – since 1960s… until 2012, when film director James Cameron did it in the specially-built submersible Deepsea Challenger. This is the film of that expedition. It also includes a re-enactment of the Trieste dive. It’s a polished, well-presented documentary, and I found it fascinating. There is, it must be said, very little to be seen on the ocean floor at Challenger Deep, but Cameron and his directors make a very watchable film out of it. If there’s one downside it’s that we’ll have to put up with an Avatar 2 so that Cameron has the money to make another documentary like this…
Save and Protect, Aleksander Sokurov (1989, Russia). This was a rewatch as I first watched Save and Protect shortly after getting The Alexander Sokurov Collection box set for Christmas. I remember it being very slow and somwhat impenetrable. I have now watched it again. More than once. It’s loosely based on the life of Madame Bovary (and no, I didn’t discover the following morning I’d gone and ordered a copy of the book), but only in as much as it presents the sexual freedom of the title character as the foremost aspect of her character. What makes Save and Protect interesting, however, is Sokurov’s deliberate flouting of the fact it’s a period drama. Some of the cast wear more modern clothing, a car even makes an appearance later. This breaking from the carefully-constructed historical world in which the story is set is neither intrusive, nor does it necessarily break the suspension of disbelief the medium relies upon. In fact, it’s very similar in effect to Haneke’s breaking of the fourth wall in Funny Games. The lead role in Save and Protect – ie, Emma, although never named as such – is played by French ethno-linguist Cécile Zervoudacki, who brings a remarkable earthiness to the part (Sokurov likes using non-professional actors, mostly to good effect). According to The Cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of Paradox, “Save and Protect has never been intended as an enjoyable cinematic experience, except perhaps in the frame of masochistic self-infliction” (p 85), which I think is a bit harsh. The book does describe the film is a work of art, and perhaps it is in some respects Sokurov’s least successful movie; but to me this is only further evidence that what Sokurov is doing in cinema is both fascinating and hugely important.
The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2013, France/Canada). Delicatessen remains one of my favourite films, and I’ve always rued Caro and Jeunet going their separate ways since neither has produced anything individually as good as the work they did together. Jeunet has been the more successful, of course, with a string of well-received movies, such as Amelie, A Very Long Engagement , Micmacs, and now The Young and Prodigious TS Spivet. Which is plainly a Jeunet film through and through. The title character is a young boy who’s a genius and an inventor. He lives on a farm in Montana, with an entomologist mother (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) and a taciturn cowboy father (a badly miscast Callum Keith Rennie). Young TS Spivet wins the Baird Prize, awarded by the Smithsonian Institute, for his design for a perpetual motion machine, but he had neglected to tell them his age. Nonetheless, he decides to attend the prize-giving ceremony in Washington. So he runs away from home and travels across the US and… Jeunet does whimsy with a master’s eye. But I do find it somewhat thin an ingredient on which to hang an entire movie. There’s only so much CGI-enhanced scenery you can take in, so much borderline slapstick, so many characters bent out of shape until they’re grotesques… Not a bad film for a Saturday night and a bottle of wine, but I’m glad it was a rental and not a purchase.
The Thief of Bagdad*, Raoul Walsh (1924, USA). Douglas Fairbanks plays the title role in this Arabian Nights-style silent movie. By my calculation, he was forty when the movie was made, but he plays the title role like a teenager, with lots of gurning at the camera, throwing his arms wide, and standing with his hands on his hips, his waxed chest pushed out. It’s almost a parody of silent movie acting. And somewhat off-putting. Otherwise, the film is a classic of its time, with some clever special effects and a story which, although somewhat long, manages an enviable pace. The production design, however, is… odd. While the sets did sort of resemble an Arabic city of the Caliphate era, the various pieces of writing on the sets were gibberish, not Arabic letters at all. It seemed to me like a weird mistake to make – to go all that trouble to create a believable Arabian Nights setting, and then not bother using an actual real alphabet. Ah well.
Jeune & Jolie, François Ozon (2013, France). I’m a fan of Ozon’s films, although I do find him a bit hit and miss. I loved Angel, I thought Under The Sand very good indeed, and his film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s unfilmed script, Water Drops On Burning Rocks, was close to inspired. There are a few duff movies in his oeuvre, but it’s a generally excellent body of work; and he’s certainly a director whose career I follow. So I had reasonably high expectations of Jeune & Jolie, but… what a cold film. A teenage girl conspires to lose her virginity while on a family holiday, and on their return to Paris becomes an call girl, having sex with older men for money. Marine Vacth (who was twenty-two at the time of filming) plays the lead character with a quite disturbing lack of affect. When one of her clients dies in flagrante delicto, she briefly panics, tries to give him CPR, then runs away. But the police track her down – which is how her parents come to learn of her activities. Despite all this, she seems mostly unconcerned at what happened, or indeed at being caught. Not a pleasant film, though clearly it wasn’t intended to be. In some respect, it felt a bit like something from Haneke, but missing his signature oblique eye.
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.
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…
It’s been just under a month since the last one of these, and that one proved to be a somewhat humungous post. So I thought I’d try for a more bite-sized installment this month. Sort of. Anyway, you know the drill: the books wot I have read, the films wot I have watched. Comments thereon.
Books SS-GB, Len Deighton (1978), is perhaps the classic “Hitler won” alternate history, although it’s by no means the first. A Scotland Yard detective, now working under the aegis of the SS in an occupied Britain, is dragged into several intersecting plots when he investigates the murder of an unknown man in a small flat in London. It’s all tied in with the British resistance’s plan to smuggle the imprisoned King George VI out of the country, the fierce – and often violent – rivalry between the SS and the Wehrmacht, and the Wehrmacht’s secret atom bomb being built by British scientists. Archer, the detective, is a bit of a cipher, and, in fact, much of the cast are blanks. That Deighton has done his research is obvious from the first page, and he paints a convincing portrait of a UK under the Nazis. The writing, sadly, is pretty poor. I’ve read Deighton’s Harry Palmer novels, and his Game, Set and Match and Faith, Hope and Charity trilogies, and I don’t remember his writing being this inept and clumsy. Still, I’m glad I read it, and it can go back to the charity shop now. Incidentally, I wonder if choosing a photo of Hitler in such a camp pose for the cover was a wise decision: his depredations are not something we should make light of, or forget.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2011), is the latest installment in Moore’s slow progress back up his own bumhole. Actually, this one is slightly better than the previous two. The League are now in England Swings territory, and an acolyte of Aleister Crowley, but with very real powers, is trying to bring about the creation of an Antichrist. This will take place during a free concert in Hyde Park. There’s some nice touches, and plenty of in-jokes, but I’m starting to wonder where this series is heading and whether it’s going to be worth it when it gets there.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec 1, Jacques Tardi (2010), I picked up after enjoying Tardi’s The Arctic Marauder. It has apparently been made into a film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, master of Gallic surgary whimsy, and starring Audrey Tatou. And yet there’s little that’s whimsical about the two stories in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec 1. In the first, a pterodactyl is terrorising Paris, and Adèle uses it as cover to help solve an entirely different crime. Which is sort of linked. The final scene, in which a villain turns up and explains the plot, only to be gazumped by another villain who explains another more-encompassing plot, who is then gazumped by another, is completely bonkers. The second story is more traditional: a demon is terrorising Paris, and Adèle tracks it down to a group of cultists associated with a local theatre. If it hadn’t been for that pesky Adele… Fun. And I’ve already ordered another one of Tardi’s graphic novels.
Daily Voices (Author’s Choice Monthly #3), Lisa Goldstein (1989). Back in the late 1980s, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith published twenty-nine collections, each contain no more than half a dozen short stories, by twenty-nine different genre authors. Each book was published in three editions: a trade paperback, a signed and numbered jacketed hardback, and a signed and lettered leather hardback. The stories were mostly reprints. This volume, the third in the series, contains five stories, all originally published in Asimov’s. One, ‘Tourists’, inspired a novel of the same title. These are literary stories, deceptively fantastical, and unsettling. ‘Tourists’ is a case in point: part Hav, part The City & The City (though contemporary with one and predating the other). Nothing especially jumped out at me in this collection, though they are stories it is easy to admire.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang (2010), won this year’s Hugo for Best Novella. Which is hardly a surprise. The only time Chiang doesn’t win is when he withdraws his work. And certainly he’s produced an enviably high-quality body of work over the years. Unfortunately, while The Lifecycle of Software Objects is as well-written as you’d expect from Chiang, it’s also a little dull and doesn’t go anywhere very interesting. A startup produces a new range of heuristic software lifeforms, “digients”, but the amount of work required by customers to parent them proves the company’s undoing. But a handful of people, emotionally attached to their digients as if they were real children, continue to nurture this new form of life. It’s a neat idea, but it does feel in places a little like Chiang wasn’t entirely sure where to take his idea. It’s like someone had invented the cat and had no idea what it was good for. Except the concept of a “better mousetrap” doesn’t appear to have occurred to Chiang. Disappointing, though only because Chiang sets his own bar so high.
Gravity Dreams, Stephen Baxter (2011), is another brick in the great wall that is Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence. In fact, Gravity Dreams brings the sequence full circle as it’s tied into Baxter’s first novel Raft (and the PS novella includes the short story on which Raft was based). Gravity Dreams is a very… expositionary type of story. A man in the unimaginably distant future experiences strange lucid dreams, which prove to be contact with a device in the universe of Raft (where the universal gravitic constant is considerably higher). The people of that universe, and the tech which the dreamer embodies, could prove of use in the ongoing war against the Xeelee. As a whole, the Xeelee Sequence is quite an achievement, certainly greater than the sum of its parts. Which, unfortunately, has the logical consequence that individual parts may not be as exciting, or as interesting, as the whole suggests. I enjoy reading hand-wavey magical cosmological-type hard sf, but not as much as I like reading nuts & bolts engineering-type hard sf.
Red Plenty, Francis Spufford (2010), appeared on the non-fiction short list for the BSFA Award this year, though it lost out to a series of blog posts on the Hugo novel shortlist by Paul Kincaid. I’ll admit I had somewhere picked up an entirely erroneous impression of Red Plenty. I knew that it was non-fiction told as if it were fiction – dramatisations, if you will, of the life of ordinary Russians during the years of the USSR. But I’d also got the impression from somewhere – perhaps by the use of the word “science fiction” to describe it some place – that it also extrapolated the great Soviet experiment into later decades, as if perestroika and glasnost had never happened. That isn’t the case. Red Plenty ends in 1968. Nor did it affect my enjoyment: I thought the book excellent. Red Plenty follows the lives of a handful of peoples – some real, some invented – through the first half-century of the USSR. There’s a very real sense of utopia in the book, and it is sad to see how it is slowly corrupted. The USSR was one of history’s two great attempts to create a utopian society and, like the other one, Islam, its ideals didn’t last much beyond the first generation. All too often people forget what the USSR was trying to achieve. That it failed doesn’t invalidate the experiment, or its objectives.
Debris, Jo Anderton (2011), I read for review for Interzone. “File under science fiction” it says on the back cover, but I’m not convinced…
Snakehead, Ann Halam (2007), is Gwyneth Jones’ last novel as Halam, although apparently a new one – a sequel to Dr Franklin’s Island – will be published next year in the US. Snakehead is a retelling of the Perseus and Andromeda story from Ancient Greece. But slightly different. In the myth, Perseus first meets Andromeda when he returns from slaying Medusa, but in Snakehead Andromeda has run away from home and is taken in by Perseus and his mother Danaë. Much of the novel concerns Perseus’ life, and Andromeda’s introduction to it, on the island of Seriphos. The killing of the Gorgon occupies only a chapter or two towards the end of the book. There is a lovely matter-of-factness about the way the story is presented, the way its strangenesses are streamlined into the narrative. Also good is Perseus’ meeting with his father, Zeus, which reads like pure science fiction. Halam’s novels have always been extremely strong – I’d argue her Inland trilogy is better than Le Guin’s Earthsea books – but may have suffered from their variety. YA book series sell by the boatload, but Halam’s novels have been (mostly) singletons. As an adult reader, that variety is part of their appeal – when else am I going to read a novel treatment of the Perseus myth, for example? – but it may have hampered their success.
The Old Funny Stuff (Author’s Choice Monthly 1), George Alec Effinger (1989), is a collection of short stories from the early 1980s. The collection takes its title from a complaint by a fan of Effinger, who preferred the writer’s comic tales to the ersatz cyberpunk of When Gravity Fails. I vaguely recall enjoying the latter, but I didn’t enjoy any of the stories in The Old Funny Stuff. One story is set in the editorial offices of a genre magazine and reads like it was written in the 1930s. Another story has a mugged couple “assisted” by a variety of fictional detectives and vigilantes… yet all those characters are from the 1940s and earlier, though the story does mention an ATM. ‘Mars Needs Beatniks’ at least successfully pastiches Beat prose, but is unfortunately quite dull. An eminently forgettable collection, but mercifully short.
A Quiet Flame, Philip Kerr (2008), is the fifth Bernie Gunther, featuring the Berlin-based private investigator from Nazi Germany. The One from the Other, the first post-war novel, ended with Gunther on a boat to South America in the company of an ex-Panzer captain and Adolph Eichmann. Though not a Nazi himself, a case of stolen identity had resulted in Europe being a bit too hot for Gunther and so now he’s pretending to be someone else. The trio arrive in Argentina, and Gunther is taken to meet Juan Perón. At which point he confesses his true identity. But that’s fine, because the head of the secret police remembers, and admired, him back when Gunther was a detective for the Berlin police force, and there just happens to have been a recent murder in Buenos Aires which resembles a pair of unsolved murders Gunther had investigated just before Hitler seized power and Gunther left the police. The inference, of course, is that the murderer is a Nazi war criminal who is hiding out in Argentine with all the other Nazis. A Quiet Flame follows Gunther’s investigation into this murder, which soon spirals into an entirely different case, but is eventually resolved, and Gunther’s time in Berlin in the 1930s when the Weimar Republic was booted out of power by the Nazis. An afterword makes it clear that the plot of the novel, while invented, is based on either true events, or plausibly extrapolated ones. It’s one of those books that both makes you angry such things were ever permitted to happen and scared that there are people who would not think twice about doing such things. I thought it so good I moved the next book in the series, If the Dead Rise Not, up the TBR pile.
The Coming of the Terrans, Leigh Brackett (1967), is a pretty clumsy fix-up. Half a dozen of Brackett’s Mars stories have had dates stuck on them, and then placed in order as if they were part of a coherent future history. But ignore all that, because the stories in this collection are excellent stuff. Brackett’s sf doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere – it uses the tropes of early sf but is written with the sophistication of much later genre fiction. So we have Mars, populated with ancient civilisations and dying races, but stories that are considerably more than just swashes being buckled, uppity natives being quelled, or righteous pioneers carving out homesteads. The upstart Earthlings who come to exploit the Martian races rarely end up on top. This is not the gung-ho adventurism of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but its antithesis.
Charlotte Gray, Sebastian Faulks (1998). I’m pretty sure I tried reading this shortly after it was published. I’d have borrowed it from the Daly Community Library in Abu Dhabi. I think I gave up on it because I found the pacing so glacial. Later, I saw the film. Now that I’ve read it I’m sorry I didn’t persevere all those years ago. Yes, it’s a slow book. The title character volunteers for a department of the Special Operations Executive because she speaks French like a native. She is parachuted into Vichy France to courier some radio crystals to a member of a British network, but stays on because her lover, a RAF pilot, is missing in action somewhere in the country. For much of Charlotte Gray, she does little except pine for her lover and help out the local resistance. But the final third of the book more than makes up for that. Before returning to the UK, she tries to track down two Jewish children taken by the Germans, and discovers something of the truth behind their fates.
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood (2003), is not science fiction, of course it’s not. It’s speculative fiction. Yes, well. Atwood’s idiosyncratic categorisations aside, I think most people would classify Oryx and Crake as science fiction. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. There’s some sharp prose in it; there are also some embarrassingly bad neologisms. Some time in the future, rogue genius Crake unleashes a plague on the world, killing off everyone except his friend Jimmy and the Crakers, a handful of genetically-engineered humans he has bred. Now calling himself Snowman, Jimmy acts as a beneficial god/shaman to the Crakers, while trying to survive in a world in which he no longer fits. His life is interspersed with flashbacks detailing his friendship with Crake, how we went to work for him, and how the world became as it is. Most of the satire is so blunt as to be ineffective. And the “trendy” names Atwood uses for all the corporations, like RejoovEsense, annoy mightily. I preferred The Blind Assassin.
Films 51, Jason Connery (2011), I watched for The Zone, but I’ve yet to finish my review.
Time to Leave, François Ozon (2005). I like Ozon’s films, but only when he’s being playful not when he’s being serious. Except, perhaps, for Under The Sand, which I did like. But, Time to Leave (AKA Le temps qui reste): a gay fashion photographer learns he has three months left to live. He keeps this secret, telling only his grandmother (played by French screen legend Jeanne Moreau). The protagonist is, frankly (no pun intended), selfish and unlikeable, and his eventual change of heart feels overly sentimental and clichéd. Not one of Ozon’s best.
Leviathan, George P Cosmatos (1989), is another film set in a mining installation at the bottom of the ocean. This one, however, does not rip off Outland. It rips off Alien, instead. A reasonably good cast for the time – Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, Amanda Pays, Ernie Hudson, Hector Elizondo, Daniel Stern – unwittingly release some old Soviet bio-experiment aboard their habitat, and it tries to turn everyone into some sort of Cronenberg-esque monster. But Weller and Pays manage to escape. Leviathan makes a decent fist of imagining its environment, but the plot is by-the-numbers from start to finish and the characters are not allowed to develop much beyond clichés.
Lifeforce, Tobe Hooper (1985). I remember going to see this at the cinema when it was released. I didn’t take it seriously then, and I couldn’t take it seriously this time. A space mission to Halley’s comet finds a giant spaceship in its coma. Aboard are a pair of naked humans: a beautiful young woman and a handsome young man, both in hibernation. The astronauts take both aboard their Shuttle and head back to Earth. On arrival, mission control can’t reach anyone aboard the spacecraft, so they send up a mission. The crew is dead, and the Shuttle has been gutted by fire. The only survivor is the naked young woman. so they take her back to Earth, to London. But she’s a space vampire – the film is based on Colin Wilson’s novel, The Space Vampires – and she brings about a plague of zombies to the UK. All those people who claimed 28 Days Later such an astonishing film because it showed zombies running rather than shuffling along should watch Lifeforce. Zombies run in it too. It’s about all the film does have in its favour, however.
The Taming of the Shrew, Jonathan Miller (1980). I’ve been enjoying these Shakespeare plays, but every now and again you have to wonder what was going through the Bard’s head when he wrote them. Like this one. Everyone wants to marry Bianca, but her father has decided that she will not entertain suitors until her older sister, Katherina, is wed. But Kate is a “shrew” – i.e., an independent woman, not afraid to voice her own opinion, and far from the demure mistress apparently valued in Padua. Along comes Petruchio (played by John Cleese), who decides to woo Kate, for reasons never satisfactorily explained – the challenge? her fortune? There are several instances of witty banter, though Kate is played disconcertingly as a shrill termagant which often seems at odds with her dialogue. So there I was thinking that the part was just misplayed and The Taming of the Shrew couldn’t be as sexist as it seemed. Only for the final wedding banquet scene to feature speeches by each of the male cast explaining what a good wife should be, and it’s the worst sort of sexist claptrap and I’m surprised Elizabeth I didn’t have their heads off for it. Not one of the Bard’s best.
Predators, Antal Nimród (2010), is yet another sf franchise getting the reboot. Which is a creative process I find hard to understand. The Predator and Alien franchises were munged together into a series of increasingly rubbish films, and that should have killed them stone dead. Instead, we got Predators, and Ridley Scott reported working on a prequel to Alien. To be honest, of the two, I always much preferred the latter, though none of the films were as good as the first. Predator, on the other hand, was just an uglier Rambo. And Predators is just I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here with guns. A group of scumbags are parachuted into a jungle. They’ve no idea where they are, how they got there, or even why they are there. It doesn’t take long before they discover they’re being hunted by aliens, the Predators, for sport. But never mind, they’re Men, the horneriest critters in the universe, and of course they can beat someone who is both phyisically and technologically superior because they’re Men. It’s Neanderthal tosh like this that gives Hollywood a bad name– No, wait, Hollywood already has a bad name. It would be nice to see the occasional sf film of real intelligence from Hollywood, but I’m not holding my breath. It would also be nice to see sf films which didn’t celebrate violence, psychopaths or sociopaths, and which didn’t paint all aliens (that’s everybody outside the US, you understand) as fit targets for invasion, repression, dismemberment, or genocide. Avoid.
The Green Hornet, Michel Gondry (2011), I’d heard mixed reports on, but I rented it anyway. I’m not a big fan of the Seth Rogen / Judd Apatow style of humour, though I do like superhero films. Sadly, the humour outweighed the appeal of the superhero aspect, and I hated this. I hated Rogen’s character, I hated the stupid jokes, and I hated the concept, which was even more implausible than your average superhero movie. Rubbish film. Avoid.
Underground, Emir Kusturica (1995), I wasn’t initially sure what to make if. It opens during World War II, with the Germans bombing, and then invading, Belgrade. A pair of local wideboys become heroes of the resistance, more by accident than by design. They’re out for themselves, but somehow or other that helps the resistance. And then one of them, Blacky, is injured, so the other, Marko hides him, and the rest of the resistance cell, in his cellar. But he never tells them when the war ends. As Marko rises in Tito’s government in post-war Yugoslavia, so those in the cellar continue to believe WWII is ongoing. They make weapons, which Marko sells. Eventually Blacky manages to escape, but he stumbles on the set of a film re-enacting the climactic raid in which he was injured. He kills the actor playing the part of the German officer, and runs way. Later, after Tito’s death, he is the leader of a militia in the former-Yugoslavia. Marko, meanwhile, disappeared when Tito fell, and is now an international arms dealer. Underground opens with the Germans bombing Belgrade Zoo, and initially seems like a somewhat clumsy comedy. But as movie progress, so does the comedy turner blacker… and blacker… and more surreal. And the end result is superb. Recommended.