It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Moving pictures 2016, #2

More films watched by Yours Truly, some of which might have been from a certain list, some of which might not.

amores_perrosAmores Perros*, Alejandro González Iñárritu (2000, Mexico). I hadn’t realised this was the movie which brought Gael García Bernal to fame (admittedly, I’d thought Bernal Spanish, not Mexican), but having now seen it I can understand why so much notice was taken of him. Like another South American film on the list, Meireilles & Lund’s City of God from Brazil, Amores Perros is a series of interconnected stories, in this case three, all springing from a car crash. Bernal plays a young man who discovers that his brother’s dog is an excellent fighter. So he enters it in dog fights, and it wins repeatedly (the film-makers make it clear no dogs were actually harmed during the making of the movie). But then he accepts a private fight with a local gangster, and when his dog wins, the gangster shoots it. Bernal stabs the gangster and flees, with his friend and his wounded dog… which is when the crash happens. The driver of the other car in the crash was a model, the lover of a wealthy magazine publisher. Her leg is severely broken. While recovering in the new flat she shares with her lover, her yappy dog disappears down a hole in the floor, and searching for it she injures her broken leg, which then has to be amputated. The third section centres on a homeless man who appears briefly in the previous two stories. He rescues Bernal’s dog, but it is killed after he agrees to murder a man… Like most such films, the plot is complicated and somewhat convoluted. It is also, however, well-played by its cast, and well-shot. A deserving entry on the list.

ryans_daughterRyan’s Daughter, David Lean (1970, UK). I’ve always been conflicted about Lean – I mean, I love Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, but for all his plaudits I’ve never really thought of Lean as a particularly good director. And Ryan’s Daughter appears to be an attempt at making another epic movie like the two previously mentioned, except, well,… Mind you, it has to be said the cinematography is frequently gorgeous. But Robert Mitchum makes an unconvincing Irish school teacher, although he does give it a good go. John Mills’s Oscar-winning village idiot feels like an invader from a much older, and less sophisticated, film, and the story’s leisurely pace means its moments of high drama often fade away to nothing. And there are several moments of high drama, perhaps the most notable of which is when the villagers help the Irish Republican Brotherhood recover arms and munitions during a fierce storm from the German ship which attempted to deliver them but foundered. It’s a movie that feels like it lacks focus because it has so many things going on in it, and in such a short narrative time-frame and constrained to such a small geographical location. And, to be honest, the whole introduction, intermission and entracte thing, with incidental music, just feels pretentious. Yes, I know Lean did it in the other two aforementioned films, but sticking up “INTERMISSION” in big letters on the screen does not make it an epic (I’m old enough – just – to remember when cinema showings did have intermissions), and I’ve yet to be convinced it serves any good purpose.

londonLondon, Patrick Keiller (1994, UK). Given my admiration of James Benning’s films, this was recommended to me as something similar I might like, and I ended up with a copy as a Christmas present and… Yes, good call. It has more of an overt narrative than Benning’s films – here provided by Paul Scofield’s narration – although the cinematography does indeed consist of static shots. Of, er, London. As the camera focuses on various parts of the city, the narrator recounts anecdotes and aphorisms by his friend Robinson, not always as they relate to the part of London on-screen. It’s fascinating, although there’s less work required to piece together the story as the voice-over pretty much does that for you. But the Scofield’s somewhat circuitous explanation of events is its own reward, and the anecdotes are entertaining, irrespective of their relevance to the view on the screen. I plan to watch more films by Keiller – and he’s made quite a few.

man_from_uncleThe Man from UNCLE, Guy Ritchie (2015, USA). Having just worked my way through eight of Solo’s and Kuryakin’s theatrical adventures, I thought it worth giving this twenty-first century reboot a go. True, the director’s name didn’t bode well, although I didn’t actually know it was a Ritchie film when I bunged it on the rental list. But, it arrived in its little envelope, I stuck it in the player and… the title sequence is actually really good. And the film’s commitment to period detail is impressive. The only problem was the two leads – Henry Cavill and Arnie Hammer – have zero on-screen charisma. Cavill has a chin you could chisel granite with, and you feel he ought to light up the screen when he appears, but… he just doesn’t. His urbanity felt like a thin veneer, and not bone-deep as it did with Robert Vaughan, and his suave something he put on only when the camera was on him. Kuryakin, on the other hand, has been re-imagined as some sort of Soviet super-strong thug, and Hammer plays him like a block of Soviet wood. I can’t actually remember the plot, and I’m pretty sure there was one somewhere.

ohenryO Henry’s Full House*, various (1952, USA). I stuck this on the rental list not realising it was an anthology film, with each segment directed by a different person. It starts off strangely, with a man in a jailhouse making notes on what the other prisoners are saying. This, we are then told by John Steinbeck, who is sitting behind a desk in a book-lined study, was O Henry, a journalist who used the people he encountered during his career as fodder for his stories… and each of the short films in O Henry’s Full House is in some way a result of this. Unsurprisingly, given the age of Henry’s stories, the sting in each one’s title comes as no real surprise. Charles Laughton plays a gentleman vagrant, who is chivalrous to Marilyn Monroe in an early role. Richard Widmark plays a hugely irritating villain who gets his just desserts in a nicely ironic fashion. A young woman is convinced her pneumonia will kill her when the last leaf falls from the ivy outside her window – but the leaf never falls. Two men kidnap an annoying kid for ransom, and it pretty much goes as you’d expect. And finally, a poor married couple each make a sacrifice in order to afford a decent Christmas present for the other – with ironic results. The directors involved were Henry Koster, Henry Hathaway, Jean Negulesco, Howard Hawks and Henry King. I’m guessing they couldn’t find five directors called Henry, although both Hawks were Negulesco are both excellent film-makers.

avengers_ultronAvengers: Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon (2015, USA). I’m not a big fan of the MCU films (and now even less of a fan of Marvel given its CEO’s financial support of Trump) and I really didn’t like The Avengers (despite being a Brit, and despite “the Avengers” referring to the far superior group led by John Steed, I think Avengers Assemble a stupid compromise title – we’re smart enough to figure out the difference between a bunch of US near-fascist goons in Spandex and the sarcastically urbane umbrella-wielding Steed; and I also note the Lycra’d loons have lost their definite article for this sequel). Anyway, Avengers: Age of Ultron: I didn’t like this either. Awful film. A stupid movie carried by the personalities of its cast – not the personalities of its characters, but of the actors who played them. With a stupidly confusing plot plastered over the top. One of the problems with Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation was that when you have a villain so powerful, how can you realistically have dramatic conflict? Marvel’s universe suffers from the same problem – something the comics themselves often side-step by randomly ramping up heroes’ superpowers from one story to the next – and Avengers: Age of Ultron falls into the same trap. The only way the Avengers can actually beat Ultron is by Plot Hole. But, to be honest, by that point of the film I was long past giving a shit about any of them, as they came across more like a team of parodies than a serious attempt at recasting comic-book stories for the cinema. Avoid.

1001 Films You Must See Before You Die count: 706

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On writing and how to

I’m probably the last person who should be giving writing advice, which is as good a reason as any for a blog post on the topic. If you want to know how to write short stories which are guaranteed to sell, look elsewhere. I suspect no one else really knows either, they’re just not honest enough to admit it. “Hey, it worked for me – sure it’ll work for you!” Yeah right. If you’re looking for rules on writing readable saleable fiction, I’m the wrong person to ask. If that makes me a dilettante, then so be it. I’m interested in fiction, I’m interested in how fiction works, and I’m interested in using that knowledge to create fiction which does something different. At least, that is, within my chosen genre.

It often seems wannabe writers can’t make a move without bumping into some “rule” or other: “show, don’t tell”, “prose must be transparent to let the story shine through”, “there are only seven plots”, “use a three-act structure”… They’re all bollocks. Fiction, least of all science fiction, is not a programming language. It doesn’t need to be compiled, and it won’t break the reader if, for example, you chose not to use quotation marks around dialogue.

And no one knows why some fiction succeeds and some doesn’t. It is not true that good novels will always see print (never mind sell by the boatload). There are a lot of excellent novels that have never been published, there are a lot of bad novels that have seen print (and some have even been phenomenally successful). There are also a lot of hugely popular novels which garnered a raft of rejections before someone eventually took a chance on them.

As for posterity… Dickens was a hack, an unashamedly populist writer – he even let his readers choose how one novel ended. And Jane Austen was allegedly neither the best writer of her generation nor the most popular – but her novels have endured, while the others are forgotten. Mary Shelly wrote seven novels, but it is her debut, Frankenstein, which is remembered two hundred years later by most people.

Science fiction should be willing to stretch the boundaries of narrative and genre. That it usually doesn’t is a result of the fact it is, at heart, a form of pulp fiction. It had its beginnings in pulp magazines, and though it has at times tried to throw off its origins – the New Wave being the most celebrated attempt – the basic form usually ends up prevailing. And not necessarily for the right reasons.

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It’s a long-accepted truism science fiction readers are more open-minded, more willing to accept the Other, than readers of other genres… Or are they? Has sf become a victim of its own success? Its most prevalent models have proven so popular across most media that all forms of science fiction are assumed to be of that type. It’s an easy argument to believe – the Sad Puppies certainly fell for it – but it’s not in the slightest bit true. Science fiction is a broad church, and it’s long been my contention that those who take the trouble to admire, and understand, how the genre operates will make better use of the tools available to a writer.

So it’s all very well just blithely introducing FTL into a science fiction text, because the story requires several different locations and the genre insists they be separated by light-years. Except… Firefly put all its worlds in a single planetary system. Not, it has to be said, a particularly plausible solution, but at least it was an attempt to address a common sf stumbling block: space is big, hugely mind-bogglingly big. There are remarkably few science fiction novels which take account of that – notable examples being the current fad (see below) for generation starship stories, such as Aurora and Children of Time.

But if Whedon failed to interrogate the tropes he deployed – no real surprise there – there’s no reason why other writers cannot. There is no GREAT BIG BOOK OF TROPES which must be obeyed. There are no rules which dictate how tropes should be deployed. No matter what some people might insist. Making use of them the same way everyone else has done is just lazy writing, cheap shorthand for complex objects (as is hiding those tropes under a thin veneer of metaphor – but that’s a rant for another time). Each trope certainly exists for a reason, and it makes for much more interesting fiction, to me, if it is the reason that’s interrogated.

The big point about writing, the thing that drives all others, is that you get out what you put in. But your readers probably won’t. There are tricks you can use to trigger a specific reader response, but sooner or later your readers will spot those tricks and they will no longer work. So you might as well write something which meets your own objectives and not those of some mythical reader. The market does not exist, it’s an emergent phenomenon – so it’s no good writing “to the market” because there’s no such thing. And should you decide to try – well, by the time you’ve written your novel, the fad is likely over, unless you’re uncannily good at trendspotting. You can only write to please yourself and hope it pleases others…

It’s not like I’m one to talk. The Apollo Quartet has sold in total some 3000 copies over 3.5 years, of which just over half were sales of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. I was surprised during a conversation at Fantasycon 2015 to be told the Apollo Quartet is held in high regard. It often feels like “regard” should have a number attached and I know – from tracking my own sales – what that number is for the Apollo Quartet. Certainly among my friends and acquaintances, the four books have their fans. But not every review of them has been complimentary or fulsome.

I wrote each book of the Apollo Quartet to deliberately not be what readers of the preceding book had praised. People liked that Adrift on the Sea of Rains was literary, so I wrote The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to be a science fiction puzzle narrative. With each book I tried to push the boundaries of narrative and narrative structure. I made a number of artistic decisions which readers have questioned – not just the lack of quotation marks, but also the lack of closure, the refusal to spell out acronyms, the use of inference to link two narratives… the choice by myself to make the reader work to understand the story. I didn’t intend the Apollo Quartet to be light reading, and that dictated how I approached writing it.

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There is, now I think about it, another reason why I’m a poor choice of person to write about writing science fiction: I can’t stick to the point, and I’m not entirely sure if this piece is in any way helpful. Writing advice is a poisoned chalice at the best of times – success is too individual for any particular technique to be held up as a general guideline. (I’m assuming a basic facility with language, of course). Having said that, one piece of advice I can give: get yourself a sympathetic group of beta readers. They will tell you what works and what doesn’t. Don’t just bang your novel up on Kindle, unseen by anyone else. (And don’t get me started on self-published 99p science fiction novels – that’s a rant for another day.)

There’s an unspoken compact between writer and reader. You can either stick to it… or have a bit of fun with it. Personally, I think the latter makes for more interesting fiction. Unfortunately, the former is more likely to result in successful fiction. You pays your money and you takes your choice…


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Recenter Reading Roundup

I think I’m going to start doing this sort of thing regularly – a fortnightly run-down on the books I’ve read and the films I’ve watched. It’s sort of the blog equivalent of reality television, without having to resort to pimpage or thieving content from elsewhere.

Books:
Stickleback, Ian Edginton & D’Israeli (2007), first appeared in the comic 2000AD. The title character is a Victorian crime lord, initially presented as a mystery to be investigated by half-Turkish Scotland Yard detective Inspector Valentine Bey. But it’s all a plot because Stickleback is trying to defeat the City Fathers, a druidic brotherhood which has secretly controlled London since the Dark Ages. In the second story in this volume, Stickleback is the hero – well, antihero – as he prevents some eldritch horrors from taking over the earth after they’ve stolen the last dragon’s egg. Some mysteries are left unexplained – Stickleback’s real identity, for example. Excellent stuff.

Rocketman, Nancy Conrad (2005). See here.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell (2004), I liked less than I had expected to. It was shortlisted for the Booker, Nebula and Arthur C Clarke Awards, and won the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award, so I had high hopes of it. Unfortunately, I thought the sf elements were clumsily done – a post-apocalypse story written in debased English… yawn. And the transcript of an interview with an uplifted clone in a corporate near-future Korea – hardly a ground-breaking idea – which is spoiled because the clone actually speaks in purple prose. Having said that, the book’s structure of six nested stories was a neat idea, and the writing was generally very good. Unfortunately, the whole didn’t quite add up to the sum of the parts, and the links between the stories often came across as forced. A noble failure, I think.

On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan (2007), I was unsure about reading. I hadn’t really enjoyed his previous book, Saturday, so I wasn’t going to shell out money for his latest. But I managed to blag a copy of On Chesil Beach for nothing on bookmoch.com. And I’m glad I got it for nothing. It’s typical McEwan – well-written (and excellent in parts) – but his formula has long since lost its shine: ie, a leisurely build-up to a decision, the wrong choice is made, and the rest of the book shows the consequences of that choice. A new plot would be nice.

The Tar-Aiym Krang, Alan Dean Foster (1972). See here.

The Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning (1977 – 1980), is, I think, better than The Balkan Trilogy. Admittedly, I’m interested in the period it covers – World War II in Egypt – because of the Salamander and Personal Landscape groups, two groups of poets and writers active during that time, which included Manning herself, Lawrence Durrell, Terence Tiller, Bernard Spencer, John Jarmain and Keith Douglas, among others. In this book, Guy Pringle remains mostly unsympathetic and Harriet Pringle still incapable of recognising what the people around her are really like. Sadly, the television adaptation Fortunes Of War didn’t handle this half of the story as well as it did The Balkan Trilogy – too much was missed out. The fact that the books are better should come as no real surprise. And this might well be one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865), is a book I’d never actually read as a child, although I’d picked up the story through cultural osmosis. Unfortunately, it seems to be a book you should read as a child. As an adult, I found it patronising and simplistic. Ah well. At least I can cross it off the Guardian’s 1000 Must-Read books list.

The History Man, Malcolm Bradbury (1975), is another of the books on the Guardian’s 1000 Must-Read books. Which is why I mooched a copy and read it. It took me two goes to start, and the second time I was on a coach heading for London, so I couldn’t really put it down and pick up another book… And I’m glad I forced myself to read it. It takes a while to get going, but once you’ve clicked into the narrative, it’s an excellent read. The committee meeting alone is worth the price of admission. Now I want to see the 1980 BBC television adaptation…

The Custodians, Richard Cowper (1976), is a collection of four short stories by the author of the excellent White Bird of Kinship trilogy. In fact, The Custodians includes the prequel short story, ‘Pipers at the Gates of Dawn’, for that trilogy. The other three stories are very much of their time and place – very considered British science fiction of the 1970s, with some good writing, some creaky ideas, and a mostly slow narrative pace.

Films:
Show Me Love, Together, Lilja 4-Ever and A Hole in my Heart, dir. Lukas Moodysson (1998 – 2004), are all in the Lukas Moodysson Presents DVD boxed set which I bought when it was on sale. Show Me Love, a sort of Swedish Skins – misbehaving teenagers – in which the most popular girl in the year first victimises the class lesbian then falls in love with her, is good. Together – battered wife takes her kids to join her brother in his leftie peacenik vegetarian commune – is less gripping, although a more gently affectionate film. Lilja 4-Ever is the best of the four – fifteen year-old Lilja is left behind in Russia when her mother emigrates to the US. Abandoned and in desperate need of cash, she becomes a prostitute… and finds herself a new boyfriend who promises to take her to live in Sweden. When she gets there, she’s kept locked up in a flat, and escorted by a brutal minder to have sex with other men. Oksana Akinshina is superb as Lilja, and Artyom Bogucharsky is very good as her friend Volodya. A hard film to watch. A Hole in my Heart is also difficult to watch, but for different reasons. It takes place entirely in a single apartment, in which a man is making amateur porn films while his teenage son hides in his bedroom and listens to music. It’s one of those films where the director’s intentions are clear, but he’s not been entirely successful in presenting them.

City Lights, dir, Charlie Chaplin (1931), should be familiar to everyone. Chaplin’s cheeky tramp saves the life of a rich businessman, who rewards him by showing him the high life. But he does so when he’s drunk. When he sobers up, he forgets who Chaplin is. It might be eighty years old, but it’s still very funny.

Walk On Water, dir. Eytan Fox (2004), proved a surprise. A Mossad agent returns to Israel after assassinating a Hamas leader to discover his wife has committed suicide. His boss gives him an “easy” assignment while he comes to terms with his loss: he is to act as guide to a German who is visiting his kibbutzim sister. Their grandfather is a Nazi war criminal who was in South America but has recently disappeared. The Mossad agent is tasked with discovering if they know the grandfather’s location. The story doesn’t quite progress the way it seems as though it might, but never mind. A good film. And apparently inspired by a true story.

Serenity, dir. Joss Whedon (2005), was a rewatch. I was never in to Buffy, and I thought Firefly was too much “Cowboys in space” – not to mention ripping off the Traveller role-playing game – to really appeal. Even on re-watch, Serenity seems too dependent on Firefly, and while its story does explain some things about Firefly‘s universe, it still feels too much like a sequence of set scenes. Oh, and the bit where River kills all the Reavers is just silly.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow, dir, Bille August (1997), was another rewatch. One of these days I’ll have to reread the novel by Peter Høeg on which it was based. Julia Ormond manages to make the prickly Smilla a sympathetic protagonist, but the opening mystery surrounding the young boy’s fatal fall from the roof of the apartment block feels mishandled – as if something else were driving the plot, and it was just being carried along for the ride. I still like the film, though.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008) – the only thing I can say about this is, “Oh dear”. George Lucas must have decided that since his fanbase is greying, he needs to drag in the kiddies. Which explains some of the gloriously ill-considered mis-steps in this mess of a film. Anakin Skywalker is given a wise-cracking teenage girl as a sidekick, who manages to spend the entire film irritating the audience. The plot doesn’t make sense – rescue the (disgustingly cute) baby son of Jabba the Hutt, because the Republic needs access to the Hutt’s trade routes. Eh? A minor gangster on a backwater world suddenly controls half the galaxy? And so the Republic decides to send a single Jedi, plus teenage girl, to effect a rescue? It’s not so much that Lucas jumps the shark in this, as if he’s running the 400 metres hurdles over sharks. Definitely a film to avoid.