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Reading diary 2018, #7

My reading has been a bit all over the place of late. On the plus-side, I seem to be better at picking books I enjoy.

The Silent Multitude, DG Compton (1966, UK). After Gwyneth Jones, I would say DG Compton was likely the second-best sf writer the UK has produced. Except… His writing was a cut above what is typical for the genre, and his best work is among the top rank of British sf – and rather than being timeless, it makes a virtue of the fact it is tied to its time of writing – but… Compton’s range was somewhat narrow. He wrote many similar novels. And there are a number of other UK sf writers of the 1970s whose prose was perhaps not as good as Compton’s but who managed to produce more varied work. Which is not to say that Compton was never good, or that mediocre Compton is not a great deal better than some other writers’ best. The Silent Multitude is Compton coming into his voice, after a handful of years of writing crime novels as Guy Compton. A mysterious organism is spreading across the UK which dissolves mortar and reduces buildings to rubble in a handful of days. The “Sickness” has now reached Gloucester, a city completely rebuilt in the 1980s, which has now been evacuated. Except for the local dean, an old man who collects newspapers and lives alone among the tens of thousands he has collected, a twentysomething hoodlum who proves to be the son of the architect who designed the new Gloucester, and a twentysomething young woman reporter who is the daughter of the editor of the newspaper for which she works. (The mentions of a redesigned Gloucester reminded me not only of Portmouth’s Tricorn Centre, which I’ve only seen in photographs, but also the various plans to rebuild the city centre of Coventry and, of course, the precinct which eventually resulted.) The Silent Multitude is essentially these four characters witnessing the death of a city – the death of its buildings and infrastructure, that is; the people have already left – and while Compton is good on the descriptive prose and the characterisation, this novel doesn’t feature any of the narrative tricks he later used. The Silent Multitude is a slim work, ideas-wise, propped up by good prose, but that’s no bad thing as science fiction in general could do with upping its game prose-wise. Compton is good – bloody good, in fact – but this is nowhere near his best work.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Theodora Goss (2017, USA). Most of Goss’s short fiction that I’ve seen has been fantasy or reworked fairy tales, which is not really the type of fiction that interests me. But a year or two ago, she wrote ‘Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology’, which was the sort of referential mash-up genre fiction that does appeal to me – and I thought it so good, I nominated it for the BSFA Award, but it did not make the shortlist – and it seems she has written more in a similar vein. Anyway, I saw mention of this, her first novel, and its premise – the daughters of various nineteenth-century fictional scientists team up to help Sherlock Holmes solve Jack the Ripper’s murders – sounded like it might be worth a go. And so it was. It is, in fact, very good. Except. Well, it feels a bit dumbed-down. I’m not sure what it is, but it doesn’t feel as clever a novel as its central conceit would suggest. It doesn’t help that Mary Jekyll – yes, the daughter of that Jekyll – is the main character but spends much of the plot tagging along behind Sherlock Holmes. On the other hand, the novel is explicitly presented as a narrative written by Catherine Moreau, often with interjections by the other women, and that works really well. It’s also quite funny. For a novel set in Victorian Britain, there are a few slips – the ground floor is continually referred to as the first floor; and some of the expletives are US English. Despite those minor quibbles, I enjoyed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, and plan to pick up a copy of the sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, when it’s published in July.

Author’s Choice Monthly 10: Tales from a Vanished Country, Elizabeth A Lynn (1990, USA). One day I will have all of these muahahah. Ahem. But for now, I have just over half of the series. Lynn was not an author known to me, so I came to this short collection cold. In the first story, a wizard runs a trading empire, and when his CEO, so to speak, betrays him, he imprisons him as water in the sea. Some time later, he frees him, because a rival wizard has been upsetting the balance of power. The two disguise themselves to visit the other wizard, but he sees through their disguises. Fortunately, after several months of drugged gaslighting, the CEO chap regains his senses, and the world is set right. So far, so consolatory. The second story, however, is anything but. Three sisters are noted for their beauty, intelligence and martial prowess. A mysterious woman appears and challenges them to combat. One accepts and is killed. Some time later, the mysterious challenger reappears, and this time the second sister is killed in combat. So the third sister hunts down the killer, who turns out to be an aspect of the Moon, and she becomes her lover. Years later, the sister decides to return to her family, but it seems decades have passed. But she stays and lives out her life, mourning her dead sisters and lost lover. The final story reads more like mythology than epic fantasy. A goddess entrusts command of the five winds to a reclusive astronomer who lives in a cave in the mountains. The goddess’s son decide to check this out, and becomes the woman’s lover. She has two girls, who grow faster than human girls. He leaves and steals the cloak the woman uses to command the winds. Chaos ensues. Eventually, the goddess returns. But the woman has disappeared and the two daughters are only just managing to survive. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Lynn before, and I have the impression I’ve seen her name chiefly on the covers of sharecropped novels… although checking on isfdb.org, I see that’s completely false and two of her three standalone novels are, in fact, science fiction. (The 1983 UK paperback edition of one has quite striking cover art.) The three stories in Tales from a Vanished Country are really good, which was completely unexpected. They make clever use of fantasy tropes, and are deeply feminist, even the first one which features no female characters. I think I’ll track down copies of those two science fiction novels…

Phosphorus, Liz Williams (2018, UK). This is the third novella of the third quartet of NewCon Press novellas, although the fourth book I read of the set. Not, I hasten to add, for any particular reason. It is subtitled “A Winterstrike Story’, and I have no objection to subtitles but I would like to point out that they are not titles. So when a data entry form has a field called “title”, it means title, not title and subtitle, not title and, as I have seen, “[random award] winner”. People complain about Big Data, but it would be much less of a problem if we didn’t have Shit Data. But that’s a rant for another day. I have read Winterstrike, but not the other books in the series. Neither is necessary to understand the story of Phosphorus, which, to be honest, isn’t much of a story. It’s extremely strong on setting – and Williams’s Mars is a fascinating place – but the story doesn’t really go anywhere or do much. A young woman with some mysterious quality is adopted by her mysterious aunt, who takes her from Winterstrike, which is under attack by another city, to the dead city of Tharsis. Meanwhile, the sole survivor of the Hunt – although she is dead, but animated by one of the Hunt’s starships – an alien race that saw its mission in life as “culling” other races, leaves her homeworld of Phosphorus, and eventually ends up on Mars. An event which, it transpires, happened centuries before the other narrative, and the young woman is in some way connected. And, er, that’s it. Pretty much. An interesting idea that’s not at all explored. It reads like the start of a novel. Nice writing, nice world-building, but disappointing plot.

Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon (2007, USA). Back in the day, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union appeared on several genre award shortlists, IIRC, and I read it and thought it quite good. So I stuck The Amazing Adventures of  Kavalier and Clay on my wishlist and some years later was given it as a birthday present. And then I read it, an embarrassing number of years after that, and was much more impressed. And shortly after that I found a copy of Gentlemen of the Road in a charity shop, so of course I bought it. And… Chabon writes in an afterword that to him the novel (a very short novel) was always titled “Jews with Swords”. Because to him Jews had never been associated with swords – at least not since Biblical times. I’ve never attached a religion to a weapon – people with swords are people with swords, and I’ve never really thought about the religious tradition from which they came, perhaps because in most cases in fiction that tradition was invented, and for those where it was not the context more than explained it. But “Jews with Swords” gives us a Frankish Jew estranged from his European family, and an Ethiopian Jew from tribe that no other Jew seems willing to accept, on a mission which involves the Khazars, a Turkic state which converted to Judaism, but vanished after three centuries. The two unwillingly accept a commission to take a young Khazar prince, the last survivor of the family of a deposed bek (martial leader, a sort of government CEO to the kagan’s chairperson). But they lose him to some mercenaries, who are taking him to the new bek. Except the prince persuades the mercenaries to rally his cause, and sort of builds up an army from the Muslim Khazar cities in the south of the region which the new bek had let the Vikings plunder with impunity. And… well, the big secret about the prince is pretty obvious from about a page after he’s been introduced, and the only suspense is in wondering how the two main characters can be so dumb as to not figure it out. Having said that, the history is fascinating, the characters are interesting, and, while I find Chabon’s prose a bit hit and miss, the mannered style he adopts here works well with the story. I should read more Chabon. Fortunately, I have Wonder Boys on the TBR, picked up from a charity shop at the same time as Gentlemen of the Road

Inside Moebius, Part 1, Moebius (2004, France). I came to Moebius’s work from Jodorwosky, as Moebius – Jean Giraud – illustrated Jodorowsky’s Incal series, still one of the greatest sf bandes dessinées of all time. Although, having said that, I seem to remember seeing parts of Moebius’s Airtight Garage many. many years ago. Back in the early 1980s, I used to fly out to the Middle East for holidays via Schiphol Airport, and in the bookshop there I would often pick up a copy of Heavy Metal or Epic, and even an issue of 1984 (which I had to hide once I’d discovered what it contained). I’ve a feeling that’s where I first encountered Moebius’s work. That’s all by the bye. I’ve been a fan of Moebius for many years now, so I keep an eye open for when new stuff by him appears in English (I could, I suppose, buy the original French editions, but I have enough trouble keeping track of new stuff in one language market, never mind doing it in two). Inside Moebius, originally published in in six volumes in France but now as three volumes from Dark Horse, is a sort of autobiographical private project that blossomed. Moebius wanted to give up smoking, so he started writing a bande dessinée about it, and then sort of dragged in the books he had worked on, or was currently working on, and his thoughts on a variety of subjects. Particularly politics. Osama bin Laden makes an appearance in Inside Moebius, Part 1, as do some of Moebius’s characters – Blueberry, Arzak and the Major. The art is not as detailed as in other Moebius works, it’s almost sketches, in fact. But the way the book is designed, it’s clear the words are more important. The dialogue is full of puns, many of which have not translated but a helpful afterword explains them. (For the record, I did get the “Fumetti” one.) It’s all good stuff, although I could have wished for artwork as good as that in the aforementioned works.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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Songs of the Dying Earth

sdelgSongs of the Dying Earth, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois
(Harper Voyager, 660pp, £8.99 pbk)

Few of us would disagree that Jack Vance is a man whose career deserves respect; and since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then an anthology of stories which ape one of his creations must seem like a fine and commercial tribute. And yet… The Dying Earth first appeared in 1950. It is over sixty years old. The average age of the contributors to Songs of the Dying Earth is no younger. This anthology, then, is an exercise in nostalgia. Though its cover proclaims it contains “stories in honour of Jack Vance”, it is not a homage: its contents are not inspired by Vance’s creation, they pastiche it. Each of the twenty-two stories uses places and characters invented by Vance. Further, while some directly reference stories written by Vance; one, by Liz Williams, bases its plot directly on one by Vance.

The original The Dying Earth was a short story collection of 176 pages. Songs of the Dying Earth is nearly four times larger. This means those factors which lent the original its charm soon overstay their welcome: the ornate, archaic language; the amusing names of people, places and spells; the science-fictional tone in service to fantastical magic; the constant references to the dying sun. Over 660 pages, these conceits lend every story a similar affect, making each of the stories blend and merge into the one following. Songs of the Dying Earth reads like a novel without a plot and an interchangeable cast. It is, then, a book to be dipped into, not to be read from cover to cover.

While the anthology may provide a varied read only in small doses, the quality – and flavour – of the contents is equally variable. A handful stand out. Kage Baker, who appears to be the only contributor who remembered that many of Vance’s Dying Earth stories were very funny. Lucius Shepard, who shows more invention than most (with footnotes), though a thorny moral discussion in the middle jars somewhat. Elizabeth Hand, whose story is the only one to feature female protagonists (she should also be rewarded for the invention of “Punctilious Trousers”). And Jeff Vandermeer, who brings a foreign, but welcome, note of the surreal; his is perhaps the least accurate imitation, but it is better for it.

However, John C Wright’s and Elizabeth Moon’s stories are completely tone-deaf; unlike Terry Dowling and Walter Jon Williams, who both manage to catch the flavour of Vance’s originals. Neil Gaiman’s story bizarrely opens in present-day Florida. Matthew Hughes, given his career to date, provides an oddly disappointing tale. Robert Silverberg’s opening story is dull, as is Mike Resnick’s. Liz William’s is memorable chiefly for being so miserable. Dan Simmons provides a novella, the longest story in Songs of the Dying Earth. The remainder – Paula Volsky, Phyllis Eisenstein, Tad Williams, Glen Cook, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Howard Waldrop and co-editor George RR Martin – are somewhere in between.

Each story features an afterword in which the writer explains how they first discovered Vance’s The Dying Earth, and what it now means to them. In almost all cases, they discovered the book at an impressionable age during the 1960s or early 1970s. These afterwords suggest that Songs of the Dying Earth is indeed a celebration of Vance’s creation. Certainly, it seems poorly-designed to introduce a new generation of readers to Vance’s oeuvre – most of which is out of print, anyway. And purely as an anthology, the sameness of its contents works against it.

Overall, it’s hard to not suspect the writers had more fun writing the stories in Songs of the Dying Earth than readers will have reading them.

This review originally appeared in Interzone, #238, January-February 2012.


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readings & watchings 2011 #2

Oops. Been a while since the last one of these, so this is going to be a bit of a marathon listing. You know how it goes…

Books
American Adulterer, Jed Mercurio (2009). I thought Mercurio’s Ascent was excellent when I read it several years ago, and was much impressed by his intense, meticulously-researched prose. Admittedly, I was initially drawn to Ascent because of its subject – Russian fighter pilot becomes cosmonaut on secret mission – but even so I resolved to keep an eye open for anything else by Mercurio… And so I did. His third novel (his first, Bodies, is on the TBR) couldn’t be more different in subject. It’s a retelling of John F Kennedy’s presidency, couched as a medical report and focusing on his addiction to sex. JFK is often referred to throughout as “the subject”, and the prose dwells a great deal on his poor health. As in Ascent, Mercurio writes with impressive authority – I’m no expert on JFK, but I believed every word in American Adulterer. Mercurio is definitely a writer I’m watching.

People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks (2008), was lent to me by my mother. The book of the title is a haggadah, a Jewish religious text used during Passover. In this somewhat melodramatic novel, a haggadah from the fourteenth century is uncovered in Sarajevo just after the collapse of Yugoslavia (the haggadah is apparently a real one). This particular one is unusual because it is illustrated, something which was previously unknown for such documents in Moorish Spain. An Australian manuscript restorer who specialises in haggadah travels to Sarajevo to verify and restore the document. She finds various bits of, well, stuff, in its binding. These spark off chapters describing, in reverse chronological order, the history of the book – the Balkans during WWII, Vienna, and so on back to Spain. Meanwhile, the restorer is having mother issues. An interesting novel for what it said about the haggadah, but the story wrapped around it was too much of a soap opera.

A Far Sunset, Edmund Cooper (1967), I read for my ongoing series on British SF Masterworks, and I wrote about it here.

Empress Of Outer Space, A Bertram Chandler (1965), is the first in the “Empress Irene” series by Chandler. It’s also a very short novel, one half of an Ace double. Oh, and it’s crap. Empress Irene has just put down a rebellion by a Navy captain who has set himself up as a demigod on a primitive world, when her yacht is stolen. So she commandeers a cruiser and hares off after it with a crew of seven. The narrator is her captain. They track the ship to a world, land, and captain and empress become trapped in a carpet of moss which emits an hallucinogen. They undergo a series of dream-like “adventures” conflated from 007, Shakespeare and ERB’s Barsoom, before eventually escaping. There’s much room here for commentary, but Chandler’s clanking prose treads all over it with a leaden foot. Eminently avoidable. Which is what I should have done…

To Open the Sky, Robert Silverberg (1967), has not aged especially gracefully, though it has a neat idea at its core. A new religion, Vorsterism, which seems pretty secular despite its creed, promises its followers real biological immortality (courtesy of a well-funded research programme which has yet to bear fruit). A glossed-over schism creates the Harmonists, who become not-so-friendly rivals and whose focus instead is human ESP. Because Noel Vorst, founder of Vorsterism, believes that the only way for humanity to survive is to settle the stars. And that can only be done using teleportation by immortal humans. The Vorsters control Earth, but the Harmonists control Venus, and there’s a bit of cunning plottery to heal the rift and so “open the sky”. Not one of Silverberg’s best, but not one of his worst either.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2007). There’s an interesting process at work in Moore’s comics and graphic novels in which he slowly disappears up his own backside. He’s always been a very referential writer, but this one takes it to an extreme. The series conceit, understandably, references all manner of other writers’ works – well, the characters are all well-known fictional characters. And there are even more references in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. Plus, who else but Moore would print a section of a book in 3D, and include a pair of cardboard-cutout 3D glasses for the reader? Not to mention a Jeeves & Wooster / Lovecraft pastiche. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier is great fun. It’s a sort of reference module/interim work in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen universe, partly explaining the strange change in the story universe which resulted in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century: 1910 from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Book 2. Good, if sometimes baffling, stuff.

Oasis: The Middle East Anthology of Poetry from the Forces, edited by Almendro, Victor Selwyn & David Burk (1943), is the first of the Salamander anthologies of, well, poetry from those serving in the forces during World War 2. Good condition copies of this 64-page chapbook are hard to find, but I managed it (and yes, I have Return to Oasis and From Oasis into Italy, the other two Salamander anthologies). Oasis: The Middle East Anthology of Poetry from the Forces is, unsurprisingly, a mixed bag. Some known names provide some good stuff, but there are less successful poems by others. Given that the Salamander people were stationed in Cairo, many of the poems feature the desert, Egypt, or Cairo itself. Not all of the poems are war poems – in fact, there’s a quite a spread of subjects.

Winterstrike, Liz Williams (2008), was the second book of this year’s women in sf reading challenge. I wrote about it here.

Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, David Pringle (1985), does exactly what it says on the tin. Except for that “best”, of course. Pringle explains his choices in a lengthy introduction, and freely admits that some of his picks are not actually very good, nor does he like them very much. But he considered them important so he included them. He also points out that sf as a whole is not an especially well-written genre. I would guess about 70% of the books mentioned I’d classify as rubbish, and their stature within the genre is, to me, no good reason to hold them up as “best”. Um, there’s an idea for a project: my own choice of 100 best novels, posted here one a day…

Stretto, L Timmel Duchamp (2008), is the fifth and final in Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle. I plan to write about the entire quintet in more detail at some point. Certainly they are amongst the most political science fiction novels I have ever read. They are also very good.

Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro (2009), is a collection of five stories featuring Ishiguro’s trademark self-deluded, and never entirely likeable, narrators. The five stories all feature music in some fashion, and are set variously in Venice, London, Malvern Hills and Los Angeles. Like most of his fiction, the story-arc seems to dribble and die rather than actually concluding, but the writing is very good throughout. I suppose if you wanted an introduction to Ishiguro’s writing, this collection would be a good place to start.

An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro (1986), was Ishiguro’s second novel and an improvement on his first, A Pale View of Hills. The book is set in Japan in 1948 and 1949, and the titular artist, about to marry off his twenty-six-year-old daughter, reflects over the events in his life before and during the war. Something he did may cause the marriage negotiations to fail (as they had done once before), but as usual Ishiguro doesn’t say what and only circles around the topic. In fact, An Artist of the Floating World is even more discursive than other books by Ishiguro I’ve read. The narrator is, typically, self-deluded – and, in this case, hugely self-important too. The book would have been much improved by a resolution.

Voices from the Moon, Andrew Chaikin (2009), is a glossy coffee-table book published during Apollo 11’s fortieth anniversary. I reviewed it on my Space Books blog here.

Son of Heaven, David Wingrove (2011), is the first book, and a prequel of sorts, to the newly-relaunched, re-written and revamped Chung Kuo series. What was eight volumes is now twenty. And by the looks of it Corvus are doing an impressive job on these new editions. I read the book, and interviewed the author, for Interzone.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, CS Lewis (1952), is the third book of the Chronicles of Narnia. The third book as written, that is; but the fifth following internal chronology. I’m way too old for these books, which is probably why I find them so annoyingly patronising; but I’d like to think I’d have felt the same if I’d read them when I was eight or nine. This one is at least better then the previous two, and has a bit more of a plot. Lucy and Edmund, plus horrible cousin Eustace, fall into a painting and find themselves aboard the titular ship with Prince Caspian. He’s heading east for the edge of the world to find seven missing lords and, perhaps, Aslan’s Land. They have adventures en route, and Eustace learns how to be a nice chap. What little charm these books possess has aged badly, but Lewis certainly proves he can stick the knife into his “muggles” so much more effectively than Rowling ever managed: “They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarian, non-smokers and teetotallers and wore a special kind of underclothes.” Best line in the entire book, and it’s in the opening paragraph…

The Adventures of Blake & Mortimer: The Sarcophagi of the Sixth Continent, Part 1, Yves Sente & André Juillard (2011). I don’t normally include graphic novels in these lists because they’re such quick reads. But this one is worth mentioning: the characters of Blake and Mortimer were invented by Belgian Edgar P Jacobs in the 1946 and first appeared in Hergé’s Tintin magazine. Blake is a captain in MI5 and Mortimer is a nuclear physicist, and together they’ve had numerous semi-science-fictional adventures. Sente and Juillard have, since the millennium, been adding to Jacobs’ series, and they’re doing an excellent job. Sente’s scripts are very much grounded in the period in which the stories take place – the 1950s – and real-world events are cleverly used. In this one, it’s India’s struggle for independence which drives the plot. The books still have a tendency to fill the frames with dialogue, and often use text boxes to describe what’s obvious from the art; but I much prefer these new stories to Jacobs’ originals.

The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson (2010) does exactly what it says on the cover. The stories were selected, and the collection edited, by Jonathan Strahan, but KSR himself provides an afterword giving brief notes on each of the included pieces. The first three – ‘Venice Drowned’, ‘Ridge Running’ and ‘Before I Wake’ – are not especially strong, but ‘Black Air’ and ‘The Lucky Strike’ then demonstrate only too well why KSR is such a bloody good writer. There’s a sf baseball story, and I’ll never understand the appeal of the game or of writing about it. The remaining contents are strong, with some better than others. The final story, ‘The Timpanist of the Berlin Philharmonic, 1942’, is original to the collection. I wasn’t entirely sure why it was genre… which is, I suppose, one of the reasons KSR’s fiction appeals so much. Definitely a collection which belongs on the book-shelves of any self-respecting sf fan.

Time of Hope, CP Snow (1949), is the first book, internal chronology-wise, in Snow’s 11-volume Strangers and Brothers series. Lewis Elliott is the son of a bankrupt in an unnamed provincial Midlands town during the early 1920s. After leaving school with good exam results, he becomes a local government clerk in the education department. But he dreams of better things. After making friends with George Passant, a qualified lawyer working as a legal assistant in one of the town’s practices, Eliot decides that the law is the career for him – but not as a solicitor, as a barrister. He crams for the Bar examinations, passes them, uses contacts to get himself into an Inn, and so progresses his career. Meanwhile, he’s fallen in love with – and eventually marries – the neurotic but beautiful Sheila Knight. He also develops “pernicious anaemia” and is very ill for a while. But when this is re-diagnosed as “secondary anaemia”, he seems to miraculously recover – probably the only false note in the novel. Snow draws deep psychological portraits of his characters – it’s all told from Elliott’s point of view, but he’s a deeply analytical person. I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected. I certainly plan to track down the remaining ten volumes and read them.

Films
Tell No-One, Guillaume Canet (2006), is a French adaptation of a novel by US writer Harlan Coben. Which pretty much explains why this film didn’t work. It’s not a French film. It feels like a US film played by a French-speaking cast. As a thriller, it’s not bad, but that dissonance between expectation and implementation made for an unsatisfactory viewing experience.

Fringe season 2 (2009), continues the 21st century “X-Files” as, in this season, the mythology is deepened as Olivia visits the alternate world at war with our world, and more of her background – and Walter’s experiments – are revealed. Walter’s ex-partner and semi-nemesis, Bell (played by creaking Leonard Nimoy), also features prominently, popping up in several episodes to explain what it is that’s actually going on. Fringe remains gripping telly, and I’ll be picking up season 3 when it hits DVD.

Julius Caesar, dir. Herbert Wise (1979), is the seventh of Shakespeare’s plays I’ve now seen. After watching it, I jokingly posted to a forum that it was a rip-off as Caesar dies halfway through. But then, of course, it’s not so much about Caesar himself as it is the plot which removes him and the power vacuum he leaves behind. Charles Gray played a somewhat effete title role, but the supporting cast were uniformly good. It’s a very manly men type of play – you’d expect the theatre to reek of sweat and blood if you saw it live. I must admit, from the ones I’ve seen so far, Shakespeare’s tragedies have been better than his comedies. Perhaps the comedy simply hasn’t travelled across the centuries, but tragedy is timeless. Still, Julius Caesar is a strong play and worth seeing.

The Racket, dir. John Cromwell (1951), is a somewhat preachy near-noir film I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Splice, dir. Vincenzo Natali (2009), is a remake of any one of the numerous Frankenstein movies that have been made over the decades. Sort of. Two research scientists create an artificial lifeform – they’re trying to create an artificial lifeform that can manufacture pharmaceuticals – but this latest one they’ve added some human DNA to the mix. It grows up – very quickly – into a strange-looking young woman (she certainly wouldn’t pass unnoticed on a busy street). But it all goes horribly wrong when male scientist cannot resist the monster’s charms, but is unfortunately caught in the act of boinking her by his wife, the other scientist. The monster then goes berserk. A cleverly-done film, but it never really struck me as quite as clever as it thought it was. It’s more like Frankenstein as if no one had ever written it before and it had been newly-thought-up in the twenty-first century. But since Mary Shelley got there first in 1818, the commentary all feels a bit obvious and old-hat. Worth watching, nonetheless.

Water Drops On Burning Rocks, dir. François Ozon (2000), is actually based on an unfilmed script by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (I really must watch some of his films some day). It’s not an easy film to describe… A middle-aged man arrives home with a twenty-year-old man, who becomes his live-in lover. Everything goes swimmingly for a while, but then the relationship begins to pall. When the older man is away on business, the younger man’s ex-fiancée turns up. This causes ructions, which are further exacerbated when the transsexual ex-girlfriend of the older man arrives. There’s a scene in the film, remarked on by all the critics, in which the four characters dance to a horrible piece of German pop. It is… astonishing. And while it may not sound like much, it’s worth the price of admission alone. Water Drops On Burning Rocks is one of those odd films that pulls you in and refuses to let go.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, dir. Elijah Moshinsky (1985), makes it eight. I’m sorely tempted to buy myself a copy of The BBC TV Shakespeare Collection boxed set, so I’ll have all of the plays on DVD. Except if I did that I’d probably never get around to watching them. But because I rent them, I feel obligated not to send them back unwatched (and it’d be a waste of money too). So perhaps for the time-being I’ll keep on doing that. Anyway, Love’s Labour’s Lost is a comedy, and not an especially good one. although set in the Kingdom of Navarre, which existed from 824 to 1620, but the cast all wear eighteenth-century dress. The king and his men friends have decided to swear off all pleasures and devote themselves to scholarly study for seven years. This means no women. Which does not go down well. Unfortunately, along comes a princess of France on a diplomatic mission, and she’s unhappy at being told she cannot stay in the palace but must camp in a field outside it. So, of course, the men fall in love with the women, there’s some mistaken-identity comedy, a very strange play-within-a-play, and, strangely, an ending which defers the real ending for “a year and a day”. An odd play, and not the most enjoyable of those I’ve watched. According to Wikipedia, it’s often assumed that the play was written for student lawyers, which probably explains it.

Choose, dir. Marcus Graves (2010), is a low-budget thriller I reviewed for VideoVista here.

Millennium season 1 (1997), was Chris Carter’s new project after The X-Files. Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) is an ex-FBI profiler with a gift: he can see what the killer saw. Unfortunately, this led him into a nervous breakdown and early retirement. So he moves back to his hometown of Seattle, and is recruited by the Millennium Group, who consult with the police on difficult murder cases. The series is as much about the mysterious agenda of the Millennium Group as it is about Black and his gift, or his relationship with his wife and young daughter (who may also have the same talent). While the IT in the series dates it, Millennium actually holds up really well. Except for those dial-up modems and CRTs, it could have been made last year. Despite being high-quality television, the programme only lasted three seasons. Happily, I have the Seasons 1-3 boxed set. (Bizarrely, search for “Millennium” on Amazon, and it doesn’t return the Seasons 1-3 boxed set. But search for “Millenium” and it does – despite the title clearly have two “n”s. Stupid search engine.)

The Innocents, dir. Jack Clayton (1961), is an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, starring Deborah Kerr as the governess who is terrorised by her two strange charges. This is on a list of Top 100 British Films I found somewhere online but, to be honest, I found it a bit dull. Kerr may have been good in her role, but any film in which the lead character spends most of her time running around with a look of horror on her face – with no apparent agency, in other words – is not going to keep my interest. Perhaps I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d read the book.

Star Trek The Next Generation season 3 (1989), was actually the last full season on ST: TNG I’d seen. When I lived in the UAE, Star TV, Murdoch’s satellite channel for India, and the middle and Far Easts, bought the programme. They broadcast season one. The following year, they broadcast season one followed by season two. And the year after… You can probably guess. Star TV’s English-language channel then turned Hindi (and Baywatch in Hindi is actually better), and the new English-language channel was subscription only. So, as a result I’ve only seen scattered episodes of ST: TNG season 4 to 7. To be honest, I’d forgotten most of the episodes from season 3, although the few stand-outs I remembered were from this season. Especially ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’, which is still a good piece of science fiction telly. Other episodes are less successful, but at least the season is a damn sight better than season two was.

Ajami, dir. Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani (2009), is an excellent Israeli film I review for VideoVista here.

If…., dir. Lindsay Anderson (1968), is another film from the Top 100 British Films list. I thought I’d actually seen this before, but on watching it discovered I never had. I’d just lived it. Sort of. I went to a public school not unlike the one in the film – but more than a decade later so many things had changed. Certainly the whole way of life was familiar to me, and I thought Anderson captured it well. The ending… well, perhaps it was shocking in 1968, but it all seems a bit meh these days. Perhaps it’s been copied so many times, it’s lost its power. A good film, with some very strange bits in it, and worth watching.

Bad Lieutenant – Port Of Call New Orleans, dir. Werner Herzog (2009), is one of those films that almost defies criticism. Certainly Nicolas Cage in the title role defies any kind of commentary. He plays his character as a bucket of twitches and tics topped by a bad toupee. And yet it bizarrely seems to suit the film. The plot is a bog-standard thriller, with little to recommend it. But there is one scene that’s worth the price of admission alone, where Cage’s character says of a man he has just shot dead, “His soul’s still dancing”, while a doppelgänger of the dead man breakdances behind the corpse. Genius. I knew going in that a Herzog thriller was not going to be an ordinary thriller, but even then Herzog confounded my expectations and made it a Herzog film in ways I had not considered. Which was pretty foolish of me in the first place – this is, after all, the director who made a film with a cast who were all under hypnosis…


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Women in sf reading challenge #2: Winterstrike, Liz Williams

Liz Williams is one of those British sf writers who was first published in the US. Her debut novel, The Ghost Sister, was shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award in 2001, but has never received a UK edition. It wasn’t until her second novel, Empire of Bones, that she had a novel published in the UK. And yet, despite writing more than a novel a year since then, and even being shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award in 2006 for Banner of Souls, she’s not a writer who seems to have impinged much on my map of the genre. I’m not entirely sure why. As far as I could tell, her science fiction was of a variety that would appeal to me. Yet I never bought or read one of her books. Perhaps it was because she seemed focused on her Detective Inspector Chen series of Chinese fantasy novels, which don’t interest me in the slightest.

Whatever the reason, it’s a lack I’ve now rectified. Winterstrike is the first book in a planned trilogy. It was first published in 2008, although no sequels have yet to appear. It is set on a far-future Mars which bears very little resemblance to the Mars of science fact. Parts of the story take place on Earth, which is also greatly changed.

There’s a lot of praise for Winterstrike and Liz Williams reproduced on the covers of the paperback edition I read. So it would not have been unrealistic to have high expectations of the book. Perhaps they were too high. While I enjoyed Winterstrike, and thought parts of it very good, it left me overall feeling a little underwhelmed. It may well be that the misleading back-cover blurb didn’t help. It claims the novel is about Hestia Mar who has been sent to Caud, an enemy city-state, “to recover details of an ancient weapon”. Which she finds and passes to her home city of Winterstrike, an act which “has virtually guaranteed the use of the weapon”. Her cousin Essegui, meanwhile, “discovers a plot by creatures who hold the secrets of the Martian past, and its future”. Which all sounds very exciting and science-fictional, but is no real preparation for what the story actually describes.

Hestia is indeed a spy for Winterstrike, looking for data on an ancient weapon in Caud. But when she finds it and passes the data back to her handler, the effects of the weapon’s use are not described until near the end of the novel; and even then it’s peripheral to the main plot. Hestia’s story meanwhile goes off on an entirely different path: while returning to Winterstrike from Caud, she finds herself in the ghostly city of the Noumenon, and stumbles across the army of Mantis, a clone of an ancient despot. Essegui, on the other hand, is searching for her sister, Shorn, who has escaped after being imprisoned in her room for consorting with a man-remnant. But Shorn is not really Eseegui’s sister, nor in fact is she really human. Also important is Earth’s Centipede Queen, who has come to Mars to find Shorn, for reasons not fully disclosed, but which result in Hestia travelling to Earth to tell them their queen has gone missing…

The two main narratives of Winterstrike, Hestia’s and Essegui’s, frequently come close to touching but never quite meet. But they do overlap, often taking place in the same parts of Mars. Such a carefully-braided plot is not especially unusual, but the voices of the two characters are so similar it is sometimes hard to distinguish between them. It’s only when Hestia reaches Earth that the locales differentiate the two threads sufficiently to keep them separate in the mind of the reader. Even then, the novel never quite reveals what’s going on. When Shorn is revealed as a bio-engineered experiment, it comes as a surprise because there’d been no foreshadowing in her character, nor had the existence of the technology to do it been mentioned earlier. Admittedly, this does remain true to the points of view of the narrators, but the revelation still feels abrupt.

As indeed do many of the book’s other revelations. It’s difficult to sense the shape of the story because Hestia and Essegui are in thrall to forces they don’t understand, and their narratives do not allow for an omniscient viewpoint to give the reader greater knowledge. This is not as claustrophobic as it might suggest, but it does mean much of the story has to be read on faith.

Throughout Winterstrike, Williams uses an invented vocabulary to describe many elements of the world,  her word-choices often giving the novel a flavour similar to Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun. Unlike Wolfe, Williams has not used real obsolete or antique terms. For example, the Changed, the bio-engineered races of humanity on Mars and Earth, include vulpen, kappa and demothea. I googled the last word, wondering if it had any mythological meaning… and discovered that  it’s apparently a boy’s name from the Wild West and means “one who talks while walking”. Which, I suspect, was not the intended meaning in Winterstrike. None of Williams’ invented terms are glossed, or entirely clear from context; and it often takes a while for their precise meaning to come clear.

I wanted to like Winterstrike more than I did. The Mars Williams has created is bizarre and fascinating, but, while described as a matriarchy, there didn’t seem much that was, well, especially female about it. In fact, for much of the story, Mars might well have been an alien world and its inhabitants entirely unrelated to humanity. I’d like to read the next two books in the trilogy, but I shall not be waiting with bated breath for them. This is not to say Winterstrike is a bad book, just that I didn’t take to it as much as I had expected. But I may very well try Williams’ other sf novels should I come across them.