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Wednesday, 9 December 2009
Sf Signal asked a bunch of people for their picks of the top five genre books, films and television of 2009. I was one of those people, and you can see my response here.
I'll be doing my usual best of the year here on this blog as well, of course, but it won't be limited to science fiction, fantasy or horror. And I'll admit now that at least two of the books in my top five are mainstream (as are many of the honourable mentions). Likewise with the films. And, rather than television, I'll be doing my best albums of the year.
My best of the year post should appear in a couple of weeks - I don't think I'll do it early because I still have a few books lined up for which I have high hopes...
Tuesday, 8 December 2009
The New Space Opera 2, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Gardner Dozois (2009), I'd been looking forward to after very much enjoying The New Space Opera. Sadly, I found it disappointing. I shall be writing about it here shortly.
All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy (1992), is the first in McCarthy's Border Trilogy. I still don't quite get the McCarthy thing. Yes, there's some lovely prose in this - especially when describing the landscape. But. It took me half the book to work out the story was set in 1949. The two lead characters are supposed to be sixteen-year-old boys but come across as adult men. The plot fell apart somewhat near the end, when the protagonists are released from Mexican prison for no good reason - not to mention their arrest in the first place. And I still don't understand McCarthy's bizarre punctuation - the lack of quotation marks I understand, but why no apostrophe on some, but not all, contractions? All the same, I think I shall read more of his books.
Without Me You're Nothing, Frank Herbert and Max Barnard (1980), I read because I went through a completist phase with Herbert's books last year. Without Me You're Nothing is an introduction to home computing and, as you can imagine given the year of publication, it makes for a somewhat peculiar read today. In some respects, it's almost prophetic; in others, it couldn't have been more wrong. Herbert suggests some future uses for computers which did indeed come true, but also thinks the price of UNIX will continue to rise (nowadays, of course, it's free). Strangely, the authors seem almost apoplectic in their denunciation of those involved in the industry, claiming they're deliberately obfuscating the technology in order to maintain their elite status. I suspect Herbert had a bad experience with someone who sold him a computer...
Brain Thief, Alexander Jablokov (2010), I reviewed for Interzone. So you'll have to buy the next issue to find out what I think of it.
Spies, Michael Frayn (2002), took a while to get going. The narrator returns to his childhood home and, like many novels of this type, tells the story of his time there while leading up to a life-changing event. Frayn takes his time getting to that event - it took place during World War II, and it all begins when the narrator's best friend declares that his mother is a Nazi spy. She isn't, of course; but neither is she entirely innocent. Once the story started gather speed - about a third of the way in - I started to enjoy it more. The "dark secret" isn't all that shocking, but it fits in with the rest of the story. Definitely worth reading.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde (1890), must have been the Twilight of its day. I was not impressed by this one bit. The central conceit is one of those which has entered public consciousness but it's not enough in my, er, book to forgive the novel's faults. The writing in The Picture of Dorian Gray was poor - characters lecturing each other, aphasic dialogue, book-saidism, and when was the last time you saw someone "knit their brows"? Yes, Wilde had a way with paradoxical aphorisms, and there are plenty of bon mots in this book. But as a novel, as a piece of long prose, this is not up to much.
Austerlitz, WG Sebald (2001), was my first Sebald, although I'd been wanting to try one of his books for a while. The entire novel is written as one great wodge of text, with no paragraphs, in long rambling sentences in which dialogue is often reported at two or three removes. There are also a number of photographs scattered throughout the book, some of which directly relate to the story at that point, others which are only peripherally related. It sounds as though Austerlitz might be a book to avoid but, on the contrary, it's one of the best novels I've read this year. Sebald's prose is extremely readable, and the story he tells - digressive and rambling though it is - works extremely well. The title doesn't refer to the Napoleonic battle, but is the name of a man the book's narrator meets at intervals over thirty years, and who tells him his life story. Austerlitz the man, who grew up in Wales, was actually born in Prague of Jewish parents who were interned by the Nazis. His story is not only a search for identity but also to discover the fate of his mother and father. Recommended.
Reference Guide to the International Space Station, Edited by Gary Kitmacher (2006), is a hardcopy edition by Apogee Books of a NASA book - which can be found as PDFs here. I reviewed it for my Space Books blog here.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip José Farmer (1971), was November's book for the reading challenge, read a little late. See my piece on it here.
The Sea, John Banville (2005), won the Man Booker in 2005, so I had high hopes for this. It's another literary novel like Frayn's Spies, in which a narrator revisits a place important to him during his childhood and gradually reveals an event which subsequently shaped his life. Perhaps I read The Sea too soon after Spies, but I found it a less satisfying read than Frayn's novel. I was also less enamoured of Banville's prose style - sometimes he just seemed to choose a word, or phrase, that didn't seem to be the best he could have used. As for The Sea's "dark secret", it's certainly more shocking than that in Spies, but it didn't actually seem to change the narrator's life as much. Disappointing.
Blood-Red Rivers, Jean-Christophe Grangé (1998), is the novel on which the film The Crimson Rivers was based. I quite like the film - yes, there's a disconcerting jump in story logic about two-thirds of the way through (note to film-makers: if you have to choose between pace or story logic, you've probably done something wrong). So I fancied reading the book, to see how it compared to the movie and... it joins the ranks of Marnie and The Commitments as one of those books which are not as good as their film adaptations. Blood-Red Rivers is poor stuff. I don't know if Grangé is just a bad writer, or was badly served by his translator, but Blood-Red Rivers contains Dan Brown levels of writing. The film also made a better fist of its plot. A book to avoid.
Pendulum, AE van Vogt (1978), is, well, is late van Vogt. I have a soft spot for van Vogt's fiction because much of it is engagingly bonkers. But by the 1970s, that bonkersness had turned into senility. How else to explain the crap stories in this collection? Van Vogt always made it up as he went along, writing 800-word scenes which ended on cliff-hangers. But in these stories, he drags in stuff from nowhere to try and make sense of plots that ceased making any kind of sense by the third page. Somewhere in van Vogt's career there must be a tipping point - good before that date, rubbish after. I need to find it, so I know which of his books to avoid. Sadly, that will probably involve reading a lot of the bad ones...
Encounters in the Deep, dir. Tonino Ricci (1989), is spaghetti sci-fi, and as good as that description suggests. A newly-married couple disappear while cruising off the coast of Florida, and their father bankrolls a scientist's expedition to search the area. They find a flying saucer on the sea bottom, and it's the aliens who have kidnapped the newly-weds. And a lot of other people. And there's this island which rises up out of the sea. And then sinks again when the UFO takes off. And I think my eyes had started to glaze over about twenty minutes into the film, so I have only a vague idea of what actually happened.
Skellig, dir. Annabel Jankel (2009) is an adaptation of David Almond's novel. I've not read the book - which was selected by the judges of the Carnegie Medal in 2007 as one of the ten most important children's novels of the past seventy years. That importance isn't as evident in the film, which is done well but has probably lost something in the transfer to the big screen. Michael and his parents have just moved into a new house, and Michael finds an old junkie hiding in the garden shed. This is Skellig, who is very odd and has strange growths on his back. Michael suspects Skellig may be an angel, and certainly he seems to have strange powers. Meanwhile, Michael's mother is pregnant but the baby is sickly when born and nearly dies. But Skellig saves her. A good film.
Manhattan, dir. Woody Allen (1979). Okay, so both Manhattan and Annie Hall regularly appear on "best of" film lists, but I've yet to understand why. Annie Hall was at least passable, but Manhattan is awful. A forty-two-year-old man is dating a seventeen-year-old schoolgirl and no one thinks he's a disgusting letch. Most of the cast appear to be there to stroke Allen's ego, while he himself continually whines and puts himself down - he wants to have his cake and eat it too. I think there's a plot in there somewhere, but I can't remember what it was. I was never a fan of Allen, but I'd always wondered if I was being unfair to him. I've now seen his two best films, and I thought they were terrible. So no, I wasn't being unfair.
Alienator, dir. Fred Olen Ray (1989), was completely and utterly pants. The title character is a female wrester (I think) in a silver fright wig. She's meant to be a cyborg assassin, sent to Earth to kill a prisoner who has escaped from a prison on some alien world (but which strangely resembles an earthly industrial plant). The prison warden is played by Jan-Michael Vincent of Airwolf fame, and I suspect he was pissed for the entire film. I probably should have been when I watched it.
Sci-Fighters, dir. Peter Svatek (1996), was a tiny fraction better than Alienator. Which makes it almost completely and utterly pants. Roddy Piper is a "black shield" detective, on the hunt for an ex-partner who had been sentenced to life at a penal colony on the Moon. But he died of some strange alien virus. So, of course, they shipped his body back to Earth... where he promptly came back to life, and then went on a rampage, infecting lots of other people with his alien disease. I never did figure out the relevance of the title.
The Decameron, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini (1971), is based on a series of novellas from fourteenth century Italy by Giovanni Boccaccio. The film is a series of linked comedy sketches, ranging from scatological (one character falls into a pit full of human shit) to ironic (a dumb gardener services each of the nuns at a convent, only to reveal that he could always speak). It's an entertaining romp, a sort of cross between a Carry On (but without the verbal wit) and a Hollywood swords & sandal epic made on a low budget. Worth seeing.
Chrysalis, dir. Julien Leclercq (2007), is a stylish French near-future thriller, which is pretty much a genre of its own these days. Police lieutenant David Hoffman loses his wife / police partner to a villain he has been chasing, and subsequently becomes involved in an investigation into the death of an unidentified young woman. His case leads him to a top plastic surgery clinic, which is using, er, cutting-edge technology for purposes other than the clinic's raison d'être. The blurb on the back of the jewel-case gives away the twist in Chrysalis, which spoiled it a bit. I'll not do the same. A pretty good film.
Empire of Ash, dir. Michael Mazo (1988) - yes, I watch some shit films; no, I don't really know why. This is one of those low-budget US post-apocalypse films that were churned out by the shed-load during the 1980s. I blame Mad Max. Despite the fact that civilisation has collapsed, the survivors still have trucks and guns. But not much in the way of clothes. Especially the women. They do have make-up, though. And everyone seems to have forgotten how to act. I think there was a plot in the film somewhere, but I don't recall what it was - good bunch of survivors fighting evil bunch of survivors, probably. Isn't that the plot all these sort of films use?
Stranger Than Fiction, dir. Marc Forster (2006), is one of those films which has a really neat idea at its core. But it also stars Will Ferrell. So I both wanted to watch it and avoid it. Neat idea... Will Ferrell. The premise won out... and, perversely, it turned out that the film only really worked because Ferrell played the lead. That neat idea didn't actually work that well - it was good for the first ten minutes, but then it started to slowly unravel. Still, the film was mostly entertaining and engaging. It was spoiled a bit by the fact that Emma Thompson's character is meant to be a Really Important Novelist, but the prose she read out wasn't actually very good...
Sunday, 6 December 2009
After the comments left on my post here, and some consultation with the members of the Science Fiction Fans group on LibraryThing, I have come up with a list of twelve fantasy novels for next year's reading challenge. Those books are:
- Pawn of Prophecy, David Eddings (1982)
- Magician, Raymond E Feist (1982)
- The Dragonbone Chair, Tad Williams (1988)
- Assassin's Apprentice, Robin Hobb (1995)
- King's Dragon, Kate Elliott (1997)
- Colours in the Steel, KJ Parker (1998)
- The Sum of All Men, David Farland (1998)
- The One Kingdom, Sean Russell (2001)
- The Darkness That Comes Before, R Scott Bakker (2003)
- The Wizard Hunters, Martha Wells (2003)
- The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie (2006)
- Winterbirth, Brian Ruckley (2006)
The plan is: each month I will read one of the above, and then blog about it. I won't just be considering the quality of the work in question - the writing, the plotting, the world-building, etc. - but also whether or not the book makes me want to continue reading the series. It should prove... informative. Some of the books I've chosen are quite hefty volumes, so it should also prove... strengthening.
I'd just like to reiterate that I won't be coming to modern / secondary world / Tolkienesque (whichever term you might prefer) fantasy completely cold. I've read Robert Jordan, George RR Martin, Steven Erikson... a whole bunch of fantasy. But none of the above, of course.
The list may change, depending on whether or not I can get hold of a chosen title. I already have Colours in the Steel on my book-shelves, so that'll be January's read.
Philip José Farmer's Riverworld series is recognised as a classic of the genre - it says so on the blurb of my 1981 paperback copy of To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first book in the series. The last time I read it was, I think, back in the mid-1980s. Like Ringworld (see here) and Rendezvous With Rama (see here), it's one of those sf novels which is overshadowed by a Big Dumb Object central to the story. In this case, it's Riverworld itself, a planet whose surface is one long river valley which weaves its away across the entire surface.
On reflection, that characterisation may be slightly unfair - yes, Riverworld qualifies as a BDO, but it's not that which is most often remembered about the Riverworld series. It's that Riverworld is entirely populated by the resurrected dead of Earth, from all regions and all ages. Including known historical figures.
And it's a historical figure who is the protagonist of To Your Scattered Bodies Go. He is Richard Burton, the Victorian explorer, discoverer of Lake Tanganyika, and translator of 1001 Nights and Kama Sutra. The novel opens with him waking up in a vast space, whose limits he cannot see, floating in some sort of clear gel and surrounded by rank upon rank of sleeping human beings. He attempts to escape, but is caught and returned to sleep... only to awake at the side of the River.
The entire population of Earth from its entire history has been dumped along the River. Burton finds himself the leader of a small group which includes Alice Liddell Hargreaves (Carroll's inspiration for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) and a number of fictional characters - including a Neanderthal (I think), and an alien from Tau Ceti (who apparently visited the Earth at the start of the twenty-first century).
Each person arrives on Riverworld with nothing but a "grail", which is a sort of tiffin tin. Every mile along the River are "grailstones", large mushroom-shaped stones with rings of depressions on their tops into which the grails fit. Twice a day, grails left in the depressions are filled with food, alcoholic drinks, soap, cigarettes, and other items. Initially, everyone is naked, and Farmer is keen to get this across, describing it more often than is really necessary. Later, the grails provide simple garments - kilts, halter-tops and the like.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go does not present a cheering vision of humanity. Not content with having the resurrected humans display the worst elements of their nature during the first few days after their arrival on Riverworld, Farmer later has them banding together to form small nations, most of which fight each other or run slave economies.
After several chapters in which Burton et al explore their immediate surroundings and build huts - and little else except violent encounters occur - he decides to build a boat and travel up the River. Which he does - on a large catamaran, with a crew of a dozen, including Alice, the caveman, the Tau Cetan, and several others of his group.
They travel a great distance - "exactly 415 days later, they had passed 24,900 grailrocks" - and see a great many people - "they must have passed an estimated 44,370,000 people, at least".
The journey comes to an abrupt end when the boat is attacked and its crew captured by a state ruled by Herman Goering and early Roman emperor Tullus Hostilius. These two have enslaved all those in their vicinity, letting them keep the food from their grails, but confiscating the luxury items - whiskey, narcotics, cigarettes, etc. Goering apparently managed to take control after whipping up anti-semitic feeling amongst the people around him.
Unfortunately, Riverworld, for all that its population contains all of human history, is nothing more than middle America. Farmer has obviously read a book on Richard Burton - perhaps even the one mentioned by another character, Burton: Arabian Nights Adventurer, Fairfax Downey (1931) - and so he made him his hero. But the Burton of To Your Scattered Bodies Go reads like an ordinary mid-twentieth century competent man, and his one historical quirk appears to be an impassioned defence - usually cut short - of writing a book repeatedly described as anti-semitic. In fact, To Your Scattered Bodies Go is full of anti-anti-semitism. Goering used anti-semitism as a route to power; one of the catamaran's crew is a twentieth-century Jew who argues repeatedly with Burton; and after being enslaved by Goering, Burton and the others are imprisoned with a group of Israelis. Strangely, there are no Arabs in To Your Scattered Bodies Go. And Burton, who spent so long in the Arab world - and was the first European to visit Makka - never discusses Islam.
Then there's the cigarettes... Yes, more people are alive today than have lived throughout history, but is it really plausible to expect cigarettes to feature so heavily in Riverworld? Perhaps it's understandable that a sf short story submitted to a US magazine of the mid-twentieth century would be so parochial, but I'd have expected more of novel. Admittedly, two parts of To Your Scattered Bodies Go were originally published as short stories - 'The Day of the Great Shout' in 1965, and 'Riverworld' in 1966.
More than this, the story's plot is fundamentally flawed. When Burton and the others are captured by Goering's mob and enslaved, they immediately begin plotting an escape. They manage to break out and, in fact, seize power and remake the state along more egalitarian lines. But the whole slavery thing is flawed. Everyone already knows that if they die they are resurrected again, although not in the same area in which they died. So they could try to escape their enslavers - if they fail and are killed, well, they'll just re-appear somewhere else. No one has any reason to accept slavery. Yet they do. It makes no sense.
And this means of "escape" later becomes a major plot point for Burton. He is being hunted by the builders of Riverworld - dubbed the "Ethicals" - and in order to stay out of their clutches, he repeatedly takes his own life - 777 times before finally being caught by them.
Like The Stainless Steel Rat earlier this year, To Your Scattered Bodies Go failed for me on this reread because it seemed little or no thought had been put into the story beyond its central premise. Burton is not a convincing recreation of the historical figure. And every period of history presented in the book is the same as twentieth-century America in its outlook and sensibilities. I need more than a neat idea for me to enjoy a story, and certainly more than that for me to think a story is any good. Perhaps it's not all that surprising that, in a genre in which it's now extremely difficult to come up with a new original idea because they've all been done, present-day sf readers tend to look at the stuff around the central premise - the world-building, the writing, rigour, plausibility, logic - in order to determine quality.
Despite my disappointment with To Your Scattered Bodies Go, I think I'll hang onto to my Riverworld boxed set for the time-being. I've never been a big fan of Farmer's fiction - in fact, I've always wanted to like his books more than I do, because he never seemed to approach the genre in an especially straight line like the other writers of his generation. One day, perhaps, I'll read more by him.
Friday, 4 December 2009
And by that I don't mean that science fiction is stories set in the future.
At this moment in time, in purely commercial terms, taking the genre as a whole, fantasy is outselling science fiction. Mark Charan Newton gives some reasons why on his blog here.
But that means what, exactly? That sf is at risk? that it's dying? that if this terrible state of affairs keeps up, there'll be no more science fiction?
Of course not.
These days, I suspect it's wrong to even call sf a genre. It's more of a culture set. Its styles and tropes, anything which might readily identify it, have been picked up by other genres, have been spun out to create yet other genres, have become in many respects a significant part of our cultural landscape.
(This doesn't mean I buy into the "we live in a science fiction world, so people don't want to read it" argument. The 1950s - atomic bombs! - and 1960s - the Apollo programme! - were pretty much science fiction worlds, and the genre was going strong then.)
As I said, science fiction has spread out into a number of diverse cultures - some it has infected, some it has generated fully-formed from its own brow. Cyberpunk, steampunk, military sf, for example. It has invaded popular film and television and computer games.
So sf is no longer a monolithic genre or culture. Add up everything that can be called "science fiction" and I think you'll find it outsells fantasy. It's not just literature anymore. Neither, of course, is fantasy - just look at the success of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films. But fantasy is not yet as pervasive as sf in the western cultural landscape.
(Yes, some forms of fantasy play a significant role in western culture; but not the form usually identified as fantasy literature - unlike that which is usually identified as science fiction literature.)
So yes, science fiction is the literature of the future because it is not just literature. It is a culture, it is pervasive. It is populating, and may soon dominate, our cultural landscape. Science fiction is not just the literature of the future, it is the future.
My review of The Informers, an adaptation of the novel by Bret East Ellis, is now up at VideoVista - see here.
Having seen Less Than Zero, American Psycho, Rules Of Attraction and now The Informers (we won't count American Psycho 2), I've yet to be convinced Ellis' novels are capable of good film adaptation. All of them have been unsatisfactory in one way or another. Perhaps it's his characters - they work over the length of a novel, where you at least have the prose; but in a movie they're simply too unlikeable or affectless to carry a story in such a short period of time.