Tuesday, 15 December 2009

This blog is no more, it has ceased to be...

... well, it has moved. To here, to be precise. This one will no longer be updated, and the content here will soon enough disappear. Please update your links, feeds, etc.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Having my mind melded

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

Readings & Watchings

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?

The Informers, dir. Gregor Jordan (2008), I reviewed for VideoVista - see here.

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

The 2010 Reading Challenge

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:

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.

Reading Challenge #11 - To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip José Farmer

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

Science Fiction is the literature of the future

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.

DVD review online

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.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Robert Holdstock 1948 - 2009

I was very saddened to hear of the death of Robert Holdstock yesterday, 29 November 2009. His novel Where Time Winds Blow is a favourite of mine - and has been mentioned several times on this blog. It was one of the books I read as part of my 2007 Reading Challenge of rereading all my favourite sf novels (see here), and also was one of the books I listed in the "fifteen books that have affected you most, and will always stay with you" meme (see here). I recommend it to people regularly. I have two copies of the book a first edition hardback and a paperback - both are signed.

I only met Rob Holdstock on a couple of occasions. He was a genuinely nice bloke. He will be missed. But at least we still have his books.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Reading Challenge #10 - Radix AA Attanasio

When I decided this year to reread books I remembered fondly from my teens, it was a given that some - if not all - might not survive the experience. After all, I'd like to think I'm a more discerning reader now. I'm certainly a more experienced one. And what I look for, and expect to find, in fiction has changed a great deal over the past few decades. So, ten months in, and the results of this year's reading challenge have not been entirely unexpected - and yet, there have been surprises too. I hadn't expected to hate The Stainless Steel Rat so much that I'd purge my book-shelves of it and its sequels. I hadn't expected The Left Hand of Darkness to impress me so much all over again.

And so, for October, albeit somewhat late, we come to Radix, AA Attanasio's debut novel. Which I'd expected to survive a reread. (The cover below is not the edition I own - a Corgi B-format paperback from 1983 - although mine does also feature a naked man.)

I don't think anyone would ever describe Radix as a "classic", although it was shortlisted for the Nebula Award in 1981. Certainly it impressed me enough on my first reading that I subsequently followed Attanasio's career, buying and reading each of his novels as they hit paperback. And during the 1980s and 1990s, Attanasio churned out a succession of well-regarded and reasonably successful genre novels. Not all were sf - for example, Wyvern was an historical novel, the Arthor series was fantasy, and The Moon's Wife was an urban fantasy. At the start of the new century, however, Attanasio seemed to drop from sight. He returned only recently, with a pair of YA fantasies.

But, Radix. In this book, the Earth has moved into the path of a Line of energy being broadcast from the centre of the galaxy. This energy was generated in another dimension, and has had catastrophic effects on the planet. In the thirty-fourth century, when the novel opens, Earth is very different. There is a map at the front of Radix, which depicts an area of North America (with north and south swapped), but which bears little or no resemblance to any territory from a real-world atlas. This is where the story takes place.

Sumner Kagan is a fat, lazy, teenaged slob. He's also a serial killer - he puts together complicated plans in which he lures gang members who have humiliated him into traps, and then he kills them. Kagan is also the father of Corby, a voor-human hybrid who is a sort of voor messiah. The voors are an alien race with psionic powers, who have travelled to the Earth along the Line and taken human form. Kagan is arrested, beaten to near-death by the police, and sent to a penal camp in the jungle. The commandant there makes Kagan his personal project, giving him tasks which improve his physique, fitness, strength and agility, with the aim of selling him later as a slave. But Kagan escapes, and ends up joining the special forces. He trains in a swamp, goes on several missions, suffers burn-out, and ends up living with a tribe of mutants on the edge of a desert...

There's a lot to get through in Radix. Especially since the above - the history of Sumner Kagan - is only the build-up to what the novel is really about. Which is: when the Earth moved into the Line in the early twenty-second century, a "godmind" called the Delph took up residence in the mind of an Israeli pilot, Jac Halevy-Cohen. The Delph has more or less dominated the Earth ever since. Sumner Kagan is the Delph's "eth", "a fear-reflection that haunted him in many human forms", as the glossary has it. Yes, Radix has a glossary.

For three-quarters of Radix, Kagan is honed and tempered for a final confrontation - but not with the Delph, with the AI it created to manage its affairs, Rubeus, and which has turned megalomaniacal. Along the way there's lots of weird New Age-y stuff, little of which seems to add much to the story. In fact, Radix is very much a book of two halves - there's the straightforward sf story recounting Kagan's adventures; and there's the underlying battle between Rubeus and the eth, fought with the assistance of the voors (especially Corby, who is disembodied and takes up residence in Kagan's mind). It makes for an odd reading experience...

... and one, sadly, that these days I have less patience for than I once had. Radix reads like a bizarre cross between Dune and Samuel R Delany, and I admire both. But in Radix, Attanasio was either trying too hard, or not fully in command of his prose style, because his attempts at Delany-esque language are not always successful - "He was a shark slendering...", "The presence of people was palpable as blood", "a dreamworld had intrigued into reality"...

Having said that, Attansio's world-building in the novel is very good. He has created an interesting backdrop for his story, and he uses it well. It is in that respect, and in the character journey undertaken by Kagan, that Radix most resembles Dune - well, that and its appendices, comprising a timeline, character profiles and a glossary.

Incidentally, Radix is actually the first book in a thematic "tetrad". The sequels are: In Other Worlds, Arc of the Dream and The Last Legends of Earth.

I've read Radix several times during the past twenty-six years, but I suspect it's one of those books I remember as being better than it actually is. It starts off well enough, and some of the set-pieces are very good, but when the New Age-y stuff starts to overwhelm the plot then my eyes start to glaze and find myself looking around for something else to read. I'll keep the book on my book-shelves, but I'll not be rereading it again in the foreseeable future.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Readings & Watchings

Somewhat later than usual, but here's the usual roundup of readings and watchings...

The Chimpanzee Complex 1: Paradox, Richard Marazano & Jean-Michel Ponzio (2009), is another European graphic novel published in English by Cinebook. The opening is a killer. It's 2035, and an unidentified spacecraft is detected heading for a crash-landing in the Pacific Ocean. The US Navy sends a flotilla to intercept it. The spacecraft proves to be... the Apollo 11 capsule, containing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. So who were the three astronauts who returned to Earth in 1969? Unfortunately, Paradox can't quite keep the sheer effrontery of that opening premise going. The military determine that the reappearance of Armstrong and Aldrin justifies a trip to the Moon, which subsequently takes place. Clues then point to an unknown Soviet mission to Mars contemporary with Apollo. So off they head to the Red Planet. Paradox is done well, with excellent artwork, and designs that have clearly been thought about. The sequels, The Sons of Ares and Civilisation, are already on my wants list.

Orbital 2: Ruptures, Serge Pellé & Sylvain Runberg (2007), is the sequel to Orbital 1: Scars, and continues immediately from it. The secret of the world of Senestam proves to be less than inventive than I'd expected, but Pellé and Runberg still tell a well-rounded story with excellent artwork. For a sf graphic novel, it's surprisingly political - which is no bad thing. Apparently, two more books have been, or are due to be, published in France: Nomads and Ravages. Hopefully, they'll be published in English by Cinebooks soon. Interestingly, according to an interview here, Runberg claims Iain M Banks's Culture novels as an inspiration for Orbital.

T is for Trespass, Sue Grafton (2008), is the latest in the continuing alphabetical adventures of Kinsey Millhone, a private investigator in an invented city north of Los Angeles. The next, U is for Undertow, is due to be published in January 2010. Grafton has my respect for keeping this series going for so long, and managing to keep the characters and world consistent throughout. Since the books began in the early 1980s, and the internal chronology doesn't map onto the real world, T is for Trespass takes place in late 1987. In this one, an elderly neighbour takes a tumble and is too injured to look after himself, so his niece hires a nurse to look after him. But the nurse is a sociopath who makes a living from selling off her charges' assets, emptying their bank accounts, and then murdering them.

The Translator, Leila Aboulela (1999), is the first novel by a Sudanese writer, who was resident in Aberdeen but apparently now lives in Abu Dhabi. The title character is Sammar, a Sudanese widow living in Aberdeen. She translates work for the university and becomes involved with a Scottish Islamic expert, Rae Isles. I'm in two minds about this one - Sammar frequently describes things as though she is seeing them "through fog and mist", and that's what reading this book felt like. I like lyrical prose, but this often felt over-done.

An April Shroud, Reginald Hill (1975), is an early Dalziel & Pascoe novel, and not an especially memorable one. Pascoe gets married and disappears off into the wilds of Lincolnshire for his honeymoon. Which leaves Dalziel on his own in the county. He falls in with a dysfunctional family who live in a manor house, and when people start turning up dead he realises he's become much too close to the family. I've read a fair number of the books in this series, but reading early books in series with which you're familiar isn't always a good idea.

The Brains of Earth/The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph, Jack Vance (1966), is an Ace double with a pair of early Vances back-to-back. The Brains of Earth is, well, just plain silly. An alien race have decimated their world in a battle to rid themselves of invisible mind-parasites, and now they have determined to clean Earth of the selfsame parasites. so they recruit an Earthman to do it for them. Except it proves to be more complicated that that. Despite nearly inventing dark matter, this isn't Vance's best by a long way. The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph, a collection of shorts from the late 1940s and early 1950s, is better. Ridolph is part Cugel and part Kirth Gersen, and the stories read like early trying-out of plots for both of them. Both books are for completists only.

Of Worlds Beyond, edited by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach (1947), is a 1964 reprint of a compilation of essays on writing science fiction by well-known writers from the early days of the genre - Robert Heinlein, Jack Williamson, EE Doc Smith, L Sprague du Camp, AE van Vogt, John W Campbell... Not, you would have thought, the best people from whom to take writing advice, given that none of them were especially good writers. But then writing per se was not seen as important in sf in those days - or even nowadays, according to some. The interesting thing about these essays is the fixity of opinion of the writers. There's a right way and a wrong way - and their way is the right way. The fact that each author's way is different, and each has been successful, doesn't to them mean their way is not the one true way to writing publishable science fiction. An historical curiosity.

Radix, AA Attanasio (1981), was October's reading challenge novel, and I'll be posting a piece here on it shortly.

Islands, John Fowles and Fay Godwin (1978), is a coffee-table book about the Scillies, with text by Fowles and black and white photos by Godwin. Fowles' prose is good, but the book seems neither one thing nor the other - it's not big enough or glossy enough to be a proper coffee-table book; it's not informative enough to be a guidebook (nor are the photos - admittedly very nice - useful in that regard); and it's not personal enough (cf Lawrence Durrell's The Greek Islands) to be a book by and about Fowles...

My Death, Lisa Tuttle (2004), is a PS Publishing novella I bought in their recent sale. The narrator is an American writer resident in Scotland, as Tuttle is an American writer resident in Scotland. Her career has suffered after the recent death of her husband, and in an effort to find a project to pull her life back together, she decides to write a biography of early feminist novelist Helen Ralston. Who was also an American writer resident in Scotland. My Death ends twice - although one feels somewhat rushed - and each end gives an entirely different complexion to the story. Recommended

The Clock King and the Queen of the Hourglass, Vera Nazarian (2005), is another PS Publishing novella I bought in their sale. I thought this looked interesting when it was published, but never got around to buying it until recently. And... it's not as interesting as I'd expected. In the distant future, Earth's last civilisation creates a young woman to a much older genetic template. She is intended to mate with the Clock King, a man who is held in stasis for generations, and then brought for a short period... to mate with the young woman. The prose has its moments, but feels stilted in places; the world-building is a bit perfunctory; and the story is not entirely original. Overall, it felt like a valiant attempt to do something that someone else once did, only memories of the original one insisted it was better...

Age of Bronze: Betrayal Vol 3 Part 1, Eric Shanower (2008), is the first half of the third part of Shanower's graphic novel retelling of the Trojan War. As comics go, this is a busy one, but there's a lot to get through. Shanower is trying to be as authentic as possible, and each book includes an extensive bibliography. If it's a bit soap-opera-ish in places, that's perhaps from a need to humanise a story originally told using an entirely different story-telling paradigm.

Journey into Space, Toby Litt (2008). Lately a number of literary authors have written sf novels - more so than in earlier years, anyway. Some were happy to say their books were science fiction; others did all they could to distance their novels from the genre. Litt is one of the former - the Penguin web site describes Journey into Space as "science fiction at its most classic and beguiling: timeless, vast in scope and daring in execution". Not that anyone would believe if he said it wasn't sf: it's set aboard a generation spaceship, which is very much a genre staple. Having said that, it's clear Litt isn't actually a sf writer. In parts, Journey into Space felt more like a writing exercise than an exploration of its ideas. And literary authors are often too diffident when deploying sf tropes, and that lack of confidence gives their novels a peculiar apologetic air, which often reads as old-fashioned genre-wise. I like literary fiction and I like sf, and I've been mostly dissatisfied by literary authors' attempts at science fiction. Isn't it about time a sf writer upped their game and wrote a proper literary sf novel?

Marooned, dir. John Sturges (1969), features a subject I find appealing but which is typically done badly by Hollywood - the Space Race. Marooned is based on a novel by Martin Caidin, who wrote a number of books on space and space exploration, both fiction and non-fiction. In Marooned, the crew of an Apollo spacecraft are stuck in orbit after their retro-rockets fail. They've just spent the last five months in Skylab-like space station, so they're not at their best. And their oxygen is running out. Cue rescue mission - sticking an experimental lifting body on top of a Titan launcher, and launching in the eye of a hurricane. The film-makers tried hard, especially at depicting zero gravity; but a lot looked wrong. The spacesuits, for example, looked mostly authentic, but had these cheap-looking red plastic helmets which looked silly. And the stock footage used for the launches mixed and matched Saturn V, Saturn IB, and Titan. Oh, and for men who had the "right stuff", the marooned astronauts fell apart surprisingly quickly...

Annie Hall, dir. Woody Allen (1977) - I'm not an Allen fan. In fact, I dislike his films. But this is supposed to be one of his best, so I thought I'd give it a go. And... I found it mostly annoying. The only bit that amused me was when Allen dragged Marshall McLuhan into the frame from off-screen to prove that someone was misquoting him.

Blindness, dir.Fernando Mireilles (2008), was something of a surprise. I expected to enjoy this - a serious adaptation of a high concept literary/sf novel by a Portuguese writer. But I absolutely hated it. The plot is simple - people start to go blind, and because of fears of infection they are locked up in quarantine compounds. And in those compounds, society quickly breaks down. The speed with which the blind people turn into animals irritated me, their passivity in the face of threats of violence, their inability to rise above their situation... It probably works well in a novel, but in a film it makes for an excruciatingly dull and annoying experience.

Stranded, dir. María Lidón (2001), is an independent Spanish-made film about a group of astronauts who are, well, stranded on Mars. Plot-wise, it's similar to Brian de Palma's 2000 film Mission To Mars - astronauts are marooned on the Red Planet, but are saved by mysterious aliens. But in Stranded it's the artefacts left by long-dead aliens which save the day. Considering that it was made for a twentieth of the cost of de Palma's film, Stranded isn't bad. It looks a bit cheap in places, and the characters are straight out of Central Casting, but it's eminently watchable.

A Thousand Months, dir. Faouzi Bensaïdi (2003), is a Moroccan film and is one of those films with several intersecting stories. Some parts of it were amusing, such as the man who controlled the local television transmitter and would turn it off during the middle of a popular soap opera because he enjoyed being popular as the only person who knew what happened in it. Overall, a slow film but worth persevering.

Role Models, dir. David Wain (2008), I didn't expect to like as much as I did. A pair of typical Hollywood dickheads have to mentor a kid each after being sentenced to fifty days of community service. It's all typically Hollywood affirming life-lessons rubbish, but it's also very amusing. Jayne Lynch, the founder of the mentoring programme the two join, speaks an inspired line in gibberish. And having one of the kids into live role-playing was different.

The Keeper, dir. Keoni Waxman (2009), I reviewed for videovista.net - see here.

Fragments, dir. Rowan Woods (2008), I also reviewed for videovista.net - see here.

The Gold Rush, dir. Charlie Chaplin (1925), is one of the American Film Institute's 100 Movies - 10th Anniversary Edition, but I can't say I enjoyed it all that much. Chaplin plays a prospector in the Alaska Gold Rush. There are some funny set pieces, but most of the film is embarrassingly mawkish. The version I watched was narrated by Chaplin, and it's a bit weird watching something on the screen while a voice tells you what you're seeing.

The Baader-Meinhof Complex, dir. Uli Edel (2008), tells the story of the Red Army Faction, a German terrorist group responsible for a number of murders and attacks during the 1970s. The film never quite engages with terrorists' rhetoric, perhaps in an attempt to make them more sympathetic (which they'd need to be to carry the film). Their path to violence is clearly shown - while the film shows their response is extreme, it doesn't present many alternatives. The groups mistreatment by the authorities after their arrest is also shown in detail. The Baader-Meinhof Complex does feel a little too slanted towards its subjects, which can make for uncomfortable viewing; but it's still worth seeing.

Dragon, dir. Leigh Scott (2006), is a low-budget sword and sorcery film, and it shows. The acting was terrible, the CGI was poor, and the dialogue was cringe-inducing. One actor couldn't decide if he had an American accent or a Northern Irish accent. I can remember little of the plot - lots of badly-staged sword-fights in some woods, that's about all. Avoid.

Bridge To Terabithia, dir. Gábor Csupó (2007). Hollywood never lets a good idea go to waste. Children's fantasies are doing well at the box office, so they dig up as many as they can find and adapt them - Narnia, The Golden Compass, Inkheart, City Of Ember, The Dark Is Rising... and now Bridge To Terabithia. Except this one is a bit different. Two lonely kids make friends and invent a fantasy land in a wood near where they live. So it's not explicitly fantasy - either secondary world, or hidden mythology. I quite enjoyed it.

Planet Of The Apes, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, Escape From The Planet Of The Apes, Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes and Battle For The Planet Of The Apes. I bought the boxed set containing these films cheap on eBay since I fancied watching them. The first two I knew I'd seen before, but some of the others I was less certain. I remember seeing one back in the 1970s when we lived in Oman. The cinema was at the army barracks in Ruwais - the side of one of the buildings was the screen, and auditorium was an area surrounded by a barasti fence and containing folding chairs. In the event, it turned out I'd seen the first four before; but I don't think I missed anything by never having seen the fifth. The quality plummets as the series continues. By Escape From The Planet Of The Apes, much of the plot is carried by characters explaining it to each other, and both Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes and Battle For The Planet Of The Apes start with extended recaps of the entire series from the beginning. The original has its moments, and it has one of sf cinema's great endings; but they should have stopped there.

Red Planet, dir. Antony Hoffman (2000), is the second of two Mars films from that year - the other is Brian de Palma's Mission To Mars. And it's hard to say which of the two is the best. De Palma's is more realistic... up until the third act, where mysterious aliens show up and save the day. Red Planet is less realistic upfront - the Mars 1 spacecraft is too sf-nal to be plausible - but its plot and ending doesn't involve an alien super-race. Unfortunately, it suffers from having an mostly unlikeable cast, and you don't really care if they all die on Mars.

Monday, 2 November 2009

DVD reviews online

This month's Videovista is now up with my reviews of Fragments (see here) and Steven Seagal's The Keeper (see here).

Sunday, 25 October 2009

That sound you hear is my ears ringing

It's been a musical week for me. On Tuesday 20 October, I saw Tinariwen in concert. They're a Tuareg band from Mali. I've liked their music since seeing a documentary on the Festival in the Desert seven or eight years ago. They proved much better live than I expected. I bought their new album, Imidiwan: Companions, at the gig, and it's better than the previous one. Here's some Tinariwen:

And then I spent Saturday 24 October in Leeds at the Damnation Festival. I'd thought about going to this the last couple of years, but the line-up never appealed. This year, it definitely did. I got to see three bands I like a great deal - Mithras, Anathema and Akercocke. Mithras played with their new line-up, with Sam Bean, ex-The Berzerker, replacing Rayner Coss on bass and vocals. Anathema performed a somewhat over-the-top "best of" set, but it was bloody good. Akercocke weren't wearing suits. Also there were Rotting Christ, whose last album Theogonia is good. The headline act was Life of Agony, but I wasn't too impressed. But still, a good festival - much better than I'd expected.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

People of Fact in Fiction

There's an interesting article on the Aqueduct Press blog regarding the use of real - dead or alive, historical or celebrity - people in fiction. This has apparently been kicked off by AS Byatt's comments on Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Byatt has said in an interview that it is "appropriation of others' lives and privacy", and "I really don't like the idea of 'basing' a character on someone, and these days I don't like the idea of going into the mind of the real unknown dead."

As a writer of science fiction, how relevant is this to me? After all, sf is set in the future, right? In space. With aliens. It's not real.

Well, yes it is.

Science fiction is as real as any other genre. Sf is not just spaceships and robots. Sf is not divorced from, or irrelevant to, the real world.

I don't have a problem with fiction writers using real people in their stories. I've done it myself. I've even had it done to me - I've been horribly dismembered in at least two stories by writer Jim Steel.

But I do have a problem with writers who confuse their fact with fiction.

On my Space Books blog, I've reviewed a number of books about the space race. And some of them have been written in a style which dramatises their subject, makes it more immediate, a more readable book and not a dry academic tome. It is presented almost as if it were fiction. When the non-fiction author describes what a person is thinking or feeling, with no citation or quote to show that this is what the person has said they thought or felt, then the author is writing fiction. But since their book is presented as fact, they're misleading the reader. I think that is wrong.

But for a fiction writer to use fact? It doesn't even require the "ironic distance" discussed in the Aqueduct Press piece. The text itself is fiction, and is pretty much always labelled as such. There may be other clues in the story - especially if it is alternate history.

Take, for example, my own flash story 'The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams' (available here). The story has three characters: Stuart A Roosa, Gerald P Carr and Paul J Weitz. It mentions two other people by name: Neil Armstrong and Iven Kincheloe. All five are real people. Three of them are still alive.

The story describes Apollo 20, a mission to the Moon which never took place. So it's alternate history. This might not, of course, be obvious to everyone. The US went to the Moon eight times, and landed twelve men on its surface. That it happened is known to everyone. The details of each mission may not be. So a lunar landing with Stuart Roosa and Gerald Carr could conceivably be misread as fact, if a reader didn't know the names of the twelve men who walked on the Moon.

Even the line "Apollo 20, the first mission to visit the dark side of the Moon" only really signals that 'The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams' is alternate history to someone who knows that the last Apollo mission was Apollo 17 (Apollo 18 was actually the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project), and that no Apollo mission visited the dark side of the Moon.

But 'The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams' is clearly labelled as "fiction".

I could have invented astronauts for the story - Commander Stu Bobbington and Lunar Module Pilot Gerry Freddison. I didn't have to use real ones. I could have crewed Apollo 20 with entirely made-up people.


I used real people because I find it interesting when fiction intersects the real world. 'The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams' is intended to read as feasible - its plausibility rests on its feasibility. By referencing real people, I bolstered its feasibility. Iven Kincheloe really did die in 1958. He was a test pilot, and had been selected in 1957 - along with Neil Armstrong - for the USAF Man in Space Soonest programme. Conspiracy theories have been built on less.

I didn't make a serious attempt to capture the characters of Roosa and the others - it's a 1,000 word story, after all. Some might consider that an unfair appropriation of their names. In fact, I'd originally written the piece with Jack R Lousma as the LMP - he was the most likely candidate for Apollo 20. But I had to read out the story and Roosa and Lousma sounded too similar, so I replaced Lousma with Carr, who was actually the planned LMP for Apollo 19.

When I made the change, I didn't rewrite the dialogue. As I said, the story is not an attempt to present real versions of the people. I've no idea if they talked the way I portrayed them. I don't especially care. It's their career baggage which interested me, and which added an additional dimension to my short story.

'The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams' is not the first time I've used real people in a piece of fiction. Another features World War I soldier-poet Wilfred Owen (it will be published next year). I'm sure there'll be other stories - some have to be told from the viewpoint of a real person; some real people need to have stories told about them. I see no reason why a writer should limit themselves by only using invented characters.

Of course, that doesn't mean you shouldn't research - the character needs to resemble the real person, or the reader won't recognise them for who they are. You can't just appropriate their names - Roosa's career mapped perfectly onto the plot of 'The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams; I didn't simply pick a random member of the astronaut corps. And besides, the final line simply doesn't work if I'd used a made-up name instead of Neil Armstrong. My Wilfred Owen story references his poetry and writings, and the plot hinges on the fact that he did not survive World War I.

There should be no limits on fiction. Start telling writers what they can and cannot do, and the readers will suffer as well. Imagination works best when it is unfettered.