Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Recent Reading Roundup

Or, A Desperate Search for Something to Write About.... If a book really impresses me, I'll write about it on this blog. Which means those I don't mention are mostly, well, meh. Which in turn makes me wonder why I'm bothering to mention them. But never mind.

I have in the past few weeks read:

Viator, Lucius Shepard (2004), reads like Shepard is channelling Ballard, who is in turn channelling Borges. The title is the name of a ship which has run aground on the Alaska coast near the small town of Kaliaska. Tom Wilander is one of five men of Scandinavian ancestry living aboard the ship and ostensibly preparing it for salvage. The novella's central premise is one Shepard used again in the Hugo and Nebula nominated 'Stars Seen Through Stone'. Like that novella, Viator's story is carried by its main character and his relationships with others; unlike that novella, in Viator Shepard attempts a rational explanation for the events of the story.

The Enemy Stars, Poul Anderson (1958), was shortlisted for the Hugo in 1959 under its serialised version's title, 'We Have Fed Our Sea'. It's fairly typical of the time. Sf writers in those days used to just make shit up, and the lack of rigour or plausibility, or even logical consistency, seems weird nowadays. No wonder sf has ended up with the reputation it has. There are various mentions of "computational machines" and "databanks"... and yet a character pulls out a sliderule to calculate a starship's orbit. Did Golden Age authors actually bother to think about what they were writing?

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (1953). Truffaut's film adaptation is one of my favourite genre films, so I thought it was about time I read the book. It is after all a sf classic. But, oh dear. It's terrible. Lots of whinging and moaning by Montag. Lots of lectures by Clarissa, Beatty, Faber and assorted others. Dull, dull, dull. And none of it makes any sense - books banned for generations, but people can still read? There goes the logical consistency again. (And yes, the same criticism can be levelled at the film, but still....)

Seeds of Earth, Mike Cobley (2009). See here.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis (1950), is a beloved classic. Allegedly. I have vague memories of the Narnia books, although whether I read them as a kid or just picked up the story by cultural osmosis I've no idea. Unfortunately, the book's somewhat patronising hectoring style grated, the talking animals were juvenile, and the one-note characterisation made for an uninvolving read. Don't know if I'll bother reading the rest of the series.

A Fire Upon The Deep, Vernor Vinge (1992), I read for a LT group read. I remember being really impressed by this novel when I read it shortly after publication. It's aged more gracefully than many books of that period, but not even "fruit micro-oils" or "pentapeptides" can hide the wrinkles. The novel makes much of a galactic USENET, and that now reads as somewhat quaint. It doesn't help that USENET embodied a pretty much heterogeneous culture but in the book it's supposed to be used by millions of alien races. So not much about it seems especially alien. Still, the Zones of Thought is a neat idea, the Tines are cleverly done, and it's an entertaining read.

The Six Directions of Space, Alastair Reynolds (2009), is a new novella from Subterranean Press. It's set in an alternate future in which the Mongols have an interstellar empire, a result of their discovery of a mysterious alien interstellar network. The Mongol future adds an interesting spin to an idea that's been done before - Andrew M Stephenson's Nightwatch, William Barton & Michael Capobianco's White Light, and Sean Williams' Geodesica duology, all leap to mind. Having said that, The Six Directions of Space then takes off in an unexpected direction. So-called classics of the Golden Age just can't compare to sf such as this, and I fail to understand why anyone would sooner recommend some graceless and simplistic piece of crap by Asimov.

Millennium, John Varley (1983), is the novelisation of an early screenplay for a film adapted from one of my favourite sf short stories, Varley's 'Air Raid'. The film which was eventually made is unfortunately rubbish. But the novel is much better. On reread, the novel struck me as far more Heinlein-esque than I'd remembered. Perhaps that's something you grow out of - Heinlein works for teenagers, but like all childish things should be put away in adulthood. But it's only the character Bill Smith who especially reminds me of Heinlein's works, and he's soon completely out of his depth and the likeness no longer holds true. (A Heinlein hero would never be anything except completely in control, of course.)

Star King, Jack Vance (1964). See here.

Moon Shot, Alan Shepard & Deke Slayton (1994). See here.

I also watched a few films during the same period. They were:

La Grande Illusion, dir. Jean Renoir (1937), is a World War I prisoner-of-war film. It was entertaining and the dialogue was nicely witty, but it also felt like a string of POW movie clichés knitted together into a story. Time can do that to films....

Fando y Lis, dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky (1968). Jodorowsky is a singular genius. In other words, he's barking mad. Fando y Lis was his first feature film, and its premiere in Mexico City apparently caused a riot. It's not as bizarre a film as his later El Topo or The Holy Mountain, but neither is it entirely sane. Some elements worked really well - I was, for example, much taken by the jazz cocktail party in the ruins, during which an upright piano is set on fire.

Rollerball, Norman Jewison (1975). There's something about 1970s visions of the future I find strangely appealing. All those Brutalist buildings with interiors which appear as though they ought to be offended by the mere presence of people. If there's one image which sums up the period for me, it's the mainframe data centre - antiseptic décor, whirring tape reels, chunky moulded terminals and monochrome CRTs.... It promised so much and yet delivered so little. As for Rollerball: well, the eponymous sport isn't the best bit about the film - in fact that looks a bit silly and nowhere near as lethal as is implied. No, the best bits are James Caan lolling about his mansion with a succession of paid "companions", the "executive" cocktail party, and Sir Ralph Richardson as the librarian. And all that Brutalist architecture, of course. All it needed for a win of epic proportions was some Apollo Programme technology.

Sky Captain & the World Of Tomorrow, Kerry Conran (2004), was a rewatch. I've always felt this film received short shrift on its release. It failed to do well because it was too true to the pulp serials which inspired it - it not only aped their look and feel, but also borrowed their narrative mechanism. And that didn't go down to well with modern audiences. This viewing of the film didn't cause me to change my mind, although I thought perhaps it was also too consciously arty for a modern multiscreen audience. It's all very well blowing shit up, but not in a palette of washed out blues. I still think it's an under-rated film, though.

Lady Chatterley, Pascale Ferran (2006), was a rental, and I don't remember why I stuck this on my list. But I'm glad I did. It's an adaptation of DH Lawrence's John Thomas and Lady Jane, an earlier alternative version of Lady Chatterley's Lover. In French. It was a little odd to watch a French film adapted from such a well-known English novel. But, despite that "cognitive dissonance", I thought Lady Chatterley an excellent film, with the sort of languid and elegiac pace, and detailed eye, of a Tarkovsky film. I fully expect the film to make my top five films at the end of the year.

Avalon, Mamorus Oshii (2001), was another rewatch. This film really impressed me when I first saw it. The special effects struck me at the time as jaw-dropping and, happily, still seemed impressive this time around. The story is, perhaps, none too original, but it's handled well. And it looks gorgeous.

Watchmen, dir. Zack Snyder (2009) - no, I didn't think it was as good as many others did. Although it was a great deal better than the execrable 300. I felt Watchmen was too faithful to the comic, and what works on the page doesn't necessarily work on the screen. Some of the monologues were cringe-worthy. And why were all the Watchmen superheroes? In the comic, they're just costumed vigilantes; only Dr Manhattan has real superpowers. The story flagged badly in the middle, and comic-book introspection sounds pretentious in a film. Also, Rohrschach appeared to be channelling Clint Eastwood, and The Comedian looked way too much like Robert Downey Jr to be taken seriously (should you take a man called The Comedian seriously? Just how much irony can you shoehorn into a superhero film?). All the same, I'll be getting the DVD.

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, Guillermo del Toro (2008). I liked the first Hellboy film, but I'd heard this one wasn't as good. It wasn't. Despite the excellent visuals, and some impressive set-pieces, it felt flat throughout. The characters just didn't seem to do much. Abe was pushed centre-stage through his love affair with Princess Nuala, but still felt less of a character than he had in the first film. The ectoplasmic Johann Krauss, however, just struck an entirely wrong comedic note. Disappointing.

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