Sunday, 25 April 2010

Millennium; and it felt like it was taking that long, and all

When I finished reading the first Millennium book, I was in a very rare state of mind; I was angry with a book. I am not a particularly equable person by temperament, and it's rare for me to get through twenty four hours without feeling the need to take a steak hammer to someone, but I don't often get angry with a book. After all, if the damn thing is boring or annoying me, it's easy to put it down and walk away. What makes me angry is knowing that I'm stuck with a person or a situation and that there's nothing I can do about it. But if you're reading a book or watching a TV programme, you just stop, and the provocation stops. So it is, indeed, rare for me to go all the way to the end of a book and be angry with it.

How did Stieg Larsson pull this off from beyond the grave?

In fact, when I was reading the first book I didn't know Larsson was dead, and I was so cross about my wasted time that when I found out he was dead, my response was thoroughly uncharitable. Larsson's dead? Good. Obviously God decided to call a halt to the endeavour. Apparently the original game plan for Larsson was that it would be the Millennium decalogy, but after three God felt we'd all been exposed to quite enough and called Stieg home. This was very meanspirited of me, and I'm not terribly proud of thinking it. Still, context is king. As far as I know, no-one has ever set out to write a decalogy without it being completely crap. The only completed on purpose decalogy I know of is L Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth sequence, which is the point made without me belabouring it. It might be true that everyone's got one book in them; it's definitely true that no-one's got ten GOOD books in them. A small number of very good writers might ultimately write more than ten good books in the course of their lives, but at any given time in a writer's life, there's just no chance at all that there's ten good books built up and ready to go.

But I obsess on mechanics to no purpose. What bugged me so much about the first book? Why didn't I like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Well, that's simple. I didn't like it because it was a bad book. And I was angry because the thing has been a gigantic mainstream success. I'd read a load of reviews that suggested that the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the best book of the year and such, so I trudged on through it for days of hard slog, waiting for it to live up to the hype.


There's a wonderful critique by Mark Twain of James Fenimore Cooper's writing in which he takes a sample chapter of the Deerslayer and rips into it for its crimes against English style. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is crying out for someone to hack his (or her) way past the critical adulation and make the simple points that the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is poorly written, has laughable characters and a plot which is almost, but not quite, as compelling as the Stockholm bus timetable. And man, does it ever drag. Larsson seems to mistake description for incident, and incident for action. The speed at which nothing happens is truly astonishing. It's one of those books by which you could teach people how NOT to write a book, except that it's so leaden and slow that it would be sadistic to use it when there's so many other crap novels out there which commit the same sins in real time.

Larsson was a famous journalist in Sweden, if that's not a contradiction in terms, and it seems to have dawned on him one day that there wasn't any outward difference between writing stories in a magazine and writing stories in a novel. Well, it's all typing, but there are differences.

A journalist writes about things which at least in principle are factual and provable. In general, you don't expect a journalist to be making it all up. On the other hand, if a novelist wasn't making it all up, you'd feel a bit short changed. Fiction's supposed to be made up stuff.

Much as with the helpless victim of the most withering (undelivered) putdown in literary history, there are things in Larsson's work which are interesting and there are things in it which are made up, but there's damn-all overlap between them. I think I might have been quite interested in a book of his journalism; there's a moment in the third book of the trilogy where one of the other characters (using that word loosely) has happened upon a good scoop and is getting ready to run with it which actually caught my interest. To give you an idea of the overall excitement level, it involves toilets. Once Larsson moves away from commentary on the weird reality of Sweden, however, the going gets very tough indeed.

I purposely put off commenting on the whole thing till I had read all three books, and had it not been for the fact that books 2 and 3 came into my keeping without me having to take any action, I might never have made any comment at all. Having had the other two books wished on me I thought what the heck; maybe it's just me. I'll try to work my way through the other two and see if they're any better. Nope. They're not actually any worse, but they're no better.

The problem is three fold. Firstly, either Larsson or his translator is a poor stylist. I'm inclined to blame the original. A bad translation would have been more idiosyncratic. More to the point, it reads like the writing of someone who's spent a long time writing calm factual explanations of how things are, rather than the writing of a person who's spent any time at all trying to write something vivid and arresting about actual people. I'm being generous here, to be honest. Most of the time it reads like typing.

Secondly, the plots are somewhat all over the place. I'll be brief, which is more than Larsson can claim. The first book is about the principal protagonist, Mikael Blomqvist, investigating a disappearance. He meets all kinds of people, including the eponymous Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and at the end he has solved the mystery and taken an appropriate and ghastly revenge on the entire Swedish financial sector for their crimes against him. The second and third books are effectively a mash-up of the resolution of the backstory for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and an messy attempt to write something about the sex industry in Sweden; the second book focusses on the sex industry, drags the Girl with Dragon Tattoo into it through wild coincidence, part resolves the sex industry investigation and leaves the fate of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo hanging into the third book, which wraps it all up with a bow while taking a big swing at the Swedish secret police. My problem with the plots is that they're messy, littered with side plots which don't do much, and depend on coincidence not just for their resolution but for their existence. Also the first plot in the first book punchlines out with child abuse, and while I'm not minimising the horror of child abuse, I wish it would go away as a plot element in detective stories.

The third problem is the biggie. If you're going to spend 1500 pages in the company of the characters of a book, they'd damn well better be entertaining. And when it comes to characterisation, Larsson's only got two speeds; Mary Sue and cardboard. The overwhelming majority of people we meet in the course of the three books have no sense of reality to them; they're sketches, there to meet the needs of the plot. One thing I can't fault Larsson with is being parsimonious with his dramatis personae; he throws characters into the mix willy nilly. He must have chucked in thirty cops, of which perhaps three or four were in any way distinguishable by anything other than size. His criminals are mostly sketches, with the occasional larger than life cartoon. Lots of people are guilty of this; the thing which makes me crazy is his two main characters and the people closest to them.

A word here about how most novels get written. They are, for the most part, books that the writer wanted to read, which turned out not to exist. The only way to bring into existence the ideal book for that person was for him to write the damn thing himself. Writing fiction is about trying to make things the way you wish they were. And most writers are vulnerable to the trap of starting off by making themselves the way they wish they were. Writers don't get out much; if they did, they wouldn't have time to write. They don't solve crimes, fight fires, break the bank at Monte Carlo or get the girl in the final reel. If any of those things were true, there wouldn't be a hole they needed to fill with comforting lies.

So writers make stuff up, and one thing countless writers make up is a better them. Stieg Larsson was not immune to this. Boy, was he not immune to it. I can't tell you the last time I read a book in which the writer was less immune to it. Mikael Blomqvist is probably the Mary Sue-iest character I've ever read. Just like Larsson, he's a crusading journalist. Just like Larsson, he's a liberal. Just like Larsson, he runs a magazine which isn't breaking even and his crusadingness isn't making life any too easy for him in getting work. Here's a couple of things about Blomqvist which I suspect weren't true about Larsson; he's quite the ladies' man. Women just can't get enough of him; he loves them and leaves them, but they don't mind because he's just that cool, middle-aged office worker with no exercise habits though he is. He's admired and feared in equal measure by his professional colleagues. When he publishes a book exposing the fiendish manipulations of Swedish financiers he becomes a journalistic superstar feted wherever he goes and rolling in money. Here's how cool Mikael Blomqvist is; he's been carrying on an affair with a colleague for a couple of decades, and her husband is cool with it, because he realises that Blomqvist satisfies her in ways the husband can't. (Blomqvist's own wife, not so cool with it; she dumped him. I was totally rooting for her on that).

Annoying and all as that is, wait till you meet Lisbeth Salander. Having read all three books, I really don't know what Lisbeth Salander's existence says about Larsson's outlook on life. I mean, I really don't. Here's an apparently disconnected story that actually DOES tie back to it. One of the finest SF authors in the world is a guy called Iain M Banks. A while ago he brought out a non-fiction book called Raw Spirit, in which he went around Scotland's single malt distilleries with his long suffering wife, who seemed like a thoroughly good egg. So sympathetically was she depicted that when I discovered that Banks had dumped her for another woman, I was completely furious with him. Then I read about the new woman, and being furious was replaced by disbelief. She was maths professor half his age who was into SF and adventure sports. I mean, I could see how getting that thrown at you could turn your head a bit, but that people like that existed outside the world of fiction?

Anyhow dial that up to 11 and you get the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander. I'm sure the marketing says that she's like no woman you've ever met, but I'm here to say that this is true; there is no person like this on the surface of the planet. She's a tattooed, multiply pierced woman in her twenties who is - for no readily apparent reason - a computer hacker of genius and a stone cold badass at anything else she turns her mind to. Characters like this are an administrative convenience in detective fiction; the field is littered with improbably cool sidekicks who have all the skills and ruthlessness that the protagonist (who's usually depicted as a fairly ordinary and relateable type) can't be expected credibly to have. If I ever write a detective novel, I shall replace this plot convenience with an enormous bolt of lightning which will strike dead anyone who bothers my viewpoint character while also being able to tap telephones, solve crossword clues and make tasty sandwiches.

What I'm saying is that any detective novel writer could be forgiven for whipping up a wish-fulfilment side-kick character who was hot, tiny, bisexual, violent and insanely talented with computers. What gumshoe wouldn't want one of those? Only the kind who thought one wasn't enough and held out for two, of course. What's a bit disturbing is what Larsson then did to the character. Between the childhood from hell, the time in the psychiatric hospital, the violent rape and the getting shot in the head, Salander really gets put through the wringer. It's all in the cause of the plot, of course, but the thing is that Larsson's quite preachy about the evils of violence and oppression against women (the original Swedish title of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was The Men Who Hate Women). So it reads a bit oddly when the person who gets the biggest caning all the way through three books is a woman.

That could just be me, fretting. But it's a marvel to me that none of the reviews I read called Larsson out on the utter implausibility of the character herself. It was just ludicrous; I never managed to believe in her for an instant. And not just the whole thing of how she got to be a computer hacker when her circumstances didn't throw up any real way in which she could have been exposed to the lessons she'd need; it was the totality of the character. Salander is depicted as well out on the much-touted, much-more-misunderstood Aspergers spectrum. I've met a lot of people with milder versions of those personality traits, and in my experience they're memorable, but not the kind of people you make a connection with.

Getting back to where I began; it's a source of great irritation to me that these books are taken so seriously. They're just not very good. And I was very disappointed by that. When I gave in to the hype and started reading the first one, it was with no very great expectation of being hugely entertained. What I did hope for was an insight into Sweden; the books had been touted as take on Sweden's underbelly, and I was intrigued by the notion of a counter to the general picture we have of Sweden as a responsible, balanced careful society in which people lead comfortable and carefree lives. And I didn't quite get that. Larsson plainly had a lot of axes to grind about the country he lived in, and it's quite plain that Sweden's social tranquility has come at a heavy price in enforced conformity, but the news that rich people are corrupt and selfish? Not uniquely a Swedish problem, let's leave it at that. I did actually like the take on sex-trafficing in the second book; that it wasn't a huge business and didn't involve either enormous amounts of money or criminal masterminds, just the unnecessary suffering of many women for the benefit of mouthbreathing goons who weren't seen as a problem worth solving by the people who run the show. That rang true and solid, but largely because Larsson WAS a good journalist and this was obviously the fruit of sound research. As I said at the outset, I'd quite like to have read his journalism.

One thing which Larsson didn't know much about, ironically enough, seems to have been computers. Typical Mac user, he has his genius hacker using Apple kit (which he painstakingly specs out, while getting the specs that little bit wrong which makes it clear that the numbers weren't actually intelligible to him) at a time when hacking with Apple equipment would have been the most expensive and awkward way of doing it. So, yeah. maybe that's why his hacker character didn't ring true.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Pirate Latitudes: Soon to be a pretty numbing movie

They say you shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but the way I see it, they were alive when they did whatever you're talking about, so what's the problem?

Mind you, reading Pirate Latitudes, the book they found in Michael Crichton's desk drawer after he died, you could almost make out a case that he wasn't alive when the book was written. It's not just that it's not very good, because most of the stuff Crichton did in past ten years wasn't very good; it's extraordinarily lifeless. I read it in a matter of hours, because there was nothing to stop and savour, just an accumulation of incidents which didn't carry any emotional weight because they were just flat descriptions of stuff that happened to people too poorly realised to care about.

Having read everything that Crichton has written, I wasn't expecting a book found after he died to be any good, but I really wasn't expecting it to be as bad as it actually turned out to be. It's his first effort at a historical novel since The Great Train Robbery, and it kind of underlines why he didn't do them very often. Part of Crichton's schtick was always that he was describing things which the reader wouldn't know, and a lot of the time his characters internal monologue is infodumps about how high tech works. When you're writing stuff set in the present and using tomorrow's technology, that can be made to work. You really can't do that in historical fiction; the whole idea is that you're seeing the action through the eyes of people who think of themselves as entirely contemporary. So once Crichton says something that boils down to "In those days, you couldn't do that." bang goes the reader's sense that he losing himself in the period. This happens pretty early on. Weirdly, if Crichton had been alive, his editor would have beat that kind of thing out of the book; I think him being dead left editors tiptoeing round the text, unwilling to make the changes it badly needed.

It ought to be a fun book. Pirates are always fun, and the 17th century Caribbean is full of opportunities. Early on there's a hint that Crichton is going to try to make his pirates tricksy and high tech, but instead he sticks to dogged kitchen sink realism. The hinted-at technical prodigies of the book's blasting expert are solidly grounded in what was possible at the time and accordingly play out far too matter-of-factly to be any fun. This is kind of missing the point of pirate narrative - and to make matters worse, there's a bit near the end with a giant squid which has nothing to do with anything, borders on the fantastical and sets at naught the whole earlier approach of being hard realism.

Once Crichton became successful in Hollywood, almost everything he wrote was written with an eye to being filmed, often to the point where you could see the blocking for the stand-ins. Action in movies - particularly the kind of movies which got made out of Crichton books - tends to unfold through a series of setpieces, and as you read through the books you could see the movie taking shape; here's the chase scene, here's the cliff hanger, and so on. But on a good day, Crichton's books functioned passably as novels as well, fleshing out the background that a movie can't really cover.

Pirate Latitudes isn't anything close to Crichton having a good day; it's just a bunch of setpieces strung together in no particular order. The hurricane could just as well have come before the giant squid as after, the sea battle between them or at the end, and so on. The pacing doesn't feel right either, because the big pay off is to take over an unassailable fortress and then steal a bunch of money, but the cast gets that sorted out half way through the book and most of the action revolves around the getaway, which is more than a little fraught. As I write about it now, I wonder if the published version of the book is in the order that Crichton meant it to be, not least because he offs the big villain surprisingly early in the action. Having set up Cazalla as an absolute monster, he's more or less obliged himself by the laws of narrative to keep him in play until near the end - especially the laws of cinematic narrative, where you've paid for a star and by god you want to put him on screen for as much of the movie as you can.

And there's all kinds of little things which left you wondering whether there was supposed to be a better pay off; once the pirates get hold of the treasure, they're appalled to discover that the silver bullion has been contaminated with worthless platinum. This idea is thrown away. Twenty years ago Crichton would have done something with that; something stupidly clever and tricksy, but something. Now it just sits there for a second and the action, such as it is, rushes on to the next pointless thing, leaving me wondering if it was just supposed to be an ironic thing for a modern reader to appreciate.

There's one really stupid thing which I can't believe that Crichton would have left in had he actually intended this travesty ever to see the light of day. Crichton was a trained doctor and medical researcher who prided himself on getting the facts right. And yet Carib Indians with blowguns zap some of the pirates with poison darts which kill the pirates almost instantly. This is exactly the kind of crap you see in the cinema and which is completely impossible in real life. There just aren't any instantaneous poisons in real life. Even the most toxic substances imaginable are far more slow acting than Hollywood would have us believe in even the most ideal situations. And Crichton knew that.

Not that I need that to tell me that Crichton didn't think this thing was ready for prime time. It's just too slapped together. The depressing thought is that it will almost certainly become a movie, and given how bad most of the adaptations of his books have been, the mind reels at how bad this will be. It would have been better to leave in in the drawer.

Friday, 16 April 2010

The Quinn Group; I think I see where it all went wrong

People have been asking how it could all have gone so wrong for the poor old Quinn Group. I think I've figured it out.

On my way home, I passed a big banner which said "Support the Quinn Group if you want to avoid paying €3.6 million a week in dole payments" It's not signed or anything, so I can only speculate who hung it up, but it seems like a safe bet that it was some group of people working in or with the Quinn Group.

Anyhow, there are 5,500 employees in the Quinn Group in Ireland, according to its own website. And dole payments max at €196 a week. Multiply those two figures together...


So I think I see how the Quinn group might have wound up not having enough money to cover its insurance exposure. Its finest minds may not be up to the challenges of high-ish finance. And if that sign was put up by Quinn Group employees, it's not a puzzle any more why Elderfield sent in administrators; the puzzle would be why he didn't send in remedial maths teachers.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Tim Burton's Alice; I hope someone at least bought Miranda Richardson a nice hat

I don't know about 3-D; I mean, I really don't know about it. I don't have proper stereoscopic vision, so I don't really know whether 3D movies are showing me anything real. But Alice was the first one I've seen which managed to make me feel sick, so there must have been something happening. Like everything I've seen so far in the 3D revival we're all having to suffer through, Alice left me distinctly underwhelmed at the third dimension. It never seems to add anything vital to the experience, and as I watch more and more of it, I'm beginning to think that the technical restrictions it imposes on framing, staging and camera movement are actually taking more away from the experience than the faux-third dimension could possibly add. Up, for example, is a great movie. It's a great movie because it's well written and well-acted, so it would be fine in black and white old school pen drawn animation. It's still fine in 3D full colour computer animation, but it's fine despite them, not because of them. Same is true of Coraline, although part of what makes Coraline work is the animation style. I think my considered position is converging on the idea that if you absolutely must have a third dimension, you should try getting your writers to write something solid and get your actors to play it as something more than cardboard. Or as Olivier wonderfully said, "Have you tried ACTING, dear boy? I find it so much easier."

Anyhow, what I'm saying is Alice is in 3D, but so what? The question is whether it's any fun.

Well, it's got Johnny Depp in it, which is not generally considered to be a bad thing. And it's got Helena Bonham Carter in it (I rather imagine that in the Burton household it goes something like Tim Burton gets an idea and then potters over to Helena's house and asks her if she's busy next week). Bonham Carter seems to have reinvented herself as an absolutely lunatic comic presence after her early life as indispensable eye candy in Merchant Ivory movies and she's often very good indeed - she's easily the best thing in Sweeney Todd, switching brilliantly between dark hilarity and genuine pathos. She's also easily the best thing in Alice. I wouldn't have gone just to see her, but if anyone asked me why they should go to see the film I'd definitely sell it on her performance. The Red Queen is a hoot. I'd have paid to watch a whole movie that was nothing but her calling for people to get their heads chopped off.

Mind you, this is where the title of this post comes in; I sat there thinking, golly, the Burton-Bonham Carter household must have had Black Adder II on continuous loop all the way through production. It's a bit unfair of me to say this, because there's really only one way to go with the Red Queen, and that's bonkers, but Miranda Richardson's turn as Elizabeth in Black Adder II is the gold standard for arbitrary bonkers Queens and everyone going there is walking into that shadow. Bonham Carter manages to glow in her own right while she's standing there, but still, I hope someone bought Miranda a nice hat.

Apart from the Red Queen, your individual mileage may vary. Apparently they thought about hiring Anne Hathaway for Alice and she said no before belatedly signing up as the White Queen. The first part of the decision may or may not have been a good call; the decision to play the White Queen - well, I wish she hadn't. When I first saw Anne Hathaway in a movie, I thought I was looking at the second coming of Audrey Hepburn; I was watching the Devil Wears Prada and I couldn't remember the last time an actress had just left me speechless at her beauty. Everyone in Alice is somewhat distorted from their real appearance, and the distortions of Anne Hathaway are jarring. While Bonham Carter's Red Queen is a wonderfully realised cartoon, with a petite body overshadowed by a cartoonishly oversized head, the White Queen is much more subtly distorted and unsettling; the decision to overemphasise Hathaway's wide mouth with almost black lipstick on an ethereally white face is a bit like redoing the Mona Lisa in Joker makeup. That's not the bit which made me crazy, though; for some reason she keeps her hands at shoulder level all the time, as if she's adopting a stock pose from some theatrical tradition I don't know about. It just bugged me after a while. I think it was just a bad match between what Burton wanted the character to do and what Hathaway can actually do as an actress - she's just not a cartoonish person, and she didn't belong in a cartoon.

Depp, of course, is a cartoonish person, and he has no trouble adjusting to being the Mad Hatter. I just didn't particularly care this time. On a good day - Jack Sparrow, Julian Sands in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, even Sweeney Todd, Depp's access to his inner loon can make him the best thing in any scene he's in. It's just that Alice isn't particularly a good day. He's fine, but he's not electric.

There's been a certain amount of crankiness about Mia Wasikowska's Alice, but I didn't find her as stiff as the reviews left me expecting. She's fine; to some extent she needs to be the straight woman for all the insanity, so she needs to be grave and stiff when the people around her are acting like loons. And when the plot gets her moving quickly, she's got a grace and agility that I hadn't been expecting at all. I quite liked her, and I liked her most of all when she was in action. Of course, I kind of liked Malin Akerman in Watchmen, so your mileage may vary a lot on that one.

As to whether it's all actually a good film; well, no, it's not one of Burton's best. (and it might not have been smart to have a shout out to Beetlejuice, which is). He had wagon loads of money to spend and was able to mobilise every lovie in the greater London area for his voice-over artists and bookend actors, but it felt like trying to put all those riches to use left him flailing around trying to find something worthwhile. It might have been better with LESS talent and money to choose from. And it's sloppy at times; Alice shrinks and grows, when her clothes don't, which leads to a couple of nice bits of comic business in faking up new clothes to fit, but the movie left me with time to wonder why her shoes seemed to shrink and grow with her body when nothing else did. It was all MAGIC after all; there was no particular reason why the clothes couldn't shrink and grow with her. And all the money seems to have been not quite enough to keep track of continuity; at the beginning of the movie, we're SHOWN that Alice doesn't have stockings on, and it's a BIG deal - at the end, she does a little dance with her skirt pulled up and she HAS stockings on. When you're doing your best work, either you care enough to catch things like that, or you've moving fast and hard enough that no-one notices the goofs.

Still, Burton at less than his best is better than a lot of other people working flat out. I just wish he'd had less money and had to think harder about what he was doing.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Stephen Hunt; The Jackals sequence

Fantasy has been doing some interesting things lately. For a long time I pretty much ignored fantasy, because most fantasy fiction seemed to boil down to "Hey, I just read Lord of the Rings, and I want more of that." No, really, you don't. What Tolkien did was fine, but there's no need to do it again. No-one has ever managed to be taken seriously doing Gone With the Wind all over again, but somehow that simple truth hasn't bit home in the world of endless quests to save the universe from heaven knows what. Anyhow, I tuned out fantasy all the way through the 1980s and 1990s and it never cost me a moment's sleep. Now, it's suddenly worth reading again.

The difference between fantasy and science fiction is like the difference between different kinds of christianity; you'll find no difficulty in getting people to agree there's a difference, but there's a real chance of getting seriously injured if you're stupid enough to try to nail it down. At the risk of that serious injury, I'd say that the difference between fantasy and science fiction is that SF asks itself what the world would be like if the things we take for granted changed, and fantasy seems to take it for granted that everything would be just so much better if there'd never been any change. Which may explain why fantasy seems to be getting a second wind these days; with all the change that's going on, it's hard to resist the charm of an unchanging world of clearcut right and wrong and good and evil and such as.

This obsession with stuff not changing is the thing which hacks me off most about fantasy. It's not the only thing which hacks me off, but it's the biggest problem. I can work my way around the mandatory map which conveniently fits on two pages (while noting that none of my favourite writers have a map at all) and the obligatory weird names and made up languages which don't make a lick of sense. I can even tune out the noises in my head which point out that it's contrary to our understanding of real life to have entire populations of different sorts of humanoid, each of whom have more or less the same personality, because that's just how those dark folks be. Mind you, I can't bring myself to read those damned books which have a hero starting at one edge of the map and having to find his way to the other side. Just once, I'd like someone to write that book, and have the naive hero reach the other side after many adventures, only to discover that while he was faffing about on the quest, some non-naive professional gal who was already in the right place had got the job done and was now the benign ruler of all she surveyed. That would be funny.

But the lack of change thing always gets to me. Fantasy books always unfold against a background in which there's been no significant progress or political change for hundreds or thousands of years. And it's never remotely clear why this is so. What weird collision of lunacy would keep whole worlds mired entirely in the middle ages, never moving beyond swords, bows and feudalism? The usual explanation is that magic stifles progress and ensures stability. The truth is that everyone writing fantasy still loves Tolkien and Tolkien hated progress. It's easy to hate progress when you're sitting in an Oxford don's comfy chambers. Try hating progress if we take away all the things which progress has silently brought you.

There are quasi plausible approaches to lack of progress; I liked the approach Glenn Cook took, in the Black Company books. In his world - which didn't have a map - the world was stuck in a rut. Every time pressure built up for conflict and change, it spilled over into magic-fuelled devastation and knocked the civilisations of the world back into barbarism and dark ages. I could buy that. And I've read other books which I enjoyed enough that the progress issues didn't bother me as much as they should have; it's not at all clear why things are stuck where they are in the works of Joe Abercrombie or K J Parker, but they don't lay a great deal of stress on a huge span of unchanging time.

This is by way of being a very long preface to the odd contradiction in the works of Stephen Hunt.

Hunt's stuff is, and I have to get this out of the way right now, just tremendous fun. I read three of his books in a matter of days and lapped them up. He's not a hugely talented writer in terms of style, but he more than makes up for it in prodigies of invention. The challenge is figuring out which genre he's writing in. It's not traditional fantasy, because the world of Jackals isn't stuck in the middle ages. It's not science fiction either, because magic and mysticism is important too. It's not alternate history, because it's not set in a genuine historical period of our own real history. It's not steampunk exactly either. Of course, if anything is good enough it doesn't matter what the genre is. As I read through the three books, it got a little bit more clear what Hunt seems to be working from. His world is our world, in a very far distant future after repeated collapses and recoveries of human civilisation. So I suppose if you had to jam it into something, you'd jam it into SF, just to give a genre ghetto and forget about it that way.

One real oddity of the books is that although they're set in a world where there's definitely technical progress and political and social change, the viewpoint nation, the Kingdom of Jackals, has been stuck in a weird version of 18th/early 19th century constitutional monarchy for six hundred years. I could never get my head around that bit. I could buy the idea that civilisations had come and gone over the course of thousands of years of lost history up to then, but I couldn't figure out how, given the dynamic nature of the societies Hunt shows us, Jackals had enjoyed political stability for 600 years. There didn't seem to be any reason why it should have been that way, and it never really seemed important to the plot either.

The other great puzzle in the books is a logistical one. The first book, The Court of the Air, starts off with modest challenges for its two main characters and ratchets them up to eleven and a bit by having an invasion of Jackals by eldritch abominations abetted by genocidal neighboring revolutionaries. Hunt doesn't pull any punches; the devastation is widespread and deep. The armed forces are decimated and civilian casualties in the main city of Jackals are enormous. Yet, like Samuel Goldwyn, he's just starting with the crescendo. In the second book The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, the modest opening problems for the characters rapidly run away into a plot to destroy every living creature on earth. And by the third book, the characters have to deal with an invasion by aliens who intend to consume not just all life on the planet but every resource as well. There's a fourth book. Heaven only knows what's going to show up and threaten the polity. Heaven knows what's going to be there to threaten, as a matter of fact, because by the time they've sorted out the space aliens, the destruction we saw in the first book has been dwarfed by the elimination of pretty much every armed force on the planet and the destruction of every political entity that Hunt has introduced us to in the three books so far. So I was scratching my head a bit wondering how - in mundane reality - any of these countries would ever get back on their feet again after the various catastrophes which befall them.

Those are my gripes. They're just gripes; the books are good enough to get you to ignore them. What's fascinating is the way that Hunt can put together a richly imagined world which doesn't have the things our world has, but has figured out other ways to get the same effect. There's no electricity or electronics (it's stipulated that the laws of physics have crept to the point where electricity isn't controllable any more), petrol (seems to have run out) heavier than air flight (they forgot how it worked?) or gunpowder (this gets fascinating - see below). But there are substitutes for a lot of this. They have steam driven "transaction engines" which substitute for computers, especially when supplemented by magic. Coal has displaced petrol as a source of heat and energy, including the entire mechanical race of coke powered steam-men. The underground is vacuum powered, and high rise buildings are inflatable (with a wonderfully imagined notion of how many people working in the ducts it would take to make sure than inflatable high rises didn't deflate). I wonder where all the rubber comes from, come to think of it. For some reason, there's no gunpowder, but there are guns; the projectiles are propelled by a highly unstable plant product called blow-barrel sap, which explodes when its two components are mixed. Or if it's heated. The firing mechanism uses glass cartridges which are broken by the firing pins so as to mix the two components together. What makes this interesting - and worth going into such detail over - is that it makes rapid fire all but impossible. All firearms are single shot breechloaders. if you want rapid fire, you get a steam powered gun which blasts out bullets from a hopper with steam pressure. And that means you need steam-men. And so on. It's fascinating.

The political scene is like a funhouse mirror of the time of Pitt; you've got Jackals, which is England, its neighbor Quatershift, which is revolutionary France crossed with Stalinist Russia and Pol Pot's Cambodia. There's Catosia, which is a weird mashup of Switzerland and Italian city states of the Renaissance. Off to one side is Cassarabia, which is a sketched in bizarro world version of the Ottoman empire, and down to the South is Liongel, which is dah jungle and then some. Some of the political argumentation is weird; with three books behind me, I still don't know if Hunt's a libertarian, or just a cynic. The political system in Jackals is incredibly stupid and cruel; they maintain a mutilated king specifically to humiliate him and provide the crowd with an easy target, while their Parliament, the House of Guardians, settles its debating points with sticks and lives in hock to big business. Yet the government of Jackals is presented as the best of a bad bunch; the other governments are even worse. It's hard to know whether Hunt admires Ayn Rand or is ripping the piss out of her.

In common with a couple of other fantasy type books I've been reading lately, including Robert Reddick's The Red Wolf Conspiracy, Hunt's work feels as though it was originally written with a juvenile audience in mind and gradually got darker as the work made the transition from idea to the printed page. I'm still trying to figure out why that's a recurring trend in these books. I can think of worse things to have to scratch my head over.

I'm looking forward to reading another Hunt book when it comes out in a small enough format to be comfortable to read. Heaven only knows what's left for him to blow to bits, but I'm confident he'll go for it with gusto. But even without another book to look forward to, the very fact that he's cranked out these three cheers me up no end. They have flaws and contradictions, but they're real books with more imagination than most of the competition.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Strain; the world's first dead-tree movie trailer; and I paid actual money to watch it

I'm tagging this as a book review, but it feels almost more like a pre-emptive movie review. I've just finished reading The Strain, which is described on the cover as being by Gullermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I think that what probably happened in real life is that del Toro had an idea for a movie or two, was not in a position actually to make them right now and for some reason that I can only guess at, he decided to mark his territory by having the ideas published as a series of novels.

One of the fascinating problems of adapting a book to a movie is that most books have got too much stuff in them to fit into a movie comfortably. The rule of thumb is that a page of screenplay is a minute of movie. You'll rarely see a 120 page novel these days, although thirty years ago detective stories and science fiction novels were often that length. So books have to be squeezed down and simplified to get them on screen. Characters are discarded, side-plots thrown away, and people like me often wind up getting more satisfaction from complaining about the changes than they do from the movie which results.

The Strain has the opposite problem. There's just enough stuff in it to make a movie, but Chuck Hogan somehow padded it out to 450 pages. And honestly, it's hard work. It's a page turner, but it's a page turner in a "cut to the chase, can I please get this over with" kind of way rather than "I gotta see what happens next" way. To make this into a REAL 450 page novel, Del Toro and Hogan would have had to deploy the full panoply of ideas they cooked up for the trilogy and cram them all into the one book. Or alternatively. Hogan would have had to be able to write as well as Del Toro can make movies. Since the second is plainly not on, all I can do is complain that they didn't go with the first plan.

Everyone always wants to reinvent the vampire, and everyone who does has to wrestle with the problem of vampire logistics. I've touched on this before. Del Toro and Hogan seem to have settled on the old school model that vampires dislike competition and go out of their way to kill their prey rather than letting the contagion spread. I say that they seem to have done this, because it's early days in understanding their view on things; the book only covers the first week of a change in the ways that vampires do business. There's obviously a boat load of back story which we'll have to tune into later. This would be forgivable if what we had now was rich and involving, but it's frustrating to have a bunch of cardboard characters lined up and whacked while the writers chuck hints at you that they've got a much more interesting sequel tucked away for next year.

That much said, it's hard to make sense of the ecology. Vampires have almost no weaknesses; they don't like silver, being decapitated takes them out of play, and they get cooked by ultra-violet light, so sunlight is bad news for them. Other than that, forget all the old stuff; they could care less about crucifixes, garlic and holy water. Now the new bad stuff; the condition is caused by a virus which is carried by little parasitic worms and those worms can wiggle into you and infect you with vampirism the moment the vampire springs any kind of leak at all. So new and improved harder to kill vampires with what amounts to the blood from Alien; whatever you do, don't get splattered when you kill them. And just in case that didn't seem like enough bad news, they don't have fangs any more - they have an extending tongue which can stretch out six feet.

The thing which makes the ecology kind of hinky is the infectious splatter. Because the infection is completely mindless and actually kind of hard to dodge, it's hard to see what would stop it from going pandemic in normal conditions. And sure enough, The Strain does give you the sense that an uncontrolled pandemic is going to spread from New York to North America and just obliterate the American way of life. So it's vampires meets Alien meets zombies. And people are not up to stopping the peril. So as the book comes to a close, there are hints that the answer to the problem is more disciplined vampires who are still in touch with the old ways...

Although most of this is basically bits nicked from all over the place and hastily bolted together, it will probably make a great movie when del Toro gets round to making it. It's just that it doesn't make a particularly good book. I don't know what Chuck Hogan is like working on his own, but when he's typing up someone else's somewhat schlocky outline, he's not very good at all. There's a horrible moment right near the beginning when any discerning reader starts to fear the worst. The book has a movie style cold open, with an airliner landing in New York full of dead people. A movie or a TV show gets a cold open out of the way in a matter of minutes; the book takes fifty pages or more and even prose this uninvolving takes half an hour to plod through. Along the way, Hogan takes a moment from explaining the problems of cutting into an airliner to tell us how much fuel the tanks hold and how far that lets it fly. And in (brackets) he converts the numbers into familiar US equivalents. WHY? Just think of a good way to tell us that the plane's full of fuel and fuel fumes, and move on. What makes it worse is that then they don't even cut into the damn plane.

It's not actually the worst use of brackets in the book; that comes later, when a Creole character is conducting an (unnecessary) internal monologue about voodoo. First it's there in Creole, then the Creole phrases are translated into the kind of technical English that no-one actually thinks in, then the technical phrases are translated (in brackets) into vernacular English. You're writing a goddam book about vampires! Is it really that likely that the people who buy it are going to need to have voodoo explained in baby-talk? There's a lot in that little oversight, including the horrible possibility that Hogan actually thought he was typing literature and that the sort of people who read literature were going to be reading this hor-ror fict-tion and would need to have their tiny sophisticated hands held. Chuck, Chuck, Chuck; I hope I'm not the first person to tell you that literature doesn't have explanations - it has writing good enough to make the meaning clear without explanation.

All in all, The Strain's interesting first and foremost as a dead-tree trailer for a potentially sort of awesome movie, and as an afterthought as a how-not-to book about how you don't write a book. It's full of attempts to set on paper things which work brilliantly as film; the airliner cold open would be fine on the screen and is completely dead and uninvolving on the page, because it's mostly descriptions of things which the camera can just show you in moments but which take time and effort to describe. And the problem persists all the way through. The book does all the things which screenwriting manuals tell you that you need to do when you're writing for the screen; set up a three act structure, give your hero a backstory which will counterpoint the challenge he must overcome, use your archetypes, present the hero with reverses and so on. These things can be made to work on the screen - or it's more accurate to say that the limitations of what the movies can show us in two hours or less mean that not much else can be made to work - but their limitations become manifest in the novel.

One of the most jarring things - from a narrative point of view - is the way in which the characters have to carry more than they should. In movies, once you've hired an actor, you use him as much as you can, and film adaptations of books often condense two or three characters into one so that the story can unfold simply and the viewer isn't confused by too many strange faces. In novels, there's absolutely no cost difference between two characters having two things happen to them and one character having two different things happen to him, but having everything happen to just one guy tends to feel very strained in a novel, so if you've got two striking scenes, you can afford to populate them differently when it's just a matter of ink on a page rather than having two sets of casting calls and contracts. So The Strain is populated sparsely, on the law of conservation of actors, rather than richly as it should be.

It didn't help that I was reading this immediately after two of Stephen Hunt's madly inventive and totally novelistic Jackelian books, of which more later. Actual novels make adapted screen treatments look bad. I suspect I will try to find out what's in the second and third books when they come out, but I'm not sure if I'm going to read them if there's any other way of getting the information. There's not enough reading in them to make that a good plan.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Kick-ass; why can't everything I look forward to be just what I wanted?

I've often commented on the limitations of movie trailers. Sometimes they make me wonder what the hell kind of movie I've gone to if the marketeers think I'm going to want to see the films in the trailers, and sometimes they make me wish I was already at the movie the trailer is for, instead of what I'm going to see. What trailers don't, as a rule, do, is give me anything approaching an accurate idea of how much fun the movie is actually going to be. Take the trailer for Knight and Day. If the movie is as much fun as the trailer, everyone in the cinema will be sent back in time or something. We're almost going to have to be disappointed when we show up at the premiere in July.

The last time I saw something which was exactly as stupid - in a good way - as I thought it would be was when I saw Wanted. The trailer looked like the film was going to be huge fun, and for as long as Wanted was blowing stuff up and shooting it to bits, it was every bit as much fun as the trailer promised. The rest of the movie; well, it was there, largely getting in the way of the stunts.

It wasn't till quite recently that I got around to reading the comic book that Wanted was based on, and I was a little surprised. Pretty much the only thing which the movie and the source comic had in common was the background of the viewpoint character; Wesley Gibson is, in both, a cube rat with a miserable job, a horrible boss, a shrew of a girlfriend, a douche of a best friend and an absent father who turns out to be the best killer in the whole world. What happens after we meet Wesley could not be more different in the two media. In fairness to the movie, you could not possibly have sold tickets to a film which faithfully reproduced the comic. Actually, you could not possibly have escaped being sent to prison for crimes against humanity; breaking even would have been a very secondary issue.

This is all relevant, of course, since the same mind lies behind Kick-ass as lay behind Wanted. Mark Millar - who bewilderingly is described on Wikipedia as a practising Catholic - wrote both. And just as with Wanted, a lot of the strength of the piece comes from the way that the film depicts ordinary life. Kick-ass has an entirely believable lack of success in real life, by which I mean that he fails the same way the people in the audience fail, by inches rather than in one fell swoop of disaster. I'm intrigued by Millar's knack of catching that aspect of life. It's not just that it's an important part of the narrative structure of his work to have something realistic to contrast with the fireworks we all came to see. It's that he gets it right; it doesn't feel slapdash or forced.

Now, I started out by talking about trailers, and Kick-ass had some really good ones. There was a nice sardonic tone to the voice-over and the snippets from the action scenes looked like huge fun, especially the bits with Hit Girl. The tiny actress playing her seemed to be made out of sass and her action moments were like distilled Woo. I really wanted to see this movie and I really wanted to like it.

Done, and done. Kick-ass works a lot better than Wanted. It's not perfect, by any means. I'm not sure that Nick Cage is doing a particularly good job, and I'm not sure than mafia hoodlums torturing people is as funny as the movie seems to think we'll find it. But overall, the film worked. When it wanted me to be exhilarated by action, I was on the edge of my seat. And when it wanted me to scared for the characters, I was.

There's a telling little scene at the beginning when Kick-ass is practicing to be a hero and sets out to jump across a gap between buildings. We've seen him getting ready to try, and then he goes for it. At the last minute, he chickens out and skids to a halt just at the very edge of the roof. For a second he teeters on the edge of falling and I nearly had to shut my eyes for fear of seeing him go over. Now, I'm not great at heights, but to make something like that work, you need to do a lot of work beforehand to get the viewer to buy into the character. Because we all know we're at a movie, and we know that twenty minutes in, the title character isn't going to kill himself in a stupid accident. It takes real skill to make the viewer forget that for long enough to go "Oh no".

So we've got the thing set up pretty well. Dave Lizewski/Kick-ass is vulnerable and brave and smart without being necessarily the kind of guy who thinks things through. Probably be a perfectly good movie with just him and his quest to be a superhero in a world that doesn't have even ordinary heroes. What lights a rocket under it is Chloe Moretz, as Hit Girl. Firstly, the action scenes with her are just brilliant. Partly the choreography is very good, and partly it's that we've never seen this kind of Woo-fu being done by a 13 year old girl with a purple wig. The combo is irresistible. I wanted to see it all over again just for her scenes. But Hit Girl also steals all the non-action scenes she's in. To Christina Ricci in Mermaids and the Addams Family, Natalie Portman in Leon, and Kirsten Dunst's turn in Interview with the Vampire, we can now add Chloe Moretz's debut. There's a big fuss underway about how much swearing she does, but it's beside the point; she's playing a child who's smart-ass and serious beyond her years, and she sells it wonderfully. It's the movie's unique selling point. She's the star of the show. Can't wait to see what she does next.

Kick-ass is not a studio picture; Mark Millar had enough cred, together with the director Martin Vaughan, that they were able to go out and scare up enough independent finance to make the film on their own terms. If they'd had to keep a studio happy, it would probably have been less violent and less sweary, and probably not as good. More likely than not it would have had more grandiose action scenes, though they would have been more grandiose, not necessarily good. I think producing the movie this way does two useful things. Firstly, you make the movie you want to make, right or wrong, rather the movie which the backers think will sell. Secondly, you don't waste much effort; big action scenes costs money, so you need to keep them tight and brief, and give them impact by making sure that people care what happens. When you care what happens to the people, it's surprising how little action you need to get the audience breathless. Near the end of the movie, Hit Girl shows up to save the day for the other heroes. The fight scene which follows is extremely clever and economical, but it's also thrilling because the stakes are high. It's all down to getting you involved before the guns start up. What Green Zone did badly last week on a huge budget Kick-ass did well this week for a third of the money. I don't want other movies to be just like Kick-ass; I would like to see other people doing things the same way.