Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Drowned Cities: Paolo Bacigalupi

I have to say, if this is how Bacigalupi treats kids, I don't know if I'm ready for how he's going to work with grownups. The Drowned Cities is a gruelling read, particularly when I kept remembering that this is a follow-up to Ship Breaker, which was set in the same world and equally aimed at the YA market. I'm kind of a fan of the increase in what they're calling Young Adult fiction, and not for the obvious reason that it's nice to see kids reading books instead of playing computer games or setting fire to shopping malls or whatever it is that the young folks are doing these days. I like the increasing importance of the YA market because the prurience of the US publishing scene puts constraints on what the writers for that market can say in print. When writers can't spice things up by throwing in sex and violence and bad language, they have to shock you by such novel tactics as writing involving characters and thought provoking situations, and that's always good.

That said, Bacigalupi doesn't pull very many punches. Like Ship Breaker, The Drowned Cities does very good work setting up the characters and blocking in the ruined world, and then rushes its plot, trying to cram too much into the last hundred pages. And, like Ship Breaker, it uses a Bubba Rogowski, in the shape of Tool, a bio-engineered killing machine who helps the undersized main characters for mysterious reasons of his own when all the adult humans are just out for themselves. Tool was almost a marginal character in Ship Breaker, appearing late in the action to save the day as a deus ex machina. In The Drowned Cities, he's a foreground character in his own right, leaving me wondering if Bacigalupi is stealthily writing the story of Tool from the perspective of a series of different protagonists. Which would be a perfectly cool thing to do, but Tool is a little bit too awesome, and I think Bacigalupi is too good a writer, and too ambitious, to fall into the trap of falling in love with his cool character and letting him getting all Fonzified. Time will tell.

Ship Breaker focused on the marginal lives of salvage workers and the things people had to do to get by in an impoverished world; The Drowned Cities moves further into the collapsed USA and focuses on the consequences of endless civil war in a failed state. Just as Ship Breaker started off from something which happens right now and made it the future of a flooded USA, The Drowned Cities transposed contemporary African warlordism and the use of child soldiers into a collapsed USA become so ungovernable than even Chinese peacekeepers have written it off as hopeless, abandoning it to chaos and increasingly futile bloodshed. It's the East Coast of the USA reimagined as the worst of Somalia and Uganda. Often, SF takes things we're doing right now and shows us what the world will be like if we go on doing the same thing until it destroys us; Bacigalupi is doing something even more interesting; showing us a world where people in our future are doing the things that less fortunate people are doing right now. 

One of the most important things which fiction does is to show us the world as other people see it; it gives us a way to understand things and to empathise with other points of view. By that test, Bacigalupi is doing something potentially very influential; he's putting a story in front of a lot of teenagers which shows them that the troubles of the world right now could be the troubles of their own children. There are two very important lessons in that. The obvious one, of course, is that they should be doing something to stop things getting worse. The less obvious one is the more important one. There's a tendency to shrug off the troubles of Africa and the Middle East; without ever saying it, a lot of the media attitude boils down to "They just be like dat, in dose places." Bacigalupi is making the point that if it got hit hard enough, the privileged West could be just like Africa is now. And thus, that the long-suffering people in the world's trouble spots right now are people just like us, and deserve the help and respect we'd expect for ourselves. 

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Expendables 2; back to the Indiana Jones Mines

While we're waiting for the fifth Indiana Jones movie to wipe out what's left of the goodwill from the first one, Sly Stallone took pity on us and did a sneaky remake of the second one. This probably isn't the most unnecessary thing about Expendables 2, but it's certainly the most surprising. 

I sort of had fun at the first Expendables movie, inasmuch as there's always something entertaining about ridiculous amounts of explosions, but the main reason I bothered with the second one was the hope that it would be enjoyably terrible enough that I could say mean things about it here. And, yes, on that score, Sly and the boys delivered. The dialogue is dependably terrible, with the weird exception of the back and forth between Sly and the Stath. Chuck Norris, Arnie and Bruce Willis all sound as though ageing impersonators have been dragged in to read catchphrases to a room full of stuffed toys. The action's more of a mixed bag; the big setpiece at the beginning is huge pointless fun, but after that we're back to the murky incoherence of the first movie's climax. 

The movie opens with a hostage rescue in Nepal of unlikely places (the movie was mainly shot in Bulgaria but I think this was the bit they did in China) with the Expendables using three armoured Landrover WMIKs to wreak havoc all over the terrorist compound before making a getaway that involves speedboats, jetskis, zip lines and the infamous Grumann amphibian from the last movie. Sly may have heard my grumble about the fixed mount .50 cals on the Grumann, because they've been replaced by a flexible MAG and a short barrelled 75 mm, which somehow the Stath has to load manually while Sly fires it (with each blaming the other whenever the gun misses). The Grumann is something of a TARDIS these days, since the interior and the exterior don't seem to have any relationship to each other; at one point the team are able to ride jetskis up a ramp into the back of the plane, but there's no sign of any opening on the outside big enough for a ramp. It's almost churlish to grumble about any of it, because everything is being done for pure flash rather than because it makes a button of sense. The Landrovers get attacked by a helicopter just seconds after Sly and the Stath get out of theirs; they gawp it at if for a moment, as if they've both forgotten that ten seconds ago the Stath was manning a perfectly workable flex mount .50 cal which would seem to be the perfect weapon to deal with a helicopter if he could just stir himself to get back behind it. And then Sly grabs the dirt bike which was strapped to the bumpers - for no apparent reason - revs it up and launches it at the helicopter. Which very decently crashes, as if it was carrying some race memory of Bruce Willis shooting down a chopper with a police car in Die Hard 4. Well, it's a movie, you don't want to over think these things.

Having established that they're a) in a movie and b) up for all kinds of havoc, the team adjourns to New Orleans, where they get dragooned into their new mission. What we've seen up to now is more or less the Obiwan nightclub scene and Ford Trimotor getaway in Temple of Doom; what comes next is the wandering across the landscape to stumble into the real quest. So off they go to find the maguffin in mysterious explodey safe in a crashed plane in a misty part of Bulgaria which is supposed to be standing in for Albania. They no sooner find the maguffin than they're bushwhacked by Jean Claude Van Damme, in the role of Bellocq's pervy uncle (if I can borrow in elements from Raiders). Because subtlety is anathema to movies like this, JCVD's character is actually CALLED Vilain, a useful timesaver. So Bellocq, sorry, Vilain, without actually saying "SO, what was once briefly yours is now mine once again" relieves them of the maguffin, and in a move which would have hugely improved Temple of Doom, schwacks the Short Round analogue being played by Liam Hemsworth. He dies horribly for the crime of being visibly younger, cuter and nicer than the rest of the cast, and also because it's important that Sly have something to be all vengeful about.

The action then transitions to another part of Bulgaria, standing in for some forsaken bit of the Transcaucasus, where Vilain uses the maguffin to figure out the location of five tons of plutonium in an abandoned mine (apparently Vilain has access to lunatic mercenaries, helicopters and heavy weapons, but not geiger counters). This was when it hit me that I was watching a remake of Temple of Doom, because there we were in a devastated once prosperous landscape with obsessed culty lunatics kidnapping people from surrounding villages to work in mines. Nothing will do but for Sly and the lads to rescue the prisoners from the mine, though they reckon without Vilain's boundless evil and wind up getting stuck in the mine with all the rescuees when Vilain blows it up. Relax, says Dolph Lundgren; I'm a qualified chemical engineer and I reckon the rock in this mine has a high enough phosphate content that I can blow it up with an improvised pipe bomb. "Dear Lord" I whispered to John "The whole mine is MADE of explodium." Turns out in real life Dolph Lundgren actually was a chemical engineer before he turned to beating people up in front of a camera, which makes it even funnier when the cunning plan fizzles out completely. Instead they get rescued by Arnie and Bruce, and race off after Vilain and the plutonium, and a big messy gunfight breaks out in the local airport. Bullets fly, catchphrases fall flat, and Sly lets himself get goaded into a fist fight with JVCD, probably so that they can prove this isn't an Indiana Jones movie, since Indy would have had the sense to shoot JVCD and go home.

Anyhow, it's all quite thoroughly ridiculous, and in a way if you walked out of the movie just as the team sets up the first round of drinks in New Orleans, you would already have seen all the best bits. And anyone who has the slightest involvement with 21st century wargaming will be hammering down the doors of the figure companies demanding that they make copies of the three Landrovers; cheesy messages ("KNOCK KNOCK" on the folding ram….) and all, they're too cool for words. 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Sharps; KJ Parker

Parker goes on bucking the system with yet another stand alone novel in a world full of ten volume trilogies. Sharps is a good read; it's dogma in these parts that Parker can do no wrong, so we will pass briskly over that heretical thought and consider the possibility that just occasionally she can do less than wonderfully. This is not as clean and crisp a piece of work as her other standalone novels, but it's only when I go back over my notes on the last two that I realise what a big move it is from her normal structures. 

Parker, as I've mentioned before, is fond of big complicated plots which are being driven by a single protagonist who pushes everything else to get his own completely unforeseeable way. Sharps has a big complicated plot running through it, but for the first time ever, her characters have no idea what's going on. This is a nice change of tack for Parker, but it's not negotiated as well as it might be. There's not much she could have done to make that better; she tells the story through her viewpoint characters, none of whom ever figure what was really supposed to be happening, and so inevitably, the reader ends the books sharing their sense of confused bewilderment, and indeed their sense of mild relief that they're not all dead. Parker's getting positively softhearted these days and a surprising number of people are getting out of things alive, but I suspect that when her characters get drafted in, they all write a will immediately, and joke in the scene breaks about being red shirts. 

The plot, as opposed to The Plot (which is so dumb when it's explained that I'm forced to conclude that it's the dummy plot for smoke screening the real conspiracy), is bracingly simple; the main characters are sent off as an exhibition duelling team to the neighbouring Republic as a peace building exercise, whereupon things start going wrong immediately. Parker succeeds in creating a wonderful miasma of suspicion around everything, so that every problem, whether major or minor, seems like further evidence of sinister scheming by the lord only know who. it's impossible to tell what's muddle and what's purposeful, and the setbacks and difficulties expand until you're looking up at the top of the page to check that you're still reading KJ Parker and not Connie Willis. What's going on? Well, it never becomes entirely clear. Maybe if you have a much bigger brain, or you're willing to go back and read the book again to parse it out (which in due course, I probably will), the various angles become less shadowy.

Sharps lacks the simple focus of Parker's earlier work, and has very little of the delight in problem solving which has characterised all her books so far. But all her other virtues are there, including the wry dialogue and the complicated characters who all think they're just doing their best no matter what it is that they're actually doing. And for the first time since The Company she's writing about a group, rather than a series of loners converging on a single fulcrum. Unlike the group in The Company, who'd known each other for years and carried all the grudges that come with that, the ensemble in Sharps don't know each other at all, and Parker does a clever job of showing us the petty bickering and misunderstandings which pass for communication among a group of stressed out strangers who don't know who to trust.

All of Parker's recent work seems to fit into a single world, though it's hard to join up all the backgrounds so that they hang together properly. I find myself wondering what the next book will be like - and as usual, given her publisher's approach of just unleashing her recent books with no fanfare - when we'll see it. Will she go back into sprawling long form, or continue with these sideways slices into her quixotic not-quite fantasy world? I'll have to wait and see.

The Bourne Legacy; Here we go again, again.

I have to say, my sprits lifted a bit when finally Jeremy Renner stole a motorbike. Oh goody, I thought, a car chase. It wasn't a bad car chase either, though not as crunchy as the one from the second Bourne movie. Which is something I was thinking, while I was supposed to be thinking about how cool and or dangerous this all was. And this is the Bourne movie problem; they don't really stand up on their own merits.

The Bourne movies have pulled off something quite remarkable; they've managed to create a spy movie franchise reeking with artistic credibility so that they can go around hiring all sorts of people who wouldn't be seen dead in that kind of movie. I spent the first twenty minutes of the movie tallying up who they'd hired, and marvelling. It was more fun than that part of the movie, sad to say. The other fun thing was appreciating the way that they've intricately stitched this movie into the other three, so that it seems almost like a continuation of the first three movies when in fact it's kind of a remake of the first one. There's been a lot of that going on since the first Bourne movie unexpectedly made so much money that they had no choice but to go on making them; the second one blends smoothly into the third one, and the third one cleverly ends by circling back to the end of the first movie. Now the scene setting of the fourth movie unfolds in parallel with the action of the third one. It's very clever writing, and the back office plots are sold well by people like Ed Norton.

Still, it doesn't make a lick of sense if you think about it, or know anything at all about how espionage really works, so it's just as well that at regular intervals there are fights and shootouts and general purpose trickiness to distract you. 

The Bourne Legacy consciously echoes The Bourne Identity; it starts with a body floating face down in blue water, and it ends with the hero apparently having made a clean getaway with the romantic interest. Presumably, in the next movie, Rachel Weisz will get shot in the head for no very good reason and Jeremy Renner will set off on a rip-roaring rampage of revenge, or something. In between that it's a weird mixture. On the one hand, the "lets all make super soldiers with viruses and such" plot behind the action is even more preposterous than the original Bourne's "lets all make super soldiers with brain washing" plot. On the other hand, Jeremy Renner picks up his chick sidekick in a much more credible way than Matt Damon picked up Franka Potente. There's a perfectly good reason for him to go looking for her, and it's all set up in a painstakingly believable way. It all still averages out to "You've got to be kidding me", but I appreciate that people were taking the trouble to get everything to make some kind of sense. 

Jeremy Renner seems to be turning into an unlikely substitute anchor for all kinds of franchises; first Matt Damon couldn't be bothered doing any more Bourne-ing, and then Tom Cruise seems to be more interested in his unlikely impersonation of six foot five inch man mountain Jack Reacher, so Renner's being groomed for that franchise too. It's great to see him get the work - and great to see an intelligent actor bringing a bit more to dumb movies than you usually get - but if he's doing all of that, will he have the time to do anything more useful? Because I can see him being pretty tied up for the foreseeable future with that stuff, and that means we're less likely to see him quietly running away with every scene in movies like The Town and The Hurt Locker.

The first Bourne movie succeeded when it wasn't expected to do so well; the fourth one is more of the same, but delivers the goods well enough that there will be even more of the same. Things could be a lot worse, I suppose, but when you see that much talent given that much money, it's only human to hope for something more than competence.

Comments; who knew?

Checking back on an old post about Sons of Anarchy, I discovered that there were three comments on the thing. I have comments? I was astonished. Not quite as astonished as I was when I discovered that there'd been almost 1400 page views of that blog entry. I got curious enough to go and look through the whole blog for comments to see what else I'd been missing. It looks as though my blog, pitiful little thing that it is, probably gets more hits than my work website…..

So, an apology, and a slight change of policy. I've always treated this blog as something that no-one much except me was bothering to read. That's still almost true, but plainly not completely true, so it's time I started dealing with it a little bit differently. It turns out that there's a way to monitor comments, so I've set that up, and will try to respond to comments as they're made. I imagine that all the people who commented gave up on me completely as a bad job, but still, my apologies to Rev. Mac, Hyperbore, A Question of ITIL, RickM, werkkate, rae, SteveM, SUBSIM, robertcorrie, "vhjk, vbk, uhj", and Pianista; I wasn't ignoring you, it just never occurred to me that anyone was listening to my ravings….

Monday, 20 August 2012

Ship Breaker: Paolo Bacigalupi

I started reading Ship Breaker about three weeks before I got round to finishing it. You hit a book like that now and again, something solid enough that the first couple of chapters establish the world and the characters well enough that you feel safe taking a break from them. I went off and re-read pretty much the whole of George RR Martin's The Song of Ice and Fire, and was able to come right back to Ship Breaker and pick up right where I left off.

Bacigalupa isn't a flashy writer; you're not going to be pulling quotes out of Ship Breaker. But he's a solid writer and it's interesting to read him in the immediate aftermath of finishing off the Hunger Games trilogy. Both are set in a ruined future where an underclass struggles to get by in primitive conditions while a privileged elite enjoys a high tech life style. I think that Ship Breaker was written as what they're calling a Young Adult novel; I'm still trying to make time to read Bacigalupa's more grown-up The Wind Up Girl, which I suspect will have a more sophisticated style to it. But even correcting for the notion that he's simplifying things a bit, he's simply streets ahead of Suzanne Collins in the sophistication with which he puts together his world. Collins has her narrator explain every unfamiliar detail of her world, where Bacigalupa lets the reader infer the shape of the larger world from the way that his characters scrape along in it. This, of course, is  the problem that all SF and Fantasy has to overcome; you've created a different world, but how do you show it to the reader? For me, the guy who changed the rules was William Gibson, who set out to show us how people would live in the near future by having them talk about it the way that we talk about our own world. I'm sure other writers had tried the same thing, but I hit Gibson when I was just old enough to appreciate the cleverness.

So Bacigalupa gets the world sketched in right, and he also has a more credible world to sell. Not very much of the Hunger Games milieu adds up for me; it's a high concept with nothing holding it up off the ground. The world of Ship Breaker is all too easy to believe in. Nailer, the protagonist, scrapes a living pulling the salvageable metals out of beached freighters on a stretch of coastline somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. There are poor communities doing just that right now in bays along the coast of India; it's no stretch at all to imagine the poor of a collapsing USA being driven to similar extremes in a world without oil or trade. Ship Breaker doesn't need to create a horrible loaded contest to show us how the rich can shaft the poor; it just shows us what being poor would be like in a world that climate change has devastated and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. It's grim, and all too believable.

Having said that, it's not all good. The opening half of the book sets up the world and its day to day problems; Bacgalupa is less successful in setting up a credible plot to drag the characters through this horrible world towards a conclusion, and the second half of the book feels rushed and incoherent compared to the much more gripping opening half. And Bacigalupa is guilty of the common problem of setting up the resolution of the climax a little too obviously; each thing which Nailer learns and comes across in the second third of the book turns out to be needed in the closing pages. Chekhov's gun is all very well, but you can take economy of narration too far. One day, I want someone to spend time carefully setting up a training experience for his protagonist, and then brutally subvert our expectations by creating a problem where it's of no use whatsoever. Of course, if I want it that badly, I probably ought to write it myself, possibly in my long awaited fantasy novel where the protagonist starts out exactly where he's needed, rather than thousands of miles away.

Still, this is a good writer. My grumbles are only about where the structure falls short of the obvious talent. The Drowned World is a sort of sequel, and I'm looking forward to seeing how that works out.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Mockingjay; oh my

There's a scene in the otherwise not terribly good The Fugitive where veteran scene-stealer Tommy Lee Jones surveys some or other chaos and says "My, my, my, my, what a mess." I felt like that as I came to the end of Mockingjay, with which Suzanne Collins, bless her, tries to wrap up a trilogy which I can only assume she never planned. 

As with the other two books, I'm impressed by what Collins doesn't give in to. She doesn't go for a neat ending, she doesn't resolve the emotional tangles with heroic sacrifices and she's absolutely ruthless about the expendability of the supporting cast. And her characters are realistically frail; every time something gets all explodey, the survivors wake up in hospital, rather than bouncing back into action.These are brave choices, but they don't get her off the hook over things which go wrong. 

What goes wrong? Well, there's the lack of a clear master plot line. The first book works quite well because it's a horribly claustrophobic piece that motors along quickly enough that you overlook the lack of plausibility to the overarching idea. The second book struggled to find a way to reimpose that claustrophobia and failed, largely because it blew its pacing in the middle and then looked like it was trying to get the sequence's mojo back by hastily scrabbling its way back into the arena where everything had been nice and simple. The third book is kind of like the second book all over again, but peters out messily instead of giving a sense of resolution. Not having a neat ending is one thing; making a mess out of describing the mess is another thing entirely.

Where it all goes wrong for me is the way that Collins keeps crabbing back to the things which worked in the first book; the over-the-top spitefulness of the killing machines in the arena and the creepy moral unease that comes from knowing that the only way you're going to live is if everyone else dies. The efforts to get back to that successful formula get ever more strained, and it's never a good sign when the reader, a third of the way from the ending of the book, is muttering under his breath "Oh dear, here we go again." 

Oddly enough, I suspect that these books are going to be perfectly successful movies; the way they've been put together will probably work better in film terms than they do on the printed page. But having found my way to the end of the books, I'm kind of wishing I'd left well enough alone.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Catching Fire; Hunger Games II, Electric Boogaloo, the Encatchening

Sequels. We live in a time of sequels, though, as I had cause to point out just the other day, it's easy to imagine the audience at the Globe Theatre grumbling that Shakespeare was just grinding them out. "'Enry Four? It's all just sequels now, innit? And he's just cashing it in nah, breaking it up into two parts anall. Sod this, I'm off dahn the pub."

I'm not sure if Suzanne Collins knew at the outset that she was going to need to write three books about Katniss Everdeen, but I have my doubts that it was all fully fleshed out in her head as she picked up her quill for page one of The Hunger Games. Turns out that I was wrong about cultural stasis persisting in Hunger Games land for thirty years; it's persisted for 75 years. I'm trying, without very much success, to think of a period of history where a whole continent stayed under one management for 75 years without any real change to the arrangements. It's easy enough to argue that the US has been under a single management for more than two hundred years, until you pick apart those two hundred years and all the changes in society which have swept through the continent in that time. You need to go back centuries before you can find a society which bobbed along with no real dynamism, and in most cases our impression of stasis is really down to ignorance of detail. There are enough throw-away lines about new consumer distractions and inventions for the wealthy that science has to have been plugging along, and with new inventions come new ways of looking at things and social change in their wake. No, it just doesn't make sense, any more than the convenient notion that the former USA can break into twelve districts each of which specialise in a different primary production sector. That's the kind of dynamic you see in a computer game, not the real world.

But those are the quibbles of the last book, persisting into the second when I'd hoped they might be sorted out a bit. What actually happens in the second book? Some good stuff, actually, at least from a character point of view. Our three main characters remain a little bit too good to be true, but I like it that the ludicrously chaste love triangle doesn't turn into some angst ridden pain in the neck. I like it, too, that Katniss is starting to hate herself for what she had to do to get as far as she has. And that despite this, she's toughened up a bit; killing people isn't bothering her as much as it used to, which seems to be pretty much the way that it goes for people in the real world. There's something real going on in her mind, for all the nonsense going on in the actual world, and I like that.

Stlll, it's a very middle-y book. An awful lot of running time goes on a victory tour which doesn't really deepen our understanding of the world enough, and just feels like marking time. And then we get the big obstacle; oh noes, Katniss has to go back in the arena again. Because the Capitol keeps changing the rules, and just when you think you're safe, they wind you back in. This is a perfectly worthwhile piece of vileness, but it happens at the wrong point in the action, so that resolving it winds up rushed and awkward, and indeed almost as though Collins has run out of ideas and all she can think of is to chuck her protagonist back into the arena again because that worked so well the last time. There was a different, and perhaps better, arena to be navigated; this would have been the ideal place for Collins to show us more of the Capitol, and the inner workings of the lunatic government which controls all of this sadism. That's more or less what I'd been expecting, but instead we're kept back in the narrow compass of District 12 and then the arena, and we still have no better idea of how this show could be kept on the road or what's going on below its surface. There are any number of hints that there's a deeper game in play, but they're not pulled together in a way which convinces. One big plot twist is that Haymitch survived the last 25th anniversary games, which were made extra ugly by doubling the number of players; it's weird that this was never mentioned before now, since it would have been quite the talking point at the time, and indeed, it was designed to be a talking point so that each generation would be aware how screwed they really were. Which is a good moment for me to mention that I can't think of a single government in history which has prospered by telling its population that they're screwed and there's nothing that they can do about it. Even the really nasty ones still insisted that they were actually benign and had everyone's best interests at heart. Bwahaha is NOT a headline strategy for a working polity.

The good news, I suppose, is that by the time we get to the end of the book, everything has fallen thoroughly apart and it doesn't seem that likely that we're going to get ANOTHER oh noes, back to the arena reveal in the third book. But before I can figure that out, I have to go and follow the footsteps of that great humanitarian, Hannibal Lecter.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Robert Harris: The Fear Index

There's something profoundly inessential about the books of Robert Harris. Fatherland has been taking up a lot of space on my bookshelves - I bought a remaindered hardcover edition - for many years without me ever feeling the urge to revisit it. Harris is one of those writers who gets An Idea and then crafts a narrative around the idea. He's a perfectly adequate writer, so the characters are workmanlike - they suffice for the work in hand - but once they've played their part in illuminating the Idea, they're not so interesting for their own sake.

I started reading The Fear Index a couple of weeks back, not expecting very much out of it, and by the end of chapter 2 I could tell that it wasn't going to be worth putting a lot of effort into getting to the end of it. It went to one side until I was coming back down from the Hidden City and grabbed an arm-load of books to have something to read while I was home. Having finished The Gone Away World, I figured to read something more disposable and resumed the Harris.

I've got a feeling that for Harris' target audience, there's a wow factor in the big reveal that drives the book. For anyone who's read any science fiction, ever, or even Frankenstein, the punch line's about as surprising as dipping into a historical novel featuring an Atlantic crossing in 1912 only to discover that there are icebergs. Genius creates computer trading system in order to exploit the extremes of algorithmic trading, only to have it become self aware; this story about computing is older than actual computing, if I had the patience to look it up.

It's very competently carried off; everything's in its place and there's a praiseworthy effort to respect the Aristotelian unities by having everything happen within a day. It's a profoundly screenplay friendly book, as you'd expect from a writer who's had most of his work turned into movies of one kind and another. In due course, it may become a movie, though it suffers a bit from a lack of relatable characters; the protagonist is the misguided genius at the centre of a hedge fund, which is a pretty hard thing to get someone to root for in the day and age.

Probably the most useful thing in the book is a half page about two thirds of the way through where one of the characters explains a hedge fund's working with an incredibly simply minded analogy. It would be a huge time saver if you ever had to explain one yourself, but that's a requirement that comes up less often than you'd expect. And once you look at the mechanics of hedging, it's hard to see how you could AVOID making money doing it; essentially, it's being a bookie with stocks and shares (and the like) rather than horses, and just like being a bookie, as long as you make sure that a) you're using other people's money; b) all your bets are balanced off against other bets so that you can't really lose and c) there are far more gamblers than bookies, it's pretty much a license to print money. 

Mind you, it wasn't just the familiarity of the premise that hung heavy on my patience this afternoon; it was the familiarity of the writing. It reminded me of that patch Philip Kerr went through when he wrote high concept potboilers, including one called Gridiron, which pretty much has the same McGuffin 17 years ago, albeit with a quasi autonomous building rather than a trading system. And both of them reminded me of Michael Crichton, albeit on a bad day. Michael Crichton was not a very good writer, but in his heyday, he was a welter of genuinely new notions; you didn't read his books and think "Hang on, I've been here before." Still, I've been complaining for a while that something needs to be done to up the quality control of the stuff which is being unearthed from Crichton's sock drawer and unleashed on an unsuspecting world. You could do worse than giving the scripts to Harris.

Nick Harkaway: The Gone Away World

Since this is fundamentally a blog about snarking things off, it's always hard to know where to begin with something that I admire. The Gone Away World was something I decided not to read when it came out. It seemed like something I wasn't going to like; too whimsical or serious or literary or something. Four years later I somehow changed my mind and decided to give it a shot, and I've been slowly reading it over the course of the past week. Slowly, because occasionally you hit a book which you want to take your time over; I rarely read a full chapter at a sitting until I'd got to the magical point where what was left of the book was too thin to hold comfortably in one hand. Whereupon, as you do, I galloped through the last eighty or so pages in one go.

Harkaway shares with Neal Stephenson a nerdly willingness to digress off into detail about small things which matter to specialists of one kind and another, but unlike Stephenson, he can usually keep it in check. So every few pages, there's a diverting little aside which leaves you wondering if it's true, or just something that sounds odd enough to be true. It's probably best to assume that most of it is genial blather, not least because Harkaway does genial blather so well that I ought not to have been surprised to read in his afterword that one of his big influences was PG Wodehouse. It's a very un-Wodehousian book, until he mentions it, and then you're running back over it and realising that it is exactly what might have happened if Wodehouse had been a huge modern nerd with an interest in martial arts movies and science fiction, and had set one of his farces in a post apocalyptic wasteland. 

It's a crafty book; there's a killer reveal in the middle of it which has been artfully foreshadowed and yet is completely organic to the plot. Yes, I thought, of course. Everything has been leading up to this point, and every little thing which has bugged me about the narrator's story so far has just neatly fallen into place. It's quite wonderfully cunning. In a way, it's too good to top, so it's a pity that the book still has some way to go before it gets to the end. I'm not sure that anything could be done about that, short of ripping it all up and starting again. You could run with the reveal early and then go through the working out, or you could leave it even later, but then there's no time for the loose ends. Or you could opt for the tricky structure that Iain M Banks adopted in Use of Weapons, but as I thought about that, I thought of the way that Banks' debut The Wasp Factory managed the tricky business of a narrator who isn't at all what we think. Yes, it can be done, but my word, it's tricky. 

The Gone Away World is, at one level, simply a book with a truly clever gimmick at its heart, and a very intricate master plot all around the edge of that. But if all it was was a gimmick, I'd have raced through it and moved on to something else in the monster pile of books sitting around the house. Instead I savoured it, because it's a really nicely written book; the narrator's voice is entertaining and comfortable, and his vision of the world as being perfectible, if hardly perfect, is an infectious one. I wanted to take my time with it, the same way that you don't want an enjoyable evening to end. Nick Harkaway seems like he'd be a nice bloke to have a drink with. He also has the kinds of doubts about our modern world that I've harboured for most of my own life. He's not really hiding them, either. The Gone Away War, which is the inciting incident for most of the action, revolves around the use of a bomb which removes the information from mass and energy, so that it doesn't know how to exist any more and just disappears. The problem, as only becomes apparent when the great powers have their Oppenheimer moment after the fact, is that something has to fill the information vacuum this creates, and that something is whatever random thoughts are running through people's minds in the neighbourhood. An antidote is needed, some kind of nonsensical and meaningless information which will fill the gap without creating any new reality. That antidote is referred to as FOX. Of course it is.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Dark Knight Rises; less would have been more

The Dark Knight Rises is pretty heavy going, and after I'd sat through about the length of a normal movie, I figured out why. Batman himself is actually pretty dull. He's got tonnes of gadgets, but he's got no real personality and no sense of humour either, so you're kind of sitting there, waiting for the villains to give you a bit of fun. By the time I had figured this out, there was still something like an hour more of the movie to sit through, and it didn't get any better. It didn't get any worse, but I was reduced to keeping myself amused trying to figure out just how many cameos had been levered in. Who was that special forces guy who got killed after about six lines of dialogue? Could that really be The Rock? No, turns out it was Franco from Rescue Me, which meant I was probably the only person who recognised him even vaguely. Are any of these guys playing prisoners famous? Yes, it turns out, one of them was Tom Conti. Because Chris Nolan can get just anyone, these days, no matter how little they have to do. Could that really be Cillian Farrell slumming over there as the judge of all? Yep, it was. Matthew Modine playing the inept chief of police? My word, that's just who it is. What with Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Tom Hardy and Cillian Farrell, it was for all the world as though Nolan cleared his throat at the end of Inception and said "Did I say any of you could leave?"

I think that if we lived in a world where The Dark Knight didn't exist, The Dark Knight Rises would seem like a pretty good Batman movie. But Heath Ledger's Joker ruined movie villaindom for everyone else, somehow managing to find a way to play a maniac who made sense as a maniac. Villains in superhero movies don't usually have sensible plans, and you kind of have to roll with it if you're going to get through the thing without laughing in the wrong places. Ledger's Joker was somehow crazy enough that it made some kind of sense that he'd be doing insane things just for the fun of it, and just scary enough that you could believe that other people would go along with the plan for fear of what might happen if they didn't. And the scale of his operations was somewhat plausible. 

By contrast, Bane, the villain of the piece for tonight's feature presentation, is completely nuts and working on a scale too vast ever to make sense. And crucially, he's not funny. This is the script's fault; in Inception, Hardy's character got most of the good one-liners and made hay with them. If there was anything there that could be spun for fun, Hardy would have found a way. And Bane's got movie villain delegation syndrome; not since John Lithgow in Cliffhanger (a film which also featured a mid air assault on one plane from another one!) have I seen a criminal mastermind with such poor management skills. Killing your subordinates whenever they annoy you may well keep them on their toes, but after the first couple of weeks, they're mostly on their toes looking for a good place to stand when they stick a bunch of knives in your back. Yet somehow we're supposed to figure that this is a guy who attracts slavish loyalty from a huge gang of minions over a period of years. I could not get my head round that problem.

It falls to Anne Hathaway to plug the chuckle gap. As comforting news goes, this is kind of like being told that it will be Steve Buscemi's job to lead the elite team of commandos in hand to hand combat with space aliens; you want to believe this is all going to work out, but it's not how you would have planned it if someone had given you a blank sheet of paper. Catwoman's always in principle a fun character and Anne Hathaway does her best, but the material isn't always there. And there's precious little light relief from anyone else.

I have to make allowances; Nolan is setting out to make a set of serious movies about what superheroing would be all about, so he's going to be aiming for a certain portentous tone, but dear god in heaven; it's superhero movies. Ludicrously scaled villains. Maniacal revenge-driven plots which don't make a button of sense. A man wearing a mask he can never take off (which just left me wondering how he ate). A whole city cut off from the rest of the world and held hostage with a nuclear bomb for months. That's kind of balderdash, no matter how seriously you're pitching it. There's no point in being quite so po-faced about it.

As always, Caine is fun and Morgan Freeman twinkles reliably. Joseph Gordon Levitt once again steals the movie off the ostensible principal cast; I'm not sure what he does when he sets his mind to it, but he has few equals in the odd business of playing a smart guy trying to solve a problem. And there's any amount of pretty good set pieces, including the air assault at the beginning of the movie (Oh look, Aidan Gillen has added sleazy CIA contractor to his list of scumbag characters! And, oh, sure, it's completely unexpected that one of the three guys with bags on their heads will turn out to be the villain after all.) So it's not like this is a bad movie. It's just not a good Christopher Nolan movie, is all.

Without wanting to go all Joel Schumacher on it and have nothing but comedy villains with punchlines for every occasion, it would have been better with a funnier villain to balance the fundamental humourlessness of Christian Bale's Batman impersonation (Bale was quite wry as Bruce Wayne in the earlier films, but the downbeat tone of the whole movie has really cut that away). And it would have been better as a smaller, more intimate movie. Smaller stakes wouldn't have taken so long to set up, and would have been every bit as powerful as the over the top plot we actually got.