Friday, 30 November 2012

Thirty Minutes or Less; would have made a better run-time than a title

I wasn't going to say anything about Thirty Minutes or Less which I watched half heartedly last night hoping it would as much fun as Zombieland, or after a while, as much fun as Tower Heist, and after a little longer, as much fun as that time I had to get my head sewn up after a concussion. Then it was over, which was one of its better bits; say this much for Thirty Minutes or Less, say that at least it doesn't last too long. It was only this morning, as I mulled over all the better things I might have done with the time, that it struck me that it was yet another one of those movies which had tiresomely crammed about twenty minutes of ideas into more than an hour of flailing, and that if they had brought it in at thirty actual minutes or less, it would have made a perfectly good pilot for a show no-one was ever going to want to see any more of.

The plot has about four moving parts; two losers decide to murder the dominant loser's dad for his lottery winnings, and to finance the hire of a hit man for that, they coerce another loser into robbing a bank for them. They do the coercion by strapping a bomb vest to a pizza delivery guy. Amazingly, that's the more direct plan; the first draft had them setting up a porno movie so that they could blackmail some random husband into robbing a bank. I know what you're thinking; if you can assemble a remote controlled bomb vest, don't you already have most of what you need to bypass the need for a hit-man? There you go again, bringing a brain to a dumb-fight.

Anyhow, that's the whole thing, pretty much; coerce the schlub to rob the bank, and then watch as everything comes unstuck. At that point, they seem to have completely forgotten the title, and the pizza guy gets ten whole hours to rob the bank. Trying to rob a bank from scratch in Thirty Minutes or Less could have been frenetic and silly and genuinely exciting; taking the whole damn day over it means we have to spend the day in the company of our cast of losers, not one of whom comes close to being proverbially loveable. Even eighty minutes of them was probably too long. There has to be someone in every movie you want to see more of. Either the villain is larger than life and hamming it up like the dickens, or the hero's a scrappy outsider who deserves a break, but there has to be someone for you to root for. Problem is that the villains are moronic dicks, too stupid to be masterminds and not magnificently silly enough to be fun to watch (best idiot villains of all time? I'd start my list with the Wet Bandits from Home Alone, which for bonus points also had one of the most fun snarky heroes. Not haute couture, I know). Fine, fine, you grumble, root for the heroes. Can't; they're whining nobodies. Though they don't have to be; the pizza guy begins and ends the movie with moments of sneaky everyman cleverness, so it's a real mystery how his brain goes on holidays for the rest of the movie. 

I read the other day that Rowan Atkinson believes that if everyone is having fun on the set, no-one will have any fun in the theatre, and if that's a general truth, then the whole cast and crew must have had a hell of a good time making Thirty Minutes or Less.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Iron Sky: It's Nazis, from the dark side of the moon and... that's all I got.

Iron Sky is another one of those "What could possibly go wrong?" ideas. I heard about it before I even found myself in exile, and thought, golly, I hope those wacky Finns get the money to make that, because that would be awesome. 

The idea IS awesome, but Iron Sky  is yet another miserable reminder of the gulf that lies between idea and execution. In principle, an SF comedy about Nazi revenants coming back to  conquer the earth from secret bases on the far side of the moon - comedy gold. From certain angles, nazis are never not funny. In a world running short of safe targets for open mockery and disdain, at least with the nazis you don't have to worry that anyone's going to run out and demand that you show more respect. Even if fat white people get organised, we'll always have the nazis to fall back on. Sure, you've got to be careful - as Basil Fawlty would say - not to mention the war, but leaving aside thirteen years of genocidal lunacy, what's not to laugh at? Laughing at nazis vents our hate for every other uptight authority figure in an over-tailored uniform.

Plus, as any war gamer will tell you, the nazis got all the coolest toys. If their leadership hadn't been batshit insane and an almost comical working out of the paradox that enough organisation gives you nothing but chaos, their engineering might have had everyone in modern Europe all doing exactly what Berlin told us to do…. So the thought of what kind of cool crap they might have rolled out with 60 plus years to tinker on the back of the moon? Even if all the jokes fell flat, there was always that to look forward to.

Sadly, the jokes do fall flat. One really big joke can only take you so far, but what's even worse than relying on one big joke is trying to rely on two big jokes and losing focus on either. The other big joke is that the US Government is moronic and venal. On the one hand? Just the US Government? Really? You think? And on the other hand? A joke depends at least a little on being a surprise; something you didn't already know. Iron Sky's nazis are actually pretty well thought out; the upper crust are the same kinds of nasty people you find at the top of every political system, and the other ranks are sort of sweetly deluded about the essential decency of their system. They all play it straight, which means that it works a lot better dramatically and as comedy than the raucous shrieking one-note caricatures infesting the US administration. The one good US moment is when a spin doctor channels the infamous meltdown from Downfall. Other than that, it's always kind of a relief when the focus shifts back to the moon.

The cool toys; well, there's a war-game gag to look at almost anything and muse, "There's a game in that…." (Infamously, John once unthinkingly said this after putting down a book about soccer….). There sure is a game in Iron Sky, to the extent that the computer game is coming real soon now. The Nazi armada is wonderfully detailed and suitably old school, and it's sadly plain that most of the thought went into the look of the movie instead of into the detail of the story. What does this remind me of? Oh yes, Jackboots on Whitehall,  another great idea which would have been so much better if it had stayed a great idea rather than starting the death march to mediocrity which always wears away the beauty of a great idea before it can ever get to the ball. Whenever the evil geniuses in the late great The Middleman were monologuing their genius, they made a point of emphasising how their scheme had been sheer elegance in its simplicity, the subtext being that once they tried to put the scheme into reality, a million tiny things made defeat inevitable. Iron Sky is another one of those things which would have been so much more fun if it had never happened.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Three Musketeers, and a bunch of annoying people.

I've adverted in the past to the way in which my exile to the Hidden City has cut into my opportunities to fritter away my precious time on worthless but entertaining schlock. Thus it was that I missed Paul WS Anderson's version of The Three Musketeers until just now, when I loaded up a cheapish DVD and prepared myself to marvel.

I'd seen the trailers and thought to myself; bulletproof underlying book, airships and - is that Ray Stevenson? Is that Christoph Waltz as Cardinal Richelieu? How can this fail? Somehow the glamour distracted me from the glaring hints that failure was not just an option but almost a requirement. Firstly, there was Milla Jovovich, who, no matter her many virtues, has been a virtual guarantee of disaster ever since she ran away from Luc Besson. Secondly - and he's never far behind, since Paul WS Anderson and Milla are to bad action movies what Paul and Linda McCartney were to unnecessary sequels to the Beatles - there was, well, Paul WS Anderson, the poor man's Michael Bay. WS can mount set pieces, but he doesn't ever seem to have figured out anything else; in a properly run world, he'd be the unsung second unit man who made sure real movies had a couple of really good explosions. Sadly, through some quirk for which I blame you, the moron general public, his movies keep making more money than they cost to make, and thus there seems to be no stopping him. There's only so much I can accomplish by paying less than cost price for his movies on DVD; the rest of you are going to have to start spending your money on better movies. 

Frustratingly, there's a better movie struggling fitfully to get out of the Three Musketeers, and as is usually the case, it's the movie the actors are trying to make in conspiracy with the writers and against the director and the special effects team. Caddishly, they haven't let Milla in on this plot, and she spend most of her time hurling herself around athletically and laughing as though she'd been told she could get a real job if she somehow constructed the world's most annoying mannered laugh. Matthew McFadyen's wonderfully world-weary Athos plainly wants to murder the heck out of Milla's Milady deWinter and after you've seen and heard enough of the period laugh, you're rooting for him to get the job done before you see her entire set of teeth once again. I like Milla, but she needs to start her own band instead of Linda McCartney-ing it with WS all the time. It probably doesn't help that the whole point of Milady deWinter is poise, grace and subtlety, and the whole point of Milla is running up vertical surfaces while clobbering the ungodly. 

I'd never heard of the actor who was playing Aramis, who managed to look vaguely like Orlando Bloom, but somehow with less in the line of cheekbones, and he doesn't do much to keep the Three Musketeer show on the road; all the musketeering belongs to Athos and the unstoppable Ray Stevenson, essentially doing Titus Pullo in a different outfit, and there is nothing, and can be nothing wrong with that. I'd be perfectly happy to watch Ray do Titus Pullo as Atticus Finch, let alone Porthos. So long as the camera is on Athos, Porthos, Christoph Waltz's perfectly pitched Richelieu, or even, in a pinch, Orlando Bloom's entertainingly nasty Buckingham, the movie is quite fun. Move the focus away from them and there's nothing much to be had but explosions and the kind of romantic flummery I'd expect in a Disney special about the problems of contemporary teenagers. Or to put it another way, whenever the camera rests on d'Artagnan, everything takes a nosedive.

I had thought I'd never heard of Logan Lerman, who plays d'Artagnan in much the same way that I play chess [1], but it turns out that he played the hapless kid in 3.10 to Yuma. He doesn't seem to have aged a day, and he brings to the role everything it truly doesn't need. d'Artagnan is written as an annoying callow teenager, but in a big sprawling book, there's plenty to distract you from that and anyway he gets smarter and less annoying; it's part of what the book and its sequels are about. A movie as dumb as this one has to keep all its characters pretty one-note, and man does that one note from from d'Artagnan get tired fast.

So, how about those airships? Well, they were invented by Leonardo da Vinci. I don't think that Hollywood is entirely clear on when da Vinci lived and worked; I think he's turned into a convenient shorthand for well-cool crap to throw at the screen in any movie not set in the present day. So we can pass cheerily over the fact that this is 1625 and that using da Vinci for engineering ideas makes about as much sense as having the characters in the Matrix discover a cache of Edison's prototypes and using them to out compute the Matrix. And I don't know when or how the hell they think he would have got the time and money to turn all his doodles into working prototypes; the movie with starts with a break in at da Vinci's vault in Venice. It's genuinely hard to think of a worse place to build a basement than Venice, let alone a basement filled with exquisitely engineered booby traps and protected by four locks so precisely machined that unless all four are released at once, none will work, and all miraculously still working a century after da Vinci died and 125 years after he left Venice for good. 

It turns out that we've terribly underestimated the sheer technical brilliance of the 1600s, because within a year of the musketeers stealing and then losing the plans for da Vinci's airships, England's built a working prototype with essentially ALL THE GUNS IN THE WORLD on it, and not to be outdone, Richelieu's managed to nick the plans back and built his own French knock-off that makes the English prototype look like a rowboat with aspirations. Little does he know that England's sneakily built a whole fleet of the damn things, which make their appearance at the end of the movie in a homage to Resident Evil: Afterlife. Yeah. Resident Evil: Afterlife. If there was some kind of merit based system for queuing movies in the order which they deserved a homage, we'd need to invent a new kind of maths just to handle the number we'd be up to when it was Resident Evil: Afterlife's turn.

Which is not to say that the airships aren't sort of fun. They're just nothing like enough fun to have been worth the trouble and expense they must have involved for the production. There's one rather cool moment, when the Cardinal's airship looms up out of the fog at the musketeers and the figurehead has poor Constance lashed to it as a combo bonus figurehead and hostage; if only that hadn't blown the imagination budget for the production, the airships could have been as much fun as I'd hoped they'd be. 

The weird thing is, why bother? It's The Three Musketeers, a book which has been made into a movie so many times that a stack of all the DVDs would stop a bazooka. All you need to do is bring along a bunch of actors and let that reliable old V12 engine rev up and do what it knows how to do. You've got a femme fatale, a scheming villain mastermind, ANOTHER scheming villain mastermind, a band of somewhat over the hill but still potent desperadoes and a dumb punk kid with a lot to learn and only the best to learn it from. Throwing in airships and da Vinci and steam punk in general is like thinking that Apollo 11 would have got to the moon a whole lot better if you'd just painted it yellow and stencilled "Pussy Wagon" on the back. And there are moments when Athos and Porthos are reflecting on the essential cussedness of life in public service and how there's nothing else for it but another drink; the whole movie could have been like that, with a couple of good sword fights and a real sense of danger and they'd have really had something.

Instead it's a confused mess with a few big explodey set pieces in the middle (there was a moment when Aramis was firing off some kind of primeval gatling gun, AGAIN, and I thought to myself "Did WS just recycle that shot from the first time he used it?"). The best bit is that in the middle of it all is the good old plot from the original; get back the Queens' jewels so that the King won't be provoked to a war with England through a carefully orchestrated misunderstanding. Gawdelpus, they can't even get that bit right; the musketeers manage to rain down so much destruction on England trying to sneak out the jewels that the King of France doesn't need to think about war; as the movie closes, Buckingham has brought the whole Royal Navy and Air Force to start the war on his own bat. In the meantime, Alexandre Dumas has dug himself out of his long slumber and is working his way towards WS's home to show him just what he remembers about sword fighting from back in the day when you wrote about things you knew how to DO instead of just throwing crap at the screen and hoping no-one would stop to ask questions.

[1] When it comes to chess, I embody the difference between knowing what to do and knowing how to do it.

Friday, 16 November 2012

The new improved TV license; a service you'll be happy to pay more money for

One of the few privileges of being a wetback is not having to watch Mexican television, so - for example - I've been treated to about 90% less Uncle Greybo explaining about the digital switchover this year. (Like all Mexicans, I couldn't wait for the digital switchover, because TV without Uncle Greybo and those two moronic dogs was going to be a huge improvement even if the digital service came in black and white). It's proven harder to escape the ads for the TV license, which Telefis Mexico has been screening to fill all the gaps where they used to have proper adverts, back when we had money. I think they're going about this the wrong way - although like all Mexicans, it would be hard for me to think of a time when they went about anything the right way. Of course no-one wants to pay the TV license - that's a given. But what really sticks in our gullets is the thought that the money we give them for the TV license goes to the likes of Pat Kenny, who then lectures us from the lofty heights of half a million pesos of extorted TV license fees about how we're living beyond our means and we all ought to be paid much less.

Meanwhile, Ryanair is making money hand over fist by selling ostensibly cheap aeroplane tickets, and then giving us the opportunity to hand over extra money for such premium services as being allowed to get on the plane early enough to get an overhead luggage space, or not have to sit in the actual toilet. For a mere ten extra pesos, the passport office will promise to try to get you a passport while you still look something like the picture you sent in. I suddenly realised, Irish people are willing to pay a bit extra to make something horrible a little less unbearable.

Thus, a modest proposal. RTE should offer a "premium" TV license. It will cost five pesos more, but will come with a guarantee that none of it will be used to pay Pat Kenny. I guarantee that it will wind up being the only kind of TV license they ever sell. 

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Rango: Utter lunacy isn't usually as funny as this.

The definitive sign that Johnny Depp was not like the other children in Hollywood was not Edward Scissorhands, but the 1995 utterly bonkers Jim Jarmusch western Dead Man. What made it special was not that it was as mad as a bag of hammers, but that Depp had to have known going in that it would never make a dime, and he did it anyway. At that point, it was finally clear that Depp was more interested in being crazy than in making money, and everyone could relax and wait to see just how crazy it would get. 

Rango is, among other things, a partial remake of Dead Man, inasmuch as Johnny Depp is playing a city slicker who finds himself in the wild west and way over his head after what really ought to be a fatal injury. It's also a remake of about eleventy hundred other things, most notably Chinatown, but probably also Blazing Saddles, Pale Rider and I imagine pretty much everything else Gore Verbinski could remember while he doodled it onto the world's tallest stack of bar napkins. I mean that in the nicest way; Rango is fun partly because the gags have been set up for it by better-known movies we've already seen and liked. 

Rango was one the early casualties of my trip to the Hidden City, whose fleapit programmes as though everyone in the City still had acne and a room temperature IQ, and consequently never shows anything likely to appeal to anyone with a vote. Despite being a CGI cartoon, Rango looked far too grown up and edgy for the management, and so it's only now, when I picked up a copy for £4 in Sainsbury's, that I finally got a chance to see it. 

Kids' movies these days always seem to have something wedged in to cheer up the babysitters, so that most of the high-budget CGI cartoons of the last few years are an uneasy straddle between dumb jokes for the kids and kid-safe smart jokes for the adults. When it works, you get Up or Despicable Me, when it doesn't, you get Alice in Wonderland. Rango, on the other hand, feels more like a movie for adults (rather childish adults, it's true) which just happens to be safe for children to watch. I say this as something remarkable, but it occurs to me as I say it that when I was a kid, pretty much all the movies on TV happened to be safe for kids to watch. Of course in those days we were busy betting on the dinosaur races and starching our crinolines; how times change.

Rango is great fun; it's been a while since I watched a comedy which made me laugh out loud at the silly bits. The animation is very clever, not least in how they somehow managed to get a wonky looking chameleon with a lopsided head to look and move like Johnny Depp. Rango doesn't look at all like Johnny Depp, and yet somehow he's just like him. It's not just the voice acting; I suspect it would still work even if you had a completely different actor voicing the character. Mind you, Depp owns not just the character but the movie; for big stretches he's the only thing in it, and he's always the focal point. Good thing he's excellent, as he often is when he's playing a guy who's so far out of his depth that the only option left is to pretend to be a hero and hope everyone else falls for it.

The elevator pitch must have been "What if we made a movie where Johnny Depp is the city slicker who becomes the sheriff of a Wild West town which is living through the water-swindle plot of Chinatown and, oh yeah, everyone in the movie is some kind of small animal?" "Johnny Depp, you say?" Ridiculously, that's more or less all there is to it, but as with all movies, it's all in the details. The town of Dust is lovingly visualised, and full of echoes of all the great westerns. The characters are a wonderful mixture of scruffiness and telling little details which pop them to life. The writing is nice and sharp, and just absurd enough to be funny when it needs to be. It's fun to watch. I suspect that it would stand up to repeat viewings as you try to puzzle out all the references you missed the first time. It's littered with throwaways; Rango gets bounced around a highway for a frenetic five minutes at the beginning of the movie, and in and among the stunts, there's a moment where he smacks into the windscreen of a car being driven by the spitting image of Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Five seconds, and we're on to the next thing; it's there for anyone who knows the book or the movie, and then it's gone, because life is short and they still need to glue Rango to the mudflap of a passing truck. There's another great moment when Rango tries to blend with the landscape and fails spectacularly (wearing a Hawaiian shirt at the same time was probably not the way to start…); it's funny, and then when Johnny Depp protests "It's an art more than a science!" it's somehow hilarious.

Usually when I like something this much, no-one else does, but somewhat to my surprise Rango actually made its money back. So weirdly, and much against the odds, Johnny Depp went out and made something completely bonkers, and it made money too. I imagine that Gore Verbinksi repeats this to himself as a soothing mantra while he tries to get to sleep each night between now and whenever the much troubled Johnny-Depp-plays-Tonto-with-a-bird-on-his-head Lone Ranger finally gets to the screen.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Robert Kroese: Mercury Falls

In a moment of clarity, I held back from buying the whole Mercury trilogy just in case it turned out like a lot of other trilogies I've bought sight unseen. I may finally be learning.

Mercury Falls isn't a bad book, by which I mean I had no real problem getting to the end of it. But it's not a particularly good book either, because I'm not that bothered to see what happens next to the quirky cast of characters.

Comedy is hard. It's easy enough to be funny for a few moments in a rattled off email or a pub conversation. People are ready to laugh; they know you, you're a funny guy, if only because there's a lot of stuff about people that's best dealt with if we all pretend it's funny. Making total strangers laugh; hard. Making total strangers laugh when they're sitting on their own with a book? I can't dependably make myself laugh writing this blog, let alone sustain something funny to book length. So I don't diss Kroese for not making me laugh as much as I hoped I would; that stuff ain't easy. But it's one thing to know something's hard to do and another thing to let it pass when it doesn't pay off.

Going on the product description on that there intarnet, Mercury Falls seemed like it was worth a punt. A tongue in cheek book about the apocalypse with a renegade angel wisecracking his way through the mayhem and saving the world for his own inscrutable reasons? Well, if the writer could hit the tone right, that sounded like it could be fun. There was a fun tongue in cheek mock interview between the writer and his characters which suggested that Kroese had the ear to handle the wisecracks. 

It might could be that Kroese hits his stride in the sequels and I'm cutting myself off unnecessarily from some fun, but I got a stack of books which I pretty much know will be somewhat better and a finite amount of time, so I'm going to leave that gamble for later.

The real problem is that Kroese can write, but he can't do wisecracking quirk as well as he needs to. He has a good dry deadpan style for description, but the dryness undercuts a story that cries out for a lot more comic hyperbole. The other problem is that all his villains are office drones reimagined as part of the infinite bureaucracy of heaven and hell. Office drones are supposed to be tedious; the challenge is to do justice to that without being tedious yourself. Pretty much his only weapon in that war is Mercury, and Mercury isn't carrying enough water to make that work. Partly I think that's because Kroese is trying not to let his title character run away with the whole story, which is the kind of advice you get when you're trying to write in a structured environment. It's good advice, but it's predicated on the idea that when you hold back the rampaging monster, you've got something else to put into play which will be equally diverting. 

The notion of the otherworld as a frozen bureaucracy has been done, a lot, in both book and film, and there's a touch which can make it work. The last thing I read which made it work was the first Johannes Cabal book, which opens up with a trip to hell and isn't afraid to let the title character do the heavy lifting. Bureaucracy is all about the boredom, and you need to open the jumbo-size can of crazy to counter it - and you can't just tell us that life is tedious in the bureaucracy; make it real for the reader. Subject your character to the actual forms (somehow that never gets old, even though it should). 

As to the plot; well it's the old massive collision of unstoppable armies undercut by the fakeroo where no-one really knows who's working for whom or who the guy behind the curtain might be. Since I was reading it in the hope of getting skyscraper sized snowmen and ping pong games, every time we got back to the plot I sighed and started hoping this bit wouldn't take too long. It's a fierce complicated plot, and Kroese actually seems to know quite a lot about real eschatology. (Go on, look it up; I don't get a chance to use that word very often). It's just that when all that kind of thing ought be getting wrapped up fast and whimsical, Kroese gives us dry, grammatical and factual. I bet his software is really well documented.

Heaven help us, Kroese's biggest sin may simply have been to bring too much brain to work, not something I usually need to complain about.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Skyfall; some spoileriffic afterthoughts

I've already taken a first swing at Skyfall, but over the course of the past week I find myself coming back to some of its less obvious influences and implications. There's no way to tackle any of them without blowing the gaff completely on the plot of the movie, so read on at your peril if you're one of those delicate souls who hates to know what happens in a movie before they see it.

As  I said earlier, it's thematically a remake of Casino Royale. Let me spell that out in clearer terms. Like all Bond movies, it begins with a big set piece chase-cum-battle, and like all Bond movies, there's a bridging bit in the middle where Bond finds out more about the big bad by bonking his fancy woman, which inevitably leads to the fancy woman getting schwacked. So I won't make too much of a fuss about the precise echoes between those bits of the plot of Skyfall and Casino Royale. That would be like complaining about him introducing himself as Bond, James Bond. [Though you have to kind of wonder why the word hasn't got round international terror/espionage circles; I'd have thought by now that the management of every villainous bar would have standing orders to add cyanide to the Martini of anyone who introduces himself as Bond, James Bond.]

One big, can't-get-away-from-it parallel is that both movies feature the climactic total destruction of a moderately sized decrepit house in scenic surroundings; one in Venice and the other in the Scots Highlands. It's particularly noticeable because while Bond movies invariably end with something getting blowed up real good, in all other movies it's the villain's enormous lair. I'll get back to the house in a moment, but first I want to talk about the other parallel, which is the one I approve of. One thing I like in Skyfall is that the sakes are wonderfully small and intimate, and thus far more believable than usual. It's just one pissed off and tooled up ex-spy out to get his old boss, not some ludicrously powerful megalomaniac setting out to control and/or destroy the world. The stakes in Casino Royale were similarly manageable; nobble a money launderer, and then - and far more importantly - save the woman who'd betrayed Bond but still meant everything to him. Bond does his damnedest, but still can't quite pull it off.

Skyfall's Vesper Lynd is "M", and the strongest part of the movie is that even though M betrays Bond, he'll still put his life on the line to serve her and ultimately to try to save her. It's a tribute to the skills of Judi Dench, Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem that you can see how that might work; this is why you get the actors in. Craig, ever taciturn, never explains what he really feels or why he's doing anything, but he's a good enough actor to suggest what's going on, especially in his reactions to Bardem, whose wonderfully wordy villain explains exactly how he feels about being strung along and then hung out to dry. And yet, when Barden has scenes with Dench, we see just how that much hate has to be built on the kind of love that never really goes away; right up to the end it's clear that if M would only apologise, Bardem would be hers all over again. That's an emotional complexity and power you don't expect to see in a Bond film, and if they had to repeat a theme from another movie, they've amped it right up to 11 in the best possible way.

Now, back to the house, because someone's gotta say this; it's only Home Alone, innit? The house gets rigged and booby trapped with improvised munitions and then the bad guys get shredded as they try to break in. A slightly more confident movie might have tried to get Macauley Culkin to do a cameo. 

The other weird thing about the house - Bond's family home, apparently - is that it's as close as we've ever come to seeing a Bond origin story, and I know at least one person who's gotten himself very hot and bothered about it. The house has a priest's hole in, with a secret tunnel leading off the back of it towards a nearby chapel. "But this,", my colleague has screamed to the heavens, "Means Bond must be from a Catholic family! The very icon of Britishness is Catholic, not Protestant!". This would be true if we lived in a world where no-one ever moved house, and if Scotland was a place where people didn't spend several hundred years running each other off their ancestral lands. Since we don't and it wasn't, and since Bond doesn't even think of himself as anything other than English….

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Paolo Bacigalupi: The Windup Girl

I imagine that somewhere in Monsanto's corporate HQ, there's a guy still thanking God that this book is SF. Not because he's grateful that the things in it haven't happened yet, but because no-one of any importance reads SF. If The Windup Girl had been brought out as a literary novel, decision makers might have started wondering about GMOs. But since it came out as an SF book with elephants and skyscrapers on the cover….

I've written before about Bacigalupi. The Windup Girl is his first published novel, and it just happens that I've come to it last. It establishes the world he uses for the later two novels, Shipbreaker and The Drowned Cities, a world which I think he's going to go on digging through. Although the characters in The Windup Girl are strong and memorable, the world is really the star of the show. The other two books are set in a collapsed US long after the end of peak oil and all the easy living that came with it. It's clear in the books that there's been conflict and upheaval as well global warming; he's not writing about a world in which challenges inspired us all to work together, but about a world where people tore each other apart when the going got tough. The Windup Girl is set in Bangkok, as the government struggles to keep the rising flood waters from swamping the city, an almost too-obvious parallel with their efforts to save all of Thailand from being overwhelmed by waves of plant and animal diseases from outside their tightly regulated pocket of just-getting-by.

It's often difficult for me to think of something intelligent and funny to say about a good book. The Windup Girl is that especially difficult thing, a good book which I think is also an important one. It's probably the best written SF book to date on the topic of genetic manipulation of commonplace organisms. His other work has had genetically manipulated near-humans, but in The Windup Girl, he's teasing out what might happen if we go on manipulating the genetics of other things, particularly crops. We've always manipulated crops and food animals; that's what breeding programmes are all about. What's changed is the degree of control. We used to hold back some of the crop to plant next year as seeds; but there's no money for breeders in that kind of thing. We used to use chemicals to control pests; increasingly we're trying to use different pests to prey on the pests that we're more worried about. Bacigalupi shows us a world where these trends have continued, and gone badly wrong.

The world has been devastated by global warming; climate change has swept away coastlines and farm belts and fatally undercut the world's ability to feed itself. And states and companies have fought each other for control of how food is grown; plagues have swept through crops, triggering an escalating arms race between the plagues and the crop designers struggling to create varieties which will resist the plagues. It's never spelled out, but running under the narrative is the hint that the plagues were engineered, released to wipe out competing companies' products. 

The world of The Windup Girl is a world short of energy; oil is gone, and with it the cheap energy we take for granted now. Food is in short supply, and with it, the energy which humans and animals need to do the physical work which has had to take place of fossil-fuelled electricity. Bacigalupi inks in a detailed and persuasive world where even subsistence is a victory.

The book has a plot, which is mostly about the way in which individual ambition and desperation bring the Thai government crashing chaotically down, but the real power in the work is not the plot of this one disaster, but the brilliantly sketched in sense of a world in which such disasters have become almost inevitable. 

This is the first time that I've linked from a blog entry to someplace where you could actually buy the book. You shouldn't be reading this blog entry. You should be reading the book.