Monday, 30 December 2013

Ken MacLeod: The Restoration Game

The Restoration Game is another one of those books which sat in the third floor operations room until I packed it up, somehow never getting read because there was always something else I wanted to do instead. This is partly because Ken MacLeod is always improving literature and I will usually do almost anything before I turn to that kind of thing. It was mostly because The Execution Channel was pretty depressing and I didn't feel like a repeat of it.

MacLeod's been part of my "must buy the next one" stable of SF writers since I found his first book, The Star Fraction, back in the 1990s. Even more than Kim Stanley Robinson, he tends to write about a future in which the ideas of the left have somehow been made to work, and so he makes for a welcome antidote to the capitalist triumphalism which tends to dominate SF in much the same way that it dominates our real world. So he's a good ideas man, but not always a huge amount of fun to read; the last time I re-read any of his stuff, it was when I was catching up with the background of the Fall Revolution series and realised I needed to re-read The Star Fraction in order to understand what was happening in the third volume. He's one of those writers whose books I keep so that I can lend them to people rather than because I expect to read them again.

The Restoration Game is positively chirpy by comparison with a lot of his recent stuff, which took me a little by surprise; The Execution Channel and The Night Sessions had been so full of foreboding that I had been discouraged about getting into a MacLeod book set in a place as naturally gloomy as the Caucasus. 

It's something of an oddity for MacLeod in a lot of ways, because it's the first time he's written a book which is set here and now, rather than somewhere in the future (his books tend to jump between a grim vision of the near future and a more utopian distant future, jumping back and forth between one and the other to make the reader think about how one can turn into the other). Maybe that's why it feels comparatively chirpy; things are bad in the book, but they're no worse than they are right now in the real world, and I've learned how to deal with that. 

The Caucasus is one of those awkward places which we just don't get in the west; just another messy conflict zone with problems we don't understand and don't seem to care much about. MacLeod creates a completely plausible extra statelet to chuck into the mess, and tangles the history of Krassnia up with the family history of his protagonist. There was a moment about halfway through the book when I realised that I didn't even know as much as I thought I knew about Soviet history; there's a throwaway reference to Laurenti Beria's brief period of near power in the aftermath of Stalin's death. Beria outlasted Stalin? I thought. I went off to look it up, and to my surprise, Beria outlasted the old bastard by about six months, and might have been his successor if he hadn't been such an appalling human being that his enemies were, despite his best efforts, still numerous enough to do him in and pass the torch to Khrushchev. 

I don't usually check the homework in a novel, but there are hints from the beginning that the narrative might be taking place in a reality a little adrift from our own, and I wanted to see if this was the big clue that we were working in a parallel dimension. Nope; give or take the fact that Krassnia doesn't exist, everything about the Soviet experiment in the Caucasus is pretty much in line with the historical record, which is a grim and bloody one. The world of The Restoration Game is our own world, give or take the Grand Fenwick which MacLeod has magicked in to carry the plot along. I was probably more depressed by my own ignorance of the world than I was by what happened in it, since I've had a lot of time to get my head round the melancholy reality of what happened when communism got road tested in Russia.

Lucy Stone is a feisty protagonist and narrator, who feels more like a girl than the women in SF usually do, though I suspect any actual women will correct me on this one. What does feel incontestably right is the way that the moral edges of everything in the family history fuzz and blur; in The Restoration Game everyone thinks they're doing their best while being uncomfortably aware that it's not quite working out in line with their best intentions. MacLeod may not have given a perfect female character, but he's done a good job of catching the muddle and compromise of real people in tough places. For a lot of the book, I was all set to work this note around the notion that MacLeod had accidentally written a Tim Powers book; almost all of Powers' work has been openly or implicitly a secret history of the world, showing us mystical interference in documented history. 

The Restoration Game isn't that, in the end. It's more of an effort to cook up a book around the most recent version of the Platonic cave discussion. The Matrix threw into the mainstream the question of whether we're living in the real world or just a simulation of one, and in the background some more serious scientists have been mulling it over as a practical question. It turns out that you can pose this as a version of the Fermi paradox and the Drake equation (the first asks why we've never heard from aliens, and the second estimates just how many aliens we should have been hearing from). If you assume Artificial Intelligence is inevitable, and then make a bunch of slightly less iffy assumptions, you can rapidly paint yourself into a corner where it's far more likely than not that we're all just facets of a simulation being run by some vast AI for inscrutable purposes of its own. (It's left as an exercise for the reader to ponder how different that is from believing that we're living a world made by a supreme being…) The Restoration Game is an extended riff on what that might mean in practice, and perhaps the most self-aware moment in the whole thing is in a conversation early one among the real world game developers Lucy works for, when they complain about how they've got an idea, but not a story.

The Restoration Game actually has a halfway decent story, but it's deliberately ambiguous in the way it deals with the idea; MacLeod puts the book's reality squarely into play as a possible simulation in the opening pages, but the way he does it - and the echoes in the text itself - leave you wondering at the end if the culture running the simulation are simulations themselves, just as unaware as the characters. Is it, as Hawking asked, turtles all the way down

Friday, 27 December 2013

Kim Stanley Robinson: 2312

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the writers I talk about when I'm trying to explain the particular value of SF to sceptics. Along with people like Ken McLeod, Robinson is writing books about the way things might be if we got our act together. A lot of SF is intensely political; some of the really bad SF is reactionary as hell, power trip fantasies of the ubermensch running things the way they ought to be run. Or as they like to call themselves, libertarians. There isn't much of a left view in SF, and KSR is probably the most prominent figurehead for it.

That viewpoint - a preoccupation with how communities can live to their best advantage rather than the whims of an elite - informs all of his work, and I often wish it could be more influential than it appears to be. But those preoccupations can get in the way of the story; I could never finish the Mars Trilogy because the characters never came to life for me. There was something very uninvolving about them. KSR is one of those writers I admire but can't always read all the way through (I've read less than half of his published output despite my constant recommendations of the "good" ones).

2312 at first struck me as being a bit like John Varley's The Ophiuchi Hotline, which is as much about showing us as much of the solar system as possible as it is about the ostensible story. Varley had a very well worked out notion of a colonised solar system and wrote a load of stories set in it; although the Gaea trilogy is probably still his most satisfying work, the "Eight Worlds" stories are a more impressive feat of sustained storytelling. KSR has packed his own vision of a populated solar system into a single book, but it comes at the expense of story and character. After a while I started to think that the story he really wanted to tell was the story of what had to be done to make the solar system somehow habitable for his characters; there are constant interludes into the action where asteroids or moons or spaceships get pages of explanation. And those pages are somehow better reading than the chapters about the characters.

I found myself wondering what I was missing. Would Swan make more sense as a character if I'd read Proust? Would Inspector Genette have made more of a connection for me if I had more than a passing familiarity with the plot of Les Miserables? I still don't know. The plot places the three main characters wherever they need to be in order to see the big action set pieces, but it's never clear why they just happen to be in the right place at the wrong time, as though by chance. There's the constant suggestion of a larger scheme around them, but they never feel integrated into the benign conspiracy which is driving the action. In part that's because KSR is using the age-old suspense driver of not letting us see what's going on until it happens, but it means in practice that nothing makes much sense until it happens, and it doesn't necessarily make much sense afterwards either.

In short, this is not a particularly good book, just considered as a book. If you consider it as a bag of ideas, it's marvellous; KSR covers dozens of plausible notions of terraforming and governance for the wider solar system, and throws in for free a profoundly gloomy picture of an Earth trampled by global warming and still stubbornly repeating the same mistakes which make today such a discouraging spectacle for anyone interested in universal justice and fairness.

There's an age old Irish answer to a request for directions which runs "Well, if I was going there, I wouldn't set out from here." If you haven't already started trying to read KSR, I wouldn't start here. Start with Antarctica, which has the advantage of a straightforward plot and time frame and some pretty good characters. Or with The Years of Rice and Salt, which has a fantastic opening premise and a cleverer way of putting the characters into the middle of everything which happens for hundreds of years after the Black Death depopulates Europe completely. If you like those, you're ready for 2312, which is well worth your time as long as you remember that this one is all about the ideas.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Mira Grant: Blackout

Well, that's that all sorted out. The Newsflesh trilogy is, in fact, one narrative packaged into three volumes when it would probably have been just as good as a single book. Shaun Mason isn't some implausible hot guy with no sex drive, but rather actually was the alternative that I considered and discarded as slightly too creepy for prime time - and Grant pulls off the reveal and the justification with less than a paragraph of coolly efficient plausible handwaving. That efficiency could have been put to much better use elsewhere, since Blackout is full of the kind of blind alleys I've seen in TV series struggling to reach their episode count.

Blackout was nominated for the 2013 Hugos, and lost to John Scalzi's Redshirts. That meant that every volume of the trilogy was nominated, which is a remarkable achievement, but one I find difficult to figure out. For me, at least, the books weren't that good, though as someone said to me last night, if you actually finish a book without tossing it aside in irritation, it must have had some good in it. 

Genre fiction exists at two levels; it has to meet the formal requirements of its genre and it is nice if it also works as good writing. So bodices need to be ripped, murderers need to be caught, cows need to be punched and big what-ifs need to be chucked on the page, as the case may be. 

Thinking about Grant's writing, it doesn't really pass my re-read test. I don't want to sit down with these characters again and hear their voices now that I know what they're going to say anyhow. The writing's solid, mind you. I didn't lose track of who was who, or what they'd done. It's not great writing, but it's getting the job done, hitting its marks. Reading so much of her stuff all at once, I was really struck by her near-perfect adherence to the idea that good guys are always good looking; the world of Newsflesh is like network tv shows, where everyone with a name and a line to deliver to is attractive, and the really good guys are way above the average. No-one is pudgy or ugly, and even the rumpled people are just rumpled the better to frame their physical charm. Grant lives in a world where every librarian just has to take off her glasses and shake out her bun to become a supermodel. Bad guys are either ugly or just flat out faceless; they get no descriptions at all. It got to the point that if anyone got a physical description, I didn't need to worry about which team they were on, no matter how ambiguously they were being introduced.

Mark Twain said that of course truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense. There's a nagging corollary to that; that in life, things just happen, with no fairness or reason, a myriad decisions and chances colliding with each other and giving some people what they want, almost at random. Human nature being what it is, we revisit those random chances and frame them as the just and inevitable consequences of our pluck and talent. Fiction just turns that knob all the way up to eleven, because we do love us a story where everything revolves around a plucky hero who overcomes adversity to triumph in the end. We love it because we know damn well the world's not like that, and we need to pretend. But it can go too far.

Blackout goes too far. Only the protagonists can save the world from the terrible conspiracy? Hmmm, OK. I think anyone tempted to go that way in a book ought to be stapled to their writing chair and have the last five minutes of Casablanca blasted at them on loop for a while. The problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Or, since Grant's that age, there's always Cordelia's epic moment in Buffy the Vampire Slayer when she starts screaming "Don't you understand? It's all about me, me, me." Only the protagonists really have agency in these books; no-one else seems to be doing more than reacting. And it runs deeper; only the USA has agency in dealing with a world wide cataclysm. 

Which is a stylistic weakness; they're inward looking, self absorbed books. But it's also a weakness in the fiction of ideas. SF asks questions. Sometimes it asks "What if the world were different?" and sometimes it asks "What if we go on doing what we're doing?". It succeeds not just on the quality of its questions, but on the quality of its answers. The Newsflesh trilogy tries to imagine a world living with pervasive zombies, and succeeds in sketching in an America consumed by fear and paranoia about infection. The problem is that the world is paper thin; as soon as you start to think about it, you realise it couldn't possibly work. Too much of the security Grant imagines is the kind of security we have right now. But what we have right now relies on physical interactions which have become inconceivable in Grant's post-infection world; even if you assume that somehow the world is unchanged after a dieback so massive that India has been effectively depopulated (it's hard to imagine that China would have faired any better), it's hard to imagine how the pervasive technology in her world is being made; has the USA re-industrialised? How does everyone get to work? How do products move around the USA? We're never told; we never see anyone who has a life outside the preoccupations of the main characters.

Thus, I find myself thinking that the books don't work as good writing, and also misfire as good SF. And yet, there they are with Hugo nominations. I suspect that the Hugo nominating community is so inward looking itself that they didn't see the problem.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Mira Grant: Deadline

There is an expression in the world of journalism; "Burying the lead". Since Mira Grant put her zombie apocalypse squarely in the world of citizen journalism (or blogging, depending on how seriously you take either version of yammering about idiots to other idiots), this feels like a criticism I'm allowed to make.

Mind you, I'm prejudging the issue. The first book ended with conspiracy being unmasked, but neither explained nor trounced. The second book picks up a year later, with no progress to report on the old conspiracy, and an immediate lurch into a much bigger one, which might be the same conspiracy's final form, or a completely different conspiracy. By the end of the second book, I couldn't tell you which, but I've got just pulled in enough to read the third book in the next few days and find out. I've a suspicion it's going to fizzle...

Which throws up the question, why am I even bothering? It took me something like two years to get around to finishing the first book, and here I am with the second one finished in a week. Did Mira Grant kick it up a gear half way through the first book? Did I fall off my bike and suffer a sudden head injury which made everything look better all of a sudden? Am I just bored? Hard to say. Although Feed and Deadline were both nominated for Hugos, I haven't found the plotting or characterisation all that amazing, even by the low standards which hamper SF most of the time. The 2011 winner was Connie Willis for Blackout/All Clear; the 2010 winner was Paola Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl. Mira Grant is not in that league. (In 2012, she lost to Jo Walton, who is not as good as Willis or Bacigalupa, but is still better than  Grant). Well, let's be reasonable here. She's not in that league yet. She's very young - though she's chunked out a lot of material under the Grant name and her own name - and she's not terrible. But the characters are somewhere between corny and wish-fulfilling, as though she'd read a lot of Robert Heinlein's early stuff while binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Writers write the books they want to read, but often they're just trying to write more of something they don't think there's enough of already (which is why we're drowning in elves these days).

Wish fulfilment in your characters is not the biggest sin a writer can commit, and hardly anyone's future makes any kind of economic sense. Something which does bug me is the "early Heinlein had a coffee with Ayn Rand" feel I get whenever she talks about money; one of the main characters in this book is simply rolling in it, and the narrator isn't even a little bit bothered that this money came from her parents making out like gangbusters in the pharmaceutical industry as the zombie rising changed the world. Whatever about the macro-economics of her post-zombie USA, I'm baffled by the psychology of that. After every major conflict the human race has ever seen, there's been a revulsion towards the people who made money out of it; that's how we even have the phrase "war profiteer". Not only is Shaun Mason not bothered by it, he even sounds kind of approving. Maybe his world is just that broken, and he can only talk about what he knows, but Grant isn't a good enough writer to give us a sense of someone who's wrong without known he's wrong; as far as she gets with that is having a narrator who doesn't notice anyone flirting with him (only a youngish woman could come up with a young male character who's dishy, single, and oblivious to women throwing themselves at him. There are young men who don't notice that women are making eyes at them; but generally that's part of a larger problem of hurling themselves at OTHER women who aren't interested in THEM, because for the ten years after puberty, most men's interest in women is far greater than their ability to figure them out.)

No, to the extent that this thing has pulled me in, it's curiosity about the master plot. What's going on with these zombies, and are the characters ever going to stop tripping over themselves and just find it out? There's a lot of hate going on over on the internets these days about The Hobbit and the way one small book has somehow turned into three movies; I'm starting to feel like this Newsflesh trilogy might have got its job done a whole lot better in a single volume.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Numbers Station; High concept, meet low budget.

I have written at appropriate length about John Cusack's nearly supernatural ability to be the best thing in a movie he shouldn't have signed on for in the first place, so I won't belabour the point that The Numbers Station is yet another of Cusack's musta-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time misfires. Just take it as a given that he's the only one not phoning it in, and we'll take a look at the movie around his heroic effort to make a believable character in the middle of an affordable mess.

The Numbers Station looks very affordable; tiny cast, one location, two explosions. The gimmick is in the title. Numbers stations are a real thing; radio stations which broadcast long strings of numbers. The assumption is that they're coded messages to secret agents, though if I was running the CIA, I'd pay someone to read the Brooklyn phone directory over the air all day just for the fun of watching everyone else waste time and money trying to figure out who was supposed to be listening. Meanwhile I'd put all the messages for my own spies into the comments pages on Amazon.com or on Craigslist, since it's lot easier to get on the internet than it is to come up with a good reason for listening to a shortwave radio every day at the same time.

Still that wouldn't make much of a movie, so instead John Cusack is assigned to protect a numbers station, and everything goes horribly wrong. Bad guys invade the station and make the other shift broadcast assassination instructions to off 15 leading spy masters, and it's up to Cusack and his clueless cryptography expert to survive long enough to figure out how to countermand the instructions before the whole world is hobbled by 15 guys no-one's ever heard of not being round any more. The simplest thing wrong with this plot is that if someone sent me a set of instructions to schwack someone I'd never heard of, I'd expect to be pretty busy with that, rather than hovering over my shortwave radio on the off chance that there'd be a follow up saying "LOL, WUT, only joking.". 

The slightly more deep-seated thing wrong with it is just how murder-driven everything always seems to be in the movies. There's about 15 actors in the movie, and only one of them doesn't get shot before the end credits. I know it's not supposed to be a representative day at the office, but even so, if real espionage worked this way, it would be just behind the Sons of Anarchy as a leading cause of death in adults between the ages of 20 and 45. People would notice, I think. Questions would be asked. Sure, it's one bad day down at the office, but think it through. You've got a set up where you can send out instructions to people to carry out fifteen different murders in one day, and you're pretty sure that all 15 are going to happen. That means you've got at least 15 experienced reliable murder teams, on stand by, round the clock. Probably quite a few more, since what are the odds that you're going to have your 15 murder teams conveniently where your planned victims are? The bubonic plague wasn't this deadly.

I grumble about this because this is one of those espionage thrillers going out of its way to be gritty and downbeat and nihilistic, as though that's somehow more realistic than James Bond movies. The most realistic thing about the movie is that John Cusack spends the whole thing looking miserable and fed up with himself, looking for some way to redeem himself from a life spent shooting people just because he was told to. I kept thinking that it must have been easy to get into character; all he had to do was think about how fed up he was of spending his life shooting movies he shouldn't have.

Agents of Shield; Whedon gets it wrong

Somehow, I've made the time to watch all of the episodes that have aired of Agents of Shield. That's about eight hours I could presumably have done something else with, though I'll admit that I did do something else with most of it, even if it was only eating my breakfast and surfing the internet, because Agents of Shield struggles to hold my full attention even when I'm only half awake.

The whole thing seems to have come about because Joss Whedon made absurd amounts of money for Marvel with Avengers Assemble and so they told him he could make a TV show about the world if he really wanted to. Since most of Joss' working life has consisted of being given not enough money and time to try to make a follow up to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he doesn't seem to have known quite what to do when Marvel gave him all the money in the world and a full season to waste it on, and here we are with ten lacklustre episodes of whatever the hell it is that he's trying to do in Agents of Shield.

I'm not here to talk about that, because that would be boring - more boring even than the show is turning out to be. I'm here to talk about the show which they should have made instead. 

The whole Marvel superhero thing has given us an uneven torrent of movies in which teenage wish fulfilment made manifest somehow saves the world from certain destruction. Over, and over again. Because Hollywood, I think. Everything's turned up to 11 these days, as though the only way to make us interested is to overload our systems to the point where they shut down in self defence. Presumably at that point our critical faculties cut out as well, and we start thinking that we're seeing something good. 

Well, you can't do that on TV. There isn't the money, and there isn't the time, and it would be absurd to almost destroy the world every week in 40 minutes or less. It's absurd enough that any given franchise seems to do it once a year or so in a couple of hours of frenetic jump cutting. TV is - these days - for slower-burning, more meditative fare. There was a moment in the trailer for the TV show which had me hoping that Whedon was going to be clever; Agent Huge Block of Wood was asked if he knew what S.H.I.E.L.D stood for, and correctly spelled it out. Then he got asked if he knew what that meant, and said "That somebody really wanted the initials to spell "shield"". For that brief moment, I thought "found my next guilty pleasure."

Instead it's been "monster of the week, meet the wood muppets", when it should have been the greatest workplace comedy ever. The movies are the big deal; all huge stars and superheroes running around "saving the world" by demolishing half of it in CGI extravaganzas. The TV show should have been about the grumbling janitors who get to run along after the circus parade with brooms and dustpans, cleaning up the trail of destruction and wondering why they never get any respect. It would have been the perfect place for endless Whedon-esque pop culture jokes and self aware sarcasm. And instead of showing us almost heroes and almost adventures, we'd cut in each week as the team get the phone call to tidy up after the latest big budget movie. They'd be sitting there round the break table, arguing over whose turn it was to fill the percolator, and a battered phone would ring under a dartboard with a picture of Nick Fury's face in the middle. "Ah, not this again." "You know how it is; S.H.I.E.L.D Someone Hasta Inspect Every Little Disaster". And of they'd go, picking up after all the important people we go to the cinema to see properly. 

Probably get cancelled after a month, but that would just be Whedon, being true to himself.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Mira Grant: Feed

People don't poop in fiction. They don't eat much either. Chances are, you're going to spend a couple of hours today - and every other day - attending to those basic needs. If you don't, you're going to spend time thinking about how you couldn't; one way and another, it's a big chunk of your waking life. But fiction rarely goes there, unless it's making a big deal out of how important it is; unless the whole theme of the book is food. The rest of the time, food, and pretty much every other ordinary thing we do, happens off in hammer-space so that it doesn't get in the way of the action. The action being whatever the hell the writer is interested in instead of all the ordinary things we do.

SF, and all the things like it, tend to take one big idea, wallop it into the foreground, group some characters around it to react to it, and generally ask "What if the world was like this?". Sometimes - often even - what they're really saying is "The world IS like this, but I'm having to exaggerate it to get your attention." 

Feed's one big idea is "zombies on the campaign trail." What, Mira Grant asks, might it be like in a world where zombies rose up, and never quite went away? What if civilisation didn't completely collapse, but somehow carried on, continually hemmed in by a feeling of threat? What would the USA be like?

Usually this is the point where SF ideas trip over their own shoelaces. It's one thing to have a compelling idea, a whole other thing to come up with a story to make us think about that idea. Having imagined your world, you need a magnifying glass to hold up against some facet of it. In SF, a common notion is to take something which we have right now and think we understand, and show us how that would be different if the world changed. That thing, in this book, is a US Presidential campaign race.

Because a US Presidential campaign race is such an exciting thing that almost as much as half the US electorate can be bothered voting at the end of it, Grant has to up the ante a bit and not only have the campaign trail dogged by zombies, but have the zombies merely the instrument of a plot. A plot to do what? Actually, having just finished the book, hell if I know. Something sinister to foment fear and loathing in the populace so that they'll vote for repression, I think. It's not quite made clear, what with there being sequels coming and such as.

It's taken me a long time to get to the end of Feed, which has been sitting reproachfully on the dresser for more than a year. Other things were always more interesting, and I was moved finally to finish it by the sight of all the unread books from the Nordorian exile arrayed across the bookcase at home, reminding me that I couldn't put them away properly or throw them out until I'd at least tried to finish them. So I knuckled down and trudged to the end of the wacky adventures of Georgia and Shaun Mason on the zombie campaign trail.

This, of all places, is not the place to snark about someone else's vision of a world where blogging is taken seriously enough to be a paying job. There's a book to be written about how digital production is going to turn almost everything into a hobby, but Feed is not that book. Grant's just trying to imagine a hip post modern environment which will give her cast a ringside seat to the action while still keeping them young and interesting enough to be relateable. Political hacks wouldn't have ticked those boxes as easily, though I have to say that I still think the gold standard on imagining a world of on-line political discourse is still Ender's Game, for all its other flaws.

And at least it's a not a hero's journey, at least not for the narrator; who knows whether the two sequels will turn one of the other characters into a hero? It's a bit of a mess, really, with incidents piling up without too much rationale stitching them together; here is the world, and look, here's some stuff happening in it.

And so to the world, and back to my opening. It's 2040, and the world's been living with the reality of zombies for a generation. They done rise up, they done wreck a lot, and they done got beat back, somewhat. Grant's put a lot of thought into disease spread and vectoring, and into the life-cycle of a zombie virus, all while trying to stay true to the classic presentation of zombies in George Romero movies. A key element of her virus is that it sits dormant, but potentially deadly, in any mammal that weighs more than 40 lb. So the entire human population, and all of its livestock, is a constant pool of potential infection. 

Grant talks a lot, then, about the steps taken to control movement and interaction between people, with people being constantly blood-tested to see if the virus in them has activated, and daily life reorganised so as to minimise the time spent dealing face to face with strangers. It's a somewhat convincing world, full of telling little details. At first my big reservation was that the world could change so much and US politics would somehow stay the same, still with two big parties. But after a while, I started thinking about lunch, and then I started thinking about the economy. 

Lunch was a puzzle. With livestock a ticking bomb, it was hard to imagine how anyone would tolerate its presence any more, and even harder to imagine how much you'd have to pay people to work with livestock at any point in the food chain. So there goes most meat and ALL dairy. Yet no-one in the book really talks about how food would have changed - well, maybe they do at the beginning, but it's been more than a year since I read the first 100 pages. It certainly doesn't come up after that. But stay with me; a recurring theme for Georgia, our narrator, is how exposed and threatened she feels any time she's in a large open space, where zombies could come at her from any direction. And that makes it tricky for me to figure out how you could farm grains or indeed any kind of horticulture. Even vegetarianism is starting to look tricky for the shuttered fortress towns of Grant's zombie USA.

Which got me to thinking about the economics of a zombie dominated security state. Pretty much every speaking part in the book belongs to either a blogger, a security guard/government employee, or a politician/political hack. And I started to wonder who was paying them. Well, that and I wondered how the economy had survived a catastrophic loss of population and the virtual annihilation of traditional trading patterns. 

Because you can't just change one thing and keep most of the rest. If you wipe out 20% of the population of the USA (and most of the first responders and medical staff, which is what every serious epidemiological model assumes), a lot of things are just going to fall apart with no very obvious replacement mechanism. And if everyone stays in their homes waiting for the worst to burn off, no-one's going to work. No-one. Not the guys running the power stations, not the guys shifting the oil from refineries to filling stations, not the guys at the docks running the cranes that move the goods that power the economy, and not the guys sitting at the computers in all the offices that make all the trades and keep track of who owes who what, not that the computers would be running anyhow without any electricity. 

You can come back from that, but you're not going to come back to our world with more guns and blood tests. The 1918 flu pandemic killed perhaps 3-5% of the world's population, just after WWI had killed a whole bunch of otherwise healthy young men. The world of the 1920s and 1930s was not a continuation of the world of 1910, but something qualitatively different. Something fascist.

It's nitpicking, in a way. The test of a book is not whether it makes macroeconomic sense, but whether it makes emotional sense; whether you care about the characters and want to see what happens next. Grant takes a huge chance at the end of the book, killing her narrator outright and not really giving anyone else enough time to shape up and carry the ball after she's gone. I'm not that invested in the characters, mostly because I'm far older than the obvious target audience (people Grant's own age; I did this quiz yesterday and was apparently born in 1928). So to read on, I need to be curious about the world. Do I think it's likely that the other books are going to deal with my nitpicking, or at least chuck out some new ideas which will impress me more than my own niggles? I dunno. There's a lot of books on that bookcase.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Sons of Anarchy: Season 6; For god's sake, Jax, buy some burners

Let's talk about something other than the Irish accents for a second. 

It's a commonplace that the USA has more guns than cell phones, but Sons of Anarchy seems to be unfolding in some parallel universe where they have guns instead of cellphones. Time after time, the wrong thing happens because SAMCRO seems to be using the same command and control system as Lord Raglan in the Crimea; no-one ever finds out anything unless someone happens to think of telling it to them when they're standing right front of them. You could loop together about ten character deaths in Sons of Anarchy and make a punchy ad for any mobile phone company on earth, so long as the company felt that they were missing out on the murderous idiot demographic. This kind of thing made sense back when they were making Jacobean tragedies, but this is the 21st century, dammit. You can at least text people. After the first couple of dozen people got their heads mistakenly beaten in because some lunkhead wasn't all caught up, you'd have thought that self-styled moderniser Jax Teller would have been all over an improved communications strategy.

Instead he fires up everyone, including his loopy mother, to believe that Tara is ratting him out, and then doesn't bother telling them that the hit's off when things change. And poor old Tara then gets ganked in her own kitchen in one of the messiest murders SoA has ever shown us. 

Well, it had to happen. I'm just tired of everything being down to misunderstandings which effectively became impossible two decades ago. Yep, cellphones aren't secure. Criminal conspiracies would shun them somewhat. But when the hot news is that you've made your own deal with the cops, you're not really risking much to ring your own mother and let her know, now are you? And for everything else, there's burners. It's a cop-out, really. The writers are bought into the idea that true tragedy only exists when someone sets out to do something good, and it has horrible unintended consequences. Nope, that's irony [1]. Shakespearean tragedy, which is what this thing always seems to have been aiming for, shows us someone ruining everything around him, imagining that he's acting for the best, and lets us see clearly how he dug a grave, all the time thinking it was an escape tunnel. Different thing.

Anyhow, Tara had to go. She was getting in the way, just like Otto and Clay. Clay was getting in the way because Ron Perlman was too awesome and only Katey Sagal could hold the camera against him. And also, his character should have been murdered about three seasons back, so it was getting harder and harder to come up with excuses for him to be alive. Otto had to go because, well, jeeze, just look at him. And Tara had to go because she was a smart college educated woman with options, so it never made anything close to rational sense that she'd have stuck around in Charming for more than a fortnight. Now that she's gone, the show is no longer anchored to reality and can do whatever the hell it wants to.

Other than clearing out the sanity and the past-its-sell-by-date awesomeness, the main mission statement for Season 6 seems to have been Jax making yet another effort to get out of the gun business. I've commented before on how little sense SoA's gun business makes. Real wars have been fought with less guns than they've trafficked in the past six seasons. Jax's policy somehow makes even less sense than that. Determined to get out of the gun business because it leads to murder and violence, Jax has, by the end of this season, orchestrated more murders than John Wayne Gacy and had a lot less fun doing it. "I don't like all this killing." a good mission statement; "I'm going to kill my way out of it."; maybe you haven't thought through the problem properly. The Sons of Anarchy seem like the leading cause of death in almost every major demographic in northern California. If they'd just got on quietly with selling guns, could it really have been any worse?

[1] Don't start.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Roger Hobbs: Ghostman

Ghostman reportedly sold on the strength of its pitch and the second rewrite of its first 50 pages. When the author was something like 22 years old. 

I'd tried out the online sample a few months ago when the Guardian first reviewed it, and thought it was OK, but not a priority; they flagged it again in their end of the year roundup, and when I realised that I could still remember that opening chapter, I thought Hobbs must have been doing something right, and decided to read the rest of it. 

If you look at Ghostman as a book, it's not that great. If you look at it as first book by a guy just out of college, it's a hell of a lot better than it has any right to be. It's daft, but it's a daft in a way which feels built on a lot more experience than anyone that age has a right to have. It reads like the work of an older person, albeit an older person who has not done the growing up they should have done.

It never quite lives up to its opening, which is much tighter than anything which comes after it. Hobbs might be better with third person narrative about people he doesn't really like than he is with first person narrative from someone he clearly thinks is supposed to be kind of cool. Or it might just be that he'd worked on that until it was as good as it could be, and then didn't get the time to do the same amount of work on what came next.

Ghostman is a particular kind of manly book, the kind in which the action is punctuated by asides which explain the action, almost as though it's a how-to book where the worked examples have overrun their assigned length and not left enough room for the technique. It's a book about things more than it's about people, about men and tools far more than it's about women and emotions. It's dick-lit, if you like. And it's like that from the off, as an armoured car robbery is narrated with constant asides about the technical problems which two near-morons are about to overcome using the power of not giving a crap if they have to kill everyone to get what they want. 

So the only way to look at it is in its own terms; is it a good example of the kind of thing it's trying to be? Hmmm. It's fast; it's designed that way, with the narrator running against a constantly ticking clock; he only has an arbitrary 48 hours to find the money from the opening robbery before it self destructs. The plotting is all over the place; the ghostman is navigating the space between two alleged criminal masterminds who are using the money as a pawn in a deeper game, but the more we hear about the plots and the deeper game, the more the criminal master minds sound like idiots. It doesn't make any sense that a crime lord in Seattle would be trying to clobber a crime lord in Atlantic City, and it makes even less sense that they'd be using such complicated schemes to do it. I'd have thought that "money blows up in 48 hours" would have been more than enough plot for one guy trying to find something in Atlantic City (it would certainly have been enough for Parker), but Hobbs chucks in all kinds of machinations. And as if that weren't enough, he gives us a flashback to another botched robbery which was some kind of formative experience for the ghostman. And it's a perfectly cool story, bro, but it would have been just as good as a book on its own; there's nothing in it which illuminates the action in the foreground or really tells us anything we need to know about the characters. 

Over on the toys for boys side of things, Hobbs is working on the tried and trusted "talk fast and no-one will have time for questions" model, building up the texture of his criminal underworld with little asides and descriptions of jobs and techniques which sound plausible even when they're slightly wrong (Hobbs is reassuringly not great about the practical side of firearms, getting the names of parts wrong and being more than a little fuzzy about how they all fit together, though he gets points for appreciating what silencers really do).

The central conceit is the ghostman himself, a hitherto unknown criminal specialism which is like Face from the A-Team without the happy-go-lucky charm. He flits through the underworld, untraceable and unfindable, doing whatever suits him. It's a great idea for a character, even though it doesn't make a button of sense; criminal organisations are held together by personal loyalty and reputation, and a freelance middleman who no-one can find and who never looks the same way twice would never be able to build up enough of either to get any work, let alone name his own price from the real criminal heavyweights. But Hobbs talks fast enough that it's only after the fact that the contradictions start to bug you. While you're reading, what bothers you about the character is trying to figure out how he got into that kind of criminal life; he's a nerdy kid who reads a lot, then he mugs a guy, then he gets adopted for some reason by another master criminal who teaches him everything he knows. That kind of thing can be made to work on the page, but Hobbs doesn't pull that off in the way that someone like Thomas Perry got me to buy into the Butcher Boy's back-story.

Which brings me to my take away, I think. Hobbs has done a pretty good job for his age and experience, but if you want to see this kind of thing done right, Thomas Perry and Richard Stark remain the guys to beat.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

C.J. Sansom: Dominion

I'm a sucker for books about how the Nazis won, because these days it takes something like that to make everyday reality look good by comparison, and after all, isn't that why we read fiction?

According to CJ Sansom, the gold standard in such books is Robert Harris' Fatherland, which highlights the fundamental problem; like most of the other books in this genre, the idea outpaces the execution. Yup, here's a world where the Nazis won, and look at the ways it's like and yet not like our own world. It's instructive, but it's rarely entertaining. In part, it's because most of the people writing that kind of thing turn out not to be great writers. They dug into themselves and the story they found was a story about stuff, instead of a story about people. In part it's simply that a world run by Nazis is objectively terrible, so it's not much fun to read about.

And so it proved with Dominion, one of my it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-when-I-read-the-sample Kindle impulse reads. The first few chapters read well, and I underestimated the sheer grind that more of the same would be if there was nothing else for 500 pages. At one level, Sansom is doing a good job; the sense of creepy dread that would have pervaded a Quisling Britain never really lets up. Except that creepy dread isn't something that makes you eager to dip back into a book and see what happens next. And the research has been careful, even if Sansom plainly has an axe to grind with Scots Nationalists (he doesn't take any chances about this, devoting a big afterword to how much he personally hates nationalism in general and Scots Nationalism in particular) and Catholics (never mind fat white folks, it's been open season on Catholics since it seems like forever in fiction).

At the level of writing a book I could actually enjoy for its own sake, Dominion doesn't work. It's not a stylish piece of work, so you can't read it for the enjoyment of the language. The characters don't really come to life either; each of the main characters is painstakingly given a backstory set out in successive flashbacks and reminiscences, but it's done so deliberately and intrusively that it kept taking me out of the narrative. There's a writing exercise you do where you work up the character by writing a backstory and experiences which are THEN NEVER EXPLICITLY REFERENCED in the final text, and the backgrounds for David and Sarah and Frank felt just like that. And then, there's the plot. Which is McGuffin driven. I have to admit that I was hoping that the book would be about the compromises of Empire and colonialism, but about a quarter of the way in, that promising idea swerved off into a bog standard plot where plucky heroes have to rescue a plot coupon on legs who holds a secret that could change everything.

And just like that, the magic is gone. It turns into a chase movie where the only suspense is whether the author's cold enough for a downer ending. Sansom's not that cold, something I suspected when one of the supporting characters comes out with a speech which would signal imminent death in any Hollywood movie and is duly gunned down within a few pages. I nodded grimly and settled down to wait for the inevitable near defeat and startling reversal which would save the day. By the time we got to that, it felt as if Sansom was just as keen to get it over with as I was; there's a flat sense of anti-climax to the final few pages of the book which feels not like something intentional, but like something the author couldn't rise above.

As I often say, it's not an outright terrible book. The idea is an interesting one, and the starting plot - before Hollywood cuts in - had potential. And that sense of dread holds up well for at least half the book; these are small people grappling with a big system that has no scruples, and you can sense their trepidation in every step. But in the back half, the consequences don't quite land; the seeds of bleakness and peril fail to sprout convincingly and the book's carefully built up tension falls apart. A shorter book, in which David (the main character) walks the dodgy ground between the quisling Colonial service of a morally compromised Empire and the greater monstrousness of the Nazi domination of Europe - that could really have been something. 

Friday, 29 November 2013

Philip Kerr: A Man Without Breath

Philip Kerr seems to be sticking with the idea of keeping his Bernie Gunther stories simple, or at least respecting the Aristotelian unities. A Man Without Breath picks about a year after Prague Fatale, when Bernie has bounced into the otherworldly irony of a job in the Wehrmacht's War Crimes Unit. Before you ask, no, they're not there to make sure that War Crimes happen in a suitably efficient way. They're there to investigate and document the war crimes the Allies are committing against Germans. I couldn't decide whether Kerr was tickled by the irony that such a thing even existed, or was pursuing his earlier agenda of reminding us that the war didn't so much have good guys and bad guys as winners and losers. 

Bernie starts off trying to get himself a witness to the British sinking of a German hospital ship, but before long he finds himself dragged into the German investigation of the Katyn Wood massacre. By 1943, when the Germans tripped over thousands of Polish officers butchered by the Russians in 1939, German massacres in the same area had been so extensive that the initial reaction seems to have been to put someone on a charge for failing to kick enough dirt over his work. Once it dawned on them that they'd found one of the few mass graves in the neighbourhood they hadn't filled themselves, it seemed like a propaganda dream come true, and Goebbels mobilised an international tribunal of investigation into the beastly doings of the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile the SS was murdering 13,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, so it's borderline miraculous that the gravitational pull from Goebbels' balls didn't pull the moon out of its orbit.

Bernie is, thus, and as usual, neck deep in gothic levels of moral confusion even before he starts dicking about with day to day corruption in the German High Command and the hapless efforts by what was left of the Prussian military aristocracy to schwack Hitler. As I've often said, even bad people hated Hitler. Turns out effete snobs hated him too, despite the danger and their own lack of native talent for plotting anything more complicated than pouring piss out of a boot. Bernie's effortless talent for annoying the powerful ensures that he's on the wrong end of literally every single one of the plots which collide in his neighbourhood, and by the time the book reaches its anti-climax, he's so screwed that the only way Kerr can save him is get Admiral Canaris to walk in from off-stage like the world's creepiest spymaster deus ex machina. Never has the sheer improbability of Bernie's continuing survival been more shabbily apparent, and I was suddenly unsurprised that Kerr is taking a break from Bernie to write another of his high concept pot-boilers.

However, in happy news for women everywhere, finally a woman who Bernie has had sex with gets out of  a book alive. 

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Sons of Anarchy; Season 6; dare we imagine a Sons without terrible Irish accents?

Well, episode 11 of Sons done drop, and with it they done drop Clay, at long, long last. But first someone put a long overdue bullet right through  Galen O'Shea's smirking implausible face. I've been dreaming of THAT day. Galen's not-quite-right northern accent has been bugging me for as long as I've been surrounded by real ones, to the extent that now that he's finally out of our lives, I googled the actor to see what his excuse was. Turns out he's from Kerry, which explains everything. Southerners, as I've daily been reminded, do terrible nordie accents.

Season 6 has been driven by Jax's crusade to get the Sons out of guns, which has had to surf past the rampaging lunacy of them ever being in guns in the first place and the further lunacy that Galen's nutso Real IRA man was so wedded to the Sons as the only possible middlemen for his vast arms marketing empire. Jax's plan is to get out facilitating mass murder by moving into whoremongering, and he really seems to think it's a step up. Ordinarily I'd look at a plan like that and say "Your mother must be so proud" but then Jax's mother is Gemma Morrow….

There's still two episodes to go, in which presumably Tara's bonkers scheme to get out of Charming with her kids is going to go even more malevolently wrong than it already has. Of course, the real suspense is over whether we've got all these plastic paddies out of Charming once and for all, but I know better than to get too optimistic.

In other news, Donal Logue blew up in the hangar. I'd been looking forward to watching him mess the Sons up all the way through this season, and instead he had a complete meltdown and was dead by episode six, by which stage it was a blessed relief to see him getting off the screen before he ruined all my happy memories of everything else he'd done. Mind you, at least he took Otto with him. That was something. 

But the big news is Clay is gone. After guns, Clay has been Sons' biggest problem for a couple of years now. On the one hand, Ron Perlman is awesome, and you could see how the team didn't want to let go of an asset like that. On the other hand, Clay should have been dead years ago. It was getting harder and harder to believe the stories which were somehow keeping him alive, no matter how much Ron Perlman did to make you buy them. Clay had to go, if anything else was going to make any sense. And with him gone; with that epic presence finally eased out; the rest of the cast have got a chance to fill the space with something new. Are we going to see them step up in the last two episodes? 

The Family: There is no limit to Luc Besson's villainy

I complained, once upon a time, that Luc Besson had stopped directing good movies in favour of producing terrible ones at a much greater rate. Then he started directing again. Hmmmm. I shoulda stayed quiet. The Family is his latest movie, and the surprise is not that it's set in France and has a problematic attitude to visitors, but that Besson somehow got Robert de Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones to star in it. The mind reels. Has anyone see their families recently? Are they all chained up in a basement somewhere in Serbia? 

The Family, in its way, represents great value for money, in that it's two bad movies for the time and money of only one. On the one hand, it's a not very funny comedy about a mafia family ruining the peace and tranquility of a bucolic French town out of boredom, spite and a malevolent sense of entitlement. On the other hand, it's a not particularly well executed action drama about a mafia family on the run from platoons of implacably insane hit men. There are fitful flickers of how either one could have been a pretty good movie, but somehow knowing that something could have been better seems to make it worse by contrast.

I know most of this going in, but I was in the mood for something somewhat dumb, and I took the view that Robert de Niro had to lift the thing above merely terrible. And there are moments when he does; his scenes with Tommy Lee Jones are a faint echo of much better work they've both done; they feel like a couple of alter kackers gossiping on the porch about the better times, but they're charming somehow. The rest of the time; meh. Part of the joke is that the Family are terrible terrible people who hurt anyone who doesn't give them their way immediately; but beating the crap out of a glib plumber or dragging a supercilious executive behind your car because you didn't like their manners … doesn't play funny, somehow. They don't deserve it, and it's horrible, not hilarious. Though there is a scene when Dianna Agron absolutely demolishes a creep with a tennis racket which I think should open every secondary school "relationships and sexuality" class from now on. 

There are scenes here and there which suggest a much funnier movie, in which de Niro only imagines doing these horrible things and then resigns himself to the need to be low key and reasonable; that would have been a much smarter way to go. More than that, you kind of wind up rooting for the real mafia to show up quickly and whack the bunch of them so that it can all be over. Instead, they're practically the only people who survive the apocalypse which descends on the small town when the mafia finally, through coincidence so implausible it starts being funny again, catches up with them.

Still, it says an awful lot about how the mighty are fallen that I spent most of the movie hoping that Domenick Lombardozzi would get out of it alive. He plays one of the two FBI men on the protective detail for de Niro and co, and the moment I saw that gormless face, I said "Oh God, they're relying on Herc. They're doomed." For most of the movie, Herc is the sweetly dumb soft centre to the action, and just about the only likeable character for the audience to root for. 

Monday, 25 November 2013

Iain M Banks: The Hydrogen Sonata

When I blogged  Surface Detail, I complained that Banks was getting caught with mission creep. Having set Consider Phlebas around the edges of a galactic war that characters in The Hydrogen Sonata are still talking about a thousand years later, he was making it harder to top the fireworks in the various Culture books which came after it. It continues to be my view that the best of the Culture books is the deeply creepy Use of Weapons, which is all about a nice manageable local mess and the damage it does. But no-one ever listens to me, and Banks went on dialling it up, with Surface Detail tackling heaven and hell, having mined out reality some time back.

For his last SF book, and a book which he must have known would be his last book, he took another swing at the afterlife, trying to set a book in and around the last days of a civilisation which is "Subliming". In most of the Culture books, there have been passing references to Subliming, as something which civilisations do when they've exhausted reality's potential and move to an ethereal plane, never to be heard from again. This must have seemed like a fitting capper to his career, an apposite note to go out on. I suspect that it went off the road pretty early on when he realised that the moment you describe the indescribable, you've ruined it. So instead, the Gzilt civilisation's move to the ethereal plane is basically a big shiny backdrop to a pretty routine saga of political skulduggery and AI chicanery, both well trodden areas for Banks. 

One of the minor paradoxes for me in enjoying all those Culture books is that while I love the idea of his vast, effortlessly canny ships with their unbeatable Minds, once he slings more than two or three of them into the action they start to blur into one another no matter how much effort he puts into the funny names for them. In The Hydrogen Sonata, Mistake Not… would have been plenty of Ship all on its own, but it's just one of dozens, and more is not more when you're chucking well-nigh invulnerable dei ex machina at the page.  

In a way, The Hydrogen Sonata is a retread of Consider Phlebas; against a backdrop of something huge and complicated, one kinda-human is off on a scavenger hunt for a secret which might change everything. Or might not. It's a perfectly serviceable plot, but it's not anything like the best that Banks can do. It's also kind of a stupid way to engage with the theme I think he really was going after. The whole point of Sublimation, as it's always been explained in the past, is that the civilisation in question has risen above the material and short-sighted day to day nonsense we all live with, and is ready for something else. But there's a whole political chicanery sub-plot involving the Francis Urquhart of the Gzilt and his beavering away to cut deals on the eve of a phase-change which will render all the deals completely pointless. Something doesn't make sense here; either these guys are ready for the infinite and beyond such pettiness, or they're not, in which case why is the infinite even on the agenda? It's never properly teased out. The irony of a man making pointless deals because it's all he knows how to do - there's book in that, but this book isn't it.

Banks was starting to lose his edge (or I was starting to want different things from my fiction) as he got older, and I knew that this was a book where he wouldn't have been at this best; he simply didn't have the time to get it right. So I didn't expect this to be a magnificent send-off for a mighty talent. I expected it to fizzle a bit, and still to enjoy it on the back of the really good ones from years before. What upsets me is not so much that I'm disappointed in the book, but my feeling that as he got to the end of it, Banks himself must have been feeling disappointed. Facing into the end (with his waspish humour more than intact; he announced his fatal cancer by saying he'd asked his girlfriend to do him the honour of becoming his widow), he must have wanted The Hydrogen Sonata to say something striking about tranquility in the face of extinction, and the value of a life lived to make a difference in the here and now (I'm not guessing; Banks has always been pretty clear about not believing in an afterlife). I wish it had been a better book, not for me, but for him. 

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Gravity; Space for great direction

Gravity is a surprisingly short movie, until you start to think about how little plot it's got and how they'd have ruined it if they had to spin it out a bit longer. Cuaron and his team decided to keep it short and simple and get the short and simple thing exactly right. Better call, not least because if they'd run it up to the more usual two hour plus mark of a big budget movie, I'd probably have had a heart attack from the accumulated roller coaster shock.

For all the simplicity of the plot, there's a lot to think about in Gravity. For one thing, it hammers home just how precarious humanity's little toehold in space is. Everything is ridiculously difficult in space, and it only takes one small thing - any of millions of small things - to go wrong and kill you. For another thing, it gets you thinking about the fragility of things we've started to take for granted. The driver of the whole plot is that the Russians screw up destroying an obsolete satellite, scattering debris throughout its orbit. The debris knocks out more satellites, which splinter and knock out more, till a cascade of high speed shrapnel wipes out everything in its path, including the International Space Station and the Shuttle which George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are space-walking around. Clooney's Matt Kowalski comments drily "There goes half of America's Facebook." And most of its TV and phone networks, not to mention the internet and satnav.

Don't shrug. The internet and satnav now play nearly as big a role in making sure there's food in your supermarkets as farmers do. No internet, no inventory and ordering systems. A clean sweep through the satellites holding that stuff together; civilisation teeters. It's an old truism that no culture is more then four missed meals from anarchy.

Cuaron doesn't waste any time on the mere destruction of our modern way of life; he's got something much more immediate to sort out. Are Kowalski and Sandra Bullock's Ryan ("my father wanted a boy") Stone going to make it back to earth as anything more than glowing debris? As I keep saying, keep your action personal and immediate; none of us can really imagine the end of the world, but we can all imagine the end of our own world. Or, to quote Ryan Stone again, we all know we're going to die, but it's different when you know it's today.

Cuaron's calling card among people who care about movies is this famous scene from Children of Men. If you know anything about his work, you know it was done in a single take, using one of the most preposterously complicated camera rigs of all time. But when you're watching it, you're not thinking at all how complicated the shot must have been or how unlike normal editing and cutting it is; you're just immersed in the moment, drawn in and lulled until the action starts to become terrifying. Everyone's sat in a car talking backing and forth, and Cuaron found a way to make you feel that familiarity, that sense of being among the people in the car, so that when things start to go horribly wrong, it feels - as they always used to say about movies - as though you were there. Cuaron knows how to make a scene all about what's happening, and what's going to happen next.

Gravity was almost entirely CGI; it has only two actors and all the space scenes were - of course - done in computers, with just the actors' faces inserted by magic into the fake surrounds. But even when the action is inside the shattered space station or limping capsules, much of what you're seeing is CGI and painstaking choreography of actors jumping and swimming through things which they couldn't even see. The brilliance of Cuaron's work - his direction and his script - is that you never even think about how it's done; you're too busy hyperventilating as you try to figure out what's happening to the people and what might happen to them next. The vision of earth orbit and all the things flying around in it is perfect (probably technically wrong in all sorts of ways, but apparently flawless), but it's background to what really matters; people and what they're doing to survive.

It's a superb piece of work at a purely technical level, but it works as a movie because it's a wonderful piece of work at a human level. Yes, Clooney and Bullock are good actors, but in something as fake as an all-CGI movie, even good actors need a great director, and it's astonishing that someone could do something so technical and still have what it takes to get the best out of actors too. Apparently James Cameron is a huge admirer of the movie (and the computers to make it probably owe their existence to the grand loon of Avatar) but there's a telling little story about the difference between Cameron and Cuaron. Cameron's famous for pushing his actors to the point of near death and not caring very much, and that indifference to people tends to show in the results. Cuaron at one point had to put Bullock into a situation where she had to hold her breath through the whole take. And he held his breath with her, to make sure that he didn't push her beyond what was manageable for her. 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Ace Atkins: The Lost Ones

It was cheap, and I needed the distraction, so I checked out the follow-up to The Ranger. The Lost Ones is not at all bad. It's not Elmore Leonard good, let's dash that hope straight away, but it's not bad at all. The challenge for any silly little genre book is down to one simple question; do I want to know what happens next to these people? That's what keeps you going to the end of the book and what makes you look forward to the next one. It's the same thing that makes serialised TV works; we want a story. We want a story that will distract us from whatever's around us.

Well, northern Mississippi may not be paradise but at least it's not Nordor, and I've been passing the time finding out what's happening in Tibbehah County in the last year or so. And it works. Atkins resisted the siren call of his Bubba, and eased Boom into the background in a clever and believable way. He found a way to put Johnny Stagg into the action without having him overshadow it; Johnny makes a much better landmark than villain. The balance of the characters and the place feels right; Quinn Colson is sinking back into his home place at a pace which feels credible, winning some of the battles, not really grappling with the war. 

I still can't quite figure the logistics of the County; sometimes it feels like a village, other times like there's a cast of thousands seething round the edges, neither size feeling quite right for a Sheriff's department with nine deputies. I suppose that, like all imaginary spaces, it's as big as it needs to be from one moment to the next. As long as it doesn't suddenly sprout a plutonium mine from one book to the next I shouldn't quibble; the important thing is that the County provides a place in which Colson can argue with his family, not quite romance his old crush from high school and intervene decisively in messy little backwoods crimes. It's a living, I guess. 

I'll even forgive the introduction of a history of abuse into the Colson back story because it's handled pretty well, echoing off some of the other stuff in the book and explaining some of the family messes, but not overshadowing everything else in the action.

In the end, though, it passes the simple test; when I got to the end, which is a nicely judged mix of mess and injustice, I was keen to see what happened next. 

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Urban Waite: Dead If I Don't

The Terror of Living was a tough act to follow, and Dead If I Don't disappointed me by being merely good, rather than breathtaking. From reading the afterword, I suspect it was because Waite didn't get the time he needed to produce another blinder; there's a reference to the manuscript being overdue.

Like The Terror of Living, Dead If I Don't is about the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, this time in New Mexico rather than Washington State. One of the impressive things about The Terror of Living was Waite's knack of sketching in character after character and making them feel real and threatened. Somehow, Dead If I Don't doesn't land this. It's odd, because in his second book, Waite moved away from showing us a bunch of strangers just missing each other again and again, and instead tried to show us a set of small town people who've known each other for ages. It ought to have been easier to get a sense of them from the way that they keep mulling over their shared pasts, but somehow they never grab the imagination the way the characters of The Terror of Living did. 

I find myself struggling to find something clever to say about the book; it's a good book, but it's not essential reading. Ray Lamar's fate seems sealed from the moment we meet him, and the question for the book is not so much what's going to happen to him as what damage he's going to cause before it happens. It's difficult to make that a gripping story; the suspense is going to have to lie in what's in store for the side characters, and that in turn has to come out of how much we care about them. This might be where Waite has gone wrong; part of the story he's telling is about the way that Lamar and his friends and family have been sleepwalking through their lives since a tragedy ten years in the past. The problem is that they're still sleepwalking as all hell breaks loose around them, and somehow, their numbed responses to chaos are numbing for the reader as well. The result felt fuzzy and disconnected, when The Terror of Living was gripping and frightening.

Waite remains a very skilled writer, someone whose natural skill with language outclasses his chosen genre. The blown deadlines show here and there; Waite is a man who knows about people, not things, and you can see much more attention going into the perfect word for people's emotions than for things around them, which can be jarring when he's built up so much of a point about Lamar's skill with guns, and then has him thinking about how he's putting shotgun shells into a rifle. That's the kind of thing which gets fixed in the edit, but they seem to have run out of time.

I mentioned in my earlier post that Waite seemed to be working off a template which Cormac McCarthy uses; of the swirling pointlessness and inevitability of violence in the drug wars along America's borders, and in this book, Waite chose to locate the action in the 1990s, just as McCarthy put No Country for Old Men in the 1980s. The key misstep may have been to try to use a week's concentrated action as a way to reflect on a decade's wrongdoing by Ray Lamar himself; Waite didn't really give himself space to let us feel that decade of failure, and I'm still not sure if he was trying to make a larger point about the cartels' reign of terror through the 1980s and 1990s along the border. If he was, there's a better book which explores the same theme, Don Winslow's slow and heartbreaking The Power of the Dog.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Ace Atkins: The Ranger

A long time ago, the man who ran the - now long closed - Murder Ink bookstore in Dawson Street vented his irritation to me about the decision to put the words "A Jane Whitefield Book" on the cover of the reprint of Vanishing Act.  His point, and it was a good one, was that this told the reader immediately that there would be a whole bunch more of these books, and thus removed any doubt about whether Jane Whitefield was really in danger. This was the thought of an absolute purist; on the one hand, it was his living to sell these books and people DO seem to buy things which they know there's more of, and on the other hand, if you'd ever read even one Thomas Perry book, you wouldn't be expecting the protagonist to bite it before the end. Right on the principle, maybe not picking the best example. But it was just that principle which made him go on to recommend Killing Suki Flood by Robert Leininger, a really gripping little noir which worked on a first read because it really did make you think that everything was on the line - it also works on a re-read because it's a well written book, full of sharp dialogue and clever observation.

I thought of that conversation every few minutes as I was reading The Ranger, because the kindle version I was reading had (Quinn Colson 1) at the top of every page, making it all too clear that no matter what else happened, Quinn Colson was going to be just fine. Which really undercut the mood which Atkins was trying to invoke all the way through the book, of a world in which bad things happen even when good people try to do the right thing. A writer does his best, and then some marketeer wrecks the mood with a badly chosen notion.

Well, in some imaginary world where I'd bought the book as a real book and presumably something that stupid didn't mar the top of every page, would it have been a better book? Probably. Was it a good book anyhow? Much to my surprise, it was.

I knew two things picking up the book; one was that Ace Atkins was easily the most cosmically juvenile author name I'd seen since I'd learnt how to read, and the other was that the estate of Robert B Parker had hired him to finish up Parker's last couple of manuscripts. Since I'm one of the people who think that a) Parker went to hell in a hand basket after about the fifth Spenser book [1], and b) his "completion" of  Poodle Springs is the literary equivalent of acting on the idea that the Mona Lisa would look better with ringlets and Ray-bans, my heart quailed rather at the notion that Parker's estate thought this guy would be just the fellow to finish what even Parker had balked at. Those misgivings apart, a quick glance at the style had me thinking it would at least be a fun read, and when it got cheap on kindle I bought a copy.

In a way, The Ranger is what Lee Child might have thought he was going to do before he realised how much money there was in giving us his gloriously moronic power fantasies instead. Quinn Colson is a US Army Ranger on leave, going back to his one dead horse town to discover it's a seething den of scum and villainy that makes Mos Eisley look like the nice parts of Monaco. So he sets to cleaning it all up, as heroes be wont to do in these narratives. If he'd been Jack Reacher, he'd have pounded on people right and left, effortless in his superiority, before wandering off into the night to wreak havoc in the sequel. Since, blessedly, he ain't Jack Reacher, he's neither so decisive nor so unstoppable, and therein lies much of the charm of the book.

Well, charm might be the wrong word. Tibebah County is somewhere between an out-take from Harlan County and the bleak world of Winter's Bone, without being quite as compelling as either of them - in fairness, not much is that good. The landscape and people are relentlessly messed up, and Atkins catches that; he's no Chandler, and he'll use the same simple words again and again rather than ring the changes, but there's an unsentimental solidness to Tibbehah, and to the little edge on glimpses of the ordinary lives bobbing on its surface.

It's not all brilliant. There's a Bubba Rogowski in the shape of a huge one armed black buddy for Quinn Colson, which left me feeling that Atkins was pushing his luck. And at least one of the villains doesn't make enough sense; Gowrie doesn't scale right. There's a moment when he switches from being some kind of stooge to the prince of darkness and we never see anything which helps that to make sense, even if you buy the notion that Quinn Colson has goaded him over the edge. But most of the side characters feel weathered and real, and all the bad decisions carry weight and consequences; this is a world where if you get hit in the face with a frying pan, you go to the hospital, and people who make bad decisions fret and try to renegotiate them rather than moving on like steam driven monoliths of certainty.

It all ends in a messy open-ended way, as much anything does in real life, but the openings are good ones; a sequel isn't a bad idea, or an excuse to throw Quinn Colson into someone else's woodchipper; there's unfinished business of all kinds in Tibbehah County. And I think I'm following it.

[1] In fairness, the writing was on the wall long before that. I actually wrote "Oh, come ON" in the margin of one of the more overwrought pages of the first or second book, almost the only time I ever wrote on a book.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Ben Aaronovitch: Whispers Under Ground

Let us all give thanks for e-books, and the way in which they let me catch up with someone's back catalogue without cluttering the house up. I have grumbled in the past about buying up a wedge of books only to discover that I didn't like the first one and won't be reading the others; somehow e-books are making it more straightforward for me to put my toe in the water and then come back and catch up if I like something. So a friend recommended Rivers of London, and that was good enough that I went on to read Moon Over Soho, which in turn was good enough that here I am, having finished Whispers Under Ground, all in under a month.

Whispers Under Ground feels like a book that's marking time, noodling about with a plot which isn't pulling the master plot further forward, but instead throwing out tantalising hints of other, bigger plots which are coming down the road. For example, there are Chinese magicians, though no-one seems to know much about them and they walk on a for a few minutes and then stroll back off, leaving us none the wiser. I kind of agree with the approach, since it gives a picture of a much bigger world which is as puzzling to the characters as their world is to the reader. What I'm less convinced about is the way that the series big bad - and major villain of the previous book - stays off the radar through most of this book; in TV terms, Aaronovitch doesn't quite handle the balance between his monster of the week and his mythology. The foreground case doesn't feel big and threatening enough to justify the way in which the major threat introduced in Moon Over Soho fades into the background.

Quite why this doesn't work properly, I'm not sure. The foreground problem - a previously unknown culture living in the London Underground - is cleverly put together and subtly subverts a lot of the magical tosh which you'd expect in a more conventional piece of work. But despite the cleverness, it somehow doesn't spark. 

Still, the things I like are all still there; the constant asides about how things ought to work, and the sense of a sprawling clan of investigators living on the edges of things and gradually linking together. Three books in, I still want to know what Grant and Nightingale and May are going to get up to next. And the magic-ification of May is nicely explained without the use of anvils; it's not that she's naturally magical, but that the magical carnage wreaked on her in the first book has contaminated her somehow. That's clever, and gets us away from the vague misgivings I had at the end of the second book. 

And I have to admit I liked the way that Ireland is covered; Aaronovitch obviously had a good chat in a pub some evening with a Celtic Tiger survivor and caught the way not just that we feel about the collapse, but the way we talk about it. That's a good ear.

This isn't great art, but it's entertaining, and I will probably be writing something about Broken Homes whenever it gets cheap enough to be added to the stack of things in my iPad.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Chris Wooding: Ace of Skulls

And with this, it looks as though Chris Wooding has decided to ring down the curtain on the Ketty Jay. For those wondering if it’s closed out with the same gleeful ruthlessness as Serenity’s wrap-up of the Firefly saga; nope, Wooding choked on that one. The book is full of moments where it looks like he’s ganked another character, only to pull the camera back and show us that they’re just grazed and it will all be somewhat fine. This reaches the mild-irritation threshold when he stages a tearful funeral directly after yet another apparent death, only to pan out and show us that they’ve just solemnly buried the ship’s cat.

Foreboding turns out to be a limited resource, and after the first couple of times when it looks as if it’s all over for one or other of the reprobates we’ve come to know in the last three books, except that it’s not, you’re just flicking past the pathos to find out how he’s going to handwave them back into play.

So for all that the book ends with the band breaking up, I’m not ruling out an endless sequence of reunions in the future. Which would be fine, if Wooding can dial down the apocalypse level a bit. No genre writer ever seems to be able to write about mere local disaster; inevitably the heroes have to save the whole world. The first book in the sequence had me almost hoping that Wooding would keep things low key and scruffy and have a long running sequence of scrapes and idiocy for his crew to weather, but instead, each book has been a step on a path to the apocalypse, with the crew of the Ketty Jay stumbling up the food chain of a conspiracy which threatens the whole world and which only they can defeat. When I was talking about The Iron Jackal, I was feeling good about it, but I've got more misgivings now. It was nice when it was small time losers caught up in something they didn't understand, but somehow it's not quite so good when they're the only way to save the whole world.

In pondering why this is not just wrong, but unnecessary, I find I have to run all the way back to one of the first grown up books I ever read, the long out of print Desmond Bagley thriller High Citadel. It’s a fun little book which has a motley band of survivors of a botched hi-jacking holed up in the Andes trying to hold off a bunch of rebels who want to come and whack the President they’ve just deposed. The stakes are reasonably high for the survivors, but at the very most they’re worrying about who’s running a single banana republic. And that turns out to be plenty of motivation for everyone. In the 60s and 70s bookstores were full of books like that, genre trash which piled up just enough pressure to justify a bit of heroism. Somehow, SF and its wider ecosystem has never gone down that road; no matter how low key things might look at first, there’s always some cosmic Armageddon hovering over the climax.

Most SF actually needs to wind everything up to eleven for much the same reasons that Michael Bay needs to distract us from the shallowness of his movies by blowing everything up, but Wooding, as I've commented before, is capable of making a series of books about real characters changing and developing as they lurch from one disaster to the next. He's good enough to keep it small and real, and yet he had to go bigger and bigger. 

And to some extent this makes sense; he was so determined to develop his characters that he couldn't just keep them moving from one minor disaster to the other liking the unchanging puppets of network TV; as they wised up, inevitably they were going to break up, and so the sequence always had to have an endgame. I just wish he'd had enough confidence in his own ability to make that endgame about the people, not their world.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Gangster Squad; another lesson in poor management technique

On a scale of one to ten for "You got that job how, exactly?" John Lithgow's crime boss in Cliffhanger comes in at eleventy billion and a bit, simply because it's hard to understand how someone could be clever enough to figure out how to rob a plane in midair, charismatic enough to get a whole gang to give it a try, and yet visibly monkeyshit crazy enough to think that "When they err, murder them." is a viable management technique. Using the same scale, Sean Penn's Mickey Cohen rates about a seven or eight, tops, because there's no moment during the movie which suggests that we're in the presence of a sophisticated mind; clearly Mickey is the product of an eco-system which prizes pure atavistic murderousness over mere subtlety.

Since the movie Gangster Squad is also the product of an eco-system which … well you can see where I'm going here … this insight into Mickey's psychology is spelled out for us in a voice-over which stops short of explaining where Los Angeles is and what its average rainfall was in each month during 1949. Mickey is bad news, ruling by fear and whatever he has to do to generate more fear. So we meet him having a guy ripped in half by two cars. On the one hand, I'm not sure if it works as we're shown it, and on the other I bet that never happened in real life, but then again the movie ends with a shoot-out which rivals the storming of the bunker in Hell is for Heroes, so it might be that real life wasn't a big influence (the movie opens with the title card "inspired by real events", the Hollywood get-out-of-jail-free card for making stuff up entirely but at least getting the hats right). 

While it's not much of a shock to see that Mickey treats his rivals poorly, it's depressing to see Hollywood continue to push the idea that the essence of effective leadership is instant hideous death for anyone associated with a setback. Mickey's pimping academy gets raided; his response is to burn it down, with the manager inside. Mickey's heroin shipment gets intercepted; his response is to have his subordinates drill a hole in the sole survivor's head. This left me wondering why the LAPD thought they needed a Gangster Squad. Given Mickey's efforts to make the gangster lifestyle profoundly unattractive for anyone living within a twenty mile radius, there didn't seem to be much call for a secondary effort to discourage people from joining his forces. I'd have figured all they really needed was one guy in a nice suit to sidle up to all the aspiring crims and whisper out of the side of his mouth "That Mickey, huh? Kind of a dick. Really would make you think about moving to Florida, wouldn't it?"

Because movie world, no more than the real world, does not run on the basis of my common sense ideas, Chief Parker (growled, rather than performed, by Nick Nolte) went another way, empowering Josh Brolin to put together a dirty half dozen or so and go round breaking the law on an epic scale to slow Mickey up somewhat. I have to admit, this was why I watched the thing at all. In addition to the ever reliable Josh, we had Ryan Gosling and Robert Patrick. They're always fun, particularly Robert Patrick, who's growing into a more affordable and less annoying Jon Voight. Anyhow, they put the hurt on Mickey something wicked, pausing from time to time to take casualties in the most predictable way possible. This is yet another one of those movies which allows every doomed character one last speech about their hopes, dreams and doubts, and then having duly humanised them just enough, schwacks the holy hell out of them. In Hollywood, if you want to live forever, get a job on the good team, act as much like an asshole as you can while still staying almost likeable, and never, ever waver. The moment you show weakness, compassion or humanity, you're a goner. Also, avoid having a kid, or anything which might play like a kid. No pets. Don't mentor anyone; I cannot emphasise how suicidal it is for a law man to have a young protege who needs to learn just one more lesson.

And why is all this worrying? Well, it's the impact of all this violence on weak and easily influenced minds. Specifically, the weak and easily influenced minds of senior managers everywhere, who will learn from this movie that; effective management involves killing the survivors of any setback, regardless of whether they were involved; it's always a mistake to show kindness or human emotion; it's suicidal ever to share the secrets of effective work with anyone junior to you; and rules are really just for the little people; big people are above such things.

Killing Them Softly; the kind of movie which gets men a bad name

The day after, the thing which sticks with me is that Killing Them Softly has exactly one female speaking part, and it's a hooker who doesn't get a tip. Or a name. Killing Them Softly fails the Bechdel test so hard it practically rips a hole in reality in a hunt for a number below all previous concepts of zero, but in one sense, it's the nicest thing it could have done for women. All the men in the movie are so consistently horrible that no-one could blame women for not wanting to join them - except that these men would mope and whine about that for the whole movie as yet another example of what bitches women are.

In a move which would probably count as brave if he still had to give a damn what anyone thinks of him, Brad Pitt plays the main asshole as an asshole, and still looks like less of an asshole than literally everyone else on the screen. Apparently made as a satire on US values, Killing Them Softly plays better as a cry for help to the space aliens around us, specifically a 90 minute plea for them to come and put us out of our misery. If the planet gets disintegrated by cosmic rays any time soon, I'm blaming Brad Pitt, assuming that disintegration is slow enough to give me some time to think about whose fault it might be. Also playing assholes; Richard Jenkins as a crooked lawyer who wants to think he's just a business man; James Gandolfini as a hit man trying to make murder the least unattractive facet of his personality, Ray Liotta as a guy who's gotta get got, and arguably shoulda got got long before the movie opened, and a whole bunch of actors as a bunch of guys clogging the lint filter on the gene pool. 

In a weird way Killing Them Softly is the antidote to all those Tarantino-esque crime movies about cool criminals who talk too much. There's been a lot of justified criticism about crime movies which glamourise crime (to all of which, I echo Godard; they're movies; they're trying to make everything look glamorous), but it turns out that a movie which sets out to do the opposite is a whole bunch of no damned fun at all. Even when it's well acted and well written, a movie has to pass the beer test; "Is there anyone in this whole mess who I'd have a beer with?" For Killing Them Softly the answer is "Only if I knew they had a fatal allergy to beer."

I sound cranky about this, and I'll admit to that. I wanted to like this film, even though it had Brad Pitt [1] in it. It's adapted from a book by George V Higgins, Cogan's Trade, albeit one from his early period before he realised that completely naturalistic dialogue is completely unreadable dialogue. In his later work, Higgins hit the sweet spot between what people actually sound like and what they want to think they sound like, and could run entire books in direct and indirect speech, the narrative unfolding as characters telling stories about other characters, every voice articulate and distinctive, somehow suggesting real speech without all the umms and errs which make real speech seem ludicrous on the page. But even the early stuff, precisely because it's so dominated by dialogue, ought to be movie gold, so I was pretty optimistic.

Well, that did not go according to plan. It's a very faithful adaptation of the book (which too late I remembered I'd never been able to finish because everyone on the page was a dick), and it's weirdly faithful to the book's time; I don't think you ever see a computer or a cell phone in frame. The book was published in 1974, and the movie could quite easily have been shot there as well; the locations are down at heel and grubby and timeless, and the cars are big old American barges that could have been in the background of any episode of Starsky and Hutch. Yet it's stubbornly anchored into November 2008 by the constant use of snippets from the dying days of the Lesser Bush Presidency and the Obama campaign. 

Which is, I think, a big part of the problem. Cogan's Trade was a grubby little book about grubby little people holding up a card game and getting got for their troubles. Killing Them Softly wanted to be an issues movie, so they explicitly, anviliciously, mirror the low-rent criminals and their money worries off against the high toned posturing of the politicians talking about the US financial crisis. Again and again Jackie explains that people need to get got so that confidence can be restored on the street on and the money can start to flow again. Just in case anyone failed to pick up on that, the movie ends on Jackie ranting about how the USA is not a country but a business. I've had subtler tax demands. The whole point of the underlying work is that these are unimportant people, doing terrible things for trivial reasons, and here come Brad and his production company (Plan B, though I was hoping it was 1984 Private Defence Contractors, the most pompous wannabe hip company name I've seen in years) wanting their work to be all important like.

If your work is mirroring reality well, you don't need to spell it out. Higgins knew that.

[1] I think I've hated Brad Pitt in every movie I've ever seen him in, even if I actually liked the movie itself, including Twelve Monkeys and Fight Club.