Thursday, 28 March 2013

Blue Remembered Earth: Alastair Reynolds

Sometimes, one book drives a lot more book buying. Back in the days when I read a lot more SF than I seem to have time to read now, I picked up most of Alastair Reynolds early books, largely on the back of them being well written and heavily promoted. Reynolds trafficked in big crunchy scientific ideas and equally big canvases; he's pretty much the 800 pound gorilla of the "you can't travel faster than light, but what would that mean in practice?" school of hard SF space opera. But about ten years ago he brought out a much more modestly scaled book called Century Rain, which was one of the cleverest and most affecting books I read that year. It's wonderfully strong on both character and atmosphere, sketching in two completely different worlds so absorbingly that for once it actually IS kind of a big deal that one of them turns out to be under existential threat.

After that, I bought each of Reynolds books on reflex, in much the way I buy all of Ken McLeod's books on reflex. I like the way that they both use SF as a way to ponder out loud about the way in which technology changes societies, and particularly the way in which societies function collectively. McLeod is openly political in his outlook, while Reynolds is a bit harder to fathom; if there's an agenda in his writing, it's not as blatant as McLeod's leftiness. But when I rant - as I am wont to do - about the way in which SF is the last place where writers are trying to think about the way we are now and where it's going to take us if we don't wise up, it's those two and the one and only Kim Stanley Robinson that make up the bulk of my argument.

Blue Remembered Earth is, I think, intended to be first of a loose sequence of books in much the same way as Reynolds' Revelation Space books turned out to be, the difference here being that the Revelation Space books hold up quite well as stand alone novels, where Blue Remembered Earth started to feel like the start of something about half way through and never really gelled as a book in its own right. Characters and a strong background milieu have been set up by the time the book is done, but there's a lot of wheel spinning before we get there. Much like one of those fantasy books with a map at the beginning, Blue Remembered Earth feels like Reynolds had a whole bunch of cool things he wanted to get into the narrative, but no better idea for getting to them than a scavenger hunt which forces the cast to bounce from one obscure clue to the next on a travelogue from Africa to the Moon and then Mars. It feels arbitrary and forced, and I spent a lot of the middle of the book, when I should have been enjoying all kinds of clever idea, just wishing that Reynolds would get on with driving the book towards the climax. Instead, virtually all the really interesting payoffs are crammed hastily into the last eighty or so pages, which is doubly annoying because you can't help noticing that he CAN get to the point when it suits him; I was grumping away to myself wondering why he couldn't have been this brisk in the some of the more achingly slow passages earlier on.

This may not be as big a flaw once the whole architecture has been shuffled into place; when there's two or three more books taking these ideas off to their logical conclusion, the pace of the first book may not seem as weird and misjudged as it looks now. Clearly, we're not going to be able to make more than a guess at that for years. I suppose, on balance, Reynolds has still got the benefit of the doubt on his side; his existing body of work is solid stuff, though I've never got round to revisiting the earlier books. I think that with this book he's up to something more consciously ambitious than his earlier work, and I wonder how it's going to work out. The Revelation Space books were chunked out at extraordinary speed, one each year from 2000 onwards. That's generally what you see when someone's been working up a body of work over time and then getting a break which allows all of a lifetime's worth of ideas fly loose seemingly all at once. Starting into a new vision from scratch is going to be a lot harder. Sometimes you're looking forward to the next book because you want to see what comes next in a vision of things or the lives of rounded characters; other times, you're squinting in worry, hoping that someone you admire is going to be able to carry it off. 

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Lady Vanishes; if Hitchcock didn't do a straight adaptation of the book, neither should you

Ethel Lina White was the Lee Child of her day, or thereabouts, but not the least irony of her career as a detective story writer in the years between the Wars was that the most famous adaptation of her work didn't even use her title, The Wheel Spins, and chucked a few extra characters into the mix because Hitchcock felt his movie needed more fun in it. Two of them, Charters and Caldicott, were such a big hit that they wound up living on into three other movies; these days they'd probably have got their own franchise and gone around thwarting vast plots armed only with well-thumbed Wisdens, but in the 30s and 40s people had more sense, and they were rolled out as comforting comic relief.

The BBC saw all this, and pondered it hard, and duly decided that the world had been waiting almost eighty years for a faithful adaptation of the original book, though they didn't go to the crazy lengths of keeping the original title. They hired the proverbial metric buttload of English character actors and packed them all off an train journey from somewhere in Yugoslavia to Trieste, all so that one of them could vanish, another one could go nuts looking for her, and the rest of them could, for various complicated reasons, flatly refuse to admit that they knew anything about it. 

The girl going nuts was a character called Iris Carr, but the actress' name was the infinitely more suitable Tuppence Middleton, exactly the sort of name all high-spirited gels could be relied on to have in the 1930s, or at least in Agatha Christie, which represents the high water mark of my general knowledge about the 1930s English society (I always assume that the social milieu has been meticulously represented in Christie books, on the shaky basis that the plots are so outrageously unrealistic that she could never have gotten away with them unless everything else was fairly grounded). In what was either a brave moment or a spectacularly bad piece of acting, she's thoroughly unlikeable all the way through, which would probably be even more jarring if it weren't for the fact that no-one else is particularly likeable. At the heart of the original books was the notion that everyone on the train is either positively beastly (if Yugoslav) or kind of a selfish dick (if English). So poor old Iris is surrounded by platoons of people with their own various reasons for being unhelpful, and in principle, it takes the whole movie to figure out who's really out to get her and who just doesn't give a toss. 

It turns out that watching a bunch of people being dicks to an unlikeable socialite is, on the one hand, an interesting comment on the way people look after themselves without either malice or sympathy for those around them, and on the other hand, kind of hard to get that invested in. There's no-one to like, and we return to the Master, who had the basic wit to make Iris more likeable, her beau less of a drip, and to add some English caricatures who were fun rather than just cold and self-involved. Poor Ethel Lina White is long dead now, God rest her soul, but if she had any lingering doubts about whether Hitchcock did the right thing by tearing up half her novel, the BBC have just shown her what might have happened if he'd done a Coen Brothers on it and shot everything just like it was on the page. 

Monday, 18 March 2013

Gareth L Powell: Ack-Ack Macaque

Probably no book could live up to the insane promise of a title like that, and so maybe I'm wrong to feel disappointed.

There's about three books' worth of ideas crammed into Ack-Ack Macaque, and the problem is that I only wanted one of them; I really liked the notion of a talking monkey fighting off the Luftwaffe in some manic cross between WWII and the worst excesses of steampunk. That sounded like fun.

Fun never lasts, however. It rapidly turns out that Ack-Ack Macaque is a character in a computer game, and before very long, he's dragged out into reality and so is the poor old reader. Which is where the second book's worth of ideas bob to the surface, since the computer game is being played on line in a world where the UK and France merged in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, and are consequently still a world power of sorts a hundred years later. There is a world of yearning wish fulfilment in the notion that the Empire could somehow have carried on lurching on, once again overtaking the former Colonies and facing down the Soviet Union until its inevitable collapse, leaving no-one to challenge it other than China. 

You'd think that would be a world where Concorde was running as regularly as the Clapham omnibus and the world would be orderly and above all know its place. Instead it's a world full of nuclear powered dirigibles, with all the famine and pestilence and pollution our own real world will probably have fifty years from now, which drags us kicking and screaming into the third book's worth of ideas, which revolve around a massive plot to replace poor frail weak fallible humanity with immortal androids that the ruling class have uploaded themselves into so that can rule a sterile empire from Earth to Mars and back.

And of course it all comes full circle, with Ack-Ack Macaque the key to saving humanity from doom. There's some big stuff being worked over here, about what it means to be human and what it means to be a person. Ack-Ack Macaque's a heavily re-engineered monkey who the big bad conspiracy made intelligent while they experimented with making artificial brains to power their androids. Waste not, want not - rather than euthanise him, they made him into the AI for an on-line game, wired up permanently to the internet in a fever dream of constant lunatic missions against ninja-Nazis. Meanwhile, we meet Victoria Valois, who used to be a journalist until a helicopter crash left her head so mangled that mad scientists had to replace half her brain with computers - more product testing for the great android project, but now the conspiracy is cleaning up after itself and comes to kill her and her estranged husband. The murder attempt doesn't quite go according to plan, and Victoria is left with her husband's back up embedded in her own artificial brain while miscreants make off with her backup to do the devil knows what. 

And even more meanwhile, the Prince of Wales (because why the hell not) gets roped into rescuing the monkey from the lab, only to discover that he's even more of an electronic fake than either of the other two, just part of the grand android conspiracy. 

All in all, the main cast of the action are a fine sampling of people who aren't quite human and aren't quite sure what to do about it. There's an awful lot in there for the mere mortal mind to chew over, if it's done right. But that's the problem; there's an awful lot of it, and Powell has tried to bring the whole thing in at very tidy 320 pages. Which doesn't give him enough room for everything he wants to think about, and more importantly doesn't give him enough room for his villains to prosper. And whatever about how he serves his heroes, his villains needed more room to breathe. They're nothing if not ambitious; the master plan involves fomenting thermonuclear war against China and wiping out the entire human race so that they can be replaced by robots.

Clearly, that's a plan of quite monumental insanity, and like all monumentally insane plans could only be undertaken by a cast of perfectly ordinary people who all think they're doing their best in difficult circumstances. Instead, everyone on the conspiracy side is a dribbling loon. In real life, they'd get quietly knifed by more reasonable people elsewhere in the vast legion they'd need to subvert to get the job done, or they'd just trip over their own dicks, as people do, and the whole plot would fall apart, probably without anyone ever really figuring out it existed. That's in the real world; in fiction, however, grand plots need grand plotters. And we never get a sense of the plotters as people; the master of the plot - apparently - is the Queen-Regent, and she's barely on the page before she's getting grenaded to bits. The evil genius making all the androids has nothing better to do than repurpose Victoria's backup into a cyber-hooker and then rape the result repeatedly, despite the fact that by this stage he's an android himself in a world where computer games are immersive enough that you hardly need a physical body to feel any extreme you might be looking for; yes, it makes him sick and creepy and well worth offing, but it doesn't make a lot of sense in terms of what the book's been trying to do up to then.

It doesn't quite hang together, in other words. And oddly enough, where it works the best is in the titular Macaque; Ack-Ack is both larger than life and somehow more human and relatable than the other characters in the book. When I bought the book, I wanted it to be all about him, and when I'd finished it, I still thought the same thing.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire; never gets funnier than that title

It takes a very particular kind of mind to be disappointed when a TV character has two umlauts in his name and neither of them are sounded properly, but thät's höw I röll. Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire was something which I wanted to like, partly because it's really about time someone took the everliving piss out of fantasy in general, and partly because I enjoyed the splendid ridiculousness of a man who had - apparently - a flaming sword of fire. Probably made for him by the Ministry for Redundancy Ministry, I speculated, but it turns out that once they beat the title out of him, the writer who liked playing with words must have croaked from the ill-treatment, only to be replaced by the eight or nine guys who couldn't see a banana without thinking "Nyuk, nyuk, fellatio joke alert!"

There was a time when sex jokes had to be double entendres so that you could pretend that you hadn't meant at all to frighten the horses, and that you had no idea that people with filthy minds might put such a terrible interpretation on your innocent ruminations about cats or vegetable marrows or whatever. And then we all got veddy growed up and mature and such as, and it was briefly hilarious to have jokes which were single entendres. Well, I say hilarious, but I mean bearable. There's always an element of shock or surprise or the unexpected in a successful joke. Which means that repetition is generally death to humour. From time to time you get someone so talented that they can take a joke and chase it so hard and so far that the repetition itself becomes a successful joke. This talent is far rarer than comedians think it is, and so it comes to pass that Kröd Mändoon's actors found themselves trying to wring three hours worth of funny out of ten minutes worth of assorted gay panic and nympho jokes. I doubt anyone involved is going to remember it as their finest hour. I'd go so far as to say that I hope no-one involved is going to remember it as their finest hour, because we all deserve better than that, and they were all doing their best, in Hungary of all places, on the kind of budget you get when you're a joint UK-Canadian co-production for TV.

It's genuinely hard to think of a movie or TV show where mocking fantasy clichés has worked. The Princess Bride pulled it off, but then again The Princess Bride exists in a class of its own; there really is nothing else like it out there, either as a book or movie. It works partly because the writing is wonderful and comes from a real affection for the things it's gently mocking, but mostly because at every moment there's someone to root for; all the characters had a grandness to them, even though I'd happily pay extra even now for a print without Billy Crystal's Miracle Max. Well, it's not fair to expect Kröd Mändoon to be in that league, but it's a pity that the writers didn't think a bit more about why The Princess Bride or even Xena Warrior Princess worked as well as they did.

Because boring repetitive sex jokes to one side, the biggest problem in the show is that there's no-one to root for. Obviously you can't root for the villains, but the heroes are idiots. Kröd Mändoon himself is a mopey neurotic warrior leader with the attention span of cheese mould and the leadership skills of the recording secretary of a minor drama society. His sturdy band of heroes comprises a wizard whose cowardice slightly outweighs his utter ineptitude, a slave whose primary skill is shooting his own team by mistake with a minor in breaking things, a pagan warrior who's the only person in the whole thing who knows what she's doing and has any confidence in herself, but is depicted permanently as a slut, and - saving the worst for last - the gay lover of Kröd's former mentor, who's played as a swish stereotype so broad, it's probably offensive to stereotypes in general, let alone actual gay people. Collectively, they could be outwitted by a tree-stump, and someone must have thought that this was hilarious in its own right. 

Rather than pitting them against a tree-stump, the writers set them against Matt Lucas, here playing Eddie Izzard playing Blackadder. I recently watched Eddie Izzard playing a comedy villain in Bullet in the Face, which was kind of terrible, but had the crazy courage to run with every lunatic idea that crossed its writers' minds for just long enough to shock you before finding something even worse and shocking you with that instead. God knows it wasn't good, but it never got samey. Izzard hung around the edges as one of the two primary Big Bads, alternating between chewing the scenery and telling everyone how good it tasted. Matt Lucas was obviously going for the same vibe as corrupt Governor Dongalore, but since the character was written as a rubbishy poltroon with no redeeming features, the script didn't do him any favours. It's rarely a good sign when the most dignified performance in a show is coming from John Rhys-Davies, a lovely actor who specialises in loveably gruff hamminess. When he showed up, things got noticeably better, at least until the script called for him to pose in a leather jockstrap for no particularly good reason. That's a hard image to square with dignity, even when the show's already taken a moment to linger on the sight of Matt Lucas strutting his stuff in a fur codpiece big enough to wallpaper some of the offices I've had to work in.

As is so often the case in shows with idiot villains and heroes, the one sane man in the whole proceeding is Dongalore's endlessly put-upon lackey Barnabas. Alexander McQueen plays him with a long-suffering dignity which is either very good acting or just the actor giving a completely honest reaction to the thought of what he's having to do make a crust this week.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Cabin in the Woods: Take THAT, horror movies...

There is literally no way in which you can say anything useful about The Cabin in the Woods without having deploy thickets of "spoiler" tags. It looks like a horror movie, until it isn't, until it is after all. You can't go trying to unpick something like that without giving the whole game away. So it's probably just as well that I didn't get round to watching it until it was out on DVD. By this stage, any of the hundred or so people who might read this have either seen the movie or don't care enough about it that finding out how it works would ruin anything. But hey, if you somehow still haven't seen the movie and you think you might like to, come back to this later.

The Cabin in the Woods seems to start with everything out in plain sight; on the one hand, there's a group of five stereotypical kids setting out to a - cabin in the woods - for a holiday weekend of sex and drugs and rock and roll, just like all those terrible chop-em-ups of the 1980s. And over on the other hand, a huge lab full of engineers and scientists seems to be gearing up to monitor the trip. Since we're getting a scenario straight out of Friday the 13th territory, it seems like the twist is that the lab is going to run a horror movie. But why? Is it an experiment? Is it reality TV gone nuts? well, more nuts than it already is.

It's actually way cooler than that, and the surprising bit is just how well the movie paces the reveal. The action breaks cleanly into three acts, and everything gets its job done in around an hour and half. Nothing outstays its welcome, though I have to say that Whedon could have left the camera running all day on Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins as Hadley and Sitterson, the two lead engineers keeping the lab on the rails. Dressed identically in white shirts and drab ties like a pair of second two desk guys in NASA's glory days, they sit there behind the monitors manipulating their hapless victims and bickering apathetically as if they were running the only traffic light in a two horse township somewhere in Idaho. They're orchestrating horrible murder for terrible reasons and, hey man, it's just a job, and whose turn is it to fill the coffee-maker. It's brilliant. There's something hypnotic about the performances; it's not just that they're funny, but that Whitford and Jenkins are perfectly convincing as people who've been killing college kids for so long that they've tuned out that side of the job and just worry about getting the technical details right. And in Hadley's case mope about the fact that it's always the same monsters and he's never going to get to see a Merman…..

Which is not to say that they steal the show entirely. Amy Acker and Fran Kranz are working flat out in their own ways to steal it back. They were the most fun in Whedon's too-bonkers-to-live Dollhouse, and Kranz in particular is probably the hardest working guy in the movie. His character is a permanently addled stoner, and it says a lot about the work he does that it never occurred to me that he was supposed to remind me of Shaggy in Scooby Doo until long after the movie was over; he had exactly the same voice, messy hair and rumpled demeanour, albeit much better lines and an actual brain behind the fog. Marty is a great character, but not an original one; we've seen thousands of stoners and even hundreds of stoners in peril, but The Cabin in the Woods is probably the only movie around that shows us an enormous NASA-like organisation trying to KILL People like that, so it's the organisation which really grabbed my attention. Hadley and Sitterson are kind of terrible people, but they're fun to watch.

I know that they're supposed to be a horrible warning about the way we watch horror movies and get entertained by seeing terrible things happen to simpleminded strangers, but Hadley and Sitterson are really a warning to everyone who's ever sat behind an office desk and done something heartless because if they didn't do it, someone else would. I think that's what made the performances so riveting. I wonder if we should make the movie mandatory viewing once a year for people in government offices…..