Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Fast and Furious Six; that's not, of course, Fast and Furious Physics, which would be a different course entirely

Man, I want a Hollywood tank. They're like the Tardis, but armed. They're way smaller on the outside. The one in Fast and Furious 6 seemed bigger than my apartment. I bet I could have fit my whole car inside the turret. Hell, I think I could have got my book collection into the turret, which would solve all kinds of problems. And Hollywood tanks are crazy fast; you can just zip along the highway in a Hollywood tank and no-one would ever flash their high beams at you, even if they did have Nordor plates and were doing 30 over the Mexican speed limit well south of El Paso. God, I'd like to see them try that if I was in a tank. They have revolving turrets. You could scoot round and flash your muzzle right back at them; at the kind of distance Nordor beemers like to maintain from my bumper, the muzzle flash alone would vaporise everything back to the B pillar never mind what round you had loaded.

The only reason I went to see F&F6 was the tank is in the trailer, and it's such an outrageous idea that I figured it had to be worth three quid even if nothing else worked. It was a long hard wait to get that far. Fast Five - which is the third most popular post on this blog, for some reason - starts off with an absolute belter of a chase involving a train and cars and dune buggies and exploding bridges and lunacy. F&F6 seems to have concluded that that sort of thing was just pandering to the baser impulses of the audience and so they deployed the actors. Quite how, at this point, anyone though that would be a good idea … their leads are Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, for heaven's sake. Much of the scenery can emote more convincingly. Their two new names were Gina Carano, who is incredibly good at beating people up, and Luke Evans, who I was thinking of as the Canadian Orlando Bloom until I could go home and check that he was in fact the guy that played Aramis in the recent Three Musketeers movie. Man, not being able quite to figure out who he was about the second or third most annoying thing about him in both the movies I've seen him in. Anyhow, with all that acting talent deployed to emote about the problem of Michelle Rodriguez being suddenly employable again, and thus having to be resurrected back into this movie franchise, there was a lot less open defiance of the laws of physics than I really expect out of a popcorn movie.

What's the plot? Lord, it's beyond dumb. Some hokum about how some ex-military loon bag has assembled a mirror image of Vin's gang of car-driving badasses and is somehow using cars to steal a bunch of mcguffins for hell if I know what reason. Anyhow, Vin has to stop him, because otherwise all those cars are just going to rust or something. And after a lot of sub-optimal chases in the dark and the entirely mandatory and deeply annoying scene where there's a street meet of funky drivers and their slappertastic girlfriends, we finally get the tank chase, which doesn't make a button of sense starting with the fact that the tank appears out of the inside of a vast container which doesn't appear to have had any door big enough to put a tank into it through in the first place. And what a tank it is. As I pointed out at the beginning, it's palatial on the inside, but beguilingly compact on the outside. And it has a windscreen for the driver, though I've no idea why because half the time it looks like Luke Evans is driving it from the turret. And firing the gun, and loading it, and swivelling the turret around; it's every five year old boy's dream of a tank. Also, you can drive it over any god's amount of stuff, including cars, and at no point does it throw its tracks like a tank would in the real world if you zapped it over a land rover or a cement berm at forty miles an hour.

The tank chase wasn't as much fun as I hoped it would be, in other words. But it's all a feint, while the evil genius mastermind pulls his real plan off. Like every other evil plot I've seen in the movies for the last two years, it revolves around getting captured and then wiggling free by out-thinking the good guys. Again, this isn't perhaps a true feat of intellect given the collective intellectual horsepower on display, but man, if people were whammying their way out of being captured this much in the real world, we'd have made shoot-to-kill the only sensible policy decades ago. Since this is Fast and Furious world, the next thing is a vast chase. Having long since run out of rational things to chase now that they're six movies in, they chase an Antonov heavy cargo jet. For what feels like about twenty minutes. At sixty miles an hour. I was bored enough to start wondering how long the runway would have to be to get this to work. Well, something between 15 and 20 miles, depending on how much time we were living through twice due to intercutting. The longest runway in the world - this I had to check - is at Edwards Air Force Base, and it's 12 km, or call it 8 miles if you're feeling generous to a fault. There's nothing in Spain that's more than half that length…. Not that a cargo jet trying to take off would actually be going at a crappy sixty miles an hour; try three times that.

Still there's a high old disregard for the laws of physics. There's a huge disclaimer at the end of the movie warning people not to try any of the stuff they've just seen in their own cars; for some reason it rambles on about closed courses and trained drivers when of course it should just say, Don't try any of this because reality doesn't work this way. Here's a handy tip they didn't cover; cars, moving or stationary, do NOT break your fall when you collide with them at high speed. They break every bone in your body. I try these things out so that you don't have to. I mention this because at one point, Vin Diesel actually answers the question "How did you know there'd be a car to break our fall?" and didn't give the right answer. Also, the F&F Phy6 of falling out of an aeroplane moving at takeoff speed; totally comfy if you fall straight down into a fast moving car directly below you; utterly lethal if you just drop out of the plane and fly backwards in a parabola to the ground.  Same amount of energy either way, really, and cars don't break your fall. So don't try that one at home either.

Apparently I missed out on a sequel hook; there's a long boring coda at the end in which the surviving cast have a barbecue, but if you can somehow stay awake past that and then keep your patience during the credits, Jason Statham shows up and murders one of the survivors we've just seen at the barbecue, which sets up the next movie. And normally I'd go hey wow, the Stath is finally gracing this dreck with his presence, but having seen both Blitz and Chaos last year on DVD, I have had a crisis of faith about the Stath, and am somehow less filled with Squee than I should be.

PS: someone on the web thoughtfully made this graphic on runways:

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Star Trek; Into Darkness. Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan. There, I just saved you six quid

The world is divided into 10 kinds of people; those who think this sentence is funny, and those who don't. That first group is divided into two subgroups, those who hate Star Wars and those who hate Star Trek, though thanks to the horrible things George Lucas has done since 1999, there's a lot more overlap between the groups than there would have been when I was a kid, and did not care at all for Star Trek.

The enduring popularity of Star Trek is one of those things which would baffle me if I cared enough to think about it in the first place. The huge revival coincided with my own four year voyage to seek out dead civilisations and not own a television, and so I have missed out entirely on all the various generations and voyages and what all, at least to the extent that it is possible to miss out on all that crap and still have a working internet connection. People do be liking them their Star Trek, hell if I really see the excitement.

Benedict Cumberbatch, on the other hand, is awesome. Actually, Until I went to see Star Trek: Into Darkness, I don't think I realised quite how awesome he is. I'd seen him in Sherlock, which is distilled awesomeness at every level, and I'd seen him in Parade's End, which was literature and I kind of knew I was supposed to be impressed. But there's so much going into the awesomeness that you just see Benedict as part of the show. Then you wheel him into a Star Trek movie, and suddenly you realise how good he is all on his own, surrounded by so-so acting and dialogue cheesy enough to induce lactose intolerance in a newborn baby. Even with terrible dialogue and wall to wall lens flare standing in for actual directorial flair, Benedict simply rules every scene he's in. It's up there with the way that Alan Rickman dominated Kevin Hood, except that it's nothing like as funny, and there's probably no chance at all that we're ever going to get a director's cut with more Cumberbatch in it.

Everything else. Well, it was J J Abrams, so there's lens flare on everything. There's lens flare indoors, in completely CGI settings where there aren't even real lenses involved in making the images. And there's stuff happening, apparently in the hope that if there's enough of it piled up, it might, through all the lens flare, resemble a plot. And then there's Kirk. 

Now, don't get me wrong. I never liked Kirk. A whole bunch of why I could never get interested in Star Trek was the original Captain Kirk. Even at the age of ten, I could see that Kirk was kind of a dick. If I identified with anyone, it was probably Doctor McCoy, presaging the lifetime I've spent since then grousing about other people's rampaging stupidity and then grumpily fixing all the stuff they broke. [If I could only wear one T-shirt for the rest of my life, it would be this one]. Kirk was not my kind of person. But I'm really starting to see his good points after a couple of hours with Chris Pine's interpretation. William Shatner's Kirk may have been an arrogant, smug, entitled asshole, but he at least looked like he'd put in the hours to earn it. Chris Pine's Kirk is just a punk. Somehow, everyone else in the cast is nearly as in love with him as he is with himself, and his crew follow him everywhere. I get that you'd want to know where Kirk was at all times, in much the way that you'd want to know where a tornado was, but following him just doesn't seem like something that would catch on.

But, but, but, the audience has to see Kirk grow up and become a man. Hell, no, it doesn't. It didn't have to see it in the original TV show. The Captain is the Captain. Move on. There's no need to explain it. Tell an actual story instead. And for gawd's sake, how much the hell origin story does Star Trek, of all things, need? Two full length movies' worth? This is beyond ridiculous. This, the second of the new movies, ENDS with Chris Pine, all growed up now, intoning the famous OPENING words of the TV show. Four hours and twenty minutes, almost the running time of SIX episodes of the original series, and we've finally lurched to the opening credits. The mind reels at how long the actual five year voyage is going to take.

It turns out that telling a story is too hard these days. This is basically a remake of Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan, but rather than admit that and get it over with, Abrams and his scriptwriters dance all over the place for half the movie, chucking random incident at the screen rather than get on with the perfectly serviceable plot they CHOSE THEIR OWN DAMNED SELVES.

So the movie opens with Kirk and McCoy running away from hundreds of yelling tribesmen while Spock tries to put a bomb in a volcano to stop it going off. One, if anyone wants to make a movie about a bomb in a volcano, they should buy the rights to Martin Woodhouse's Moon Hill, not least because it would force them to make Blue Bone into a movie first. Two, at no point do we ever see any explanation of why Kirk stole something from all these tribesmen to piss them off. He even admits he doesn't know what it is himself. (see Kirk, dickness of, earlier in this post). This has got nothing to do with the plot; it just means that when Kirk gets back to earth, he's in trouble for breaking the prime directive, and has to struggle (ever so briefly) to get the Enterprise back after the bosses take it off him. Which has also got nothing to do with the plot. The plot is "Kirk needs to bring down Khan". Bringing down people like Khan is pretty much Kirk's job anyway; there's absolutely no need to complicate it. 

Meanwhile, Khan is, as usual with Hollywood villains, simultaneously the smartest man in the universe and a complete moron. Khan's motivation is established in the middle of the movie; he's out to schwack all of Star Fleet because they killed his crew. His genius plan to achieve this is a) suborn a Star Fleet intelligence officer to turn suicide bomber and blow up his own office b) attack the Star Fleet HQ when they call a COBRA meeting to respond to this terrible atrocity. What with all his suborning and bombing skills (seriously, the first bomb fits in a class ring and levels a goddam building), presumably he's suborned someone else to make the whole COBRA briefing room table out of explodium? Look at you, bringing a brain to the dumb fight. Nah, Khan shows up at Star Fleet HQ in some kind of armed helicopter and shoots the crap out of the meeting, killing everyone except the names on the posters. On the one hand, you have to love the idea of a war-room with windows out onto the street, but really there's more than enough idiocy for everyone. Anyhow, Kirk, who is blessed with the power to avoid the bullets which shred everyone else, manages to Die Hard [1] the helicopter out of the air, but Khan makes his escape to Klingon-land [because why the hell not?] using unprecedented intergalactic transporter technology [2].

As plots to destroy your enemies go, it rates a "Would not breed from this officer." in almost any assessment system known to man. Or woman. Or lichen, assuming that lichen ever have this problem. I suspect that being half fungus and half alga, they're too evolved to waste time on Star Trek. Or assessments. 

Where was I? Oh yeah, Kirk gets sent off to schwack Khan. For reasons which even lichen might arch an eyebrow at, his commanding admiral thinks the subtle way to schwack one man on the Klingon home planet would be to fire 72 experimental photon torpedoes at him. This is hand waved away as being not a problem since it's a deserted province and no-one will notice. As it happens, those exact torpedoes are actually packed with all of Khan's supposedly dead crew, which becomes a major plot point, but leaves me wondering whether the commanding admiral is a) completely insane or b) completely insane or c) Peter Weller. Anyhow, for fear that all the stupid might rub off, I will pass over that point, and move on.

Here's a good one. In an effort to find out what's in the mysterious torpedoes, McCoy and some random piece of posh totty try to take one apart on a conveniently located planetoid. So far, so why the hell not. Here's the weird bit; as an intro to that, posh totty gets on a shuttle with Kirk and explains that the torpedo needs to be moved. For absolutely no pressing reason, while she's explaining this, she strips down to her underwear.  She doesn't put anything else on afterwards, she doesn't ravage Kirk on the spot, and McCoy is nowhere nearby so it's not as if they're leaving in a minute and she absolutely has to put on a spacesuit (not that she actually DOES put on a space suit, either then OR later). Between that and the fact that Star Fleet has thoughtfully authorised micro skirts and cap sleeves for all the female staff, but proper trousers and long sleeves for the men, I really felt that something needed to be done about the gender policy for Star Fleet, even if only to ensure that hypothermia didn't become a leading cause of sick absences for 40% of the crew. 

Anyhow, the good news is that once they get to Klingon-land, we get a good long stretch of Cumberbatch being bloody awesome, which almost makes up for the presence of - I was going to say everyone else, but really I just mean Kirk; Scottie, Spock and McCoy are not half bad and Zoe Saldana can light up almost anything, even Uhura. Anyhow, just focus on the Brit demi-god and it will all feel a little more painless.

Then stuff happens, some more stuff happens, the Enterprise nearly blows up, then nearly blows up some more, then Kirk apparently sacrifices himself, but sadly is saved at the last minute, and Spock gets to yell "Khan!" because, I don't know, it's his turn in Abrams' mind or something, and there's a cameo from Leonard Nimoy (who is almost as awesome as Cumberbatch, and thus shouldn't have to be there at all). Peter Weller gets his head crushed flat (but out of shot so that the kiddies can still buy tickets to see the movie) which is never not a good idea, really. San Francisco gets almost destroyed (again) and then finally, blessedly, it's all over.

But it could have been worse. At least I didn't see it in 3D.

[1] There's a fire hose and everything

[2] A word here about transporters, which are of course, bollocks. They only exist because Gene Roddenberry couldn't get the money for a stock shot of a shuttle craft landing every time the Captain left the Enterprise to visit that one rock formation in California which stood in for every planet in the universe back in the 1960s. In Into Darkness, transporters don't make any sense at all. One minute Khan can use them to teleport out of a crashing helicopter to the other side of the galaxy, and the next minute they can't beam McCoy off a planetoid right beside the Enterprise because he's got his hand stuck in a torpedo and the exact same technology that could tell the difference between Khan and a helicopter can't tell the difference between McCoy and a torpedo. That's also the technology which can't beam Khan OFF a moving vehicle at the climax, but CAN beam Uhura onto the exact same moving vehicle, even though the problem is that it's moving. Yes, it IS all the same technology; Scottie specifically grumbles about how Khan is using his ideas, which he also grumbles about not being thanked for putting on the Enterprise. Bah. End of word about transporters.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Hugh Howey: Shift

I wound up reading Shift in ebook because I couldn't wait to see what happened next, or rather what happened first. Not my brightest move, since now I'm going to wind up feeling the delay before the third book even more acutely than I might if I'd spaced things out a bit.

In essence, Shift is a monster flashback to fill in the blanks in the world of Wool. I'm not sure about the idea. A lot of the power of Wool comes from the way that we only know what the characters know; as readers we're as baffled by the world as they are. In Shift much of that mystery is shuffled aside. In one sense, it clears the decks handily for the final book and what I am hoping will be a truly epic face-off between the survivors of Wool and the forces of utter lunacy which put them in the hole they're in. If Howey had had to sort out the background AND resolve the conflict all in one go, it could have been a royal mess, and now it's less likely to be. So there's that.

The book breaks cleanly into three blocks of time; in the first, the conspiracy to build the silos is interleaved with the first challenges for the command team in Silo 1; the second block sees Silo 1 wrestle with the uprising which formed part of the backstory for Wool, and the third interleaves the last days of Silo 17 with Silo 1's efforts to understand the events of Wool. 

Whether any of this is going to work depends on whether Howey's got another character with the sheer muscle of Juliette, one strong focal personality who can carry the narrative through its puzzles and give you someone to root for. That narrative hippopotamus falls on the shoulders of Donny, and - by design - it pretty much crushes him. That's more or less the point of the character, but precisely because he's written as a weak, overwhelmed fall guy, you're not exactly punching the sky at his successive triumphs over adversity.

It's a gripping and thought-provoking book, all the same. I read it in a couple of days. If the high concept of Wool was "What if you stuck a bunch of people in a bunker for generations?", the high concept of Shift is what if someone gave Stanley Milgram unlimited budgets and the real world power of life and death? The narrative of Shift takes a long look at the psychological tricks and stratagems which a bunch of absolute loons would have to resort to if they wanted to bury thousands of people in holes in the ground and leave them there indefinitely. As I said in my earlier post, insane levels of control would be needed to keep the starts quo intact in a completely sealed bunker for generation after generation. In Shift we get to see exactly how insane those measures would have to be; and how labyrinthine the controls on the controllers themselves would have to be. In a way, the most impressive aspect of Shift is how cleverly every aspect of the iron control of Wool's world is teased out and explained, every apparent irrationality part of a careful calculation about how crazy you need to be to cope with the fact that people are crazy. And just when you think it's all as nuts as it can be, the final act pulls off a clever swivel which gives a clearer idea of how breathtakingly crazy and amoral the whole plan really was. Given that the book opens on the notion that people engineered the destruction of human civilisation so that they could do it first and get the drop on everyone else, it takes some doing to come up with something that's worse….

Even though the whole of Shift is about filling in the huge blanks behind the big story, one of the more impressive things about it is the way that it closes with two big questions still open. The first is the purely personal cliffhanger of whether Silo 1 is going to get its way with all the other silos; the second is whether even Silo 1 knows as much as it thinks it does. Just as Wool was about one person finding out that everything she believed was a lie, Shift is about one person figuring out his role in a much bigger lie, and slowly realising that not only is he part of a system for lying to the other Silos, but that the controllers themselves have been deliberately misled and programmed. And that their programming may be every bit as misleading as the programming they've pushing out to the other silos.

I really wish I hadn't rushed into reading it. It's going to be frustrating waiting to see what Dust sorts out.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

It's Eurovision time; the annual hooting and poking fun post

The Eurovision song contest is a never ending source of wonderment to me, mostly for how wrong it can go. The bland songs never draw me in; it's the way they chuck spectacle at the screen in an effort to stand out somehow. One of the singers is five months pregnant and I was honestly surprised that they resisted the temptation to have the baby come out and join in.

Moldova are the first outbreak of traditional goofiness, sending a hairdo the Leningrad Cowboys would have sold their winkle-pickers for; there must have been a song underneath it, but between the quiff and the I-wanna-be-Hell's-Christmas-tree dress, it's not like I had a lot of attention left over for music. Hot on the heels of that, Finland's back in touch with its inner Lordi and sent us Krista, who seems to have picked her costume after all the backing group got first call on the clothes that fit. Belgium's sent a song and some dancers which have me honestly wondering if they just asked the European Commission to temp for them; it's like watching the world's most awkward dad being turned into a young woman and then told to groove it at a wedding.

The whole Maltese team looked so delighted to be there, and also as though they'd only been told at the last minute that they were on telly that might and had run over to the studio in whatever they were wearing when the call came in. Which was somehow adorable but it's probably just as well they weren't going to win, because I don't think there's room for a Eurovision in Malta unless all the actual Maltese take a holiday that week someplace else. I was disappointed that Germany broke a great streak of weird US pastiches and sent a taped-off-the-radio of last year's winner instead. But at least this way I know what Austria will send next year….

The standout of the show - at least at the half way mark it's hard to imagine anything topping it - has to be Romania, who sent Ming the Merciless to sing countertenor while standing on a huge pink binliner. If they win with this, I have no idea how the Galactic Empire will run itself, but clearly a heck of a lot less fabulously. Hungary, in the meantime has had a complete irony bypass and sent a lovely little low-key love song performed by a charming gang of hipsters who had a backdrop of those weird cartoons we used to get from Eastern Europe when I was a kid.

Best choreography idea has to have been Azerbaijan, who put their dancer in a box; sounds dumb, but it was pretty clever when they did it. And it feels safe to say that most fun song of the evening is going to be the Greek one, which is bonkers in the best possible way. The Eurovision has to be one of the few places where you can say "It's not safe out there, bring an accordion" and have it work out perfectly. Ukraine may have nailed the worst choreography medal by getting the tallest man they could find in the Ukraine to show up in plaid just to carry their singer on stage and walk back off again. They didn't even let him say "Hodor."

Italy have - to their eternal credit - made the French mistake. They hired a good singer, got him a good song, and sent him on stage in a beautifully cut suit, for all the world as if he was in some kind of song contest. It's so outside the box, it might even work. 

Ireland, for the first time in ages, actually seems to have decided to act like they cared. It was a perfectly good song and they didn't send a joke double act to sell it. I'd never realised quite how Spartacus celtic drummers could be made to look, but there always has to be one act with oiled up muscle men in every Eurovision. With any luck we won't actually win, but it's nice to look like we actually give a crap.

This may be a surprising year, because some of the circle jerks of past years have been disrupted; the Balkans and Cyprus are out of play, giving no handy bloc to pass all those votes around, and there's less of the Baltic than we usually see as well. And Denmark seems to be running away with it with half the votes in, while Ireland is firmly in bottom place. I'd like to think it can only get better...

But it didn't. Dead last, in a world where Jedward could get a respectable score last year by acting like kids who'd been let loose in a toy box. So much for trying to take it seriously. We should send them Dustin next year.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Hugh Howey: Wool

Hugh Howey has come out of nowhere, or at least the internet, to a book deal that sees Wool stacked up in boxes in my local supermarket - which, as I mentioned when talking about Justin Cronin, is how you know that someone's expected to sell in much the same way that baked beans do.

Based on Wool, I think he's pretty much earned it. Howey's a solid writer. I downloaded a sample of Wool weeks ago, just the first couple of chapters which set the scene for the rest of the book, and knew I wanted to read the rest of it when I had time. That took a couple of weeks, and then it was out in paperback, so I decided to do my bit to keep my local bookshop afloat and got it in dead tree at the same time as The Twelve. Reading that took a while, and then I was clear for Wool. And everything from the opening chapter I'd read was still clear and crisp in my mind; no need to go back over it and refresh my memory. Most of Wool is written to that same solid standard; the characters feel real and grounded, and I was worried about what was going to happen to them - particularly since Howey kicked off those compelling opening chapters by bringing two of them to life and briskly polishing them both off. After that, it was clear that anyone could get the chop at any time, no matter how much time Howey had put into them. 

Wool is in one way a high concept novel, since the hook is more or less, what would it be like if we had the apocalypse and all the survivors got stuck in a bunker in the ground they could never leave? The whole of the book is devoted to unpicking that thought, letting us see it only through the eyes of the people in the bunker, who've never known any other world. 

If you stick a load of people into a bunker they can never leave, and expect them to stay there for generations, on the one hand, they're going to have to live on a closed cycle, reusing everything and never increasing the numbers of people or of anything else. And on the other hand, like the proverbial rats in a coffee can, they're going to completely round the bend in a matter of months. If you want to keep that show on the road, you're going to need truly insane levels - and methods - of social control, and a commitment to preserving the status quo which would make Best Korea look like the Paris Commune. 

Wool opens up by showing us what happens if anyone asks what's outside the bunker; they get a one way trip to find out. And then slowly we start to see what happens to more subtle questions about the status quo. By the time the novel's central character, Juliette, starts to edge her own way towards questions, the smallest things create a sense of creeping dread. Juliette is doomed; it's just a matter of time, of how and when. I found myself putting the book down and taking breaks from it, rather than reading it in a rush. 

This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, 1984. I read 1984 when I was a teenager and never needed to come back to it; Orwell wrote so well, so precisely, so harrowingly that the book stays with me even now. Howey's not that good. But it's the first time in a long time that I've read about someone in a police state and even thought about 1984 as a comparison. There are books you can't read quickly; Wool  is one of them.

Strangely, Juliette remains the most cryptic character in the whole book, despite being the engine that makes everything else go. Halston, her doomed predecessor as sheriff, gets the opening chapters and comes completely to life. Jahns, the mayor who hires her, Marnes, the deputy; the list goes on and on, characters fleshed out and vital. We get a sense of them, and through them a sense of how Juliette looks from the outside, but we never truly get a sense of Juliette's inner life in the same way. This is not, I think, an accident. Howey is simply too good at all the other stuff to have overlooked the need for depth in Juliette. There's something we haven't seen yet, as they say in Alien. Right now we have a sense of how Juliette feels about things, but not how she feels about people. That's still buried.

Wool just growed; Howey wrote it on the internet, putting up chunks of it and refining them, with the final published version pulling together what were originally written as almost self sufficient chunks - which is one reason why the ancillary characters are so compelling; as the book evolved, they were the centres of nearly self-contained sections, and that solidity has persisted as the chunks were grafted into a whole. But as is often the case, the early stuff is paradoxically more finished than the later material; the final act feels rushed compared to the careful and slow construction of the early stages of the book. As the plot resolved, I found myself wanting more detail, more of a sense of how things had suddenly switched. It's not often that I want a book to be longer, but Wool left me wanting more.

Which, in a way, there is. There's a second volume out now, Shift, which widens out the background, and a third one on the way, Dust, which is going to bring it all back around to Juliette and some kind of larger resolution. I have a lot of confidence that it's all going to work out, because Howey is a man with an eye for the telling detail, the little character moments which show you what a character notices, and by showing you that, tells you what they really care about. Like KJ Parker, he's a man with a feel for the mechanical things which make the world work, and I expect his world to work. 

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Ian Tregillis: Necessary Evil

I had high hopes starting into Necessary Evil. The first two books in the Milkweed Trilogy felt as though they were part of a carefully worked out three book plot, and I was expecting Necessary Evil to tie it all up in a satisfying bow. It does wrap everything up, but not as cleverly as I'd been expecting. Just as Gretel loses her ability to see the future early on, Tregillis seemed to lose his ability to have everything turn out as part of a cunning plan.

I found myself cranking, just a bit. "Billfolds" I was thinking. "No-one called wallets billfolds on 1940s England, did they?" I'm not even sure how to check that, it just felt wrong. Then about halfway through the book, there's a tense moment as Marsh hares around Coventry trying to find an address, and all the tension flew out of it when he started running over postboxes and scrambling through the mail to work out the address. At the time, finding your way round any English town even in broad daylight was … challenging … because they'd thoughtfully removed all the street signs to make life more difficult for the German paratroopers who were expected to show up at any moment. But individual mailboxes on a stick that you can run over with a car are a uniquely suburban American phenomenon. If Marsh had collided with a postbox, it would have been full of letters people had just posted, and their addresses would have told him all the places that he was miles away from… 

These are not new issues; Tregillis has been wrestling with the gap between his own experience and the world of the 1940s in England all the way through the trilogy. It's just that up until now he'd been moving fast enough in interesting directions that I didn't have the spare time to think about the little niggles. In Necessary Evil, he's lost momentum, and more than that, lost the ability to throw something new and unexpected at the page.

The second book ended with Marsh being hurled back in time in an effort to reverse all the catastrophic decisions which had culminated in the complete destruction of the world in 1963. Right there - and I should have seen this coming - Tregillis had created a problem; if you go back in time, the characters have to live through stuff the reader's already seen, and it's always going to be tricky to make it interesting the second time round. It's easy enough to play that kind of thing for comedy, but it's a lot harder to play it for drama, and I hadn't appreciated before quite how tricky it might be do it on the page. Tregillis decided to distinguish between the 1940s Marsh and the Back From the Future Marsh by having the time traveller a first person narrator, while sticking to third person narrative for his other viewpoints. Even with that, I found myself losing track of who was in the driving seat from scene to scene. 

It's almost sad to see Gretel defanged. Throughout the first two books, we were at one remove from her, watching as apparently random incidents years apart turned out to be connected parts of a plan that only she could visualise. But in the third book, the massive reboot for the whole system has left her almost as clueless as everyone around her, ironically while the main characters now assume that everything they're doing must still be part of a cunning plan. There was a thread here which could have been teased out to fun effect, but Tregillis seems to have decided in parallel that the most satisfying resolution of his overall plot would be to have Marsh's world of demons and super soldiers reset to the universe we're actually living in, so gradually each of Marsh's actions brings the history of World War II back into line with our own history. Played properly, this could have been interesting in its own way, since what the reader knows can still be a big surprise to the characters on the page, but it takes a lot of work to make that happen, and in the end you're just getting the meh effect of turning a surprising world into a  mundane one. I can see how it would have seemed like a good idea conceptually at the beginning of the work, but it makes for a very flat ending, and oddly one without a lot of tension in it. Once you can see which way this has to go, you know the broad sweep of the global stakes. The world is not going to end; in fact nothing unexpected for the reader is going to happen. What's left is what might happen to the characters, and somehow they're not given the time and space to make the reader care enough what happens to them. 

I'm making this all sound worse than it is. Necessary Evil is not a terrible book by any means. It's more that it comes as a weak close to a strong opening and middle. It doesn't have the sheer muscle that the other two books had, either in terms of new ideas flying off the page or the willingness to grind up the characters to get the stakes across. The three books taken together are a solid chunk of work, but this is not the strongest part of it.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Dead Man Down; two movies collide, destroying each other

There's a good movie to be made about a woman who blackmails a hitman into murdering someone she's cross with, and this week's top tip is don't try to make that movie while you're busy making that old reliable, a movie about a guy taking complicated revenge on the people who killed his wife and daughter. It's too late to save Dead Man Down, but who knows, other people might benefit.

Probably the most unexpected and exciting thing that happened at tonight's screening was when the movie abruptly turned into a spoken word performance about fifteen minutes in. Since it was already showing signs of pretensions towards mild artiness, it took a couple of minutes before I was absolutely sure that the projector had gone on holidays, rather than the director's sanity. No, I eventually concluded, this is not the director making a point about how anger can blind us, this is the projectionist falling asleep. Since I was - as usual - the entire audience, there was no-one to make a fuss, and so I improved my understanding of the world around me by going to look for the projectionist. I might as well have gone looking for the organist or the hatcheck girl; the Hidden City fleapit long ago replaced all its projectionists with computers, and the computers were doing what they do best. I wandered out to the ticket desk, half wondering if I really cared enough to ask them to do something about it, or if I could just head on home and catch up on my macrame, but curiosity got the better of me - not so much about what was going to happen in the movie, as about what might happen if I asked them what was wrong.

So they wound the movie back to where things had gone wrong - no, wait, that makes it sound as though they somehow burst through the space time continuum and wound it back to the point where someone wrote the screenplay. Sorry, I mean, they wound it back to the point where the picture dropped out, and I resumed my scheduled feature presentation, wondering idly if they'd even broken even on the electricity it was taking to run this movie to a packed house of me and my anorak.

Still, I was spinning my lonely wheels in exalted company. Colin Farrell was up there, brooding through stubble in the role that Arnie was born to play (and did, to death). His character, Victor, is supposed to be Hungarian, and in a more deft nod to the difficulty of accent than anything Arnie ever did, his lack of a Hungarian accent is explained away as being due to him going to a lot of trouble to lose the accent. Noomi Rapace was there, playing psycho Audrey Tautou meets the Phantom of the Opera. That seems to be down to the director saying something on the lines of "Didn't we have fun in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? With the raping and the beating and the near-murdering and all that other fun? Wasn't that great? Wouldn't it be fun to do that again for REAL money in America?" Isabelle Huppert, is there, playing Noomi's dotty mom. Bill Murray famously doesn't have an agent, and I sometimes think it's because he's seen the trouble Isabelle Huppert gets into by relying on whatever Madame Sosostris it is that reads the tealeaves and picks her next part. If Isabelle Huppert did more work, she'd be the French chic equivalent of 80s Michael Caine. And there's a whole bunch of utility heavies, organised on the usual Hollywood no-that-doesn't-make-a-bit-of-sense gang lines. Off to one side, there's a bunch of Albanians, clannish, moronic and deadly; but elsewhere America's criminal underbelly is the ultimate equal opportunity employer, full of gangs of criminals hired purely on - hell if I know, really, but obviously not on such obvious things as hiring within the family and long time friends. Total stranger with a good line of patter and/or all over tattoos? You're hired. Background checks are so mainstream; we're edgy modern apartment-flipping criminals (they're not just murdering scumbags, they're murdering scumbags in real estate).

Colin Farrell's mission is to kill all those dudes, which he duly does in an extended climactic boomfest that seems to have parachuted into the movie from some other world entirely. Noomi Rapace meanwhile has been starring in an extended character drama about a fey beautician who dreams of avenging herself on the drunk driver who smashed her face up and got away with it. Colin spends a lot of the movie's running time visiting her there, and indulging her fantasy that they're in some class of a high-end euro-drama about life and consequence and painteresque silences and non-sequiturs from daffy Isabelle Huppert. Then he'll go off and brood some among his caches of dynamite and home movies. 

There is some mad fun to be had from just thinking about the layers of acting going on. Colin's an Irishman playing a Hungarian pretending to be an American. Noomi is a Swede playing an American with a French mother. It's never really clear why all those intermediate nationalities are needed; Colin could perfectly well have been an Irishman on a revenge trip, requiring exactly zero accent shifts. But he has to be eastern European for all those shady connections and heavy weapons, you object. Tchah. This is Hollywood; as all visitors to this blog know, Ireland is the world's clearing house for dodgy weapons of all kinds.

I kind of wish they'd just made the movie Noomi thinks she's in, because that would have been a pretty interesting film. Colin would have been well up to the challenge; not only can he act, but he's got a real knack for the loveable rogue who, when you get to know him, is really not that loveable. And that movie would have had none of the rest of the cast in it, which couldn't have helped but make it better. A little bit of me cringed when I saw that it was partly produced by the WWE empire, and then on walked the various gangsters and I realised what WWE had contributed. Possibly there's a producers' cut somewhere with a whole bunch of gratuitous wrestling in it.

But we didn't get the nice simple Noomi Rapace movie, because someone, specifically the writer, thought that intercutting two stories into one movie would work. It works on TV, because we've had twenty plus previous episodes to get to know everyone and feel the subtext. Movies; you've got one shot. You make that shot count. If you want to shoot with both hands, you'd better be goddam Leonardo da Vinci, and no-one in this movie comes anywhere close.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Justin Cronin: The Twelve

When I finally got my hands on a manageably sized copy of The Twelve, I'd been putting off buying it for about a year. I felt the heft of it - slightly smaller than The Passage, but not by much - and pondered the problem of memory. It had been two years since I finished The Passage, and I was wondering if I could spare the time to read it again and get back up to speed with Cronin's world. I decided not to bother. But it's worth unpicking why. I couldn't quite remember everything that happened in The Passage, but neither could I be bothered reading it again. The Passage isn't well enough written to have left an indelible imprint, nor quite enjoyable enough to be worth going back to for a refresher. Therein lies Cronin's problem, really.

Having finished The Twelve this morning, I took a look at what I'd been thinking after finishing The Passage, and blinked in surprise. Although The Twelve feels like a different book - albeit not a better one - everything that bugged me about the first book is still there bugging me about the second. There's a strong opening section set during the collapse of our contemporary world, then a meandering and somehow uninvolving middle set a hundred years later in the aftermath, and then everything gets speeded up and sorted out in a thoroughly confusing way before setting up the conflicts for the third book. And I'm sitting here thinking, why make the same mistakes again? Well, because the first time it resulted in a hell of a lot of books sold, so from where Cronin and his editors are sitting, it probably doesn't feel like any mistakes have been made at all. I was in Sainsbury's the other day, where the only books they sell are ones which they know they can pile high and sell cheap, and there was The Twelve discounted to £3.99. That's when you know something is going to sell in truckloads. Not too dusty for a self-consciously literary doorstop about life after vampires.

Still, it bugs me. Cronin's a good writer, by which I mean that he rarely jars you with a dud line. He can knock together a character who makes sense, and who you want to see more of, but he doesn't seem to deploy that talent the right way. Some of the most interesting characters walk on and walk off without ever living up to the thought which has gone into them. Life's like that, but fiction shouldn't be; if you create someone compelling, either hang the story off them, or do them in; there's nothing so jolting as the death of a character who's been carefully built up (Philip Reeve pulls this off splendidly again and again in his fiction). But don't walk a superb character into the action and then walk him back off again with nothing in between. Particularly when half the characters you've got in the foreground have the texture of magnolia emulsion paint.

When someone self consciously sets out to write a trilogy (if only postwar paper shortages hadn't forced The Lord of the Rings into three volumes!) there's always a serious risk that there's going to be a horrible flat spot in the middle. You know how you're starting out; every book begins with a vision of its beginning or it can't begin at all. You know where you want it to go to end, even in the roughest outline. It's that debbil bit in the middle which consigns most book ideas to the middle drawer in the desk, never to be seen again. And with a trilogy; the beginning is book one, the ending is book three; what's going to fill book two other than people marking time, doing stuff to set up book three? All of this was in the back of my mind over the past year or two; The Twelve came out in hardback about six months after I'd read The Passage, and I didn't feel the same sugar rush to get it and read it right now that I did when Neal Stephenson brought out Reamde. 

Where I think this middling middle book goes wrong is sticking with the principal cast of the middle of the first book. Age has not made them more interesting. They lack the fire and crackle of the characters from the more contemporary sections. Worse than that, they get in the way of the villains. At the heart of this enterprise lies the notion that the vampire plague comes from one guy, whose virus infection is cultured in twelve death row prisoners, who in turn become the source of the infection that  sweeps through the USA, carrying all before it. Those twelve prisoners are the titular Twelve, but it's almost as though Cronin felt he'd done all he needed to do by throwing their name in the title and then getting on with the travails of his everyman survivors. The Twelve are literally walk-ons in their own book. 

It's almost like a microcosm of the larger puzzle. The Twelve concentrates on the featured cast of the first book, making the whole world revolve around them and their dilemmas and losses. Apparently no-one else in what's left of America is up to anything of relevance to the fate of the world. All that matters is the little bubble of the main cast. But equally, all that matters in the work as a whole is the little bubble of the USA; a hundred years have passed since the catastrophe, but there's no hint of the wider world beyond North America. Cronin's made a decision to show us only what his characters can see, so it's understandable that there are no wider horizons to their action. Still; there's a whole world out there. The dynamic Cronin has chosen for his vampires confines the plague to the USA; there are only twelve masters, and they're homebodies who stick to their hometowns. So we, the readers, can infer that the plague didn't make inroads on the rest of the world. The fallout - that's another day's work. Take away the world's superpower and its appetite for consumer goods, and does the rest of the world go into unrecoverable crisis? Maybe that's enough to silence all the other voices, who knows? But a hundred years have passed; ample time for some kind of recovery to begin. Where are the European and Asian looters, come to pick over the bones of the fallen giant? 

Cronin does make one interesting choice in the middle of things; he tries to tackle head-on the age-old problem of overgrazing. I'm not absolutely sure I buy the answer he comes up with, but at least it's an attempt to face up to the logistical realities of filling the world with indestructible predators. It's possible that in a couple of years' time, when we get to the third book, it might all start to make sense. What I'm dreading is that the third book is going to repeat the sins of the first two, and give me a great opening and a long drawn out letdown.