Sunday, 27 July 2014

Joe Abercrombie: Half A King

This book is going to cause huge problems in bookshops. It’s going to be stacked high in the young adult section, and after kids have raced through it, they’ll be back in looking for the next book. Which is not going to be out for a while. So they’ll want to know if the shop has got anything else by Joe Abercrombie...

After their outraged parents have finished burning down the bookshops, I’m sure we’ll all agree that we’ve learned something important.

Coming at it from the opposite direction, I was kind of enjoying a Joe Abercrombie book with a low to middling body count and almost no actual torture. Mind you, at times I was beginning to wonder if he had written it as a bet to see just how much of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland he could tweak. The Tough Guide is a great book which would-be writers ought to read and memorise, but Abercrombie seemed to have taken the whole thing as a challenge; “Sure, those are cliches, but if you’re good enough, you can still make them work….” So there’s a teenage hero, and he’s on a quest, and he even has to be a galley slave, where of course he makes some great friends who are a huge help him to him in his quest. There’s a prince who has to overthrow a plot to dethrone him so that he can reclaim his king… and so on.

And Abercrombie, damn him, finds ways to make it all fresh. Even though there’s a lot of it which is just a kid-friendly retread of some of the hard stuff. Yarvi is a smart kid with a bad hand, kind of like a watered down Inquisitor Glokta (kids are SO not ready for Inquisitor Glokta). Nameless is so like Logen Ninefingers, I was waiting for him actually to be Logen Ninefingers. No. The Broken Sea does not cross over into the world of Abercrombie’s other books, so I still don’t know what the hell Valint and Balk think they’re up to (though Half a King continues Abercrombie’s preoccupation with money and the way in which it ought to matter in fantasy far more than most writers let it).

The next book up in the sequence, Half the World won’t be out til February of next year, which I suppose gives me time to read some of the other stuff which has piled up. I was going to say “If Abercrombie can keep it up, it will be worth the wait” but the reality is that Abercrombie has already demonstrated that he can keep chunking out gripping stuff by the yard almost at will. And this trilogy looks like it’s already pretty much sorted out in his head. So with any luck he’ll have it all in print by this time next year and can get back to his day job. 

It’s the kids I worry about. They’re not ready for the real thing. I’ve got adult friends who weren’t ready for it.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Blake Crouch: The Wayward Pines Trilogy

I can’t make my mind up about Wayward Pines, but it doesn’t really matter because Fox TV made up their mind and it’s all going to be a mini series one of these days. Which is a pretty ballsy move by Fox TV, because the three main books (there are a tonne of extra stories you can download off the internet) swerve all over the place the way that TV generally doesn’t. I’m not sure how that’s going to fit in with the usual TV model of set up an unchanging situation and just keep nursing it along until the residuals kick in.

Above all, it’s a very rapid plot. Everything happens in a month or less. There are flashbacks over much bigger chunks of time, but the main action runs very fast. At the beginning of the first book, our protagonist wakes up in a small town that he can’t find a way to get out of, and by the end of the third book he’s torn the whole place down around and killed all the bad guys and half the bystanders. In book one, he gets to find out what’s really going on in the too-good-to-be-true town; in book two, he’s co-opted by the bad guys to be sheriff and help to run the terrible conspiracy behind the whole enterprise but instead tears the whole thing wide open; and in the final book he completely fails to come up with a brilliant idea to save everyone from the chaos he’s unleashed. And that’s the whole thing; Fox TV’s bought themselves a cousin of the problem that Under the Dome hasn’t been able to solve.

All three books are just one high-concept idea; billionaire lunatic decides that the world is going to hell, so he comes up with a scheme to put a small town in suspended animation and wake them up when the world’s hopefully more to his liking. Our hero wakes up in the middle of this, since billionaire lunatic is definitely not running an all-volunteer operation; instead he’s faking car accidents, slamming people into suspended animation and waking them up centuries later in a painstaking recreation of a small Mid-West town as though it’s the day after the car crash. The whole first book is about our hero figuring this out, and Crouch does a pretty good job of keeping it confusing and creepy for most of the book. It’s not easy keeping a big reveal like that on the down low, no matter how many distractions he throws into the mix, and I was impressed by the way it was carried off; and also by the way Crouch made me feel the hero’s concussion - there’s a queasiness all the way through his scenes which gives them an extra bite.

In a sense, the first book is almost like a pilot for an indefinite series; the situation’s been set up, the basics have been explained, and now our hero can be the wacky sheriff of the wacky post apocalyptic town. It would be A Town Called Eureka, but grim, and surrounded by mutant cannibals, and run by psychos. No, wait, that sounds terrible. Crouch seems to have thought the same thing, because the status quo falls apart with impressive and bloody speed in the other two books, until there’s nowhere left to run for anyone. 

My hat’s off to Crouch to realising that there was only one way to go and no point in dragging it out, but the other two books don’t rise to the same levels of creepy angst the first one pulls off. We know what’s going on now, and without a central mystery, the essential weakness of the set-up starts to bite. Has it struck you yet that I haven’t used any character names? I finished reading the third book about three days ago, and I’ve forgotten what the hero’s name was. I can remember some of the villain names, and I can actually remember all the important character points which clutter up the hero’s personal life; I just can’t remember his name. He’s going to be played by some chiselled dark haired alpha male looking actor, and he had the kind of name a chiselled alpha male would have in a cop show, but what was it? I could look it up, but that would be missing the point.

That’s not my real gripe; I forget people’s names all the time. My real gripe is that the mad science doesn’t make any sense. Even if you buy the idea that people can be put into suspended animation for two thousand years, you still have to buy the idea that on the one hand, food supplies, petrol and I don’t know what all else can somehow last in storage for the same length of time without going off, while on the other hand buying into the idea that the entire population of human beings can die off and somehow evolve into vicious carnivorous taloned naked Morlocks prowling a depopulated North America in literal billions. In the real world, it took something like 6000 years for Tibetans to evolve slightly more efficient lungs; there has been literally no noticeable change in human morphology in the last 20,000 years. 

Still, fun while it lasted and the opening book has some punch to it.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Ben H Winters: The Last Policeman Trilogy

In a sense, almost everything is pre-apocalyptic fiction, since who knows, we could have an apocalypse any day. There’s a long tradition of books and movies which are set after the apocalypse, with everyone scrabbling away in the ruins eating off brand canned food and each other, but Ben Winters had the interesting notion of wondering what it might be like in the weeks and months just before an apocalypse, a gag which I don’t think anyone’s tried since Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. And even though On the Beach is about a bunch of people counting down the days until fallout polishes them off, in a sense it’s still after the real apocalypse, with the rest of the world already off the count from nuclear war.

The Last Policeman trilogy has the whole world waiting for the end; a dinosaur-killer asteroid is months from hitting the world, and we join Henry Palace, small town detective, as he tries to do his job in a world which has decided that life’s too short to go to work any more. Long before the big bang, civilisation is falling apart as people walk away from their dead end jobs and society just stops working, one essential service at a time. In among this slow motion catastrophe, Henry tries to solve the crimes no-one else cares about. 

It’s beautiful writing. I’m the world’s worst reader of detective stories because I really don’t care that much about whodunnit; I’m only really interested in who’s looking into it. Henry cares passionately about these crimes, but I spent the whole series of books enthralled by the way Winters brought a dying world to life, sketching in dozens of incidental characters and little details of social collapse which made the background more interesting to me than the foreground. And even Henry kind of realises this. He’s a wonderful creation, a young fogey who’s always wanted to be a cop and takes everything terribly seriously while somehow still being charming company. Henry ought to be ridiculous and absurd, but instead he has a wonderful dignity. He’s not good at his job, but in a world where no-one else is even trying any more, he’s as good as you can get.

The three books are terribly grounded; the crimes Henry investigates always seem to him to be the beginning of vast conspiracies, and then somehow peter out into life just being a mess of petty selfishness; everything in the end is ordinary, nothing extraordinary and somehow Henry sticks with it all, never faltering or thinking the less of the world or his place in it. And the final book has a wonderful subversion of that staple of detective stories. Henry has a sidekick, who can do all the sketchy things which Henry has only read about in books (and a recurring catchphrase as he demonstrates home made flamethrowers and god knows what else “Seen it done. Done it myself.”) But Cortez has his own magnificently simple reason for tagging along with Henry; perhaps the greatest beauty of the plotting in these books is that everything happens for a reason, and the reason is always simple.

And does the world end? Well, the books do. And it’s solid, and perfect and right. I’m not sure how Winters can follow this up, but if he never does, he’s still done a job he can be proud of.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; Golly, I wonder what will happen next

People are talking wildly about nominating Andy Serkis for an Oscar for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. On the one hand, it’s the absolute centre of the movie, just as it was in Rise of the Planet of the Apes three years ago. But it’s hard to decide whether it’s an extraordinary technical achievement or a genuine piece of performance, and whichever it actually is, it might spell the end of acting as we know it; if the computer can do this, why bother with new stars? Mo-cap the old ones and use the computer to make them young. Suddenly, it’s not a problem making another Star Wars movie even if Harrison Ford is in a wheelchair.

I spent a good chunk of Dawn thinking about the way that “alien threat” movies are supposed to be a barometer for what society is really scared of, and trying to figure out what Dawn was standing in for. With vampires, it’s easy; it’s all about the way in which creepy, superficially glamorous selfish individuals screw the rest of us over, and the way we’re complicit in it because we think we might just be able to Renfield our way to the top; vampire movies are about our relationship with celebrities, and dangerous elites in general. Zombies are another easy notion; vast faceless hordes, coming to ruin our communities with their incomprehensible primitive hungers. Pick your barbarian incursion, and zombies are your proxy. 

Talking apes with personalities and a history of being victimised by humans? You can map anything you like onto  the situation. In the grey corner, talking apes trying to build a civilisation from scratch; in the other grey corner, beaten down human remnants trying to rebuild some of what they lost when “simian flu” wiped out nearly everything. Throw in Iago the bonobo in the shape of Koba, scheming to start the war with the humans while the apes have still got numbers going for them, and poor old Andy Serkis’ Caesar’s got his work cut out trying to keep the peace.

But just as the end game for this series of movies is right there in their titles - it’s Planet of the Apes …. - the suspense isn’t whether there’s going to be a war, but whether it will kill anyone we’re invested in. That’s where Andy and the rest of the mo-cap crew run rings around the humans. It’s hard to figure out precisely why, though it might be as simple as Dr Johnson’s old saw about bears dancing; you’re not giving them marks because they’re doing it well, but because they’re doing it at all. Great apes have a running start with our affections; almost like us, but without the complication and annoyance that people always bring. And the ape performances build on that, making them more charming than the people they’re pitted against. By the end of the movie, it’s clear that we’ve just seen the opening skirmish in a bigger war, but I reckon most people left rooting for the apes to win. Which makes it all the more interesting to wonder who the apes are a proxy for in our world.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

M.R. Carey: The Girl with all the Gifts

This book is going to make a pretty good movie. Which is not my backhanded way of saying that it’s not much of a book. It’s a pretty good book in its own right, it’s just that it’s paced and constructed and populated in a way which will make it easy to film. It has only a handful of characters to keep track of, and they’ve all clearly defined as much by their roles as their personalities (so, tough luck on that one guy who might as well be wearing a red shirt under his uniform khakis). There’s a bunch of situations which lend themselves to filming, and it’s got a solid plot that moves to a dramatically satisfying punchline. Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro ought to check it out; this book gets in and does its job quickly and elegantly, packing a lot more interest into a single volume than the whole of the Strain trilogy. And it’s well written; not great art, but the prose either lands or at least stays out of the way.

It’s a book about zombies, where the most sympathetic character is a zombie. Zombies aren’t a new idea; for all I know, making the best character a zombie isn’t new either. New, of course, is not what matters. What matters is getting it right. With zombies, one of two things is going to happen; either the zombies are going to get whacked, or the humans are going to get wiped out to the last man. There’s not much subtlety to the drama. Carey’s come up with a nice way to change the stakes, because with his likeable zombie schoolgirl, no matter who gets wiped out, it’s going to be a little bit heartbreaking. There’s a bigger picture in play in the book’s plot, but for most of the narrative all that really matters is that sense of foreboding; some of these people are not going to make it. Maybe none of them are going to make it. It’s another one of those books I read in snatches, as though I was walking into water that was getting colder and deeper, and had to stop to get used to the temperature before stepping a little further.

Because Carey gets you invested. Melanie the zombie schoolgirl hooked me early, and the humans trying to figure her out are believably flawed and muddled; you don’t want them to axe Melanie, but you don’t want them to get hurt either. They’re doing their best in a horrible world.

And the zombie world is an interesting one; Carey’s come up with a new twist on where zombies come from. There’s a fungus in the tropics which can infest ants and rewire their nervous systems to make them climb as high as possible on trees, where they freeze up and provide the fungus with sustenance until it’s ready to explode and spread its spores to the wind and all the other ants who’ll pick it up as it drifts to earth. In Carey’s world, that fungus has spread to people, and rewired them to eat each other. And we parachute into it years on as the survivors try to figure out how to kill the fungus before it kills them. The book’s got one job to do and it’s not going to mess around with big buildups and origin stories; it’s taken just the slice through this new world that it needs for its story, and trusts the reader to figure out the rest. And it’s going to be a pretty good movie, when they’ve found a new Chloe Moretz to play Melanie and the assembled might of Hollywood’s middle aged actresses have finished killing each other for the two human female roles.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Strain finds its true form

Four years ago, when I was unenthusiastically toeing the first mysterious manifestation of The Strain, I thought it had the potential to be the beginning of an impressive movie. I didn’t realise just how much morecrap was going to fall from the ceiling overhead, and I was dazzled by the sheer quality of Pan’s Labyrinth, so I was inclined to cut Guillermo a lot of slack, in the way that I wouldn’t now that I’ve seen Pacific Rim

Well, someone loved the whole idea enough to throw a load of money at it, and here we are with a TV series. Which I was honestly not going to bother with, but there was a sudden spike in my page-views for the swipe at The Night Eternal….

In good news, Corey Stoll is all back to life from getting asphyxiated in House of Cards, and he’s even grown some hair, or stolen Christian Slater’s, whichever is cheaper. In bad news, he’s playing another work-fixated dick-head whose family life is falling apart. I put this down to the unending Hollywood theory that go-getters always have to have miserable home lives to balance things up. Some people think that this is down to simple-minded screenplay writing, but I think it’s dumber than that. The whole idea just appeals to neurotic artistic people who want to think that they’re messing up their own personal lives because they’re tortured geniuses paying a price for success when the reality is that they’d be messing up their personal lives if they were working a shift at Walmart.

Of course it also gives the writers a pretext to tell us how great our protagonist is at his job; five minutes in and we’re getting his wife monologuing straight to camera about how he’s the world’s greatest epidemiologist. When del Toro was on top form, he did not need anyone to monologue the camera to tell us that the Captain was the Spanish Army’s greatest living bastard; he gave us scenes that let us figure out for ourselves that everyone had a good reason to be terrified of him. And honestly, if Corey Stoll’s character is commanding the respect of his colleagues despite being called Eph Goodweather, he pretty much has to be awesome at his job. No need for his wife to put in the time on that one.

It’s pretty much the opening of the book, acting-friendly character count and cast of expendable meat puppets all present and correct, but I was surprised by how del Toro still found a way to make the cold open more boring than it needed to be. You’ve got a Marie Celeste plane on the tarmac at New York; start there, don’t burn up minutes letting us see some of what happened before the plane landed. You’re wasting time and money on people we’re not going to get to know any better later on.

Which leads me to my other surprise; what I had thought of as a movie friendly character count actually isn’t, because there are too many stories and no place that they can believably connect, even though my shaky memories of the book tell me that just about everyone we see in this pilot episode is still going to be in some kind of play for the endgame, assuming that they keep throwing money at the problem for as long it might take to get there. At the speed that they’re not burning through the book, it looks like they might think they’ve got three mini-seasons here, which is going to be asking a hell of a lot from the actors; it’s not like the underlying text is going to save this thing.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2: Cate Blanchett channels Tom Cruise

Things are so bad these days in Mexico City that if you insist on not watching the World Cup, you could wind up watching How to Train Your Dragon 2, where Cate Blanchett does worse things to Irish accents than Germany did to Brazil. As we know from earlier exercises, Cate is better at being a French person than French people are, and in HTTYD2 she’s better at doing the worst Irish accent in the world than Tom Cruise, the previous record holder. It’s an animated movie; all Cate had to DO was talk, but apparently spending a week of so in a looping booth didn’t give her time to get into character, and her accent derails every scene she’s in and even some that she’s not in. The one good thing about it is that whenever she’s on screen you kind of forget the other accent disaster of how an island full of Scots vikings with no outside influences could breed a pack of irritating teenagers who all sound like Californians.

Good stuff; if you’ve always wished Gerald Butler would just DIE but you don’t think that 300 is kid-friendly, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for. If you’ve always thought Quidditch wasn’t quite stupid enough, the opening sequence will make your day. (If you’re JK Rowling’s IP lawyer, you’re probably hissing like a kettle made out of the Statue of Liberty about three minutes into the sequence and just flat out detonating when they produce a black sneetch, sorry, sheep, which is worth enough to win the whole game in one go even if you haven’t scored at all up to now.

It’s tempting to pretend to analyse the whole thing as though it were a carefully thought allegory of something in the real world, but I couldn’t think of a funny enough through line. Are dragons an allegory for air power? Is the movie trying to tell us that if air power falls into the hands of faceless hordes led by some dusky complected scar-face, fear and terror will befall the world, whereas if cute dumb Californian accented moppets and their comedy Scottish sidekicks are running the airpower, only bad folks will get their houses and lives exploded? What’s the message in having Kristen Wiig voice a lanky teenage girl who spends the whole movie ogling beefcake? Is it a clever comment on how teenage boys snigger at girls while leering at their arses, or is it supposed to represent female empowerment to do the same thing? Does Kristen Wiig really have nothing better to do than leer “Me likey” at random hunks?

Bizarrely enough, the director says that he based this movie on The Empire Strikes Back. I think I’m just going to let that sit there. No, wait. Does that mean that the third one is going to have Ewoks?

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Angel City: Jon Steele

This is yer proverbial difficult second novel, by which I mean it was flat out difficult to read. I haven’t been this fed up with a sequel since I waded into Guillermo del Toro’s soon to be a TV show. In the end I rushed through it just to get it over with; it’s hard to wonder if the editors weren’t doing the same thing.

Angel City is a follow up to The Watchers, a rather better book which I read about a year ago. At the time I said that it seemed like two books had collided with each other and that I’d have been happier reading either one on its own than both at the same time. Angel City helped me out on that analysis, delivering a followup to the loud, bangy, messy back third of The Watchers and it turns out that I wasn’t happier reading a book that was all about the loud, bangy, messy stuff. So I know that much, I guess.

As I said at the time, I’m a sucker for books and movies about angels and demons juking it out in our mundane world. Sucker being the key word here; I keep going back for more, despite the endless disappointments. Angel City is the middle book of a trilogy which is - as far as I can tell - all about manichaean duality and the secret history of the world, and usefully enough it’s shining proof that middles are bad things. It’s bad to be in the middle between two extremes, and it’s bad to be the middle book of an idea which had a perfectly good start and might well have an interesting end, but didn’t have any particularly well thought out road to get from one to the other. 

Instead, the surviving characters from The Watchers faff about in Occitania/Paris and Every-small-town-USA, waiting for the good acid to kick in. There’s nothing all that interesting going on. Worse than that, the whole world runs on magic and potions now, so that half the time the impossible is routine and the other half, normality is impossible. Pretty early on, I lost all sense of hazard or even narrative continuity; stuff was going to happen to the characters and then magic would upset my expectations and then something else would happen which wouldn’t have much to do with whatever I was already beginning to forget. Acronyms and military brand names are tossed around in a desperate effort to give gritty reality to what’s happening. What’s really happened is that the gritty, under-provisioned and down-at-heel heroes of the last book have been approximated into an organisation that has the kind of resources that usually only belong to fictional super-villains, and no amount of Guns and the City namedropping is going to do anything to make up for that. There ought to be a word for authors strewing around jargon in an effort to make the incredible credible.

For the rest of it, there’s pointless time travel, because I seem to be tripping over that all the time these days, and there’s an imperilled baby of god, and there’s a cliffhanger ending which just left me wishing the cliff would collapse on everyone, and most importantly of all, there’s no sign of the quality writing which made me buy the first book off the back of the lyrical prologue. 

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Cold in July; Let's see them do The Drive-in

It says awful things about me that as soon as the title card said “East Texas - 1989” I started a mental clock running for the moment when something terrible would happen that could easily be averted in modern times with a ten second call on a cellphone. Hollywood is still wrestling with the way in which its slow production cycle no longer keeps pace with technology; a movie can spend ten years in development hell only to have its plot turned into implausible lunacy by modern convenience. Tragedy’s always depended on poor communications, and scripts go crazy trying to drag communications back to the comparative stone age of a mere decade ago.  Well, not only was I wonderfully wrong about the plot turning on bad communications, but at one point Don Johnson tries to make a phone call on a 1989 cell phone which makes absolutely no difference to anything. It was like the movie had been lying in wait for me.

What really amazed me was that in this year of our lord 2014, someone could actually get the money to make a movie out of a Joe Lansdale book, and then go right ahead and make a movie which was faithful to the baggy weirdness which makes Lansdale so much fun to read. His books meander; the characters encounter problems and ignore them or just plain forget about them because something else has come up. The big bad appears half way through the book and gets hit by a truck, so everyone goes for a drink (this may not actually happen in any of his books, but hell, read them all and try to  find out if I’m wrong; he needs the money and you need the exercise). He’s great fun and completely nuts; the last movie adaptation of a Joe Lansdale thought was Bubba Ho-Tep, which has Elvis, JFK and malevolent mummies. In a 1980s nursing home. Just in case you’re still reading this instead of looking that up on Netflix, it has Bruce Campbell as Elvis.

Oh, good, you’re back. Wasn’t that great? Shouldn’t there be some kind of law that everything else Lansdale has come up with should be made more widely available?

Anyhow. Cold in July is a whole lot less weird than Bubba Ho-Tep, but it’s still a lot weirder than the average noir. It starts out feeling like a really chilly revenge thriller, as Michael C Hall caps a burglar (there’s blood splatter, Dexter fans, you weird creepy people) almost by accident. He’s believably unmoored by the whole experience, which kicks up a gear when the burglar’s hard-ass convict father (Sam Shephard) shows up with revenge on his mind. We get about a half hour of mounting dread, and then the whole thing takes a hard right as Hall realises that the guy he shot doesn’t look anything like the wanted poster for the guy he’s told he shot. And that ought to be taking us into a conspiracy thriller, but before long, there’s another swerve off into a completely different genre as Hall and Shephard team up with Don Johnson to bring down the bad guys that no-one saw coming. One review I read said that Hall, Shephard and Johnson seemed to be in three completely different movies, but for me that’s a lot of the fun; life’s like that. Hall’s impressive as an ordinary guy who’s in over his head but can’t think of how to turn back; Shephard is a taciturn and brooding dead-ender and Johnson’s having the time of his life as a comedy Texas redneck. And together, they fight crime….

It’s much better than I had any right to expect; it dares not to hang together the way ordinary movies do. I hope they now blow the dust off his Hap Collins books and make a TV show out of them. Hap and Leonard would be great, in the absence of my long-faded dreams of a second series of Terriers.

Bonus credit if these guys then make a movie out of The Drive-in, a book which even Lansdale admits is completely insane, what with the hell mouth in a Texas drive-in and a Dome-like premise which makes the Under the Dome seem like Peter Rabbit. The flavour of the whole enterprise is captured in the title to the follow up; The Drive-in: Not Just one of them sequels.