Thursday, 31 December 2015

Charlie Fletcher: The Oversight

The Oversight is a book I wanted to like, while knowing it was essentially corny. This now, I should be clear, is what I was thinking before I started reading it. It’s a book about magical guardians of reality, and there are orphans in peril and novices to be adopted into the brotherhood and ominous backstory, and gaslight and such as. I am a sucker for anything which mixes gaslight and magic, because Tim Powers did it so well and I keep hoping someone else can do it too. And also because magic has been stuck in the middle ages for far too long.

So The Oversight has been sitting in the queue for a while because I liked the idea in principle, but I was worried that it might misfire in practice, and there were all kinds of other books I felt like reading first. Many of which turned out to be terrible, but the thing about reading something which you know is terrible is that, yes, you’ve wasted your time, but at least you’re not grappling with disappointment as well.

The Oversight is not a disappointing book. It’s not as well written as it thinks it is (when you can tell that a book thinks it’s well-written, it’s still got some learning to do; as Elmore Leonard said, discard anything which feels like writing), but it’s well written by the standards of the genre. And the set-up is exactly as corny as I thought it would be; there’s a magical police force down on its uppers, hemmed about on all sides by the bad guys. There’s a circus. There are children - well, teenagers - in peril. There are magical archetypes and supporting characters so broad you’d think the pages would bulge.

And it all works anyway. The main characters make sense, and I wanted to know what was going to happen to them. And Fletcher managed to maintain a creepy tension throughout the book, putting his cast into peril and keeping them there until I was dreading the next chapter. He’s written a book which gives you the feeling that no-one is safe, and that getting killed could be the least of your worries. 

Perhaps most importantly, given that this is going to be a trilogy, there’s a good mix of cliff hanger and back story on display. The book ends with a good chunk of the cast still in play, and many of them in well over their heads. The “let’s tell the newbie how the world works.” element of the backstory isn’t too heavy handed, and better yet, there’s a good excuse for it. It’s one of the better approaches I’ve seen to the usual “hero who knows nothing saves the world” trope, and it feels thought out rather than just the usual narrative convenience of using the protagonist as a way to explain the world.

All in all, it’s solid stuff. The sequel’s out, but if I come at the rest of the trilogy at the same speed I’ve used up to now, I’ll be reading the last two books in one big lump sometime late next year.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Neal Stephenson: Seveneves

It was only when I got Seveneves as a Christmas present that I realised I hadn’t blogged it when I read it back in May. Which was weird, because I had opinions about it, and it’s not like me to keep an opinion to myself.

The big obvious opinion to have about Seveneves is that it’s either two books which should have been one, or one book which should have been two, depending on how you feel about Neal Stephenson’s chronic digression problem. There’s one book about the disastrous attempt to preserve humanity after the moon blows up, and there’s a second book about the world long after the almost total failure of the attempt. Cramming them both into the same volume doesn’t do either of them any favours. I don’t know if it was down to Stephenson getting fed up with the project or the publishers saying “For God’s sake, just give us something we can print, whatever the size.” but Seveneves feels rushed to print. And what I said about two books - there could just as easily have been three, since a lot of the second half of the book is tied up in explanations of all the stuff which happened in the big gap between the climax of the first half and the events of the second.

Seveneves is, then, one of those books which has something to annoy everyone. If you like it, there’s not enough of what you’ll like. If you don’t like it, there’s way more of it than you’ll want. Being a guy who owns everything Stephenson has published under his own name, I’m in the first group. I’m not sure how many people are in the second group, since Stephenson’s been getting length wrong since Snow Crash made him another of those writers who can write whatever the hell he wants to and still get published. By now, I think SF readers have made their minds up about whether they want to risk his next book or not.

For them as take the risk, it’s Stephenson in typical form, chucking out ideas in all directions and only running with half of them. Because most of the book is the end of the world, there’s an awful lot of stuff in there which feels like it’s been ripped from bad movies and only marginally polished. Some of those bits wind up having a pay-off in the book’s overall endgame. One part of me says they would have been better left as a homage to doomed best pals in apocalypse movies, and another part says that the pay-off is interesting without having been thought out enough or explained properly - which brings me back to the general theme of this post; either don’t do it, or do it properly, but don’t half-ass it this way.

Still, what do I know? It did not occur to me that the title of the book had any real meaning at all until the chapter where the title is paid off in such literal terms that I sat there feeling as though a piece of the moon had hit me on the actual head.

The Force Awakens; Humans are the worst

The Force Awakens is a sincere effort to recapture the excitement of the original Star Wars trilogy; it’s resolutely grubby, small scale and human, just like the originals. JJ Abrams seems to have spent the last few years brooding over the millions of voices which cried out as one that Phantom Menace and the rest of them had way too much CGI and way too much talky nonsense about high level politics. So he’s gone practical as much as he can, and there’s no galactic parliament to drag things shrieking to a halt every few minutes. And - so far - there’s no Jar Jar Binks, though I won’t relax until Abrams tells us all exactly what the JJ in his name really stands for.

And yet. If you’ve seen the originals, The Force Awakens is going to feel familiar in some bad ways too. There’s a super-weapon in the shape of a sphere. It blows up a peaceful planet or two, and then the good guys have to blow it up in the nick of time before it gets used to blow up the rebel base. And to do that, they have to attack a thermal exhaust port. Which is protected by a shield which a plucky ground expedition has to nobble first. And along the way, an old wise mentor gets chopped up by an evil Jedi and chucked off a bridge. And there’s a confrontation between a father and a son. And a desert planet with an economy which doesn’t make a lick of sense and horrible traders taking advantage of people. And an orphan who doesn’t know who her parents really are. And a cantina full of aliens and jazz bands. Yes, we liked the originals. But they’re on DVD and Blu Ray. We could just watch them again. We wanted something new that felt the same way, not a movie which at times feels as though it was scripted by taking all the fun action bits from the first three movies and putting them in a slightly different order.

And yet. If you can watch the X-wings coming to the rescue at wavetop height and not feel a little shiver of joy, there’s something dead in you. The Force Awakens works as a movie, and works as a Star Wars movie. Which is to say that it’s held together by outrageous coincidence and a magnificent disregard for the laws of physics; the interwebs will pass off the coincidence as the Force in action, and spend the next two years concocting ever more elaborate explanations for how Finn and company can see a star system light years away getting exploded within seconds of us watching the weapon being fired at the same target. It can be this generation’s Kessel run.

Which brings us to scene-stealer-in-chief Han Solo, still effortlessly the most magnetic thing in the Star Wars universe. I don’t know if it’s just Harrison Ford’s own talent, or the fact that Han Solo as a character has never had the weight of destiny hanging off him; Han just makes sense as a space adventurer. Whenever he’s on screen, the nonsense around him becomes magically more plausible. He’s the personification of the simple SF principle that weirdness becomes believable if someone normal acts as though he’s seen it all before. The younger cast are doing their best, but the whole point of the movie is that everything’s coming as a shock to them, so as hard as Boyega, Ridley and Isaac work, they can’t beat the world-weariness which only a seventy year old who never even liked the movies can bring to the game.

Now, about the Dark Side. Which is, unsurprisingly, back. And not making any more sense than it has up to now. There’s a scene in the middle of the movie where Domhnall Gleeson is firing up the troops with a speech before firing up the super weapon. When I wasn’t trying to see if a toothbrush moustache was emerging mysteriously from his frothing upper lip, I was brooding on the Dark Side’s business model, which seems to be strong on super weapons and vast faceless armies and light on anything which resembles a purpose to all the badness. The First Order seems to be in business to be evil, just for the sake of being evil. I don’t have a problem believing that, but where’s their marketing department? No matter how objectively wicked any operation has ever been in human history, there’s always been a comforting narrative from the people in charge about the purity of their motives and the benefits for the foot-soldiers. As I’ve said before, Bwa-Ha-Ha is not a mission statement.

Brooding on that one, it suddenly hit me that in the Star Wars universe, humans are the bad guys. The Empire, and now the First Order, are exclusively staffed by humans. The Resistance is a raggle taggle mixture of dozens of races, all working together to stop the baddies; the baddies are a mono-culture of faceless humanoids massacring all before them. There’s the occasional alien hire here and there, and the First Order even has some non-Aryan employees in subordinate positions, but for the most part, as long as there’s been a Dark Side and a bunch of maniacs to push its message, it’s been all humans, all the time.

Now the Dark Side starts to make sense; it’s the same old Dark Side which has brought us the wonders of our own history, from the Roman Empire to the Mongol Hordes to Manifest Destiny and everything in between. Schwack them other dudes which is not like us, take their stuff and keep their land. Pretty sure that JJ and the guys never even noticed that one as they tried to figure out what comes next.

There’s two ways to look at that. One is to think of The Force Awakens as a re-imagining of A New Hope, which would mean that whatever we get next will have the vibe of The Empire Strikes Back, which is probably the best - and most low-key - of all the Star Wars movies to date. The other is to think of The Force Awakens as a brisk recycling of all the good stuff from the original three movies, freeing up the second movie to be a recycling of the prequels….

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Sisters; what people are going to see when they can't get Star Wars tickets

It should go without saying that Sisters passes the Bechdel test, but somehow I couldn’t get it out of my mind that it has passed the test without making me feel all that appreciative for it. I think I shall stop talking about it. The big mystery of Sisters is the sisters. They’re both terrible in their own unique and contradictory ways, and then we meet their parents, and the questions start. How the heck did these calm level headed people wind up with these kids? It’s not genetics (Hollywood has trained us not even to care whether everyone in the family has consistent eye colours or even look vaguely like each other), it’s simple nurture. Kids learn how to be adults by watching the adults in their lives. How could Katie and Maura have learned how to be such complete idiots from watching their parents? Also, related question, when was the last time I saw Dianne Wiest playing anything other than the jaded mother of children refusing to grow up?

Sisters is a fun movie, though it’s probably worrying that my favourite moments in a “women’s movie” involved John Cena being impassive and macho. Cena isn’t an actor, but he’s weirdly perfect in this as the epitome of pointless manliness. He’s also pretty much the only person in the movie who hits conventional Hollywood standards for physical perfection; the rest of the case are believably battered looking middle aged people - mostly ringers from the dozens of comedy shows which owe Tina Fey and Amy Poehler varying levels of favours.

And in a slapdash occasionally misfiring way, it’s a pretty good comedy. It’s just that it’s dumb and lazy and I’d never thought of Fey or Poehler as dumb and lazy. They’re smart and sharp, and it’s a waste to make them play idiots. More than that, it’s a waste not to have them play their women for depth. These are performers smart enough to play sisters with problems and get us thinking. Instead they go to the well of dumb plumbed by every Hollywood comedy desperate for ideas, and have a big party. Which gets out of control and nukes everything in sight. This is the comedy equivalent of having a guy enter the scene with a gun, every five minutes.

Which led me into feeling old; not just the sheer number of movies I’ve seen, or chosen not to see, where the centrepiece is a party going wrong, but the way I felt about the party at all. The girls spent a boatload of money they don’t really have on buying party supplies, and then the party trashes the house which is not just the centre of their family’s past, but the centrepiece of the family’s plans to finance its own future. And I just felt myself cringing through every minute of it, getting more and more depressed at the size of the financial hole they were digging. This was not the party mood they were trying to build, I felt. Yet there I was.

Anyhow, it’s going to make a whole boat load of money from the people who showed up at the multiplex without booking Star Wars tickets in advance, so everyone is going to be fine, and will hopefully use the money to make something smart the next time.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Simon Toyne: Solomon Creed

I think there’s a publisher’s pipe dream that someone is going to bring them the next Jack Reacher, since at any given time only one publisher can possibly be making money from Lee Child, and to a certain kind of mind it doesn’t seem fair that only one corporate behemoth is hoovering all the spare change out of the sofa cushions. We’re living in a weird golden era for teenage fantasy fiction for much the same reason; in the mad hope that they might find the next JK Rowling, publishers are green-lighting all kinds of things. Whatever else you might think about Harry Potter, he’s been the catalyst for all kinds of objectively better books getting the light of day. And, of course, even more objectively terrible ones. An infinite number of monkeys might get you Shakespeare, but it’s definitely going to get you a lot of not-Shakespeare.

So publishers are looking for a new sequence of novels about a mysterious loner who shows up and rights wrongs before heading off into the sunset, and Simon Toyne’s getting the benefit of the doubt as the publicity machine swings in behind Solomon Creed. So, which boxes get ticked?

Loner? Yup.

Mysterious back-story? What could be more mysterious than NO backstory?

Small town in the middle of nowhere menaced by something complicated? Yup.

Ass-kickings and beat-downs a go-go? Not so much.

Toyne’s one of yer actual writer writers, and so there’s characters, and prose which if not purple is definitely kind of mauve round the edges. It’s not exactly overwritten, but there are flourishes and figures of speech where Child would have used a couple of verbs and a grudging adjective. In fact Toyne’s a better stylist than Child, and he’s genuinely making an effort to put characters on the page and give them plenty to do. He’s doing so much of that that Solomon Creed his own magical amnesiac albino self hardly gets a look in; most of the heavy lifting is done by the locals, while Creed stands around watching and looking mysterious. Which is kind of inefficient, given that the locals are not in this for the long haul; they’re mostly not going to be around for the climax, let alone the sequel. Toyne isn’t really investing his talent in the future of the sequence.

It’s a weird read. On the one hand, Toyne throws a couple of good anti-heroes onto the page, and at least one of them has a solid story, with plausible motivation and a very believable reaction to what’s going on around him. I’d have been happy enough to read a whole book just about Mulcahy; he’s broken and compromised, but resourceful and wishing he could be decent. His villains; not so good. One-dimensional Mexican psychos who don’t make any sense as anything other than Hollywood meanies.

Which leads me into the big problem. This is a mystical albino Jack Reacher, so there has to be a big corrupt problem for him to overcome (and a damsel in some kind of distress). And the big corrupt problem is just stupid. It’s stupid in the round, and it’s stupid in the details. And it’s stupid in a very Hollywood way. Evil Mexican drug kingpin swears revenge on banally wicked Arizona township because he’s the kind of loon who feeds his reputation by horribly killing anyone even in the neighborhood of something which inconveniences him. The front half of the book is full of a creepy squirrelly low-rent menace. What makes it work is not that the kingpin is doing anything horrible yet, but that the corrupt leaders of the town are getting their panic in early, casting around for a sacrifice to throw him when he comes looking for tribute. That’s nasty and believable. Then we get to the wrap up, and it’s an overly complicated sting that makes The Usual Suspects look straightforward. Which just sweeps away all the grubby credibility of the set-up. And the detail of it is annoying, full of last minute Scooby-Doo switches, as the bad guys change sides for no other reason than because it’s a twist on what seemed to be happening a moment ago. Jeffrey Deaver used to be able to do this kind of thing and make it work; Toyne just can’t. Every single twist is the kind of thing which leaves the reader thinking “Well, if you were out to get him all along, why not just shoot him last week? What was the point of waiting til now and sweeping your mask off?"

The book ends with everything tied up in a bow, a little bit of backstory for Solomon Creed and the set up for the inevitable sequel, but it’s hard to think that Jack Reacher’s got anything to be scared of.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Bridge of Spies: Back to the past

Bridge of Spies is a wonderful demonstration that some people are just surefooted, no matter what they do. Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks just made a two and a half hour movie of middle aged white guys talking. White guys talking about a minor historical event whose outcome is wellknown to just about anyone who’s going to pay to see a movie about it. Anyone interested in the period knows that Abel was swapped for Gary Powers. Anyone not interested is going to skip the movie anyhow. 

It’s just a really solid piece of story telling. If everyone knows how it’s going to end and there’s no real suspense, the only thing which is going to keep people watching is good detail and a good cast. The secret weapon is probably Mark Rylance. Tom Hanks is so consistently reliable these days that it’s almost like he’s not acting any more, just showing up and being an utterly believable nice guy. Hanks is in pretty much every scene, and he’s as solid as he always is, a slighty stubbier and heavier James Stewart for our flakier times. Hanks pretty much drags every movie back in time just by showing up. So it’s all kinds of fun to watch Rylance steal every scene they have together. Rylance underplays every moment, never raising his voice or showing any sign of excitement. It’s a wonderful piece of characterisation; without ever spelling anything out in exposition, Rylance shows us a man who’s endured so much that he’s become utterly unflappable. Again and again, Hanks asks him if he’s worried about some aspect of his plight, and Abel comes back with a simple catchphrase “Would that help?” Poor Tom’s Jim Donovan starts to look more and more oblivious, for all his guile in negotiation.

Above all, it’s an example of one of the great truths of entertainment; if you tell a story well, people don’t care if they’ve heard it before. Tom Hanks is always worth watching, even though he’s never really doing anything surprising. Just as Dr Johnson said that it’s worth watching a bear dance not because it does it well, but simply that it does it at all, there are actors out there who do the same thing again and again in such a charming way that it’s always a pleasure to see it one more time. It helps - as here - when they’re surrounded by other people to play against, but it’s always worth your time.

Of course, it’s Spielberg, so in and among the great human direction there are attempts to grab your attention; he keeps cutting from a character doing something to a different character doing something which seems like a continuation of the same thing, but is completely different - so in one moment, you’re watching Gary Powers being shown all the things in his escape kit, and then the camera pans and suddenly we’re among the evidence of Abel’s spying kit. Most jarringly, Hanks has a moment when his S-bahn train rattles over the Berlin Wall and he witnesses people being gunned down as they try to cross. Later, he’s back in Brooklyn and for another commuter train he watches kids jumping over fences in backyards. It’s heavy handed as hell, not least because the chances of his character even being anywhere in Berlin during a shooting at the Wall were close to zero; there are only a dozen confirmed deaths in the first year, which is explicitly when the film is set; they play pretty fast and loose with the Wall, which went up overnight in August, not in the depths of winter, but Spielberg never saw a symbol he wouldn’t squeeze till it cracked.

Afterwards, I found myself wondering whether Spielberg was even thinking about parallels with today; the Cold War is expressly described as a conflict of two cultures convinced that they’re at risk of imminent destruction at the hands of the other culture. Hanks gets a bunch of speeches where he explains that if American wants to win this war, it has to show itself to be better and more decent than its foes. The depiction of both sides is nuanced; while the US comes out looking better than the Soviet side, there’s an edge of cynicism and amorality to much of the US establishment, while the main Soviet negotiator is a perfect foil for Hanks, another good natured guy making the best of a tricky job where he knows he can’t quite tell the truth but that he can’t get away with a lie either. I couldn’t decide whether this was nostalgia for a shadowy war which now looks better compared to today’s shadowy war, or a quiet call to conduct the new wars more decently. It’s probably too much to hope that anyone in power is going to see that angle.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Black Mass: I miss Captain Jack

Johnny Depp has done terrible things, such as Mortdecai and The Lone Ranger, but I don’t think I’ve ever watched him in a movie about actual terrible things. It was educational, if nothing else. Depp is utterly convincing as Whitey Bulger, or at least so utterly awful that you can’t quite take your eyes off him. I didn’t know he could do horrible, and for a while I was sitting there feeling quietly impressed. The reviews have been very positive, since for the first time in ages Johnny Depp isn’t playing a fey man-child made out of whimsy. Finally, a great actor was giving a performance which showed what he was capable of; finally he was setting himself a challenge.

Well, maybe. Because in his own way, his Whitey Bulger is just as much of a cartoon as Cap’n Jack Sparrow. It slowly sank in that if Johnny Depp really wants to show some range, he needs to play an ordinary doofus, something which he hasn’t tried since Donnie Brasco. Which I never saw, though I did see Nick of Time, made the same year and probably the last time that Depp tried to play a role completely straight. It’s just been one long parade of weirdos ever since, and in some ways, Whitey is business as usual. All the feyness and whimsy has been replaced by pure ferocity, but bouncing from extreme to another is not quite the same thing as creating a real character. 

And the ferocity is unrelenting. There is a moment in the middle of the movie where Bulger swings from apparent good humour to menace and back to apparent good humour, and Depp is scarily convincing as a man who is never NOT a complete asshole, even when he thinks he’s using humour to make his point. The problem is trying to relate that performance to anything which might work in the real world. Bulger is mean and scary, but he’s living in a world where people can have their lives snuffed out in an instant for almost no reason, and it’s hard to see how he got through twenty years without being murdered by someone who just couldn’t put up with his crap any more. He’s believable as someone who was feared, but he’s not believable as anyone’s friend. In the second act of the movie, he has a girlfriend, and a son. He loses them both, in different ways, and that’s supposed to be part of how Bulger becomes ever more dangerous, how the last of his humanity is stripped away. Instead I found myself struggling to understand how he had a girlfriend. 

What’s missing from the performance is any sense of charm. For Depp, suppressing his charm must have required superhuman effort; as an actor, and from what I can see even as a person, he’s ridiculously charming no matter what he’s doing. And Bulger was an objectively terrible person; for a man like Depp, it must have seemed almost wrong to make such a monster charming, to give such a monster any part of Depp which was genuinely Depp himself. But Bulger in real life must have been charming even if only on the surface. You can’t survive on fear alone in a world like that. You gotta have friends, even if it’s only so that you can take them by surprise. So that curiously one note performance is impressive, but fundamentally wrong. After a while I wanted to see what Daniel Day Lewis would have done with it.

Other thoughts; well, man, thank goodness we don’t live in the 80s any more. The hair. The suits. The hair. And the sunglasses. The dentistry. There’s a squicky moment when Bulger chokes out a rat, and then tells his henchmen to knock his teeth out, presumably to prevent the body from being identified. And I said to John “Has he even looked at anyone’s teeth in this movie? None of them HAVE dental records to check."

And talking about rats … You could, quite literally, kill yourself if you took a shot every time someone tells you that they’re not a rat or that they hate rats, or that rats deserved to be killed, or that they’re going to have to kill someone in case they rat out. Honour is apparently everything to all of these guys, every last one of whom is ratting on someone before the movie is over, if they haven’t already started ratting before the movie even started. I guess it’s that old story that the thing which annoys us most is other people with our own faults.

It’s a well made movie, with a pretty good script, and solid performances built around Depp’s weird one note smoulder, but it’s two hours spent in the company of awful people getting deeper and deeper into the muck. Afterwards I was reading IMDB and kept seeing that they cut whole scenes, plots and characters - an hour or more of material - for “pacing”. It’s not pacing. It’s the simple human truth that you can only spend so much time hearing horrible people tell a joke before you need to go and get a drink.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Veronica Mars, the movie

Because we’re in the middle of Hunger Games induced famine of quality movies, this was the week I finally watched the Veronica Mars movie. Which, realistically, is probably best watched on a TV anyhow, since there’s only so much you can do with the kind of money you get off even the world’s biggest ever Kickstarter campaign. The world’s biggest Kickstarter raises enough to pay for the donuts on a Michael Bay movie, or about two and a half TV episodes worth of wisecracking. 

It ain’t bad, actually. It’s not as indispensable as the original TV show, and it’s not as good as the cancelled fourth season would have been, but it’s not bad as a hangout at the class reunion with a slice of the people we last saw seven years ago. Some of whom I haven’t seen in anything else, come to think of it. The thing which impressed me the most was not the endless in-jokes and shout-outs to the original, but the effective deployment of their tiny shock budget. They had very little money for stunts and action, and so they made it count; every moment of action comes a sudden shock, and hits a character when we least expect it and when we’ve had time to get to know the character so that there’s a real impact.

For the rest, it’s a nice capper on a great show. Like all well loved shows, it’s been dogged ever since with sequel rumours, and the closing scene is cleverly written to double as a sequel hook and a satisfactory open ending; Veronica is back in Neptune, looking ahead to trying to clean up town. Sure it would be great to get that as a TV show, but it’s just as good for us to imagine what it might be like. And anyhow, if I get to bring anything back from the dead, it’s still Terriers.

Dave Hutchinson: Europe at Midnight

Welcome back, Dave Hutchinson, with a strong contender for my favourite book of the year. When I nattered about Europe in Autumn I looked forward to the possibility of another book one of these days; and here, about a year and a half later, there’s a follow up which is even better; all the beautiful writing of the first book combined with the clear focus that it didn’t find till half way through. Delightfully, Rudi is back, but right at the end, in a little coda which almost cries out for “and together, they fight crime!” 

So, we’re back in Europe, fractured as ever, but now we’re poking around things which were only hinted at in the first book. Europe at Midnight tackles head on the force which was round the edges of Europe in Autumn; the Community. Hidden just out of the corner of your vision, the Community is tucked into Europe without being part of it. One part English folly, one part Orwellian creep-fest, one part SF superstate, the Community is bad news delivered in such a hushed and urbane voice that you’re dead before you’ve figured out you should have been worried.

Hutchinson is a writer who’s prepared to let a story take its time; the action of the book unfolds over fifteen years, or seven years depending on where you happen to be standing, and the characters age and feel the weight of time as they wait for the truth to emerge. It’s a long espionage con, so convoluted that Rupert almost steps out of the narrative to wonder if he could pull off one last con so that all the people trying to manipulate him could form a perfect circle with him in the middle. Hutchinson maintains a perfect balance, telling us no more than we need to know to follow the story, and always putting the telling into the kind of conversations and reflections which seem natural to the characters. We all know, from moment to moment, why the world is the way it is; when we talk to our friends, we don’t need to stop and say “And of course Putin, the leader of Russia, is a former KGB officer as well as a genuinely worrying head case” or “This is my iPhone, with which I can not only make phone calls, but check the bus timetable.” And people in imaginary worlds shouldn’t be any different; in Hutchinson’s sideways Europe, people explain things which are genuinely startling to them, and otherwise get on with their complicated lives.

Above all, it’s a wonderfully well written book; I rushed through it in a couple of days, wanting to know what was going to happen next while still wanting to go more slowly so that I could enjoy it for longer. Hutchinson may not have felt the same way, because the ending is still a little rushed compared to the set up. And if I wanted to quibble a little more, it’s a hard Europe for women; Hutchinson has comparatively few good female characters, and the two best drawn ones are written out so abruptly that I was sitting there going, “Hey, no. I wanted more of her.” Then again, I think of all the times I’ve read books and wouldn’t have minded never seeing anyone in them again. And you never know. Rudi came back.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Wesley Chu: Time Salvager

Spoiler alert. This book isn’t very good. It wasn’t quite bad enough for me to stop reading it before the end, but I spent pretty much the whole time I was reading it wishing I was doing something else and thinking of all the things I might be reading instead. I read it because I’d seen somewhere on the internet that they were going to make it into a TV show, and that gave me an unfounded hope that it might be a decent book.

It’s not, though I can see how it could be made into passable TV. It’s got a tortured hero, a big background problem and a whole bunch of bitty missions which could give each episode a centre. And presumably, if they re-did it for TV, it wouldn’t keep Chu’s dialogue and exposition. As a book, all Time Salvager’s got going for it is that there’s an idea in the middle of it. It’s not a fun idea, but it’s an idea. To make the idea run, there needs to be a plot, which there is, kind of, and characters, which there are, kind of. And to make me care about the plot, or the characters, there has to be writing I can read without wincing, and the narrative has to hang together and pace right. 

The idea is, like most SF ideas, suitably big and clunky. It’s the far future, and the solar system is collapsing from resource depletion, human stupidity and corporate greed, although I may have mixed up the order in which those things cause each other. The fix is to send people back in time to salvage resources which were going to be lost anyhow to some kind of catastrophe. If you want to read that book, read John Varley’s excellent short story Air Raid, or the novel (Millennium) he got out of the disastrous attempt to make the short story into a movie. Either one is shorter, more exciting and heaps better written than Time Salvager. 

One of the places Time Salvager goes wrong is that it doesn’t spend enough time salvaging things. The whole notion of salvaging junk from the past is a cool one; since everything has to be grabbed from a cataclysm which would otherwise destroy it, every mission is a potential thrill ride. Which is why it could make a perfectly good TV show. Chu shows us just enough salvages to get the point across, and then bogs down the book in a vast corporate conspiracy narrative ripped out of late period Michael Crichton. By accident, our time salvager rescues the one person who might save the whole world from the plague which has destroyed it. But sinister corporate forces want her for their own evil purposes and they may even have been the ones who set the destruction in train centuries before. As I trudged towards the end of the book and realised that all it was going to do was set up the questions, it dawned on me that Chu hadn’t done anything to make me interested in the answers which may or may not pop up in whatever number of books it takes him to get this all out of his system.

Because the characters don’t interest me. There’s an exercise that writing courses encourage you to do, in which you write a description of the character and his or her history. You’re not supposed to put that description into the book - it’s just there to anchor you when you write about the things which a person with those traits and history would do. Whenever Chu’s characters stop to think or consider what they’re going to do next, it reads just like he copied and pasted the character description into the text. 

It’s not the end of the world; famously most SF doesn’t even try that hard to make characters work. It usually muscles along on plot and occasional bursts of smartassery. Chu doesn’t do good smartass. I’ve complained in the past that characters in books all seem to be sharing the same sarky voice, but this book’s characters are sharing the same monotone; the one exception is a character practically written to be a TV fey sidekick, who has a vocal tic of calling everyone pet.

And then there’s the tech. Which might as well be magic. All the future types run around using magic bangles which can do all sorts of things; travel through time, store huge objects in parallel dimensions, punch people at a distance, act as radios, you name it. How? never explained. It works when the plot needs it to, it doesn’t work when the plot needs it not to, and it just makes no sense at all. Meanwhile the earth is turned into a big ball of brown crud because of a mysterious viral "Earth Plague” which apparently turns everything into mud and can’t be stopped - or even noticed until a plucky biologist coincidentally notices that it looks just like the disease she was trying to cure five hundred years ago. The Earth Plague might actually be more scientifically stupid than the zombie virus in Outpost, and that’s saying something. It’s not that I’m not prepared to believe in a virus which could somehow turn everything into mulch no matter what its species, or indeed composition, it’s that I’m not prepared to believe it could do that without anyone noticing it.

Finally, time travel. Time travel can be done well; go read Connie Willis to watch a truly gifted writer navigate the paradoxes and use them to devastating effect. The problem with writing about time travel is the same as the problem with writing about magic; it’s potentially capable of solving any problem in a single move, so you’ve got to hedge it around with rules if you’re going to have any sense of challenge in the story. Chu starts his book with a whole set of Laws of Time Travel, never really tells us what they are, and half way through the book the characters admit that they’re made up and no-one knows what the laws of time travel are, other than that apparently it’s physically debilitating to travel in time and you can’t go to the same place twice. Other than that, everyone seems obsessed with preserving the integrity of the timeline, which would make a lot more sense if the future was a happy fun place built on centuries of wonderful progress. Since the future’s a dying dump built on centuries of war, famine and holocaust, you’d think that someone would have hit the reset button the minute they figured out where it was. That’s such an obvious move for the unprincipled rulers of Chu’s future dystopia that it jars constantly that there’s no apparent reason for them not to have made it. The Chronocom agency is effectively under the control of a bunch of corporate asshats who’d skin their mothers for a nickel, and yet somehow not one of them has made the obvious move of distorting the past so that their competitors all fall into the sun. Presumably the later books are going to explain just why that hasn’t happened, but somehow I think I can let all that happen without any further attention from me.

Thursday, 19 November 2015


I’m glad I finally saw Snowpiercer but it isn’t any good. I remember watching the trailers, and thinking that it looked like it might be amazing. Good cast, and the director, Bong Joon-Ho, had impressed me with The Host back in 2006. And then the movie just disappeared. It wasn’t released at all in Ireland, and by all accounts it was pulled from nearly every market or just not released. Hmmmph, I thought, and waited it for to come out on video. I’ve yet to see a copy in any shop in Ireland, and for the longest time the only copies you could buy on line were subtitled in Italian or had other weird features. And I started to see stories that Bong had had a huge falling out with Harvey Weinstein, who had taken the kind of revenge which only a millionaire producer can take or afford to take; he’d made sure that no-one would ever see the movie in theatres or even on video. That Harvey Weinstein, what a tool.

He might have had a point. Snowpiercer is a bit of a mess. The concept is ridiculously high; the whole world has been frozen solid after global warming mitigation goes massively wrong, and now the only people left alive are stuck on a vast train circling the globe. On the one hand, the train is a tubular dystopia, and on the other hand, there’s no very obvious reason for it to need to keep on moving. The whole word’s an ice cube, so it’s not like moving around it is going to help, and on the other hand, if you’ve got a power source that can move that much train forever, you’ve got a power source which would warm up a huge amount of space if it didn’t have to waste all its energy moving everything pointlessly round the world. As near as I can tell, the train is moving because that’s well cool, and the hand wave is that the guy who owns the train, and by extension the whole of life on earth, is a nutcase who never outgrew playing with trains. Ayn Rand would have loved him.

If you buy the whole “everyone still alive is stuck on a train, and it sucks” concept, the movie’s going to hang together for you pretty well til the half way mark. The way you feel about the rest of it is going to depend heavily on your tolerance for falling out of gritty realism and into the surreal. I said “OK, I see where they spent the 39 million. On drugs."

The film has an almost literal through line; the people at the back of the train live in poverty and squalor and they’re oppressed by heavily armed goons who make sure they keep in their place while the guys at the front of the train live lives of luxury. So the guys at the back revolt, and attack up the length of it, aiming to take over the engine and seize control, and of course get all the good stuff. The back of the train is unrelentingly horrible, and by twenty minutes in, you’re really hoping that the ruling class are going to get Korea’d to bits. They really look like they deserve the worst fates on offer. So the rest of the movie is the attack up the train, moving up from horrible to merely industrial to luxurious and then to positively decadent until a few survivors get to the engine itself and discover that the whole revolt was engineered to cut the population down to a sustainable level, and, oh yes, the engine literally runs on children.

Tilda Swinton is impressively horrible; you want her to die the second she starts talking, and by the time she actually does get schwacked you’re probably going to be disappointed that it didn’t hurt more. John Hurt is great, but unfortunately his character has a post mortem plot twist which makes his whole performance into nonsense. Ed Harris is there playing pretty much the role he played in The Truman Show, except even more jaded. And Chris Evans is the hero, for all the good that does; he’s in a role which could have been played just as well by Keanu Reaves. Set design seems to have cost a fortune, though it wasn’t always spent sensibly; the nice carriages are so insanely colourful and glossy that they feel like a dream sequence and break you right out of the action. And apparently they spent a fortune building a rig which would mimic the sway and movement of train carriages for their sets, but watching it on a TV, you hardly notice it, and thanks to Harvey Weinstein, that’s the only way most people are ever going to see it.

The swerve in the middle is the big problem for it as a movie, but the bigger problem is the story. Snowpiercer is such a heavy handed allegory for the world we live in that it sabotages itself. Everything left alive on earth is stuck on the train, and the poor are given nothing and told that this is the natural order of things and that the rich have earned their luxury and, well, basically all the lies we’ve been hearing from the global ruling class since the end of the Cold War meant they could finally stop pretending to be anything other than greedy. And then we see that even when we think we’re seizing control, we’re still being manipulated by The Man. And then the train derails, and everyone dies because the rich have left the poor with no options other than pulling it all down around their ears. So the movie begins with the end of the world and ends with the end of the world.

I’m glad I finally beat Harvey’s embargo, but I can kind of see where he was coming from.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Mark Greaney; On Target, Ballistic, Dead Eye

Courtland Gentry, in addition to having just the most ridiculous name of all time, is a guy you shouldn’t lend anything to. Also, these books are useless for curing insomnia (I SO hope that’s going to show up on the jacket copy of Greaney’s next book).

I’m about to discuss three dumb books rapidly one after another; if you’re the kind of person who worries about spoilers, you should be worried from here on in. Thrillers are all plot. I’m probably going to talk about that. And probably endings. Also, Snape kills Dumbledore, Rosebud’s a sled, Jack drowns, Kayser Soze is Verbal Kint and Lost doesn’t make any sense no matter how much it tries to. And Mulder never finds his sister.

A couple of weeks back, I read Mark Greaney’s goofy and not quite awful The Gray Man, and found myself thinking that the follow up books might be better because the most obvious thing wrong with the first book was the ridiculousness of the plot. And I was sort of right; the followup books are better, because Greaney goes on doing what was right with the first book, and does a lot less of what was wrong with it. But it’s still a matter of being better as thrillers rather than being any good as books; reading the four of them one after another reminded why I used to read a lot of thrillers and also reminded me why I stopped.

Courtland Gentry continues to be the world’s worst best assassin. His plans are terrible, which would probably matter more if he didn’t keep abandoning them on a whim. He’s the super spy for a disposable age, because he can’t hold onto anything for more than a couple of minutes, either throwing guns away as soon as they’re empty, breaking expensive electronics by falling on them, or just plain dropping things for no good reason; in Dead Eye he has radios, earpieces and night vision goggles just fall off him while he’s running around, as if he’s never even heard of velcro or rubber bands. It’s delightful in its way, but much and all as I love the fallibility, you have to wonder how he got the reputation for getting things done when nothing ever seems to go right for him. I suspect the problem is that Greaney’s trying to challenge him and so stuff has to keep going wrong.

So who’s doing what to whom? In On Target, the Gray Man goes to Sudan, with a pre-credit sequence set in a Dublin which hammers home that Greaney does his research by sitting at home with Google. The DART isn’t just NOT Dublin’s mass transit (it’s actually the same thing that Greaney describes as a train when Gentry uses it to get from Howth to the city centre) - it’s also the dumbest way I can think of to try to lose a possible tail. It’s a suburban train service with a single line and trains every half an hour. The idea that you could lose a tail by hopping on and off it … 

Mind you, once he hops off it, things get diddley-idley with shocking speed. I adored the description of the Padraig Pearse pub as “staunchly Catholic”. It’s a pub in Dublin. Ninety per cent of the population is nominally Catholic, and anyone who wants to be staunchly Catholic goes to church. Not The Church, mind you. That’s a decommissioned Church of Ireland church which got turned into a touristy pub on Henry Street, and is probably the only thing in Dublin which could by any stretch of the imagination be described as a staunchly Protestant pub. Pubs in Dublin be pubs. The only ones which have an identity beyond “pub” are gay bars. I think Greaney may have been trying to say staunchly Republican, which is a whole other different thing. But he may have been frightened of confusing American readers, who’d presumably expect a Republican pub to be full of libertarian rich people. Still, OK, it’s staunchly Catholic. You want that IRA vibe. I get it. Then maybe you might want to hold back from the idea of having your staunchly Catholic IRA schmuck brooding about local rugby teams. Ireland’s got a perfectly good rugby team, but staunchly Catholic IRA guys, as a matter of principle, don’t support Castle games like rugby, brought to Ireland by our colonial occupiers and played to this day largely by the people who miss them most and wish to be just like them.

Why am I giving him a hard time? Because this isn’t rocket surgery. The IRA aren’t an obscure band of goat herders with no published English language literature, and the difference between Dublin and Belfast is the stuff of a million magazine articles. If you can make the time to find out the calibre of a Makarov automatic, you can make the time to find out how people in Ireland talk and what they think about. Or set the book somewhere you actually know. Although in fact Greaney didn’t make the time on the Makarov, pistolet du choix of the Dublin underworld; it’s 9mm Makarov, not .380. Fill a Mak with .380 and it will jam on the first shot. If I know that, the world’s best gunman ought to.

Mercifully, before long we’re out of Dublin and into Sudan, where Greaney’s probably just as wrong, but at least he’s not jarring against my personal experience, if only because I had flu the week I was supposed to go to Sudan. And the action bangs around from Darfur to the Red Sea coast with everything going wrong, and a whole low budget Black Hawk Down experience as the climax. Gentry’s in a whole complicated mess over whether he’s going to kill the President of Sudan to oblige the Russians and make money, or kidnap and hand him over to the Hague to make his old CIA handlers rehabilitate him. He makes a complete bags of about three different plans, all while everyone explains how deadly and efficient he is. The through line Greaney seems to be aiming for is that Gentry just wants to be a nice guy and whenever he gives in to the impulse, everything goes wrong.

All of which puts Gentry on the run for Ballistic, where the cold open is somewhere in the Amazonian rain forest. I’ve got literally no idea if there’s work to be found cutting up underwater shipwrecks on the Amazon with an acetylene torch, and I doubt that Greaney even checked; he just wanted a well cool opening moment and made it up the way God intended. Running away from the way that goes wrong punts Gentry into Central America and then into a weird revenge fuelled jihad against the Mexican drug cartels. By the time that’s all over, Gentry’s killed dozens of people, lost even more weapons, and had a brief dose of romance which goes so well that Greaney has to resolve it by having the girl decide out of the blue to enter a convent, possibly the first time that’s happened in a novel since the death of Victor Hugo. But at least Gentry gets some new enemies out of the whole experience, so there’s that.

Dead Eye picks up a little later, as Gentry tries to solve one of his deal-with-the-devil problems by dealing with yet another devil to off the most pressing of the other devils. This all goes as wonderfully well as all his other cunning plans, inasmuch as a whole bunch of people get dead, but killing them makes such a noise that it attracts a whole bunch of other enemies to kill Gentry. The rest of the action unrolls around the Baltic, Belgium and Germany as Gentry gets embroiled in a plot to kill the Prime Minister of Israel. Unsurprisingly for the genre, the Israeli secret service are just about the only bunch of non-Gentry employees around the place who aren’t depicted as a bunch of amoral goons. This is an abiding quirk of US thrillers, who seem relaxed about making the various arms of US Homeland Security the villains of the piece, but always fight shy of saying anything nasty about Mossad, who I can only assume have the world’s meanest book club. A whole bunch more people get killed, but Gentry comes out of it with fractionally fewer enemies than any previous book and even a possible friend, which is a first for the poor misunderstood lamb.

Well, some more general points. I don’t know if Gentry is supposed to be anything more than a convenient somewhat-relatable hatstand on which Greaney can hang the kind of stunts and shootouts which will make a movie deal. It might not be any more complicated than that. Greaney likes his action sequences. But he keeps throwing shapes about making Gentry more than a stunt-holder, and I’m not sure what the real game might be. Gentry is kind of an arse. He’s got dismissive, contemptuous opinions about all kinds of people who I’d naturally side with, like the staff of the International Criminal Court. He’s terrible at one-liners, which is an unforgivable sin in a movie hero. But he’s an arse who’s increasingly aware of being an arse, and he’s more and more fed up with the mess his life has turned into. This isn’t some dark reimagining of the A-Team, where if you’re a scumbag with a load of money and an even more horrible enemy, there just might be someone you can call to take that money and that problem off your hands, all noble like. There’s an overarching plot to all of this stuff too, so that the books feel more like episodes in a long form TV show. And I continue to approve of the way that things go wrong and have consequences, even when it’s all a bit ridiculous if you test it against any normal standard of gritty realism.

So, is there a deeper game? Is Gentry a meditation on the price America pays for fighting the war on terror the way it’s decided to? He’s a sociopath, groomed to kill by shadowy money men, forever getting into trouble and wasting time and equipment and lives only to make everything worse and have more and more people hate him the more he tries to play enemies off against each other. I mean, I can read it that way, but did Greaney write it with that in his mind, behind all the well cool weapons and fashionable fetishism for “the operators” which has built up in the last decade. Somehow, I doubt it. I’m just over thinking it.

And in other - decidedly spoilers news, in the fourth book Greaney blows something which I’d hoped was going to be an eternal running gag. People kept asking Gentry if he was the guy who did the Kiev thing, and I loved the way he never said anything about it; Gentry never admitted one way or the other, and no-one else ever explained what they were talking about. Then in the fourth book, the whole cat comes out of the bag, and that’s such a shame.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Last Witch Hunter; You Know Nothing, Vin Diesel

I’d kind of forgotten that Vin Diesel can’t act. He’s a charming, gruff, improbable presence in thrillers full of non-actors, so I don’t usually think of him as an actor, let alone weigh up his ability to act. Mostly I think of him as a D&D player bucking every assumption people make about D&D players; he’s not a skinny nerd, he’s not an overweight nerd, he’s not hyper verbal, he’s not living in his mom’s basement, yada yada yada. Then along comes The Last Witch Hunter and I remember that the abiding characteristic of D&D players is that they’re making up an incoherent story set in a fantasy world and trying to bring their characters to life when they’ve no real acting skills. Now, suddenly, Vin looks like the D&D player after all.

And for once, he’s the guy to blame; reportedly he even based his character in the movie on one of his old D&D characters. Which is actually way more thought than any of mine ever got; as with most D&D players, my characters had job descriptions. Even names were pretty much an afterthought. Kaulder’s got a backstory and everything. Tragically, he’s surrounded by people who can act, including one who was in a fantasy franchise that could crush The Last Witch Hunter by just rolling over in its sleep; yup, that’s Frodo getting third billing, with Elijah Wood looking more than usually malnourished and fey. Spoiler alert; anyone actually surprised by his fourth act betrayal has been living under a rock; when a character starts out dressed like a priest and for literally no reason shows up in a white turtleneck sweater for the back half of the movie, any seasoned filmgoer knows to expect the worst. Also present, someone else from a different fantasy franchise which could crush The Last Witch Hunter by sneezing, but would be much more likely to disembowel it and run around with its head on a rope; yup, it’s Ygritte from Game of Thrones. Vin’s bracketed himself between two talented actors who will remind his audience of the two biggest beasts in fantasy. How’s he going to get out of this one?

Probably not with the help of Michael Caine, whose almost stationary performance is still more acting than Vin can work up. Caine’s playing Father Dolan, the latest representative of the Catholic church to act as Kaulder’s handler for the shadowy Axe and Cross agency. I can only imagine that they picked that name because "Vikings for Jesus” didn’t play well in the previews, but I bet most of the target audience will be squealing that Vikings weren’t Christian. By 800 years ago, when this is all supposed to be kicking off in a flashback, most Vikings were Christian, but it doesn’t feel right; Vikings should be yacking on about Valhalla and such as. At least in a dumb movie like this one.

It’s a pretty ho-hum movie. The visuals are occasionally cool, and the ideas about magic are at least an effort to come up with a magic system which feels organic and novel. Weirdly, less of it would have been more. There’s an idea there which would have driven a more subtle approach to magic, but instead they go big almost immediately, and it just turns into a gaudy CGI fest which is just like any other dose of spectacular special effects. There’s a good logical idea in the plot too, but they couldn’t figure out a way to fill the running time with it, and so there’s a splatter of distractions and side quests along the way that feel less like the plot developing and more like the cast waiting for it to catch up after it’s had a smoke break. 

Things end with the end of the world averted (as usual in such fare) and six more ends of the world queued up for later, but something tells me that they’re more likely to be coming to a basement near Vin than a cinema near you.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Spectre; use the vertical

Spectre is Bond by the numbers, and worryingly, it’s Bond by the even numbers. Quantum of Solace all on its own created the idea that even-numbered Bond movies would stink. Casino Royale was a good movie, and Quantum was an expensive mess. Then Skyfall was not bad at all, and the worry started about the next even-numbered movie. I relaxed a bit when they cast Christoph Waltz as the villain ...

Well. There’s a top secret villain base in the desert, just like in Quantum. Which blows up something awful as soon as there’s a harsh word. Just like Quantum. I worry about international villainy, I really do. I get it that they’re going to ignore planning regulations, but it’s the lax attitude to health and safety in key facilities that gets them in the end. It’s not just what it does to employee morale and staff retention, it’s the simple idiocy of having key facilities which aren’t even vaguely bulletproof. What kind of risk strategy do they have? Bond starts the fireworks in this HQ with a single well aimed bullet fired at an exposed valve; everything just ripples out from that as if fire suppression systems aren’t even a thing. This is a billion dollar surveillance centre full of computers; there ought to be automatic halon dump valves all over the place - sure, all your staff will suffocate, but we’ve already discussed supervillain indifference to employee welfare - to protect the hardware. Then again, our evil geniuses have decided to put equipment almost defined by its need for a) cooling and b) bandwidth in the middle of the Sahara desert hundreds of miles from any infrastructure bigger than a tumbledown sheep pen.

Other standardised Bond issue equipment. There’s an Aston Martin. There’s a bit of deputy-villain squeeze for him to seduce midway through and get key information from. Spoiler; for the first time in ages, she lives through the experience. There’s a younger woman for him to hook up with after he’s done the mid-game seduce. There’s an exploding gadget to be deployed in the nick of time. There’s a bit of torture for Bond. There’s a big thug for him to beat up (they almost got away with paying Dave Bautista the half-rate for a non-speaking part, but then relented and gave him a single line just before he gets ironically murdered to bits). There’s any god’s amount of property damage. There’s a car chase, and then another chase with cars and something which isn’t at all suitable for car chases. There’s complete bollocks about computers. There is, as though by cosmic law, a title sequence with a terrible song and weird animation which comes on the heels of a slam bang opening that’s got nothing to do with anything really but looks great.

And of course, as with all Craig era Bond, my god did they throw talent at the problem. The movie’s just crawling with talent, though sadly it’s not crawling with dialogue equal to their abilities, because it never seems to occur to anyone that acting needs a script as well as actors. You’re doing something wrong when Lea Seydoux has so little to say that I have time to notice that her nose is ridiculously asymmetric, something which I didn’t notice in any other movie, not even a Mission Impossible one. More importantly, you’re doing something super-wrong when Christoph Waltz leaves me thinking Javier Bardem’s magnificent hamming in Skyfall was better acting. Yup, Bardem’s mommy issues work better than Waltz’s sibling rivalry. 

But above all, SPECTRE are idiots. A massive criminal conspiracy to do God knows what, but the centrepiece of the operation is a scheme to fill the world with surveillance, aka, the thing which is guaranteed to make it hard to do bad deeds in the shadows. Not that massive surveillance would make all the much difference in practice. Their operations are not exactly discreet. When they decide to hold a top secret meeting to decide who should replace their latest senior management retirement, they make sure that his widow knows just where it’s going to be held, even though they trust her so little that they’ve sent two goons to kill her the same day to keep her quiet. Security at the meeting seems limited to checking if people are wearing a ring.

Oh, about the ring. Bond pulls it off a guy while they’re having a punch up in a helicopter, and it’s covered in his blood. He cleans the blood off it for dressy wear later. A few days later, Q can run a DNA test on it and pull up DNA from seven different people, all of them dead, one of them reported dead before there even was DNA testing. Also, it’s got an octopus on it, with seven legs. Where’s the missing leg, people?

Sorry, I was talking about stupid. Waltz has schemed like a son of a bitch to blow up Bond in London in a trap which is like an overdone replica of the rather brilliant ending of Casino Royale; as usual, the bigger the physical stakes, the less serious the emotional stakes seem. But Waltz sticks around in his helicopter to watch the explosions, as you do, so of course he’s hovering over the Thames as Bond makes a daring last minute escape in a motorboat. Bad move. Bond shoots the helicopter with his Walther PPK, a gun generally held to be dangerous only to people you could just as easily have stabbed, and brings it down with the last bullet in the magazine. Let’s imagine that this is the slowest helicopter in the world, and that the motorboat is the fastest thing afloat. It’s still a helicopter. Climb, you fools! After the first shot clanged off the body work, they should have been getting up and out of there.

All in all, it’s a time passer. There’s bit of good acting, because with that talent there has to be, but it’s bigger and dumber when it ought to know better. And two years from now, we’ll all have to hope that they’ve found a writer who can really give Waltz something to do.


Mark Greaney: The Gray Man

Gray Man is almost, but not quite, an anagram of M Greaney. I’m just going to leave that there.

The Gray Man is one of those books which annoys me even as I rush through it; it’s just well enough written that I don’t hurl it at the wall, while being all kinds of different wrong. On the one hand, it’s one of those annoying books which doesn’t bother to keep its stories straight; the main villain of the piece is introduced to us as a barrister, and then he flips between being a barrister and a solicitor the rest of the way through the book, as though the writer doesn’t even know that these two things are different, and that no English security expert would ever think of them as interchangeable. And indeed that the complex rules of the English legal profession are such that you can’t be both a barrister and the in-house lawyer of a vast multi-national corporation. Research. It’s not just a matter of knowing which combinations of letters and numbers are valid identifications of murdering equipment.

Rising above the detail, the book is almost entertainingly bonkers. On the one hand, the deliciously implausibly named Courtland Gentry is the world’s most shadowy assassin; on the other hand, everyone’s heard of him. That seems like some mighty subtle marketing. Anyhow, through the machinations of Nigerian politicians, it’s suddenly a good idea for him to be all dead, and so a French multinational oil-and-everything corporation mobilises lots of assassins to kill him. Lots of assassins, you say? How many exactly? A lot. They rent in hit teams from a dizzying array of second and third tier nation state kill teams; South Koreans, Botswanans, Venezuelans, Saudis, Libyans (the book was published in 2009, when there was still an actual Libya and a properly crazy man to run it) you name it. All piling in on the Gray Man to kill him at the behest of a French conglomerate in hock to the President of Nigeria. That’s almost like someone playing mad-libs to think of a convenient set of bad guys for an American audience in 2009; Nigerians? Yeah, we hate those guys, forever sending us scam emails (many of which begin with someone introducing himself as being a barrister and solicitor, come to think of it). With French stooges, because cheese-eating surrender monkeys, natch. 

A’ight. Fair enough, For the airport market, that’s practically researching your audience.

Is it any good? Well, like I say, it’s a page turner. And the Gray Man is charmingly breakable. The book reads like it was written in chunks for the internet, lurching from one setpiece to the next, but I was taken with the way that the Gray Man walks nothing off; every hairsbreadth escape puts lasting damage on him, slowing him up for the next encounter. Even though this feels like a succession of movie scenes, in a movie the hero just brushes his hair back with his fingers [1] and strolls on to the next problem like nothing even happened. In the book, it’s all hard work all the time. It doesn’t stretch to character development, but it’s still more realistic than the guff which obviously inspired it.

And for all that I’m ragging on it, there’s a certain sensibility there that left me wondering if the follow up books would be better. If Greaney got the ra-ra stupid-Matthew-Reilly lunatic hordes of enemies dumbness out of his system in the first book, the second book might have a simpler focus and a bit more room for the things which were actually good in the first book; the sense of consequence. So I’ve put the next one into the one-of-these-days queue and we’ll see if I’m right to be optimistic.


[1] exception: Jason Statham, obviously.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Lee Child: Make Me

Make Me what? I wondered. Pie? A happier person? Or did it mean “make me” as in that wonderful idea for fun in a Tube station, where you miss the train and mutter into your sleeve “I think he made me. He’s switched trains."

Well, it’s an unsolved mystery, like most Lee Child titles these days. This is one of the third person Reachers, because the way Lee Child wants to tell this story we have to see misleading bits of the action which Reacher can’t see. Spoiler alert; Reacher lives. All the bad guys die. If you didn’t see that coming, you might not have read any of these books up to now, or, indeed, a book.

Reacher does a bit more travelling this time than he usually does. Of course, it’s yet another book in which the drifter rolls into a creepy small town, sniffs something funny, and then has to smoosh a whole bunch of bad guys into paste, but along the way he rattles around the US trying to find some of his answers. Maybe because I was reading it hard on the heels of a Thomas Perry book, I was struck by the way that Reacher is obsessed with telling little details and makes up all kinds of ideas based on them. And I was taken with the way that some of the ideas are wrong - one of the advantages of going third person this time is that Reacher gets to be wrong without ever finding out one way or another. That’s a problem which doesn’t get enough attention in thrillers, where the hero’s finely tuned instincts are invariably spot on and never ever result in shooting the wrong guy by mistake.

And what horrible conspiracy lies at the heart of all this? Well, it’s creepy as all get out while being completely preposterous. The final twist is based on the idea of a working market in something which has never been proven to exist, a persistent bogeyman that I sometimes think was conjured up to give us something worse than reality at a time when reality is quite depressing enough all on its own. Bonus points for an explanation of the internet that has a bit of poetry to it; all immediately deducted for not being able to tell the difference between stuff people aren’t interested in, and stuff where the interest is strong enough to involve money. I was a bit disappointed, since I’d been working out my own idea of what it might all be about and it was much more benign and ambiguous. 

Then again, the bad guys had to be really wrong 'uns, since Reacher’s on fine no-prisoners form this time around, killing people like it ain’t even a thing. For the whole idea of heroism to work, he has to be going after people who are even more sociopathic than that, so Child had his work cut out to make him look comparatively good. At two different points, Child even hangs a lampshade on it, prefacing an off-ing with a little homily about how in tales around the campfire, an execution aways comes with a speech about how the bad guy had it coming, but when you’re Jack Reacher in a hurry and someone just needs to be dead, there’s no need for talk. Tuco put it more pithily.

The only novelty in the book is  … concussion. Reacher’s cleaned up evil conspiracies to commit mass murder before. He’s cleaned up small creepy towns in the American midwest before. He’s bonked the token plot-woman before. But he’s never experienced concussion in any of the books before. It doesn’t slow him up in any way that really matters, but at least for once in fiction someone gets hit in the head and doesn’t just motor on as though nothing has happened. That might not be enough new ground for you when pondering your reading choices.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Thomas Perry; A String of Beads

The Return of Jane Whitefield Rides Again, Electric Boogaloo edition. I’ve complained in a prior post about Thomas Perry pushing his luck on the eternal saga of Jane Whitefield, and yet, here we are again, almost as if the literary world didn’t quail before my merest eyebrow twitch. It’s been twenty years since we first met Jane as a woman somewhere in her early thirties, and time has more or less stood still since Perry first put down his pen in 1999 with the fifth book. Either Jane can be the same age she was in the late nineties and the last decade never happened (and a world without smart phones would be a more comfortable world for mystery writers of all kinds) or she can live in the present and be middle aged just like everyone else who was in their early thirties in 1995. 

It’s not middle aged jealousy for the cool lives of fictional characters driving this grumble, or at least it’s not just that. It’s that Perry has always been a writer whose feet are solidly on the ground. His characters live on detail and consistency and the sense that the smallest action can have a consequence or be an opportunity for someone else to make their move. Have someone float through that real world like an immortal breaks a silent deal between writer and reader that at no point are we going to be asked to believe too much nonsense all at once.

As I’ve said before, writing more and more books about Jane Whitefield runs Perry into more and more trouble. There’s only so many different ways she can get people out of trouble, and indeed only so many plausible ways people can get into enough trouble and still look like they’re worth the trouble she goes to to get them back out. And because she needs new tricks and new routines in each book so that there’s novelty to the solutions, Jane gets more and more unstoppable with every iteration. Thomas Perry didn’t used to write people who won every fight they got into no matter the odds.

Not that the odds are that stacked this time around. Poison Flower had a real sense of peril to it because Jane was finally the target - and her job had finally caught up to her the way I always figured it should. This time around, she’s up against idiots, other idiots, and people who are smart but not really that bothered about winning. The last group is the Mafia, and as always when Perry does the Mafia, you get great mileage. Perry’s Mafia has always been full of smart people hamstrung by the inescapable knuckle-headedness of crime, and whenever he swerves off into that world he paints a compelling picture of a dysfunctional workplace which happens to be heavily armed and lacking in scruples. While the Mafia are the biggest threat in the book, they’re so matter of fact and rational that they feel almost like a force for order and decency compared to the villain that gets the action moving. Not that you feel even vaguely sorry for him, but the minute the villain gets between Jane and Mafia, it’s only a question of who kills the creep and how.

So it’s a question of how the journey unfolds, given the inevitability of the destination. And it’s vintage Perry, for all that’s bad and good. The demon eye for detail is still there, but Perry works best when he has something new to say, and some of the best stuff in the book is the small bits of interplay between the side characters. The whole engine of the plot is a James M Cain love story between an inept villain and a naive woman half his age, and Perry puts us inside both their heads to show us the internal monologues and mutual misunderstandings that keep them stumbling in the wrong directions. Jane is both too familiar and too perfect to give us anything like the same ah-ha feeling, and I found myself skimming past her worries and towards everyone else.

It’s still Thomas Perry, and bad Thomas Perry is still better than most other good stuff, but beads or no beads, this string seems to be reaching its end.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Crimson Peak; no Pan's Labyrinth

In November 2006, this blog took the first or second swerve off into what’s become its near permanent shape, when I was blown away by Pan’s Labyrinth  and set my thoughts down on the internet. In between, I’ve caught a lot of Guillermo del Toro movies, and the returns have been nigh on as diminishing as the returns on What Conspiracy, the consumer experience. At some point I moved from blogging a movie only when it was really worth talking about to blogging most of them regardless of the quality, and it seems to me that del Toro has been doing something similar with his scripts.

And so, to Crimson Peak. Firstly, it looks great, because of course it does. Secondly, it’s got a great cast, because del Toro can get a great cast whenever he wants one, because Pan’s Labyrinth. Thirdly, it makes less sense than a six monkeys typing the Bible in a zombie apocalypse, because a) del Toro and b) also del Toro. And fourthly, and most importantly, it packs the same emotional wallop as my electricity bill, which is almost impressive considering all the good actors and scenery and such as.

Mia Wasikowska is either one of the best young actresses of her generation or someone who has a knack for getting cast in roles which don’t require her to act. I’ve seen her in a whole bunch of movies now which pretty much required her to be an awkward person who couldn’t quite bridge the gap to a world too dumb for her, and somehow she’s been compelling in every one of them. And so here again. Mia makes Edith work, even when she’s making the most objectively stupid decisions a human being could possibly make. Too bad she’s being outshone by Jessica Chastain, who might even get some kind of award nomination out of this even with her hair dyed black. Just about clinging on by his fingernails is Tom Hiddleston. Who’s only your actual Loki and the guy who managed to upstage Robert Downey Jr in Avengers Assemble. Go girls. You show ‘em. Tucked around the edges is the ever dependable Jim Beaver, who gets killed, because Jim Beaver, y’idjits, and Charlie Hunnam in the role of Milton Arbogast - don’t worry, if you go to the movie, you’ll see what I mean by that.

The plot - well, you know this thing about suspending disbelief? You’re going to need one hell of a big crane. There are ghosts, and no-one who’s ever been to a del Toro movie will waste a second thinking that the ghosts are the bad guys. Icky looking as all hell, but like the supernatural in every other del Toro movie, they’re there to keep you edgy while it sinks in that it’s always the humans you should really be watching; the real monsters are all around us. Or just us. But as for the actual plot, it’s crazy 14 year old girl potboiler stuff, stuck in a haunted house which makes less sense than anything else I’ve seen this year.

Tom Hiddleston’s Tom Sharpe is the heir to the titular heap, which is a big mansion in the middle of nowhere. Four hours from the nearest town. Even in Cumbria, that’s impressive. The county’s about sixty miles by sixty. A human can walk 12 miles in four hours, a horse drawn cart can cover 20 miles or so in the same time. Even in what’s still the least densely populated county in England, it would take real effort to find a site for a house four hours from the nearest town, and I’m blowed if I know how you’d get it built once you’d picked the site. How would you get the materials in? Where would the labour come from? The food?

But that’s the easiest bit. The wealth of the Sharpes, such as it is, rests on their rich deposits of gloopy red clay, which is supposedly great for making bricks. But it’s not just the wealth that rests on the clay. The whole mansion is built on top of the clay mine, and now it’s falling into it, which is surprising only in that it didn’t happen about twenty minutes after the plans were drawn. Tom Sharpe is stuck in a quest to get funding to make the world’s best bucket excavator so as to get the clay out of the mine (and further undermine the house, but it’s clear that Tom’s ability to take the long view isn’t his strongest suit), but it never seems to have occurred to anyone that getting it out of the ground is a trivial problem compared to getting it out of Cumbria. Four hours from the nearest town? No decent road to that town?

Poor Edith is so beguiled by Tom that none of this bothers her; she heads off from muddy old Buffalo New York to Cumbria without a backward glance, and once she’s in the mansion, she seems stuck there, as if the sharp intelligence and independence we’ve seen so far comes with a Tom-operated off-switch. She’s a smart modern woman with a mind of her own until she gets stuck in a situation which a Barbie doll would be bright enough to scarper from.

In short, this is a plot which works only if everyone is an idiot. And with only three players doing most of the heavy lifting, there’s just not enough going on to distract us from the idiocy. Del Toro placed his faith in the sets, which are astonishing without being remotely believable; the house is full of architectural details so disturbing that it’s impossible to believe anyone would have paid to have them built. It’s constantly unsettling and beguiling, but it makes no more sense than anything else does; there are leaves constantly settling into the hallway from the ruined roof far above, but there isn’t a tree for miles around. If you want your craziness to have any weight, it has to contrast with something.

And this brings me back to Pan’s Labyrinth, which works because there are lots of arresting characters, and the fantasy is poised against relentless dour reality, so that both pack an extraordinary punch. Crimson Peak is all goofy, all the time, and so nothing really matters. In the end, not even peerless set design and genuinely good acting can save it from it own lack of weight.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Paul McAuley; Something Coming Through

Pro-tip; read the chapter subheads. I was a third of the way from the end of the book when it finally hit me that the two interwoven narratives were not in sync with each other, but McAuley had played perfectly straight by putting the date in every single chapter heading. From the get go, the chapters on Mangala are the aftermath of the chapters on Earth, not a parallel to them, but I read almost the whole book thinking that they were simultaneous. Of course, when the penny did drop I got quite a kick out of resetting all my internal clocks and realising how one group of chapters had been feeding into the other, so you’ll miss out on that, but on the other hand, you’re more likely to be reading the story McAuley was trying to tell.

McAuley isn’t actually an author I rate that much; he’s a guy who writes passably well while telling stories which don’t work for me. I remember thinking that Pasquale’s Angel would be a lot of fun - it was 1994, the whole idea of Renaissance Steampunk was genuinely novel - and not being able to trudge all the way through. Something was missing and I’m damned if I know what, or whether I’d read it a different way 21 years later. I thought that the Quiet War sequence was interesting, but between its downbeat tone and the fact that I read the second book in the middle of a pointless row at work - actually, I was reading it as part of the way I was conducting the row, hiding behind the book rather than talk to the person I was having the row with - I didn’t bother sticking with it. I sort of enjoyed Cowboy Angels, though not to the point that I remembered reading it until I was looking at McAuley’s back catalogue to see when Pasquale’s Angel came out.

So quite why I bought Something Coming Through is a bit of a puzzle. Probably because it was three bucks as a Kindle book, which tickled my bargain button. Three bucks isn’t much to risk on a book, and if I don’t like it, at least it’s not a brick of paper taking up more space on the shelves until I sweep it up and dump it on some charity shop that may never be able to shift it.

I’m glad I spent the money, because Something Coming Through is one of those books which left me wanting more. The plot isn’t that compelling, and I don’t necessarily want to spend a lot of time with the characters in the future; it’s the background.

McAuley’s come up with a genuinely new notion for the future. Space aliens do exist, they’ve intervened on a troubled earth, and now we can travel to other planets. Which just throws up more questions than answers. For starters, we can only travel to fifteen other planets; the Jackaroo have given earth a shuttle service via wormhole to those planets, with no explanation as to why those planets or how to get to any other ones. And they’re not exactly perfect fits for settlement. We only see one of them in detail, Mangala, but hints about the others make it clear that they’re all marginal at best. And that’s before you get into the other problems. While it’s impossible to eat most of what’s on these other planets, and our crops won’t grow there without heroic effort, there’s lots of stuff on them which can survive on earth and do a lot of ecological and social damage.

And then there’s the abandoned detritus of the previous owners, because the Jackaroo have been pulling this trick with other planets in the past, and each of the fifteen is covered in the ruins and relics of many previous cultures. What happened to them? The Jackaroo won’t say. But mining out the relics and reverse engineering the technology has become the most important driver of earth’s colonial effort. Stuff coming back from the new planets has changed the earth in dramatic and subtle ways, and as always, there’s a thriving black economy making sure that the changes are not all for the good. The earth-bound chapters are very good at conveying an edgy sense of dislocation and loss; the Jackaroo intervention should have made everything better, but the disruption has left most people feeling worse about their lives and their chances for the future. I’m not sure if that’s intended to be a subtle critique of western lives right now, where we have toys and comfort we could never have imagined when I was a child and yet feel under a constant unfocused threat of terror or ecological catastrophe or technology that leaves us jobless and irrelevant.

Sitting on top of this shifting worry are the Jackaroo, one of the best aliens I’ve seen in fiction. They’re almost not present in the narrative, but they’re a constant in the minds of the characters. We see very few of them, but we’re constantly being told what they’ve told humanity, and more importantly, what they haven’t told them. The few we meet are pleasant and slippery, never offering any explanation for anything other than that they want to help and that they’ve found it best to let people make their own decisions about things rather than explain themselves and influence the decision making. Are they God, letting us all have our free will over the gifts on offer, or the Devil? Or neither.

It all makes for a fascinating milieu. There’s the overarching mystery of the Jackaroo and the potentially unlimited mini-mysteries of the gifted planets and all the weird relics scattered around them. McAuley’s cooked up something which could run and run, and for once he’s hit a tone which I can live with. There’s a follow up next year, and I’m torn between hoping it’s got some answers and hoping that it’s got even more questions for a further follow up.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Sicario; Emily Blunted

Since I saw her first in Wild Target, I have come around to the idea that Emily Blunt can save anything without any apparent effort, and it’s only when I examine my evidence for that idea that I wonder how the hell I came up with it. The evidence up until Sicario seemed to consist of Emily stealing everything but the cameras in All you need is kill, which is inexplicably STILL not the title of Edge of Tomorrow even after they changed the title to make the DVD sell better. She’s magnificent, but it’s one data point.

Make that two. Emily is the paradoxical powerhouse of Sicario, still the star despite getting practically written out of the action. Sicario is like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of conventional Hollywood thrillers. It’s a movie where elite special forces plant an assassin in Mexico to take gruesome revenge on his archenemy, body count and collateral damage be damned. 90% of the time, the hero of the movie and the top billing would be the assassin, and the other 90%, the hero would be a good guy who turned out to be even more bad ass than the assassin despite starting off mild mannered. Watch the trailers, and you think you’re getting the other 90%; Emily Blunt, who has a PhD in badass, is drawn into the lunacy of Mexico’s drug war as the stakes get higher and higher.

The movie takes that idea and puts a cap in the back of its head. Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer is Benicio del Toro’s beard (in fairness, his actual beard needs all the help it can get). The CIA’s special task force doesn’t hire her to be the hero; they just want bureaucratic cover for the operation. If they have someone from the FBI, it’s an inter-agency task force even if it looks like a death squad, and all they want from her is her signature at the end of the project. So instead of getting drawn deeper and deeper into the action, Kate Macer gets pushed further and further out of it the further the plot runs, until finally the camera settles in on Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro killing his way through to his target while Kate’s stuck back in the US wondering what the hell’s happening.

What’s happening is she’s us. She’s ordinary people out of their depth and struggling to find a moral centre in a world which no longer has one. Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin are running around doing all the action hero stuff, but the more the camera stays on them, the more we question the wisdom of the age-old mantra that in a bad world you need bad guys to do bad things. The ugly reality is that bad guys do bad things because they like it, or because they can’t see anything else to do, and that no good comes of it. Just ask poor doomed Mexican cop Silvio, whose uniform might as well come with a bullseye on it.

Mind you, while the theme makes sense, the plot doesn’t add up. Kate’s getting rushed non-stop into the idea that to get to the bad guys they have to panic one mid level drug lord into running to the kingpin so that they can finally find the kingpin and put him on all-lead diet. That’s not actually insane, but what beggars understanding is that the USA’s leading domestic death squad can’t think of a better way to get over the border into Mexico than starting a gun battle down a working drug tunnel. This is the most porous border in the world, and they want to cross it in the direction which isn’t even patrolled. Alejandro could stroll across it anywhere. Or get helicoptered in. Or just drive a jeep. Anything, really. And for all the song and dance about trying to find the kingpin, their mid level patsy’s being tracked from the air the whole way to his destination; Alejandro could fly right there and do his business without any need for all the shooting and hijacking which gets him to the payoff. 

But if you did that, there’d be no narrative tension! The movie’s breaking its back to avoid that kind of narrative tension in the first place. Which is why I had the time to think “Why so complicated?”. The whole point is that the action is not the point, but there are some long flat patches in this movie where it almost seemed like they’d forgotten what they were really trying to do. 

In other news, Michael Weston fans will be delighted to hear that the Burn Notice has been lifted and he got a job as tour guide on the anti-narcotics death squad, keeping Kate Macer entertained with stories of President Taft’s visit to Juarez with a two thousand man escort. Ever the man of a thousand faces, his horn-rimmed glasses held on with a rubber band disguise meant I didn’t quite recognise him till I saw his name in the credits, but at least we didn’t get any accent work.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Martian; not even Sean Bean dies.

If you haven’t read the book, the portents aren’t good for The Martian’s cast. Sean Bean is in it. Things rarely end well for Sean. And standing in the centre, face up in all the posters, it’s Private Ryan his own damn self. Let’s review the form sheet. Matt Damon got stranded in outer space in Interstellar, and pulled a succession of colossal dick moves to get himself rescued even if it doomed the whole human race. Matt Damon had to get rescued from being stranded in Normandy and the whole squad got itself killed doing it. In Elysium he went into outer space, killed most of the people he met and died trying to save a kid. Now he’s stuck on his own on Mars, and the tag line for the whole movie is “Bring Him Home.” Meanwhile, this is a Ridley Scott movie, which starts with a deliberate echo of the opening frames from Alien. Scott’s never been to space without having to bulk order body bags. If all you’ve got to go on is the filmography, this thing is shaping up to be a blood bath.

Well, nobody dies. Sean Bean has to take early retirement, meaning that he comes about as close anyone does to dying. If you’ve read the book, this won’t be a surprise of any kind, but Neil Degrasse Tyson got set on fire on the internets for giving away this shock ending to the world. If you want to know roughly what happens, go check out the post on the book; the movie is tremendously faithful to the book, just cutting the number crises back a bit and simplifying some of the side action around the rescue mission proper. All the big beats are still there,  but there isn’t quite same amount of trip-hammer “and NOW what?” which the characters had to put up with in the book. And it’s got all the strengths and weaknesses of the book. It’s good natured and positive about human nature, and it takes joy in the very idea of problem solving and the importance of science. And although the movie tries to grapple with the balance between saving one life and risking other lives to do it, the movie does not more than the book to think about the social cost of spending space programme kinds of money on one man in space rather than on thousands on earth. As close as it comes is the idea that everyone is ready to make sacrifices to get this one guy home.

Like the book, the movie is wonderfully uninterested in the characters outside of their predicaments; we never see anyone at home or in any way off the job, but thanks to the decision to hire decent actors, the characters still make an impact as individuals. The one thing I wondered about was the crew of the Mars Mission, who were still using each other’s surnames after being cooped up in a coffee can for a couple of years. 

It’s a great looking movie, which is the least you’d expect given the director. Mars feels right, though after the fact I found myself thinking that the gravity wasn’t right, and of course lots of people have quibbled about the atmosphere, which in reality hasn’t got remotely the density to work up a stiff breeze, let alone a mission-threatening dust-storm. Thing is, while it’s happening it feels right, and really what more do you want. You can have another quibble at the scenes set on the Hermes, which is way too airy and open for a space vehicle on a long duration mission. Radiation proofing and the general need to save weight everywhere on space missions means that a real Hermes would be as cramped as a submarine. But that would have been horrible to film in and we wouldn’t have had the lovely zero-g transits that punctuate most of the Hermes scenes. I can forgive those kinds of things under the rule of cool.

If you’ve already read the book, the movie does a job of making the characters come to life. If you haven’t read the book yet, there’s a lot more in the book than they could get into the movie; if you enjoyed Mark Watney solving problems, he solves lots more of them in the book. It’s a good solid fun movie. And it’s the first thing I’ve been to in ages where the cinema was packed. And I think it’s good news that people are flocking to a movie which is full of positive messages about the value of science and human nature.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Seth Dickinson: The Traitor Baru Cormorant

It is a truth universally accepted that the majority of people reading fantastic literature lead stubbornly banal lives. It’s probably pushing the boat out a bit too far to suggest that they’re all accountants, but if all fantasy books spontaneously exploded suddenly in the hands of their readers, it’s safe to predict that there’d be a lot of empty desks the next morning in a lot of boring offices.

So it’s nice of Seth Dickinson to give us all a fantasy novel in which the protagonist is an actual accountant, waging her war against the evil empire with the opaque miracle of double entry book-keeping. True, Baru Cormorant is no ordinary accountant, what with her prodigious intellect and winning ways, but she’s gratifyingly focused on the question which we all have to ask midway through most real-life adventures “And who’s going to pay for all this, then?”

On its own, that would just be a gimmick, but Dickinson isn’t just running with his choice of character; he’s using the character’s viewpoint to give us a view into a unique fantasy world which can probably only be seen properly through that viewpoint.

Which is one of the two things which makes this a superior book. The other is that it’s well written, with fleshed out characters who make sense and are all clearly the heroes of their own stories, just as we all are in our own lives. The Traitor might be the best fantasy book I’ve read this year, and it’s certainly the best thing I’ve read by a writer I’d never heard of. Good writing, and a genuinely novel world; you’re doing well to get either, let alone both.

Fantasy’s having a resurgence these days, and the writers have tried to get away from the simple Tolkien-inspired worlds, of medieval European feudalism punctuated by magic, into fantasy realms which at least reflect a wider range of human societies and possibilities. Still, there’s a sameness even to the new wave, which relies perhaps a little too much on the Byzantine Empire and the hovering threat of steppe nomads. And on a world of unchanging empires where technology stands still at swordpoint and dynasties have ruled their people for hundreds of generations without ever seeing a challenge to the status quo. There’s tinkering around the edges and the occasional flirtation with gunpowder or even steampunk, but for the most part swords and spears were good enough for the ancients, and they’re good enough for us.

Seth Dickinson can’t be having with that, and in The Traitor we’re living in a world where change is a constant destabilising force and trade and technology are the twin drivers. The evil empire is the Masquerade, a creepily effective culture which uses trade, influence, intrigue and occasional war to bind their neighbours into the empire. What makes them so wonderfully creepy is that they want to improve the human condition and make a world where everyone can live long and satisfying lives. There are just two catches. They have some very specific ideas of what a satisfying life ought to be, and they don’t care how many people they have to hurt and kill to make sure that future generations will do things the right way. 

So, first they manipulate the local economy until it collapses into subservience, and then they move in a token presence to protect their trade interests, and then the purges start, followed by the plagues and famines. There’s never an actual war, but before very long, there’s another province with proper roads and drains and the general population are living the imperial dream; God help them if they try any other dreams, because that way lies brainwashing, torture, sterilisation and eventual execution.

What’s fascinating is the mix of technology that all of this takes; the Masquerade has some wonderfully cockeyed ideas on eugenics and breeding (and a predictable down on any sexual arrangements that don’t perfectly mirror their belief in one mummy, one daddy, and lots of children). They’ve got carefully considered policies on biological warfare. They’ve got Greek Fire and rockets and gunpowder. They’ve got hella sophisticated economic theories, and a gender policy which manages to be progressive and terrible all at once. In short they’re nothing like the kind of people who normally clutter up fantasy novels. They’ve got a plan, and they’re committed to change and development, even though their final objective is a safe stability for one and all. If they weren’t so repressive and awful, they’d be admirable, and one of the best bits about The Traitor is how ambiguous everyone feels about the Masquerade.

The gender policy is, as I said, both progressive and terrible. They don’t leave women stuck in the bedroom and kitchen, because that would be a waste of potential; but neither are women free to pick what they want to do. There are things the Masquerade thinks the female mind does better than the male, and so - for example - most of the naval officer corps are women because the Masquerade scientists have concluded women are better at navigation. This isn’t the only imaginary world I’ve seen where men and women are shown as equally likely to be in combat or management roles, but it’s the only one where it doesn’t feel stupid; wherever Dickinson shows us a culture with women in traditionally male roles, he sketches in a culture where it makes sense that this would happen.

Dickinson also does something I’ve long thought to be all but impossible. He can write a battle in a way that lets the reader see what’s happening and why it matters. There’s a big battle towards the end of the book, and Dickinson gets the sweep right. I’m not sure that all the tactics would have worked in our reality, but as each one unfolds into the next you can follow the developments and see how each one relates to what’s gone before and what’s coming next. That’s a party trick almost worth the price of admission even without all the other good stuff.

The Traitor hangs together well, and I read the last quarter in a rush, wondering where all of Baru’s machinations were going to take her and just many more double crosses were left. But more than that, I was wondering if this was going to wrap it all up in one book, or whether there would be more to come. And for once, what I wanted was more. And not just more of the characters, but more of this world and its strangenesses. The book wraps up its action well enough that it can stand alone, but I hope it’s the first of many.