Thursday, 29 January 2015

American Sniper; the bit no-one seems to be talking about

Michael Moore is being barred from all kinds of hamburger joints because he called snipers cowards.

He probably felt like he was on a winner. Nobody likes snipers. Read any English language memoir of World War II; if there’s a sniper in it, it’s a cowardly German or Japanese hiding in the bushes picking people off from a distance, and getting stomped something wicked if the brave Allies caught up with him. You can argue that there’s something sneaky or underhand about snipers if you want to, but it’s one of those jobs like flamethrower operator where you go in knowing that if anything goes wrong, you’re not going to be getting any of that Geneva Convention stuff everyone else gets. 

Underneath it all, there’s a visceral unease about what snipers do. They shoot people on purpose. Most people can’t do that. It takes about six weeks of systematic dehumanisation to get men comfortable with the idea of just blazing away randomly at a faceless enemy they can barely see. After WWII was over the US Army did a study of what their troops did in the Pacific. Less than a quarter of them even fired their weapons; only one in ten of those men aimed at anyone. And then there’s snipers. Taking aimed shots at people they can see quite clearly in their telescopes. Snipers kill more enemy soldiers than whole platoons of ordinary grunts. A good one will kill 50 or a hundred people before the law of averages catches up with him. An average one can stop an entire infantry company in its tracks. In Normandy company commanders would just shell a whole neighborhood rather than waste time trying to figure out where the sniper was. Snipers are, pound for pound, the most efficient killers of men in any armed force.

Kind of makes you wonder why generals don’t just make the whole army out of snipers.

Well, Michael Moore would probably say that it’s because snipers are freaks and decent soldiers are better than that. And he’d be wrong.

The reality is, if anything, more depressing for the American view of its wars and its victories. Snipers are losers; or rather they’re a weapon which only losers can use. A sniper can blunt an attack, slow down an advance, keep an enemy confused and disrupted. But he can’t take ground. He can’t attack. A sniper stays still. A sniper is permanently on the defensive. The reason Allied memoirs are full of ENEMY snipers is that the Allies were winning and the Germans and the Japanese were trying to slow them down with snipers. A force of snipers is not how you win a war; it’s how you launch a last ditch struggle not to lose it. It’s how you try to hold the ground that the real army has taken with blitzkrieg and shock and awe. When you’re relying on snipers, either you’re defending your home, or it’s time to GO home. 

Thursday, 22 January 2015

The Man in the High Castle

My favourite what if? is “What if no-one ever wrote about the Nazis winning WWII?” If you took out all those books from the genre, it practically wouldn’t be a genre any more. But long before it became a genre, professional lunatic Philip K Dick got out ahead of the curve and wrote The Man in the High Castle, a novel set in an America which has been carved up between Japan and Germany after the Axis somehow managed to prevail on the the Asian continent and then figure out how to invade a country full of heavily armed individualists surrounded by thousands of miles of water. Because Dick had no concept of restraint, he threw in not just an alternate history in which the Germans won, but a spare alternate history in which they lost in a completely different way; Philip K Dick was never happy with a story where the characters could be confident about the ground they stood on.

Dick is famously and magnificently unadaptable, because movies don’t do ambiguity, and SF movies have a hard enough time creating a halfway convincing future without undercutting constantly with that hallucinogenic buzz that crackles through all of Dick’s work. The most successful adaptation is still Blade Runner, though it says everything you need to know about “success” in adapting Dick that the most famous quote from the movie was improvised by Rutger Hauer and has nothing to do with the source text. Blade Runner is a great looking movie which succeeds by dumping most of the actual Philip K Dick out of the action. It came out in a time when home video was practically SF, and if you wanted to relive a movie you had to buy the book; there must have been a lot of bewilderment when people brought home Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and started to grapple with the weird and tangled source text.

So, with Blade Runner having worked out so well, it was probably inevitable that when Amazon decided to make a TV show out of The Man in the High Castle, they got Ridley Scott to produce it. And just like Blade Runner, it looks great. The opening titles are clever, even if no-one in their right mind would launch a parachute assault on Mount Rushmore - after all, the Nazis were being run by people demonstrably not in their right minds. And the US after 14 years of Nazi and/or Japanese occupation has a convincing look; I particularly like the fact that in 1962, VW Beetles are not a counter culture statement but just the cars that everyone is driving. And there are moments which sell the way that monstrousness becomes business as usual; a cuddly highway patrolman offhandedly mentions that the ash settling on the roadway is from the weekly incineration of cripples and terminal cases and then gets on with helping someone fix a flat tire. If it was that commonplace, people probably wouldn’t even mention it, but it’s more effective in its way than all the scenes at Gestapo HQ.

Still, scenery is not story, and it’s hard to know whether this show is going to work as narrative. The source text is like all Dick, dreamlike and all over the place, built on characters barely getting by and ending their stories one step forward and two steps back. That’s not the kind of thing that makes for 13 episodes of TV, still less a multi-season cash cow. So the script throws its weight onto the idea of resistance to the Nazis, and the kind of struggle in the shadows against the Gestapo and the Kempeitai that we’ve seen a million times. Up front as the McGuffin to all of this is a series of movie reels which show an alternate reality in which the Axis lost. In the book, it’s not movies, but a book, making it much harder to decide whether the alternate reality is a an echo of another universe or just a comforting fiction cooked up by a man chafing under the weight of occupation and defeat. It’s harder to maintain that kind of ambiguity with a movie within a movie, simply because in a totalitarian world it would be so much more difficult to make a convincing movie showing the top dogs getting their arses kicked. In all likelihood the long game for this TV adaptation is going to be some version of the movie reels being news from another universe. It may well work, but it won’t be true to the source.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Felix Gilman: The Rise of Ransom City

Anyone just emerging blinking from the steady grimness of The Half Made World is going to find The Rise of Ransom City a bit of a whiplash. It’s a misleadingly light-hearted book. Harry Ransom makes a fleeting appearance in The Half Made World when John Creedmoor lays waste to a small town in the middle of market day; Ransom is one of the shysters and confidence men peddling junk as science and medicine, spotted out of the corner of Creedmoor’s eye as he gets the party started. In The Rise of Ransom City, he’s the main event, and Liv and Creedmoor are the sideshow as Ransom fumbles his way around the frontier and into a ringside seat for the collapse of the Line. The Half Made World set up a war between Line and Gun, something which looked set to be fought out over book after book and reach some kind of climax eventually; in Ransom City, Gilman skips the usual guff, and has the Line fall apart while Ransom tries to scheme his way to the top. The best bit about Ransom’s scheming is that he’s not entirely a confidence trickster; even though he probably stole it and doesn’t understand how it works, his Ransom Process for free energy is a real thing. And the more headway he makes towards getting it to work, the worse things get for the Line.

By the time the book ends, Ransom has, largely by accident, precipitated and finally helplessly supervised the destruction of the Line, but wonderfully he spends the whole narrative seeing this as just a hideous imposition on his well meaning efforts to get ahead in business. It’s one of the cleverest aspects of the book. Ransom’s a guy who’s just trying to make ends meet in the middle of a cataclysm, and like any other schmuck, his real preoccupation is not the vast war, but the way it’s ruining his personal day. As a result, when we get to the end of the book, all we know for sure is that the Line has shot its bolt and Ransom is on the run into the wild frontier, but we’ve no idea whether the Line fell to the Gun, or the resurgent Red Valley Republic, or its own lunacy, or something which Ransom assumes everyone already knows about and has glossed over because it’s all about him, damnit.

In its own way, this is genius. Most fantasy is full of people who are all charged up with their sense of destiny and their importance to the great confrontation between good and evil. Gilman’s characters just wish good and evil would go away and play somewhere else. And Ransom is a great character; full of crap, but just decent enough to admit that, perhaps, there might be room for improvement, even though he seems unaware of just HOW much room there is. He’s good company without being anything even close to a guy you’d lend money to. And Gilman has taken leaving-us-guessing to new heights; it’s not just a matter of what’s going to happen next, but how he’s going to tell us about it.

Jeffrey Deaver: The October List

I was sure I’d blogged Deaver’s last-but-one Lincoln Rhyme book, The Kill Room, but I can’t find any trace of it. Bygones. It’s not very good; all the usual bad habits, nothing all that new, and the twist is an even bigger cheat than Deaver usually indulges himself in. Rhyme and his wacky crew have got boring as people, and their mysteries - well, I have to be honest. I don’t read mysteries for the mysteries, I read them for the company of fools solving the mystery. If I don’t like the company ...

So The October List looked like it might be a better bet for my semi-annual Deaver hit. Not so much that it wasn’t the same old tired characters as that it had a brand-new gimmick; it starts at the end, and every chapter goes a little further back into the story. Deaver had built his career on books where every chapter ends on a cliffhanger which then gets resolved in the next chapter with a twist you didn’t see coming. What I wanted to see was how the hell he could make that work in reverse? 

Well, he can. He makes the twists work. It’s a book you have to read in a tearing hurry, because you need to remember what’s “just” happened so that the “new” information in the next chapter can do its job of turning your understanding upside down. It’s very, very clever; each chapter begins with the characters breathlessly emerging from a crisis and trying to figure out what to do, and then the next one shows you what happened an hour before and turns the previous chapter’s logic on its head. The crisis isn’t what you thought it was, and the cliff hanger which just ended the last chapter isn’t what it looked like either. And Deaver pulls this off over and over again in twenty or thirty chapters. It’s an impressive trick.

It comes at a price; the writing is often unnatural in its phrasing and pacing as Deaver tries to misdirect the reader. You’re given a character’s interior monologue and afterward you realise that no-one who knew what the character actually knew would have thought those things in that way; the cheats and misdirections don’t feel as “fair” as they should. But this is an incredibly difficult thing to do; it’s a miracle that it works even as well as it does. The slightly bigger problem is that Deaver has always depended on characters whose motivations are not what they seem to be, and by the time you get to the end of the book - the beginning of the plot - there have been so many reversals of motive that I was almost wishing the body count was even higher than it was. 

It’s a great book to read and pass on; I don’t imagine that it would be fun to read it twice, any more than it would be fun to do the same crossword puzzle all over again. I’m glad Deaver tried it, and impressed that he carried it off at all, but it’s a book that’s destined to bounce around from one reader to the next.

Taken 3; Los Angeles is safe

Famously, the first two Taken movies supposedly put an entire generation of Americans off the whole idea of leaving the USA for fear of what crazed near Europeans might do to them if they went to Yerp, or worse, Turkey. So Taken 3 was supposed to be all about the payback, making it clear LA is every bit as dangerous to harmless American with very particular sets of skills. 

Yeah, about that. All the interiors were done in a studio in France, the car chases were done in Spain, including the trash-a-jet-with-a-Porsche scene that probably used up all the money they could have spent on proper stunts, and a lot of the exteriors were done in Atlanta. Only a few establishing shots and the self indulgent opening credits sequence seem to have been shot in LA, and if you’re keeping a sharp eye on what’s happening, you’ll notice that the LA shots are all scenery, no action, as to keep the LA crew as small and cheap as possible. This is Europa Corp, after all, whose core production value is “Yes, but do they have tax breaks there?”.

Their other core value is that Russians and other migrants are the worst, so there’s a comforting familiarity to the villainscape as once again Bryan Mills has to butcher his way through hordes of eastern European mooks. Luc Besson takes a writing credit as usual, though this time the bar mat he scribbled the idea on seems to have been pre-used, as though the last guy at the table had been trying to explain the plot of The Fugitive to a friend and Luc had to squeeze his plot ideas in around the first set of scribbles.

In the role of Tommy Lee Jones. Forrest Whitaker spends the whole movie practising his nervous tics, telling everyone that Mills has out-thought them once again, and standing around having phone conversations. Even if you include the time he spends getting out of helicopters I don’t know that he moves more than 200 metres in the whole movie. Meanwhile Olivier Megaton directs so choppily that after a while I decided that Liam Neeson wasn’t so much doing his own stunts as standing still in a series of dynamic poses which Megaton then edited into a live action cartoon to make each freeze frame look like continuous movement. 

It’s always fun to watch Liam Neeson, but Taken 3 gives him no good lines, lacks the gritty meanness of the first movie or the exuberant stupidity of the second one, and spends more time on soap opera angst than it does on Liam Neeson beating things up, which is kind of missing the point of making another Taken movie. It’s the longest one to date, and all the extra time is spent staring soulfully at things or fretting about imploding marriages and failed pregnancy tests. The poster threatens “It ends here”. Not a minute too soon.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Felix Gilman: The Half Made World

The Half Made World is a good book which is not much fun to read. Gilman writes well, and brings his world and characters to life. And he’s had some great ideas, or more accurately one really great idea and some stuff to put in front of that idea and shine some light on it. I bought to book on the strength of the summary on Amazon; weird wild west is an easy sell for me. 

Let me try to put it all into context. I got a big kick out of Red Country because Abercrombie mashed together the spaghetti western and his fantasy universe in such a seamless way. Fantasy has been running on sub-Tolkien medievality way past the point of diminishing returns, and more and more writers are trying out the same nonsense in new “historical” frameworks, a job which it used to be that only Tim Powers seemed to be doing. So when I saw the blurb for The Half Made World I was hoping for something of the same cleverness; use the American West as a jumping off point for something lawless and fantastical.

Gilman had a slightly different idea of lawless and fantastical than I’d let myself expect; in The Half Made World, the American West is literally unformed, a chaotic dream-like wilderness which has to be tamed and brought into line not just with the rules of civilisation, but the laws of science. In less disciplined hands, this could have turned into a boring acid-trip, but Gilman keeps a lid on it, throwing in just enough unsettling imagery to keep the read off balance but not so much that I got put off the book completely.

So, who is bringing order to the chaos? Horrible people, that’s who. Far off to the East it all seems peaceful and bucolic and dare I say European, but out on frontier, the battle is between the Line and the Gun. The Line are horrible people imposing a grisly mechanised dystopia on the expanding frontier, crushing everything in their path and replacing it with mills which appear to be literally dark and satanic. Running their show are the Engines, a group of demons who’ve taken physical form as trains. Clearly, these are the bad guys. Nope; over in other corner are the Gun, a bunch of anarchists wrecking everything for the lulz, each a crazed and almost indestructible individual possessed by a demon-infested weapon, every last one of them an anti-hero in business for himself and whatever it is that the Lodge of the Guns is planning. So they’re the bad guys...

Everyone is bad guys. There’s an asylum for the wounded of this endless war, and it’s under the protection of a guardian spirit, which seems quite promising and non violent at first, until you discover that the spirit feeds off misery and suffering and is only guarding the hospital the same way that a farmer guards his cattle.

But it’s still an arresting and individual vision. Creedmoor, our protagonist for the Guns, is an antihero who in any other book would be on the road to redemption, or at least some kind of bastardry so magnificent that it saved the world by accident; in The Half Made World he just goes right on being despicable despite his half hearted best intentions. Liv Alverhuysen’s well-meaning psychiatrist has her very own Hodor, who would be her stalwart companion through all adversity in any other book, but gets left behind as soon as the going gets tough in the back half of this book. And is probably all the better off for it, too. Liv’s the nearest thing we get to a good guy, and she’s an opium addicted basket case who doesn’t know what she’s doing or very much about where she’s doing it. Lowry, our viewpoint into the Line, is a disagreeable cowardly schemer who ultimately proves as interchangeable as any other part of the machine he serves. There’s nothing corny about these characters or the way they get from a to b, but they’re hard to like.

And in the end, having ground just about everything to powder in a chase after the novel’s Maguffin, whatever’s still hidden in the broken memory of a demented former general, the narrative peters out gracefully, leaving us to wonder what’s going to happen next. And yes, there’s a sequel. Which appears to be a jaunty picaresque memoir by a minor character in this book, so heaven knows if there’s ever going to be any clarity as to what happened at the end of this one ….