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.