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.