Friday, 17 May 2013
From the outset, it’s clear the developers have attempted to maintain a cinematic experience in this game. The titles and original music by James Horner create the perfect atmosphere, and we’re assured by this beautifully rendered intro that we’re in safe hands. From then on the backstory establishes the game’s scenario: explore the Sulaco…
The film’s original sets are replicated well, but the lack of options for setting up the game’s video display (screen brightness, position) cause an early frown, as the game is very dark, and the position of the HUD is clipped slightly on my 46" set. I shook off these two minor niggles and discarded my frown, unaware at such an early stage it would return with a vengeance very soon.
The characters are stereotypical for military FPS: gravel-voiced grunts, mirroring my frown of earlier, looking as though they’ve just walked out of a WWF game and donned combats. They lead you onto the Sulaco where the ship’s cryogenic sleep chamber is perfectly realised. Other areas appear bereft of creativity with unimaginative repeating corridors, decorations and patterns. My frown now began to creep back, as the textures lacked detail, the controls rather jerky and somewhat “heavy”, the continuing darkness (lacking contrast) maintaining for an obvious “what’s in the shadows?” effect. When Michael Biehn’s character, Corporal Hicks, makes an appearance you’ll be forgiven for thinking things are on the up. They’re not, as the likeness to Michael Biehn is utterly terrible, and the actor performs voice duties with an obvious lack of enthusiasm.
As the game “progressed” down to LV426 and the settlement of Hadley’s Hope, nothing much changes I’m afraid. The darkness continues, and as the first xenos appeared I shook my head. The detail and colour gamut are straight out of a 1990s effort, a betrayal of gamers and fans of the Alien series alike. The xenos are cartoony, perfectly matching their adversaries. The game then leads you from one “You gotta push this so we can do that” objective to the next. Character is non-existent, leading me to skip the story segments to see if things would improve and if I’d care. They don’t and I didn’t.
Then I found myself climbing into a Power Loader, sealed in an arena with a big “Boss” xeno, accompanied by its smaller cousins. The boss was instantly dispatched by a choking grip from the loader’s claw, only for the boss to die and fall through a wall. The smaller xenos kept on coming, and coming, and coming, until it was obvious after five minutes of repeated play the software had glitched. Reset. I plodded on, from one badly rendered environment to the next, unimpressed by the ability to “upgrade” my weapons with either an extended mag, silencer, or telescopic sight, or collect movie characters’ weapons, with only a “sneak by” level providing me with any thrills (in spite of the xenos looking like men shuffling in uncomfortable rubber suits). Finally, after eight or so hours of play, the whole shoddy affair was over, and I breathed a sigh of relief and groan of sorrow. “Game over man, GAME OVER!”
Indeed, and not a moment too soon. Save your money. 2/10.
Monday, 13 May 2013
Having said that, I can now go on to discuss A Game of Groans by George R.R. Washington (chortle!) (Virgin, pb, 232pp), and, while acknowledging that you might well find this parody hilarious, explain why I thought it such a miserable, joyless experience. It just isn’t funny. I read the entire book stony-faced, never cracking a smile and laughing just once, on page 128, at the name “Lord Analwarts Candlestick”. Even that was a quick, thoughtless bark rather than a sign of true appreciation, mentioned here only to pay the book its due, small as it is. Most of this book’s jokes revolve around wind-breaking (chapter one begins “Allbran Barker broke wind”). Normally a fart joke is all I need to make me laugh (Brent Spiner’s inadvertent squeaking in The Master of Disguise was so funny our children came downstairs and asked us to laugh more quietly so that they could sleep) but these weaker emissions dissipated without provoking the slightest mirth.
The plot is basically that of A Game of Thrones, with the threat from the north here being the Others, though in a typically pathetic running joke they want to be known as “The Awesomes!”, and interject to say as much whenever other characters mention them. If you’re not laughing yet, you will be when you hear that the Others (“The Awesomes!”) are Harry Potter, Lord Voldemort, Darth Vader, Spock, C-3PO, Aslan and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Hilarious!
The book has one notable feature. After all the jokes made in the UK about those daft Americans who’d think The Madness of George III a sequel, or couldn’t have coped with the Philosopher’s Stone, here’s a book whose subtitle has been changed for our benefit, from A Sonnet of Slush & Soot to A Parody of Slush & Soot. Presumably because we wouldn’t have got the joke (it’s rather shorter than A Song of Ice and Fire) and would have thought it actually was a poem.
Would that the solicitous soul who changed the title for we simple British folk had read the book itself, at least to page two, because then we would have been spared what looks like (unintentionally, I’m sure) the most racist joke I’ve encountered since, well, since I left Keighley. I’ll give the American author a pass on that (a similar gaffe was once made by Guy Gardner, to his writer’s horror), but the writer must take the blame for turning abused and exploited women from the original into raging nymphomaniacs, or having a tribe talk in Ooga-booga language (even if they are pretending). Whether having the Jon Snow character speak Spanish, with his every utterance translated in footnotes, is offensive or not is for Spanish speakers to decide, but it makes for desperately feeble, tedious humour.
A Game of Groans is so poor that, not having read the George R.R. Martin original (so admittedly I may have missed the nuances of some jokes), I began to read through it, ignoring the surface attempts at humour to discern what I could of the original inspiration hiding within, like reading Plato to get a glimpse of Socrates. Daft, but I had to find a way to get through this enthusiastically, relentlessly, ruthlessly (because you just know it was written to order) unfunny book. I tried reading it with a bottle of Crabbies on the go, and I tried reading it after watching episodes of New Girl and The Big Bang Theory that had me in stitches, and both times it still fell flat. Or to put it another way (as the book does at p. 184): “Ever watched Anymal House while sipping on grog, gnawing on a turkey leg and rubbing a cheese grater across your stomach? It was a lot like that.” It’s less funny than Meet the Spartans and takes three times as long to get through. It’s also surprisingly unpleasant about the writer whose work it is exploiting. But if you enjoy this I won’t judge you, so long as you don’t judge me for liking Happy Gilmore and Freddy Got Fingered.
Friday, 10 May 2013
When people who were born in the twentieth century grow old and look back upon their lives, one topic they are sure to reminisce about – to the utter bafflement of those younger generations who dutifully will now send forth their avatars to visit – is that of the secondhand bookshop; a dying breed even today, but each with its own idiosyncrasies and charm, its unique layout and ever-changing stock, its worn carpets, creaking floorboards and double-stacked shelves (or occasionally just high-risen piles that have become structurally integral), its ensconced, often erudite owner and of course its ever-curious and -acquisitive, peripatetic clientele of book-loving nomads, who whenever they arrive somewhere new find themselves drawn inexorably to the tell-tale bargain bins out front, and then nosing forward and inside, lungs swelling contentedly at the heady inrush of old book smells.
Ironically, what has doomed these esteemed bastions of the well-thumbed, pre-loved book is not, as one might have soothsaid, a groundswell of illiteracy, a flash fiction mentality or some mindless and storm-blown reverence for the blog-ridden txt (even if we oldsters-in-the-making tend to bristle more at such irritants) but rather an electronically expanded horizon and the gobsmacking globalisation of the bookshops in question. The world is now a warehouse. Bowerbirds of the printed word may line their nests merely with a click of the beak and have their eclectic reading materials delivered from anywhere on the planet. Moreover, with the advent of print-on-demand and ebooks, an author’s back catalogue need never be out of print; rather, the capacity exists for all heretofore-rare tomes to be stored and made available, without appreciable overheads, direct from the publishers. Bibliophiles be warned, the cursor is well and truly blinking on the wall.
Much though one might fulminate against this general affront to the way things were, nevertheless there must lie some insidious appeal in being able to lurk at home like a Bandersnatch and gratuitously just reach out and latch on to those skittish works that never previously strayed within range or set timorous foot in a secondhand bookshop. Such undeniably is the case with Timothy Zahn’s novel A Coming of Age, which first appeared in 1984 – the same year that Zahn himself came of age as a SF writer, winning a Hugo Award for his novella Cascade Point – and which now has been re-released in both POD and e-formats. So much attention has Zahn garnered over the last two decades for his serial novels and involvement with the Star Wars universe, that new readers might easily have overlooked the quality (indeed, in some cases the existence) of his earlier, stand-alone novels and shorter fiction. Gratifyingly, this need no longer apply. A few minor typographical errors notwithstanding, each bookshop owner’s dark plight becomes here the SF lover’s gain; and not just YA readers (who doubtlessly will be drawn in alongside the fourteen-year-old protagonist) but anyone who has cultivated an appreciation of clearly written, well developed, genuinely imaginative, ideas-driven science fiction.
The crux of Zahn’s scenario in A Coming of Age is the powerful telekinetic abilities that all children of the planet Tigris gain from five years of age and then lose upon entering puberty. The resulting power balance has considerable ramifications for Tigrian society, and yet Zahn explores this with the subtleness almost of peripheral vision, all the while keeping his readers absorbed and focused on two major (and one minor) intertwined storylines. The first of these centres on Lisa Duncan, whose childhood position of responsibility is about to segue (or perhaps plummet) into a daunting new adult life, her coming-of-age fears pre-empting an illicit interest in literacy and so bringing about an upheaval in her cosy but strictly regimented world order. The second follows the investigation of police inspector Stanford Tirrell and his preteen right-hand man Tonio as they search for a five-year-old boy they believe to have been kidnapped by a “fagin” – unscrupulous criminals who by proselytising and brainwashing exploit children for their teekay abilities. Zahn mixes urgency with suspense in recounting the various intrigues of A Coming of Age, but in contrast to some of his later novels – The Icarus Hunt, for example, or The Green and the Gray – makes no attempt to sustain one overriding mystery throughout the course of the story. Instead, he moves his twin plots forward on carefully laid tracks of dramatic irony: tantalising; revealing; forever taking the reader into his confidence, but only sufficiently to show the protagonists drawn deeper and deeper into peril.
Because A Coming of Age is so deeply enmeshed in its underlying conceit, each plot progression brings creeping with it a deeper appreciation of the (slyly dystopian) child/adult dynamic that Zahn posits. In this sense even the one slightly jarring feature of the book – Lisa’s dropping back to the periphery as events necessitate Tirrell’s greater involvement – can be seen less as a shortcoming and more as a young novelist’s aptly placed piece of discord, the disparity serving to resonate, however unnervingly, with adolescent ignorance and trepidations concerning what the future might hold. For those of us who would have been young adult readers when A Coming of Age was first released, such misgivings have long since been replaced with a stomach-pitted fear for the world’s secondhand bookshops (in all their dwindling number). The novel itself, however, has lost none of its allure or relevance – thirty years on and Zahn’s early work is every bit as fresh and compelling as when first it hit those musty shelves.
Tuesday, 30 April 2013
This issue features five science fiction stories: "Diving Bird" by Madeleine Beresford, "Through the Ages" by Gary Budgen, "Quasar Rise" by Douglas Thompson, "Dodge Sidestep’s Dastardly Plan" by Howard Watts, and "Flight" by Mitchell Edgeworth, plus my accidentally topical editorial about leaving Facebook and two dozen reviews from Jacob Edwards, Douglas J. Ogurek, Howard Watts, John Greenwood, Harsh Grewal and me.
The cover is by Howard Watts, illustrating his own melodious, murderous fiction confection.
Reviews in this issue: Counter-Measures, Series 1, Adam Robots, Celebrant, A Coming of Age, A Conspiracy of Alchemists, Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks, The Dog Stars, Moscow But Dreaming, 9 Tales of Henghis Hapthorn / The Gist Hunter, Randalls Round, A Red Sun Also Rises, A Town Called Pandemonium, Batman: Knightfall, Vol. 2: Knightquest, Doctor Who: The Crimson Hand, Dreadstar Omnibus, Vol. 1, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Borderlands 2, Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome, Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Rise of the Guardians / Hotel Transylvania, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 and Warm Bodies.
Paperback edition: Amazon UK / Amazon US
Epub version (free)
Mobi version (free)
PDF version (free)
Kindle Store: Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com
Douglas Thompson is by now a TQF veteran, several of his stories having appeared in these pages. He is the author of seven books: Ultrameta (Eibonvale, 2009), Sylvow (Eibonvale, 2010), Apoidea (The Exaggerated Press, 2011), Mechagnosis (Dog Horn, 2012), Entanglement (Elsewhen, 2012), with Freasdal and Volwys & Other Stories due in late 2013 from Acair and Dog Horn Publishing respectively. “Quasar Rise” will appear in the latter. For more information on Douglas see: http://douglasthompson.wordpress.com.
Douglas J. Ogurek reviews Breaking Dawn, Part 2, Warm Bodies and The Hobbit for this issue. His work has also appeared in such publications as the BFS Journal, Dark Things V, Daughters of Icarus, The Literary Review, Morpheus Tales and WTF?! He lives in Gurnee, Illinois with the woman whose husband he is and their five pets. His website: www.douglasjogurek.weebly.com.
Harsh Grewal reviews Randalls Round in this issue. His work hasn't previously appeared in TQF, but he contributed to our previous magazine New Words in the nineties.
Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides not just the cover to this issue, but also the story it illustrates and a pair of reviews! One review is of Borderlands 2, a game so good that when I finished it and sent it back to Lovefilm, after hanging on to it for three months, I bought a copy of my own.
Gary Budgen grew up and lives in London. He has had about twenty or so stories published in magazines and short story anthologies including Interzone, Dark Horizons and the Where Are We Going? anthology from Eibonvale Press. He can be found online at http://garybudgen.wordpress.com.
Jacob Edwards supplies us with many excellent reviews this issue, but remains indentured to Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways, editing #45 and #55 of their Inflight Magazine. The website of this writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist: www.jacobedwards.id.au.
John Greenwood reviews Adam Robots and The Dog Stars in this issue, in addition to his wide-ranging co-editorial duties.
Madeleine Beresford is a writer of speculative fiction, SF and fantasy. She lives in North London and is a member of London Clockhouse Writers. Four of her six-word stories appeared in the most recent BFS Journal.
Mitchell Edgeworth is a young writer living in the western suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. His fiction has been published in The Battered Suitcase and SQ Mag. He tweets as @mitchedgeworth and keeps a blog at www.grubstreethack.wordpress.com.
Stephen Theaker is the eponymous co-editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and supplies many reviews to this issue. His (my) reviews have also appeared in Interzone, Black Static, Prism and the BFS Journal.
Hope you enjoy it – let us know if you don't!
Saturday, 27 April 2013
So if you have this blog bookmarked under www.silveragebooks.com, change over to http://theakersquarterly.blogspot.com, and if you have our email address down as email@example.com, switch over to using firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our original, wonderfully yellow website is still available at www.silveragebooks.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk.
Your co-operation has been noted!
Friday, 19 April 2013
I shouldn’t really be surprised that the novelisation of a television story I’ve seen a fair few times didn’t have many surprises, but you can’t explain away feelings with logic, as many a Dalek has found to their cost. That aside, this was as efficient and fast-moving as Who novelisations tend to be (it’s why they’ve always appealed to me), tidying up the storyline nicely and adding much more depth, especially to the Dalek battles that end the story – for example setting up the black Dalek’s demise by showing the damage done to his psyche by networking his mind with that of a human child. (Though that does have the side-effect of making the Doctor, who thinks he’s literally talking the Dalek to death, look a bit silly.) Some of the dialogue (almost everything Ace says) lands with the same thuds that accompanied it on television, while other lines (almost everything the Doctor says) are among the very best the series has ever produced. (“Unimaginable power, unlimited rice-pudding”!)
It was interesting to read this after enjoying the recent Counter-Measures audio series from Big Finish, which picks up the story of the soldiers and scientists who help the Doctor help the Daleks help themselves to the Hand of Omega. On that subject, despite the added detail in this book, you are still left wondering why the Doctor sees a moral difference between using the Hand himself to destroy Skaro (which would have avoided putting Earth in any danger whatsoever), and tricking the Daleks into setting it off themselves. It’s not as if the Daleks were using the Hand itself to attack anyone, so it’s hardly an appropriate come-uppance for their actions. (Their actions in this story, at least.) Maybe the Hand wouldn’t have been able to reach Skaro’s solar system without the Daleks giving it a pass through their defences, though that in turn raises the question of why the Daleks, having their first bash at solar manipulation, would use their own sun!
This fiftieth anniversary edition is pleasantly packaged, with a superbly designed cover matching the other ten reissues (they look wonderful lined up on the Kindle Fire carousel) and a new introduction from the author. I’ve been put off reading many of my older Doctor Who books by the typesetting – the policy of the old BBC range was to shrink fonts down to fit a set number of pages rather than allowing books to run long, and the Virgin New Adventures were all over the place – and so it’s great to read these reissues on Kindle. A handful of scanning errors have cropped up over the three books I’ve opened so far, but nothing to put anyone off buying them. I went straight on to the sixth Doctor’s book in the series after this (Players, by Terrance Dicks), and after that on to the fourth Doctor’s (Festival of Death, by Jonathan Morris), all in the space of a week, which shows how much I’m enjoying them.
Monday, 15 April 2013
In reviewing the first few episodes of the programme I noted how much it resembled a modern-day take on William Hartnell’s period of Doctor Who, with irascible, addled genius Walter Bishop (John Noble) as the Doctor, Peter and Olivia as Ian and Barbara, and Astrid (Jasika Nicole) as Susan. The resemblance between the programmes grew as season three’s plot drew Age of Ghosts/Doomsday out to twenty-two episodes, and season five in its turn bears distinct echoes of Last of the Time Lords and A Good Man Goes to War, with Earth under a paradoxical invasion from the future, and the companions acquiring an adult daughter. If a sixth series had followed it would presumably have been about a new group of Observers stealing Earth from our solar system and a new Walter being cloned from the bits of his brain he usually keeps in a jar.
And one could easily imagine a sixth season, that being part of the reason this fifth season disappoints. With this planned as a final, short series you might have expected it to be packed with plot, betting everything on a final roll of the dice, but that’s not how it feels. The ongoing storylines about Olivia’s peculiar powers, Peter’s parentage, Walter and Belly’s science secrets and the war with the alternate universe were all more or less resolved in previous years. That leaves the Observer storyline: who are the strange, hairless men who turn up to watch at times of crisis, and what are their goals?
In season four we had a brief glimpse of a future ruled by them, and season five picks up that story, our heroes freed from amber and joining the resistance. Unfortunately, under prolonged examination this future is barely distinguishable from the world of The Adjustment Bureau, and the heroes spend the entire season on a drawn-out treasure hunt prompted by video cassettes carved out one by one from Walter’s ambered laboratory. The season’s arc is basically that Walter has forgotten the plan. At first I saw this as a quirky reflection on his character, but as it went on and on it seemed ever more contrived, especially when the amber itself presented a much more obvious way of achieving their goals (I won’t explain more to avoid spoilers).
The modular nature of Bad Robot television like Alias, Lost and Fringe, with each season establishing a new status quo, does much to keep them fresh, and I like that about them, but Fringe could as easily have finished after any of its other seasons, and another season could easily have followed this one. That seems unsatisfying. It was always impeccably produced, the special effects always gorgeous, the actors perfectly cast. I enjoyed watching it. If it had ended after season one I doubt we would have found anything better to watch instead (we would probably have settled for Warehouse 13). I will miss it, and even now I think it had the potential to be one of the greats. If it didn’t quite get there, at least it never stopped trying.
Monday, 8 April 2013
It’s fair to acknowledge that the book seems to be written for a readership half or perhaps even (unwelcome as it is to admit) a third the age of this reviewer, though this isn’t apparent from its packaging. Its moves are predictable, but worn-out as I am, I’m not yet entirely tired of watching people fall in love, and at the book’s best it comes close to the breathless charm it pursues. That our sparky girl pilot will fall for the sexist who purses his lips in such a beautiful way is never in doubt. At first she’s all, “I’d rather eat my own foot than marry a man like you”, but even before the conversation is over his “animalistic, almost predatory” ways are making “little tremors sift through her”. Later she does “her best to ignore the strange quickening she felt in her chest when he smiled at her” and his look sends “a ripple of apprehension through her, right to the tips of her fingers”.
It’s all intended to be very romantic, and it would be a lie to say my heart was not at times stirred, but he’s not the kind of guy you’d want your daughter to show an interest in, with his rather rapey tendency to declare that “I can’t be held responsible for what I might do next”, his eyes “dark with desire”, if she doesn’t leave him to his brooding. There’s an irony in Elle’s rather ageist and selfish response to meeting one of his former lovers: “The old crone was jealous, Elle realised. It was very creepy to behold.” It isn’t half as creepy to behold as her own romance with this long-lived Lord Darcy wannabe, and comments like that give the book a slightly unexamined, naive feel.
Certainly don’t buy this book for its science fiction or steampunk elements. The goggles on the cover are not misleading – there is a gyrocopter ride, albeit one revealed later to be less than entirely steam-driven – but they highlight a minor aspect of quite a conventional romantic novel. Like Twilight (the film, at least; I haven’t read the book), it’s essentially a series of long, soulful conversations between star-crossed lovers, and at times – usually when there was a bit of action and fighting, and before the verbal sparring went on a little too long – I quite enjoyed it. But it was a book I read to the end because I don’t like to leave books unfinished, not because I thought anything unmissable was going to happen.
Friday, 5 April 2013
Unlike the roughly contemporaneous introductions of Kyle Rayner as Green Lantern and Connor Hawke as Green Arrow, there was clearly never any intention of Jean Paul Valley being Batman for anything more than a short period, and so these stories see talented writers and artists (including Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant, Jo Duffy and Barry Kitson) marking time until the real Batman returns. Typically silly multi-issue stories feature a punk rock Three Stooges and a film producer funding the Joker’s directorial debut: a film about killing Batman. We don’t get to see the miraculous healing of Bruce’s back, surely the most significant event of this period, nor do we ever really see why Valley would want to be Batman; he doesn’t like the costume, the methods, the city or the colleagues that come with the job.
The entire book feels like an extended raspberry to the comics fans of that period: you wanted Batman to be tougher on criminals, to wear more armour, to be more in line with other nineties characters? Well, here you go, and it’s crap, isn’t it? They don’t even have the guts to let the bad Batman be really bad. Assuming no one ever gets seriously hurt in all the car crashes he causes, his worst crime is (while in the midst of a pseudo-schizophrenic episode – he’s plagued by hilarious visions of his dad and Saint Dumas) to not save Abattoir, a mass murderer, from falling to his death, which also results in the death of a man Abattoir had kidnapped and hidden away in a death-trap.
Bruce Wayne doesn’t see any of this happen, but it motivates him into coming back angrily to reclaim his cape (which he manages in book three, before immediately giving it away again!). He seems to be perfectly happy in retirement up until then. This book doesn’t give us a heroically broken Bruce Wayne, but instead a feckless idiot who handed over his Batcave to a maniac, with the kind of due diligence you’d expect from his public playboy persona. In fairness to Bruce, this view of him may be unfairly shaded by this collection skipping over his adventures in Knightquest: The Search, a storyline which ran in Justice League Task Force, Shadow of the Bat and Legends of the Dark Knight.
The book’s a disappointment from start to finish. Its final ignominy comes in the introduction to Volume 3, whose writer gets important details wrong: they clearly couldn’t be bothered to read this. The format is a good one, though: hundreds of pages, well-bound, bright printing, a nice open spine. The Essentials and Showcases were brilliant in their day (I must have fifty or more of them), but the lack of colour hangs heavy upon them now that we can buy digital comics in colour just as cheaply. I hope this becomes the default format for archive material in paperback; I’m sure it will be used to reprint better material than this.
Comparing this collection to Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin shows just how poorly this book exploits the storytelling potential of a new Batman. Comparing it (and its two companion volumes) to Christopher Nolan’s magnificent, blistering The Dark Knight Rises serves as the best possible illustration of the adage that bad books make great films.
Monday, 1 April 2013
So: I've taken ten of those bits mouldering at the back of my reviews closet and put them up on Goodreads. Don't expect much and you won't be disappointed!
- Star Trek: The Next Generation / Doctor Who Assimilation2, Vol. 1, which unusually for me I read as single issues as they were published, got three stars, mainly for "including a team-up between two of the greatest ever hosts of Have I Got News for You".
- Witch Doctor: Under the Knife also gets three stars: "the first story is very derivative of the Necroscope series"
- Strontium Dog: Search/Destroy Agency Files, Vol. 1 is another enjoyable three-star comic: "I adored Wagner and Grant’s stories for Doctor Who Weekly; I wish I’d known back then that there was practically an entire comic of their work over at 2000AD every week."
- The Sticky Situations of Zwicky Fingers by Rhys Hughes: "Full of ideas and imagination."
- I didn't get far into or get on with Isis Unbound by Allyson Bird, though "there were some good things in the parts I read".
- Saga, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, another one I read as single issues, got four stars from me: "I'm happy this exists."
- Red Sonja Digital Omnibus, Vol. 1 by Mike Carey and lots of others got three stars: "Quite good fun, despite Sonja’s occasional tendency to talk out of her bum".
- The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009: "Anyone could put Emma Peel and Mina Harker together in a comic, but only Alan Moore could make it so worthwhile."
- The Boys, Vol. 8: Highland Laddie: "Best use of a tapeworm since Simon Louvish’s Your Monkey's Schmuck."
- The Boys, Vol. 9: The Big Ride: "I’m slowly being driven mad by 'discreet' being spelt 'discrete' in all of these books."
NB: none of these books and comics were submitted to us for review – these were all things I bought. Once we've read something submitted for review, it gets a proper review, even if it takes us years and we do have to read the whole blinkin' thing again!
Sunday, 31 March 2013
Every vote matters! In every category!
If there is nothing you wish to vote for this year, or if you are not keen on awards in general (because, let's face it, the idea of pitting one book against another in mortal combat is, while fun, not without its ridiculous aspects), I would be grateful even for empty voting forms, just so I know we reached you.
Be strong, be vigilant, be voting!
Monday, 25 March 2013
I choose to believe in Adam Roberts, not merely because of the twelve previous novels Gollancz have put out in his name, but because most of the stories in this collection have already appeared in other anthologies and magazines over the past decade, and I find it hard to imagine the publishing industry as a whole managing to pull off such an elaborate Venus on the Half Shell style hoax. Denis Bayle, the invented science-fiction author at the centre of this puzzle, is rather a pathetic figure, floundering from one sub-genre to the next, stumbling on popularity with his space operas of the sixties and seventies, but baffled by cyberpunk, finally meeting his demise while still mired in the first draft of an opus described as "A La Récherche Du Middle Earth Perdu".
I got the impression that Adams is a speculative writer rather than a post-modernist playing with genre conventions. Perhaps I've been unduly influenced by the toy robot on the front cover: initially some of the shorter pieces put me in mind of a series of intellectual whirligigs, shooting off ideas in many directions. It's true that many of these brief pieces are too short for much of a plot, and occasionally dispense with it in favour of a startling "what if" and some dialogue between two characters (robots, souls in the afterlife, scientists) to explore the consequences. What if souls got bored in Heaven, because what they really craved was new information, and only Hell could provide such variety? What if irradiated forests around Chernobyl had become a kind of organic supercomputer? What if we put anti-psychotic drugs into the general water supply, just to make everyone that little bit nicer to one another? Given Roberts's flair for conversational zing, this is often all that's needed to keep the reader entertained and intellectually needled.
Sometimes the speculations wander outside the normal sf territory: in "And tomorrow and", Roberts applies a bit of Stewart Lee style pedantry to Macbeth, following the logical consequences of the witches' spell until we find ourselves in something resembling the film Highlander.
Stylistically, he plays with narrative conventions, often addressing the reader directly (ribbing her/him for not keeping up with the science, for example). When done to death, this sort of thing can be a bore, but I found Roberts's authorial interventions rather charming, and helped me overlook what sometimes felt to this fairly scientifically ignorant reviewer as rather hand-wavy scientific explanations. The only story I can't say I enjoyed was the long narrative poem "The Mary Anna", but you have to admire the chutzpah of telling the story of a family business of interplanetary cargo ships in rhyming couplets.
The longest story in the collection - "The Imperial Army" - loses some momentum on its march through territory familiar from Orson Scott Card and the film of Starship Troopers. The other long pieces at the end of the collection are rather more ambitious and for my money the best. "The Woman Who Bore Death" creates a mythological narrative about the origins of death among a pre-scientific people, and owes a very honourable debt to Le Guin. "Anticopernicus" manages to combine what felt to me a very original speculation about extra-terrestrial life with convincing character-building and an engaging problem-solving plot about how an astronaut might survive a micro-meteorite impact. "Me-topia", in both its subject matter and elegiac charm, reminded me of Ray Bradbury (which perhaps shows how outdated my mental map of the genre is!) I couldn't say which of these was my favourite, but they're all serious (not over-serious!) science-fiction. There wasn't one of these stories that didn't leave me eager to get started on the next one. The range of ideas and styles is quite dazzling, but the later stories show a depth and erudition that one might not suspect from the slightly kitsch B-movie cover illustration.
Monday, 18 March 2013
This book differs from the two previous tenth Doctor volumes in having, for the main part, a single writer: Dan McDaid. (Jonathan Morris contributes a brief tale of “Space Vikings”, drawn from an annual.) McDaid is thus able to build a run of stories, which reads, and deliberately so during the specials year, like a traditional season of the television programme, constructed around an interesting non-companion, Majenta Pryce. She first appears as the time-meddling villain of “Hotel Historia”, held over from the previous book. For her crimes she ends up in a space prison, and in “Thinktwice” the Doctor runs into her again. Though he remembers her, she doesn’t remember him – or herself.
She employs the Doctor (or at least that’s how she sees their relationship) to take her to the world of Panacea, where she hopes to have her memory replaced. Along the way there’s a return to Stockbridge (“The absolute centre of the universe, Majenta, and don’t let anyone tell you different!”) and a reunion with Max, UNIT battling the Skith in Sydney harbour, a fishy tribute to The Spirit, a world where no one can speak, ghosts on the London Underground, and all sorts of other fun. This builds to a climax revealing the secrets of Majenta’s missing memory, and how that connects to a mysterious recurring image: the Crimson Hand.
It’s all entertaining, and for me is the best of the three Tennant collections, even if it shares with other tenth Doctor tie-ins a tendency to lean rather too hard on particular verbal tricks from the TV series – although that might just be another way of saying that the tenth Doctor’s voice here rings true. The book would obviously be of little interest to an adult who doesn’t enjoy Doctor Who, but that’s the worst I could find to say about it. The Doctor’s description of UNIT – “fantastically well-trained and expert tea-makers” – is almost enough to make the book worth reading on its own. Or at least it would have been, if you hadn’t now read it.
Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.
The commentary pages are as fascinating as ever: substantial, indiscreet and full of information. They show just how much work can go into something so frothy, the writers and artists involved working under a loving but heavy editorial hand. McDaid seems to have had scripts rejected by the dozen, and talks of curling up on the sofa following one rejection, almost in tears. Rob Davis, asked to illustrate the homage to The Spirit, was then told not to take it too far, since readers wouldn’t have heard of the character. It’s an entertaining book, but one wonders if it would have been all that much worse had the writers and artists been given a little more freedom. Those pages also reveal interesting bits about the parent show, for example that at one point the magazine staff thought there was a chance of the resurrected programme ending after the fourth series. Makes you wonder what they know right now.
The book’s great strength is the way it looks. It’s printed immaculately – it looks as good in print as other comics look on the iPad – and the artwork is very good throughout. It’s a treat to see Jack Staff creator Paul Grist’s work on the two episodes of “Ghosts on the Northern Line”, and Rob Davis provides a fun cartoon style on a pair of strips, but Martin Geraghty (“Thinktwice”, “The Age of Ice”, “The Crimson Hand”) and Mike Collins (“The Stockbridge Child”, “Onomatopoeia”) illustrate the bulk of the book, and it’s all very appealing; few TV tie-in comics are produced to this quality, and when they have been, it’s never been for such a prolonged period. I could throw out three quarters of my Star Trek comics without the slightest remorse, whereas the DWM strip has very rarely faltered. If I had the right words to describe it, I could have spent this entire review rhapsodizing about the colouring of this book by James Offredi, which is among the most glorious you’ll see this side of a Laura Allred comic. It’s like looking at a bed of flowers at the height of summer; this is a book my children pick up just to gawp at the pictures.
Friday, 15 March 2013
It’s not a book in which you’ll get every joke, and they can be relentless, but if you catch enough to make them count it can be a funny book; just one that’s best read a chapter at a time. In all honesty, two thirds of the way through I was sick to death of it. I took a break, gave it another chance, and I was in fact thoroughly sick of it! But I plugged away to the end and it was a decent book. Not one I’d outright recommend buying, but give the Kindle preview a try.
Friday, 8 March 2013
In an era of texting and tweeting and so many other technological temptations, this film gives credence to something that has taken a backseat in recent years: the face-to-face, technology-free relationship.
When Warm Bodies opens, R shuffles around a neglected airport with his zombie cohorts, and offers the viewer a treat that is a rarity in zombie films: inner monologue. That’s right, a sentient zombie. Seems preposterous, doesn’t it? But it works, and it adds to the film’s charm and humour. “This is what we are now,” thinks R. “This is a typical day for me. I shuffle around, occasionally bumping into people, unable to apologize or say much of anything. It must have been so much better before when everyone could express themselves, communicate their feelings and just enjoy each other’s company.” These thoughts are juxtaposed with a pre-apocalypse flashback in which the airport’s harried occupants, entranced by their technology, pay no attention to one another.
R and his best friend M go out hunting, where they encounter Julie and her crew on a medicine-seeking mission. R eats Julie’s boyfriend’s brains, then gains some of his victim’s memories about the young lady. Smitten, R rescues Julie from his hungry cohorts and brings her to the grounded airplane he calls home. As he gradually regains his humanity, R must keep his brethren and the even more threatening “bonies” (skeletal-like degradations of the zombies who’ve “given up”) from eating his find, while convincing Julie that he’s the corpse for her.
The chases and the fighting, compelling as they are, are not what makes this film a standout. Rather, Warm Bodies achieves its greatest allure in the quiet conversations in which R and Julie – don’t those names sound suspiciously similar to a famous literary couple? – get to know one another. In one fuselage scene, R plays Guns ’N’ Roses’ “Patience” for Julie. What a perfect anthem for what the film conveys.
Nicholas Hoult portrays R as a hoodie-wearing, shrugging, awkward young man. Take away the zombie makeup and add a smartphone, and he’s not all that different from the technology-
benumbed Gen Y male. While Teresa Palmer’s portrayal of Number 6 in I Am Number Four was a bit overblown, she plays a convincing, if not quite flawed enough, heroine in Warm Bodies.
If there were a zombie version of the Oscar’s (Zoscars?), Rob Corddry would deserve a “best supporting actor” nod for his role as M. Inspired by the blossoming relationship between R and Julie, M and his fellow zombies struggle to break free of the mindlessness that grips them. M’s clumsy quips (e.g. “Bitches, man.”) stand among the most humorous parts of the film.
Warm Bodies also serves as a declaration of the value of tolerance. When Julie brings R home to her zombie-hating father played by John Malkovich, R could just as easily be a person of another race, sexuality or religion.
At the risk of sounding fogeyish, I believe that technology, despite all its benefits, has a tendency to fragment people. Think about the dinner table at which Dad searches his tablet, Mom texts, Suzie updates her Facebook status and Timmy plays video games. Or what about the typical business presentation whose participants text, email, google… anything but listen to the speaker?
Warm Bodies and its references (e.g. record player, Polaroid camera, drive-through theatre) to a bygone era challenge viewers to put down the devices before they lose the elixir of the personal relationship. It holds out hope for that family, for those businesspeople and especially for those teens in the theatre who text throughout the film. In the film’s opening, R thinks, “I just want to connect.” One wonders how many young people, in a world full of violence, are having that same thought.
Warm Bodies serves up action, romance, suspense, literary allusion, violence, horror, John Malkovich, humour… everything that makes a film fun. But there is one thing that is conspicuously scarce: characters using technology.—Douglas J. Ogurek
Monday, 4 March 2013
Six of those tales also appear in the earlier collection, The Gist Hunter (Night Shade Books, ebook, 5336ll), along with a series of three stories about Guth Bandar (who appears as an intriguing supporting character in the novel Black Brillion), and four unrelated tales: “Shadow Man”, “The Devil You Don’t”, “Go Tell the Phoenicians” and “Bearing Up”. Bandar is a noönaut, an explorer of humanity’s collective unconscious, the Commons, where he encounters archetypal Locations, Landscapes and Situations and has to deal with the figures that populate them, known (though not to themselves) as idiomats. Part of the fun here is in identifying the myths, memories and folk tales in which (despite the chanting which is supposed to keep him out of sight and out of trouble) he becomes embroiled.
The stories in both collections are excellent, each a clever little thought experiment performed with style, humour and action. One has to recommend 9 Tales over The Gist Hunter, if only because it’s self-published and so the proceeds go directly to the author, who indicates in its introduction that any success the book achieves may lead to further Hapthorn stories. Both collections have formatting imperfections: 9 Tales lacks a built-in contents, and underline is used for emphasis instead of italics, while The Gist Hunter has a line of space between each paragraph (at least for me; these issues can sometimes be device-specific), but neither problem is likely to harm your enjoyment. It may not be a surprise that I went straight on to another of Hughes’ novels after reading these collections.
Friday, 1 March 2013
Although this is not a book that quite explains the author’s stellar reputation (the same could be said for the individual works of many science fiction greats; it’s a genre where great reputations are often built on consistently good bodies of work), I enjoyed it, especially the depiction of Captain Tephe and first mate Neal Forn, good men caught in a bad system. They are like children taught that believing in god is enough to make them virtuous, here tested to their limits by revelation. The gods of the book are interesting, each of them different: Tephe’s ship is powered by a Loki-esque trickster, while others are dignified, quiet, grovelling, obsequious. Those mentions encourage the reader’s imagination to wander past the book’s few pages to imagine what else is going on in this universe. The mixture of religion and space war makes it strongly reminiscent of Warhammer 40,000, while there are shades of Firefly in the sexual healing offered by the on-board Rookery and the Captain’s feelings for his head rook, but such comparisons are almost forgotten as the book plays its trump cards: the brilliant first line is matched by a climactic succession of memorable and surprising scenes, leading to a horrific and emotional conclusion.
Monday, 25 February 2013
In the first adventure, Threshold, by Paul Finch, the coalescing team has to investigate the activities of Professor Heinrich Schumann, a former Nazi scientist (played by Vernon Dobtcheff) whose experiments in teleportation have attracted the attention of something… from beyond! The long single episode format makes the story feel rather special, and the cast is excellent. As ever, Big Finish’s talent for sound design delivers the goods; whether in headphones or through a surround sound system it all (notably the throbbing teleportation machine, and a talking doll animated by an alien intelligence) sounds marvellous. A very good start to the series.
Episode 2, Artificial Intelligence, is by Matt Fitton, who puts the team up against a psychic computer, a “learning intelligence” built to run a spy network – and it speaks with Professor Jenson’s voice, thanks to a spot of industrial espionage by former colleague Professor Jeffrey Broderick (Adrian Lukis); all great fun. A neurochemist working on the project, Czech defector Dr Nadia Cervenka (enthusiastically voiced by Lizzie Roper), has a romantic past with Group Captain Gilmore that goes back to post-war Berlin; the encounter reveals how passionate Gilmore is about helping those who need it, even those who were on the other side of the war.
There are shades of Moonraker and Quatermass II (the latter perhaps acknowledged by the use of “Keir” as a pseudonym) in episode 3, written by Ian Potter, as the team investigate The Pelage Project. Pelage, a new industrial town, has sprung up out of nowhere with government approval, and fish nearby are dying in their hundreds, all at once, of “massive necrotic metastasis”. Like the first two episodes, this story features a memorable aural element: in this case an oppressive, controlling tannoy announcer (“Onward and upward!”), but the orders come from the Alan Sugar type who built this town of biddable workers to serve his construction plant: Ken Temple, played with by belief and gusto by Stephen Grief. He’s a man with both eyes on the future, and he expects the worst.
Episode 4, State of Emergency by Justin Richards, was for me the best of the series, featuring a fine turn from Duncan Wisbey as Prime Minister Harold Wilson. After Winston Churchill’s excellent team-ups with the eleventh Doctor, it’s only fair to have a Labour PM given a similar chance to shine, and Wilson’s well-known terror of a military coup provides the basis for an excellent story that feels like a proper season finale. As Sir Toby Kinsella, manipulative controller of the Counter-Measures group, Hugh Ross is superb in all four stories, each line delivered with the lizardly drawl of a Sir Humphrey Appleby, and this story seems him at his best.
A fifth CD/file takes us behind the scenes, and there’s the usual mix of straight-talking and polite professionalism, with the odd moment that hints at hurt feelings and creative disagreements along the way. One concern discussed is the need to distinguish the stories from U.N.I.T. adventures, which is why Professor Jenson, by way of a slightly awkward conversation in episode one, ends up in charge rather than Group Captain Gilmore.
Taken as a set, Counter-Measures, Series 1 is very satisfying. There’s a good team of characters, each with interesting, distinctive voices. Ongoing storylines, such as Alison’s relationship with her beau Julian, build gently without detracting from the stories’ individuality. Each of the four stories is a substantial adventure and all are deeply rooted in the period’s politics, hopes and fears, making the sixties setting much more than atmospheric window dressing. It would be easy to say that this would be good enough to appear on Radio 4, but in fact I like it rather more than most of the drama I hear on there. Despite all the Who stories and spin-offs they’ve already produced, Counter-Measures shows that Big Finish are still finding new corners of that universe to explore and new stories to tell.
Available to purchase here.
Friday, 22 February 2013
1. Returning to slavery-era San Francisco from the Chatham Islands, a convalescent Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) must put his faith in either the sickly smiling Dr Goose or a Moriori stowaway; he keeps a diary while wrestling with his conscience… 2. Acting as an assistant to a famous but cantankerous old composer, bisexual wunderkind Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) finds Ewing’s diary and is inspired to complete his own great work; when Frobisher commits suicide, he leaves the finished composition to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith… 3. Now an old man and a nuclear physicist, Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) shares a broken elevator with journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), who then becomes embroiled in a plot to cover up a nuclear accident-in-waiting; she subsequently drafts a novel based on the conspiracy… 4. Ne’er-do-well publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), having dismissed Rey’s manuscript, receives his karmic comeuppance when he finds himself on the run and imprisoned in a bogus nursing home; later, he writes a screenplay based on his ordeals… 5. Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a clone manufactured to work in a fast food joint, watches a snippet of Cavendish’s film after being liberated by union rebels; awakened to her plight, and that of her fellow clones, Sonmi broadcasts a public incitement to rebellion… 6. Living in a society where Sonmi-451 now is seen as a divine entity, post-apocalyptic goat herder Zachry (Tom Hanks) must choose between “Old Georgie” – a devilish vision whose whispered goads once saved him from cannibals – and Meronym, a “prescient” who would use her knowledge of the old technologies to send a distress signal to distant planets; ultimately, Zachry’s fate is determined by ripples spreading through time…
Those looking to locate Cloud Atlas somewhere within their cinematic experience should crane their necks no further back – be it with nostalgic gaze or crimped grimace – than Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic Magnolia (1999). Both films run close to the three hour mark; both embrace a creative freedom (albeit from different geneses – whereas Anderson, on a high from the success of Boogie Nights, was given carte blanche by New Line Cinema, Cloud Atlas was independently produced and financed); and both feature ensemble casts, not merely for the purpose of stud-fastening their theatrical posters (indeed, although Tom Cruise subsequently won a Golden Globe for his enthusiastically misogynist portrayal of self-help guru Frank T.J. Mackey – or what history may now show to have been method acting when the wind changed – Anderson at the time made a point of not over-publicising Cruise’s involvement) but rather to flesh out a collaged and in places tangentially linked potpourri of short life stories.
While Magnolia was a film as much about locale as it was an exploration of rutted, everyday tragedy and the more overt theme of happenstance so unlikely as to take on an aura of Fortean interconnectedness, Cloud Atlas scatters its six tales across time and place, ranging from the South Pacific (circa the mid nineteenth century abolitionist movement), through 1930s and present day UK, San Francisco in the early seventies, and then forward to a futuristic new Seoul and subsequently a post-cataclysmic, tribal Hawaii. Cloud Atlas is based on the eponymous novel (2004) by David Mitchell; but where Mitchell progressed sequentially through half each of the first five stories, pivoted on the whole of the sixth, and then reversed neatly back to the beginning, Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix; V for Vendetta) jump with whimsical, almost perverse abandon from story to story, thus taking the challenge and intrigue of Magnolia and stretching these to a point of disjointedness and gooey disorientation from which viewers must slowly, ever-so-slowly extricate their wretched and silicone bemired babel fish.
“While my extensive experience as an editor has led me to a disdain for flash-backs and flash-forwards and all such tricksy gimmicks, I believe that if you, dear reader, can extend your patience for just a moment,” narrates Jim Broadbent as the weaselly Timothy Cavendish, anticipating, presumably, any real life criticism that might be forthcoming, “you will find there is a method to this tale of madness.”
Yet, whatever method there is appears, even to those who previously have exhibited a penchant for deconstructing such plot intricacies, to be obfuscation almost for the sake of it; or at charitable best a deliberate contrivance aimed at sublimating traditional (albeit puzzled together) narrative meaning into a more intuitive, artistic, almost osmotic appreciation. While the merits of this approach are debatable (and certainly, each individual story is diffused of some of its impact when picked at this way, rather than being consumed in one or two sittings; the purist cannot help but contrast with Dickens’s – or for those of us too ornery to bother, Blackadder’s – more straightforward exposition in A Christmas Carol; or indeed, with Tykwer’s own less convolutedly inventive Run Lola Run), even if we are to take Cloud Atlas at some emotive but intricately masqued face value, it is clear that Tykwer and the Wachowskis were looking at a different page of the cloud atlas when adapting their cumulus from Mitchell’s original cirrus. Where Mitchell speaks of “predacity” – the unchanging propensity for humans, individually or in groups, to make ill-use of each other – Cloud Atlas instead takes the more metaphysical aspect of his vision (that is, the reincarnation of souls) and hints not at constancy, but rather the capacity for change – and, more specifically, self-improvement – over time.
This particular straw is floated in a voiceover by Tom Hanks as complicit stooge turned good-man-doing-something Isaac Sachs, just short of the ninety minute mark (when unforewarned and still baffled viewers might be expecting the film to wrap up), and would seem at first to give some significance to the fact that each actor in Cloud Atlas plays multiple roles, thus linking the characters across scenarios that otherwise would remain only tenuously related. Admittedly, there lies as well a prejudice motif swathed unrefined, perhaps unavoidable, right there on the surface; but the deeper, underlying theme remains personal integrity – the sanctity of the right-minded individual in standing against history’s dark wash – and it is here that Cloud Atlas is served poorly by its unremitting emphasis on presenting familiar faces: in the two UK segments the incongruity of recurrence merely highlights those stories’ irrelevance – though functioning well enough both as vignettes and within Mitchell’s take on humanity, these nevertheless constitute one third of the film’s screen time while adding nothing to the primary, soul-searching character arc featuring Tom Hanks’s and Halle Berry’s various incarnations. Indeed, with Hanks representing the only “soul” to undergo any development significant enough to span the entirety of the film (Berry remains constant, as does a resurgent Hugh Grant; well, mostly), when all is said, done and unravelled, the actors’ bi-, tri-, quad-, quint-, and sext-faceted incarnations, much though these may have proved gratifying from their own, professional standpoint, serve little purpose as a storytelling device, and so come across more as an overdone piece of faux-cleverness, or a poorly disguised attempt to keep the $100 million budget from growing any fatter and splitting off into separate organisms.
Notwithstanding their effect on the film as a whole, the actor/character dynamics are well played, with each of the leads giving strong performances, particularly within his or her primary story (even if a back-to-nature Hanks perforce calls to mind his role in Cast Away, thereby evoking aural flashbacks to poor old Wilson). It is a credit to Tywker and the Wachowskis that they have in any way melded together the six, quite disparate tales of Mitchell’s book; yet, while none of these are altogether lacking in merit when considered, uneviscerated, as single entities (contextual relevance aside, SF junkies undoubtedly will take close interest in dystopian new Seoul, with its clone-fuelled economy and dark futurism rising stark and unrepentant over the protruding tips of its mostly submerged predecessor), nevertheless it seems fair to conclude that the film treatment of Cloud Atlas has lost something in the mix, the inevitable jigsaw puzzle intrigue gradually giving way to dissatisfaction as the whole, in this distended case, proves to be in no discernible way greater than the sum of its parts. Granted, where the narrative causality of the links is flimsy – verging, some would argue, on puff-of-smoke illusory – at least some bond has been provided courtesy of a clever score by Tykwer and his long-time collaborators Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek; but for all that Tykwer and the Wachowskis should be applauded for the scope and audacity of their interpretation (they wrote as well as directed), nonetheless they should carry censure, also, for not committing more fully to that (admittedly hard-to-define) underpinning rationale by which their work clings to yet remains separate from Mitchell’s.
Upon release, Magnolia quickly found its niche as a film to be well-(though not always fondly-)regarded; and while Lana and Andy Wachowski have suggested – perhaps rightly, in many cases – that any maligning of Cloud Atlas need evidence nothing more than an ad hoc dismissiveness of those rare cinematic offerings that present viewers neither with an easy understanding nor the usual dose of formulaic expectations and click-of-the-fingers gratification, still this shapes as a dodge; by sacrificing clarity (of purpose, not just content) for complexity (no matter how artfully achieved), what they and Tykwer have demonstrated, ultimately, is not the shortcomings of appreciation by which everyday cinemagoers and professional critics are drawn together, but rather the subtle yet striking difference that exists still between a bona fide masterpiece and the mere grandiosity of a magnum opus.—Jacob Edwards
1. Puig, Claudia, “Dangerous Ground is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Turf”, USA Today (January 7, 2000) [cited in the Wikipedia entry for Magnolia (film)]
2. Mitchell, David, interviewed on BBC Radio 4 “Bookclub” (June 2007) [cited in the Wikipedia entry for Cloud Atlas (novel)]
3. Robinson, Tasha, “The Wachowskis explain how Cloud Atlas unplugs people from the Matrix”, A.V. Club (October 25, 2012) [http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-wachowskis-explain-how-cloud-atlas-unplugs-peo,87900/]
Monday, 18 February 2013
With such imagination and skill that it’s a pleasure to read despite the grim subject matter, the book catalogues the cruel ways in which women are disappointed, exploited and betrayed. In “Chapaev and the Coconut Girl” we learn the legend of the Coconut Girl, who pooped out lots of lovely gifts and was then murdered by villagers who resented the gratitude they owed her. In “Seas of the World” a husband tells a child a secret that breaks the mother’s heart. “Ebb and Flow” is a myth to explain the tides, as the story of Persephone explains the seasons: the daughter of the Sea kami Watatsumi begs husband Hoori not to look at her during childbirth, and of course he does. “The only happy stories you will ever hear are told by men”, she tells us. In “Kikimora” a young woman must sacrifice her own life, one that's just beginning, to bring life back to the city. In “Munashe and the Spirits”, Munashe hasn’t looked after his mother well, and she dies. Unlike many men here, he gets to (and wants to) make amends. Spirited off to wash a female being’s sore back, he is given a way back home.
Upon his return Munashe meets two abandoned, starving children, and neglected and orphaned children appear here frequently. In “There is a Monster Under Helen’s Bed” a little girl adopted from an orphanage is severely wounded by said monster; her new parents will be blamed. A girl is assaulted in “You Dream”; a boy intervenes with horrible consequences. “A Play for a Boy and Sock Puppets” features a sock puppet used in a centre for autistic children; after seeing the children mistreated, the glove escapes to find one of them in the outside world. The kikimora of “One, Two, Three” is turned into a wretched human child by an unhappy childless couple who catch it and cut off its hair. In “A Handsome Fellow” Svetlana (her beauty “heightened by hunger”) tries to keep brother Vanya and sister Yasha alive during the siege of Leningrad, but in her desperation takes help from the wrong man.
Other stories are less easy to categorise, but show Sedia’s range and invention. “The Bank of Burkina Faso” features one of the book’s best and most amusing ideas: two apparent spammers really do have money stuck in the mysterious bank of Burkina Faso, and they really do need a foreigner’s help to access it. “A Short Encyclopedia of Lunar Seas” is a quirky riff on the names of the lunar “seas”. In “Yakov and the Crows” an office worker feeds the crows that gather outside his window; other workers begin to poison them. The narrator of “By the Liter” discovers that booze left next to a corpse absorbs the deceased’s memories, and becomes addicted to the secondhand experiences. “Cherrystone and Shards of Ice” is set in a city where the dead live on in deaders’ town, where they struggle to stay cool to slow their decomposition. Like many men in these stories, protagonist Lonagan hurts a girl, albeit inadvertently: a deader who bangs her head, accelerating her decay.
“I feel my cheeks burning as if from a slap. How I hate that word, exotic. How I loathe it, how stupid I feel not to have realized until now that he spoke to me because I was exotic too, a bored quest for novel experiences with a minimum of investment and always at someone else’s expense.” After reading that passage on the exotic in “Chapaev and the Coconut Girl”, one would be wary of laying too much stress on that forming part of the book’s interest. Its (mostly) Russian settings and the unfamiliar (to this reader, at least) types of characters it portrays undoubtedly provide it with a degree of novelty, but the book’s interest comes as much from each story’s determination to stimulate: to express powerful emotions, to examine different lives, to understand how people manage to keep on living in the worst of circumstances, and in some cases why they don’t. It’s a book of clever, insightful stories about miserable people.