Wednesday, 4 February 2009
So it was great to read this book of columns, and find a very respectable literary figure talking about books in just the way I like to, writing about them in context; in the context of his life, of other books he’s reading, and of books he’s not reading. Obviously talent-wise I’m a million miles away from Nick Hornby, but that shouldn’t stop me from trying to learn from his example.
I remember reading Fever Pitch in a single night (in a bedsit in Lille while on a year as a teaching assistant) and this book was just as more-ish. It arrived in the morning and I finished it before bedtime. Hornby’s observations on books are highly entertaining, and at times even quietly inspiring. It made a good companion piece to Daniel Pennac’s The Rights of the Reader, a book I read a couple of weeks before this one, and one which Hornby coincidentally has some kind words for in here.
This book has certainly made me want to read more of the magazine the columns come from. In my heart I know the Believer is pretty much a Sunday supplement on fancy paper, but fancy paper counts for a lot with me. I hate having inky fingers.
Shakespeare Wrote for Money, by Nick Hornby. McSweeney’s, pb, 132pp.
Fringe begins well, with a very good pilot. The budget is huge, there’s lots going on, and it all looks astonishingly lovely. Going on the evidence here, there’s nowhere in the world so lovely as Boston under snow. Subsequent episodes, though, have tended to be ever so slightly boring. Crucially, there are about twenty minutes in the middle of every episode where they get bogged down in some ludicrous experiment; that’s the twenty minutes that would be spent running around fighting monsters in The X-Files or Supernatural.
But all it would take to fix that problem would be one good script. Fringe’s bigger problem lies in its characters and their dynamics.
John Noble, as Walter Bishop, would be the best reason to watch the programme at the moment if it wasn’t so frustrating to spend half the episode stuck in the laboratory with him. He’s funny, annoying and driven, and if you’ve ever rued the fact that an older actor is unlikely to play the Doctor in the current series, you’ll enjoy this performance.
Olivia begins well, as a very strong (if somewhat irrational) character, but tails off quickly, and by episode five is asking some truly idiotic expositionary questions.
The bigger problem, though, is that they desperately need to give Joshua Jackson (as Peter) something to do. Ever since Dawson’s Creek it’s been clear that he’s a charismatic actor with a lot of potential. Fringe needs to give him a gun and let him be a protagonist – let him be a man instead of just his dad’s son. At the moment the male lead is a moaner and a follower, and they need to change that. Hopefully episode four, though not a great episode in itself, marked something of a turning point in that regard.
What you have here is pretty much the Hartnell Doctor with Ian and Barbara. But the Doctor can’t leave the Tardis, Chesterton has to babysit him there and doesn’t get to beat anyone up, and Barbara goes off on her own into adventures for which she’s rather ill-equipped.
Fringe is also reminiscent of more recent Doctor Who – Walter Bishop, like the seventh and tenth Doctors, already knows everything about every problem they encounter. In Doctor Who that’s a shortcut to get the action moving, but in Fringe half of each episode is spent waiting for Bishop to remember the things he already knows; solving the case is just a matter of waiting for him to recall his original research. They can’t keep doing that for long before it becomes very annoying.
One other problem is that the music needs to be toned down. At the moment the drama of every scene is amped up ridiculously by the soundtrack, leaving you too often with the feeling that something exciting is going to happen, and an entirely unnecessary sense of disappointment when it doesn’t.
J.J. Abrams’ name is the one being used to sell the programme, but it’s just as interesting to see Darin Morgan, an X-Files graduate, turn up in the credits. Like Supernatural, another programme providing a home for ex-X-Files staff, Fringe faces the challenge of finding fresh territory: the X-Files ran for nine seasons, there isn’t much it didn’t do. Supernatural has found its feet with a grand Moorcockian clash between law and chaos (and a good deal of humour, thanks to Ben Edlund), while Fringe’s fresh territory seems to be corporate villainy: in particular, what if Microsoft had technologies they weren’t telling us about? Not exactly thrilling stuff.
Fringe has been picked up for a full series, which is a good thing. It could easily have gone to the same early death as Threshold, another show that just couldn’t kick some bad habits, despite excellent production values, great behind-the-scenes pedigree and a strong cast. If Fringe continues to move in the right direction, it could be a great show, but for now it’s just a very pretty one. The snow in this programme is second-to-none!
Fringe, Episodes 1–5, Fox. This review originally appeared, in slightly different form, in Prism, the newsletter of the British Fantasy Society.
A zombie film set entirely in the Big Brother house didn’t seem like a brilliant idea when first announced – the potential for cheesiness was immense – but it gives the programme something that’s a huge benefit for any survival horror (or indeed any battle sequence): a convincing sense of place. We know the layout of the house interior, the way the camera runs surround it, and the way it’s all fenced off. If the viewer already knows the layout, they don’t waste any time trying to figure it out, and can spend all their time being scared. That’s where the special edition of Aliens wins out over the original version, and it turns out to be one of Dead Set’s greatest strengths.
The satire is of Big Brother itself, and is surprisingly harsh given the appearance of Davina McCall and the use of the actual Big Brother house, logo and music – for example there’s a scene where a producer literally rips the flesh from a contestant to feed him to the “public” as a distraction. Big Brother at its best is all about getting under the skin of contestants, and at its worst is all about throwing them to the mob – well done to Brooker for realising how well both elements lend themselves to zombie horror.
Dead Set is really well made, with a very strong cast. The director is perhaps a little too fond of 28 Days Later and its sequel, but there are worse films to imitate. Simon Pegg, writing in The Guardian, has criticised Dead Set’s zombies for running around (in imitation of the infected in those movies), but from what Brooker wrote in the same newspaper it sounds like the running got the programme into production after a long delay, so it would be unfair to be too critical on that point.
As a television event, it’s likely to be remembered by the general public for its premise rather than its plot or characters, but like the BBC’s Ghostwatch, that premise is good enough to ensure that it will be remembered.
It was scary, exciting, well-made and very unusual for British television, but it’s unlikely to knock the socks off aficionados of zombie horror. Dead Set is a skilled, frightening entertainment rather than a wholesale reinvention of the genre.
Dead Set, written by Charlie Brooker, E4. This review originally appeared, in slightly different form, in Prism, the newsletter of the British Fantasy Society.
Okay, so really he’s played by Justin Bruening, but you’ll be hard pushed to spot the difference – and that’s not totally meant as a criticism. As the episodes roll on, Mike and KITT (played by Val Kilmer) develop a comfortable tough guy/soft boy chemistry that isn’t a million miles away from Joey and Chandler.
This version of KITT has more tricks than Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He’s often compared to the Cylons, but the technology in this programme leaves that in BSG way behind: for example in episode two KITT reveals his 3-D object generator, a magic glove box! As the occasion demands, KITT’s a tank, a CSI lab or a submarine, and I’m sure that by the end of the season we’ll see him flying into space. That’s part of the fun – there’s a Thunderbird 2 factor, in that you never know what the gimmick will be in each episode.
As to the actual episodes, the initial two-hour pilot was dreadful and dull, but since then the programme has slowly but steadily improved, in entertainment value if not quality. A Fast and the Furious episode was followed by a Point Break episode, and then by another that had a touch of Queen & Country about it. Bikinis make frequent appearances.
There are lots of signs of behind-the-scenes wrangling. For example, in episode one Mike’s death is publicly staged, but then in episode two he bumps into an old friend, blowing the secret identity out of the water. There are two sets of cast members in the backroom staff – those from the pilot, and then those brought in for the ongoing series, which makes the base seem rather overstaffed. (In fact, as I write this it’s been announced that three of the cast – the three oldest, of course – are to be axed for the second half of season one.) Unlike some programmes, though, the changes seem so far to be taking Knight Rider in the right direction.
Like the original, this is a programme about a big doofus with a cool car getting into trouble. It’s dumb but fun. It would be a tragedy if everything on US TV went back to being this stupid and silly, but there should be room on the schedules for an hour of daft action. And it gets some things right: in contrast to Fringe, say, the heroes do at least take an active and determined role in events.
If the programme has nothing else to recommend it, in episode six it joins Family Guy, The Middleman and The Big Bang Theory in paying tribute this year to Doctor Who. A transparent attempt to win over the geeks who have been giving Knight Rider so much grief? Probably, but it went down very well in our house!
Knight Rider, Episodes 0–6, NBC. This review originally appeared, in slightly different form, in Prism, the newsletter of the British Fantasy Society.
But what I am sure of is that I’m already looking forward to re-reading the series in order, and that the superheroes in this book are some of the most well-rounded, rich and interesting in the DC universe.
I rather wish that Oliver Queen, Barry Allen and Hal Jordan had been given their own group title in which to grow old gracefully, instead of being shoehorned back into their old titles.
JSA, Vol. 7: Princes of Darkness, by Geoff Johns, David S. Goyer, Leonard Kirk et al. DC Comics, tpb, 256pp.
But it’s underwhelming, far too short, and anticlimactic. You spend most of the main quest gathering the three other great heroes of the age, but once you’ve pulled them together they help you in one big battle and that’s pretty much it for them. You’re left with the feeling that you could probably have sorted everything out without their help. And once that’s done, the game pretty much dribbles away…
Oblivion, on the other hand, had several separate quest threads, some of them nearly as substantial as the main story. What quests there are in Fable II lack variety (as do the clothes, weapons, people and creatures) – nearly every mission is simply a matter of whacking a few baddies with a weapon. Never mind Oblivion, Fable II is substantially shorter than even Mass Effect, and even then it’s padded out by collectathons and chores. A few days in, and even the holiest of heroes may find themselves trying to persuade their wives into a ménage à cinq, just to give themselves something to do.
The game world is described as open, but it’s actually very limited – the landscapes are beautiful, but you’re nearly always restricted to narrow pathways. There is very little of the joyous bounding across the landscape that characterises a truly open game world. That’s reflected in the maps – a series of tiny, discrete discs that are pretty much useless for anything.
Its biggest strength, aside from offering an accessible role-playing experience to newcomers to the genre, is probably that it really does feel like role-playing. In many RPGs the main character is little more than a cursor that you move around the screen. To an extent that’s true of your avatar in this game (the customisation options are very limited), but what truly takes you into the role is the interaction with other characters (silly as it can be), and especially with your family. Playing as a female character, I picked up a husband quite early on; you realise the game has something special to it once find yourself thinking, “I must go and see my husband” or “Why isn’t my husband wearing the new shirt I gave him?”
But its most innovative elements are also its most ludicrous – you can walk up to almost any stranger, and (as long as they swing the right way) get a proposal of marriage out of them after five minutes of farting, whistling and sock puppetry. You can take a job to pay the bills, but a well-qualified bartender can earn enough in a single night to buy the entire pub. You can get married, but even if your spouse is ready to divorce you for a lack of sex you will struggle to do anything about it until you buy a special book which teaches you how to say “Come back to my place”. You carry on earning rent from the properties you own, even when the Xbox is off – but as a result the best way to progress is often to stop playing!
The game is already notorious for some of its bugs. (Listen to the abbot when he’s talking to you – if you don’t the game is said to break entirely!) I was hit by only one, but it was a heartbreaker: my daughter wandered into a dangerous cave, but wouldn’t follow me out, and when I tried to go back in to get her the mission reset. After several attempts I had to leave her there to be feasted on by goblins, after which the game criticised my parenting skills. I still haven’t been home to face my husband. (Though my three wives have been very consoling, both individually and in concert.)
Overall, a great rental: it’s good fun, but you’ll have seen most that it has to offer after a week or so of playing it.
Fable II, Lionhead (dev.), Xbox 360. This review originally appeared in slightly different form in Prism, the newsletter of the British Fantasy Society.
I’m a bit torn with this book. It’s very well-written, there is some fascinating discussion of Japanese literature, there are lots of lovely details, and the central relationship, between Brett and an elderly widow, is touching and unusual. It’s a fine piece of writing.
However, Brett himself is spectacularly annoying and self-obsessed, the type of man you wouldn’t want to sit near in a coffee shop, let alone read about for a couple of hours, the type who talks endlessly about the things he’s going to do and all the trials he must go through to do them, but who never actually does anything at all. He’s a huge drama queen, basically.
That’s not necessarily a flaw: great books are written all the time about people much worse than Brett. But it does feel as if the book is on his side. A long time ago I read a bit of Barthes, and I did understand the point that the author’s intentions shouldn’t make a difference to our interpretation of the text of the book. Nevertheless, knowing the author’s intentions might have made a big difference to my feelings about Shrike.
If it was meant as a satire or even an unsympathetic portrait of a particular type of self-obsessed and obsessive man, then I loved it; it was absolutely spot on. The astonishing 5,000-word dream sequence (in a book of just 37,000 words) supports this reading, for one thing. It arrived at just the right time, too, just as the book was becoming almost unbearably maudlin. I found the book laugh-out-loud funny in other places, though I’m not sure if it was supposed to be. For example, in one crucial passage we read:
“Brett eyed the thicket curiously, as if for the hidden shrike. ‘Shrike,’ he said quietly, now looking about himself. ‘Shrike? Where are you, Shrike? Shrike … I think you’re a god.’”If the book’s meant as a serious portrayal of a tortured artist, I’d be inclined to think it was all rather silly and overwrought – but then I thought exactly the same thing about Notes from the Underground and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. There are some comments about praying, at least, that seem to be meant seriously:
“And those who did not pray? It was none of his business, of course, but it seemed to him that they must be like people who imagine they are watched every moment of their lives, and so cannot relax their guard at any point and do anything so embarrassing as … praying. They lived in fear of defeat by a non-existent observer – a strange attitude for those who protested more than most that there was no ultimate observer …”The narrator takes atheism to be a pose, rather than an honestly held belief (or an honestly held lack of belief, I should say). But then Brett is a terrible poseur, and poseurs do tend to assume that everyone else is playing the same game. It would be a naive mistake to assume that every author shares the opinions of his or her narrator, but in passages like this (and I’m aware of not being able to articulate this very well) I didn’t feel any tension between the narrator and the author. It felt that the book was with Brett on that point, that this was a chunk of wisdom dropped into the text like the educational bits on Japanese literature.
So, for the time being, my opinion of the book is in the box with Schrodinger’s cat: I both liked and disliked it. Whatever happens when that box is opened, Shrike is undeniably a stimulating and provoking piece of writing. The critical consensus will almost certainly be that this is a very good book indeed; it just didn’t quite do it for me.
Shrike, by Quentin S. Crisp. PS Publishing, hb, 112pp.
The passage where Pennac talks about difficult books, about there being the right time to read them, was interesting for me, since I’ve a set of his books (in French) that I’ve never managed to get into. Maybe it’s time to give them another try.
The Rights of the Reader, by Daniel Pennac. Walker Books, pb, 174pp.
Planet of Mystery is a playful, frivolous, serious and thoughtful book. If it has a flaw it’s that the reader may conclude early on that he or she has already seen this particular episode of Farscape (or Stargate, or Star Trek), but ignore that feeling, it’s much more interesting than that.
This is a story that operates on the subconscious level, using repetition and startling imagery to create a dream-like effect. It’s also very sexy.
In my sf reading I’ve pretty much gone straight from reading seventies-era paperbacks (and reprints of even earlier material) to bang-up-to-date review copies like this one. I haven’t read much from the intervening period, so this was my first book by Terry Bisson. I’m guessing it’s fairly untypical, but I’ll soon find out since it’s left me wanting to read more. After this trip to Venus, a voyage to the red planet seems appropriate.
Planet of Mystery, by Terry Bisson. PS Publishing, hb, 108pp.
The highlights are the two Nile Etland stories: “Trouble Tide” (a novella) and “The Demon Breed” (a novel). Both are tremendously entertaining. Schmitz had a rare knack for combining thrilling action with hard, soft and pseudo science, not to mention a genius for creating strong, independent, intelligent and capable women (of which Etland is yet another example) and believably alien psychologies. Both stories save gently amusing twists for their closing pages, another Schmitz signature.
Having read the other stories quite a while ago (before losing the book for a while), I don’t have much to say about them now. They weren’t quite Schmitz’s best, but they were good. I got stuck on “Balanced Ecology” – and then, weirdly, got stuck on it again in the anthology Bug Eyed Monsters – but after gritting my teeth and forcing myself to focus (it’s a tough one to read late at night) it turned out to be one of the best stories I read all year.
Reading the back of this book, it’s easy to be put off: “thousands of rough, ornery and tough-minded human worlds … when Trouble comes Hubward in large doses, there are an awful lot of armed citizens waiting for it…”
But don’t be put off! It may sound like recommended reading for right-wing libertarians, but Schmitz makes it clear that this is no utopia – there’s a terrible price to pay for that liberty: ordinary, non-violent people are never safe. They are plagued by villains and cut-throats, with no interplanetary police force to come to the rescue. And that’s where Schmitz’s heroes come in!
I very, very rarely think this about books any more, having so many still to read, but I would say it’s a virtual certainty that I’ll be reading this book again.
I’d like to express my immense gratitude to Eric Flint and Guy Gordon for putting this series of collected works together. They’ve done a wonderful service to this reader (and many others I’m sure), but also paid the most perfect tribute to a very special writer.
The Hub: Dangerous Territory, by James H. Schmitz. Baen, pb, 480pp.
The difference I guess is that this kind of space adventure is my absolute favourite kind of book, and E.C. Tubb nails it on the head. Everything the book does, it does with superb efficiency and skill. It reminds me of Jack Vance’s space adventures, and there is nothing I like to be reminded of more. Even if you’ve eaten a hundred chocolate biscuits before, the next one looks just as nice. This kind of stuff is my comfort food…
Derai (Dumarest of Terra #2), by E.C. Tubb, Arrow, pb, 188pp (1968).
Readers may also be surprised by other differences from the Gil Gerard-powered thrill-machine they know and love. Principally, this Rogers is fighting the Chinese, who live in floating cities above the US, leaving the Americans to scoot around in the forests below like overgrown Ewoks.
One thing that baffles is why, if the Chinese live on synthesised food and never set food on the ground, they would choose to park their floating cities over America rather than some nice part of China. Maybe it’s the sunsets! Or maybe they’re mining some natural resource not mentioned in the book. Or maybe the book does explain this point, and I missed it through reading late at night.
Modern readers may be rather shocked by one of the great victories of the Rogers-led resistance: they bring down a passenger liner and massacre everyone on board. Yay for the resistance…
This is a fast-paced, exciting, action-packed book. It stopped a little too early in the campaign for my liking (and in fact casually mentions how the campaign will conclude about half-way through, presumably to stop readers getting too anxious) but there is at least one sequel so I look forward to finding out what’s next for Rogers and his merry band of murderous terrorists. Free to read on Feedbooks.
Armageddon 2419 A.D., by Philip Francis Nowlan, Feedbooks, ebook, c.195pp (1928).
You get the impression here that Grant Morrison is writing the kind of comic he really wants to read, or maybe the kind of comic his characters would like to read. He seems to be having a very good time, as if the need to keep The Invisibles at least semi-intelligible (in order to keep enough readers to keep it going to the end) was a hobble he could cast off for this thirteen-issue series. It’s bizarre, difficult and challenging, but also very good fun. At times I got the same feeling I had when reading 2000AD as a kid: they shouldn’t really be letting me read this!
The artwork by Chris Weston is the best I’ve ever seen by him. This must have been quite a hard book to work on, and he does brilliantly. Whenever the words get overwhelming or just a bit too baffling, you can rely on the art to keep you ticking over.
The Filth, by Grant Morrison, Chris Weston and Gary Erskine. Vertigo, tpb, 320pp.
Nevertheless, this is an ideal book for anyone looking to get a quick critical grasp on Moorcock. The lack of footnotes may limit its academic usefulness, but a useful reading list is provided. The discussion of Behold the Man contains a couple of odd comments (apparently “Moorcock does not deny the truth of the crucifixion”) but is still very illuminating.
It was a perfect book for me: in my twenties I read everything I could that Moorcock had published up till then; now a new pile of his books has accumulated and I find myself a little daunted. Reading The Age of Chaos has left me primed to have a crack at the pile; recurring themes, characters and in-jokes have been dislodged from my memories and reactivated.
On the other hand, will that help me enjoy Moorcock’s new books? It’s the critic’s job to trace the connections between an author’s various works, to identify the themes and preoccupations, and Gardiner does an excellent job of that. But these books are already awfully interconnected; they lock together like chainmail. By stressing the connections this book gives an impression of sameiness and repetition.
But maybe it’s just me, an impression I was left with after reading far too many of them all at once a long time ago, an impression revived by this book, but not derived from it.
After all, reading Gardiner’s description of The City in the Autumn Stars, I didn’t recognise a thing: my overwhelming memory is of thinking, right, there’s Tanelorn, there’s Jerry, there’s Von Bek, and so on. Gardiner’s account has tempted me to re-read it: it’s entirely possible that I read it as a fan, looking for the things that fans look out for, rather than paying attention to everything that was new.
Still, I’m probably not alone in thinking Moorcock’s books would benefit from being pushed apart a little bit. When I first read most of them they were short, easily digestible books. Then some began to be collected in omnibuses. And then they were all gathered together into a fourteen-volume series of gigantic paperbacks. While I appreciated the value for money, it felt as if they were being drawn closer and closer together, like the stars at the end of the universe.
The Knight of the Swords, The King of the Swords, The Sword and the Stallion and The Hollow Lands were all winners of BFAs for best novel, but now they are permanently reduced to chunks of larger volumes. Even an important literary novel of ordinary length like A Cure for Cancer is only available as part of an omnibus, which is utter madness. (Shouldn’t it be a Penguin Modern Classic by now?) These books could really do with being treated as individuals again, given some room to develop separate identities. Maybe if ebooks take off and economies of scale stop being so all-important, that will happen.
The Age of Chaos: the Multiverse of Michael Moorcock, by Jeff Gardiner. BFS Publications, pb, 120pp (2002).
There’s a funny bit towards the end where Angel gets strangled. His response – “Grip… So tight… Losing air…” (p. 358) – somewhat contradicts his discovery that upon becoming a vampire (p. 235): “I… I can’t breathe!” I’ll claim a no-prize for suggesting that the soul collector’s attack in the later story is psychological rather than physical.
Despite my griping, it was still good to spend bonus time in the company of the Scooby Gang. It was like eating a packet of bourbon biscuits – enjoyable, but nothing like eating chocolate Hobnobs.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus, Vol. 4, Andi Watson et al. Dark Horse, pb, 368pp. Amazon US.