Monday 31 December 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Oscar, Oscar on the wall, what’s the fairest sex of all? Snow White and the Huntsman, directed by Rupert Sanders.

It is not uncommon for the discerning movie-goer to bypass certain films on the big screen and instead proceed directly (if belatedly) to watching them on video (as those of us who remember wrist watches persist in calling it). Maybe the movie clocked up a mediocre score on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps it merely appeared dubious through dint of an overzealous poster campaign, the proliferation of which hinted at some nail-biting desperation from marketers behind the scenes. But in either case, a small screen outing often can be more forgiving, and in rare and sometimes joyous instances can turn up an overlooked nugget (gold, not fluff-covered chicken) of movie-making par excellence.

Snow White and the Huntsman fits this bill rather well, scoring 6.4 (IMDB) and 5.6 (Tomatoes) and generally presenting as a plain-packaged, discount store, rather cardboard-tasting pastiche of Lord of the Rings. (Although – spoiler – there’s no giant spider; the eponymous “Huntsman” is just Chris Hemsworth looking large boned and somewhat better fed than the rest of the oppressed masses. Disappointing.) James Newton Howard’s orchestral score tries overly hard to emote where undeveloped character relationships and empty, would-be rousing speeches have provided no basis for pulling on the audience’s heartstrings. Medieval warriors gallop around in heavy armour that nevertheless seems incapable of mitigating – let alone shaking off entirely – the effects of arrows fired even at long range. The climactic battle for the castle clearly shows that, despite lugging around a budget of $170 million, nobody thought to spend even $100 in taking a historian down the pub and chatting about how to present something that wasn’t 100 per cent anathematic to military common sense. In short, although SWATH might have made for a decent enough computer game (director Rupert Sanders’ speciality prior to this, his first feature film), in cinematic terms it comes across as terribly clumsy, verging on incoherent. Little surprise that anyone reading the script – Tom Hardy, Johnny Depp, Viggo Mortensen and Hugh Jackman, for example, though apparently not Hemsworth or Kristen Stewart – would see fit to turn down the titular roles.

Snow White and the Huntsman is, of course, a retelling of the Brothers Grimm classic Snow White; and one that leans far more towards the original “grimness” than towards Disney cutesy and happy-go-hi-hoeing dwarves. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel, as the actors overplay their parts and the plot scratches around like several chickens hatching soft boiled attack plans in the dirt, that the film may at one stage have been envisaged as a straight fantasy, and that the fairy tale element came into play merely as an excuse for having a slop bucket full of plot points that didn’t really make sense even within the established confines of the world being depicted. A sense of darkness, however, does not automatically make for a gritty and serious film. If one were to remake The Smurfs, for example, to a backdrop of cold war communism and the mushroom cloud pall of nuclear holocaust, it would still be The Smurfs. Gargamel wouldn’t be sinister and ruthless so much as prematurely balding. Papa Smurf would be festively Christmas- rather than tragically blood-red. And yet, even though one member of Snow White and the Huntsman’s lounge chair audience felt justifiably compelled to pause the DVD and ask, “This is meant to be serious, yes? Not a spoof?”, a more canny and devious assessment of SWATH will indeed show it to be far more than first meets the incredulous eye.

Of course Snow White and the Huntsman is a spoof. From the moment that Kristen Stewart escapes from the tower and sloshes her way through an oddly placed sewer, finds a conveniently grazing snow-white horse on the beach and rides it to its NeverEnding Story-esque sinkhole death barely a minute later (“Artax!”), naturally one can assume that the film is having a laugh at the expense of epic fantasy in toto. Not only does the aforementioned proliferation of armour afford less than minimal protection against arrows (an inverse mortality relationship comparable to the ineffectiveness of rapid-fire guns in action films), it in fact proves unable to withstand even the pointed caress of a tree stump! And if a troll should appear and attack out of nowhere, only to break off its instinctive savageness and go moping away once Snow White gives it her sympathetic gaze and shows that she understands it to be just stereotyped and misunderstood, then it follows almost without saying that the movie is not presenting this as something the viewer is expected to take seriously. It is, rather, a knowing wink. A farce. And as with all good farces, behind its cringe-worthy outer layer a serious point may be found lurking.

Cue the singing, bearded feminists.

Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention (and not merely wondering whether or not to bother pausing the DVD when taking a toilet break) surely will note the revisionist nature of Snow White and the Huntsman – the fact, for instance, that there are eight rather than seven dwarves, and that one of them is wearing a strap-on Womble mask – and the thrust of this reworking is quite clearly feminist in origin. Charlize Theron’s evil queen, for example, maintains her youthful looks by feeding on the life force of others – much in the way that the historical countess Elizabeth Báthory is said to have done – and she perpetrates this parasitic gluttony very much by way of retribution for the constancy with which men have objectified and mistreated women throughout history. (Snow White’s father, as a case in point, though still grieving the loss of Snow White’s mother, remarries the day after meeting Theron’s queen, purely on the grounds of physical infatuation.) Snow White herself is feisty to the point of channelling Joan of Arc. She survives not through being spared by a kind-hearted huntsman and sheltered by dwarves, as in the original tale. Rather, she escapes (albeit with the aid of a nail she hasn’t spotted anytime in the previous eight years or so), and when she meets the dwarves she empowers them, inspiring them to “grow” from maleficent marauders into stout-hearted heroes. Snow White is a modern woman and, as such, refuses to put up with the heroic predominance traditionally afforded to males. She kills the queen through her own initiative. She refuses to fall for or choose as husband either of her prospective love interests. Even in matters of religion, although praying to her holy father (who art in heaven), she has no qualms about seemingly dying and then rising from the dead. Jesus, it seems, may well have been a woman, and for all its apparent mediocrity, SWATH in essence is doing no less than making a case for the overhauling of outmoded fantasy preconceptions. It is nothing short of a feminist call to arms.

And yet, one might wonder…

In the late seventies and early eighties, ancient historians Garthwaite and Ahl wrote several academic papers on a literary device that they termed “safe criticism”; which, in essence, allowed a writer who feared for his safety to offer up some negative viewpoint disguised as praise. Most of Ahl’s and Garthwaite’s fellows took this posturing to be facetious, but heretofore, with Snow White and the Huntsman giving rise to a proposed sequel, the concept is one that perhaps should be taken very seriously indeed. For there are elements to SWATH that hint at a very deliberate – and by necessity, very subtle – undermining of the feminist doctrine that the film presents in veiled form to its viewers. For a start there is the pervading “poorness”. Yes, the females are strong, but no matter how powerful and proactive their contributions, if these are made within the framework of a cinematic flop then surely the triumph resonates with the hollow echo of defeat? Furthermore, do the so-called feminist elements withstand closer scrutiny? Indeed, one might say not. Theron’s queen is afforded a sense of righteous justification for her actions, but was it really men who made her what she is? Yes and no. Through direct cause and effect it actually was her mother (who herself was a man-hater; this is taken for granted and the basis for that hate is left largely to the imagination). And when Snow White claims she knows how to kill the queen, her plan, in essence, is nothing more sophisticated than to charge mindlessly at her, sword pointed like a shish kebab; it is only by using the Huntsman’s knife trick (dropped rather blatantly into the plot earlier on) that she is able to end the queen’s evil reign (or, to pick at the nuance, relieve the poor woman/child of her voraciously bloodthirsty but ultimately unwanted burden). And what truly is the symbolism of Snow White’s not choosing a love interest to sit by her side as the credits roll? Is it a fierce independence and laudable detachment from doe-eyed swooning, or merely that she’s been locked up in a tower ever since she was a little girl? Perhaps, in the veiled but caustic appraisal of safe criticism, this beau ideal of feminism is simply the natural consequence of someone who’s yet to grow up.

Kristen Stewart, for those who’ve been living inside a black box, shielded from the explosive fallout of cinematic disaster, starred in the Twilight films – truly lamentable movies in their own right – and if we extrapolate from Garthwaite’s and Ahl’s treatise then her casting in Snow White and the Huntsman may well be seen as an insidious attempt to poison the film’s overtly covert feminism through recourse to the overly glossy red apple of teenage fanaticism. For every ounce that Snow White may purport to be a role model of female empowerment, Stewart replies in kind with her staple expression of toothy, lips parted, slightly baffled teen uncertainty; and if, perhaps, it is stretching the argument too far to suggest that her and Sanders’ off-screen affair was a deliberate stratagem by the latter to undermine and so safely criticise the feminist polemic (his eyes for her also blinding him to glaring deficiencies elsewhere in the film), nevertheless there is some analogous evidence to that effect. The casting of non-dwarf actors to play the dwarves, and the stereotyping of Sam Spruell as the queen’s unnervingly creepy albino brother, is precisely the sort of negative discrimination that, in contrast to the positively presented female empowerment, hints at the feminism in question being not the laudable, equal rights and equal treatment variety but rather the more militant product of a retributive backlash that has seen many a son doubled over and paying dearly for the sins of his father.

One vital but often overlooked aspect of safe criticism (ignored even by Ahl and Garthwaite) is that the “safe” element should give way eventually to a more overt criticism. In the telling of Snow White and the Huntsman this dénouement comes in the form of the huntsman’s blaming Snow White’s father for what has befallen the land. How stupid of the man, he says (in essence), to enrage and patronise the evil hag so much that she would bring his benevolent rule to a sticky end; how irresponsible to goad her into sucking the life out of the kingdom. Thus through absurdity the feminist take is both presented and ridiculed. Or is this line of reasoning perhaps akin to drawing fairy castles in the air? Could it be that when Wikipedia makes the claim that historians were consulted both as to the literary history of the Snow White story and the historical accuracy of the battle scenes, yet in the relevant footnote cites only an article giving dubious evidence to the former,1 there has simply been an error, not a deliberate effort to re-write and re-layer the film? Though not discounting this possibility, one surely must acknowledge that it would be a terrible shame; for, divested of these ingenious and conniving undertones, SWATH would have nothing left by which to judge it than what we see at face value – and is it not terribly reprehensible and shallow to look no further than surface appearances?

Just ask the moss-covered tortoise briefly seen plodding across the small screen and then covering its eyes, desperately trying to shield itself either from Snow White and the Huntsman’s shambling avatar or from the deeper implications of this home theatre tour de force.

1. [note 19]; Clark, Nick, “Philip Pullman to publish new adaptations of Grimm’s Fairy Tales”, The Independent (March 20, 2012) []

Monday 24 December 2012

Looper – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Looper (dir. Rian Johnson). It’s not lupus. It’s never lupus.

In the world of 2044, economic collapse has given rise to social degradation and the predominance of organised crime, wherein the mob from thirty years further into the future abducts people and dumps them back in time to be executed. The men who carry out these hits are called “loopers”, so named because their job entails early retirement and a payout sufficient to keep them living the highlife for thirty years, whereupon each man will be strapped to his own bonus and sent back thirty years to be shot by himself – his final kill. So far, so good for Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but by the year 2074 a ruthless new mafia boss has emerged and is closing all the loops. Joe already has his future planned, but his older self (Bruce Willis), having lived that life, then decides that he’s not quite ready to die…

For those moviegoers who happened to see Moonrise Kingdom and Looper across consecutive sessions (is there a Facebook page for that?) the inevitability of Bruce Willis’s reversion to type may have offered an oddly disparate sense of reassurance during the popcorn-strewn shuffle from one cinema to the next. Nothing against Willis’s choosing to broaden his horizons in the former, but with the latter film offering the prospect of his bald eagle head in jaded action hero mode, with trademark cynicism, smirks and exasperated outbursts, many are those who would have crossed the foyer as if one-handing the wheel of a battered but faithful old car – one with roll-down windows and tapes in the glovebox. Bruce Willis! The man’s a walking comfort zone. And, of course, throw in SF time travel paradoxes and surely one cannot help but (p)reminisce about the quintessentially dizzying heights of 12 Monkeys.

Yet, for all of Willis’s charisma and on-screen presence, and for all that Looper presents as a serious feat of SF assemblage, it carries, too, a sleekness that seems at times forced rather than naturally elegant – not unlike the New versus Classic design Beetle. Specific instances of this over-shininess are difficult to pin down – after all, the future portrayed in Looper is dystopian gritty rather than polished chrome, and important plot elements actually are worked in quite naturally, rather than being signposted in ACHTUNG! capitals for those wide-eyed, empty headed, screen-addled peons whose lives are spend in faithful indenture to the Lowest Common Denominator – but nevertheless, something feels wrong. Perhaps it is the too-new smell of the film’s cinematographic upholstery; the overly diligent buff of its editing…

Or maybe writer/director Rian Johnson just hasn’t folded the map properly.

Looper takes the viewer on an absorbing, at times disturbing drive through a little explored variant of the time travel conundrum – neither an open nor a closed loop (can change/can’t change) but rather a concurrent loop (am changing/am being affected by change). Johnson’s exploration of this concept is enhanced by a carefully conceived though unobtrusively portrayed societal backdrop, and by a marked preponderance of human interaction over supposedly edge-of-your-seat action scenes. The mythology of the self-fulfilling prophecy is as compelling to audiences today as it was to the Greeks thousands of years ago; but regardless of whether or not the time travel causality logic holds traction (and, let’s face it, there’s quite a bit of frying pan fat spattered over the loop of fire), the film at its core contains several ill-fitting conceits that like a poorly adjusted seat tend to distract those of us too fidgety of mind merely to take in the view. Rather than retuning these parts to a logician’s specifications, Johnson’s maintenance policy seems to have been one of overtly acknowledging the use of scriptyard scraps (Bruce Willis: “I don’t want to talk about time travel, because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws”) and then sweeping them under the bonnet; and whereas this may in some respects be preferable to offering up the usual balderdash explanations, nevertheless it requires the viewer to take as read such concepts as: hitmen being called upon to kill themselves (unnecessary and, as history will show in most instances, rather asking for trouble); people being personally assassinated at all (as opposed merely to being time-deposited directly into the furnaces where they are dumped after being shot); a mafia boss so shadowy that even his/her gender is unknown, yet whose exact date and place of birth can be determined; and, underpinning the entire scenario to the point where no mechanic in his right mind would dare slide underneath, a future society devoid of a social welfare system, where the mob is powerful enough to monopolise time travel and make almost anybody disappear (quite literally), but where these all-powerful crime lords cannot dispose of a body without fear of some non-corruptible, super-powered forensics taskforce using “tracking technology” to scour the furnaces of the world and somehow bring them to justice.

Tracking technology? Even as a first draft placemarker that’s lamentably clunky. Why not call upon the statute of limitations? Or – Why, yes, ma’am: a tax dodge. There’s a nice tip of the fedora to poor old Al Capone. Or what about good old honest greed-mongering, where the silver and gold used to pay the loopers has become severely deflated in value across thirty years of being feedback-looped into the mafia-controlled economy? Granted, those are just off-the-cuff ripostes extemporised during the closing credits, and yet there must have been something more convincing; some other colour on offer; for it cannot be denied that a plausible scenario is facilitative of strong characters (which in the case of Looper they are) being afforded the means by which to put a film through its paces, rather than merely given the keys to an ice-cream van and then left to invest their performances in slow-trawling the streets. A lick and a promise is one thing, but tracking technology? That’s about as effective a burnish as shammying your Ferrari 250 GT with a morning star.

And so the twelve monkeys (see, hear, speak, and for the other nine, script no evil) are left to scratch their heads and wonder at what might have been.

Notwithstanding its somewhat laissez-faire approach to “science” fiction and the sanctity of the dialectic ecosystem, Looper does remain worthy of a test drive, either across the silver screen or via one of the more reputable small screen dealerships. Bruce Willis is Bruce Willis. Emily Blunt and Joseph Gordon-Levitt do what they do (although the latter perhaps lacks sufficient pathos to give real credence to the film’s ultimate dénouement – despite his being the wrong age relative to Bruce Willis, friends of the Moonrise Kingdom/Looper double may well have preferred Ed Norton). Looper’s pacing is good; its moral ambiguity bears up under scrutiny; the characters and their conflicting viewpoints demand consideration: but though all the parts thus seem in place for putting together a “sent from the future” classic (no Schwarzenegger, obviously, but Garret Dillahunt makes a suitably menacing appearance, echoing his role in The Sarah Connor Chronicles), SF fans ultimately will be left to lament that Looper has not turned out to be the Terminator it just possibly could have prevented itself from not becoming.

Hasta la vista, baby; or, as Herbie the Love Bug might honk out in Morse code while blinking earnestly with his headlamps, “Metallic paint has not yet been invented, but thirty years from now it will have been.” Well, quite – but it’s the engineering and bodywork that makes for an abiding place in cultural memory, not merely the cosmetics of here today, gone tomorrow, headstone to read:

Loop Closed

Monday 17 December 2012

Dredd 3D – reviewed by Howard Watts

Dredd 3D certainly deserves its 18 rating. Now, I’m not a great fan of 3D – I find it false from a film POV, an augmented reality akin to Google’s project glass: – a Sinclair C5 for the noggin, with apologies to William Gibson. Wearing those huge 3D glasses makes me feel like a participant at a Buggles convention, thankful for the darkness of the cinema. It’s not reality, and for me not how film should be presented. Dredd bears this out with abundance, many scenes not tailored specifically for the 3D effect suffering (as have other 3D films in recent years) from foreground distractions and blurry black artefacts.

Dredd is brutal, unrelenting, graphically violent on screen, implying it off. It’s full on – but lacks colour, favouring the grey tones of despair. The soundscape thunders around you, a marching drum of determination, punctuating its claustrophobic setting. Sight and hearing are bombarded – perhaps to the point of admitting, “too much!” Hardly a Buggles convention.

A triple homicide takes Dredd and his rookie mutant psychic, Anderson, to the Mega Block, Peach Trees – a gigantic self-contained town where they discover the culprit. Hoping to take him back to the Hall of Justice for interrogation, the perpetrator’s boss, Ma-Ma, puts Peach Trees into lockdown, cutting it off from the outside world. Dredd and Anderson find themselves pitted against every resident of the block that believes they have a chance against them. Anderson’s Psi powers learn that Ma-Ma is responsible for the manufacture and distribution of the drug, Slo-Mo, a drug that slows the user’s perception of the passing of time. Here’s where 3D comes into play, the bullet time effect championed by the Matrix movies given a respectful nod. This effect works well for the most part, but there is an element of “grain” to these scenes. I’ll admit I’m a fan of long locked off establishing shots, of which there are plenty, allowing the eyes to roam around the shot, picking out the details. Unfortunately these scenes are too long, and the eye (perhaps ruined by too many quick cuts in recent years) finds itself returning to parts of the frame already explored – in essence, we’re left waiting for a cut. Saying this, I found myself drawn in by these scenes, as they are needed amid the frenetic activity – a well deserved catch-your-breath break. During Dredd and Anderson’s ascension no punch is pulled illustrating Dredd’s determined removal of the obstacles in their path. The Slo-Mo scenes (how can the camera suffer the effect of the drug?) of various “Judgements” are paced perfectly. You know that bullet’s going to hit right there, but when it does… In contrast, some of Anderson’s combat scenes are shown in real time – to devastating effect. But I found myself thinking the 3D effect should have been utilised for Anderson’s “Psi” scenes, rather than the focus pull.

Karl Urban’s portrayal of Dredd is faultless. The “grim chin” expression from the comic is perfectly translated, his voice, a mixture of Eastwood’s Harry Callahan and the original (remember that?) Boba Fett, his walk akin to Robocop at times. Urban has said he researched Dredd’s voice, finding a description in 2000A.D. as “a saw cutting through bone”. This is perfectly realised by Urban, a self confessed SF fan.

In comparison to Dredd of 2000A.D. it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Production design’s budget seemed to have been spent mostly on VW camper vans, concrete scree and fibreglass body panels for unrecognisable modern day cars and motorbikes. Mega City 1 isn’t that mega, more embryonic. There are a few plot/common sense problems – Dredd telling Anderson to conserve ammo, then a few scenes later shooting a security camera. Anderson’s gun (as per the comic) explodes when used by a perp, when it should have simply electrocuted the user allowing the gun to be picked up again by its Judge owner. The choice of some words is strange at times, and out of character – the CGI repetitive – the opening of Peach Trees identical to that of the lockdown, with the same lighting, time of day and camera move used. These issues aside, Dredd is a ride from start to finish, and I can only hope if there is a sequel, Urban remains and the city grows around him.

Friday 14 December 2012

Dreadstar Omnibus, Vol. 1, by Jim Starlin – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Dreadstar Omnibus, Vol. 1 by Jim Starlin (Dynamite Entertainment, ebook, 377pp) begins poorly, with a long recap of events that took place in the Marvel graphic novel Dreadstar (not included), as well as hinting at a bigger story that preceded it (explained more fully in chapter eight). Vanth Dreadstar is, as far as he knows, the sole survivor of the Milky Way, and arriving in the Empirical galaxy he did his best to ignore the two hundred year-old war between the Monarchy and the Instrumentality, found a wife, became a farmer, and lived a quiet life among peaceful cat-people until the Monarchy decided to wipe them out. His wife dead, Dreadstar decides there’s work be done, gathers a band of rebels, and that’s where we come in, ready to read twelve chapters originally published as the first twelve issues of Marvel’s ongoing Dreadstar.

It’s a shame that filling in that backstory takes up so much of the first chapter – when as I’ve shown above it could have been done rather more swiftly! – but that’s the last time the book could fairly be accused of moving slowly. It gets better with every page that follows, events moving at a breakneck pace. It’s much like the equally readable Star Wars and G.I. Joe comics Marvel were publishing at about the same time, but enhanced by the sense that these are the real stories of these characters, not just spin-offs. Our heroes are an interesting bunch – a cyber-psychic, a cat-man, a wizard and a rogue – but their leader, Dreadstar, is sometimes hard to like. For example, when he meets a vengeful survivor from the Milky Way, he fights him to the death, admittedly with good cause, but he doesn’t bother to explain that he didn’t destroy the Milky Way on purpose. He walks away from the fight happy to have vanquished evil, with little acknowledgment that he was in part responsible for its creation.

Dreadstar has a pair of good antagonists in the High Lord Papal, dog-collared dictator of the religious Instrumentality, and Z, scheming chief strategist for the Monarchy, whose appearance is so obviously inspired by Darth Vader it makes Dark Helmet look like an original creation. I don’t think that’s an awfully bad thing, though. The recent acquisition of Lucasfilm for $4bn made me reflect on how few attempts we see these days to copy Star Wars, and how much I’d like to see more. What was the last science fiction film to have anything of that feel? The Fifth Element, Firefly? Anyway, Starlin addresses this point with winning directness in chapter twelve, when we see four very familiar figures step out from the spaceship.

The artwork is clear and easy to follow, but with many clever touches, such as in chapter five, “The Commune”, where a long thin vertical panel down the right of the page is used to illustrate the brute Tuetun falling to his apparent death while cat-man Oedi moves on with his mission. Unusually, it’s well worth browsing the book’s pages in thumbnail mode to get a sense of how varied its use of panel structures is, always to serve the interests of the story. Originally writing in 2003, Walt Simonson in his introduction identifies the panel layouts as one of the things that makes Dreadstar feel very much of the eighties, but it’s a style that will win the comic new friends now, as the double page splashes and irregular panels of the last twenty years begin to feel like relics of another age. Nothing suits guided view better than rectangular panels. It’s worth noting also that the artwork, although not completely recoloured, has been scanned and retouched from the original film, so the colours are bright and unmarred by the vagaries of actual printing.

Dreadstar isn’t an entirely grown-up comic in tone and characterisation; more a typical comic of its time with a few touches of adult subject matter. In that sense it might suffer in comparison with, say, a modern comic like Saga, which in many ways is very similar, with its ongoing war between two great, unsympathetic empires and a small band caught in the middle. But then Starlin produced these comics at a time when the adult readership of comics wasn’t as well established as it is now. In some ways, it has the beating of more recent comics, in particular with regard to the density of its storytelling. Each chapter of this would take up at least a trade paperback of most modern comics. Even in just this first volume, major story arcs – things I took to be part of the comic’s ongoing premise – come to unexpectedly early conclusions.

That’s left me very curious as to where the comic will go next, and I could quite happily have read another twenty or thirty issues of this before moving on to something else; I’ll be sure to buy them as they appear on Comixology. The book is recommended to anyone with a taste for space opera and Marvel comics from the same period. Don’t expect too much from it and you should be able to pass a few enjoyable hours in its company.

Monday 10 December 2012

The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

You say potato, I say Sir Francis Drake wandering off-course with a sack full of sprouting ideas. The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (Doubleday, 2012).

When plans for Willis Linsay’s “stepping” device are posted online, humanity suddenly discovers the capacity to travel “east” or “west”, one world at a time (without iron but with quite some nausea) across a seemingly infinite number of parallel Earths, all of them untouched by humankind. For Joshua Valienté, a “natural” stepper who can traverse the Long Earth at will, this offers the chance to seek out the Silence that has called to him ever since his somewhat unusual birth, while for the rest of the populace it brings turmoil, upheaval and the bittersweet prospect of an endless frontier. Accompanying the ever-evolving super computer Lobsang, Joshua embarks on a voyage to uncover the cosmic significance of the many worlds opened up by Willis Linsay . . . and to find out what strange force is driving other humanoid life back towards the “Datum” Earth.

As a writer Terry Pratchett is best known for his thirty-nine (to date) Discworld novels, which in the modern world of pre-ordering seem regularly to become New York Times Bestsellers even before they are written. But while Pratchett’s comic fantasy made him by turn of the millennium the most shoplifted author in Britain,[1] the often satirical advancement of his Discworld civilisation (which at its behavioural heart bears many striking resemblances to the real world, despite resting on the backs of four gargantuan elephants who themselves stand stoically atop the shell of an astronomically large space turtle), has by very dint of its popularity kept him from traversing the science fiction path upon which he first embarked with The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981). Pratchett does, however, find time for the odd non-Discworld novel – the masterful Nation, for instance, in 2008 – and with The Long Earth he returns at last to an idea he started working on twenty-five years ago, before the growing success of Discworld (by that stage at book three, Equal Rites) prompted him to shelve the project.[2]

Pratchett has on rare occasion collaborated with other authors – most notably with thentime fledgling novelist Neil Gaiman for the compocalyptic fantasy Good Omens (1990) – and in the case of The Long Earth and its as-yet-unwritten sequel, his teaming up with science fiction heavyweight Stephen Baxter clearly signposts an intent to pursue the quantum worlds scenario for its “hard” SF rather than humorous potential. Yes, there are unconventional nuns, and the stepping device used to travel between worlds is powered by a potato. True, the book features a Tibetan motorcycle repairman reincarnated within a computer and so legally declared the world’s first human being of artificial intelligence. But the scenario Pratchett and Baxter have posited does not lend itself to out-and-out humour, and so these absurdities are presented with something akin to a loss adjustor’s matter-of-factness – almost without exception the many worlds setting is used with utmost seriousness to explore the evolutionary and behavioural aspects of people and society. Anybody expecting The Long Earth to be “Pratchett” and, ergo, comedic, will instead find what humour there is to be wry and distinctly understated – more a faint watermark, in fact, than a text-spanning belly laugh.

Pratchett deserves kudos for stepping out beyond his (and his readers’) comfort zone, but for all that “Datum” Earth and the stepwise worlds offer scope for intellectual and imaginative exploration, The Long Earth as a novel presents itself in somewhat ungainly a fashion (beyond even the rather sic-ly possessive apostrophe mishap of page eighteen). One key aspect of Pratchett’s Discworld books has been their sense of unfolding mystery, whereas in The Long Earth, although various “what’s happening here?” breadcrumbs are dropped in with the usual Pratchett artfulness, they seem almost immediately then to be gobbled up by parrots who digest the scenario and subsequently exposit its erstwhile mysteriousness in squawking information dumps. The storyline is stop/start for much of the book’s first third, and even when it picks up momentum and, through Joshua’s and Lobsang’s dirigible exploration of the expanding westward frontier, takes on some of the unfolding intrigue of Philip José Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971) and sequels, there remains to the nonplussed reader a certain homogeneousness of character and dialogue, while the narrative itself drifts unconcerned past incidents of suspense, and continues to be broken up by the insertion of tangential and, in the case of one section that presumably is supposed to depict Australian Aborigines, rather incongruous vignettes. The overall impression one receives is that Pratchett and Baxter kicked around some (very good) ideas regarding what would follow in the wake of their hypothetical Step Day – indeed, that they went off separately and developed a set of one-off or minor characters – but that they couldn’t quite find a way to incorporate these as a cohesive part of the larger story. Perhaps it could be argued that the jumble of thoughts in some way evokes the confusion and disorientation that humanity experiences in the novel, but in all honesty this smacks more of an apologist’s devotion than an unbiased appraisal. In unvarnished truth The Long Earth is more of a prolonged literary brainstorm than a novel.

Notwithstanding this assessment, it remains clear that Pratchett and Baxter have put a great deal of consideration into their “what if...?” scenario. The Long Earth might well be worth reading just for its concepts, and now that its authors have taken the first step in exploring the consequences both of infinite resources and of the evolution of humanity and human society, further books in the series may indeed offer up properly boiled potatoes and a smoother voyage across the many permutations of stepwise imagination.

1. “Terry Pratchett’s fantasy world”, 27 May 1999,

2. Flood, Alison, “Terry Pratchett enters parallel worlds of science fiction”, 16 June 2010,

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Interzone #243 (ft. Theaker) – out on Kindle

The latest issue of Interzone is now out on Kindle. It features fiction by Jon Wallace, Jason Sanford, Priya Sharma, Chen Qiufan and Caroline M. Yachim, colour illustrations by Richard Wagner, Warwick Fraser-Coombe, and Martin Hanford, an interview with Adam Roberts, and much more.

But of course the very, very best reason to buy it is that it also features a review by me, of The Wurms of Blearmouth, Steven Erikson's latest Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novella.


Interzone #243 on Kindle UK
Interzone #243 on Kindle US
Print subscriptions to Interzone (and other TTA magazines)
The Wurms of Blearmouth on PS Publishing's website

Monday 3 December 2012

The Super Barbarians, by John Brunner – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The first paragraph of The Super Barbarians by John Brunner (SF Gateway, ebook, 2655ll) sets the scene; it’s fifty years since our first interstellar war was lost, twenty-five since the Great Grip was loosened, ten since humans were accorded rights on Qallavarra, home planet of our conquerors. The Vorrish have an elaborate social structure and a convoluted language to match, but despite their military superiority they seem lacking in certain areas: their cars are imported from Earth, there are members of their nobility who cannot read or write, and superstition runs rampant. All are things that Gareth Shaw, a lowly human in the Household of Pwill, begins to realise he can turn to his advantage—and that of all humans.

Though The Super Barbarians is far from being one of Brunner’s masterworks, I would have enjoyed it very much had this particular edition not been such a mess. It’s interesting in that it’s a tale of the indomitable human spirit, of aliens who just can’t—at least in the long run—cope with our wiles, determination, hard work and technical know-how; not at all what you would expect from the author of dour, pessimistic novels like Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up. One suspects it was written very specifically to appeal to Ace, its original American publisher. There’s no doubt that the storyline panders to our vanity as a species, but it makes for a fun, pleasant and hopeful book.

Unfortunately, this Gollancz/SF Gateway edition of the book was, like the previously reviewed Dumarest 4: Kalin from the same publisher, utterly dreadful, clearly having been scanned in and never checked, with ridiculous mistakes from start to finish. Typical errors included: “On the Vorrish side it was tempered with a land of puzzlement”, “This was another point they bore in mind when dunking of us”, “Where is he JIOW?” and an order “not to supply any more of this poison to my 8011” (meaning son). It’s clear that Gollancz only got all those thousands of books out so quickly by cutting all the corners. And it’s not as if the books are particularly cheap. I won’t buy any more SF Gateway books without checking the Kindle previews; wish I hadn’t pre-ordered so many before they were released.