Friday 26 December 2014

The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler / review by Jacob Edwards

A mile-long star ship, an alien cantina and a dogfight in space. Everything else is detail.

Anybody who by 1977 had been associated with SF being made for either the small or the big screen would attest that Star Wars (later subtitled: A New Hope) changed everything. It is perhaps difficult to appreciate the enormity of Star Wars’ impact in retrospect of all the flashy SF and CGI-driven fluff that has come after – one would have to judge the movie only in the context of filmmaking to that point in time; which, like requiring a jury to disregard evidence, is asking the impossible – but even those who were born too late to experience Star Wars upon its original cinematic release perhaps will have found themselves drawn into watching it on DVD (often several times) or habitually whensoever it is shown on television, commercials and all. The franchise nowadays is taken for granted, as are the visual effects for which Star Wars was the forerunner, yet in its day the movie was an unprecedented phenomenon – as suddenly huge as it was unexpected – and weighing in at 362 large, glossy pages (28cm x 26cm), the majority of which are resplendent with production photographs, artwork and designs, J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars (Aurum Press, 362pp; 2013; first published: Ebury Press, 2007) both establishes the cinematic milieu in which George Lucas’s film was made and goes a long way towards fostering an appreciation of its significance. Drawing for the most part on rediscovered interviews that Lucasfilm vice-president Charles Lippincott had conducted between 1975 and 1978 for a “making of…” book that went unwritten, Rinzler promises his readers a host of contemporaneous recollections and thence the definitive account of Star Wars both as it unfolded and as it was perceived shortly after completion, before the effects of its trailblazing became fully evident: in other words, the inside story of a history that was still very much in the making.

For all that the finished product proved to be of lasting consequence, Star Wars had a troubled genesis both creatively and in terms of George Lucas’s strained working relationship with Hollywood and the studio system. Lucas had enormous difficulty developing and explicating his grand concept, and much though 20th Century Fox might come across as short-sighted and unreasonable in its dealings, this is the one instance in which Rinzler has allowed his exposé to carry a selective bias, the pro-Star Wars effusiveness of his source material resulting in a favouring of the film’s historical success over what may well have been quite valid concerns on Fox’s part. Lucas himself is treated in more balanced a fashion, and emerges as a quintessentially independent filmmaker attempting through sheer force of will to exert control over every aspect of a gargantuan undertaking, not so much because he was obsessive/possessive (although clearly he was) but because the intricacies of the movie, in combination with its epic and ambitious scale, necessitated that each component have its requirements and problems attended to in minutiae by people who worked in artistic isolation, glimpsing only a sliver of Lucas’s overarching visualisation until such time as Star Wars was fully realised and came to be shown on the big screen. George Lucas knew exactly what he wanted – his orchestrating of talents calls to mind Brian Wilson, who would compose Beach Boys songs in his head and assign parts to each member of the group, the tunes then emerging fully formed – but while Lucas shaped every nuance and every frame of Star Wars, other people nevertheless made seminal contributions, and the constraints of time and budget also played their part in determining what was achievable. Furthermore, Lucas’s absolute purity and exactitude of vision would come to the fore only after several (at times nebulous) globules of creativity had coalesced to the point of registering on his internal scanner of certitude and so becoming part of the production process. Fans who live and breathe Star Wars through a continuity filter they cannot suffer to remove should remember that much of the detail they now hold as sacrosanct, Lucas patched together over many years to accommodate nothing more de rigueur than a broad reenergising of the space opera genre and two or three set piece scenes he thought would be visually effective. Darth Vader’s iconic mask was originally part of a spacesuit, not a core element of his character. The Millennium Falcon took on its distinctive shape as a hasty revision after there appeared on Space: 1999 a ship too much like the model already built. Luke in one draft was a woman, and only at the eleventh hour was renamed Skywalker (from Starkiller, which was thought to evince A-list celebrity murders). Even something as seemingly quintessential as Obi-Wan Kenobi’s demise aboard the Death Star was a late script change, concocted during filming and (at least in its initial form) to the disgruntlement of Sir Alec Guinness.

While making Star Wars George Lucas demanded something akin to godlike autonomy within a constantly evolving framework – almost as if directing a lucid dream – and in examining each scene of the movie from conception to final edit, The Making of Star Wars shows not only how particular he was in piecing together his magnum opus, but also, oddly, how malleable the Star Wars universe proved in its formative stages and how very different each element could have been. The movie that is so greatly beloved by audiences in fact fell well short of what Lucas had hoped to achieve, and throughout pre-production, filming and then post-production he consistently expressed his disappointment: so much so that amidst the cornucopia of production photos in Rinzler’s book – an invaluable visual record and an idiosyncratic time capsule of 1970s fashion – it is difficult to look upon Lucas’s bearded, curly haired, frustrated visage and not construe a harbinger of Rowan Atkinson’s oft-thwarted Elizabethan incarnation of Blackadder. Such nefarious associations aside, the lush and unstinting pictorial content ensures that The Making of Star Wars is well worth delving into as a coffee table book, albeit one that retails at £40.00 and contains matter-of-fact prose sufficiently exhaustive to constitute heavy reading for even the most dedicated of fans. From the technical side of filmmaking it is hard to envisage a more comprehensive work, but Rinzler’s compendium is valuable beyond its dry chronicling of method and fact, offering much also by way of anecdote and in bringing out the personalities of those people (particularly Lucas) who dedicated themselves to the making of Star Wars.

All told, Rinzler’s is a book that should appeal to anyone with a fondness for Star Wars or an interest in the history and development of SF motion pictures. The question of whether or not it’s worth the cover price might fall ultimately to such intangibles as how badly you’d like to meet the walrus who voiced Chewbacca, or how curious you are as to how a bantha may be brought to life sans CGI but one elephant to the good. If nothing else, though, The Making of Star Wars constitutes an unparalleled vista of behind-the-scenes enterprise, and for most of us an eye-opener as to the vast quantities of time, money and effort poured into each labyrinthine second of screen time on a science fiction classic such as that which Lucas delivered unto the world in the cinematic dawn of 1977.

Friday 19 December 2014

Lucy / review by Stephen Theaker

Sorry to say it, but Lucy would be a better film if Morgan Freeman’s scenes were cut. It’s no fault of the actor: his character’s lecture on accessing the full potential of the human brain is so daft that if I’d been watching on TV I’d have changed the channel. In the cinema, I got through it by deciding that this film takes place on an Earth where animals really do use only a few percentage points of their brains – though why would evolution encourage them to do so? – and human brains are similarly wasted.

Until Lucy, that is, who while being forced to act as a drug mule gets kicked in the belly, making an experimental drug leak into her system. It’s an artificial replication of the substance that lets a foetus develop so quickly in a mother’s womb, and the effect on Lucy is to cause all the cells in her body to be replaced at an incredible rate, letting her “colonise” her own brain and acquire incredible powers.

Super-strength and super-intelligence come first, then later telekinesis, mind control, changing her physical appearance, and tapping into electronic communications. By the end she can do pretty much everything she sets her mind to, apart from, apparently, dealing adequately with the gangsters who want their drugs back, leading to a bloody massacre of the police protecting the university laboratory where Lucy tries to save herself.

Lucy would be a typical film from the Luc Besson European action factory, another in the line of The Transporter, Unleashed and Taken, all guns, gangsters and car chases, but it’s a bit better than that for two reasons: the science fiction angle, because although the science is ludicrous, the powers in action are great fun; and Scarlett Johansson, who is compelling and committed, giving an Oscar-level performance in a film that seems surprised to contain it.

Not bad, but don’t take 100% of your brain to the cinema.  ***

Friday 12 December 2014

Infidel by Kameron Hurley / review by Tim Atkinson

There’s nothing this reviewer better enjoys than returning to an author and finding that they’ve upped their game. Compared to God’s War, Kameron Hurley’s still striking debut, its sequel Infidel is better in every respect.

While the former foundered a little under the weight of its baroque world-building, Infidel returns to the same setting to tell a story. And by revisiting much the same cast, building on what has gone before, Hurley shows that she can invest these characters with depth and moral complexity.

Infidel’s fictional universe resists easy categorisation: Hurley herself suggests bug-punk, which is at least pithier than grimdark-feminist-biotech-anti-clerical-planetary romance.

But try picturing a crapsack desert planet populated by bloody-minded Abrahamic monotheists: some matriarchal, nearly all of them homicidal. And then throw in the insects. Lots and lots of insects.

Once tools of terraforming, colonies of genetically engineered critters are now the basis of the planetary economy of the remote world of Umayma. Transport, medicine, architecture, war: all are powered by bugs manipulated by specially attuned “magicians”.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I like this idea.

While its treatment in Infidel is pretty much indistinguishable from magic, the concept is SF to the core, extrapolating boldly from the remote-controlled flies of today’s laboratories. And for me a real taste of otherness is a fair exchange for some authorial hand-waving.

Having done most of this scene-setting in God’s War, Hurley kicks the sequel off in media res and pushes onwards at a cracking rate, alternating between bloody action and murky intrigue. Our main point-of-view character is Nyx: bounty-hunter, former state-sponsored assassin and all-round toxic individual.

Starting out in the first book as not much more than forward momentum with occasional swearing, she has grown in the sequel to become a tragic protagonist. She is not a nice person by any definition: she murders, tortures and betrays to get her way. But Nyx is a self-aware monster; she doesn’t like what she’s become. She’s capable of radical selflessness in her dealings with her team. And she’s guided more than she admits by her own residual but strangely irreducible code of honour.

It’s her honour and loyalty to her country which led Nyx in Infidel to accept an offer to investigate the attempted regicide of her Queen by renegade assassins. In no time at all, she finds herself a barbarian in a foreign country, unexpectedly reunited with former team-mates, out of her depth, double-crossed and played.

All of this makes for a much better constructed plot than God’s War. Hurley still may be a little too prone to invoking the Coincidence Fairy to tie up the loose ends, but there’s a fine thriller underneath all the insectile trappings. And while I honestly still couldn’t tell you exactly what the antagonists actually wanted in the first book, here I don’t just know their aims, I could even empathise with them to some degree.

Despite being a giant leap forward for the author, the same things “bug” me about Infidel as its predecessor. Hurley has impeccable liberal credentials – as anyone who has read her blog will be aware – yet as Adam Roberts has pointed out in an otherwise positive review of God’s War, writing pseudo-Middle Eastern desert-dwellers intent on killing each other over religious differences is inherently open to problematic readings. And for all that faith is core to the world Hurley has created, there’s no sense of why it matters so vitally to its people or fuels global conflict.

Infidel may fall short of greatness, but it’s still a very good book. And it’s only her second, people, only her second! My hopes for Rapture, the third in this trilogy, are high indeed.

Monday 8 December 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 / review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Games shift from arena to conference room as heroine juggles public persona with personal quandary

Director Francis Lawrence had his work cut out for him with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, the first of the two-part conclusion to The Hunger Games series. He had to adapt the first (and more subdued) half of the final novel in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy into a film that maintains the viewer’s attention and builds tension without stealing the show from the finale.

Though the film’s beginning suffers from an overindulgence in mourning war ruins, Lawrence pulls off what turns out to be a tense and emotionally stirring film more about psychological games than fights and explosions… but it still has some of the latter!

Protagonist Katniss Everdeen, having thrown a wrench (an arrow actually) into the most recent game, recovers in the underground headquarters of District 13, hitherto rumored to be destroyed. Here Katniss discovers that although the arena games are over, she’s still a contestant in a game whose stakes are much higher.

The districts of Panem, fueled by Katniss’s Hunger Games heroics, have grown more hostile toward the Capitol, their wealthy oppressor. District 13’s scheming leadership wants to intensify this animosity to overthrow the Capitol. Their plan: convince Katniss to become the Mockingjay, a symbol of revolution that will stoke the fire building within the districts.

Sounds like a great plan. However, one huge obstacle deters Katniss from jumping into that role wholeheartedly: her two-time Hunger Games cohort and budding love interest Peeta Mellark has been captured by the Capitol.

When Action Wanes, Bring in the Big Shots
Because Mockingjay – Part 1 has notably less action – I count two brief action scenes – than The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, it needs something beyond the reputation of its predecessors to keep the viewer engaged. The solution comes in an all-star cast.

The Hunger Games mainstays Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) continue to offer strong performances. Particularly impressive is Hutcherson’s portrayal of Peeta’s mental deterioration. shown in a series of video interviews. Nevertheless, these two take a back seat, enabling other equally engaging characters to step forward.

The Manipulators
The buttons in Mockingjay – Part 1 get pushed mostly by three conference room connivers intent on manipulating the public and duping their adversaries.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s post-mortem appearance as Plutarch Heavensbee shows what a loss the film world experienced. Heavensbee, a District 13 political puppeteer, seeks to unveil and capitalize on what makes Katniss so appealing to the public. He sees Katniss as a tool to overcome the Capitol. When Katniss gets angry, Hoffman/Heavensbee could just as well be an automobile enthusiast admiring the roar of a Maserati.

Julianne Moore slips rather than barges into the conflict as District 13 President Alma Coin, a less easily categorized complement to the other publicity-seeking (Heavensbee) and confrontational (Snow) power players. With her grey clothes, eyes, and hair, Moore portrays a tepid leader whose true intentions are hazy. Is she good? Is she bad? She’s “in the grey”. Flip a coin!

On the Capitol side, Donald Sutherland’s President Snow is a case study in self-control, arrogance, and cunning. Snow, whose pristine white hair and suit belie his malicious intent, has a nearly omniscient view of district goings-on. His carefully prepared televised speech explains to the have-nots that the Capitol is the reason they are alive. “Your districts are the body,” he says. “The Capitol is the beating heart.” The implication: you can’t survive without a heart. And don’t you dare let him catch you giving the Mockingjay salute!

Katniss Everdeen: Pawn, Liberator, or a Bit of Both?
In popular films, there are still far too many beautiful numbskulls and female action heroes who do what a typical male action hero would do. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen, ranging from tentative warrior to distraught teenage girl, offers hope for the plight of female leads. Katniss uses guile and pluck rather than sexuality or boys’ club bravado to achieve her objectives.

One example of Lawrence’s talent is the contrast between Katniss’s awkwardly delivered prepared speech and a rage-charged impromptu invective against President Snow. “If we burn, you burn with us!”

With all those power players tweaking the dials, what is Katniss’s role? Is she merely a pawn, or does she influence the outcome? Here’s something to think about: Katniss must find the balance between District 13’s desire to fuel the uprising and her own desire to protect Peeta. Complicating matters, a psychologically off-kilter Peeta doesn’t win any district friends when he encourages would-be Capitol enemies to lay down their arms.

Peeved with a Capitol President
With President Snow and the Capitol’s privileged inhabitants, Mockingjay – Part 1 gives us “The Man”. What makes this film (and the whole series) so compelling is the goal of “sticking it” to him.

And who does society rest its hopes on? Not on Thor or Jason Bourne. Not on James Bond or the Men in Black. Instead, the fate of Panem rests on a 17-year-old girl who can’t stand seeing others in pain.

So we wait another year until the conclusion. Hopefully, it’s faithful to the book. – Douglas J. Ogurek

Friday 5 December 2014

Daredevil by Mark Waid, Vol. 1 / review by Stephen Theaker

Mark Waid applies a soft reboot to the Man Without Fear, referencing the dark stories of previous years but permitting Matt Murdock to make a conscious decision to let it go and make a fresh start. Yes, his secret identity made the news, but who believes what they see on the news any more? Taking new cases when there’s a media brouhaha is tricky, but Matt and loyal legal partner Foggy Nelson decide to work behind the scenes, coaching litigants in person, and that leads Daredevil into encounters with new enemies. To someone who has read the headline Daredevil stories – like those by Frank Miller, Kevin Smith and Brian Michael Bendis – without digging deep into the back catalogue, this felt like a novel take on the character. Less grubby than usual, with a bright colour palette and a good deal of humour; Daredevil’s a supersniffer, so he wants Foggy eating fresh food instead of Wotsits. With its acrobatic and cheerful but still-damaged hero, strong design sense, and science adventure elements, Waid’s Daredevil is reminiscent of Mike Allred’s Madman, though it’s a bit less poppy and zany. The writing and art are clever and imaginative, the stories showing the many uses to which the blind superhero can put his supersensory powers, and the artists, Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera, finding many clever ways to show how those powers work – the cover being a good example. It’s nice to see Daredevil dragged out of the doldrums and having some fun.  ***

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Ten reasons I failed at Nanowrimo this year…

Disappointingly, I didn’t finish my November novel this year. Never mind, I wrote about a third of it and got nine chapters done, so it’ll run for two years as a serial in TQF before I have to decide what happens next! Why did I fail? Let’s investigate. I write this mainly for my own reference next year, so I don’t make the same mistakes again.

1. I just didn’t spend long enough working on it. That’s always the main reason. Everything else is just detail. Was it really wise to buy Grand Theft Auto V in the middle of the month? Could I not have gone a month without watching Two and a Half Men or The Big Bang Theory? Did I need to read sixteen books and graphic novels?

2. My structure was too bitty. My novel was to be made up of thirty self-contained episodes, one to be written a day. Making them so self-contained will be great for when they run in the magazine, but it meant each chapter needed much more thought than my daft novels usually do.

3. I tried writing a novel in the present tense. For the first time. I was trying to create a sense of excitement and immediacy (inspired in part by reading Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century). But I kept forgetting and slipped into the past tense over and over, and had to go back through what I’d just written to change the tense.

4. The writing never became routine. All month I was trying to carve out space for writing my new novel instead of it being set aside from the beginning. I never developed any good habits. In the run-up to the 2013 event I had written at least 250 words a day for the previous 73 days, and it wasn’t hard to ramp that up a bit for November.

5. I didn’t do enough in October to clear my (hobby) desk. I didn’t get TQF49 finished till November, and out of some daft sense of duty I took on issue thirteen of the perpetually accident-prone BFS Journal instead of putting my own project first. I’m going to be a bit more selfish about my time in 2015.

6. I let my writing muscles go cold. After the first week, I decided to work extremely hard on everything else I do so that I could take the last week off to write my novel, but that meant that by the time I reached the last week I was worn out from working so hard and hadn’t done any writing of any kind, not even reviews or blog posts, for weeks.

7. I faffed about too much deciding where to write and what to write on. I love writing in Daedalus Touch on my iPad, but my series one iPad doesn’t get many updates any more and the app is unreliable. I got into a terrible mess when it synced to Dropbox and added duplicate versions of my chapters. Next year it’s Scrivener all the way, except when I’m out and about. If I feel like a change I can always use Word to edit the Scrivener files.

8. My idea was almost too good (by my standards). I liked it so much that I didn’t want to spoil it, and spent ages thinking about how to fulfill its potential instead of just getting on with it and writing the usual gubbins.

9. I’ve let my typing get rusty and lazy. I need to find my copy of Mavis Beacon, or buy a new one, because I’ve developed some bad habits. One of my little fingers isn’t pulling its weight.

10. My sleeping patterns were all wrong. At the moment I get up early and go to bed early, but a couple of lonely hours last thing at night are better for writing than a couple of hours in the morning with the children.

But never mind! I’ll do better next year. Because I’ll read this blog post. (Hi Stephen of 2015! Don’t make the mistakes I did. Regards, Stephen of 2014. xoxo)

If you finished your own novel last month, well done! If you didn't, don't be downhearted. Buy a new notebook and leave it on your desk. Won't be long before you start thinking of new ideas to put in it.

Wednesday is occasionally list day on the blog, and this is list #18.

Monday 1 December 2014

Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe / review by Stephen Theaker

Not to be confused with the book of critical writings by the same name about the same author, Shadows of the New Sun (Tor, hb, 416pp) is an anthology of fiction celebrating the work of Gene Wolfe. Two of his own stories bookend the collection. In “Frostfree” Roy Tabak gets home to find a new refrigerator with unusual capabilities has been delivered. The story develops in interesting directions, but in itself isn’t quite enough to demonstrate why Wolfe is the kind of writer to deserve a tribute. Closing story “Sea of Memory” is more reminiscent of the work for which he is lauded. Adele is helping to build a colony, but memories are foggy and time seems strangely confused. The conclusion disappoints, but the disorientation is convincing.

Neil Gaiman may attract as many readers to this book as Gene Wolfe, and “A Lunar Labyrinth” won’t disappoint them. An aficionado of rural attractions goes to see a maze which visitors would wander at night, until the locals decided to burn it. Less superstarry names offer stories that are just as good. Steven Savile’s “Ashes” is a moving, subtly magical story about Steve, whose sweetheart died; in desperation he goes on the honeymoon they had planned. “...And Other Stories” by Nancy Kress plays on the fiction-hopping of “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories”, telling the story of Caitlin, cursed by her grandmother to live through the most miserable of fictional lives. Jack Dann’s “The Island of Time” riffs on the same source, but this time fiction is an escape from abuse. The stories here are generally short, but Aaron Allston’s fifty-page “Epistoleros” justifies the space it’s been given, from its clever title – it’s a story of gunslingers told through a series of letters – to its equally clever ending.

The notes don’t always identify the stories to which these are paying tribute, and most can be enjoyed without having read the originals, though that means you get Wolfe’s ideas secondhand. “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin” by Michael Swanwick, about the daughters of a wealthy perfumier, and whether they are the descendants of colonists or the descendants of natives who murdered and replaced the colonists, is one of the best stories here, but “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” deserves to be read first. Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg’s “Tourist Trap” visits the protagonists of “The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton” in a Bavarian prison, and makes much more sense read after the original story.

Despite the title, disappointingly few stories connect to the Book of the New Sun, though of course there’s more to Wolfe than that quartet. “In the Shadow of the Gate” by William C. Dietz has Severian, between Shadow and Claw, targeted by an offworld assassin and battling beast men while passing through the great wall surrounding Nessus. The queerness of Severian’s world is captured better by Jody Lynn Nye in “The Dream of the Sea”, set after the coming of the new sun; the Order of Esoteric and Practical Knowledge sends Nedel on a quest to find the missing Autarch. Severian makes a guest appearance (as does Wolfe) in Joe Haldeman’s “The Island of the Death Doctor”, a “To Your Scattered Bodies Go” with fictional rather than historical characters.

Surprisingly, Wolfe is revealed as a friendly, convivial figure, quite unlike his stern, unforgiving narrative style: “what would you do to earn a Gene Wolfe approving chuckle?”, asks Judi Rohrig, while Nye describes him as “a courtly gentleman with a twinkle and a sense of humor, modest, patient, appreciative”. The notes mention convention encounters as often as his fiction, creating a sense that many contributors were chosen as much for their friendship with Wolfe as their artistic affinity with his work. Songs of the Dying Earth introduced Jack Vance’s readers to writers with similar sensibilities; that’s less likely to happen here, but the range of stories will encourage readers to explore Wolfe’s rich back catalogue.

Michael Stackpole’s “Snowchild” is a good adventure story – a soldier and a war-mage form an unhappy alliance to rescue a girl from the maggot-folk – and his X-Wing novels have their admirers, but one wouldn’t especially recommend them to Wolfe’s fans. Timothy Zahn”s ‘A Touch of Rosemary” is a fun, clever fantasy, as the Wizard Knight sees off an invading witch king by inviting him to dinner. Todd McCaffrey’s “Rhubarb and Beets” has a nice line in casual cruelty – a fairy girl who gloats about her father’s cleverness to a man he stole from his family – and ends very well. “The Log” is a good story by David Brin about Russian families living miserable lives to be near exiled dissidents. There are no dull stories here, just a couple that are confusing, and most are very good. Novices might prefer to read The Very Best of... first, but if not they’ll still enjoy this.

After a bit of editing, this review appeared in Interzone #247, back in 2013.