Saturday, 23 April 2016

Films: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), and Predestination (2014)


During the late 1960s lighthearted spy films and TV series were in vogue, the blend of adventure, glamour and comedy proving very appealing. A good example is the series of feature films starring Dean Martin as agent Matt Helm, and even the doyen of all such spies, James Bond, was increasingly playing it for laughs (although it didn't become a spoof of itself until Roger Moore took over from Sean Connery in the 1970s). Perhaps the most highly regarded of the TV shows (in the UK anyway) was the British series The Avengers - no, not the current lot, the one featuring agents John Steed and especially the marvellous Emma Peel. Into this particular niche dropped the extremely successful US series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which ran for 105 episodes between 1964 and 1968. I saw many of those when they first appeared on UK TV and remember the principal characters very well, but I've not watched them since, so I was prompted more by curiosity than anything else to view this remake.

The lead character is played by Henry Cavill (currently featuring as Superman, vs Batman that is) who plays Napoleon Solo in quite a similar way to the suave original, Robert Vaughn. His Russian sidekick Ilya Kuyakin is very different, however: I recall David McCallum as small and mild-mannered, but the tall and powerful Armie Hammer plays Ilya as a ruthless, humourless and downright psychotic killer. In the TV series these were the two main characters with only their boss Waverly also featuring regularly, but in this film they are joined by reluctant recruit Gaby, to whom the ubiquitous Alicia Vikander brings some star quality.

The 1960s-set plot isn't really the point, it's merely the necessary backdrop to the entertainment, but for what it's worth it involves the bad guys persuading a nuclear scientist to make an atom bomb for delivery to the remnants of the Nazis. Solo and Kuryakin, initially enemies, are directed to cooperate to thwart the evil plotters. Of course they succeed (sorry about the spoiler!) with various laughs on the way, and the finale prepares the way for a sequel. The film seems to have been moderately successful, so we'll have to wait and see if another appears.

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The Australian film Predestination was not what I had expected. I had vaguely thought it was an action movie about time-travelling agents, but it turned out to be something much more subtle and complex than that, with very little action. It is based on Heinlein's short story "-All You Zombies-", which I don't remember reading. The plot did however remind me of another short story by the same author, By His Bootstraps, which is explained by the fact that AYZ is reportedly a kind of developed version of the ideas in BHB. It also reminded me of the more recent film Looper, reviewed on this blog in Febrary 2013.

Predestination is the kind of film which it is very difficult to write about without spoilers. So I will just say that it involves a whole layer-cake of time-travel paradoxes piling on each other, with scenes sometimes replayed from different viewpoints to reveal entirely different perspectives on events. It is clever and absorbing, but you have to be on your mental toes to keep up. The downside is that this is yet another film which demonstrates that single-timeline time-travel is really not possible for practical (as opposed to technological) reasons. I enjoyed the gradual revelation of what was actually going on, but at the end was left feeling "but that's completely impossible!", even though each individual element seemed logical (sort of). Despite this, if you like this kind of puzzle, watch the film!


Saturday, 16 April 2016

The Proteus Operation, by James P. Hogan


James P Hogan is a name that I vaguely recognised, and a quick check of his Wiki entry reveals a substantial output of more than two dozen novels (published between 1977 and his death in 2010) plus a lot of short stories, although no titles that I can recall reading. The Proteus Operation is the only book by him that I have.

Since one of my two (so far) forays into fiction writing, The Foresight War, is an alternative World War 2 story, I naturally take an interest in other novels on the same subject. Although published in 1985, long before my own effort, I seem to have missed The Proteus Operation until now; at least, I have no recollection of having read it before. This is rather surprising since it is the only other novel I've found which deals with the consequences of sending modern experts on World War 2 back into the past to try to change its course (although I suspect there have been many more).

The complicated plot of The Proteus Operation takes some explanation, which must inevitably involve a few spoilers, but I will only describe the beginning of the plot, since this is one which readers should enjoy finding out for themselves as it develops.

The background to the story involves the development of the technology of time travel in 2025, in an alternate world in which World War 2 had never happened, nations learning to live in peace instead. However, this situation did not please some influential people with dictatorial tendencies, who hijack the project to send back agents to effect change in order to result in a world more suited to them. Their main change is to boost the success of an historically failed splinter group and its leader – Adolf Hitler of the Nazi Party. They succeed to the extent that history is radically changed; in the world of the novel, which is set in the 1970s, all of Europe, including the UK and half of the USSR, are part of the Nazi Empire, while the eastern part of the USSR plus China and all of SE Asia belong to Japan. The only bastions of democracy left are the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and it seems only a matter of time before they collapse under pressure or are destroyed in a nuclear war.

The story begins in this grim alternative world and begins with the USA secretly building their own time machine in order to send a group of specialists back to 1939 to help the US and the UK to prepare for the forthcoming conflict (that being as far back as they could go). The primary task of the specialists in this "Proteus Operation", with the aid of a lot of materials and equipment sent back with them, is to build another time machine to allow two-way traffic between 1974 and 1939, without which the travellers would remain stuck in the past. Their other tasks are focused on the atomic bomb, which in their world had been given to the Nazis by the original time-travellers early in the war.

Obviously, I can't resist making some comparisons with my own novel. There are some significant differences in approach: the first is that I never attempted an explanation for the time-travelling of my two “throwbacks” (it is simply a “given”, a once-only incident to kick off the story), while the theory and practice of two-way time travel takes a major role throughout Hogan's novel and is given some interesting twists. The other major difference is that my own interests started with the technology “what ifs”, extended to include the associated tactics, then the strategies and finally something of the flavour of life at that time. Hogan’s priorities are practically in the reverse order; the only element of weapon technology he is interested in is the atomic bomb, so tactics – or indeed any aspect of the fighting or even military strategy – don't feature at all.

Instead, Hogan's much longer story is focused on planning, preparing and carrying out the Proteus Operation. It is rich with well-researched period detail, plus contains a lot of discussions and explanations and side-stories which, while interesting, inevitably slow down the action so I didn't find it that easy to get into at first (it took me two attempts). However, the pace gradually accelerates and finally reaches a nail-biting climax.

Hogan's characterisation is very thoroughly done and his historical personalities are well drawn, particularly Winston Churchill. I was mildly amused to note that as his US throwbacks decide that the British personality to be approached should be Churchill (not such an obvious choice as it now appears, as in 1939 he was seen as a failed politician), the scientific expert he invites to an initial meeting is his friend Professor Lindemann. The British throwback in my own story, who was well aware of the largely negative nature of Lindemann’s influence, had naturally chosen to approach his rival academic Henry Tizard instead.

In conclusion, this is a thoughtful and impressive novel that should be read by anyone interested in alternative World War 2 stories. I am surprised that it is not better known.


Saturday, 9 April 2016

Interzone 263


The book reviews in the latest issue include some highly-regarded ones. Sockpuppet by Matthew Blakstad is very topical, being concerned with the breakdown in security of a huge government Digital Citizen ID programme. I have to say that the subject doesn't much enthuse me (I prefer something more escapist rather than having my nose rubbed into all-too-likely near-future disaster scenarios), but I feel I probably ought to read it - sometime. I'm not so sure the same applies to The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts, a psychological thriller concerning the relationship between two people stuck together on a remote Antarctic base (well, I suppose that all Antarctic bases are by definition remote, but you know what I mean). Another well-reviewed book is Down Station by Simon Morden, concerned a very disparate group of people using the London Underground who find themselves in an alternate world. A different kind of disaster scenario, in that the focus is very much on the group relationships as they all struggle to survive. I have to say that I didn't much like Equations of Life by the same author, so I probably won't pick this one up either.  Oh well, at least I won't be adding to my reading pile this month.

On to the short stories:

Ten Confessions of Blue Mercury Addicts, by Anna Spencer, by Alexander Marsh Freed, illustrated by Jim Burns. An addictive drug speeds up reactions to such a degree that it allows users to run many times faster than normal, but there's a heavy price to pay.

Spine, by Christopher Fowler, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A classic SF/Horror story; what happens if oceanic life gets fed up with being dumped on and decides to fight back? Do not expect a happy ending.

Not Recommended for Guests of a Philosophically Uncertain Disposition, by Michelle Ann King. The Fracture – a remote and mysterious tourist attraction in which visitors find themselves in a different world, more hinted at than explained.

Motherboard, by Jeffrey Thomas, illustrated by Martin Hanford. A young man works at a Far-East computer assembly factory and is fascinated by the resemblance of the motherboards to a city seen from above. With a lot of imagination, he can even imagine being in the city; really being in the city!

Lotto by Rich Larson, illustrated by Richard Wagner. The future lies in the stars and vast colony ships leave at regular intervals, taking the chosen few. They are selected by lottery, but the large camps which have formed around the emigration base have developed their own sub-cultures.

Andromeda of the Skies, by E. Catherine Tobler, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A dream-like fantasy in which a young girl who falls through a frozen lake seems to remain alive in a different kind of existence.

The stand-out story here (albeit in a hair-raising kind of way) is unsurprisingly the one by long-established fantasy/horror author Christopher Fowler, but I was also intrigued by Jeffrey Thomas's tale.


Saturday, 2 April 2016

Film: The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)


A few weeks ago, in my review of Interzone 262, I devoted a paragraph to the Quatermass stories, which originated in BBC TV serials in the early 1950s. Coincidentally one of the spin-off feature films was shown on UK TV recently, so of course I had to watch it.

An experimental manned space rocket returns to Earth in a crash-landing. Only one of the three crew is on board, and he is in a catatonic state. He gradually recovers consciousness but his physical condition continues to worsen, despite which he escapes from hospital and starts to attack people. The rocket scientist Professor Quatermass, in charge of the mission, realises that the man has been taken over by an alien life form, and the race is on to stop the creature from reproducing via spores and spreading across the planet.

The Quatermass Xperiment was one of three such films made by the Hammer film studios in England, following the success of the TV serials featuring the same scientist. Hammer subsequently became famous for making horror movies, this film being the first example of their creepy style.

One difference between this film and the original TV serials is that Hammer used an American actor (Brian Donlevy) to play Quatermass, apparently in the hope that this would make the film more palatable to the US market. I found this very jarring; Quatermass sounded more like a hard-boiled private eye than the diffident professor of the TV shows. He also appeared to be in control of everything – including launching a rocket on his own initiative, which seems strange to us today. There is another US actor in the film (Margia Dean – who I see from Wiki is still around at the age of 93) who speaks with a weirdly artificial-sounding, very soft voice – did American women ever speak like that in real life? It isn't just the American accents which seem odd today – the sound of what might be called "BBC" British English has changed radically, with news announcers of the 1950s sounding ridiculous now. In the film, there is a scene with a girl of maybe 6 or 7 who sounds exactly like the adults, with a precise and carefully enunciated “posh” speech which would have people today rolling around in laughter, assuming it was some kind of spoof.

It was interesting to see Jack Warner as a police inspector; he was subsequently demoted to constable to take the lead role in the police TV series Dixon of Dock Green, which ran for 21 years. The Scottish actor Gordon Jackson, well-known from later TV series (especially Upstairs, Downstairs and The Professionals), also makes an appearance.

The Quatermass Xperiment was a considerable success, and it is easy to see why: it is well-plotted and held my attention throughout. Of course, it was a product of its time and radically different from similar movies made today, so is very much a period piece. On a final note: I watched this after rejecting City of Bones; a film which seemed promising but repelled me with a prolonged scene of crude violence in which a woman is beaten up. Score zero for subtlety and restraint; I have no wish to watch such stuff.


Saturday, 26 March 2016

Web of the Witch World, by Andre Norton


It's been about a year and a half since I first read Witch World, the first book of what became a long and complex series. This is the plot summary borrowed from my previous review:

"Simon Tregarth, an ex-soldier living on the fringes of the underworld and with a price on his head, is offered a chance to escape through a gate connecting this world with another better suited to him – which turns out to be the Witch World. This world has a fundamentally medieval society (what is it about medieval societies which makes them so common on other worlds?) with a few additions of strangely advanced technology. There is also sorcery, wielded by women in just one place, the land of Estcarp. Tregarth finds himself involved with Estcarp – and one of the witches in particular – in their struggle for survival against an inhuman enemy."

Web of the Witch World continues the tale a few months later. Simon Tregarth is now established in Estcarp as March Warder of the south, helping to defend the witch land against the purely human enemies which surround it. He is now married to Jaelithe, the former witch who had given up her status for him. A new threat is emerging, an inimical force with the ability to take over the minds of humans, turning them into enemies of their own people. It does not take long to identify the culprits as the alien Kolder, beaten at the end of the first story but now regrouping in their attempt to establish control over the witch world.

What follows is another exciting adventure, a tale of intrigue, battle and romance, during which it becomes clear that the belief of Estcarp's Women of Power – that magical powers could only be exercised by virgin women – proves to be wrong on both counts. Tregarth and Jaelithe, individually capable, become a force to be reckoned with when they fight side-by-side.

I must admit to wondering how the story was going to end as the remaining page count shrank almost to nothing while the battle was still raging, but the heroes finally manage the job in a rather abrupt ending which doesn't really explain exactly what the Kolder were up to. It's a fun ride, though, and well worth reading if you like Witch World. After this, the focus of the series switches to the heroes' children and to other lands within the witch world, but I think I'll bail out at this point – too many other books awaiting my attention!