Saturday, 31 January 2015

Interzone 256 (Part 1)

An interesting editorial in the British SFF magazine this week, criticising the current sensitivity about spoilers. The focus is on films (the author reviews these for the magazine) with the point being made that the pleasures of watching a movie include far more aspects than any particular plot twist. Indeed, if viewers like a film they will eagerly watch it again and again, regardless of the loss of any surprise. I am reminded of the famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones, facing yet another combat challenge from an enthusiastically sword-wielding enemy, just looks wearily at him – then pulls out a revolver and shoots him. I have read that the element of the unexpected makes this the most popular scene in the film, yet even though everyone knows what is about to happen, it still brings cheers and laughter when it appears.

I would argue that much the same applies to book reviews. Certainly there are some circumstances in which a spoiler really can ruin enjoyment (most obviously, to know WhoDidIt in a WhoDunIt) but the flow of events, the characterisation, the quality of the writing, all remain to be discovered whatever the reviewer may reveal. Having said that, some books are harder than others to review without spoilers, particularly those which include a significant plot twist part-way through; to avoid all spoilers would require ignoring everything from that twist onwards.

In writing my reviews for this blog, I do outline the plot for the sake of those readers who want to know what the book or film is all about. In doing so I try not to reveal crucial plot developments wherever possible but, when I really have no option, I split my posts into an initial spoiler-free assessment, with the full review separated from it by spoiler warnings. The example which comes to mind where this particularly applied was The Palace of Eternity by Bob Shaw, which heads off in a radically different direction part-way through. I hope that is satisfactory, but please let me know if you disagree (or agree, come to that!).

A new columnist who appears to have a regular slot in Interzone is author Nina Allan, whose stories occasionally appear in the magazine (my favourite being The Silver Wind, in issue 233). She has a different complaint, concerning supposedly SF books in which the SF element is merely a background rather than an essential part of the story. The specific example she gives is The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne, a novel set in the near future. Allan praises the quality of the writing, the story-telling, and the richness of the imagined world, and says she enjoyed reading it. But she confesses to disappointment overall, because "the story could have taken place anywhere, at any time". That complaint struck a chord with me, as I have commented on a number of occasions on this blog about stories which are not obviously science-fictional. As Allan says: "When faced with the unfamiliar, the reader's first instinct is to ask why: why is this story taking place on another planet, in the future, in an alternate reality? Why didn't they just set it down the road from where they live? Does the science fiction matter, and if it doesn't, why is it there? If the reader feels bound to ask this question, then so should the writer." Wise words for all aspiring – and established – SFF writers to bear in mind.

While on the subject of Interzone columnists, I should mention Jonathan McCalmont's regular Future Interrupted column, in which in this issue he discusses the importance of ambiguity in stories and the value of surprise twists (assuming that a reviewer hasn't revealed them, of course!). To keep surprising readers as they grow more experienced and sophisticated, authors have to work harder to be inventive. He makes the following interesting comment: "The reason they say that the golden age of science fiction is twelve is that twelve-year-olds are sophisticated enough to comprehend most texts yet naïve enough to be surprised by nearly all of them." An interesting topic for discussion!

I've spent so long on the columnists that I'll postpone the reviews and stories till next time.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Film: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

First, a warning: this review contains some spoilers, although probably no more than you'd gather from a trailer. If you don't like to know anything before seeing a film, then I'll just say that I recommend this one.

Edge of Tomorrow (also known by the subtitle Live. Die. Repeat.) is set on a near-future Earth which is fighting and losing a war against invading aliens called Mimics; most of Europe has been conquered, except for the British Isles. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise – I know, I know, but don't stop reading!) is an army public relations official with no experience of proper soldiering, let alone combat. He finds himself assigned to the front line of an invasion to retake Europe, launched from England. The invasion runs into an ambush in which the troops are slaughtered; Cage sees a heroine of a previous battle, Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) killed, and dies himself – but not before he kills a Mimic leader (an Alpha).

He then wakes up, back in England at the point in time at which he was assigned to a combat team, and goes through it all again. He learns that he, as with Vrataski before him, has been caught in a temporal loop caused by their blood being mixed with that of an Alpha, and that he will keep on waking up at the same point each time he is killed. What follows is an endless pattern of slow progress and many deaths (mostly implied rather than shown) as Cage and Vrataski learn the hard way how to survive the battle, escape from the battlefield, and track down the Omega, the alien central intelligence which is controlling the invasion.

Nothing very new in this, you might think, and in a sense you'd be right. The film is based on  a 2004 Japanese novel, All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. There are obvious echoes here of Groundhog Day, and even more so of Source Code – the 2011 SF drama which is also reviewed on this blog. Despite this, Edge of Tomorrow takes old ingredients and mixes them to make a fresh and enjoyable film.

The Mimics are very good – frighteningly alien and not remotely humanoid – and the drop ships and combat exoskeletons worn by the troops are realistic, in the sense of resembling some of the designs being developed or proposed now. What makes this film so enjoyable is the combination of a very good script (by a succession of writers), tight direction (by Doug Liman), and great acting, especially by the impressively muscled Blunt as the tough and ruthless combat veteran. The end result is a film which is not only intriguing and gripping but is also very funny, with a thread of deadpan dark humour running through it (mostly from Blunt, who keeps a straight face throughout). It even manages to finish on a grin. About the only point I'd question is the logic behind the conclusion, which I'm still trying to get my head around.

Tom Cruise may not be everyone's favourite actor – he isn't mine – but I have to admit that he does this sort of thing very well, and he deserves some credit for picking interesting SF films, Oblivion being another recent example. If you like a blend of SF ideas, taut military action, and humour (as I do), then Edge of Tomorrow is just about perfect. Enjoy!

Saturday, 17 January 2015

This Immortal by Roger Zelazny

This Immortal was first published in 1966, my Panther edition paperback a couple of years later (it cost me five shillings, which is 25p in new money). The last time I read it was about forty years ago, so I was pleased when it was chosen as the monthly read for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group.

The story is set on a future Earth almost destroyed by a global nuclear war. The majority of the descendents of the survivors are now living on other planets, courtesy of the amiable Vegan aliens (as in, from Vega, rather than plant-eaters) who are fascinated with Earth and its history, but some still remain. One of them is the hero and teller of the tale, Conrad Nomikos, the Commissioner of Arts, Monuments and Archives for the planet. He is somewhat displeased to be called from his extended honeymoon to act as a tour guide to Cort Myshtigo, a wealthy and influential Vegan visitor. As the tour proceeds it becomes clear that there are many undercurrents, with threats to the lives of Myshtigo and Nomikos himself, but not until the end of the story is the real purpose of the Vegan's visit revealed.

Zelazny's writing style – laconic understatement laced with dry humour – is the main pleasure of the story. This flows rapidly, emphasised by the lack of any chapters, just line spaces to indicate a change of scene. Nomikos is a somewhat elliptical narrator, only gradually and indirectly revealing that he is very odd indeed – a man of indeterminate age, unusual abilities and many previous identities, who played a major role in the historic campaigns to prevent the Vegans from buying up the whole of Earth and to encourage the human emigrants to return home.

The inclusion of a variety of bizarre mutant humanoids and animals living in the still-radioactive zones seems a bit dated now, but was a standard SF assumption at the time. It did not detract from my pleasure in reading this story again, and I finished it in a couple of sessions.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

Hannu Rajaniemi, who writes SFF stories in both English and his native Finnish, first came to my attention as a result of an interview with him in Interzone 255, of which I noted: "[he is] author of the Jean de Flambeur trilogy: The Quantum Thief, The Fractal Prince and The Causal Angel. I'd not heard of this author before but the stories, set in a post-singularity universe, sound like an intriguing mixture of space opera, people with god-like powers, and virtual reality."

I was sufficiently intrigued to order the first of the trilogy, and have just finished reading it. It's hard to know where to begin in commenting on TQT, because it is highly original. We first meet Jean de Flambeur in a strange prison with transparent walls, created by the Archons. He has lost his memory, and when he is sprung from jail to steal a specific item, he has to travel to the Oubliette, a moving city on Mars, where he left his memories hidden away. Most of the story is told in the first person by de Flambeur, but there is a secondary plot thread featuring a different character, a student and part-time detective called Isidore Beautrelet, who is investigating crime in the Oubliette.

I am reminded to some extent of Gibson's Neuromancer, which I reviewed on this blog in March 2010, in that the comment I made about that novel applies at least as much to this one:

If I have any criticism it is that the plot is so densely packed, the writing so laconic, that you really have to stay on your mental toes to keep up with everything that's going on. This is not a book to fill an idle moment, you need to settle down and concentrate. In fact, I was tempted to read it again immediately, in order to savour it in a more leisurely fashion and pick up on the nuances that I suspect slipped by me the first time.

TQT is packed full of ideas and concepts, to the extent that I doubt that even reading it twice in quick succession would be enough for me to understand everything going on in every scene; it would probably take three readings and even then I'm not confident that would suffice. Comprehension is not helped by a couple of other characteristics of the writing: most importantly, the author has obviously taken to heart the "show don't tell" mantra, and there are many terms which are introduced without explanation, leaving the reader to try to figure out what they mean from the paucity of clues scattered through the story. Most obviously, there are two opposed groups sharing the Solar System with normal humans, both masters of very high technology; the Sobornost and the zoku. Who they are, and how and why they differ from the rest of humanity (the zoku at least appear to be physically human), is never made clear. I should add that "normal humans" is very much a relative term – the inhabitants of the Oubliette only have a limited time as humans before they have to spend a period as "the Quiet", which seems to involve their personalities being transferred to the biomachines responsible for manual labour. The other issue is that some of the scenes are set in the past rather than the present without this being clearly signalled; something else to keep readers on their toes.

One problem with all this is what I might call "conceptual overload"; I was struggling so much to comprehend the basic situation that I tended to lose track of the characters and the plot. In terms of ease of comprehension this is the exact opposite of (for example) a typical detective novel, in which the reader is familiar with the background – the country, the society, the police force, the general process taking place (and even the principal characters if it's one of a series) – and can therefore focus entirely on the plot and the personalities. In TQT, nothing is familiar!

This may all sound like a terrible mess but in fact I found it fascinating, and read this 330-page story in three intensive sessions. I have already sent off for the next two volumes, and on the basis of this one expect to retain the trilogy for further readings.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Films: Pacific Rim (2013), and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

'Tis the season for undemanding entertainment, so I saw a couple of films that I hoped I could relax and enjoy without having to think about.

Pacific Rim had received some negative comments so I watched this one with low expectations, but was pleasantly surprised. There is nothing original in the plot, concerning mankind's battle with huge monsters – Kaijus – emerging from a portal in the Pacific ocean floor which connects to another world. Conventional weaponry proving ineffective, Jaegers – enormous humanoid robots, controlled by a pair of pilots stationed in their heads – seem to be the answer, until the Kaijus evolve to become bigger and more powerful. The hero is pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) who pairs up with Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) in a final attempt to end the Kaiju menace. Idris Elba and Ron Perlman also feature.

While we may have seen this kind of thing many times before, Pacific Rim (written and directed by Guillermo del Toro) is a particularly competent example. It doesn't march Battle: Los Angeles for gritty realism, but is leagues ahead of the risible Battleship (both reviewed on this blog). The script is well structured, providing a good blend of tension, action, humour and other emotions, the acting is fine, while the Kaijus and the Jaegers are impressive creations and their battles are spectacular. 

It is of course necessary to work a little harder than usual to suspend disbelief, not because of the Kaijus (as SFF fans, we expect this sort of thing) but because of the Jaegers. Is the best way of dealing with enormous monsters really to beat them to death with giant fists or shove a huge sword through them? There are plenty of weapons in today's arsenals which would deal with them very easily. It was a bit silly seeing the latest jet fighters attacking with their little cannon, when they have laser-guided bombs and missiles which would handily convert the monsters into pet food from a safe distance. If that's not enough, then station a warship over the portal and revive the Cold War Subroc rockets, which carried a small nuclear depth charge to deal with Soviet missile subs. One of those fired at the portal whenever a Kaiju was detected coming through, and job done. It wouldn't be so much fun, though!

In contrast, Guardians of the Galaxy attracted good reviews when it came out earlier this year. I expected yet another superhero movie but in fact it's more in the mould of Star Wars. After a surprisingly serious and rather grim opening scene the action leaves the Earth, never to return, and the mood lightens. The hero is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) the only Earth human in the plot, a young man who has been brought up on a spaceship which is home to the Ravagers, a group of outlaws.

The adult Quill is first encountered when recovering an enigmatic artifact from an abandoned planet, one which attracts a great deal of unwelcome interest from some of the most dangerous beings in the galaxy. He spends much of the film being pursued, repeatedly losing and recovering the artifact, before its true nature is revealed. Along the way he collects an assortment of allies, including a green-skinned woman modified as a combat specialist (Zoe Saldana), a powerful warrior on a revenge mission (Dave Bautista), an intelligent, genetically-engineered raccoon, and a mobile tree (presumably channeling an Ent, but less chatty).

This odd assortment of characters travelling on a mission is faintly reminiscent of Farscape, but that was aimed at a more adult audience than GotG which has the style of the comic-book superhero strip it is based on, at the juvenile end of the spectrum. The characters are one-dimensional  caricatures and the plot is simplistic. What saves it for adults is the humour running through it – in fact, it is best enjoyed as a spoof; the kiddies can be wowed by the action and spectacular CGI while their parents have a good laugh.

As I had hoped, both films were enjoyable and did indeed provide very undemanding entertainment.