Sunday, 23 July 2017

Brass Man, Polity Agent, and Line War, by Neal Asher

These are the third, fourth and fifth (and evidently last) books in the author's Agent Cormac series to be reviewed on this blog (Gridlinked and The Line of Polity being the other two) although the chronology of Asher's novels is more complex than this suggests. Of his nineteen novels so far, fifteen are set in his far-future Polity universe, which has similarities to Iain M Banks's Culture – including an IA-governed interstellar civilisation with vast, highly intelligent spaceships which give themselves idiosyncratic names. Only five of the fifteen novels feature Ian Cormac, the formidable agent of Earth Central Security. However, nine other novels are set in the Polity (plus several short stories) but without Cormac; two of these are set before the first Cormac story, the other seven are later, of which six form two trilogies (Spatterjay and Transformation). The order in which these were written bears no relationship to their Polity chronology or which series they belong to. So readers who enjoy debating whether such a collection of tales should be read in their order of writing or in accordance with their internal chronology are now faced with an additional pair of options: to read them one series at a time, and if so either in order of writing or by their internal chronology within each series (which is, on balance, my preference). I hope all is now clear!

With that settled, let's turn to Brass Man. This follows on directly from The Line of Polity, being essentially a continuation of the same story, so it is highly desirable to read them in order. The novel begins with various parallel plot threads as is usual for this author, but complicates matters considerably by also throwing in flashback scenes set at various times in the past. The structure of the book is therefore headachingly complex, leaving the reader to try to work out when as well as where each sequence fits into the story. Asher does provide some helpful props in the form of mini-infodumps scattered through the early part of the book, but they are really to refresh the memory of those who have already read the previous book; anyone who hasn't will be left floundering.

Another unusual aspect of this story is that Asher evidently liked some of his earlier bad-guy characters so much that he decided to bring them back to life after seemingly finishing them off in the previous book. I can't help a vague feeling that this is cheating in some way and if I were Ian Cormac I would be feeling rather exasperated. However, Cormac does have a lot of other things to worry about, in fact the author enjoys placing his heroes in seemingly impossible situations before arranging their escape – usually. It won't really be a spoiler to reveal that the redoubtable Cormac survives every misfortune, since he was obviously contractually obliged to appear in another two books.

Polity Agent follows immediately on from Brass Man, so as with my comment above, reading these books in the right order is essential. The author makes no concessions at all to readers who might pick up this volume as their visit visit to the Polity – they will be completely lost from start to finish. The structure this time is simpler, but the downside is that there is less variety in the drama. A new enemy is introduced – a rogue AI – and the emphasis is much more on military SF, in the space-opera tradition of grand starship fleets clashing; somewhat reminiscent of Jack Campbell. This extract will give something of the flavour of the descriptive writing: if you like it, you'll probably enjoy the book; if not, not:

Definitely one of the newest designs: attack-ship configuration with a state-of-the-art chameleonware hull which, as well as being able to bend low intensity EM radiation around it, could also, to some degree, deflect high-powered lasers and masers. The outer skin was a form of polymerized diamond, over layered composite laced with super-conductors. The ship's skeleton, composed of the usual laminated tungsten ceramal, shock-absorbing foamed alloys and woven diamond monofilament, in this case was cellular and more substantial than usual. Cormac also knew that its extra weapons nacelle contained gravtech armament in addition to the usual lethal complement housed in the other two nacelles.

From my viewpoint, rather more putdownable than the earlier books, but still an entertaining read, as long as you've enjoyed the earlier novels in the series.

The final book in this series, Line War, is more of the same and follows straight on; this series is effectively one 2,500+ page story. Cormac masters a new power, which he needs to survive the deadliest threat yet, and he also acquires some strange new allies – among them, those who had been enemies in the past. The story is intensely action-focused with a rather cinematic feel; the author is good at projecting images into the readers' minds. As usual, concentration is needed to keep up with everything that is going on, as the viewpoint constantly switches between several different characters. The ending is satisfying, wrapping everything up quite tidily.

In the first paragraph I compared the Polity and Culture universes; in a nutshell, Asher's writing style could be considered a rocket-boosted version of Banks's, with a faster action and less of the whimsical meandering. This is not a criticism of either – I enjoy the work of both authors who have produced good quality space opera – and which I prefer depends on the mood I'm in.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Films: Arrival, X-Men Apocalypse, Robocop and Fantastic Beasts

Arrival (2016)

This is one I'd been looking forward to seeing, in view of the impressive reviews.  

Twelve lenticular ovoid alien spaceships appear suddenly in various places on Earth, hovering silently a few metres above the ground. Every eighteen hours, a door in the base opens, leading via a tunnel to a large space divided by a transparent wall. On the other side of this wall, wreathed in mist or smoke, aliens appear, emitting strange, untranslatable noises.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a noted linguist, is recruited to try to communicate with the aliens. After various attempts, she is able to build up a vocabulary of the circle-based symbols used by the aliens, which enables a rudimentary form of communication to be established. One of the messages appears to be a threat, bringing the various nations onto a war footing, ready to attack the ships. Only Louise has the power to stop the slide into war – but can she achieve it in time?

The plot is actually a lot more complex than this brief summary suggests, with Louise's personal history an integral part of it, but I can't say more about it without spoilers. I'll just say that this is a very good film, Adams doing an excellent job of conveying the initial terror at the situation and the difficulties she faces. The aliens are, well, suitably alien (definitely not humans squeezed into funny costumes!) and the soundtrack helps to generate a powerful atmosphere. Well worth watching.


X-Men Apocalypse (2016)

Effectively a sequel to X-Men First Class (X-Men: Days of Future Past which emerged in between being somewhat out on its own), this one picks up a couple of decades after the original reboot finished. We are now in the 1980s, and the story this time focuses on the revival of the first mutant who had dominated ancient Egypt, En Sabah Nur. He had lived many lifetimes through having his mind magically transferred to another body when he aged. He always selected mutant hosts for these transfers, and acquired a wide range of powers in consequence. Even so, he was betrayed and trapped within the ruins of a collapsed tomb, only to be woken millennia later by members of a cult which worshipped him.

En Sabah Nur sets about re-establishing his rule, dividing the mutants between those who follow him and those who fight against him. Cue some spectacular battles interspersed with focusing on the developing characters of the mutants. An entertaining film, good but lacking the originality and inventive verve of First Class.


Robocop (2014)

I have only a vague recollection of the 1987 film of the same name, so approached this remake with an open mind. I was quite impressed: this is not the usual kind of all-action blockbuster – in fact the action didn't really get going until well into the  film. Instead, there is much initial focus on Alex Murphy, the crippled cop given the chance of survival as a human/cyborg hybrid, and the impact this has on himself and his family. In parallel with that there is a lot concerning the politics around the use of drones in combat and policing (a very topical addition), interleaved with satirical scenes featuring a highly biased news presenter for a decidedly right-wing channel (I wonder what they were thinking of?). Solid entertainment, worth a couple of hours to see.


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

A Harry Potter spin-off, set in the same world (although apart from a mention of Hogwarts there is no explicit connection in the film), FBAWTFT takes place in an an early-twentieth-century New York City. The existence of magic and wizards is not publicly acknowledged so the Magical Congress of the USA operates in secret. Into this world comes a British wizard and expert on magical beasts, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) with a magic suitcase containing its own little world, filled with the beasts he has collected. These escape into the city, causing mayhem until they can be recovered with the aid of some friends Newt has made: Tina and her sister Queenie, both young wizards, and (for comic effect) Jacob, a non-magical baker. The heroes are faced with opposition to them in the Magical Congress as well as a campaigning group preaching against the rumoured existence of magic.

The CGI is great, as we have come to expect from big-budget fantasy movies, but overall the film is disappointing. It consists of little more than a series of set-piece action sequences featuring various of the beasts, attached to a flimsy plot which doesn't really go anywhere.