Monday, 27 July 2009

Deathray #20: Brown, Reynolds

So, Guy Haley, Deathray-humble-editor-in-chief. What’s he like? Well, he’s like the editor of a top-drawer SF mag who is keen to spread the word. He wonders if SF-blogs might like to mention the latest issue of his mag. Gladly. I’ve said before that the ’Thray (as I like to call it) is my favourite SF mag: wittier and wider-ranging than Interzone (the ’Rzone, as I don’t tend to call it), better on literary SF, my main drug, than SFX (the ’Fecks, as nobody in their right mind would call it), and more readily available in the Staines High Street W H Smith than Locus which I won’t disrespect by abbreviating.

Actually, the principle of absolute honesty and full disclosure compels me to confess an untruthfulness. I don’t, actually, like to refer to this magazine as ‘The Thray’. It’s actually quite hard to get your tongue around that. Like a vocal equivalent of Spock’s hand gesture. And talking of Spock’s hand gesture: has it occurred to nobody else, on the kimosabe-actually-means-horse’s-arse principle, that Spock might have been giving the world a Vulcan swivel-finger? What I mean is: it’s occurred to me. Am I alone?

I digress.

So what do we have? There are the Potteroids, up there, on the front cover; Harry smouldering, and Dumbledore (by accident or 'Thray-ish design) reaching with a wizardly right hand for Hermione’s left boobie.
I wouldn’t have thought that was his thing at all. Inside there’s another smouldering pose, with Torchwood-Gwen looking poutingly at the camera, and Editor Haley standing directly below imitating both pose and expression as if eager to ape the Welsh beauty. Does Guy’s pout have the same effect as Gwen’s? See for yourself:

The ‘Children of Earth’ Torchwood is one of the ‘Deathray 5’: ‘the month’s most intriguing and/or important stuff.’ Also ‘5’d’ this month is The Half-Blood Prince, Duncan Jones’s above-average Moon movie, Dynamite Entertainment’s new ‘Buck Rogers’ comic and the so-so vampire novel The Strain by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro.

What else? There’s the required spread of news and views; articles on up-and-coming stars of stage and screen called ‘The New Gods’: Anton Yelchin, Rachel Luttrell, Justin Long and, er, Dan Ackroyd and Andy Serkis, both of whom have surely upped and come long ago. If that image isn’t too disgusting. There’s an excellent article on French artist Moebius, my single favourite SF imagist—lots of splendid reproductions, including the black and white image that immediately precedes the image at the top of this page. There’s a 1984 retrospective; a piece on how professionals apply zombie and devil make-up for the big screen; a 10-page Pottersplurge, 9 pages on Moon’s special effects; lots on DC comics and the Art of Mike Perkins; and a great number of images of zombies amongst which is one, though I’m not sure which one, of an unmadeup Danny Dyer. All good.

But it’s the book-stuff I’m most interested in, and that happens to be doubleplus good. Partly this is because the book reviews are of a uniformly high standard (though their 2/5 judgment on The Forest of Hands and Teeth is wrongheaded, getting all picky over worldbuilding snags and scythe-pedantry whilst missing the emotional heft: Carrie Ryan’s novel is a character and mood piece, not a fitting-all-the-meccano-pieces-together construction exercise). And partly it’s because of a handy in-depth interview with Stephen Baxter—very good this, although the interviewer (Haley again) gets a little under-collar-heated at Steve's voice: 'his accent is soft Liverpool, quiet and clever in that John Lennon mould ... the most relaxing Sf author to listen to ... voice like a bath of sexy honey ...' Well, maybe not that last one.

The pièce de résistance, though, is the inclusion of two superior pieces of original fiction—something SFX (for instance) doesn’t give its readers. There’s ‘Bengal Blues’ by the criminally good and criminally underrated Eric Brown; a neat little space-age murder mystery; telepathic noir. But good though Brown’s story is, the real standout is Al Reynold’s ‘Monkey Suit’. This Revelation-Space-universe story is almost worth the price of admission by itself.

Reynolds made his reputation as a short-story writer, of course, and although he’s all about the Big Novels now ‘Monkey Suit’ reminds us what made him so notable a Space Operator in the first place. This is how it starts.
A lighthugger is a four-kilometre spike of armour and ablative ice. That’s a lot of surface area to search for a lost crewman. Especially when the hull is a craggy, knotted labyrinth of jagged ornamentation and half-abandoned machinery, a place you could lose an army in, let alone a single hull-monkey.
The story is a simple but effortlessly paced and readable thing: the narrator takes on a dead man’s spacesuit and goes out onto the hull of the 1g accelerating, near-c hurtling lighthugger to undertake repairs, where strange things happen.

The thing that struck me reading this is that, in reviewing Reynolds' work previously, and concentrating my praise on his considerable talents as an entertainer and ideas-merchant, I’ve rather underplayed how cleverly allusive a writer he is. There are two things about this story that lift it above the ordinary. One is the way the spaceship is troped as a Gothic cathedral—though in a way wholly consonant with physics and engineering: a vast, crenulated, vertical spire upon which the narrator scrambles and clambers. The gargoyle-like captain (an Ultra), death-by-impaling, plague (silver, rather than red, death) and the toying with the notion that Raoul’s suit is haunted by its dead former owner: these deliberately Gothic touches neatly primp the creepiness of tone and atmosphere of the whole. Reynolds knows what he is doing. But an even nicer touch, I thought, was the way the suit itself is styled after the Shield of Achilles:
Every significant incident had been recorded in a tiny cameo, painted onto the metal carapace in laborious, loving detail … here a battle scene, bulbous-suited figures on the surface of an asteroid fighting other bulbous-suited figures against a sky of bright vermillion. Here was a ship burning from the inside, against a star-wisped clutch of blue supergiants. Here was a picture of two fearsome cyborgs …
Superb. The technical term for this is ekphrasis, and when done well (like the glimpses of deep past underlying The Lord of the Rings, or the attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion that exist in the two hour film only for the three seconds it takes Hauer to speak this line and yet which stick more potently in the mind than any of it) it generates enormous vividness and affect.

On the other hand, I don’t know from where ‘HE TOLD ME TO DO IT’ is quoted. So, alas, my review ends in fail.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

H G Wells, Mankind in the Making (1903)

I was surprised to pick up a first edition (no less) of this title for less than a fiver. It is not, of course, one of Wells’ most famous books, although as a companion piece to Anticipations (1901)—which of course is one of Wells’s more notable non-fiction works—it has some interest. It sets out, according to the preface, to present ‘a general theory of social development and of social and political conduct’. Insofar as it has been noticed, it is as one of the places where Wells was most explicitly eugenicist, and as such it presents the critic with a series of targets almost too obviously absurd and offensive at which to take aim. This is the younger Wells, who believes ‘it is absurd to breed our horses and sheep, and improve the stock of our pigs and fowls, while we leave humanity to mate in the most heedless manner’ [40]. Actually, reading the book, Wells’s eugenicist beliefs, whilst—I'm sure I hardly need to stress—wrongheaded and pernicious, struck me as less monolithic than some commentators had led me to believe. He repudiates the comparison with livestock breeding, for instance, as soon as he makes it: ‘the analogy with the breeder of cattle is a very misleading one. He has a very simple ideal, to which he directs the entire pairing of his stock. He breeds for beef, he breeds for calves and milk, he breeds for a homogeneous docile herd … Which is just what our theoretical breeders of humanity cannot do. They do not want a homogeneous race in the future at all. They want a rich interplay of free, strong and varied personalities, and that alters the nature of the problem absolutely.’ [40-41]

But that said, Wells’s more offensively silly earlier chapters (especially two and three: ‘The Problem of the Birth Supply’; ‘Wholesale Aspects of Man-making’) aren’t what interest me most in this little book. It’s the later chapters about raising the children that smack my gob. Partly this has to do with the naked authoritarianism of Wells’s proposed solutions. Do children in 1903 go ragged and underfed? The answer is to ‘set up a minimum standard of clothing, cleanliness, growth, nutrition and education’, and then have the state lend parents the money to enable them to cloth, wash, feed and educate their kids. This is money the parents would have to pay back later; and if the parents did not use the money wisely, ‘then the child should be at once removed from the parental care, and the parents charged with the cost of a suitable maintenance.’ And what if parents did not (or could not) pay back their state loan?
If parents failed in the payments they could be put into celibate labour establishments to work off as much of the debt as they could, and they would not be released until their debt was fully discharged. [100-101]
The blithe way Wells folds together welfare and penal institutions, and the generally bullying attitude to parents, is nicely astonishing. Is this a man with much sympathy for parenting? Let’s come at that question via his description of that bundle of loveliness, the new-born baby. Did I say baby? Let me hear you say ‘ahhhhh!’:
The new-born child is at first no more than an animal. Indeed, it is amongst the lowest and most helpless of all animals, a mere vegetative lump.[113]
Oh. The chapters on revising the national system of education are simply superb. Wells, for instance, is bonkerishly stern about adults taking the ‘oochy-koochy’ approach to baby communication.
When a child says to its mother, “Me go mome” it is doing its best to speak English … but when a mother says to her child “Me go mome” she is simply wasting an opportunity of teaching her child its mother tongue. Indeed, she ought to understand; it is her primary business to know better than her feelings in this affair. [124]
Fuck yeah. Actually, Wells has a bracingly low opinion of people’s speaking abilities more generally. To be clear: the ‘their’ in the next sentence refers to you and also to me. ‘Their linguistic instruments are no more capable of contemporary thought than a tin whistle, a xylophone and a drum are capable of rendering the Eroica symphony’ [133]. Hey! Fuck!

On the teaching of mathematics to children, Wells’ thoughts are nothing short of genius. Genius, I say. I present only three of his many, sensible notions. One is that very young children should be given thousands of tiny little cubes.
There can be little doubt that many of us were taught to count very badly, and that we are hampered in our arithmetic throughout life by this defect. Counting should be taught by means of small cubes, which the child can arrange and rearrange in groups. It should have at least over a hundred of these cubes—if possible a thousand. [151]
As a parent of young children I am here to tell you: give either of my kids a thousand tiny cubes and the chances of them sitting quietly arranging and rearranging the cubes into neat piles by way of mastering number theory are, well, small. The chances of my house becoming littered with myriad tiny cubes, of myself coming down barefoot in the morning to make a cup of tea only to tread painfully upon a great many scattered tiny cubes, and, generally, the chances of my wife and I finding tiny cubes in every nook, cranny, sofa-seam and container for years to come are rather higher. But here’s his second proposal.
It is very confusing to have distinctive names for eleven and twelve. [152]
I take that sentence in, noting that the qualifier is not just ‘confusing’ but ‘very confusing’. OK. Then I read it again.
It is very confusing to have distinctive names for eleven and twelve.
So, instead of these names, we should … um? ‘Use,’ says Wells, with some asperity, ‘the words “one-ten,” “two-ten,” thirteen, fourteen, etc, for the second decade in counting.’ And that would be good, because?
Diagram after diagram displays the same hitch at twelve, the predominance in the mind of an individualized series over quantitatively equal spaces until the twenties are attained. Many diagrams also display the mental scar of the clock face.
I’m not sure how to go about arguing with the diagrams, not least because I’m not sure what the diagrams are, here. But the best is yet to come.
The child should not be taught the Arabic numerals until it has counted [with the miniature cubes] for a year or more. Experience speaks here. I know one case only too well of a man who learnt his Arabic numerals prematurely.
Go on.
…learnt his Arabic numerals prematurely, before he had acquired any sound experimental knowledge of numerical quantity, and, as a consequence, his numerical ideas are incurably associated with the peculiarities of the figures. When he hears the word seven he does not really think of seven or seven-ness at all, even now, he thinks of a number rather like four and very unlike six.
Which would not have happened if, as a baby, he’d been given thousands of tiny little cubes. Now, either Wells’s friend is King Arthur from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (‘one … two … three … seven!’ ‘Four, sir’) or he suffers from dyscalculia. Or else is a loony. Hard not to feel for him, though: ‘when it came to the multiplication table,’ Wells tells us, ‘he learnt each table as an arbitrary arrangement of relationships and with an extraordinary amount of needless labour and punishment. But obviously with cubes or abacus at hand, it would be the easiest thing in the world for a child to construct and learn its own multiplication table whenever the need arose.’ [153] Once again, my eye trips over the ‘obviously’ and then falls flat on its ocular face at ‘the easiest thing in the world.’ Had Wells ever tried the experiment of giving a young child a thousand tiny cubes and telling them to construct a multiplication table with them? I suspect he had not.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Hugos 2009

Dear Science Fiction Fandom

I wanted to have a word about the Hugos. Science Fiction Fandom, these are your awards: the shortlists chosen and voted for by you. And because I too am a fan (though without Hugo voting privileges) they are my awards. They reflect upon us all. They remain one of the most prestigious awards for SF in the world. These lists say something about SF to the world.

Science Fiction Fandom: your shortlists aren’t very good.

I'm not saying the works you have shortlisted are terrible. They're not terrible, mostly, as it goes. But they aren’t exceptionally good either. They’re in the middle. There’s a word for that. The word is mediocre.

Widely publicised shortlists of mediocre art are a bad thing. What do these lists say about SF to the multitude in the world—to the people who don’t know any better? It says that SF is old-fashioned, an aesthetically, stylistically and formally small-c conservative thing. It says that SF fans do not like works that are too challenging, or unnerving; that they prefer to stay inside their comfort zone.

This is bad because the very heart’s-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing. And if this true of literature, it is doubly or trebly true of science fiction. For what is the point of SF if not to articulate the new, the wondrous, the mindblowing and the strange?

Take the novel shortlist. The novels on the novel shortlist are all mediocre novels, with the exception of Anathem, which isn’t so much mediocre as enormous and deranged and so boring it goes through boring into some strange condition on the far side. They are not terrible hopeless novels; and they are not outstanding, excellent, life-changing, brilliant novels. They are somewhere in the middle. Fandom, I would like the blue-riband shortlist on the genre’s most prestigious award to list some novels that are better than mediocre.

You've plumped for a list that's all YA. Nothing wrong with YA, of course; but is it really the case that all the best long fiction in our genre last year was YA? Does it seem likely to you that this could be the case? Now, I know the Stross title is a ‘late period Heinlein’ pastiche, that it’s about a sexbot, that it has oodles of sex in it. But it’s true enough to its Heinleinisch sources to be YA for all that; in the sense that its understanding of sexual desire and praxis at no point goes beyond that of a smart, randy teenager—which is as far as Heinlein’s understanding of sexual desire and praxis ever went, of course. So, I’ll call Saturn’s Children YA; and I’ll go on from there to note that everything on the novel list is YA. Here are a couple of paragraphs from blogs, one relating to this list, one not. Firstly, from Abigail Nussbaum, who has already said many of the things about the disappointing novel shortlist that I’d have liked to:
Though it might be tempting to conclude that the shoddy state of this year's shortlist is the result of the infantilization of the genre, to my mind the problem isn't that YA books are being nominated, but that the wrong YA books have been. How much stronger would this year's best novel shortlist have been if Terry Pratchett's Nation, Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, or even Allegra Goodman's The Other Side of the Island had been on it? (This is not even to mention books that have received a great deal of critical attention … Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go, Kristin Cashore's Graceling, or Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games.)
And this, not specifically related to the Hugos, but a suggestive quotation nevertheless: the excellent Blogographia Literaria quotes Leslie Fiedler:

There is a real sense in which our prose fiction is immediately distinguishable from that of Europe, though this is a fact that is difficult for Americans to confess. In this sense, our novels seem not primitive, perhaps, but innocent, unfallen in a disturbing way, almost juvenile. The great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children's section of the library, their level of sentimentality precisely that of a pre-adolescent. This is part of what we mean when we talk about the incapacity of the American novelist to develop; in a compulsive way he returns to a limited world of experience, usually associated with his childhood, writing the same book over and over again until he lapses into silence of self-parody.
Fandom, look at the 2009 Clarke novel shortlist. Do you know why that list is better than yours? It’s not that its every novel is a masterpiece—far from it (although it seems to me regretable that you couldn’t you vote books as good as The Quiet War, House of Sons or Song of Time onto your shortlist.) But some of the books on that list fail, no question. Martin Martin's on the Other Side, for instance, is a mediocre novel. But (and this is the crucial thing) it’s a mediocre novel trying to do something a little new with the form of the novel. It’s an experiment in voice and tone, and ambitious in its way. The novels on the Hugo shortlist—except Anathem, as I mentioned—try nothing new: they are all old-fashioned: formally, stylistically and conceptually unadventurous.

Let me put it this way: Fandom, when you voted Scalzi’s mediocre Zoe’s Tale onto the shortlist, did you really do so because you thought it one of the six best genre novels published in 2008? I mean—honestly? Or did you, on the contrary, think: ‘I like Scalzi; I like Scalzi’s blog; and although maybe his novel’s not, you know, Tolstoy or anything, I enjoyed it plenty, and I reckon Scalzi deserves the egoboo.’ Because I can believe the latter explanation much more readily than the former, and the problem with it is that none of those things are reasons to vote Zoe’s Tale onto a best novel shortlist. Those are corrupting reasons, because every time you vote a mediocre book onto a shortlist that exists to celebrate the very best in our genre you devalue not only the award but the genre too. Please don’t devalue my genre, fandom. I love my genre. Don’t vote mediocre books onto the Hugo novel shortlist; vote good books; and excellent books. There’s plenty of them about, you know.

Of course, there’s always the possibility, of course, that you genuinely feel Zoe’s Tale is one of the best novels published last year. If that’s what you believe—if you actually think Zoe’s Tale is the best the novel can aspire to—then you really, really, really, really, really need to broaden your aesthetic horizons. You need to read more widely, to look at a greater selection of writers and modes of writing; to stretch yourself; to venture out of your comfort zone. Not just for the health of this award, and SF; but for the sanity of your soul. Because if you can actually read the excellent The Quiet War and then read the pleasant but mediocre Zoe’s Tale, and not see that the former is a much much better novel than the latter, there must be something wrong with you.

Little Brother? Part of me feels bad saying this, since Doctorow’s novel is in the fullest sense a righteous book—it contains a whole bunch of stuff that people, especially young people, really ought to know. And it’s been really successful, and a lot of young people are reading it, which is superb. And Doctorow is a lovely, lovely human being. But as a novel Little Brother is a mediocre piece of writing: stylistically dull; too formally stilted in execution; too monologic tonally. The novel’s drama is construed in a fatally one-sided a manner, with nothing to suggest why the bad guys do what they do apart from the fact that they are bad guys. The torture sequence at the end pulls it punches. Orwell’s Big-Bro bad guys are a thousand times nastier than anything here, no punches are pulled, and yet Orwell’s villains have a comprehensible, if repellent, rationale. It’s not good enough to say ‘but this is a YA novel’. The best YA novels are more than capable of covering all this stuff; and most young adults know the world is not a 2-D cartoon. I read Nineteen Eighty-Four when I was a teenager, for instance, like a great many people. I loved it. So Little Brother’s righteousness—and I’m not being snarky when I use that phrase—does not save it from being mediocre as a novel. Or—Gaiman’s Jungle Book retread, The Graveyard Book. This is better-made than some of Gaiman’s other novels, and it melts a little corner of my belief that Gaiman is a great writer of graphic novels but an indifferent novelist. But The Graveyard Book is too twee, too cosy, especially given that its theme is Death which is, in reality, neither twee or cosy, as some children, and all of us eventually, grievously discover. So that leaves Anathem, and it seems a strange thing to say given how little I like this book, but it’s seems to me the only title here whose presence is deserved. I think it fails, but I think it fails in heroic, mad, reader-stretching, you’ve-never-come-across-anything-like-this-before ways. Saturn’s Children is as scattershot a novel as any Stross has written, and the proportion of shot that hits the target is as it’s always been. I suppose it could be argued that Saturn’s Children’s take on late Heinlein tries something new with the form of the novel, if rattling the form to pieces with a hail of bolts and screws counts as new. But it’s pretty weak fare compared even to Anathem.

Guys, we can do better. Why not make next year’s list a thing of excellence, rather than competence and mediocrity? Why not think about listing genuinely good books? Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, Gwyneth Jones’s Spirit; Lee Konstantinou’s Pop Apocalypse, China Mieville, The City and The City;, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream, Catherynne M Valente, Palimpsest. [18 July 09: I'm wrong! Someone more clued-in than I reminds me that Lavinia won't be eligible for next year's Hugos; but adds that, with Pyr's reissue of The Quiet War, McAuley's novel will be ...] They’re not all of them completely perfect; but they all of them, in various ways, push the envelope, try new stuff, shake you up. That’s six titles right there better than the 09 shortlist, and the year’s only half over. Who knows what genius, brilliant, startling, unnerving, wonderful fiction is coming in the next six months?

Fandom, the thing is that all your 2009 shortlists are like this: one or perhaps two choices that are not embarrassing, thrown in with four or five choices that are wincingly bad. Best related book? Two titles that deserve to be there (Mendelsohn, Kincaid) and three makeweights. Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: is there any person not suffering serious imbalances in their brain chemistry who really thinks Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Iron Man and the when-I-go-to-hell-for-my-sins-this-will-be-being-played-on-continuous-loop-on-the-tannoy METAtropolis comes within a parsec of WALL-E and The Dark Knight in terms of beauty, cultural significance or quality? And given that this is so, what's the other stuff even doing on the shortlist?

Or take a look at the best professional artist shortlist. You see it, there? Daniel Dos Santos; Bob Eggleton; Donato Giancola; John Picacio; Shaun Tan. All of these artists produce work that is professional, technically accomplished, polished, brightly coloured, realist and jesus, dull, dull, dull. Dull—excepting only Shaun Tan (the only one name there that seems to me to deserve to be there). Conventional; all surface technique and no soul; artworks exactly like and in not one quarter-degree superior to pretty much every SFF novel or magazine cover printed since 1966. Remember, Fandom, my question is not: are these artists competent, because clearly they all are. But are they the best? What are they doing that is new? That stands out? That shakes or moves or inspires us? The moleskin-notebook doodlers on Skine-art produce more interesting art than this in their spare time every day. We can do better. Or—and this is the angle that worries me, Fandom: or you really think that these images are the best that visual art can be?

Here's what I'd like. If it isn't going to inconvenience you, I'd be enormously grateful, when it comes to next year's shortlists, if you could remember to come up with shortlists of excellent, brilliant and genius things; not shortlists of mediocre things. Because if you do that, it will be saying: SF is brilliant, which IT IS, instead of saying, as you are this year, with occasional exceptions SF is mediocre.

Sincerely &c.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Magenta Skycode (2006); Kaija Saariaho (2008)

Coming back from Finncon 2009, one of the things the very nice Finns I met did was thrust many CDs of Finnish music into my hands. Which was nice. Take Magenta Skycode, for instance, and their 2006 album called (I think) ‘IIIII’. Above average, this album. ‘Hands Burn’ has some lovely pigeonwing-flutter drumming; and though ‘People’ and ‘Go Outside Again’ are perhaps a little plodding, ‘Open Air’ is gorgeously spacious and ‘Pleasure of Love’, ‘Red Eyes’ and ‘This Empty Crow’ are the very best kind of guitarry pastiche-80s-janglegloom.

I’ve also had time to listen to Kaija Saariaho's Notes on Light, Orion, Mirage (2008); avante-garde classical, string-lead work [Karita Mattila soprano, Anssi Karttunen, cello; Orchestre de Paris]. It is a dislocating entanglement of music of extraordinary, evanescent beauty and music of a grating clashing tiresomeness. I need to listen to it more. Compelling and annoying braided together. A very striking musical sequence.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Stanleus Robinson, Somnium Galilei (2009)

Hic est notissima mythistoria a Stanleus Robinson scripta. Quam sint morosi, qui amant Commenticiae Scientiae Futurorum, vel Scientiae Fabulus. Quasi Somnium Kepleri est, seu excellit. Quamquam totum hoc revieuma gratulationem in se habet ad Robinsonin. Ecce historia aureus; hic librum scriptum quam planissime res illa scribi potuit (tamesti super pagina CLXVIII, scribit “stultam et absudam” per vices “stultus et absurdus”).

Est vita Galilei, artifex et vivatus; cum aequalis fabula futuris, lunae Iuppiteris anni MMMXX posuerit. Quaeritit res utopiarum, et historiarum. Quasi thema invenientis scientiarum, hic fabula melius it quam Egansis Incandescendi. Canit scientii meras Egan; quasuis sed quasi silva Robinsonis miscet materias suis libellis; ioca, seria, ima, summa—multum prudentiae. Multis magnus hic est, bene illa cultis. Semper amavi Stanleus Robinson propter eius summum ingenium, suavissimos sonum, singularem probitatem atque aciem. Vix invenio quod reprehendam: gusto, proboque dolium. Dignus est qui ametur.

Et Pretium Clarkei? Pretium Dickii, Campbelli, Hugove? Sit victrix. Palmaris est.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Tolkien, Sigurd and Gudrún (2009)

My review of this book is over on Strange Horizons.

Glancing at amazon, I feel there's one thing I perhaps should have made clearer in my review -- namely, to quote the outraged 'Victor Venom' from the customer comments:
ITS A POEM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1
Victor's fury is so intense that it makes his exclamation marks mutate into numerals. He's just that angry!
You may like me be mislead by the write up on the book along with some of the other reviews.

ITS A POEM not a Story as you are lead to believe.

Waste of MONEY!!!!
A poem, not a story, yes. Perhaps my review should have that warning emblazoned in huge red font right across the top.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo's Dream (2009)

I've only just got this (I'm reviewing it for the Guardian), have only read the first 50 pages and obviously can't offer a considered opinion of it in this place. But I'm just chuffed to have a copy in my hands. Posting this, in other words, is nothing more than a nerdy species of boasting, something, evidently, I am not above.

One note: whomever at Harper put that decontextualised Daily Mail quotation (referring, obviously, to the Mars books) on the cover of what is, actually, a scrupulously realised historical novel is asking for trouble. You have to hope they change it come the actual August release.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Public Enemies (2009)

This film is neither hopeless nor particularly successful. It is, though, too narrowly rendered. Its every moment falls into one of two categories: either (a) bank-heist, shoot-out-with-the-police, bust-out-of-jail BANG! BANG! or else (b) characters, talky-talky, readying themselves for (a). The only exceptions are a nicely buttoned-up, slightly homocaricaturist performance by Billy Crudup as J. Edgar Hoover (underused) and a spark-free romance between Dillinger and Marion Cotillard's Billie Frechette, something hamstrung on the level of performance by the fact that Johnny Depp clearly isn't that into her, and on the level of the text by the fact that her anxiety that her boyf. is going to get hurt in all the BANG! BANG! BANG! runs entirely contrary to the movie's entire BANG! rationale, which is fully horizoned by BANG! BANG! and the varities of male BANG! posturing that appertain thereunto.

Public Enemies is a peculiarly flattened piece of film-making. The characters have no lives apart from the BANG! BANG!: no families, no communities to which they belong, no BANG! purpose or focus to their existences BANG! except BANG! And the jittery, faux-clumsy camerwork, the slidy shotframing, the fidgety cutting and the jolting shifts from celuloid to mobile-phone quality digital footage simply doesn't suit the scrupulous set-dressing and period detail. By contrast The Untouchables, in framing its daftnesses with a degree of formal artifice, brought its period much more compellingly to cinematic life. Public Enemies never manages this; the story-arc is too cluttered and fussy, and also, strangely, too denuded of actual context ... John BANG! BANG! Dillinger is supposed to be a celebrity, but apart from one shot of crowds of people lining the street this is wholly told, not shown. The Depression era poverty context is perfectly absent also, apart from a single title-board right at the start of the movie. And moments of rank, gooey sentimentality (bye-bye blackbird, Jonny's stooge declaring 'I gotta a feeling my time's up, and when your time's up ...') cloy, boy, they cloy. The result is diminshing BANG! returns, shootout follows shootout and with each BANG! BANG! BANG! we care a little less. If I had to sum up, though, I'd say the real problem is this face:
We see an awful lot of this face in the movie. The movie, frankly, is a study of this face. Now, Depp is an extremely talented actor; and what I am saying is motivated neither by snippiness nor mere envy. But Depp is too good-looking for this role. The reasoning behind the casting presumably was something like 'Dillinger had charisma, he was like a rock-star, a rock star who robbed banks! We need a big name star who oozes eleven types of charisma ...!' But Dillinger's was a rough-hewn, wild-frontier-throwback sort of charisma. He was, it is true, renowned for being graceful but in a rough, tough, streetfighter sort of way. Dillinger was an alley cat. Johnny Depp, on the other hand, is Johnny Fucking Depp. It underplays his beauty to say 'he looks like a male model', given that most male models would sacrifice a limb to look like him. But a male model, and a fancy-pants clothes horse, is what he is in this film, all the time, in every scene, all the way through. He's more than smooth. He's smoooooth. In Heat we saw the world through the perspective of the De Niro and Pacino characters; in Public Enemies we spend the whole time seeing Johnny Depp. The film needed a lead who looked like this:

And less like:
It didn't get this, though. Because even when he is made-up to look like
we in the audience can't help seeing