Friday, 27 November 2009

Kevin J Anderson, The Edge of the World: Terra Incognita Book One (2009)

Well, hhhə, this isn’t very good. The even-I-think-he’s-too-prolific-(and-I-know-prolific) Anderson slides a nautical-Fantasy saga down the slipway with this enormous volume, and there it sits, low-in-the-waterline. It’s set in a schematic Fantasy world divided between two tribes— Aiden in the northern hemisphere, Urec in the south, their landmasses linked by an isthmus on which is located a holy city called Ishalem. When this sneezily-named place gets burnt down, it’s War!, War!, and off we go.

As is usual for this manner of slop-chest-novel, there’s pretty everything and anything that the conventions of Fantasy require. There are some swords, and a quantity of sorcery; a dozen or so characters; lots of filler about windlasses and gunwales and lubbers; sea-serpents; beautiful ladies captured by slave-traders; sexy witches; heroic princes; voyages to the edge of the world; a magical compass; a quest for the Golden Fern; episodes of yaddita; incidents of yaddita; and big battles that are all yaddita-yaddita. Everything in this book is taken from somewhere else, Pirates of the Caribbean/Sinbad the Sailor meets George R R Martin or David Eddings. But the real provocation for the phonetically rendered sigh, hhhə, with which this review starts is the poor, poor, poor quality of the writing. This, from early on:
On the Aidest side of the city, the architecture showed familiar Tierran influence, similar to what one might find in any coastal village, while in the Urban District, on the opposite side of the isthmus, the buildings looked alien, with unusual curves and angles, stuccoed rather than timbered, the roofs tiled rather than thatched. [13-14]
That’s a terrible sentence. Just terrible. I challenge you to read ‘similar to what one might find’ without thinking ‘the play what I wrote’. But worse, this undisciplined, additive, clause-piled-on-clause comma-orrhea is entirely characteristic of Anderson’s approach to the larger business of putting the novel together. He piles stuff upon stuff, and at the end we’re presented a hardback-bound big pile of stuff. And all of it rendered in dead, humourless, grey prose: describing characters, describing character’s thoughts and motivations, describing actions, everything on the kindergarten level excepting only the violence. Sometimes the prose is baffling (‘the cook’s hemorrhaged eyes were blank’, 175), and sometimes more straightforwardly inept, as in this impossible metaphor: ‘tides pushed and pulled the currents like watery pendulums’ [428]. Or else in this passage, in which the attempt to ratchet-up the tension is undermined by the momentary transformation of the character into Dr Zoidberg with his claws up, scurrying sideways:
[He] counted to a hundred. He still couldn’t be sure he was safe, but he knew he had to go. At last he moved with all the stealth he could manage. Covered with dirt he crab-walked out of the hollow. [396]
All of it, all, terribly written. Hhhə.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Iain Banks, Transition (2009)

My review of Banks' latest is now up at Strange Horizons. In sum: not very good.

Fuck Buttons, Tarot Sport (2009)

John at SFSignal asked me (along, of course, with many others) for my pick of 2009 SF Bests; and as well as emailing him with my favourite SF novel, story collection and film/tv title I said this: 'Music: well, the adolescent who lives in my cranium pulling the levers says Muse's The Resistance. But the still small voice wants to go with Super Furry Animals' Dark Days, Light Years. I think I should listen to the still small voice.' Ah, but since then, I have bought Tarot Sport, which is a marvellous piece of music, and as sciencefictional as all get out. It's possible I've spoken too soon, and that this album trumps both Muse and the Furries.

It is urgent, instrumental electronica, bristling with atmosphere and reach and space; only the fact that its not rock stops it being spacerock. 'Surf Solar', the open track, skitters and swerves for over ten minutes through the solar chromosphere: the perfect embodiment of future space high-jinks. 'Rough Steez' is a heavy-duty mechanical entity, taller than skyscrapers and built to stomp; it approaches the Platonic ideal of robot music. On 'The Lisbon Maru' a chuggy, onward moving rhythym track starts up (I'm assuming 'Maru' in a spaceshiplike, Kobayashi-Maru sense); and, as if building to escape velocity, this same rhythm speeds and intensifies on the remaining four tracks: somewhere between the percussion of the Talking Heads' 'Road to Nowhere' and Haysi Fantaysee's 'John Wayne Is Big Leggy', it captures the galloping, kinetic energy of our most splendidly adolescent of genres. 'Olympians' is patently real-Martian (rather than, say, faux-Grecian), with a nice vibe of beefed-up, early, when-they-were-still-cool OMD about it; 'Space Mountain' is, well, mountainous; and the closing track 'Flight of the Feathered Serpent' takes us on a lengthy and marvelous journey.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Eoin Colfer, And Another Thing ... (2009)

The first thing to say about this Hitch-Hiker's continuation is worth stressing: it could have been a mangled, hideous car-crash of a novel. It is not a mangled, hideous car-crash of a novel. Colfer, a writer whose Artemis Fowl books (or such of them as I had read) had left me making a noise somewhere between 'meh' and 'ugh', does a fair-to-middling job with this particular officially-sanctioned and eagerly-awaited cash-in-come-homage. Really, the resulting book is much more fair-to-middling than I had expected it to be.

It's not all good, mind. At nearly 350 pages it is about 100 pages too long. There's too much plotting; the Guide sections aren't particularly well done, and, overall, Colfer's comic prose is more diffuse and prolix than was Adams's. This is not to say that the writing is unfunny, and some kudos deserves to be wafted Colfer's way for his decision not simply to write Adamsesque pastiche. Although, at the same time, I'm not sure if Douglas Adams pastiche would be so easy to pull off.

Adams was, at his best, a very funny writer in a very distinctive, hard-to-ape way: he put an effectively perfect-pitch ear for comic prose at the service of some genuinely clever and thought-provoking ideas. Colfer is rattling around in Adams' cosmos, aiming for laughs but never managing the profundity; and without the profundity the laughs are Standard Issue; and the rattling around, with concomitant bouncing off the walls, leaves the Adams cosmos saggy, a bit bulgy and flaccid. And here's the thing: the main thrust of the orginal Hitch-Hiker's was never the world-building; it was the little jolts and leaps of comprehension: it was the ah-ha! and the ha-ha! They are terribly terribly valuable and wonderful things, those; and Adams understood (this is what makes him so significant a figure) that the little jolts and leaps of conceptual or perspectival comprehension that are the trademark of SF -- the epiphany, the mind-expansion, the sense of wonder -- and little jolts and leaps of comedic comprehension that make humour work (that make us laugh) are actually versions of one another. 'He only had the two arms then, and the one head, and he called himself Phil, but ...' is funny because it jolts our established comprehension of what the character Zaphod looks like (my God, he has more than two arms and more than one head!) and sfnal because it opens a chink into a world in which three-armed, two-headed creatures are ordinary. 42 is a nicely paced gag and a slyly meta commentary about the logic of pondering the meaning of things. Which is to say: 42 is both funny and deep; the total perspective vortex is both funny and deep; the infinite improbability drive is both funny and deep.

There's nothing like that in And Another Thing... Instead, Adams's original punchlines are treated straight-faced, as it were, as premises for building the world. That's rather deadening, really.

I could be more nitpicky, but such pickynittishness probably rather misses the point of the exercise. So I might kvetch that Colfer's characters don't really taste right, precisely, upon my metaphorical reader's tongue -- Arthur too much the Cosmic Loser, with a great deal of text devoted to his bad luck; Zaphod too moronic -- and too much time is devoted to lesser Adams creations (like the tedious Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged). Then again, I might concede that there are some pretty funny moments here, both on the level of content and of style. But the bottom line is this: the wonderfully sour and gloomy fifth novel has become the launchpad for a round of here-we-go-again, when in fact it was set up, by Adams himself, as a launchpad into a cliff-face and annihilation. But I suppose you can't have everything. (Co)Lfer? Don't talk to me about (Co)Lfer.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Vladimir Nabokov, The Original of Laura (2009)

This month’s big book—it would have been nice to say ‘this year’s’, but having got hold of a copy I discover it more curio than cry-it-from-the-rooftops—is Nabokov’s last, unfinished novel: The Original of Laura. Three things:

This is a large, thick-paper, orgulous and ultimately self-regarding exercise in the material business of book-making. Plush. Each of Nabokov’s original note-cards is reproduced in facsimile form, with all his neat, slightly childish, un-joined-up pencil handwriting upon them. The text of each card is set out in print (‘Filosofia’ a variant of ‘the classic Bodoni font’) below; but (can you smell that? that whiff of gimmicry?) each of the facsimile note-cards is perforated such that they may be removed from the book ‘and rearranged’, says Dimitri Nabokov, invitingly, in the book’s preface, ‘as the author likely did when he was writing the novel.’

All of this seems to me very poorly judged. I can understand, from a practical point of view, Penguin wanting to make an ‘event’ book out of this title—not least because there’s so little here, practically speaking, of the actual novel to be excited by. But it is based on a false premise. Dmitri Nabokov's introduction, despite his crotchety, old aristocratic manner, is actually inviting a sort of intimacy of the reader. He rehearses his father’s instruction that the unfinished book be burned, and then goes through the reasons why he did not do so, sniping at ‘the lesser minds among the hordes of letter writers that were to descend upon me’ as he does so. The whole book, from a physical point of view, is a sort of mummification. ‘You and I,’ it says, confidentially, ‘we understand the difficulties; we care about Vladimir and his literary genius—we share a filial duty. We respect his reputation too much to ... let us say ... carp at the rubbishy aspects of what is, viewed objectively, barely-a-fifth-finished project. Instead, with ritual solemnity, we shall play the game, and go through the motions: as if the book is still being written, as if the decision not to burn the MS could conceivably be based on aesthetic, rather than commercial, grounds.' The book, in short, is being presented to us as a fetish.

But here’s the thing: I neither have nor want that sort of relationship with my imaginary Vladimir Nabokov. He is of course one of the twentieth-century writers I admire the most, even—for some of his novels—adore the most; but this admiration, and adoration, has never been about intimacy. He’s not the reader’s friend, or father-figure, or anything like that. He’s something much more aloof—that’s the whole point of him. This exercise in faux-filiality grandly misses the point.

And the work itself? There are some glimmers of the old fire under this crust of grey ashes, but it's a tale very much in the Look at the Harlequins! groove, and not (say) another Pnin, or Pale Fire or indeed anything near as original as The Original [of] Lolita. As with Harlequins there’s the sense of a novelist rummaging through the storage-chest of his own career to no very edifying ends: a novel within the novel (called My Laura) about a beautiful, fatal-glamorous nymphet; Flora, the real-life prototype of that Laura; Flora’s sexually-predatory paedophilic stepfather, called ‘Hubert Hubert’—N. wrote another name first, but rubbed it illegibly out and then superscriptively tied his pencil handwriting into this weary intertextual knot. The main characters are: faithless Flora herself, a promiscuous young sex-bomb (bombe de sexe?); and her husband, ‘Dr Philip Wild’, a brilliant, wealthy and morbidly obese doctor, one of the narrators of the piece. There is a third character, a second and unnamed narrator, the author of the novel My Laura (he has enjoyed a Lolita-like international success with this book). He may be called ‘Eric’, this fellow (235) but it’s not clear.

As for the unfinished and fragmentary nature of the work—unfinished according to that unusual logic whereby we have the opening section, a few shards, and then bits and pieces of the last couple of chapters.

Anyway, the narrator’s obsession with Flora/Laura drives him to, brace yourself, are you ready for this, cut off his own toes in an obscurely purposed ‘experiment’:
I was enjoying a petit-beurre with my noontime tea when the droll configuration of that particular bisquit’s margins set into motion a train of thought that may have occurred to the reader even before it occurred to me. He knows already how much I disliked my toes.
Actually, this dislike is news to us; but perhaps only because N. did not get around to filling in the earlier section making this clear—which perhaps would have come immediately after the Lolita-piggybacking section that notes ‘there is, there was, only one girl in my life, an object of terror and tenderness, an object too, of universal compassion on the part of millions who read about her in her lover’s books. I say “girl”, and not woman, not wife nor wench’ [151]. Anyway, where were we? The reader
… knows already how much I disliked my toes. An in grown nail on one foot and a corn on the other were now pestering me. Would it no[t] be a brilliant move, thought I, to get rid of my toes by sacrificing them to an experiment that only cowardice kept postponing? [157-9]
He doesn’t chop the toes away, but instead treats them with some agent that makes them rot and fall off (‘I know my feet smelled despite daily baths, but this reek was something special’). As he does so he cultivates a ‘special self-hypnotic state’; by sinking into this state he hopes to smooth away all the excrescences of his body. This bizarre conceit flirts, of course with ludicrousness; but I rather warmed to it, on reading, certainly more than I did to the rather laboured straining-to-shock erotic material (young Flora fondled by her stepfather; Wild remembering having sex with a ladyboy and so on). That bittersweet admixture of the bizarre-bathetic and the gorgeous-gemlike is very characteristically Nabokovian, after all; and when it works, as it almost does here, it generates a unique, elegantly dislocating effect.

The writer, like the self-hating Dr Wild (‘I loathe my belly, that trunkful of bowels, which I have to carry around’), is aiming for a physical nirvana ... several of N.’s cards contain details scribbled notes on this (‘Nirvana blowing out (extinguishing), extinction, disappearance. In Buddhist theology extinction …’). Wild is a Buddha (‘he sat with widespread legs to accomodate his enormous stomack … he sat perfect still, like a meditative idol’ 231) and I take it that N.’s project in this book was to somaticize, and indeed eroticize, the ‘religious rubbish and mysticism of Oriental wisdom/The minor poetry of mystical myths’ [217]:
A process of self-obliteration conducted by an effort of the will. Pleasure bordering on almost unendurable exstacy, comes from feeling the will working at a new task: an act of destruction which develops paradoxically an element of creativeness in the totally new application of a totally free will. Learning to use the vigor of the body for the purpose of its own deletion[.] [213]
After the toes, the legs. And indeed erasing the body ‘up to the navel’ produces ‘an ecstasy superior to anything experienced before’ [267]—which shows, inter alia, that N. can spell ‘ecstasy’ properly, when he puts his mind to it.

Now there is something interesting in this—not intrinsically, for it’s conceptually pretty commonplace stuff; but rather as a gloss upon The Original of Laura itself—a novel, after all, in a state of disassemblage, one that metaphorically deliqueses as you try to read it, a novel yearning to be made into literal ashes. Dmitri Nabokov’s instructions to the reader to push out all the perforated faux-index-cards, with the facsimile Nabokovish handwriting upon them, and rearrange them ‘as the author likely did when he was writing the novel’ seems to me to miss the point. The assemblage entailed by any such activity contradicts what the novel is about. Better, I suppose, to stack the cards, and then start, by stages, to throw them all away.

Was Nabokov’s spelling always this endearingly poor? Or is this (‘bycycle’, ‘bisquit’, ‘exstacy’, ‘accomodate’, ‘stomack’) only the result of his final illness?

Also: the versos of all these facsimile note-cards pedantically reproduce N’s habit of crossing each of these blank spaces through with a large, slightly quavery ‘X’. This produces an inadvertent extra narrative, one that goes, like a lover’s letter, or an ideally censored message: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX. I believe I like this text best of all.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Mike Tucker, Merlin: Valiant (2009)

Novelisation of a BBCTV/Freemantlemedia Enterprises Merlin episode -- one of my daughter's fave shows at the moment, that. It was her idea to pluck this title from the supermarket bookshelves as her new bedtime story. She's enjoying it too: the evil knight Valiant has a shield whose serpent design can magically come alive and kill people. How will Prince Arthur fare in his tournament battle with this nasty fellow? Now, if it all seems to me pretty flabbily written, I guess you'd expect me to say so. But on balance I'd say kudos to Tucker, nevertheless, for actually opening the novel with, in effect, 'It Was A Dark And Stormy Night':
The storm bore down mercilessly on the hillside town. Dark, swollen clouds raced across the sky like black wolves, obscuring the pale moon that struggled to rise in the sky. [p.1]
As bad writing goes, that has a certain je ne sais quoi.

Hmm: I wonder what part Actor-Who-Plays-Prince-Arthur's handsome phizog, smouldering out from the cover there, had on influencing my daughter's decision to buy this book?

Monday, 16 November 2009

Zemeckis' Christmas Carol (2009): again

In the event, Zemeckis' Christmas Carol wasn't nearly as crappy as I had feared. The basic story was followed with commendable fidelity, down to reusing lenghty chunks of actual Dickensian dialogue. This was good, because moments where the scriptwriter (Z. himself: the arse-end of Boz as a writer of dialogue, I'm afraid) added material it didn't work: Scrooge snapping 'bugger it!' when he dropped his keys, or the two feral children 'Want' and 'Ignorance' telling Scrooge, with what Z. presumably, and fondly, thinks is authentic British street talk, to 'naff off!' But at other moments, Z. was happy to let Dickens' own slang stand, without itching to explain it to his audience (the young lad at the end who cries 'walker!' in disbelief at Scrooge's instructions to go buy the turkey, for instance). Which was good.

The only other weird little note was the very last monologue, where Z. changes Dickens' triumphant reference to Tim (' ... Tiny Tim, who did NOT die ...') to an oddly watery and implausible ' ... Tiny Tim, who got better ...' (he's crippled by polio, not suffering from the sniffles!). Maybe this was the result of a superstitious fear of mentioning 'death' in the final moments of the film; I don't know.

Visually it is an opulent, indeed rather overwhelming experience. The three spirits are very nicely and inventively handled: all played by Carrey (rightly: they are there to reflect him back on himself after all), and ingeniuously rendered. There's a certain amount of elaboration of the core story at these points: Scrooge shot towards the moon, Scrooge, bafflingly, shrunk to the size of Stuart Little and running for his life along the street pursued by a couple of fearsome red-eyed death-horses that appear to have cantered in from The Fellowship of the Ring. But actually these visual and narrative grace-notes work pretty well, in the main.

Except, except: the film gets more than a little intoxicated on its own 3D-deepened, high-definition wealth of visual possibilities. Sometimes this is jarring in minor ways (Scrooge's nephew is supposed to be poor -- 'what reason,' the old miser snaps at him, 'have you to be merry? You're poor enough' -- but in this film he lives in an enormous and richly decorated palace, really only because such a setting gives the visual designers lots of opportunity for rendering Christmassy-Victorian stuff).

But there's a bigger wrongness going on here, something more interesting I think. I'll tell you what I mean. Christmas Carol is, fundamantally, a story about paucity in the midst of plenty: the materially denuded existences of the poor on the one hand, the spiritually and emotionally barren, shrunken existence of Scrooge on the other. Z.'s film can do the plenty, but not the paucity -- even when Scrooge is in his miser's appartment, every knot and swirl of wood grain, every stitch on his nightcap is not only visible but actively flaunted; and when Want and Ignorance are presented by Christmas Present, it is not enough simply to see them, they must mutate into a full-grown adults, a knife-wielding thug and a leering prostitute, and do an over-choreographed gymnastic dance. Less, though, is more; especially for a pared down fabled like this one.

PS: Lily was pretty scared by Marley's ghost. She left her seat and sat on me, burying her head in my chest for pretty much that whole scene. Mind you, I was pretty scared too. Plus I was genuinely affected by the death of Tiny Tim, a testament less to the story (I've read it so many times now, you'd think repetition would have deadened that emotional effect) than to Gary Oldman's acting. The other players are of variable quality, particularly in the accent department; but Oldman does a tip-top job. Interesting to see that acting can permeate through the weird plasticating process of Z.'s motion-capture animation.

PPS: '...the accent department...' My God. The accents.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Tolkien, Lord of the Rings (1951-3)

I used to say 'I have re-read this novel every year since I first read it, when I was 12.' And that used to be true; but then last year, for whatever reason, I didn't get round to my annual re-read. And this year's nearly over. So I've decided to go through it again, before I run out of year.

Now, the point of this post is not to talk about the novel as such, so much as to talk about these exemplary, beautiful Pauline Baynes cover illustrations. Let me hear you say 'oooh!' ('oooh!'). Click on them and they should become enlarged.

This was the edition in which I first read LotR (my mother's old edition, I think). When I discovered it again in a charity shop for the absurd price above indicated I couldn't resist buying it, and adding it to the four (or five; I'm not sure) editions of the title I already own.

But I hope it's not merely rank nostalgia that makes me say: it's a lovely cover. Even the Victorian Playbill title font works. I love the way there's an outer frame of stylised trees (with orcs lurking in the roots) surrounding an inner frame of stylised trees, itself surrounding a vertically stacked perspective of more trees, houses, hills and mountains. The visual idiom is a perfectly pitched Edwardian-Medieval, spot-on for the novel. And there's a canny little visual push-pull about the way the picture invites the eye to run up from the miniature figures at the bottom through the landscape they must traverse to the mountains at the top, at the same time that the words of the title invite the eye to work their way down from 'The' to 'Rings'. Very clever.

The back is lovely too. Those kiln-shaped mountains and towers! Like pottery models. And the sea-blue barrenness of peaks and tips.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Bob Frissell, Nothing In This Book (1990s)

You know the moment in Spinal Tap where St Hubbins boasts that he believes everything he is told, and that this makes him a more discriminating person than the average joe? This book is a chirpy yet entirely straightfaced version of that gag. Here's Jay Kinney's endorsement on the back flap:
Nothing in this Book Is True But It's Exactly How Things Are proceeds to thread together every New Age belief and conspiracy theory into a grand unified field theory of kookiness. They're all here: gray aliens, ascended masters, free energy, cattle mutilations, crop circles, rebirthing, earth changes, the Great Pyramid, and secret colonies on Mars. And yet, despite the sheer unbelievability of half the book, the author's goodwill and spiritual intentions are so infectious the book ends up being a heartwarming experience.
The project, in other words, is to redefine Truthfulness so as to put the emphasis on goodwill and spiritual intentions, and away from veracity and actuality. A project we can all get behind, I'm sure. More specifically, this book is a detailed, lengthy exercise in eliciting one of the following phrases from the reader: 'no it didn't'; 'no, s/he didn't' and 'no, they didn't.' For example:
As Lemuria sank, the poles shifted and the land mass of Atlantis arose. The thousand or so immortal masters of the Naacal Mystery School of Lemuria went to Atlantis, specifically to one of its ten islands called Undal. [39]
No, they didn't.
When the Martians came to Atlantis they imported the effects of the Lucifer rebellion right along with them. [43]
No, they didn't.
Babaji sat in this position without moving and without food or water for forty-five days. [210]
Er, no, he didn't. Occasionally, for variety, the pattern is changed. So:
There now exist free energy machines. [154]
No they don't.
There is another monument complex on Venus that NASA also knows about. [155]
No there isn't, and no it doesn't. Otherwise the book is a compendium of cultural cliche and gullibility. Or to quote the author himself:
It almost doesn't matter if any of this is true or not. Just the fact that all this information is falling around us, for whatever reason, is a clear indication that we have passed into a strange new epoch. [11]
I'm not fooled by that 'almost', there, Frissell; this is the understated setting-out of an awesome metaphysical position. 'The fact that I am so gullible is itself an indicator of a new age in cosmic affairs.' A Glorious New Epoch is indeed upon us.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Zemeckis, Christmas Carol (2009)

I can't help but feel that I have a particularly close relationship to Dickens's Christmas Carol. I have, like millions of people, read it many times; and like millions of people I love it. Like many more (not millions, perhaps, but many) I have studied it, and like a slightly more select group, I have taught it and written criticism about it. Less typically, I have even rewritten it. Now I'm not saying that this gives me anything after the manner of proprietorial interest in the title. But I feel I have the same right as any fan to say that the last thing I want to see -- really -- is a film version containing a scene in which Jim Carrey's plasticated Scrooge simultaneously humps and fellates a gigantic chess-pawn with an expression of blissed out ecstasy upon his face.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Robbie Williams, Reality Killed The Video Star (2009)

I've listened to this album a fair few times now, I've been trying to pin-down the effect it has on me: the 1970s melody and guitar stylings; the sticky-slushy orchestrations, a splash of film-soundtrack, a splotch of George Martin's Pepperland; the technical facility, especially on the production, coupled with a larger sense of emptiness. Williams' ego-lyrics (now with added UFO/Jesus references!) make something out of the vacuity, of course: that's the 'point' of him as a popstar, and probably also the ground of his sex-appeal, the hunk with a chunk missing in the middle of his heart. We're probably now at the point where we'd be disappointed if Williams didn't re-rehearse his It's Empty At The Top schtick. But then, listening to the two-part opener/closer 'Morning Sun' it struck me: Wings. That's what's gong on here. Wings is all through this album like the message in a stick of rock. Listen to 'Won't Do That', to 'Somewhere', to 'Starstruck', to 'Superblind', and you could be in the front row of a Williams McCartney-tribute concert. Even the slightly more modern songs ('Bodies', say) sound like Wings songs handed to 21st-century producers. So: what is Reality Killed? It's a more-melancholy-than-usual Wings album.

As to whether channelling Wings is a good thing (whether, in other words, it can ever escape the spectre of Alan Partridge enjoying himself): that's a whole other question.

I sometimes like to imagine McCartney, in the 1970s, looking around him thinking 'the Beatles were cool; I'm doing exactly what I used to do when I was in the Beatles -- so why aren't I cool any more?' It's a puzzler, it really is.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Geoff Ryman (ed) When It Changed (2009)

I can't review this, more's the pity, because I'm in it. But you shouldn't let that put you off: the stories, mine aside, are all good and some are superb. Don't you consider Geoff Ryman's name, editorially, there, a gold-standard of sf-lit quality? Are you crazy? Here you go:
How much of Science Fiction is genuine science? Take away the fantastical clichés of space-travel, time-travel and artificial intelligence, and how much of what remains accurately represents contemporary scientific thinking?

When It Changed is an attempt to put authors and scientists back in touch with each other, to re-introduce research ideas with literary concerns, and to re-forge the alloy that once made SF great. Composed collaboratively – through a series of visits and conversations between leading authors and practicing scientists – it offers fictionalised glimpses into the far corners of current research fields, be they in nanotechnology, invertebrate physiology, particle physics, or software archaeology. From Planck's Length (the smallest indivisible distance) to Plankton (potential saviours of the Earth's ecosystem), from virtual encounters between Witgenstein and Turing, to future civilisations torn asunder by different readings of the Standard Model, together these stories represent a literary 'experiment' in the true sense of the word, and endeavour to isolate a whole new strain of the SF bug.

WRITERS: Justina Robson, Paul Cornell, Sara Maitland, Ken MacLeod, Gwyneth Jones, Adam Marek, Geoff Ryman, Michael Arditti, Simon Ings, Frank Cottrell Boyce, Kit Reed, Chaz Brenchley, Liz Williams, Patricia Duncker and Adam Roberts.

SCIENTISTS: Dr Andrew Bleloch, Dr Rob Appleby, Dr Jennifer Rowntree, Dr Richard Blake, Dr Kai Hock, Dr Vinod Dhanak, Emmanuel Pantos, Dr John Harris, Dr Matthew Cobb, Dr Tim O’Brien, Dr Steve Williams, Dr Sarah Lindley, Dr Steve Furber, Tim O’Brien and Dr Rein Ulijn.
The book was, last time I checked, the 19,759th bestselling amazon-dot-you-'kay title (what a number! And this despite being on sale at a cut-comma's-own-throat £5.99!). We can do better than that, people! Move it up the rankings!

Monday, 2 November 2009

Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

I found this more charming than I had anticipated. Lily said: 'it's good, but why did they have to different-it from the book?' A good question, actually.

There's something distantly unnerving about the way all the native English animals are deadpanning wisecracking Americans, but the humans all have English accents. Plus, looking back on a slight but pronounced sense of nark I felt whilst watching it, I realise that I've been innoculated against the fiction that a feckless, con-man, charismatic, fantasist Dad can ever be, in any way, a good thing from the kids' point of view by reading, oh I don't know, just about every story about such a character, from John Le Carré on. This film, by peddling its 'fantastic' angle straight, and getting George Clooney to purr the lines in his best come-on voice, ends up in a pretty solidly mendacious place, actually. Which is a shame, because a Willy Loman take on the 'fantastic' element of the title might have made a more interesting picture.

Other than that: it's visually very attractive indeed. Some of the left-field humour is nicely done; I liked Kylie the Oppossum, and especially his swirly eye moments; and I laughed at the Jarvis Cocker onscreen rebuke. Then again, I have a high tolerance for left-field humour. And, actually, only about a tenth of this film's field is left. A quarter is way over to the right (the poisonous pseudo-babble about how being 'different' is good, 'different' here meaning 'mildly eccentric mannerisms'; the reactionary class narrative inherent in this fable of a bunch of lawyers, pediatricians, landscape painters and journalists as the victims, no really, of three farmers with grating, parvenu-y, estuary accents -- or the wincing, self-serving material about how these bourgeois popinjays actually embody a 'wild animal' nature). But the rest -- what is that, 65%? -- is solidly in the middle, and neither offensive nor brilliant, merely entertaining.