Pain and Gain (2013) takes us back to 1995 in Miami-Dade and long before Lieutenant Horatio Caine made this a safe place to live. That means people like Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) roam free to work their mischief (as the film repeatedly tells us, this is based on a true story). Such men may enhance their bodies through hard work lifting weights and the occasional injection of steroids, but big muscles on the outside do not make big brains on the inside. The set-up shows us a man on the run from the police who obviously had a get-rich-quick scheme that went wrong. When we move back six months in time and hear his sales pitch for what makes America so great, we know why it went wrong. This body-building narcissist lives in a fantasy land where his heroes are drawn from the cinema and the associated mythology of successful criminals. He watches a lot of movies so has an infallible plan to kidnap Victor Kershsaw (Tony Shalhoub). To make this plan work, he recruits Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) who has a veneer of Christian values spread over the stinking pile of moral weakness underneath, and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) whose excessive investment in steroids has left him seriously challenged in the sex department.
From this brief introduction, you will understand this is probably intended as a comedy and may well have pretensions to social commentary. When I mention the director is Michael Bay you can express surprise at the lack of anything SFnal or supernatural. We even get to the end without any explosions (although there’s a reasonable amount of violence if that’s what gets you through the door of the cinema). It’s actually impressive to see a man who has made his money with big screen action films make something on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, with an idea this dumb, he should have been a don’ter not a doer.
To be honest, I don’t usually go to American comedies (assuming that’s what this is). As my age has advanced, I’ve been finding the cultural gap on transatlantic humour harder to cross. To say that my decision to watch this is an example of optimism prevailing over intelligence is therefore an understatement. After sitting through it, the question I’m left with is why we’re supposed to think kidnapping, robbery, and attempting to and actually murdering people is funny. Let’s pause for a moment and go back to Ruthless People (1986) in which two less than competent criminals kidnap Bette Midler to extort money from Danny DeVito. I recall this as mildly amusing and, at ninety-three minutes, it knew exactly how long a joke can be spun out before it loses its edge. At 129 minutes, this pile of amoral entertainment makes the case that it’s no big deal to rob Victor Kershaw because he’s a cruel and unsympathetic man. The police have no interest in his story. None of his neighbours missed seeing him around. His employees are relieved he no longer comes in to abuse them. Only retired private detective Ed Du Bois (Ed Harris) even vaguely believes Victor’s claims and, in the first instance, it’s only because he’s so bored, he will seize any excuse to get out of the house.
As to our “heroes”, they think they’re home free after their first team crime. Adrian Doorbal gets married — the drugs to restore his erections are now affordable, Daniel Lugo becomes a pillar of the local neighborhood watch, and Paul Doyle rediscovers cocaine and the high that comes from having cops shoot at you after a failed robbery. Then when the fact of one-man pursuit penetrates their thick heads, they decide to double down. Not for them the pussy way of running away. They’ll do it again. Hell, yeh! Well, we all know how that’s going to go. By this time, I’m beyond despair. The divergence from the plan proves significant and the jokes (if that’s what they’re intended to be) get progressively more sick — chainsaws and BBQs come into play. Frankly, I see nothing even remotely funny about any of this. To dignify it as “dark comedy” or a social commentary would be absurd. Are we really supposed to accept the ideal route to realising the American dream is through crime? I know there have been some spectacular examples of fraudsters hitting it rich and accept that, in a country where being rich excuses many minor and some major faults, it’s possible to tell an entertaining story about such people. But no-one here looks good (apart from the retired detective and his wife). It doesn’t matter whether it’s the girl on the complaints desk at a hardware store or the wealthy neighbours Daniel Lugo inherits, everyone is shown as massively indifferent to notions of social responsibility at best or actively into lust, drugs and anything else sinful or criminal they think they can get away with. What we see is a society in decline.
Under normal circumstances, I might look the other way. It’s just another of these offensive films about life in the decadent West. But here we’re repeatedly told this is based on real-world events: the exploits of the Sun Gym Gang in the 1990s as told by Pete Collins. So taking this as a true story of three bodybuilders and the incredible failures of the Metro-Dade police force, I’m left with one final question. Where’s the film-makers’ disapproval of these idiotically dangerous criminals and of the dangerously incompetent police officers? I might have come away with a better opinion of this film if I’d felt the director and scriptwriters were holding these people up as exemplars of what not to do. Instead we have deranged heroes in what’s intended to be a comedy running rings around brain dead police officers. We’re obviously intended to laugh at their pathetic efforts to kill Victor Kershaw. What message is that sending to the audience? When they later accidentally kill people, we’re intended to laugh at their efforts to dispose of the bodies. I find this implicit approval of their actions to be profoundly offensive. Matching the film, the fact that the real-world Daniel Lugo has still not been executed is a testament to the pathetic way the American justice system works. If you have the death penalty and you have a deserving candidate, you dismiss the appeals and carry out the sentence. If you don’t, what’s the point of having capital punishment? What message is this sending to other potential kidnappers and killers? Even if you do get caught, America can’t kill people when they deserve to die. At every level, both as fiction and as a reference to real-world events, Pain and Gain is not just film with a moral vacuum at its core. From the fact of its production and the way in which it’s marketed, we’re being inviting to see this story of out-of-control predators as entertaining. The failure of the film-makers to take a moral stance against the events being shown makes this worse than Arbitrage and I thought that was bad.
The Red Plague Affair by Lilith Saintcrow (Orbit, 2013) Bannon and Clare Case Book Two finds Archibald Clare, the mentath, continuing in pursuit of Dr Vance while Emma Bannon, Sorceress Prime, keeps this alternate history version of Britain safe from Spanish agents provocateurs. So what we have here is a variation on the theme of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. This man has deductive powers honed to almost supernatural levels and he’s partnered with a magician in this different version of Victorian Londinium with Alexandrina Victrix on the throne as Ruler of the Isles and Empress of Indus with Consort Prince Alberich by her side. It’s not quite steampunk. A missing limb can be replaced but the purely mechanical has to be enhanced by spells for painkilling and full mobility. Consequently, this particular world is experiencing a collision between magic and the scientific method which, amongst other things, is leading to advances in technology and medicine that do not depend on magic for their efficacy. In some respects, therefore, this world is experiencing a delayed renaissance.
The problem, such as it is, may be simply defined. Magic actually works but it is inherently limited to specific individuals who cannot be everywhere. Such is always the way. Only a few gifted people have the talent that can be nurtured and developed into the Prime status. This makes knowledge inherently more useful because once it is disseminated, anyone with the wit to understand it, can exploit it. So there’s a direct conflict of interest. Those whose power and influence in society depend on their innate abilities are hostile to those who would generate practical and more universal applications for their ideas. So, for now, the horse rules for transport across land and the air is reserved for magical creatures. Up to this point, there has been no need to develop steam power for transport purposes because the population level and culture remain more mediaeval than Victorian in the sense we would understand. But, from the point of view of those in leadership roles, there’s a real problem in having to rely on individuals. Loyalties are not always guaranteed to persist. This gives the magically challenged a direct incentive to find ways of managing the world without having to rely on magic.
This book focuses on research which discovers the existence of bacteria. It’s speculated this knowledge could be weaponised and so work is undertaken to culture the relevant strains of bacteria and create a mechanical system for releasing it. This is ingenious because the magicians will not detect the source of the problem and their powers will not be able to defeat what they cannot understand. We therefore have a plot developed which sees Emma Bannon’s talents manipulated to unwittingly bring the infection into the Court while Archibald Clare thinks about the problem and infers the existence of a bacteriophage as a cure.
This is an interesting book with an intriguing premise, but the author has made the strategic decision to focus on the narrative rather than the exploration of the ideas. As a result, we have a relatively simple tale told with great efficiency. It positively zips along as our romantically but platonically entangled couple fight for the Empire’s safety while dealing with matters of the heart obliquely when they have a chance to draw breath. The Red Plague Affair is an enjoyable romp.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) is, in part, an exercise in nostalgia for me since I watched the original run of the television show. To see the same space vehicle boldly going more than forty-five years later is somewhat remarkable given the obsolescence of culture. For the most part, what we found interesting and exciting back in the 1960s is dull and dreary today. Having a crew with the same names and adjacent accents still sitting on the bridge of a starship and commanding a worldwide audience puts the franchise into an elite group of long-life products. Only the comic book heroes like Batman and Superman who also had their television versions featuring Adam West and George Reeves respectively, have had longer runs. Indeed, Star Trek is one of a few original television shows to have maintained its reputation — matched by Doctor Who which was first screened in 1963.
My reason for starting this review in this way is because one of the two essential questions at the heart of this film rehearses the same argument we had been having since the end of World War II. In the 1960s, we were just finishing rebuilding after the devastation caused by the German bombing and my generation was all for peace by bringing people together in co-operative ventures. It was therefore heartening to see the message of the original Star Trek as a united Earth going off to explore and, wherever possible, make friends. We’d seen only too clearly what happened when petty nationalism got out of hand and militarism prevailed. Although the Enterprise had weaponry such as phasers and photon torpedoes, these were not often used and, for the most part, only in self-defence, The hand-held weapons had the virtue of being able to stun rather than kill. So this film encapsulates the debate by having two key ships on display. There’s the USS Enterprise in its Constitution Class form and the USS Vengeance which is a Dreadnought Class vessel developed by Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch): a straight military vessel designed to fight the Klingon Empire. So here comes the question. When people sign up as recruits into the Starfleet Academy, are they going to learn the words of Kumbaya (a song associated with the notion of spiritual unity) and put the Prime Directive into action wherever possible, or are they going to boldly go with photon torpedoes at the ready and shoot down anything that stands in their way of conquest? The answer, of course, is the Federation that emerges in the unfolding television series would be impossible if everyone operated on a shoot first and ask questions afterward basis. Although the Klingons and the Romulans have warrior-based cultures, they both fight for the Federation in the Dominion Wars although the Romulans are resistant to the end.
The point of this film is that if Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) gets his way, Earth will follow the Romulan path of expansion through conquest, starting with the Klingons. This is not an unreasonable perspective. It would be naive to assume the space-going races we might meet will all be welcoming. In a competition for planets on which to seed colonies, any races that share the same environmental needs could elect to fight over the prime real estate. Only if there’s a balance of power is there an incentive to negotiate. Thus, on a precautionary basis, Earth should always have a strong military capacity so that we can demonstrate fighting capacity if diplomacy fails. The dividing line between offensive and defensive power is a narrow one and I suspect this film rather oversimplifies the debate. Scotty (Simon Pegg) is very quick to object to the new torpedoes. He’s apparently been quite happy with the old torpedoes and for him to get all high-and-mighty is nothing more than a plot device to get him off the Enterprise. The views of the other characters who comment on the issue are also superficial. I think this an opportunity missed to explore the issue with our “modern” sensibilities.
The second essential question featured is hypocrisy. This is at the heart of the relationship between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), and between the do-gooders of the Enterprise and the political machinery of Earth. Starting with the one-to-one relationship, Spock is only half Vulcan and therefore has some understanding of human psychology. Even if this were not the case, his logic could predict how Kirk will react in different situations. So when Kirk defies the Prime Directive and rescues Spock, it’s entirely foreseeable that Kirk will cover up his infraction. Spock is therefore magnificently stupid to put in a complete report. To claim an inability to lie as the excuse is the height of hypocrisy. He’s perfectly capable of lying if the needs of the many require it. The film therefore charts the emotional arc as Spock resolves an internal debate on the nature of friendship and the need for accommodating emotions. After all, his own father married a human and, with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) very much in play, he has a similar decision to make about that relationship.
This version of Kirk is interestingly monomaniacal and phenomenally lucky. In other circumstances, he would probably be locked up as a danger to himself and others around him. He can’t even remember who he’s slept with let alone how many other people he’s dealt with over the years. All you can say about him is that he’s fixated by the needs of command and loyal, in the abstract sense, to the crew of whichever ship he happens to be on. So even though it puts everyone else at risk of being caught in the exploding volcano, he rescues Spock. This is the musketeer approach to command, “All for one, and one for all.” Similarly in the relationship with the political and military structure of Earth’s government, Admiral Marcus can’t be acting alone. This scale of investment could only be sanctioned by a powerful subset of Earth’s command. The ending where that same Earth government sends Kirk and the Enterprise out of the way on a five year mission is also preparing the ground for continuing its own militarism without anyone high-profile and inconvenient around. All Kirk has done is kick the can down the road. Little or nothing will change so long as the Klingons are still potential enemies. Kirk should not be looking so pleased with himself as he warps away from Earth at the end. He’s actually giving up the political fight and running away.
So where does this leave us? At two hours and twelve minutes, this is too long. There are endless examples of scenes inserted or dragged out to add in extra minutes when what we have is a potentially brilliant script if we left not less than twenty minutes on the cutting-room floor, e.g. cutting down the chase on Kronus, the transfer between the starships, the gratuitous sex scenes, kicking the warp engine, and the fight in San Francisco at the end. So this looks great with some genuinely impressive CGI. The ideas are good albeit not properly developed. Benedict Cumberbatch lights up the screen as the villain of the piece. Zachary Quinto is also impressive. The result is the second-best blockbuster in what has been, to date, a lackluster 2013. J J Abrams is to be congratulated. He got enough right to justify a third in the series. Star Trek Into Darkness is worth seeing.
In A Decent Interval by Simon Brett (Severn House, 2013) A Charles Paris Mystery, we join our hero in his lonely life as an almost consistently successful actor now arrived in the alcohol-fueled wilderness years better known as the late fifties. . . How wonderful it is when work does come in after an eight month hiatus even if he does briefly have to become a Roundhead. So he’s untimely ripped from the comfort of his chair in front of the television next to the bottle of Bell’s and sent on location with Tibor Pincus in deepest Newlands Corner (near Guildford) where he’s to re-enact the Battle of Naseby for a documentary. Fortunately, such is the amount of whisky consumed on the shoot, he has no problem in falling down in death many times, including some deaths in Cavalier costume. He’s not a one-man army, you see, but two armies for the price of one. Imagine his pleasurable surprise when there’s an immediate prospect of more work. This time from director Ned English who’s fronting for the entertainment mogul Tony Copeland. The plan is to bring high culture to the masses by transplanting two celebrities into a modern production of Hamlet as the titular Dane and Ophelia. Both have triumphed in television contests: one for singing and the other explicitly to cast a wannabe as Ophelia. The director needs everyone else to be reliable, biddable and prepared to work for the Equity minimum pay. This makes the rehearsals with two amateur actors interesting and, when part of the scenery falls on the young singer during the technical rehearsal, the understudy is quickly in his stride.
Sadly, understudies do not make for good box office. If the Twitter generation, which has the attention span of a gnat, is to be induced to part with money, there must be someone “they” want to see. A replacement with good looks and acting talent is drafted in. With the show now touring the provinces, the Twitterati’s attention is reignited by the mysterious death of the Ophelia. Appropriately, Charles Paris is the one to find her dead in a dressing room. This production is turning out to have the same potential for bad luck as The Scottish Play. With another understudy stepping into the role, business at the box office remains brisk as the ghoulish speculate on who will be next to be injured or die. With the police now interested in establishing the cause of Ophelia’s death (not drowning, you understand), our hero finally engages his brain and begins the process of analysis we readers know so well — this is the eighteenth Charles Paris investigation. So he listens to many, speaks to a few and soon has ideas about who might be responsible for what’s going on.
The pleasure in reading Simon Brett is twofold. What he writes is always drawn from the hard reality of the world. But to keep the mood on a lighter note, the text is littered with casual comments and asides that bring smiles to your lips. That said, the events on display here are essentially tragic. Relationships are fractured and broken, people’s hopes and dreams are shattered, despair abounds in many lives. Indeed, at every level, what we see is failure on an epic scale, broken only intermittently when individuals rise above the pack with a brilliant performance. Moments later, the light in the darkness is extinguished and the cast falls back into the reality of their mundane lives where compromise and forgiveness are the only ways to save people from themselves. As a matter of technique, Simon Brett makes it all flow so easily. Too often, authors who set out to leaven tragedy end up forcing situations to generate the humour. This is silky smooth with an elegance about it that few others can match. The result is a delight demonstrating two further truths: that knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to Heaven (although whether our hero considers the return to his lonely seat in front of the television heavenly is moot — a West End run would have been preferred) and that when a son gives to his father, both cry (although in this case, the father has such a monstrous ego, he won’t cry for long — probably only a few minutes in fact). A Decent Interval gives us food for thought while entertaining us. Charles Paris may not be Horatio holding the bridge, but he shows us he can be positively Nelsonian in the right circumstances. You can’t ask for more than that.
For a review of another book by Simon Brett, see Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
So, in Snitch (2013), we have John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), the model Dad. He’s one of these great caring people who, when he sees a new employee working late, stops to help move sacks around. His only mistake in life so far has been to get divorced and give the custody of his son, Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron), to his ex, Sylvie Collins (Melina Kanakaredes). For whatever reason, his son has had nothing to do with his father. This lack of a father’s guiding hand leads to an act of extreme stupidity in which he agrees to hold a small mountain of pills for a friend. Needless to say, this is a set-up and the DEA swoop as soon as the drugs are through the door. This paragon of stupidity is now looking at a minimum of ten year’s jail time. America has some really weird laws which have mandatory sentences based on the quantity of drugs held, but there’s chance for a reduction in that sentence if the accused co-operates with the authorities to ensnare others higher up in the distribution chain. Given the potential to take eight years off his sentence, the dimwit claims he cannot become a snitch. In the jail visiting telephone chat, we get all the guilt-tripping. If only I’d been a better Dad and had you in my life. I cared too much about my business to push the issue of joint custody. If I’d been a better son and not hated you for going off to live in a big house and leave Mom and me in a rundown neighbourhood. . . Yawn!
Faced with this spectacularly unfair law, superDad decides to volunteer his own services as a snitch in his son’s place. Not surprisingly, this is not how the law is supposed to work. Bending the rules requires the approval of DA Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon). Law officials tasked with the enforcement of these laws are, by definition, not bleeding hearts. So Keeghan’s response is entirely rational. If superDad comes up with an airtight arrest of someone with intent to distribute not less than half-a-kilo of coke, his son gets remission. But the risk is all his. Obviously he’s not a trained police officer and the idea of a naive do-gooder going undercover to infiltrate a drug distribution cartel is a high-risk activity even at the best of times. Nevertheless, for the love of his son, he decides to explore options. As the boss of a construction company, he employs ex-cons. Perhaps someone can point him in the right direction.
Right so let’s pause here. Dimwit son agreed to break the law and got busted. Great, so he’s a criminal. He refuses to entrap any of his friends. Great, so he’s got a vague grasp of morality and feels he should not roll on someone he thinks is innocent just to shave years off his sentence. So even though superDad has remarried and has a new child to love, he decides he will act as the snitch. But to achieve the aim of excusing his criminal son, he has to get one or more ex-cons to give up their contacts or involve themselves in further criminal activity and risk jail. For the ex-cons superDad involves, this is not the same as acting as a paid informer for the police. SuperDad is inciting these ex-criminals to become criminals again. He starts a “partnership” with Daniel James (Jon Bernthal) who is married and trying to rebuild his life in difficult circumstances. Just talking to him is a conspiracy and exposes this man to the risk of jail. Yet this conversation gets our hero as far as Malik (Michael K. Williams). The DA is moved to offer a reduction to one year if superDad can bring him in. A concerned DEA officer Cooper (Barry Pepper) sets superDad up with a wire and sits in the background as an advisor. Later he warns superDad about the DA. She can be a little forgetful on the detail of the deals she makes. So our hero ends up being introduced to Juan Carlos “El Topa” Pintera (Benjamin Bratt) and, after a set-piece chase, we get to the end.
In a way this is the film in which the ex-wrestler gets to show whether he can act. Interestingly he may be physically the biggest man in the room on several occasions, but he’s not there to fight. Playing against type, he’s there to look scared but determined. There’s some plausibility to his story that life in the construction industry can’t pay the bills in these difficult economic times. Whether that would force a respectable businessman to start transporting wholesale quantities of drugs is another matter. Frankly I found the first half of the film to be deadly dull. I’m not doubting the narrative necessity of each element of the story as shown, but the pace is leaden. Even when we get on to the road in his truck, it’s not that much better. It’s a long drive. When the action does come, it somehow failed to engage my interest. It’s not that the situations are without tension. I just didn’t care whether this hero succeeded. Nothing in the set-up seems to justify any of this. I’m not denying this is a terrible law and our hero is being ruthlessly exploited by a DA with a political agenda, but our hero is doing all this for a worthless son. I might have had more sympathy if our hero had been forced into this because he was a victim. But none of this life-and-death extravagance is credible.
The ultimate outcome is also a real pain. The hero and his ex-wife are the happiest ex-couple I’ve ever seen, while our hero has effectively destroyed his new family’s life as his business is gone and they must go into witness protection. I really don’t think that’s going to be a long-term marriage. There’s actually a good story here waiting to be told. If the DA and the undercover cop had sat down with our hero to plan an operation, we could have built up a tense drama. As it is, the parts created for Susan Sarandon and Barry Peeper are woefully underwritten. This would also have put proper legal protection in place for Jon Bernthal as the man seduced back to his criminal ways. The longer term criminals are classic stereotypes and boringly predictable. Not even the acting of Dwayne Johnson can save the film because he’s been given silly things to say and do. Overall, Snitch is a ghastly tragedy of everyone on the production side missing opportunities to make a good film.
iD by Madeline Ashby (Angry Robot, 2013) The Second Machine Dynasty continues the discussion of what constitutes a human — is it just a machine running its software in meat rather than in a fabricated body? Putting this in context, the socialisation process modern humans go through as they grow up in a group environment never addresses the problem. By definition, all those in the group are within the range we consider human. Everything else is an animal or inanimate technology, and there’s no real chance of confusion. So long as the group relates to each member as human, everything else is subsidiary, e.g. whether the human is male or female, abled or disabled, and so on. Of course, there can be problems with the roles it’s considered appropriate for particular individuals to adopt and with questions of interpretation, e.g. on whether women are equal members of society or those of the same sex may marry, but nothing approaches the central difficulty in this series of books.
Here we have androids and gynoids, i.e. machines that can be mistaken for human. It’s even confusing for the machines to know whether they are interacting with another machine or a human. So, for example, a machine might consider a mildly autistic human to be a machine because of the lack of emotional affect. This is an intriguing Pandora’s Box to open. It might lead us to speculate that groups would construct identities and roles for individuals as they appear to be. So if an individual presents as a female, the group could agree to confirm this attribution and to maintain it even if it should later appear this is a machine without any ability to reproduce sexually or, indeed, to engage in sexual activity as a female. This is not to say that the labelling process becomes arbitrary, but it allows each group to make its own decisions on how the members shall relate to each other. I suppose if this was entirely a machine group, they could even consider if it was appropriate to hack one or more individual’s software whether as an upgrade or to enable new abilities. That said, we should remember from the first book that all the “robots” have the potential to be self-replicating regardless of external gender appearance.
The protagonist of the first book was Amy Peterson. She’s a von Neumann machine and her version of Asimov’s Three Laws has broken down — whether wisely, this culture also aimed to impose a limit on the machines’ ability to harm humans. Amy belongs to a clade of nurses, and to enable her to give practical assistance to injured humans, she taught herself how to stick needles into them and, later, to assist in cutting them open for surgery. Once the door was opened, she eventually became “human” in her ability to wound or kill, but not to feel bad about doing so (a little like her psychopathic grandmother Portia). This made her a target by humans who preferred robots did not have this ability and from other robots who wanted the freedom to dispose of the inconvenient humans. When we start off, Amy and her equally “manufactured” partner Javier are sequestered from the world on her mobile island (perhaps Never Never Land) collecting fissile material as it travels. Although Amy is more than capable of defending herself and the others on the island, there will always come a point when an attack is going to prevail. This reality forces Javier into the foreground. When a subversive priest arrives, Javier is manipulated and left to make mistakes. The results are the destruction of the island and freedom for Portia.
The rest of the book explores the extent to which it would be possible for humans and machines to co-exist. Naturally, having been here first, the humans remain species-centric and prefer the notion of a world reserved exclusively for them or a sharing based entirely on their terms. To that end, they have an ultimate solution (or perhaps I should say solid). There’s also pleasingly ironic news about the genesis of Amy’s capacity for beating the failsafe injunction about killing humans. Looking over the disparate groups making up the machine side, they are still hobbled by the failsafe, and with Amy disappearing with the island, it’s left to Javier to explore options for survival, both for individuals and for machine-based intelligence at large.
I think iD more successful than vN because there’s a greater consistency of tone and pacing. Although there are inevitable contrivances to move the plot forward and make the required allegorical points, the broader narrative leaves the balance between humans and the machines at an interesting tilt. It will be interesting to see where we go next in this original and thought-provoking saga. As a final thought, I should offer a gentle warning of some sexual activity. I think it tame but if you prefer your fiction to be free from different forms of mating, there are passages you might want to skip over.
For a review of the first in the series by Madeline Ashby, see vN.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This review discusses the plot so, if you have not already watched this episode, you may wish to delay reading this.
I suppose we have to consider Elementary: Season 1, Episode 22. Risk Management (2013) the story of three women rather than as an adventure for the hero created by Arthur Conan Doyle. Let’s start off with the question of Irene Adler. As has been trailed for some weeks, this is the episode Natalie Dormer is due to appear. Opinion among the experts favoured the notion she would appear in the flesh and not by way of flashback. The explanation why she should have been involved in staging her own death is left to the final pair of episodes being run together as the season finale. Not unnaturally, the speculation is that she is Moriarty and that explains why Sherlock has twice been spared death. However, en route to the reveal in the final seconds of this episode, we’ve been treated to a despondent Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) eulogising the woman as the superstar of her gender. It seems she not only had the body of a sex goddess, but also possessed the aesthetics of an artist and, most usefully of all, a brain. On the receiving end of this definition of a paragon (except possibly the reference to a brain) is Dr Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) who, as she forcefully points out to Inspector Gregson (Aidan Quinn), has not been blessed with a penis. She has to sit through this remarkably unromantic moment demonstrating just how self-absorbed Holmes is. Anyone with even a hint of empathy would hesitate before passing this message of perfection on to a woman who might just be interested in something more than a platonic relationship. That said, Watson seems to be holding up the reputation of her gender both with the work to show who had committed tonight’s murder and by refusing to be marginalised by Holmes — she clones his phone so she can follow him.
So far she’s doing her “stand by your man” schtick with considerable style. Whatever her actual strengths and weaknesses, Watson is determined to take the professional risks she thinks necessary to be the person she wants to be (not the person other people want her to be). Through her express role as a sober companion and now as an apprentice consulting detective, this Watson has become an emotional rock for this Holmes. She and Gregson are only too aware that this makes her a potential target for Moriarty. If she goes, the recovering Holmes could be thrown back into his pit of despair. Indeed, we see symptoms of collapse in the childish petulance Holmes shows when challenged by Moriarty to solve the case properly. So there’s an essential paradox in Watson’s role. Holmes fears losing her and, in a part of his mind, wants her to be safe and so seeks to exclude her from the danger zone. But the other part of his brain realises that, if she’s not there showing her mettle, she’s not earning his respect as a person. For all Irene Adler has been grated mythical status as the embodiment of all female virtue, she ran out on Holmes. Watson has refused to do that and is, at the very least, Irene’s equal — it will be interesting to see what motive the scriptwriters give Irene for leaving Holmes.
Which brings us to the third woman, Katie Sutter (Francie Swift) whom I find to be completely incredible. She has been in a relationship with Daren Sutter (J.C. MacKenzie) for more than twenty years and, for most of that time, he’s been depressed by the murder of his sister. As they approach the twentieth anniversary of her death, he becomes suicidal so this loving woman convinces him that a local man was the murderer. This framing of the victim is plausible. It would take the investment of significant time and energy to determine he could not have been guilty. Her husband does not feel the need to take the time. His drive for revenge is absolute and, when he has killed this man, the depression falls away from him. For the first time since his sister died, he feels at peace. Perhaps I lack a romantic spark but I don’t believe a successful business woman would arrange for her husband to kill a man just because it would make him feel better. Indeed, the entire murder element in this episode is perfunctory. I assume Moriarty wishes both the husband and wife owners of this detective agency out of the way and, wow, it just happens they have both planned a murder. How remarkably convenient and so lucky Moriarty can call on the services of Holmes to solve the case for him (after a little prompting, of course). It’s also nothing but a coincidence that the murder du jour is a moral message to Holmes on the practice of revenge. To say this is heavy-handed scriptwriting is an understatement. With on the question of the script, we should also note Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) had another line to speak this week.
Elementary: Risk Management sees Holmes relegated to sidekick status as his mind comes under pressure when tasked to solve a murder by Moriarty. I’m not sure the heroes of television shows like this are supposed to stop thinking clearly and turn into spoilt children. I agree with the scriptwriters to the extent that Holmes is a proud man, but the husband as killer in this episode seems a more credible character. Once aimed by his wife, Daren Sutter is completely energised and focused on achieving his revenge. Holmes is the exact opposite. He’s losing the chance to identify Moriarty until Watson solves the case for him. Oh wait. . . That’s the point, isn’t it. The two scenarios have been crafted as mirror images. Both men are weak failures. Respectively as a sober companion and a loving wife, these two strong women manipulate and “save” the men in their lives. The one so he can spend the rest of his days in jail — ironically an unhappy man because he now knows he killed the wrong man — and the other so he can be built up and knocked down by Irene Adler. If Irene is Moriarty, the canonical Holmes must eliminate her by going over one of the New York waterfall installations by artist Olafur Eliasson. Or Moriarty will kill her for real this time.
For the reviews of other episodes, see:
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 1. Pilot (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 2. While You Were Sleeping (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 3. Child Predator (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 4. The Rat Race (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 5. Lesser Evils (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 6. Flight Risk (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 7. One Way to Get Off (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 8. The Long Fuse (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 9. You Do It To Yourself (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 10. The Leviathan (2012)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 11. Dirty Laundry (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 12. M (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 13. The Red Team (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 14. The Deductionist (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 15. A Giant Gun, Filled With Drugs (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 16. Details (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 17. Possibility Two. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 18. Déjà Vu All Over Again. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 19. Snow Angel. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 20. Dead Man’s Switch. (2013)
Elementary: Season 1, Episode 21. A Landmark Story. (2013).
A Murder in Passing by Mark de Castrique (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the fourth Sam Blackman Mystery based around the Blackman and Robertson Detective Agency. Sam and Nakayla have a growing reputation as investigators despite the fact their work ethic is more on a hobby level. Their finances are sound without having to work too hard. Sam was a Chief Warrant Officer working for the military police. He’s now retired with a prosthetic leg replacing the one he lost in Iraq. Having overcome the inevitable self-pity, he’s proved his ability in civilian life, making loyal friends and the inevitable enemies as a private investigator.
The book starts with our couple part of a small group investigating the woods for wild mushrooms in the Kingdom of the Happy Land. This historical estate was established by a group of emancipated and runaway slaves but has long been abandoned. Few disturb the land making it an ideal place for mushroom hunting. Embarrassingly, Sam falls over on to a rotten log covered in edible fungus. His hand goes through into what proves to be a hollow space containing a decomposed body. Just the luck of the draw, really. As the police begin their efforts to identify the body, Marsha Montgomery arrives in their offices with a story about the Kingdom, a stolen photograph, and her missing father. This quickly establishes the core of the story as based on a mixed race relationship in 1967 between Marsha’s parents. This year was significant in that the law was changed to allow such couples to marry. Obviously changing laws does not change people’s attitudes and prejudice may have been a significant factor in the white man’s disappearance. Almost immediately after they begin their own informal investigation to decide whether they will take on the case, an overzealous police officer arrests Marsha and her eighty-five year old mother without waiting for evidence to identify the corpse. The reason for the arrest is that Marsha, fearing her mother might have shot her father back in 1967, was seen burying the possible murder weapon in their back yard.
This makes the legal situation of the defence interesting because, if the prosecution can’t prove the identity of the victim, they can’t begin to prove a murder case against the mother and Marsha was only five at the relevant time. There are also some really nice bits of reasoning like the analysis by a ex-sniper of the scene where the shooting is assumed to have taken place. Taking an overview of the plot as it’s slowly rolled out, this is a very elegant rerun of an “idea” that used to be quite common in mystery and detective fiction. Because culture evolves and changes over time, it’s been some years since I last encountered it which makes it all the more pleasing to see an author demonstrate a contemporary relevance. Even if you understand the significance of one piece of evidence when it emerges, the enjoyment of the book is not disturbed. The theme just changes from a mystery to an understanding of the family tragedy as it played out all those years ago and the effect it still has today. The author enhances the theme by including a modern couple weathering prejudice against people in a gay relationship.
Although the plot itself is interesting, the real attraction of the book is the characterisation of our two detectives and their friendly attorney. So avoid the need to repeat myself, you should look at the introduction to my review of Bleed For Me by Michael Robotham on the question of lead characters with a disability. In this instance, our hero only finds the body because he’s disabled. Having put the coincidence of the right person in the right place at the right time, he’s also very strongly invested in helping other Vets adjust to their newly acquired disabilities. Indeed, he takes a direct interest in helping a young man with a prosthetic hand find employment. When so many in the real world are reluctant to look beyond the financial cost of the wars the US has been engaged in over the last decade or so, it’s distinctly refreshing for an author to be telling a positive story about someone who has lost lost a leg but gained a new perspective on life. All this makes A Murder in Passing a great read.
For a review of another book by Mark de Castrique, see The 13th Target.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
I suppose Oblivion (2013) makes a change. Instead of dealing with the crash-bang defeat of an alien invasion and stopping the cameras rolling before Earth gets to do the clean-up operation, removing all the damaged and destroyed buildings and the bodies of the aliens we managed to slaughter, this film starts off with the notion that the aliens turned up and attacked the moon. Don’t you just love science fiction. Knowing they could never hope to defeat Earth’s military might, they took on the one target they knew they could beat. Oh, and of course, substantial destruction of the moon changed the gravitational effect of said moon and there were earthquakes and tsunamis down here that pretty much did in Earth’s defences. Pretty sneaky, huh? Except the military had enough nuclear firepower to defeat these pesky creatures when they did land. The price of Earth’s victory? Contamination on an epic scale.
At this point, i.e. about two minutes into the film, we get a major inconsistency in the narrative. If Earth was seriously damaged by all this, how come we could develop the technology to build this superduper space station and go into residence around Titan? This is clearly beyond our abilities, even without the odd high tide washing over cities. More importantly, if Earth didn’t beat all these scavenger beings and they hang around still attacking our hero, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), why not get more systematic to exterminate them before settling into a life in outer space to wait for the planet to heal? Failure on this front means they breed while we’re away and can build defences to stop us coming back. We’re also immediately shown that “they” are messing with our hero’s memories. He keeps getting flashbacks to the pre-invasion Earth and sees this dominant image of a woman. This must be some imperfection from the last security memory wipe which occurred almost five years ago. Except Jack is obviously an unreliable narrator and we can’t trust anything he claims to remember. His minder (and lover), Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), is apparently there to keep Jack on mission and acting within the “rules” laid down by Sally (Melissa Leo), the liaison officer in command from the space station.
So we hypothesise that the aliens won and, having wiped Jack’s memories, are now using him to repair their drones while they steal our water. The images of the beached ships and odd bits of building left exposed are quite impressive and confirm destruction on an epic scale. Assuming this is replicated across the planet, it’s inconceivable humanity survived in any numbers. As you would therefore expect, this homely drone maintenance engineer and his consort believe they are the only folk left on Earth and they have one of these idyllic homes perched on top of a mountain while he completes the establishment of the drone network (except the trailer has already shown us that Beech (Morgan Freeman) is alive and well and living in semidarkness so he can see where the end of his cigar is to light it when he strikes a match). His sidekick is Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who looks difficult to kill. OK so what’s the verdict after ten minutes? It seems Earth has also developed antigravity because these drones move around without regard to little constraints like mass and momentum. There’s also this nifty flying thingamagummy for Jack to patrol his allocated quadrant which is also way beyond anything we could have developed.
For the record, not one bit of the “science” in this science fiction film makes any sense. If aliens blew up the moon, we could have a ring like Saturn which would be really cool when the sun shines on it or there could be a big dust cloud which would have substantially the same mass as the moon in solid form, i.e. have the same gravitational effect. If the moon was pushed away, the sun would take over as the dominant gravitational force and we’d get high tide at noon every day. Oh, and people would stop changing into wolves when the moon was full. The assertion Earth would have been pulled to pieces because of this sneak attack is ludicrous. The only point of this scenario is to justify the montage of CGI images that provide a context for the actors to say their lines which, for the most part, are ditchwater dull and make little sense.
Perhaps we can save the film by dignifying it as an SFnal examination as to the meaning of identity. You know the kind of thing. We are the sum of all we remember so, if there’s an artificial block on our memories, our character changes. Why? Because if we can no longer remember how we reacted in the past, experience stops guiding us in the present. Except all this film does is prove these damn fool aliens don’t have a mind machine to beat the mind of Tom Cruise. He’s back in the past remembering football games and this woman on top of the Empire State Building. You just can’t keep the mind of a good hero down. It bears mentioning that the main plot set-up and twist is the same as in Moon (2009) which was not unlike Eutamnesia (2000). It’s difficult to be genuinely original when there have been so many books and films on this theme. So perhaps we can say the CGI is great and the action exciting? Well, the first fight sequence is chaotic and the behaviour of the drone makes little sense. Then an old piece of technology crashes and, after forcing the drones to pull away, Jack rescues Julia (Olga Kurylenko). She’s been in suspended animation for sixty (or more) years and, yes, she’s the girl he keeps remembering. What? Earth had suspended animation technology? Perhaps they also had stealth technology as well.
At this point, lots of stuff happens and then it ends. Perhaps this would not have been too bad if it had only been a ninety minute film but, at one-hundred-and-twenty-four minutes, it feels like Purgatory. It’s an excuse to watch Tom Cruise ride his motorbike, fly this cool thingamagummy and shoot at whatever moves (and do environmentally sustainable things in a patch of jungle). Andrea Riseborough is there to look good and prove that the alien mind machine works on women. Olga Kurylenko is there as the “other woman” and to perpetuate the species. Morgan Freeman lights up the screen and his cigar for about ten minutes. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is effectively invisible. For me Oblivion is appropriately named because that’s where the film should be consigned.
Welcome to The Best of Connie Willis by Connie Willis (Del Rey, 2013). To say this author is something of a phenomenon is an understatement. After a rather dispiriting start to her writing career mentioned in the afterword to the first of these stories, she’s contrived to win more major awards than anyone else in the science fiction field. This is a collection of her award-winning shorter fiction. Once you say that it gets very difficult to suggest any one of these pieces is less than excellent. They have all won at least one major award. However, tastes change and, since this collection spans thirty years of output, it’s perhaps the right time to look back with modern sensibilities to the fore of the brain. By way of introduction, I should explain all the stories are rooted in relationships, usually families, but also show concern over the question of romance and how relationships come into being and end. Consequently, although the explicit content may be science fiction or fantasy, the subtext is always more intimate.
“A Letter from the Clearys” (Nebula Award 1983 for short story) is a post-apocalyptic story of a family that, by accident, survived a nuclear war. It’s typically small-scale with only a few characters and, without sentimentality, it deals with the paranoia and hopelessness of the survivors. In a real sense, you wonder why they bother to keep going when there’s very little chance of being able to produce new life. It’s still a very human story and stands up well to the passage of time. “At the Rialto” (Nebula Award 1990 for novelette) is a story of chaos at a hotel hosting multiple conventions and, as a piece of humorous writing, some of the jokes continue to be amusing. The rest are intellectually satisfying because I remember smiling happily at them when I first read this. As to content, our heroine discovers that, no matter how much conscious effort is invested in the decision-making process, the outcome is usually the same, particularly if the person serving you is only working part-time to pay for her organic breathing course. The pay-off is still good value but I’m tempted to say it repeats itself and runs a little too long.
“Death on the Nile” (Hugo Award 1994 for short story) is a nicely elegant way of talking about death. It’s a sad fact we’ve become resistant to thinking about dying and what might happen afterwards. Some live in denial with their atheism, others assume rigidity of belief that the only binary outcomes are Heaven or Hell, plus their own sanctimonious certainty they’ll be going to the “right” place. This works well as a kind of fantasy with a faintly horrific overlay as uncertainty overtakes our heroine when the self-appointed guide drops out of sight. “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” (Hugo Award 1997 for short story) remains quite simply wonderful. The idea H G Well’s Martians might have landed with such force in the cemetery where Emily Dickinson was buried that they woke her up is, in itself, a delight. The explanation of what then happened is deduced from fire-damaged fragments of poetry discovered some years later. “Fire Watch” (Hugo and Nebula Awards 1983 for novelette) is a story about living with the threat of death. Sent back in time to the London of the Blitz, our misfit historian who misunderstands so much of what surrounds him, must confront the possibility of his own death or the deaths of those around him, as they fight to save St Paul’s from destruction. It’s an odd reflection on the time this novelette was written that it should seem plausible a group of Communists would destroy the cathedral in 2016. It’s also interesting our historian should be rewarded for failing to return with empirical data simply because he’s learned, albeit belatedly, that people matter more than facts. Somehow that generates a dissonance between the great sense of London in 1940 created by the author, and such a lack of coherent detail about the future education system that seems to send people back in time without proper preparation.
“Inside Job” (Hugo Award 2006 for novella) is one of these standout stories that relies on scepticism to prove H L Mencken can’t come back from the dead to debunk spiritualists and other con artists who prey on the gullible. That makes the entire story a nice paradox and a commentary on how unlikely it is that anyone can ever overcome their mutual distrust to admit their love. “Even the Queen” (Hugo and Nebula Awards 1993 for short story) applies a faintly humorous veneer to a “woman”s issue”. If the relevant technology could be developed to switch off menstruation, would women want it? As a man, I’ve always assumed women really wanted all that discomfort and pain, and the osteoporosis following the menopause, and would rebel at the idea of being free from reproductive inconvenience (obviously, for the perpetuation of the species, women should be able to turn the switch back on and produce babies as and when they want). Yet in this future, the natural women’s group who call themselves the Cyclists are considered a dangerous fringe cult. It’s all pleasingly thought-provoking.
“The Winds of Marble Arch” (Hugo Award 2000 for novella) is rather an odd story to have won an award. It concerns itself with death, both physical with possible supernatural outcomes, and metaphorical in the ending of relationships. There’s a conscious parallelism as if in a comedy of manners where social misunderstandings are mirrored in subjective phenomena. To my taste it takes too long to get to a faux romantic ending. “All Seated on the Ground” (Hugo Award 2008 for novella) is a genuinely pleasing idea. Rather than have aliens land and instantly attack, this sextet emerge from their spacecraft and look like disapproving Aunts. It takes a co-ordinated effort to establish the basis of communication and, in so doing, we learn a lot about the difference between self-important bureaucrats, radical preachers, and humble people who just want to earn the approval of the Aunts. There’s also a recital of the ways in which the words of carols and some hymns might encourage listeners to various acts of violence. Although the message is hopeful, I think the idea a thin joke spun out too long. “The Last of the Winnebagos” (Hugo and Nebula Awards 1989 for novella) deals with a different future from the one we have. Here’s an America with acute water shortages and the loss of many species of animal including dogs. The core of the story revolves around “guilt”. The hero’s own dog was killed by a young girl. He tracks her down fifteen years later and, under pressure from an aggressive Society tasked with protecting what’s left of the wildlife, an accommodation emerges which allows the innocent to avoid retribution. There’s also a certain irony in the development of a different type of camera, the eisenstadt. If our hero, as a photojournalist, had had this camera earlier, his dog might still be alive. As it is, there are only old photographs to remind people of what they have lost.
For me Connie Willis lacks a certain degree of consistency. She has a flair for capturing the essence of human beings and their relationships. All the stories showcased here demonstrate this quality. But she can get caught up in the moment and go on slightly too long so the shorter stories are better. The collection rounds off with three of her speeches which are new to me and interesting. Overall, this is a perfect way to see an author at her best.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.