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.
When the lights go down and the digestive juices are eagerly expecting creative sustenance, Jack The Giant Slayer (2013) immediately tells you this is an impressive and exciting film by a piece of over-the-top-bombastic music that can’t possibly be sustained. If it was going to be this deafening, sorry exciting, for the next 114 minutes, our ears be worn down to the quick and that would never do. We would lack the strength to rise from our seats and go eat some monster nibbles at the nearest fast-food outlet? So the volume, pace and tempo must drop, and then duck in and out of gentle storytelling mode. So here comes the set-up. Young Jack and Princess Isabel sit in their respective low-born and high mucky-muck beds while their parents tell the story of how monks first attempted to grow the bridge between Heaven and Earth, but instead opened the door for the giants to come down the beanstalk and start eating us. Now there you have it. Hubris! It always gets people into trouble, particularly when they start deluding themselves into believing there’s a shortcut to Heaven. The moral so far is don’t go down to the woods today because giants are holding a finger-food event.
We then get one of these nice fairy story ideas that would require explanation in any other context. Needing a way to control the giants, the humans kill a giant (no mean feat), extract its heart (not so difficult once deceased) and then melt it down to make a crown for the king to wear (hmmm — giants have metallic hearts and, as an aside having no significance whatsoever, the tract for food to pass down into their stomachs is full of water and not an acid or enzymes or anything else that might consume input as food). Consequently (sic) when the king wears the crown, he can control the giants and tell them to climb back up the beanstalk. Once the last one has climbed back up, they (probably the humans working from the bottom up) cut down the beanstalk and promptly relegate all the factual aspects of the invasion to myth (in rhyme so it can be told to children). So that’s all right then. All done and dusted, as these British types say.
Ten years later (wow, time sure does pass fast in these tales), Jack (Nicholas Hoult), the daydreamer, is sent off to market to sell the horse and cart, but is distracted by a pantomime version of the fairy story and the now beautiful Isabel (Eleanor Tomlinson). Of course we have the usual palace conspiracies for Roderick (Stanley Tucci) to marry Isabel and rule the world (which plans have already led to raiding the old King’s tomb and extracting both the fatal seeds and the magic crown). Why is it, I wonder, that villains are usually called Roderick in these fantasy films? When a monk steals the seeds who else can be trusted to do everything wrong but Jack. Take the seeds to the Abbey (yes) and on the way, don’t get them wet (now that shouldn’t be so hard, should it).
At this point the Princess knows she’s in serious danger of becoming the token woman and so makes a dramatic speech claiming not to be some fragile creature. No, she wants to take responsibility, get to know the people, and set herself on the path to being a Queen. When King Brahmwell (Ian McShane), still overcome with remorse from the loss of his wife, hears this, he tells her to shut up and marry Roderick. So much for empowerment and the mediaeval feminist movement. That’s why she runs away, like any self-respecting Princess would in a fairy story. Inevitably, because that’s what the plot requires, she ends up in the tenant farm occupied by Jack — it’s dark, raining and she can’t see where she’s going. This is a bad thing because, with the roof leaking, one of the seeds is going to get wet. Obviously these are GM seeds because this specimen sure does grow fast and carry the farmhouse and the Princess up to the land where giants have been imprisoned (they’re led by General Fallon (Bill Nighy and John Kassir — it’s a big body to move around and it needs all the brains it can get). As a further aside, there must be a time distortion effect in operation because it’s the same exclusively male army of giants that were beaten the last time around. They have survived the hundreds (?) of years without any female companionship to make life worth living or perpetuate their species.
As the excitement rises to fever pitch, i.e. the music wakes us up, we meet Elmont (Ewan McGregor), the wannabe Jedi knight in charge of the rescue expedition up the beanstalk. He has his moments but lacks credibility, a fact made abundantly clear when they meet the first giant. This leaves Jack and the villain, who conveniently has the crown with him, running free in the land of the giants. Naturally, the villain uses the crown to control these poor creatures and plans to take over the world. With the first signs of true love blossoming, Jack gives the inspirational speech to the Princess. She’s not useless. She’ll make the world a better place. So then it’s divide and rule. Jack takes the Princess down the beanstalk and the Jedi knight type stays up top to kill the villain with the controlling crown. This creates a problem because when you’ve spent the first part of the film establishing the villain, it’s not good to kill him off and leave the giants as the villains when we don’t care about them. In the best fantasy films, the best villains are always the ones who are the most human. They betray and scheme, laugh when they succeed and cry when they suffer a reversal, i.e. they are credible as characters. It would have been so much better if Roderick had led the giants down to attack the kingdom. Jack could then have sneaked into the giant’s camp and killed the “old man” in a “fair fight” and taken the crown. That’s the right level of heroism for this Jack. When it comes to the ending, Jack’s got a great cart horse and he’s the saviour of the kingdom (more by luck than good judgement), relegating the Princess to the pretty one who gives birth to children and so loses her good looks.
I think the problem is that Bryan Singer and the people behind this film couldn’t make up their minds whether they wanted it to be scary or camp. The result is that it’s neither frightening in the slightest nor genuinely amusing. As a plot, it would have made a great thirty-minute episode in an animated series of fairy stories. It ticks the right boxes but it drags everything out to interminable length with poor CGI. The script is a dead weight round the necks of the high-powered cast of actors so they can’t get laughs to paper over the cracks. The giants are suitably massive and throw trees around like matchsticks (not sure how they set then on fire first), but they’re not used to frighten. Although he does kill one by accident and causes two more to die, Jack never feels like a heroic giant slayer. And just telling them all to quit making a nuisance of themselves and go home is a ho-hum ending. Sadly, Jack the Giant Slayer is just dead on arrival.
Now with me being what’s politely called a senior, many of you might say I’ve got no reason to go and see a film intended for children. The cultural gap between me as a reviewer and the intended audience is just too great. This will just be an excuse to beat an already dead horse to death. And to some extent, you’d be right. So let’s seize this opportunity and get on with the beating. The Croods (2013) is the latest animation out of DreamWorks and features some interesting voices set against one of these fantasy versions of the past. Superficially, it asks us a number of pertinent questions. In a world with so many perils, do we only survive because we fear injury and death? Take driving as an example. Every minute we’re on the road and in motion, there’s a serious risk of an accident if we fail to keep a proper lookout. Indeed, if a caveman was suddenly to be transported through time and deposited in the middle of our “safe” world, he would probably be dead in ten minutes because he would not understand enough about when he sees to avoid all the hazards we take for granted and avoid. It would be exactly the same if we were suddenly to be moved back to the time there was only the one continent. Yes that long ago. Before continental drift broke up Gondwana into the world mapmakers know and love so much today. Back then, even if we came equipped with supreme American football skills, going for breakfast would probably see us dead, if not from the little critters, then certainly from the big kitty who sees humans as like big mice. In that world, survival is not fun. In fact, nothing is fun in the sense we would understand the word. Hypervigilance is required at all times and curiosity is forbidden.
So now, following in the footsteps of The Flintstones, comes the Crood family. Papa Grug (Nicholas Cage) has all the right instincts for survival in an unchanging world even though the results are somewhat paranoid and dysfunctional (he’s a prehistoric Chicken Little with a constant fear the sky is falling). Through dumb luck, he’s come up with what seems to be the right formula because everyone else around him has died. This family is the only group of survivors in this area. But when I say “dumb” luck, the formula is really stupid and the film mocks his efforts as all the family go through the requisite contortions for survival. We are continually shown that there’s a vast gulf between not dying and living with an optimum quality of life given the environment. Ugga (Catherine Keener) and her mother, Gran (Cloris Leachman) go along with it because, so far, living in a cold dark cave has been safe even if they do have to huddle together to stay warn. That the Dad is later shown as dumber than monkeys is cruel. This does not deny some more politically correct humour. As we go on, there’s a wonderful Looney Tunes episode and one or two really nice sight gags.
In the midst of all this, the teenaged Eep (Emma Stone) is a problem. Not only does she insist on her own ledge in the cave but she’s also prone to wandering off and not paying proper attention. Then the Prometheus arrives with fire. He’s called Guy (Ryan Reynolds) and he’s come with news of the end of the world, i.e. he’s the first with the theory that the tectonic plates are moving. And, as if our family needed evidence of the need to change, an earth tremor blocks the entrance to the cave. When the big kitty appears, they have no choice but to move into the jungle. Fortunately presenting them with fire accidentally provides them with popcorn which keeps them alive long enough to see the advantages of a cooked bird to snack on. That’s after they discover rubbing fire against dry grass does not extinguish it — an understandable mistake for the uninitiated.
Once we get into the jungle, we’re shown this is a world of beauty if only they have eyes to see it. Or to put it another way, it’s a bit like an animated version of the countryside in Avatar (unintentionally, of course). By the time they’ve finished their journey, they’ve acquired a “dog” called Douglas and are at one with nature. Particularly when they see the stars — per ardua ad astra — and decide to shoot for the sun and a bright new tomorrow.
Explicitly, the film asks what Dads are for? To keep the family safe, of course. Dads may not have an idea in their heads but they are strong. And if you want a message without sentimentality, don’t go to films like this. Family films with children in mind have to promote family values and that means, despite all appearance to the contrary, wayward teen daughters must finally be able to admit they still love their fathers even though, in real terms, the daughters are modern and their father are, well, like cavemen. More seriously, films like this are reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes. Even though we have a Mom and a Mom-in-law, they are there merely as butts for jokes. For most of the film, they are shown as dependent followers. If a problem crops up they look to the man for its solution. If there’s a chasm to cross, they wait for him to throw them across, even though he gets left behind. Yes, noble self-sacrifice is alive for a brief moment in this prehistoric fantasy.
However, if we look beyond this appalling gender stereotyping, I suppose what the film typifies are the difficult choices the older generation has to take in a changing world. They’re supposed to be the ones with the accumulated wisdom and should be able to guide the young towards a better world. But even that’s a challenge. How do you decide whether to brainwash the children into being wholly dependent on their parents for all decisions or to train them to be independent and open to new things? There always comes a point when parents have to stop protecting their children and let them make their own mistakes. Personally, as a message, I think the result on screen is heavy-handed and uninspiring. Children will no doubt like the pretty colours and some of the jokes are quite amusing (although the mother-in-law is verbally beaten to death), but I can’t see the film as even remotely interesting. As an ironic aside to this review, I should mention The Croods has already taken more than $500 million worldwide which just goes to show that brainless and, at times, mildly offensive children’s films can make a lot of money.
In his introduction, Jason Sizemore, the Editor-in-Chief announces a new series titled Apex Voices in which the publisher intends to feature writers with a more unique voice. In Plow the Bones by Douglas F Warrick (Apex Publications, 2013), we’re offered a new(ish) writer with surreal tendencies. And, to prove the point, the first story in this collection is “Behindeye: A History” a most curiously surreal opening. So, if we inhabit a world based on rationality, the author’s intention is to react against that intellectual straightjacket and substitute a positive absence of reality. Now let’s ask what goes on inside another’s head. It would be reassuring to believe the conscious mind is in control. But if the mind is obsessed with the idea of self-harm or, even, suicide. . . As a metaphor imagine a blind hermit who saves a baby which, when it grows up a little, proves to have a pair of working eyes. Such a child can mitigate the suffering loneliness of the man. For all its weakness, he or she might represent hope for a better future. But in a larger context, such a reduction in suffering, if not the introduction of love, cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the looming personal catastrophe. “Her Father’s Collection” is a more straightforward supernatural story in which a father decides to include his daughter in his collection of ghosts. Although it fudges the mechanism of entrapment, there’s a rather pleasing albeit selfish viciousness in the way the ties of love are subverted. This is a most successful story.
“Zen and the Art of Gordon Dratch’s Damnation” asks a rather pertinent question for all of us who are atheists. Suppose we are wrong. In our rather self-congratulatory way, we’ve been denying Him only to discover the price to be paid is damnation for eternity (which is rather a long time to suffer). So how would we cope? Well, in this answer, it looks to be a good strategy to be into Buddhism. That way, you might actually be able to rise above all the Heaven and Hell schtick and break out of the cycle of damnation and redemption. It’s a neat trick if you can maintain the right mindset. “The Itaewon Eschatology Show” continues the discussion in a slightly different way. When you go to live in a foreign country like Korea and scrape the outside of the culture, what kind of life can you make for yourself as an outsider looking in, understanding so little of what goes on around you? Perhaps you need to believe in something, even if it’s about the end of the world, as a hook on which to hang your hat. Except even that won’t make Korea your home and won’t bridge the gap between you and the Koreans. We’re all just passing through until we reach the end of days. And in “Come to my Arms, My Beamish Boy”, when you’re eight-four years old and your mind is shot to pieces, you really do feel you’ve reached the end of your days (when you’re able to think coherently about anything, of course). The actual process of disintegration is like having your mental sustenance sucked out of your head by a lamprey which is something you used to know about when you were a biologist. At such a time, the only thing you have to hang on to is the love of a good woman.
“Funeral Song for a Ventriloquist” is nicely metafictional as the story tells itself, speaking of secrets we cannot know the answers to and telling us, no matter how much we aspire to some degree of permanence in our lives, our common destiny as humans is to die and be forgotten. “Inhuman Zones: An Oral History of Jan Landau’s Golem Band” reminds us of the mythology we create about the times we live through. In this case, this group of people were present when a new music movement took off. They were at ground zero and knew the band before they were famous. That was when it was all real, before the record company executives came along and signed up groups and tried to make money on their backs. Those golems. They were the best, man. Similarly “Drag” has a small group of students go through one of the rituals associated with the place where they sleep. It’s been handed down from one generation of students to the next so the tradition of what happens in the closet is never lost. Sometimes the point of these rituals is to confront and overcome fear of the supernatural. Except not all rituals turn out the way the older, more experienced students expect.
“Ballad of a Hot Air Balloon-Headed Girl” echoes this as a young man training to be a soldier becomes infatuated with a girl who thinks her head might catch fire. Then the war comes and innocence is lost as young men on each side kill each other for their beliefs. No-one actually knows what they are fighting for. You don’t have to know what the cause is, just believe in it. Later the girl’s head generates such heat, she becomes her own hot-air balloon and floats away. This is such a loss he also rises in more mundane terms to become president of the land. He never forgets the girl who was the source of her own freedom. And talking of freedom, the “Rattenkonig” wants to be free but it’s, well, stuck and it needs just a little help to get where it needs to go. Perhaps this couple can help or if not the couple, this woman.
“Old Roses” tells us that as dentists give birth to poets, the next generation after that may also have poetic tendencies. But when parents die what do we have left except our memories of them. Houses are not conveniently haunted so we can continue to share our lives with them. “Stickhead (Or. . . In the Dark, in the Wet, We Are Collected)” introduces two seventeen-year-olds who find a rotting corpse in a culvert. At least, it seems to be dead. Perhaps that’s just a working hypothesis we could debate, out of curiosity if not for some better reason. Perhaps we could try prodding it with a stick to see if it moves. “I Inhale the City, the City Exhales Me” takes us to Osaka, the home of manga and anime where drawings are their own reality and journalists can make the news tell the stories they invent. And I wonder whether Camille Paglia said, “Every generation drives its plow over the bones of the dead.” Finally, in the world of adult entertainment, “Across the Dead Station Desert, Television Girl” we wonder whether Television Girl can cross the desert to the City of Life. Of course this use of computer simulations is just a different form of human trafficking. These AIs have exactly the same emotions as human women. Well that can’t be right, can it? Fantasy women must match the archetypes men want, not have their own wants and desires. So if they show any sign of independence, we’d better wipe them and start over again.
Plow the Bones is not a book to run through. The author has invested considerable effort in constructing some, at times, rather beautiful prose which rewards careful attention with the revelation of pleasing ideas. We flirt with surrealism and notice elements of the supernatural. Philosophical abstractions try to attract our attention as we lie alienated in different settings. There are occasional snatches of weird as if overheard accidentally in real settings. And overall there are symptoms of intelligence at work. As a collection, it’s a positive delight from start to finish!
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) starts, as must all retro films, with a black-and-white sequence in limited aspect as if it was somehow comparable to the original Yellow Brick road thing that everyone still talks about. This is not unsuccessful but, for once, the music by Danny Elfman is all wrong. It’s far too knowing and fails to grace the visual intention with period charm. So proving we really are in Kansas, we’re off with barkers calling credulous townsfolk on to the the midway which offers the talents of the small-time magician, Oscar Diggs (James Franco), playing to a half-empty tent. Inconveniently overcome by a sense of realism, he admits he can’t help a crippled girl walk. He’s a conman, not a miracle worker, rising up from a hick farm with dreams of being a great magician like Houdini. After a moment when he almost does the right thing with a girl who loves him, he runs away from the jealous strongman and into the hot-air balloon. Faced with death, he promises to do great things if only he can be saved from the twister that inevitably appears. Except the point of the original conceit was to show us that Dorothy was having a dream. That’s why the characters from the black-and-white preface show up again in technicolor. Yet in this prequel, our hero must move permanently into Oz so he can be there to meet with Dorothy later on. It’s therefore pointless to have the same people in both the human and the magical worlds.
Anyway, no natter what the justification, we’re into full colour as we enter the world of magic. Given the quick changes of scenery and the transformation of petals into butterflies, he quickly works out he’s somewhere different. The river fairies are pleasingly malicious in a slightly fleeting, non-threatening way. Theodore the Good Witch (with a bad temper) (Mila Kunis) then tells him of the prophecy that a wizard will come to free the people and become their King (with all the gold that goes with the role). He’s naturally attracted. Having saved Finlay, the flying monkey, from the lion, Theodora leads him to the Emerald City where he must convince everyone of his wizardly credentials. Waiting for him is Evanora (Rachel Weisz). He sees the treasure which is a good motivator, but the price of the throne (and the treasure) is that he kills the wicked witch. And we’re off into the quest bit of the film, but because this is a Disney film, the flying monkey is like Jiminy Cricket, a walking conscience (forget the flying bit while he’s carrying the human’s heavy bag). In short order we come to the China (Tea Set) City which is an interesting visual idea. The broken china figurine (Joey King) is a fragile and tragic figure with a broken leg and, unlike her human counterpart back in Kansas, is instantly repairable with glue conveniently imported from the human world. It seems the Wicked Witch sent her minions to destroy the city because the people were celebrating the arrival of the wizard. Our hero specifies no dolls on the witch hunt except she cries herself a river and gets taken along for the ride. And this is really the problem. Every film which sets off down this road has to strike a balance between cute and frightening. This is definitely unbalanced in the wrong direction.
The studio’s intention is a kind of conscious parallelism with the original 1939 classic musical which was cute (all that singing with Munchkins dancing militates against the fear factor rising). Ignoring the intellectual property problems in replicating the bits of cinema owned by the “other studio”, this modern band of copyright thieves with their own team of attorneys in action at every point, sets off down the appropriately coloured road to prequelise the original, i.e. borrowing just enough of the iconography to be a “Wizard of Oz” film. But the parallelists have a dilemma. They are not proposing to make a musical and they are including three witches, at least one of whom is wicked, so this could be scary. But if it’s really really scary, it might frighten the kids, so parents won’t bring them through the doors and make back the cost of production (which at $215 million is substantial with all that CGI). Actually it’s earned about $480 million worldwide, i.e. it’s not doing too badly. So what they’ve actually put on the screen is a cardboard version of a fantasy film. Even the least sophisticated of child viewers will yawn as they go through the Dark Forest. Worse, despite the occasional knowing comment, e.g. about stereotyping flying monkeys and their like of bananas, the script is leaden and the acting wooden (or bone china as the case may be). Eventually, our hero meets Glinda (the Good or the Bad or the not yet Ugly) (Michelle Williams) who suggests Evanora is the real wicked witch. Now there’s one of the twists!
Of course, when you get three sisters and a handsome if cardboard man, they can quickly grow jealous. But, predictably, the passage through the magic testing wall shows our hero to be hiding a kindly soul. So now comes the moment of truth when he ought to tell his audience that he ain’t no wizard, no siree! He’s weak, selfish, slightly egotistical and not at all what the Ozians were expecting to come and save them. Except Glinda, who’s seen through his transparent disguise as a real human being, urges him to continue the myth to maintain civilian morale. So the famers farm, the Tinkers featuring Bill Cobbs make stuff, and the Munchkins sing for ten seconds. But none of this motley crew can actually kill anyone or thing. That makes them the perfect army with which to fight the Wicked Witch (whoever she is). We then descend into mawkish sentimentality as our newly fearless leader decides anything is possible when you believe in at least one impossible thing before breakfast (that’s not counting the crispiness of cornflakes, of course).
So what is this hero actually made of? He’s a womanising bastard who loves them and leaves them. Indeed that’s one of the reasons why he almost immediately gets into trouble in the new world. Quite why the film-makers thought such a man would be a good influence on this new world is baffling as his bedroom eyes transfix each of the sisters in turn. Hey but this is a Disney film for children, right? That means no sex scenes just seduction with implied consequences. Oh yes, and because this is a Disney film, we have to include an apple scene (to avoid repeating the cliché, the victim does not immediately fall asleep — unlike the audience). In the end, this is a classic Disney family-values film in which even the China Girl gets her wish granted. All of which makes Oz the Great and Powerful one of the worst blockbuster films with which to start off the 2013 campaign for box office glory.
It’s perhaps appropriate to start off by noting the dominant approach to storytelling on display in Snodgrass and Other Illusions: The Best Short Stories of Ian R MacLeod by Ian R MacLeod (Open Road, 2013). Unlike the majority of writers, this author prefers a dense prose style and often avoids dialogue. Many of the stories are in the first person, involve interior monologues or use reported speech. Personally, I find this a welcome change, particularly because the author’s voice is so pleasing. Indeed, the whole collection is a delightfully eclectic array of themes and authorial concerns. Being a “best of” collection, this draws many stories familiar to me from previous collections and reprints in Best of the Year anthologies — the overall quality of this collection is outstanding.
“The Chop Girl” is a story from my era, a story of life and death on one of the World War II RAF stations which used to send bombers off across the Channel or the North Sea, and wait for them to come back. I’ve encountered this type of superstition before in the real world. It’s the idea of a jinx or hoodoo which is carried by a person and passed on as bad luck by contagion. In this case, the Typhoid Mary is a young girl who, like all young people thrown together in the heat of a war, is not averse to showing affection to the pilots. Except, those she favours seem not to return from their missions. When the penny drops, she’s shunned, of course. Only a phenomenally lucky pilot could break the jinx. But what would happen both at the time and after the war? The answer is straightforward and utterly realistic, as it should be when you’re dealing with superstitions. “Past Magic” pursues this slightly melancholic view of the identity we shape for ourselves and impose on others. It uses the fictional reality of cloning to speculate on whether the replacement version of the person can ever be the same as the original. The problem is that, even with access to all the previous person’s recorded memories, the clone would still be a new person who came into being too recently to have had all these past experiences. Or if a child was replaced, it would grow up in ways that might be similar but. . .
“Hector Douglas Makes a Sale” offers us a brief meander through the thickets of door-to-door selling, pausing every now and then to unravel some of the mysteries of technique that can distinguish between an average performer and a salesman who can charm birds down from trees to buy what he’s selling. “Nevermore” explores the world of unreality we sell ourselves when we fall in love and later use to deceive ourselves when the grief we feel on the death of the loved one threatens to overwhelm us. When reality can be overwritten by technology, so that even the dead can continue in an existence of sorts, how do we feel when the body of our spouse dies but the ghost continues in existence as if nothing had really changed? The collision between technology and the reality of emotion is nicely explored as the artist loses his muse but ultimately remembers what’s important to him.
“Second Journey of the Magus” sees Balthasar, the only surviving member of the original three Magi, return to the Holy Land to see how Jesus is getting along. Curiously, even though he sees what others might take as incontrovertible evidence of the existence of God and the potential accessibility of Heaven, he can’t quite shake off his doubts. Of course, scientists have always had doubts about whether there’s intelligent life anywhere else in the universe, hence “New Light on the Drake Equation”. In all the world, perhaps the only thing we can ever really be certain about is that humans have an innate capacity to surprise us by the things they do. Indeed, in many ways, humans as a species of diversity are probably as alien as creatures from another galaxy when viewed through the prism of age, one generation looking at what the later generations have become. And sometimes regretting decisions made earlier. And talking of decisions we might regret, here comes a wonderful alternate history story dealing with something far more significant than what the world would have been like if Germany had won the war. “Snodgrass” considers what might have happened to John Lennon if he’d left the Beatles before they really took off. I suppose the moral of all these stories is you should never look back with regret.
“The Master Miller’s Tale” is a very clever story making the transition between old and new. We start with artisan worlds where sometimes taken-for-granted skills born of generations of experience seem like magic. But as technology progresses, machines replace the craftsmanship and improve on performance. Over time, few consumers notice or care. Indeed, the products they need are often cheaper and more plentiful. Only the craftsmen feel the pain of redundancy and understand what has truly been lost. “Isabel of the Fall” also deals with the interface between humans and technology, looking at a future world in which the key to survival is light. Here faith by rote has become stronger than knowledge and understanding. In this case, the happy accident of avoiding the ritual blinding proves the saving grace for the people. In the world of the Dawn Singers, only the blind are Kings. The problem then is how to react to what can be seen when our heroine is not supposed to be able to see it.
“Tirkiluk” is a strangely beautiful story of a man sent a meteorological station on a distant patch of land, sometimes visited by Eskimos. When a pregnant Eskimo needs help, he provides shelter and food. All is under control until there’s an accidental fire. Then we gain an insight into the power of the mind to maintain the body so that the woman and her newly born son will survive the rigors of winter. Finally, “Grownups” is one of these slow reveal stories in which the growing boy speculates on exactly what it’s like to be an adult. Of course, to us mere mortals, this is quite easily divined. But suppose the world was complicated by the presence of a third sex. In such a place, it might actually be rather more difficult to understand where babies come from. Indeed, adults might be significantly less inclined to discuss the transition from child to adult and the subsequent need to consider reproductive matters. Out of fear or natural perversity, some children might try to hold back time.
Snodgrass and Other Illusions has everything you could hope to find in a collection from science fiction, through fantasy, to horror. But above all, the quality of the writing and the ideas shines through. It’s a must-read!
For a review of another collection, see Journeys
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Exile by Betsy Dornbusch (Night Shade Books, 2013) is the first in what has been billed as The Seven Eyes series but, with the publisher disappearing into a black hole, it’s not at all certain whether you will be able to acquire this book or whether a new publisher will release any more in the series. Although, truth be told, I’m massively indifferent as to whether any more work is published by this author which prompts me to one of my minor musings. Have you noticed how the noble bagel has been taken from its iconic role of bread, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and applied to the equally pleasing game of tennis. But the meaning has been turned pejorative to signal an unequal contest in which the winner of the set triumphed 6-0. Ah, such are the vagaries of language. . . but this should also indicate a deeper truth.
Not everyone is a top class performer and, when players come together for a game, superior skills almost always dictate the winner. The same is true in almost every human activity. Some people are better than others and we should not be ashamed to admit it. So let’s assume we can rank everyone from top class, through second, third, and so on down to total failure. If in international terms, I’m ranked as third class, I take that as an honour. When you look at the world’s total population, the idea there are only several million people better than me is high praise. All of which brings me to the immediate book for review. In international terms, this is an indifferent fifth-class sword and sorcery fantasy. Put in more precise terms, the writing is, at best, stodgy and the plot is hopelessly contrived and formulaic. That said, I’ve read an uncountable number of novels that are worse or, indeed, failed to finish novels that were total failures. So, in real terms, this is not quite as bad as it could have been.
So what’s it about? Well, there’s this cousin from the wrong side of the bed to the King of Monoea. He’s framed for the murder of his wife and, as the title suggests, exiled to Akrasia. So here comes a guy with superior skills as a bowman, having been a leader of men in the King’s Black Guard. He’s dumped in this foreign land in a miserable physical condition, having not exactly been given VIP treatment on the voyage to strand him. From this moment on, he’s on an inexorable rise to the top of the heap. Every time he has a chance to do the right thing, he does it. If he needs rescuing, this is carried by some conveniently-to-hand people. Whereas my own life experience has been one of slippery slopes tending in a downward direction, this Draken can’t help but end up beside Queen Elena. Naturally he fights against the disloyalty to the memory of his wife but this is the kind of woman no hero in a novel like this can resist.
What makes all this faintly risible is the way in which problems are solved. So, for example, he’s pretty useless with a sword and this is a sword and sorcery book, so he meets a magician who can bond him with the soul of a great swordsman. This gives him a guide to local conditions, great fighting skills, and someone to talk with whenever the conversation around him peters out. And, guess what, the sword he has turns out to have magic powers. That’s a useful plus. So the author presents us with a hero who, metaphorically speaking, can walk on water as we watch his miraculous progress round this island of exile until he works out who’s trying to depose the Queen and why. Then there’s some fighting and the Kingdom is saved.
Next book please.
Sorry that’s ambiguous. I’m not interested in reading the next book in this series. I’m hoping the next book in the pile to be read is better. Exile by Betsy Dornbusch is not recommended.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Limits of Power by Elizabeth Moon (Del Rey, 2013) is the fourth fantasy novel set in the Eight Kingdoms (after Echoes of Betrayal) and it represents an admission failure on my part. I reviewed the second in this series and remember making a mental note to read the next in sequence. Yet now I find myself reading the fourth. Such are the perils of a busy life as a reviewer. I therefore come back in to discover the sad death of Kieri Phelan’s grandmother. This has sent the Elves into a state of shock as their home is now under threat without someone to maintain the taig. As the new king of Lyonya, Kieri has his work cut out to maintain harmony between the Elves and the Humans. Inter-species politics have always been challenging. Arian, his newlywed half-Elven queen, has also lost their first baby which leaves questions about the succession. All of which dramatic introduction brings us to the core of the book.
In a world where different species must try to find a way to co-exist without too much conflict, the expected problems are complicated by the presence or absence of magical powers. If all species were equal in magical ability, the situation would be more manageable. But when there are quite significant differences and, within species, not all have equal talents, the potential for jealousy and rivalry becomes inevitable. In a way, a part of the hope for conflict avoidance will flow from constructive engagement between the species. The fact that humans and elves are able to interbreed should have lessened tensions. Yet the half-breeds have not proved an effective bridge, often finding themselves on the receiving end of prejudice from political enemies on both sides of the divide. In other relationships, only the dragon has sufficient distance to be able to talk with all sides and find trust. That said, an interesting bridgehead has inadvertently been created by a human becoming the leader of one group of gnomes. This accident may prove significant in building trust.
Extremists out to ferment trouble have developed an interesting range of justifications for distinguishing and disparaging magical abilities. Starting with the humans, it’s largely considered unnatural for any member of this group to have any ability at all. Except, historically, there have been human magelords and one group is accepted because their powers are used for healing. This means the humans have to be able to close one eye and see everything except medical skills as deeply evil. This residual magic can be inherently evil, or by reinterpreting moral and religious codes, against the law and so a justification for death. Or it can be an argument rooted in economics. If people can light candles without the use of matches, it puts all the matchmakers out of work, and so on. Then it spreads to political jealousy. Suppose one of your legal systems for dispute resolution is trial by battle, the unexpected winner obviously used undisclosed magical powers to beat the more fancied opponent. Once you start, there’s no end to the ways in which you can reinterpret reality to make magic, real or alleged, seem evil.
Under normal circumstances, this might not be too serious a problem but, as this novel gets under way, magical abilities are suddenly appearing across human lands. Caught up in these political problems, Mikeli Mahieran, the young king of Tsaia, has expelled Beclan Mahieran for displaying the talent. He has now left Tsaia with Dorrin Verrakai. This leaves the young Camwyn Mahieran in an interesting position, being uncertain whether he too might be showing symptoms of magical power. When Arian arrives on a state visit, we get into both species and gender politics with some discussion of the source of magic and the differences between the different schools of magic. Meanwhile, the Dragon drops off ex-sergeant Stammuel on an island where there may just be a threat from pirates and ex-thief Arvid Semminson finds himself adopted as a kind of quartermaster, now trusted as an honest broker to help keep troops provisioned, a curious life for someone now on speaking terms with Gird. Even Arcolin gets a promotion, refuses a kingship and looks for a wife. And then Kieri demonstrates to the Elves that, while he might not have all his grandmother’s powers, he has his own way of interacting with the taig and what lies beneath the Oathstone. Discovering the selani tiles is even more interesting as is the beginning of his power to re-establish the Elvenhome.
Put all this together and this is an interesting but more gentle read. We’re catching up with old friends and watching them move round the landscape, learning more about the powers and their limits as they go. There are occasional one-on-one fights but that’s not really the point of the exercise. This is just moving the broader narrative forward, keeping all the fans happy as their favourite characters are given their moment in the sun. As a final thought, Alured is lurking on the other side of the border. He’s due to make a move in the next book. Until then, there’s one note of sadness and two of joy. Limits of Power is a good contribution to the continuing tale.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For this review, I need to begin with a few brief thoughts about terminology. In another life, I might have considered the spirit of this matching pair of novellas to be a fairy story or fairy tale. This reflects the broad classification largely attributed to the work of Hans Christian Andersen and other later authors, which is largely considered suitable only for consumption by children. If we move back in time, the original folk tales and legends are often darker and more adult in approach. I suppose this means we distinguish between fantasy as fiction and the fairy story as fable because, in part, it’s intended to have an educational purpose, i.e. this makes it more appropriate for children. This is not to say The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince by Robin Hobb (pseudonym of Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden) (Subterranean Press, 2013) is about fairies but, as you will understand from the title, it does concern a Princess and there’s an underlying system of magic in operation although that’s only directly relevant for more political purposes towards the end.
I suppose the point of this rambling thought is confirmation that there’s real character development in operation. Not, you understand, so that we arrive at a “Happily ever after” moment. This is not a book in which things work out well for everyone. But there’s the idea that, through the telling, one generation can reach out and teach something of value to future generations. Perhaps, in that future time, the happiness everyone seeks will come to pass. For this to work, the events as told have to be inherently credible. The future generations are not going to be impressed by the quality of the message if it’s wrapped up in a supernatural context. There must be “truth” based in the reality we all know. So this story is essentially about real people with the same strengths and weaknesses we all have. The fact the key players are a doomed Princess and the bastard son she brings into the world should not distract us from the allegorical nature of the tale.
The structure of the novel is of two narratives told by different people but reported by the same individual. The first is the story told from her own knowledge by the woman who grows up with the Princess. The second is a slightly broader historical overview as told by her son, the Minstrel Redbird, but written down by his mother. Both documents, therefore, represent a more or less continuous story, but the authorship is divided because of a convention adopted by the local culture. Minstrels are oral historians, responsible for telling the truth as they have seen it. In their songs and written records, they are only allowed to set down what they have actually seen. There can be no guesswork, no embellishment. Only the truth as they know it can be passed down for posterity. When the task falls to the mother to write both documents, she adopts this convention for her own contributions to this jointly told tale. It’s made absolutely clear which voice is telling each part of the story and why the knowledge being reported is limited to that voice.
The first novella sticks very closely to the rather more intimate style we associate with classical fairy stories. We see the birth of the Princess and understand how and why she becomes something of a handful for her parents. In this, the machinations of the storyteller’s family are fascinating. The description of rising through the ranks of a court by wet-nursing the babies of the nobility is most carefully worked out. Indeed, the politics of childbirth are crucial to understanding this story and its implications for future generations, i.e. it all bears directly on questions about the succession to the throne. As the story progresses into the second novella, we move slowly from the more intimate family considerations to the broader movement of factions within the court. So we may safely say that the roots in the fairy story grow into a sturdy tree of political rivalry and treason, depending on whose side you happen to be on. All illegitimate sons face difficulties after the death of their mothers. You will understand from the broad sweep of our own history that the right to succeed to the throne claimed by bastard grandsons does not necessarily prevail over the claims of the King’s brothers and their legitimate offspring. It often comes down to a might-is-right resolution, assuming there’s a strong enough will to make the contest for the throne real.
Overall The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince manages to blend fairy story and historical fantasy into a most pleasing conflation. Except, in the final sections, I feel it’s a little rushed. Although it might have bent the convention of only reporting what’s actually seen, I felt some of the narrative was superficial. This inevitably comes from lack of a point of view. Had there been ways to get either the Minstrel or his mother into more relevant situations, we could have achieved a more rounded view of how this particular ending came to be. As it is, we’re left with considerable doubt over when certain events took place and exactly what the motivation of different individuals was. Despite this, the result is rather delightful in a fairy tale kind of way with some tough historical lessons for those with eyes to see them.
For a review of a collection by Robin Hobb, see The Inheritance.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Forbidden by Kelley Armstrong (Subterranean Press, 2012) is another story featuring Elena Michaels and Clayton Danvers in the continuing saga of the Women of the Otherworld. In the moment I write these sentences so full of certainty, it’s easy to forget this is my first look at this author and the only reason I’m able to appear so knowledgeable is because I’ve browsed her website and read the Wikipedia entry. I wish I’d done so before agreeing to review this book. I get lazy, assuming Subterranean Press does not publish Young Adult content. Most of the time, I filter out the fiction aimed at those barely able to read and whose sensibilities are so far removed from my senior years. But, yet again, another teen bestselling author has penetrated my defences so I must grit my teeth and offer my opinion (as if it’s not immediately obvious from these opening words).
The problems for me are many and manifold. I suppose they begin with my general lack of respect for the young. It’s not simply that they are inexperienced. That goes without saying and no generation springs from a god’s head fully formed and able to act like adults from drawing their first breaths. But the present young are so alien to me, they might just as well have been born on a different planet. Sadly, this is reflected in the books intended for them to read. When I was growing up, there were books for children, books written for adults but considered suitable for children to read, and then the books we waited to read. Frankly, what’s now marketed as YA fiction is adult fiction dumbed down. Just as the tests and examinations young students take today are significantly easier than those I had to take, so their fiction is emasculated fiction that patronising adult editors consider it appropriate to give the tender young minds to read. If these books represent what teens are genuinely interested in, I have little faith in the future of the human race. Indeed, I note a great irony. In many serious commentaries and newspapers, I see handwringing pieces bewailing the loss of childhood. It seems our young tots are turning into adults before their time. Well these books tell a very different story. They are beyond innocent, inhabiting some weird world of fantasy make-believe in which life can always become beautiful and fulfilling. Although some authors do use darker thematic material, it’s usually in an educational spirit, to suggest ways in which horrors can be mitigated and life made more bearable again.
So here we have our young adult protagonists. Elena is getting a little long in the tooth for this role but the loyal fans have been following her for many years. She’s now the proud mother of two children but, on this winter’s night, she gets a telephone call which brings her to a small town called Westwood where a young man called Morgan Walsh has been locked up in jail and could do with a little help. She therefore puts down the mantle of motherdom and takes up her role of Alpha of the Pack. She and Clayton, her bodyguard, set off on an adventure with a limited number of characters and no more than 250 pages in which to reach a positive resolution. Well, this is a YA adventure with werewolves as the central characters. This could be scary, if not gory, but we start off with scenes of domestic tranquility. Having seen our central character being all maternal, this is not going to suddenly morph into a book in which she goes to Westwood and, at the first opportunity, takes hold of the throat of a human. “With her teeth sliding into the yielding flesh of her victim’s neck, she rips out a chunk of flesh. Arterial blood from his torn carotid pumps over her muzzle, whetting her appetite. With a casual surge of strength, she hoists him into the air and leans forward to breakfast on the low-hanging nuts.” No, we’re never going to get anything along those lines in a book like this.
Instead, no-one plays nice. Person or persons unknown rip the tyres of their vehicle stranding them in this hick backwater and then exciting stuff happens. At least this is what’s supposed to be exciting to one of today’s teens. Frankly, I couldn’t wait for it to be over, but dutifully read it to the end to see precisely what was forbidden. Was it a major Satanic ritual calling up demons that would fight our werewolves tooth and claw? Or perhaps it was handbags at dawn with the zombie cheerleaders from the local high school? Well, if you’re a fan, you’ve no doubt already added this book to your collection and know the answer. If you’re not a fan but are a young adult as defined by modern marketers, you may find Forbidden exciting. If you’re a curmudgeonly senior like me, death would be preferable to having to read another book by this author.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.