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Horns by Joe Hill

October 31, 2010 Leave a comment

By way of an opening, let’s speculate on the nature of human nature. For those of you of a Freudian bent, we might distinguish between the id, ego and super-ego. There are both more complex models and rather more straightforward explanations of how minds work but, at their heart, there’s a common view. When we talk about the mind, we are not talking about the physical brain in which thought occurs. We are referring to the identity of the individual. Identity is created by processes in the brain and expressed through the behaviour we observe. Because we cannot look inside each other’s heads and “hear” the thoughts, the only way we can judge the character of the people we see is through inference. So, we might see behaviour suggesting a calm or rational mind. Or we might collect impressions suggesting a more primitive or cruel mind. Albeit in a crude way, Morbius probably offered a correct psychological insight in Forbidden Planet when he said the Krell were exterminated by “monsters from the id”. Like the Krell, we all have diabolical impulses lurking in our unconscious. Most of the time, we suppress or control these urges. When we fail, we are deemed sociopathic or psychotic. In other words that we have no empathy or we have somehow stepped outside the boundaries set in ordinary people’s socialisation — we have become detached from the prevailing social reality.

So, Horns by Joe Hill takes us into the simple view of the mind. Suppose we have a good part and a bad part. Left to ourselves, we reach some kind of accommodation between these parts on the spectrum from saint to devil. But if we should come under the influence of an outside force, it might tip us positively one way or the other. This puts us squarely in the firing line of amor vincit omnia. When you see a book jacket with blood dripping down its face, you might assume it to be a horror novel. Well, think again. This is actually a touching story of the love between two people. Of course, there are moments every now and again when bad stuff happens. But we have to see the whole as a metaphor demonstrating the power of love to link people and, in the right circumstances, transcend time.

Not being one to offer too many spoilers creates a problem in this instance. Let’s just say we have an odd love triangle. The girl is the power for good and she is circled by two boys. One might become genuinely diabolical. The other had a head injury when younger which, having failed to lobotomise, left him merely sociopathic. Having this as the set-up means the situation is not going to work out “well” in the conventional sense.

This leaves me talking about the writerly stuff. This is definitely a young author’s book — in fact, the second published novel. You can see him winding himself up to run right up to the edge and then flail his arms desperately to keep his balance. There’s a real sense he was challenging himself to see how far he could push conventional taste, and having fun in the process. Indeed, for what is ostensibly a horror novel, there are a remarkable number of smiles. Being old and curmudgeonly, I rarely ever laugh. But I have to acknowledge Hill was trying really hard to be entertaining. This is the old porter-at-the-gate trick from Macbeth and other tragedies where you introduce humour into the midst of sadness to give temporary relief and then reinforce the return to the sadness.

I also record being a bit frustrated at the nonlinear storytelling. My own preference, wherever possible, is to start at the beginning and move steadily through to the end. Having started in the “present”, we are then switched back and forth to the past, apparently at random. Only when I was about three-quarters of the way through did the penny finally drop (and the reference to morse code finally became relevant). What I had taken to be rather an indisciplined approach was finally justified and I apologise to Mr Hill for thinking unkind thoughts.

I’m still less than convinced about the literal and metaphorical significance of the tree house. As a place in which, and through which, love can be celebrated and transcend time, I suppose it offers a kind of super-ego, helping our hero rise above his base instincts. Literally, it’s where the memories of her prove to be strongest. A practical control continually reinforced through the gold cross and chain so important to all three of them. Insofar as the point of the story is control or the lack of it, the sociopath grows up without any brakes on his development. Except, for a while, he patterns his behaviour on the hero. No matter that he’s contemptuous, he understands this is the way to get ahead in the world. The irony is that, no matter how much he desires the girl, neither she nor anyone else will ever have any real power over him. He’s impervious to others, their emotions and beliefs. The hero is potentially worse than the sociopath, but so in love with the girl he allows himself to be controlled. In a sense, the whole novel is triggered when he throws off the memory of her influence. Unconsciously, he realises this was a mistake, and the remainder of the book is a grail quest for those key lost memories.

There are also some amusingly blasphemous passages so, if you are one of these literal Christian types and easily shocked or offended, this book is not for you unless you turn the relevant pages fast enough to avoid catching any of the disrespectful references to the Lord and support for Satan.

I have probably made this sound a complicated book. In fact, you need not worry about any of this. Hill’s writing sets off at a quick pace and then slowly accelerates, challenging you to keep up. It’s great fun and one of the most interesting horror books of the year. I unhesitatingly recommend it.

Horns was shortlisted for the 2010 Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel.

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Recovering Apollo 8 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

October 30, 2010 1 comment

I have been thinking about the word, “workmanlike”. Ignoring the built-in sexism, I take it to mean functional, not flashy or showy. Whatever the work, it will be highly competent and of a standard you would expect of an artisan. In theory, this ought to be complimentary, but I have the sense it is somewhat pejorative. As if you admired the craftsmanship, but thought a real artist could do better. The complexity of the meaning is all somehow wrapped up with all those “old” class prejudices. This person is in trade and therefore no more than upper working class or lower middle class. Whereas this is a professional and so may access the highest reaches of society. It’s somehow as much a judgement of the person as of the quality of the work and, in these modern times where meritocracy is supposedly the antidote to old skool snobbery, we should ignore these outdated overtones and give skill its due.

Why, you should ask, am I rambling on about “workmanlike”? The answer lies in the writing style on display in the collection Recovering Apollo 8 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch (published by Golden Gryphon). For the most part, these stories are told in a very direct and uncluttered way. The narrative is the most important feature. There’s no need for extravagant word choices or clever metaphors. The idea is to tell the story with the least affect (in the linguistic sense of the word).

I take this to be a virtue in short stories.

The lead story is one of two delving into alternate history territory. This time, we are asked to accept that Apollo 8 missed its firing point as it came around the back of the moon and took off on a long orbit into the “unknown”. I note an editorial in Asimov’s dealing with complaints about the story (see Editorial). It responds to a complaint from a reader which includes the following, “Suddenly, I must imagine a hero from my youth in a story where his major accomplishment is his untimely death. Why use such a macabre plot device. . .” This is an interestingly literal approach to the concept of fiction. It seems authors should not reimagine historical events involving real people because this may be upsetting to readers. Obviously it’s not defamatory to fictionalise someone’s “untimely death”. But should this debate stop in legalities. This particular moon shot happened in 1968 and, for the most part, people today struggle even to remember Armstrong as the first man on the moon in Apollo 11, let alone recall the crews of the other missions. Even though it was published in a magazine known for science fiction and now republished in a book of fictional stories, should there be a health warning at the beginning of this story in case the plot hook upsets people’s cherished memories? Or should there be a historical introduction reassuring young readers that the Apollo missions had a remarkable safety record given the technology of the time? Well, I think not. Would you want a warning at the beginning of a ghost story that there are no such things as ghosts? The purpose of fiction is to entertain. Whereas I recently read another alternate history story that bored me solid, this reads like an express train. We can all carp at the coincidences which subordinate reality to the need to make the story come out right at the end. But, overall, this is a good story in the older, pulpy style of SF.

“The Taste of Miracles” is a short short with a nicely turned idea, while “The Strangeness of the Day” represents a kind of fantasy romp in which Prince Charming survives into modern day in pursuit of his Sleeping Beauty. At this length, it’s hugely silly and great fun. I understand it was rewritten into a novel which, I suspect, might have been too much of a good thing. “Substitutions” is also a short journey into fantasy land with two of Death’s minions going about their daily work over Christmas. There’s something seriously wrong with the arithmetic underlying the plot. If it was necessary to have minions inducting people from our world into the afterlife, the death rate would require a small army of overworked minions running from one building to the next without time to draw breath. Nevertheless, we’re not supposed to think about practicalities and Rusch has a pleasing horror story to tell.

“G-Men” is the second alternate history story with J. Edgar Hoover dying a little earlier than history remembers. I remember reading this in one of Gardner Dozois’ Best SF anthologies and being very annoyed. I kept waiting for it to turn into SF and it never did. Back to my earlier debate: Heinlein suggested that science fiction was a form of realistic speculation, extrapolating from the present and imagining what will be. To my mind it therefore stretches the definition to have no sfnal elements at all in a story supposed one of the best SF of the year. It actually reads well as a mystery story and I have no problem with its inclusion in this collection. I still think Dozois should have had a warning notice before the story in his anthology.

“The End of the World” has us in the land well-mined by Zenna Henderson in The People stories and mirrored in the genetic manipulation/super race books where unaltered humans’ prejudice leads to unfortunate confrontation. This version of the old idea is as good as it gets, leaving an interesting plot point hanging which might justify expanding it into a novel. “June Sixteenth at Anna’s” is a sensitive story about loss and whether being able to peer back into the past actually helps deal with the present. “Craters” sits nicely on the border between SF and horror with terrorists able to convert children into bombs. The way the story is told gives us the chance to understand how we deal with the more unpleasant aspects of life around us. In a way, we have to ignore the worst of it to avoid becoming overly depressed — we have to care less. “Diving Into the Wreck” is the original basis of the novel of the same name (see a review here).

Overall, this is one of the better collections of the year so far. There’s a good variety of material and all are highly readable. Definitely worth picking up if you like efficient short story telling.

For reviews of other books by Ms Rusch, see:
Boneyards
City of Ruins
A Dangerous Road (writing as Kris Nelscott)
Diving into the Wreck
Duplicate Effort
Recovering Apollo 8

Directive 51 by John Barnes

October 28, 2010 1 comment

Let’s start with the title. This is a real-world directive to decide what is to happen to the government of the US should there be a “decapitation” of leaders. Under normal circumstances, the President would be succeeded by the Vice President. But if this succession proves impossible, there has to be a mechanism to decide who shall become the next President.

Part of the problem with this book is that it can’t seem to decide exactly what it’s about. It could be a political thriller in which we watch the various factions jockeying for positions to assume power. Except, although considerable wordage is devoted to discussing the options as the scenario develops, it’s all rather swamped by the devastation taking the world back into a new Dark Age where most modern technology will not work.

So what’s the primary narrative theme? Well, this being John Barnes, we are back in meme territory again. Those of you who know his work will remember Kaleidosope Century, Candle and The Sky So Big and Black in which AI entities invade human minds through the power of ideas. Well, Directive 51 is playing in the same kind of semiotics sandpit with a loose alliance of human malcontents infiltrated and subverted by idea pumpers. These vulnerable innocents are inducted into a kind of underground movement to wipe out technology and restore the simple life before the “big machine” took over. It’s a form of brainwashing that produces conformity of thought through a repetition and reinforcement of key ideas.

The book therefore starts with two different sets of personal stories. One set covers the “terrorists” as they seed the US with nano and biotechnology swarms designed to “eat” the plastics and chemicals essential to our modern lifestyles. The other set introduces those in Government who will be pivotal in trying to keep the US from falling too far into the abyss. Bridging between the two is the story of the Vice President who is kidnapped by a third group who are playing both sides. This being the first book in a planned trilogy, we do not yet know who this third group is, but they are obviously powerful and ruthless. Quite what motivates them is as yet unclear.

This third strand involving the VP is the best element in the first third of the book. It’s got good pace and tension, building to the eventual shooting down of the plane. The multiple POV elements showing the different methods of seeding and introducing the various “terrorists” is somewhat strange. It should be quite interesting to see into the minds of those bent on causing such massive destruction, but it’s actually self-defeating. All you see is what they do. There’s no sense of awareness that this is dangerous and could bring an end to civilisation as we know it. Put it down to their programming by the idea pumpers. They seem mildly amused, perhaps even a little aroused by their daring and the cleverness of what they are doing. This is not traditional local terrorist fodder where we observe the mindset of an ideologically driven group, intent on the destruction of their enemies. These people are remarkably passive in psychological terms for all their physical commitment to activity inevitably designed to kill millions. Equally, the Government characters are all a bit cardboardy. We have the usual suspects of dodgy politicians, high-minded civil servants and intelligent operatives. Frankly, it all moves slowly forward as the co-ordination of effort from the different terrorist elements produces the first step towards the end of things as we know them.

All of which brings me to a major problem. I was brought up on a diet of books describing worldwide catastrophe. It could be rising seas or disease. But once started, the end of the world meant just that. Given this is not simply an attack on the US (albeit we have the cod triumphalism at the end of this book when brave Americans face the future with confidence because America is great), dismissing the unfolding catastrophe in the rest of the world with a few well placed bomb blasts, seems unreasonably USA-centric. I can understand the US feels a bit victimised after terrorists crashed planes into buildings, but only seeing a world-ending disaster from the US perspective is carrying cultural imperialism a little too far. Worse, it’s a sanitised disaster. Billions die through starvation, in fires and during rioting, but none of this is shown. It’s all left unspoken, unacknowledged. As if Barnes can’t quite bring himself to describe so many Americans (and some foreigners) having to die.

And then we are all perky and getting ready for the renaissance. Except those pesky people start arguing about who should be the President and locking each other up, and then threatening a new Civil War. In all this, there’s no real sense of hardship. Even our terrorists settle into comfortable lifestyles. When did we get around to burying all the dead? Why were there no epidemics of cholera or any of the other diseases that inevitably follow a systemic breakdown in civilisation? Were there really enough tins of food around to keep everyone so well fed? I could go on posing questions, but all this would show is loss of life without a darker side. What we seem to have here is an author caught up in the desire to cull vast numbers of humans but, in the best traditions of a neutron bomb, leave the remainder a good place to live. A place in which they can look forward with hope.

I suppose this is what the blurb writers call a techno-thriller. Set a few years into the future with new technology for those who want some sfnal ideas. Bits of this book are excellent, but the overall feeling is one of great disappointment. Barnes is usually better than this rather turgid, catastrophe-by-the-numbers effort. I suppose I will have a look at the second instalment, apparently called Daybreak Zero, but it will be more out of a sense of duty than anticipation.

See here for a review of Daybreak Zero.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)

October 26, 2010 12 comments

In the written form of story-telling, you can shift the point of point to give a different perspective on the emerging narrative. This is more difficult in the cinema. That’s what makes The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest slightly different to the preceding two in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, but no less engrossing.

Some thirty years ago, a friend of mine did quite a lot of business in Sweden and I always remember him saying, “If you want anything done, you have to form a committee.” I don’t know whether the same decision-making philosophy applies today, but he described Swedish society as being co-operative in spirit with more people admitted to stakeholder roles.

The best way to think about this trilogy is to see it as two separate narrative arcs. The “girl” starts off defending her mother from an abusive father, ends up punished in a mental hospital, and then released on licence into a corrupt Guardianship system. The journalist has had an eventful life investigating the rich and famous, is the joint founder of a high-profile and respected journal, and continues his pursuit of justice.

This makes the trilogy all about pace and scale. In the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the journalist sets off in classical detective story format. From his point of view, we see the investigation develop. This is small-scale and limited by what he can find. Initially, his progress is slow until the girl makes it a team effort. Then the pace picks up as they begin to see beyond the immediate and glimpse the bigger picture. By the end of the film, we have some real insight into the journalist and observe the girl without being given enough information to understand her. This is reflected in the descriptive title to the film. This is “as she is”.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is a title in the past tense. We are immediately referred back to the original defensive act as the context for the current action. This switches the frame of the film from a genre-specific detective format to that of a psychological thriller where we begin to see why the girl has been victimised. This means we step back from the more intimate story between the journalist and the girl, and now see them as players in a bigger game.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is also a title in the past tense and a reference back to the same attack on her father, now given fresh impetus from her new attempt to kill him. The frame for the narrative is completely expanded to include the state. If there’s one basic truth about governments, it’s that one journalist cannot investigate and prosecute high-ranking civil servants or politicians. Only a state has the authority to look at itself and decide whether anything should be done. Although there’s a wonderful mythology surrounding Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s contribution to the downfall of President Nixon, there was a continuing investigation, initially FBI-based, looking for a link between the Watergate break-in and the re-election campaign committee. Our fictional journalist is no better than the real-world equivalents and can do nothing more than hitch his wagon to the Swedish Prime Minister’s task force. He stops being the “hero” in the Hollywood sense of the word, and becomes a cog in the machine. He joins the committee to get things done.

The girl has a different role to play. In a patriarchal society, there are penalties for attacking your father. It matters not whether this is in defence of your mother or yourself, you will be put on trial. Thus, the girl must be seen as the victim both personally, because she has been seriously injured, and legally, because the courts are to be used to lock her away again in “the” mental hospital. That’s why it’s such a pleasing touch when she asserts her individuality by dressing in high style for her court appearances. She will not be intimidated.

As a drama produced by Yellow Bird, this is a flat, ensemble piece with everyone pitching in to get a successful resolution. The other journalists at the Millennium find key information, the journalist’s sister is the girl’s lawyer. Even Plague gets a featuring moment or two in finally hacking the corrupt psychiatrist’s laptop. There are new players on the side of “right” and, of course, it must all be resolved with the girl released from custody.

The moment at the end between the journalist and the girl is touching and hits exactly the right note. In this concluding film, Noomi Rapace is a largely silent presence. It’s a nicely judged performance as she works her way back to health and then endures the trial. Michael Nyqvist continues as the dogged investigator although, as in the first film, he is forced to fight for his life. Yet again, he is saved by a woman. This is as it should be in a film about patriarchalism. A few words must be said about Anders Ahlbom as the venal and perverted psychiatrist and Lena Endre as the brave co-founder of Millennium and the journalist’s lover. In an ensemble film where everyone must work for the good of the team, they produced particularly clever performances. Ahlbom is the epitome of cunning, never overconfident and sufficiently aware to understand when it’s better to say nothing. Endre rises magnificently to the thankless role. She must be intimidated as the co-founder of Millennium and jealous of the girl who seems to be seducing her man away. It could have been the worst kind of hysteria, but it was muted and sensitive.

I have two reservations about the end-product. The first is that, with everyone spying on everyone else, it’s difficult at times to know which side we are seeing. The second is more serious. The Niedermann thread is completely wasted. He should have been caught at the end of the second film. In this episode, his only function is to interrupt the development of the major plot themes, surviving to allow the girl an opportunity to show she is back on form. In reality, all the post-trial excitement does is delay the meeting we want to see with the journalist. A more subtle way to demonstrate her recovery should have been found.

This is a must-see for anyone who enjoyed the first two. It’s genuinely engrossing and produces a highly satisfying resolution to the girl’s narrative arc with a senior agent of the Swedish government giving evidence for her in the trial. There’s no better way for a state to acknowledge its past mistakes. But, if you have not seen the first two, do not go and see this. You will be thoroughly confused.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

The Green Leopard Plague by Walter Jon Williams

October 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m a simple kinda guy. Except, of course, I’m not. But it’s fun to start off these reviews with something vaguely provocative, just to get everyone’s creative juices flowing. In a site headed, “Thinking about books” my approach to reading is “simple”. Eyes scan the letters, the brain engages and converts the letters into words, I attribute meaning to the words and we repeat until the end of the book. For me, the book should stand or fall on its own merits. It’s rather like going into a fine-dining restaurant and then being afraid to complain that the food tastes like shit because you heard the chef has the maximum number of Michelin stars. No matter what the reputation of the kitchen, you can go in on a Monday evening and find a sous chef asleep at the wheel.

So I’m starting off this review of The Green Leopard Plague, a collection by Walter Jon Williams (published by Night Shade Books), by talking about the third story, “The Last Ride of German Freddie”. When I was younger, I paid to see Gunfight at the OK Corral starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. This is my only source of knowledge about the events leading up to the notorious shootout. I therefore read this story with increasing bewilderment. Allowing for Hollywood being somewhat economical with the truth for the sake of dramatic effect, I had no recollection of Friedrich Nietzsche being involved. Worse, I have never read anything written by Nietzsche. For all I have dabbled with philosophy over the years, the notion of the Übermensch has never interested me enough to actually read about it. I was therefore somewhat irked upon arriving at the end of the story to discover that only those who can identify this as alternate history and know enough about Nietzsche’s writing to appreciate the pastiche, can appreciate the quality of this work. In my conception of reality, a story stands or falls on what is written and, to me, this is a boring reconstruction of events more than 130 years in an unreal past. Fiction is fiction, but it’s supposed to be entertaining or have some point that is obvious to all who read it. An author setting out to tell a story should not rely on the reader’s specialist knowledge to rescue what has been written.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, I can start again at the beginning of the book with the excellent “Daddy’s World”. This is a completely fascinating story about a child coming into self-awareness. In early years, there’s no conception of self. This only develops as a child begins to place him or herself in the environment and builds experience in affecting people and things. Identity is born when subjective power is grasped. The most pleasing aspect to this story is how power shifts between the father and son. As you might expect, a growing son can get a little rebellious but, sometimes, the father can reassert control. “Lethe” asks and answers some interesting questions about whether we benefit from being the sum of our life’s experiences. Early mistakes can colour lives with no chance of being able to recover. Unexpected loss and resulting grief are inconvenient, forcing us to adjust and change. So what would a society be like if death, for most practical purposes, was eliminated? Better still, suppose technology allowed you a fresh start. You could build a new body for yourself or you could edit your memories of the past and so sculpt a new emotional future for yourself. With such tools, we could eliminate suffering and live in a Hellish state of Nirvana. As a contrast, this idea of continuously redesigning your emotional life reaches a delightfully wry conclusion in “Millennium Party”.

I suppose the value of good science fiction is that it packages interesting ideas in a framework of adventure and wonder. We are bowled along by the drama and seduced by the cleverness of the concepts. In the best combinations, it’s only when we get to the end that we realise how the superficial led to the absorption of the profound. “The Green Leopard Plague” has a before-and-after structure where a future researcher is less than objective in assuming romance in the relationship of those responsible for releasing the plague. Continuing in the same universe as “Lethe”, we see how individuals lose their respect for life. In self-defence, we can kill others. In search of a better world, we may cause the death of millions. And once the economic and social ramifications of the original plague have been woven into the new social reality, even the idea of murder loses its horror. It’s simply an inconvenience to kill one body when another can be so easily constructed and a back-up of the mind of the deceased reloaded. A few days or weeks may be lost, but the victim can essentially be the same as before. Leading up to this, we have a fun romp called “The Tang Dynasty Underwater Pyramid” where the technologists are enabling the release of yet more of their experimental doodads. This time, the ship carrying the McGuffin sinks and the recovery team has to use its initiative to recover it. Except their competitors cut corners and sea water does the rest. This is easily the most enjoyable of the stories, closely followed by “Send Them Flowers” which is what you would politely call a romp.

This leaves us with two rather more serious YA stories which rehash the ideas of children growing up in virtual environments and being able to rebuild bodies to order. I thought “Incarnation Day” a good version of the “Daddy’s World” idea, but it took too long to arrive at the more interesting legal ramifications of the substitution. Finally, although a tighter piece of writing, “Pinocchio” didn’t have the most engaging lead character. It’s always difficult when fame attaches to someone young. For a while you can go with the flow but, sooner or later, you have to show actual talent to survive.

Overall, this is a book that both entertains and provokes thought — a slightly unusual combination in a world more attuned to superficialities.

For reviews of other books by Walter Jon Williams, see This Is Not A Game, The Fourth Wall and Deep State.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)

October 20, 2010 3 comments

There’s a delicious moment when I now start thinking about the old “coals to Newcastle” idiom. As a denizen of the named city, I tip my hat to the wiseacres who caught the irony of trade cycles. Indirectly, they were talking about me. I grew up surrounded by coal mines, with pit-head winding gear and spoil-heaps dotting the landscape, but never really thought about the product. I just accepted half my local community worked in the shipyards, and the other half emerged blackened and blinking into the light when the shifts ended. One of these days, I will go back, but it will be in sadness. The shipyards are mostly gone, redeveloped for housing. The pits have been closed for decades — Newcastle really does import its coal these days.

Back in the 1960s, I remember discovering Robert Van Gulik’s stories about Judge Dee. This was one of the early efforts at locating the traditional Golden Age detective story in a different era. In this case, he borrowed from an original Chinese source to locate an investigating magistrate in seventh century China. Based on the real-world character Di Renji, Van Gulik produced a series of stories, rather wooden by modern standards, in which our hero solves crimes and punishes the guilty.

Now we fast-forward to modern times with a film made in China by a Hong Kong director featuring the same “Detective” Dee. Set in about 690 AD, our hero is recalled to investigate two deaths which threaten to interfere with the imminent ascension to the Imperial throne of Wu Zetian. She has been acting as Regent and now assumes the right to become Empress. This completes the circle with a Chinese hero reclaimed from the West and now glorified in film by director Tsui Hark.

As a film about a famous detective, the script had better deliver a good mystery for him to solve. That’s why we pay the price of admission. On this criterion, I’m pleased to report the core puzzle is well constructed. Despite being overlaid with the obvious implausibility of supernatural and fantasy elements, the practicality of the who, the how and the why are elegantly conceived. As is always the case, the pool of suspects is whittled down, and we are soon left with only one real prospect for the villain, but there’s a coherence, if not always logic, to the investigation.

Deng Chao, Li Bingbing, Tsui Hark, Carina Lau and Andy Lau at the 67th Venice Film Festival

I also got what I wanted in Andy Lau’s portrayal of Detective Dee. He’s quietly determined and represents the best traditions of the analytical detective by thinking his way through to the solution of the problems. In this historical context, he’s a political realist and obsessional in his drive to arrive at what he considers the best outcome for the country. Naturally, when thinking fails, he can fight as well. In this, I forgive the supernatural power of his mace of office. Every martial arts expert must have a magic weapon of some kind, and this is understated while remaining highly effective. As to the rest of the primary players, Chao Deng is wonderful as the albino investigator, blending undoubted intelligence and some political guile with a genuinely creepy air of ruthlessness, being prepared to torture a key witness to the first death played by Tony Leung Ka Fai. Bingbing Li is nicely caught in the middle of the continuing conflict between Dee and the woman waiting to be Empress. While Carina Lau shows enough vulnerability as the aspirant Empress to be all-too-convincing. She is only doing what is necessary for the long-term prosperity of the Empire.

At its heart, this is a superb piece of film-making with the first forty-five minutes representing the highest possible standards in every respect. It’s a wonderful balance between a possible supernatural threat set in an environment that is a highly original metaphor for the Tang Empire. There’s a semi-rational explanation for the manner of the deaths — a form of internal combustion induced by phosphorus from an unlikely source — and we are used to the excesses of physical performance achievable by kung fu exponents. All this creates a rich texture for the story-telling. As a setting, the dominant statue of the Empress-to-be, rising in the forefront of the port and overlooking the palace, is a striking image. It’s a form of deification, recognising the transformation of a mere Regent into the Empress with absolute authority. The price paid by a woman fighting her way to the top of the political heap, has been many bodies. Everyone in the way is expendable. It’s therefore not surprising that, as the sun rises and sets, her shadow should fall across the capital city and the court where her political rivals plot her downfall.

But when we get into the second half of the film, the fantasy starts to get in the way. We have an unnecessary kung fu skill of disguise but, far more significantly, the fighting loses its focus when we go down into the Phantom Market and beyond.

Sammo Hung was responsible for the fight choreography which, in the early sequences is very good, as you would expect from an artist with vast experience on both sides of the camera. But it’s when we come to the extended wire work that things somewhat fall apart. There comes a point when people swinging from one side of a set to another becomes rather silly and, unfortunately, this point is reached in this film. In an attempt to cover up the strangeness of the emerging sequences, the scenes are cut togeher in an incoherent way. We are not allowed to watch an emerging battle of skillful martial artists. We simply see people vaguely interacting and possibly chasing each other, but the overall effect in the second half is immensely disappointing. In this, I put the blame squarely on Tsui Hark’s shoulders. What was spectacular in the innocent days of Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, has become overstylised and pretentious to modern audiences as the technical side of special effects and stunt work has developed. It’s clear many sequences are included simply because they can now be shot without looking too amateurish. This is hasty and overambitious. A creative mind wanting to push forward, but not prepared to wait for technology to catch up.

Although the end achieves a kind a steampunk magnificence and, to some extent, rescues the overegged fighting and chase sequences between Dee and the villain, I was left feeling somewhat disappointed. The story is good. The cast are all excellent. What a shame the essential element of kung fu fails to deliver. Nevertheless, it’s worth seeing. Whatever its failings in the second half, the director’s intention and over-the-top style are engaging even though flawed. It’s not in his nature to be comfortable with greater realism in the fighting. A shame really. A little more conservatism would have transformed a merely good film into an excellent film.

 

Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)

 

Harbinger by Jack Skillingstead

October 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Thinking back over my life, I am conscious of the fact that I always seemed to miss out on the big picture, whatever it happened to be at the time. I lived contentedly through the 1950s, and learned ballroom dancing rather than going into the wild world of rock-and-roll. The 1960s may have been a drug-soaked venture into the unknown for many Hippies but, apart from alcohol and tobacco, I was never interested in stimulants. Then there was this New Age thing. No-one in my circle of acquaintance gave a hoot. In short, I never tuned into whatever the rest of the world was doing and just got on with my own stuff.

Yet, with Harbinger by Jack Skillingstead (published by Fairwood Press), I find myself having to question what the New Age movement was aiming for. In a sneaky kind of postmodernist way, Skillingstead seems to have woven a story out of threads drawn from what I imagine the spiritual movement was all about. In my mind, it’s one of these holistic concepts where, to put it in a nutshell, everything is simultaneous. Or, if that’s too strong a word, there’s a universal oneness. Having written that, I find myself rather disgusted by the word “oneness”. Monism may have a similar meaning and is a respectable concept but, somehow, my mind balks at the bluntness of the idea that a number can have any kind of transcendent significance. In this, I blame the Wachowski brothers who seem to have ripped One out of its usual meaning and bent it into a new shape, more suitable for their cod metaphysics.

But, back to Harbinger. We could have had a rerun of the mind-expanded, drug-fueled counterculture literature of the 1950s where Kerouac, Burroughs, et al experimented with and validated nonconformism. And there are signs Jack Skillingstead recognises the drive felt by many people to escape the security of suburban life and to become a part of a movement encouraging society to evolve into a better version of itself. In this, he avoids the heat of the rebellion that ran through the late 1950s and early 1960s. The power of conservatism was much stronger then as my choice of ballroom dancing suggests. In the New Age, the “revolutionaries” felt they were pushing on a more open door. They believed soft power could see them through. Except, of course, like any organism, society evolves more slowly than many expect. Society is an autopoiesis, organising itself and growing at its own pace. So what would it take to accelerate this process of growth?

Jack Skillingstead now has us consider what would happen to our inherently conservative world if there was incontrovertible evidence of something impossible. This goes beyond mere faith. There would be verifiable proof of an anomaly — something that should not exist. This, he asserts, would be a harbinger, a sign of things to come. This, he would have us believe, would open the mind of the world to new possibilities and encourage the process of change. Indeed, if the harbinger was sufficiently dramatic, it might encourage a paradigm shift in our belief system about what is possible.

The book develops out of the concerns demonstrated in Jack Skillingstead’s excellent collection, Are You There, capturing the uncertainty of those who might be on the verge of evolving and gaining new abilities. More importantly, it takes “Transplant” to heart, providing a context for the story. It’s always interesting to see how an author first captures ideas in short stories and then builds a novel around them. In this, we have a seamless transition with the result a pleasing journey through the mind of a person cut off from the world in which he lives.

Think of this isolation as being an act of self-defence. Once you were forced to accept you could not die of natural causes, how could you face making any permanent relationships if those you loved were going to die? This retreat would be more complete if you were also having problems with grief, having lost your mother and older brother in a car accident. You would build a wall around your emotions and never want to let them out. Once inside this prison, you would crave blindness, both physical and emotional. Indeed, allowing your body to be harvested for spare parts would be a form of self-punishment. You never asked for this regenerative power. You cannot deny it. But you can stop living for yourself. Except. . . Except, of course, circumstances change and there may come a time when you see you should trust yourself to handle the potential pain of accepting yourself and others.

I think the metaphorical bus episode goes on slightly too long at the end. I can understand the hero’s need to travel through the landscape of the past to get where he needs to go. It’s a necessary part of bringing the grieving process to an end. But we could achieve the same effect of forgiveness in fewer words. Nevertheless, overall, this is a very satisfying first novel and well worth the price of admission.

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