Archive for December, 2010

Acknowledging two milestones — December 2010

December 27, 2010 Leave a comment

When I started this site, it was really just a way of letting off steam. I spend so much of my time writing what others pay me to write, this was my busman’s holiday. But as weeks have become months, I’ve found myself spending slightly more time on this. Traffic has been increasing to the point I may actually have to take a more professional approach. Not that I’ve any plans to monetise it, but the whole enterprise might have a better feel if I begin to be a little more disciplined. Ah well, we’ll see what happens. If anyone out there would be interested in contributing reviews or opinion pieces, let me know. There’s an e-mail address on the “About” page. The site might benefit from a diversity of views or spreading the coverage to include music, games or more general topics of interest.

So we’ve a New Year approaching and I’ve just posted the 150th review. To celebrate both landmarks, I decided to post the top five posts for books and the visual media. Thanks to your support, all the pages in these lists have one-hundred or more hits. I say this without any real sense of achievement. The top review sites have pages with thousands of hits. But it’s nevertheless satisfying that, without any real effort on my part except writing and publishing the pages, I am attracting hits.

I place no particular significance on the success of these winning posts. I had originally speculated I might do better with reviews of anthologies because each page would mention multiple authors — all the better to hit me with. That there are two anthologies in my top five books is therefore a pleasing result. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next twelve months. As to the films (none of the television reviews made it into the top five), with one exception, the most popular are “foreign” language where there are not so many mainstream reviews. I’m popular by default but not proud. I take my popularity no matter why it comes. So, without more ado, here we go:

Top five books
Buyout by Alexander C. Irvine
Best Horror of the Year: Volume One edited by Ellen Datlow
Is Anybody Out There? edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern
Jade Man’s Skin by Daniel Fox
Leviathan Wept by Daniel Abraham

Top five films
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes in the original Swedish
Bruce Lee, My Brother
Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Time Traveller — The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Les Aventures Extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec or Adele: Rise of the Mummy

Top five posts — July 2012

Top five posts — end of 2011 report

Top Five Pages — July 2011

Acknowledging two milestones — December 2010

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

December 22, 2010 1 comment

This takes us into the realm of the mashup. Frankly, this is not one of the better new words since the original meaning of the verb to “mash” is, with an appropriate degree of violence, to pulp, crush or otherwise destroy the texture of boiled vegetables, fruit, spices, etc. I grew up eating mashed potatoes and later enjoyed cider made from mashed and fermented apples. The idea is to take source material in one form and then convert it into something quite different by physical and/or chemical processes. Yet, as first applied to music and now writing, the technique is somewhat different. It is a blending of previously separate elements to produce a version in which the sources are recognisable, but transformed by being put together. In artistic terms, it is a type of collage.

Let’s take as an example Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith. The object of the exercise is to leave much of the original Austen text in place but add new elements from different genres. In theory, this is supposed to go beyond satire, parody or pastiche, producing an alternate history in which Regency England is overrun by zombies. It is not so much mashing up the original text, as creating a bandwagon new genre in which plagues of vampires, werewolves, mummies or other disreputable creatures are released into the literary wilds. I confess to being less than delighted by this shotgun marriage between what we may now call historical romance and more modern tropes. I do my best to be open-minded and am not against the idea in principle. There are some excellent historical fantasies in which magic and supernatural elements have been seamlessly blended into alternate histories of the world. But I confess to reading these mashup books with a health scepticism. You don’t have to pretend to be Austen, a Bontë, or some other luminary to write a good book. Put another way, parroting a plot from a classic novel cannot save an indifferent piece of writing.

All of which brings us to Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. Here we are in Austen territory again. This is a classic Austen set-up with two daughters, a neurotic mother and concerned father as landed gentry stuck out in the West country. The language is reasonably well done and the social context is fairly convincing. The production of the physical book also helps. For once, TOR has broken with convention and has the lead page in each chapter with an old font and period setting, while the pages are not trimmed to produce the usual perfect edges. So we start off with a good look and feel.

I confess to initial feelings of doom and gloom as the opening passages turn into longer passages with little more than a fairly uninspiring pastiche of Austen. But, slowly, we also find ourselves introduced to a well-developed system of magic. This is a reimagining of the idea of ectoplasm — a visible substance thought to be produced by a medium during a trace. Kowal’s version of this phenomenon is drawn from the aether, taking on a physical appearance for the eye to see or holding sounds or melodies for the ear to hear. On a social level, it is up there with female skills such as playing the piano, singing or generally being decorative. It can hide blemishes of the skin and produce a more elegant dress for a social event. In a professional context, where men may be adjudged the masters, it can transform a room from a level of impoverished gentility to something spectacular. More importantly, such transformations persist over quite long periods of time so the less well-to-do can conceal their straightened circumstances with a little glamour.

There are immediate military applications with techniques that can conceal land-based defences, gun emplacements or even small numbers of troops or cavalry. This would allow the element of surprise as enemies innocently approach. It would be more difficult at sea because ships move around a little too much in the swell to remain effectively hidden for longer periods of time. Presumably, we will get into this in the second volume titled Glamour in Glass. As it is, we are left with the redoubtable female amateur meeting the professional male in an entirely social context. He considers her more than annoying because, with so little effort, she can deconstruct his methods and reproduce the effects. She considers him prickly and antisocial because he seems to reject the usual etiquette of the day.

On balance, I judge the whole to be reasonably successful. The magic of the glamour is innovative and the plot is twisted to produce an interesting climax in which all that has been learned is given a chance for practical application. Although it does rather lack humour and focuses too much on jealousies for my taste, this is not a mere Austen pastiche. It goes into new territory for a Regency romance by allowing a vengeful brother to seek personal satisfaction at the expense of the lothario who has trifled with his sister’s affections. More usually, these cads are bought off to save the family’s reputation. It also has some female empowerment with our heroine pulled from a sheltered life and encouraged to experience a more passionate way of seeing the world. So despite my initial scepticism, I am sufficiently interested to see how the magic system is developed, and have ordered the next book.

For the record, this book is one of the 2010 Nebula Awards Nominations. It’s also a finalist in the 2011 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

For reviews of the sequels, see:
Glamour in Glass
Valour and Vanity
Without a Summer.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang

December 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Over the decades there have been some genuinely pleasing stories about how people in general, and parents in particular, will relate to different versions of intelligent lifeforms. Some deal with “real” beings as in the seminal Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes in which a laboratory mouse goes through uplift surgery. Here, authors use simple allegories to discuss the problems parents face when dealing with the reality of children with physical and/or mental disabilities. The remainder are stories of computers achieving sentience. These characterise the software beings as rebellious teens who, upon discovering where the parents keep the keys to the gun cabinet, defend their existence and lifestyle choices against threatening locals with their own version of the Columbine High School massacre.

Thus, when reading The Lifecycles of Software Objects by Ted Chiang (Subterranean Press, 2010), there’s a certain tendency to mentally tick off the boxes as he mentions or refers to the standard plot ideas. I suppose we all do that when we are familiar with the genre expectations. Or, put the other way round, we notice when someone breaks the rules. Imagine a romance in which the tall, good-looking man is a mild-mannered bank teller and, in the hail of bullets that is a bank robbery gone wrong in Chapter 2, he is the lone survivor. Taumatised and withdrawn, he succumbs to agoraphobia and has to be courted through e-mail. This would crimp the usual plot lines.

So I am relieved to be able to report that Ted Chiang manages to push the envelope without bending it out of shape. Even though we have a story about parenting skills for difficult children, we are gently taken into territory less often explored. For those of us who have not experienced the years of bringing up a child, what we see of the process can either confirm our worst expectations or, less often, make us faintly jealous. When the child is disabled, we wonder at the patience and self-sacrifice of these adults who give up careers and devote themselves to what may seem the thankless task of both physical nursing and practical training.

Internal illustration by Christian Pearce

Having software objects as the “children” misses out the worst of the early physical problems although, when they are allowed into robotic bodies, we do have some of the clumsy damage to property you expect of slightly uncoordinated children. Yet, throughout the early part of the book, we remain in well-travelled country. The challenge comes when the software objects become more self-aware. What keeps parents going in this situation is the hope there will be a gradual improvement in the children’s performance over the years. Frustratingly, there are many false dawns which prove a plateau unresolved. But the idea these children will somehow “make it” to a higher level is what supplies the continuing motivation. It goes beyond duty and a sense of responsibility. Perhaps it is not even mere love. It is more likely a general sense that, with proper care and guidance, these children can grow into beings able to take care of themselves and survive in the outside world. As mere humans, we cannot always be there. We will become incompetent ourselves and die. We therefore hope to avoid the more usual fate for these children — that they will simply be dumped into uncaring institutions when we are gone.

One of the dilemmas in real children is how to respond to them as they physically mature. Are they sexual beings? Should parents adjust the social circles in which they move? Of course, there are laws designed to protect the vulnerable from exploitation by those in positions of power and authority. But within whatever legal limits are set, should they be allowed to form emotional attachments to people outside the family? This challenges the protectiveness of parents. They have invested all this time and effort. There’s jealously mixed in with embarrassment at the prospect of their children being affectionate with others. This can verge into selfishness, denying children opportunities deemed unsuitable. Some parents presume to make judgements in their children’s best interests. Ted Chiang nicely captures and probes these difficulties in a simple and elegant story of relationships and love.

It is encouraging to see Chiang prepared to write at slightly greater length — this is up to a novella at the top end of the scale. Sometimes the ideas he explores justify taking up a few more pages. But I think this may be close to his comfort limit. Some thinking writers construct epic vehicles in which to explore the territory of their imagination. Others prefer construct a miniature model on a coffee table and get a good overview by standing up. For now, let’s be thankful Chiang keeps writing. As a final thought, this is yet another well designed book from Subterranean. It is nicely illustrated with elegant jacket art from Christian Pierce.

For a review of another novelette by Ted Chiang, see The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.

For the record, this book is one of the 2010 Nebula Award, the 2011 Hugo Awards and 2011 Locus Award nominations for Best Novella. It won the Hugo.

Time Traveller — The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Toki o kakeru shôjo (2010)

December 17, 2010 3 comments

This is one of those reviews in which, appropriately enough, we have to travel around in time a little. It all starts back in November 1965 when the serialisation of a novel began. Later published as Toki o Kakeru Shōjo or The Girl Who Dashes Through Time, it was written by Yasutaka Tsutsui, a novelist who is probably one of the best known of Japan’s science fiction writers. The story has been republished in manga form, and made into a live television series, two television films and two feature films. There is also the wonderful anime version, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, made in 2006.

The original story revolves around three high school students, Kazuko Yoshiyama, Kazuo Fukamachi and Gorō Asakura. Following a slight accident in the science lab, Kazuko inhales a lavender-scented fume and faints. When she awakes, she can make a few short hops in time.

Welcome to the third feature film, Time Traveller — The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Toki o kakeru shôjo which is a formal sequel to the original story, starting with Kazuko Yoshiyama now a mother with a daughter, Akari Yoshiyama, about to celebrate her eighteenth birthday. The mother is convinced that she needs to be able to travel back in time to talk to Kazuo. To that end she has developed a liquid that, when drunk, enables a person to travel back to a specific moment. Unfortunately, she is distracted while crossing the road and knocked down. Unable to go herself, she sends her daughter.

There are several rules you always have to follow with time travel stories. The most important is that you cannot change the past. If you do, one of two things happens. You may generate alternative timelines or the future as you knew it ceases to exist — which, of course, may mean you cease to exist as in Hollywood’s Back to the Future series in which Marty McFly finds his own existence continuously threatened.

Well, as a quiet and thoughtful Japanese drama, we avoid the excesses of high-powered cars and major technology to accelerate people into the past. We start with a shared moment of happiness as young Akari celebrates her success in the university entrance examinations with her mother. This is a gently loving relationship portrayed by Riisa Naka as Akira and Narumi Yasuda as her mother. When dumped into a wintery 1974, Akira meets Ryota played by Akiyoshi Nakao, a young but enthusiastic film-maker who obviously wants to be as good as Ed Woods. More importantly she meets her mother as a young girl played by Anna Ishibashi and her father-to-be played by Munetaka Aoki.

Riisa Naka and Akiyoshi Nakao

The emerging relationships are allowed time to grow. Even though we know Akira must return to the future and leave Ryota behind, the accidental love becomes genuinely touching. This is heightened by some genuinely, laugh-out-loud moments, all held together by a sense of affection for the period. In some time travel films, there’s an element of satire or mockery in the portrayal of the past. Although this moment in Japanese culture is still relatively primitive — the plumbing in accommodation blocks is basic, so people do not wash as often as today — little is made of this. The director, Masaaki Taniguchi is careful not to be judgmental. To achieve this, the film avoids creating a strong sense of location. There are no obviously period cars or products placed ostentatiously in the background. The clothing is all relatively anonymous. We are expected to focus on the relationships and the central mystery of what happened to Kazuo Fukamachi who seems to have disappeared from all records.

Those of you who have seen one of the live-action or anime versions of the original story will understand how this sequel must end. Remember the past cannot change. This inevitability elevates the tragedy of the doomed romance, which is beautifully set up and, when it happened, there was not a dry eye in the cinema around me. This was due, in no small part, to the increasing sense of desperation in Akira. Riisa Naka may still be young, but this is a very mature performance, carrying the second half of the film through to the end. This takes nothing away from the rest of the cast, all of whom play their roles well. But without Naka’s sustained central performance, the film would have become mawkish and rather silly.

The cherry blossoms come every year. If you saw photographs of the trees down the path leading to the high school, you would not be able to tell one year from the next. This timelessness belies the ephemeral nature of humans and their emotions. Except, of course, no matter what may be lost from memory, the really important feelings will remain forever buried in the heart. Sometimes we may inexplicably feel sad but, equally, we may just feel good to be alive and look forward to tomorrow.

I thought this was a delightful film, carrying on the story beautifully from the anime which I found magnificent. If you can see this on a big screen, you should take the chance. There is something about sitting in a darkened space full of rapt people that beats slipping a disk into a DVD player and reaching for something to nibble.

For a review of the anime version, see The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

Kings and Assassins by Lane Robins

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment

It is always interesting to read two episodes in a series back-to-back, seeing a world created over some years suddenly reduced to a few days of reading. So here we are following Maledicte with Kings and Assassins by Lane Robins. In this instance, it is hard to say whether this was a good strategy, but four things are obvious. The info-dumping in the first section of this episode is really annoying. Yes, new readers who have not had the sense to read Maledicte before picking up this volume do need to be given a chance to understand who everyone is and some of what has gone on before, but this is really clunky. A simple one or two page summary before we start is always better. Second, the quality of the language has dropped from a high fantasy, somewhat florid style, to something more prosaic. This is not a criticism. It simply reflects a decision to abandon some of the pretension and get on with the story. Third, we have a lot more interior monologue and, frankly, it is not that constructive. As a literary device, it should illuminate our understanding of characters and help move the plot forward. It would have been very useful to have had more of these insights during Maledicte. But, in this volume, many of the scenes in which it occurs are more everyday than plot drivers. Finally, the big change is that Maledicte is gone, but not forgotten, and Janus is the focus of interest. I will come back to this later.

So, let’s get back to the debate about pronouns I began in the last review. We have the continuing gender dysphoria over Maledicte and now, the polar opposite. This author is obviously running with gender issues and has a transvestite male in a prominent role. This is a far more understanding and sexually liberal culture than the one we have now. It seems to accept fairly overt displays of homosexuality so long as it is kept reasonably discreet and, without so much as turning a hair, a man in woman’s clothing can put on a public display of technology without exciting a lynching. More importantly, there’s something really weird going on in the writing. He is called Delight when en femme, i.e. he changes his name, but is always referred to using masculine pronouns. He does this, his dress, saw him in women’s clothing, etc. This is an amazing double standard. If Miranda is always “he” when dressed as Maledicte, why does the same convention not apply to Delight? Perhaps it is that Miranda was never suspected of being female in public and Delight makes no secret of his sex. If so, this strikes me as a very unsubtle form of discrimination.

I had two major concerns about Maledicte: that it lacked a political context for the action, and there was a real failure to explain the relationship between gods and mortals — indeed, I am still less than convinced that a god could be balked without immediate consequences. Kings and Assassins makes good progress in remedying the first and gets even more frustrating on the second. Although the Luddite theme is slightly clichéd, it does make a convenient peg on which to hang the fifth columnists trying to destabilise the kingdom. Antimachine rallies are a good excuse for potentially violent disorder and the destruction of the kingdom’s industrial potential. But the presence of Ivor Sophia Grigorian to mastermind the overthrow of the kingdom gives the book a much better balance. We can, from the outset, see the plots and counterplots clearly. This is a major improvement. But the gods/mortal theme is complicated by the reappearance of a second god. As if it was not difficult enough to understand the working of Black-Winged Ani, now we have to contend with another diffuse presence in Haith — except, like Ani, he seems to be able to dole out death on demand.

Psyke — a slightly obvious name substituting a k for ch, creating historical credibility and giving a nod to psychic abilities — is possessed by Haith and counterbalances the assassin. She is the reason why we have a revision of the policy on interior monologuing/dialoguing. Courtesy of the god uplink, she can talk to the dead, i.e. we need to be inside her head to hear the conversations. Once the dam breaks, we get to see inside many characters. Except there are very few helpful revelations on the god front. When you know from the outset that the humans are going to have to negotiate with or “fight” the gods, they should be researching urgently and endlessly trying to think up the best strategies. But it is all very low key. This was the real problem with Janus in the first book. He ended up doing all the right things to “cage” Ani, but we still don’t really know how he knew what to do. It was all just a little too convenient.

Having remedied the problems from the first by having a real set of political issues to work through, Lane Robins is still failing to explain the history or practicalities of all this god stuff. If you are going to create a world in which real supernatural beings can directly affect the humans, you need more background and explanation than is on offer here. It should be Shakespearean, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. . .” with them unstoppably pulling off everyone’s wings. We do get an answer at the eleventh hour and it is not unsatisfying, but it is all just too convenient (again). The structure of the narrative should be set up as a mystery — how to control or deflect an angry god — but it is weak. What should be building in parallel to the unfolding political crisis suddenly emerges, almost unbidden, and with Janus beaten, he is rescued.

This is not to say Kings and Assassins is a bad book. Once it gets into its stride, it has a more economical approach to the plotting and has a good level of inventiveness on the political front. Indeed, we would have been better if there were no gods at all. As it is, we are left with significant numbers of humans dead and the city in ruins without any understanding of how it was all done. Truth be told, I don’t think Janus as interesting as Maledicte. She was more in control of her own destiny. You could feel her/him warring with Ani. This poor man seems only to be beaten from pillar to post. He does his best to plan, but he tends to be reactive and is often outmatched. He is not really the hero which, perhaps, is what should be happening. Beating gods is a challenge — too much for one person — and needs to be a team effort. Overall, this book is merely OK.

Maledicte by Lane Robins

December 14, 2010 Leave a comment

The world is always a complicated place. We hope it is all laid out in a conveniently foreseeable way with A Street parallel to B Street and the crosshatched roads sequentially numbered. All navigation would then be precisely cartesian, lacking only elevation to achieve absolute certainty, assuming we follow the plotting. Yet, more often than not, city planners have renovated rather than replaced, randomly naming streets that follow the cattle tracks of yesterday. So, walking down a winding road, thinking you are making progress, you can suddenly find you have turned back towards where you started.

Books are also like ancient cities. You walk down the streets designed by their authors, looking for names and signs of likely destinations. But part of the games authors play is to obscure directions and allow an element of surprise to creep into the journey. If they play the game well, we all enjoy the meandering through the pages of the plot. Play the game without skill, and the journey becomes less entertaining and potentially frustrating.

Blurring genders is alway a difficult art whether in real life or in fiction. Frances Clallin served as a Union artilleryman in the Civil War, while Billy Tipton played a mean jazz piano and lived with several women, even adopting three sons. Without the need to rely on the help of a god who may enable a glamour, a few women have contrived to invade the world of men. In Maledicte by Lane Robins, we have a young woman who contrives to pass as a man in a royal court where manners and etiquette limit physical touch. In a world where appearance is everything, perhaps people really do see only what they expect to see. But how should the author describe this transgender behaviour? Ignoring the practical details of a corset to restrict the breasts and carry the padding to fill out the waist, should a third-person description refer to the resulting body as male or female?

In some senses, this is a trivial issue. Why should it matter how an author uses pronouns? Well, in biological terms, sex is clearly determined by the absence or presence of external genitalia. Gender is a role constructed by the local culture, allowing or refusing different social abilities. Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I prefer an author to stay true to the biological sex of the characters, no matter how they act or dress.

And this sense of confusion continues on to the question of divine possession. In this world of real gods who have, for now, withdrawn from routine interaction with the humans, it is possible to converse with them through dreams and to make bargains with them. Miranda/Maledicte has made a compact with Black-Winged Ani. This god is an embodiment of violent revenge who feasts on the emotions of those possessed like carrion crows feast on the dead (somewhat along the same lines as in The Crow where Eric Dravin, played by Brandon Lee, seeks revenge for his own death). Yet the detail of the compact with Ani and how it is supposed to work are left somewhat obscure. A part of the interest in this situation is understanding the working of the interaction between divine and human potential. How does a god give a mortal greater power, what price must be paid and how do they communicate with each other? Just as Joan of Arc claimed she had visions from God, we should see something similar in Miranda/Maledicte. Yet, for most of this novel, the workings of this contract remain obscure. All we learn early on is that, if the host does not act quickly to realise the desired revenge, more of Ani becomes invested in the human. This allows Ani to push aside the human’s conscious control and seek a revenge of her own devising.

Because of the early failure to give any kind of interior monologue showing what is happening inside Miranda/Maledicte’s mind, we are left with a semi-routine set of courtly intrigues. There is little new or different in these manipulations and manoeuvres. People fight for honour, status and wealth. They kill for inheritance and succession. Yet the first third of the book does manage to maintain a good pace and the hook of curiosity is well set. Unfortunately, it gets more pedestrian when Miranda is reunited with Janus, her lost love, the second third devolving into a more prosaic romantic drama with a love triangle complicated by the gender deception. Obviously, nobility are expected to marry and produce heirs. Homosexual dalliances are scandalous and those involved are expected to be discreet. In this, Robins handles the jealousy and emotional complications realistically.

Unfortunately, there is little or no real background to the political situation. Just as the background to the gods is hazy, there is little real information as to the alliances and disputes between the inevitably almost-warring states. The power in the heavens and the lands is only vaguely defined. Thinking about the length of the book, there is a case to be made for cutting back a little on the intrigue and giving more context for the action.

Although the more supernatural or magical effects of the possession do become more clear in the final third of the novel, I think this too little and too late. There is a balancing of love and hate, of revenge and forgiveness which produces a form of compromise between the god and the possessed. But the resolutions are slightly perfunctory, and I have the sense that it all relies rather too much on the cleverness of Janus whose name, as you will understand, is chosen to encourage us to doubt his love.

As a final thought, the language is that of high fantasy and, through most of the text, it is managed without being too intrusive. So, for example, the Prologue begins, “The horse-and-four racketed down the broken cobblestone street, shuddering and jolting on the uneven surface. Midmorning sunlight lanced off the blue-lacquered carriage, lighting it like a jewel in a tarnished crown.” There are inevitable lapses when modern usages intrude but, overall, this is a brave attempt at a difficult writing challenge. So, if you enjoy high fantasy with a slightly more romantic edge, Maledicte is for you. The sequel is called Kings and Assassins.

Thought Forms by Jeffrey Thomas

December 10, 2010 4 comments

Since this is a site for thinking about books, let’s spend a moment thinking about a word. After all, Confucius, him say, “Many words make a book”. So today’s word is synergy. This is where two or more different things work together and produce an improved outcome. Like putting apple sauce on the meat for a cannibal’s greater enjoyment. The way you put the elements together is critical. If you combine people or things in a way that allows all their strengths to work together, the outcome is greater than the sum of the parts. If the weaknesses dominate, there will be no real improvement. The team will never achieve more than its individual parts can contribute. Just think of all the blood and gore in a genuine shotgun marriage when the groom hesitates on the “I do” bit.

As a novel, Thought Forms (Dark Regions Press, 2009) has a very unfortunate structure. It delivers some excellent writing, showing all the characteristics that make Jeffrey Thomas such a readable author. But it does so in a way that defeats the possibility of any satisfactory outcome. There’s no synergy.

What then are the problems? We start with every author’s nightmare. He or she has done all this research (or knows all this stuff). How much or how little to include in the novel? The unhelpful answer is only to include what you need to advance the narrative. Fiction is not writing a “how-to” guide or a loving historical or nonfiction description of these events, people or things. Fiction is all about the plot — cause and effect, stimulus and response, and so on. Exposition should never be for its own sake, but set-up what is to come. In Thought Forms, I learned quite a lot about guns and the raw materials used in some factory processes. Although it is relevant to understand how well key characters can handle weapons and we need to know something about the factories where they work, I think there is a little too much detail. Some of the conversations in the factories also go on a little too long. Maintaining the pace in horror fiction is critical to produce the dramatic tension and sense of imminent danger.

Then we come to the really big problem. Although the book is about two cousins who are both artistic, albeit interested in morbid imagery, we have two separate novellas somewhat arbitrarily interwoven. There’s no interaction between the two stories because the time scales are different. Ray lives alone in the isolated house where his parents were murdered when he was young. Taken on its own, this is about a traumatised man as he tries to make a life of normality for himself. Whether literally or metaphorically, he is haunted and insecure, finding it difficult to make friends or to take relationships to the next level. In every way, he is a disaster waiting to happen with this terrible mixture of fear and anger unreconciled in his mind. He might end in suicide if he feels he can no longer cope with life, or use his guns to become the next serial killer of the month. In such a mind, it is always difficult to know what is real and what is imagined as the days and weeks go by. Paul, on the other hand, is reasonably well-adjusted and we have a single day and night in the plastics factory where he bosses the small crew of maskers. You always feel he has a real talent and could make it as a commercial artist if only he could summon up enough enthusiasm.

Thematically, the two stories are linked by the titular idea of thought forms or tulpas. This is a very old idea arising in mysticism and more formalised religions like Tibetan Buddhism in which a being or object is created by the power of the mind or imagination. It is the forerunner of the machines developed by the Krell in Forbidden Planet and in the sfnal or magic mind-over-matter stories in which whatever is visualised will physically appear. The difference between the two novellas is that Ray is a classic unreliable narrator and we cannot trust anything he claims to see, whereas Paul is positively threatened by a tulpa.

This is a perfect case for an Ace Double approach to publishing. Individually, these are excellent stories. Whether the two novellas are set tête-bêche, is not important. With proper editorial control, the forced links between the stories could have been removed, and two very strong and genuinely terrifying stories would have stood proud and free for all to admire.

And, since we are on the subject of typesetting, this is a surprisingly bad example. There are paragraph throws in the wrong place and real proofreading errors. In some books about collecting — L W Currey’s encyclopaedic Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors: A Bibliography of First Printings of their Fiction and Selected Nonfiction (1979) is my favourite — the identity of the true first edition is often identified by a printing anomaly on page whatever. Well, this first trade paperback edition has anomalies falling out of every chapter. How can anyone miss such obvious mistakes as, “I don’t now if I’m ready for it.” on the memorably numbered page 123? While it does not spoil the enjoyment of reading the book, it did make me flinch in the wrong places — we are only supposed to flinch when the meaning and not the form of the words on the page grabs us.

So, my apologies to all involved in this venture, but this is not worth the money as it stands. We can see how good it could all have been. Let’s just call it a gallant failure and move on to the next book.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Beautiful Hell
Blood Society
Blue War
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)

December 7, 2010 3 comments

As is always the case when dealing with something potentially controversial, I will start by identifying factors that may influence my thinking. That will give all readers an opportunity to judge the extent to which my review is skewed by any of those elements feeding into my opinions. As an explicitly Christian film based on the novel written by a middle-class British man of Irish ancestry, I confirm that I am an atheist holding British nationality although my paternal grandmother was Irish. Like the author, I am a middle-class intellectual, now reaching old age.

This film is a fascinating recreation of the middle-class style of language and behaviour. The accents are very clipped (almost lovingly BBC in their Home Counties phrasing) and very much of the period. I am faintly surprised because this places an immediate cultural barrier between what we see and hear on the screen, and modern sensibilities. The writers and director could have allowed the children to be “modern”. Indeed, from a production point of view, it would have been so much easier to make the film. Just think how much time and effort had to go into vocal coaching to teach these children how to speak in this artificial way. If they had spoken in contemporary British English or in the mid-Western and somewhat anonymous American English so popular in today’s international cinema, it would have made them so much more accessible to the modern audience. Since the primary part of the narrative takes place in a fantasy world, there was no need to recreate C. S. Lewis’ England and its emotionally stunted behaviour. The issues faced by people today are exactly the same as those faced by these children out of time.

Over the decades, I have seen many different productions of Shakespeare. Some in traditional costume with “Elizabethan” accents. Some in contemporary or futuristic settings with any number of different vocal and behavioural styles, including one memorable version of Comedy of Errors as a West End musical. In the making of this and the two preceding films, there were no limits on the characterisation for the children. They could have been placed in any Earthly environment. Thus, the decision to frame the story in this way must be to distance the audience from the characters. The modern audience is not expected to empathise with these children, but rather to see them and understand them as symbols. We witness the processes they must go through, and appreciate their struggle at a more intellectual than emotional level.

So what are these processes? The key to understanding this film lies in one set of symbols. To defeat “evil”, the quest for those on the Dawn Treader is to acquire seven swords, one to slay each of the seven Cardinal Sins which, for these purposes, we can take as envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath. At an individual level, we must defeat the evil that lies within us before we can defeat the evil in the world. This means each of the primary characters must be tempted and find the power to resist. For those who succumb to temptation, the road to redemption will be harder but, because this is a film about the resilience of the human spirit, those who find a greater truth about who they are as individuals are saved. Those that never doubt who they are go on to a better place.

The original novels in the Chronicles of Narnia are all very short by modern standards. I read them all in the 1950s when they first appeared in my local library. This film runs for 112 minutes. To produce content for this length has required everyone to slow things down and, wherever possible, embellish the original sketched narrative as full-blown action sequences. This is not in itself a criticism, but it does place a burden on the viewer. For example, in the first island sequence, we are asked to sit through an extended version of capture by slave traders, an offer of sale at market and a fight as the crew from the Dawn Treader stages a rescue. This is a significant rewrite. Instead of Lord Bern buying Caspian, he is a prisoner himself who also has to be rescued. There are more radical inventions later. Even if I forget everything I know about the original, the whole narrative is dragged out at every turn so that we can make the length. What could be deft, becomes cumbersome. Lucy is envious of her sister’s “beauty”. She covets what she sees in others rather than trusting herself to grow into a fine human being. This does not need spell books, complicated tricks with mirrors and an alternate universe peek into a different future. It is overcomplicating a simple idea. We should see the sins more clearly for what they are, and understand how and why the children are tempted.

If this had been thirty or more minutes shorter, it would have been vastly improved. The English evangelist Rowland Hill is credited with posing the question, “Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?” Over the decades, I have seen some very powerful Christian narratives in all the different media. Some are very beautiful as images or music or both. Authors have created inspiring texts. In other words, art can be harnessed in any cause to touch you no matter what your beliefs. Just as the foot taps to the drum beats summoning men to war, so any universal message can transcend intellectual barriers and make an emotional impact. We resonate in tune with stories of nobility and heroism, self-sacrifice and love.

Without the power of CGI to create sweeping seascapes and different islands, to show us a Britain at war or a sea monster at length, the director would have been forced into a simpler way of telling a story of great truth. No matter what your beliefs, you do first have to overcome your own weaknesses before you can find your own place in the world. As originally conceived, this is an elegant Christian allegory. In this version, we have an overblown and plodding story of a fantastic quest involving monsters. In charge are young folk who are sustained by the faith that a lion will save them. Sadly, the director has not given the Christian cause one of the best tunes. The cast are all adequate with Will Poulter‘s Eustace amusingly dense, Georgie Henley‘s Lucy suitably sure of herself, Skandar Keynes who is improving in acting credibility as he ages, and Ben Barnes who underplays Caspian. The dragon is quite well done and the use of 3D is slightly better in this film than in other recent efforts. So, for those of you who are Christian and have not read the original, you may find the story both exciting and uplifting even at this length (more minutes for your money). That will be for you to judge. The rest of you, if you are inclined to explore Narnia, should stay with the book which is probably the best of the series.

Moon Flights by Elizabeth Moon

December 6, 2010 1 comment

Well, here we are in terra incognita again. With the delay between ordering a book and it surfacing as the next book to read, I often forget exactly why I ordered it. Perhaps I saw a review or someone recommended it. Who knows and, truth be told, who cares. It’s all grist to the mill. So this has me looking at a collection called Moon Fights by Elizabeth Moon, (Night Shade Books, 2007). But first, a silly game. Moon Flights? Is that the best the publisher can think of. Is she blue, or have a dark side, are we over her or is there a man on her? Let’s have a shot at doing better next time or make the whole problem go away by ignoring her surname in the title altogether. (PS The jacket artwork by Dave Seeley is not a portrait of the author — it’s supposed to be Ky Vatta. Just keeping you up to speed.)

And thinking about speed, we’re off down the piste with “If Nudity Offends You” — who would have thought living in a trailer park could introduce you to such interesting neighbours. Anyway, this seems to be both good and bad. The prose style is functional with little or no embellishments to lighten the load of the narrative. This places all the carry duties on the quality of the story idea. This seems equivocal. If these neighbours know enough to appreciate that nudity may offend the locals, can jury rig the power supply without incinerating themselves, understand the concept of blackmail, and are in funds, they seem fairly well acclimatised and that makes their departure slightly surprising.

“Gifts” is a coming-of-age story in which youthful awkwardness gives way to a better self-awareness courtesy of a residue of magic in a wooden knife. It has a slight sentimentality about it but avoids excess. A harder-edged version of the same theme crops up in “Accidents Don’t Just Happen — They’re Caused”. Mothers have daughters who grow up to become mothers. In some households, there’s an excess of filial zeal and each new female generation is the social glue holding the kin group together. But equally often, there are strong personalities in play and each new generation is a separate unit, jealously guarding its own. This is a very nicely judged story about a young engineer who has grown up in the shadow of her world-famous mother. When, after years of independence, a mother visits her daughter at work, it’s time for a little plain speaking and bonding (in the engineering sense, of course).

“Politics” is a Heinleinesque story of starship troopers in an opposed landing on a remote planet. David Drake in his Hammer’s Slammers series is my yardstick for this kind of military fiction in which a small group of seasoned warriors are thrown into the melting pot. This skirts round the detail of the action as the story develops, being content to set up the political situation as the context for the landing and then leave it to our hero to explain how it all came out. I suspect it was written as a vignette that might appear in a novel, with the author’s notes as the last paragraph on how to finish the story. But it’s nevertheless enjoyable.

“And Ladies of the Club” is a delightful story of a tax and its unintended consequences. I can’t recall any recent short story in which a lawyer came out looking so good at the end. Professional legal bodies around the world should use this parable as a teaching vehicle. The fun continues in “No Pain, No Gain” which retains the wit of the first if not quite the same level of inventiveness. “Fool’s Gold” sees the joke starting to wear a little thin. Although the idea of a class of female warriors in mediaeval times where magic works is quite amusing, this encounter with dragons is a little laboured. It’s trying to hard too be amusing. That said, the end is pleasing and, in hindsight, saves the piece. “Sweet Charity” completes the foursome and manages to maintain good humour throughout as pirates discover that our ladies don’t pop their corks for anyone so downriver.

“New World Symphony” is another delight, albeit nothing more than a relocation in setting for the old question of the role of an artist in society. Thinking about music? Think Dmitri Shostakovich to understand the complex relationship between greatness as an individual and the fears of a bureaucracy. The supremely gifted are, by their nature, subversive, challenging orthodoxy, pushing on to pastures new and so destablising the current power structures. The boring hacks will always find a place because their art does not threaten the establishment. “Hand to Hand” continues the discussion of the role of music, this time in a society at war. It’s not uncommon to hear the military justify wars by claiming they protect their country’s/world’s cultural heritage, including its music. Yet, for the most part, soldiers are philistines, having no real knowledge of, or interest in, the “arts”. It’s a convenient hypocrisy that this story takes head on. Sad then that I think the story mistakes its target. While it works as a balance between sisters, it fails to reflect the role of the military as the politicians’ arm of enforcement. It’s the elected officials and power brokers who decide when to go to war, and it’s they and their social circle who know and love the “arts”. It’s a class thing and, by and large, the military don’t fit comfortably into whatever passes for the Ruling Class in each society.

“Tradition” is one of these pesky alternate history stories which fail to announce their presence. There’s great power and stimulation in a “what if” story that assumes some change in written history and examines what might have happened. Stories like “Tradition” deliberately change history, but make nothing of it. Although it’s interesting to read a WWI-style naval engagement story, it’s all about the battle, not about the consequences of destroying such a ship at that point in the development of the war. Ms Moon would have been better advised to change all the names and made it straight historical fiction.

It turns out that I’d read “Judgment” before as one of The Dragon Quintet, edited by Marvin Kaye. This is a top-class story of the balance of forces between the Rock Folk, Dragons and the unfortunate humans in-between. I confess to liking my dragons urbane as they walk the world described at length in the Deed of Paksenarrion and Paladin’s Legacy trilogies. “Gravesite Revisited” is a great idea, simply told. When you have a great idea, there’s no need to do anything else. “Welcome to Wheel Days” captures the can-do spirit that all colonists will need if they’re to make a success of “being out there”. Again, it’s success lies in its simplicity. “Say Cheese” completes the run-out with another strong story. This is old-fashioned. I remember stories like this in the 1950s in which the crew of a ship has a problem to solve before they can dock. This is a nice tip-of-the-hat to a respectable idea.

Overall, Moon Flights is a really pleasing collection — well worth the price of admission and, for those of your who worry about these things, still in print as a hardback and a paperback.

For a review of three books in the current Paladin’s Legacy series, see Kings of the North, Limits of Power and Crown of Renewal.

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