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Echo by Jack McDevitt

February 27, 2011 1 comment

Echo by Jack McDevitt sees us back with the fifth outing in the universe of Chase Kolpath and Alex Benedict, and prompts me to a brief consideration of what makes a good detective/mystery story. I suppose, at its heart, the narrative must be a good puzzle with the author playing fair by allowing us to look over the detective’s shoulder and enjoy the mechanics of working out whodunit. With the benefit of perfect hindsight, we should see all the clues lying in plain sight and understand how the detective made the connections between them that led to the solution. It’s all about salience, i.e. being about to see some facts as more significant than others. In this, the readers should have no special help. This is not a time for an omniscient author to drop hints and vouchsafe important facts withheld from the detective. We should have the same chance as the detective to observe and notice. In this, Jack McDevitt plays the classic card of having the “detective” observed by the loyal sidekick. Except that Chase Kolpath is rather more active than many of the traditional foils whose only function is to make awed noises whenever the great detective offers an insight. As in earlier novels, Chase literally saves Alex from “certain” death.

McDevitt — still hale and hearty

Then we get into matters of style. Some writers go for melodrama with car chases and bullets flying. Others are more calm, seeing real drama in small English villages or other isolated communities. Authors like Adam-Troy Castro, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Jack McDevitt have been transplanting detectives into outer space and transforming the puzzles by having the key facts depend on science or the observed behaviour of aliens. This is a balance between the characterisation, the atmosphere created by the context of the crime and the nature of the problem to be solved. For these purposes, we are not directly interested in judging the criminal. Although it’s always interesting to know what happens after their wrongdoing is exposed, it’s relatively unusual to get into the detail of the trial. We more usually ignore explicit moralising and apply the old Hollywood rule of seeing why crime does not pay.

Echo is a particularly pleasing example of the genre. Set off on the hunt by the curious incident of the “tombstone” that does not fall into the river, we have the obsessive Alex Benedict grow interested in the activities of the equally obsessed “Sunset” Tuttle, a man who spent his life in pursuit of evidence that aliens exist. This makes the novel a full scale version of the anthology Is Anybody Out There. As you will suspect, the “tombstone” may be evidence that we are not alone. However, the more interesting plot hook is why Rachel Bannister, Tuttle’s lover, should be so determined to prevent Alex from investigating. Indeed, what motivates her to commit suicide when Alex persists? The answer is elegant and convincing.

As with The Devil’s Eye, the structure of the book has the first two-thirds lead up to the key discovery. Thereafter we are into a more conventional SF adventure in which we slowly gain information for the big reveal of why Rachel Bannister should have felt so guilty and who has been trying to kill our heroes. Except, this final third is too long and, to be honest, has hackneyed padding elements. Although we do need to continue playing the detective game for a while longer, the book would have benefitted from some serious editorial control, reducing the length to more bare essentials.

Even so, this is a highly enjoyable page-turner and it’s not surprising to see it as one of the 2010 Nebula Awards Nominations. Definitely recommended to those who like a mixture of SF and the classic detective genres.

A preliminary sketch by John Harris

Jack art by John Harris.

For a review of Jack McDevitt’s short fiction, see Cryptic. For a stand-alone novel, see Time Travelers Never Die. For a further book featuring Alex Benedict, see Firebird.

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

February 26, 2011 1 comment

In two recent reviews, I’ve been underwhelmed by an allegory (1) and a postmodernist novel (2), finding their execution without real meaning or purpose. In a single sentence, my objections would be: there was no internally consistent explanation of what was going on and why. The title, The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman, captures the problem in the construction of any allegory or metaphor. All authors of fiction send out their characters to explore an imagined “place”. Publishers impose limitations on word count. We readers only have a limited amount of time. The result? Authors exploring every last nook and cranny would bore us to tears with their attention to detail. With a limited number of words to describe this fictional “world”, the poor writers cover as much ground as possible offering mere hints and allusions. The best pick their areas of interest carefully and then ruthlessly explore them. As an example of the best in allegory, Smallcreep’s Day by Peter C. Brown gives us a factory as a simplified model of society with two or three clearly-drawn individuals as archetypes for major groups of people in the real world. The whole becomes a microscope through which to view the world.

In this book, Felix Gilman offers us a world that, at its Western edge, is literally still being made. This is a physical process with land being created out of “nothing”. The idea that something is not yet complete tempts us to believe there cannot be a consistent explanation of what is happening. Yet, even with everything unfinished, we can look beyond the physical process and see underlying principles at work.

However, since this is another duology like Thunderer and Gears of the City, we have to wait for part two to see exactly what Gilman says has been happening and why. This review is therefore provisional just in case I need to be wise after the event when I get to the end.

For now, I take the central metaphor to be that all cultures and subcultures are works-in-progress. Societies are dynamic and continuously evolving as different factions and groups compete for dominance. Underpinning this process are the forces of the mind. Both consciously and unconsciously, we are driven by primal emotions. Fear of attack by outsiders encourages unity. Love of an idea like “democracy” or “libertarianism” drives political movements. Jealousy of others’ success leads to ghettoisation and pogroms. As Gilman explains, the volksgeist or spirit of the people creates reality out of these emotions.

“We made Gun out of our spite, and Line out of our fear, and this poor thing out of our sorrow.” p. 233

This is a parable about America. It began life on a small, and so manageable, scale in the North East. But, when explorers reported a wilderness in the West, the “country” was thrown into a ferment. It has been continuously remaking itself, trying to integrate all the different contending forces into a single nation. The railways physically opened up the wilderness by enabling rapid transport across vast distances. The lines symbolised progress and a commitment to future expansion. Settlements were founded and the discovery of mineral wealth encouraged further Western migration. Industrialisation began to accelerate the growth of wealth. Capital relies on freely available labour with just enough education to serve its ends and no more. Knowledge for its own sake is unnecessary and potentially encourages labour to be dissatisfied with its lot. Slavery and indentured labour maximise profits. And the gun has major cultural significance. It’s the means of independence, having driven out the European states that would have continued their old dominance in the New World. With the development of the revolver and winchester, one man could have the firepower of a small army. It was also the means of suppressing the aboriginal inhabitants as settlers demonised the Red Indians, scapegoated and then exterminated them.

So which is the best system? The order imposed by a Republic, the communal or hive-like social structures surrounding resources or factories, or the rugged individualism that explores new territory? Think of the Luddites who burnt down mills and destroyed the machines. The movement grew out of the discontent of the English working class in seeing the destruction of its lifestyles and enslavement in factories. It only takes one or two agitators to tap into this anger and you have an army. Maverick individuals like John Creedmore will always be a destabilising force, undermining the structural hierarchy that best supports the capitalist system. They are usually idealists who become focussed on defending themselves from the organised world and, in their own self-interest, defending others from exploitation.

Lowry has been socialised into a world of work. You might expect him to show symptoms of alienation or anomie, assuming Marx, Durkheim et al were correct, but he’s determined to fit in and get ahead. Even though he knows the system expects depersonalisation and the subordination of self for the benefit of the owners, the practical reality is that the owners need people who can think for themselves and show initiative when the unpredictable happens. Worse, the owners expect their operatives to be ruthless in suppressing, if not exterminating, the cause of any problems. So Lowry is monomaniacal within the structured environment of the stations. Send him into the field and he has no conscience when it comes to collateral damage, destroying whole towns and communities. He’s even prepared to lead from the front in a little hands-on torture. This is the ultimate soldier, prepared to read the Riot Act and lead his troops in a killing frenzy when faced by unarmed civilians. But what happens when he is pitched into an environment where technology does not work? Strip away his lifeline of communication with the owners and deplete his troops, what are we left with?

Our third principal is Liv. She comes all unworldly from the ivory towers of education, full of presumption to believe her knowledge can reshape the as yet unmade social world. When she finds a rump of the old Red Republic, she’s told, “There in the old North, the world is long since made and ordered, and perhaps you may take it for granted.” (p 364) In the dynamic world being remade, the fixed political structures of the Red Republic were a hindrance. What holds back progress must be pushed aside by those with the wealth and power. Think about a modern banking system out of control, ignoring the political structures and wrecking a country’s economy in the pursuit of private profit at any cost. Equally, there may be others with a different political philosophy who fight against the order and structure of big government. Their fears and suspicions fuel a desire to dismantle the apparatus of a state, to return to a simpler version of life in which people can be more self-sufficient.

Psychology can take a mechanical view of the mind, defining it in terms of different cognitive functions, or it can be skewed towards behaviour and the interpretation of how people interact. While in the House Dolorous, Liv meets different archetypes who see the conflict outside as merely the product of their own imagination, or whose behaviour becomes so autistic that they cease all interaction and, when they tire of the world, they will themselves to die. People are the sum of their life experiences and, as groups, they are socialised into conformity with the prevailing norms of society. If this means “leaders” can convince the group they are being stalked by terrible beasts, their fears will make those beasts seem real. They will modify their behaviour accordingly. Perhaps a major symbol from the past, like an old General, long thought dead, could rekindle interest in reforming the systems in play. Before the half-made world is finished, it might be nudged into a more benign form, say, through a process of death and rebirth.

The Half-Made World is completely fascinating, cloaking some very sophisticated ideas in a reimagined version of the Wild West. The hidden hands of wealth and power are represented through animism — engines and guns are the physical presence of supernatural agencies that dispute control of the land and its people. Our three leading characters (plus the General) come together in the partly made land, leaving everything to play for in the concluding volume. Judging by Gilman’s performance so far, each book has been an improvement on the last. I am hopeful he will prove to be one of the best of the writers of what we might call fantasy shading into weird. I had the same hope for China Miéville, but that’s not looking so good these days. Gilman may avoid Miéville’s self-indulgence and become the more reliable purveyor of edgy and thoughtful fantasy.

Jacket artwork showing an evocative ornithopter by Ross MacDonald.

For reviews of other books by Felix Gilman, see:
Gears of the City
The Revolutions
The Rise of Ransom City
Thunderer

(1) Meeks by Julia Holmes.

(2) The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer.

Return: An Innkeeper’s World Story by Peter S. Beagle

February 24, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m rarely tempted to repeat an introduction to one of these reviews but, on this occasion, I think it appropriate. Charles Dickens opens David Copperfield musing on “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life. . .” In our more private moments, we all create stories for ourselves in which we achieve great things. It passes the time and can leave a positive view of possible futures. In this spirit, I’m tempted to place Peter S. Beagle as the hero in his own fantasy mythology. Here’s a real-life Rip Van Winkle of writers. Legend has him arriving on this plane in the primordial past (sometimes boringly referred to as 1939). Like all good superheroes in the making, he lurks in the shadows until emerging with A Fine and Private Place in 1960 as the taster for The Last Unicorn, published in 1968 and one of the one-hundred best fantasy novels of all-time. He then slept for eighteen years, finally awaking to write The Folk of the Air in 1986. A further brief slumber takes us to The Innkeeper’s Song in 1993, followed by Giant Bones in 1997, a collection of stories set in the Innkeeper’s World. This seems to have finally jerked him more fully into our time frame and, after the years of sleep, he’s now able to stay awake for weeks, giving him more than enough time to become prolific, turning out short stories, novelettes and novellas as if there’s no tomorrow. Truly, he has become a writer of heroic proportions, recently being nominated for and winning both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. He’s also been nominated for the World Fantasy Award while picking up one of these Outstanding Achievement Awards that we give to our revered elders.

Peter S. Beagle

So, with Return, we’re back in the world of the Innkeeper. Karsh keeps The Gaff and Slasher. It’s a watering hole outside Corcuna and, in the first outing, we’re introduced to a number of people including Lal and Nyateneri who, for reasons that need not concern us here, becomes Soukyan later in the first book. Soukyan and Lal reappear in Giant Bones and Soukyan is the hero of Return. For those of you who like perfect information, Soukyan also appears in a novelette called “Quarry” which is collected in The Line Between.

Return fills in the backstory, explaining where Soukyan grew up and why he is pursued. In some ways, it’s not typical Beagle in that we have a linear adventure narrative rather than one of the more usual personal stories in which people discover something important about themselves and/or find redemption. Indeed, I would go so far as to say this is a rather routine story in which our hero fights the good fight, not quite in barbarian rippling-muscle mode, but with his bow and a knife. In the end, he prevails, as all heroes in fantasy adventures must, but we have no real sense that he is seriously worried by his increasingly precarious situation. Whether he is fighting for his life or enduring a session of torture, he always seems detached, merely waiting for the next turn of events to set him back on track again. If Beagle is offering us a message it is that some people rightly turn down access to power. This is rather on a par with Star Wars in which the Jedi reject the dark side of the Force even though it potentially offers more power. They know that the more power one has, the greater the risk of being corrupted by it. Not very profound is it. Worse, Soukyan actually does have personal power in magic denied to others. He’s already the superior of the average human so, in rejecting membership of the mysterious organisation, he’s not really losing out that much.

This is not to deny the ingenuity both of the source of the hunters that pursue Soukyan and of the explanation for luring him back. Indeed, this inventiveness almost saves the whole. But, sadly, the overall feel is rather mechanical, particularly as it affects the behaviour of Brother Laska. So I find myself disappointed. In reaching this conclusion, I admit that my expectations for any story by Peter Beagle are always high and, in his defence, this is one of the few stories that have disappointed over the last ten years. If you come to him without having read much of his work, you might find this a ripping yarn and be mightily impressed. For those of you who, like me, have read everything he has written, this is not one of his best.

The jacket art and interior illustrations are by Maurizio Manzieri. It’s probably my eyesight, but there seems to be something wrong with the perspective of the illustration showing Soukyan drawing his bow, but the general effect is reasonably pleasing. This is another of these Subterranean Press signed and limited editions. For me, it’s not quite worth the money but, with any luck, it will hold most of its value until I decide to sell it on.

For other reviews of work by Peter S. Beagle, see We Never Talk About My Brother, Sleight of Hand, and Strange Roads.

The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

February 20, 2011 Leave a comment

The Broken Kingdoms is Book Two of The Inheritance Trilogy, continuing the story some ten years after The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I confess to finding the first outing by N. K. Jemisin less than stellar and picked this up more in hope than expectation of anything better. It’s been my experience that indifferent first books in a trilogy are harbingers of worse to come. Except this is one of the surprise packages of the year so far and I now find myself genuinely interested to see how it all ends in The Kingdom of Gods due later in 2011.

The primary problem in the first book was the lack of credibility in the heroine, Yeine. Here was this rube who rose to the top of the political heap in a cut-throat court, only to find a rather different end from the one we might have expected. I only decided to pursue this into the second volume because there was a good mystery element to solve, and the underlying discussion of the relationship between humans and immortal beings with supernatural powers proved interesting.

Well, our author has the confidence to throw away almost everything from the first book. All the hack courtly intrigues and politics is dumped as we hit the streets with a new heroine and there’s a whole new nest of matryoshka dolls to unpack. Ten years is always longer than you think both in the real world and on paper. In this case, the world has now regained some of its magic as the godlings have come back to live among the people.

For those who missed the first book, I should explain that, in the beginning, there were three gods who then produced children. The resulting extended family was all immortal and had supernatural powers. But, when the family went forth and multiplied with humans, they got children with magical powers but human lifespans. For want of a better name, these were called demons. After a while, there were wars and all the demons perished. But, with their genes now in the human population, some vestiges of the magical powers lived on, honed into medical and other potentially useful skills. I suppose everything would have remained stable if the godlings had been able to resist the odd dalliance with humans.

N K Jemisin

All of which brings me to Oree Shoth, our new heroine, who is born blind. She has malformed corneas which give the impression of cataracts but, for some reason, this seems to give her an enhanced power to “see” magic in all its forms. When her father dies, she leaves her country town and heads for the city of Shadow which lies under the World Tree. There she manages to earn a living through her knack for making trinkets that appeal to tourists. Surprisingly, she is also able to paint but never shows anyone the pictures. In the midst of all this, she acquires a godling as a lover but he breaks it off. It’s the usual problem with immortals unwilling to live with humans while watching them die.

As we kick off, Oree finds a body. Someone has killed a godling. This is unprecedented and, so far as anyone knows, the killer has to be another godling. Why one godling should wish to kill a brother or sister is a mystery. The following dawn, she finds a strange man in the muckbin. He seems human but glows in the first light of the sun as if there’s some magic about him. Curious and compassionate, she pulls him out and adopts him as one might take in a bedraggled stray cat. Sadly, he then dies. Remarkably, he later comes back to life. For some reason, he will not speak. She calls him Shiny and an entirely platonic friendship is born.

Taking an overview, this is a thoughtful exploration of identity and redemption. What is it that makes us who we are? There’s the inevitable nurture/nature issue but, when you’re dealing with immortal beings, the nurture element rapidly becomes irrelevant as the decades stretch into centuries. At the mayflower end of the equation, the humans adjust more rapidly to circumstances. When you only have a few score years and ten before shuffling off the mortal coil, this tends to focus your attention on the needs of the present. Since death is never far away, you quickly learn to adapt to circumstances, making and breaking alliances to give yourself the best chance of survival, if not prosperity. This means the cultural differences between the humans and immortals are profound. Humans find a need to do things today because there may not be a tomorrow. Perhaps the humans prove more moral. A majority is honest, apologising when in error, finding a guilty conscience painful, and seeking forgiveness and redemption before death. When you’re immortal, there’s no pressure to be moral. Without the threats of pain or death as punishment, there’s nothing to reinforce conscience. Even if a means of punishment was found, what would be the motivation to change? Why should you care what others think when, sooner or later, you will resume godhead as if nothing had happened? Arguably the only thing the humans and immortals share is loneliness. Mercifully, humans escape this through death.

There are some technical problems in the writing because our first-person narrator cannot see what’s going on around her when only humans are involved. This means we have to rely on those around her filling in the gaps. However, for all the occasional clunkiness, N. K. Jemisin manages to maintain the illusion of a blind narrator with all the unreliability that requires. Because she’s denied all the usual clues of body language and other unspoken signifiers, she can be slower on the uptake. In a sense, this makes our game in trying to sort out who’s doing what to whom and why all the more interesting.

Overall, The Broken Kingdoms is an emotionally satisfying novel and it sets us up nicely for the concluding volume. Curiously, even though this is the second of a trilogy, you could read it as a stand-alone. But it will have a better resonance if you know the background history from the first. I unhesitatingly recommend it to all who enjoy thoughtful fantasy.

Jacket art by Cliff Nielsen.

For the final volume in the trilogy, see The Kingdom of Gods. For a new duology by N K Jemisin, see The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun.

 

Assassin and other stories by Steven Barnes

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment

This collection by Steven Barnes from ISFiC Press is made up of an original short novel called Assassin: The Invisible Imam, plus four short stories and a teleplay.

The short novel is set around the time of the Third Crusade. It kicks off in 1178, and more or less ends with the death of Barbarossa in 1190. With the exception of one element in the final pages suggesting a supernatural entity, this is intended to be an essentially straight historical novel. We can ignore the faintly superhuman qualities of our antihero, Abdul-Wahid, who later assumes the name Haytham. This is characteristic of much of Steven Barnes’ fiction. Starting with the initial novel Streetlethal, he specialises in characters with supreme fighting skills.

Let’s begin this discussion with the faintly unusual decision to tell the story from the point of view of one of the Hashishiyyin. Western writers tend to support the Christian sides of the wars so it makes a change to see what a contemporary American author makes of the politics of the times. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the original assassins have never had a very good press. Starting almost immediately after their appearance in the conflict, they have been demonised as drug-soaked religious fanatics. A manipulation you would expect from those controlling the discourse in the West. Even now, Arab-based freedom fighters are smeared with the “al-Qaeda” label, guaranteed to make Western readers think them all dangerously militant Islamists. So, this choice to look at the recruitment, training and activities of the original assassins makes a welcome addition to the historical fiction set in the twelfth century.

The result is good news and bad news. It has the chance to present a different view of the conflict by the recruitment of Abdul-Wahid who will become the ultimate fighter, and Hakeem who is destined to become a top intellectual. Switching between the two characters or showing them meeting up more often would give the novel the chance to define the historical context and more clearly state the Muslim view of the conflict as they defend their land. As Hakeem rises in the ranks of the hierarchy, he would gain an increasingly informed overview that could be pitted against the on-the-ground experiences of the fighter. Sadly, we only get to see the conflict from a superior foot-soldier’s point of view. This is rather frustrating because a better understanding of the relationships between the different Muslim factions and the different groups comprising the Crusader forces would enhance the novel. In this respect, the plotting is rather dated in approach. It reminds me of The White Company by Conan Doyle and similar books in emphasising the adventure to the detriment of the history. That said, the novel is actually refreshing in showing Abdul-Wahid as an essentially honourable man who increasingly acts as his conscience dictates rather than as a mere killing machine. It’s good to see a Western author make a hero out of someone killing Western Christians.

Steven Barnes: author and expert in martial arts

“The Woman in the Wall” is classic propaganda with an American woman finding herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. As anyone with intelligence would expect, ultimately, everyone will do whatever it takes to survive. In this, race or creed makes no difference. The imperative of self-preservation means the sacrifice of the veneer of civilisation. This is a straight polemical piece set in an African state after a military coup and only vaguely interesting.

“Trickster” is one of two stories jointly written with his wife, Tananarive Due. It’s a post-apocalypse story set in Africa some years after the War of the Worlds invasion, H. G. Wells style. It assumes that after the Martians died, the surviving humans cannibalised their tripod machines, creating simpler but no less deadly machines that could be used to take over the world. This is an interesting premise and, for once, the execution strikes a good balance between human relationships, surrounding events and consequences.

“The Locusts” was jointly written with Larry Niven and nominated for the Hugo Award in 1980. It’s a melancholic story, ruminating on one possible life cycle for the human race. Once you start going down the track of this particular idea, you get locked into the consequences and the authors are to be commended for allowing some residual humanity to assert itself towards the end. Anything less than this would have been unreasonably depressing.

“Father Steel” is a telestory that failed to make it through the animation process and on to the small screen. It’s rather good, this time using history to say something interesting about how fighting men can be moulded into an army and what must be done to maintain their morale when the going gets tough. Finally, “Danger Word”, the second story jointly written with his wife, takes us post-apocalypse again, this time with the living dead. It has a grandfather trying to protect his young grandson as the world around them collapses into anarchy. It has nice touches but, like all such stories, requires the old experienced man to act like an idiot. While the structure of the narrative is highly professional, it’s less than original.

Putting all together produces rather an odd result. The bulk of the content is straight or historical fiction, with three shorter genre pieces. Assassin has a slightly old-fashioned feel. It reminds me of the work produced by Conan Doyle, A. E. W. Mason and others, but does offer interest in giving a voice to Moslems defending their own land against invaders. “Trickster” is the most effective story and, if you have not read it before, “The Locusts” remains a clever idea, well-executed. So your decision whether to buy this book is simple. Given that Barnes, whether on his own or in tandem with others, produces readable prose, you take a view on whether the price of $30 is too much to pay for faintly controversial and what is to me not very original fiction.

Jacket art by Duncan Long.

For another review of a book by Steven Barnes, see Shadow Valley

The King’s Speech (2010)

February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

One group of philosophers spends its time thinking about the relationship between the mind and the body, between intellectual functions like memory and the physical brain in which they are stored. Potentially I carry memories of everything I have seen or felt during my life. If I was to add them up, they could represent my character and identity. Except, my identity is something more than a stamp collection of memories. I sort, filter and discard memories. I synthesise and write mental commentaries on what I remember. It all gets organised and reorganised into the rich mixture that is me. I start off with this seemingly irrelevant point because my life overlaps with that of King George VI. I remember him dying and the coronation of the present Queen Elizabeth.

 

There’s an interesting song composed in 1927 when there were fewer people on the planet. Written by Herbert Farjeon, it’s about the man who would briefly become Edward VIII. The memorable line is, “I’ve danced with a man, who’s danced with a girl, who’s danced with the Prince of Wales.” Although I have little real sympathy for the idea of the six degrees of separation, I do feel some knowledge and understanding of the life and times of King George VI — including the pea-soupers that descend in the film and blanket London in murky darkness. Inevitably, these memories colour my view of The King’s Speech (2010).

Colin Firth

 

I would like to see it as simply a story about a man who seeks help from an unconventional therapist. As such, it’s a quite remarkable performance by Colin Firth. He manages to make the stammer feel like a real affliction. You can see his body language shift and change with circumstance, making it easier or more difficult to speak. The only performance I can recall which had a similar power was by Derek Jacobi in the BBC miniseries I, Claudius. Other than that, the hack versions of stuttering tend to be embarrassing to watch with the focus on the more difficult consonants. Colin Firth manages not only to get his whole body into the act, but also to let us see the desperation and fear in his eyes.

Geoffrey Rush

 

As in all good buddy movies, Bertie must have a foil. Playing second fiddle, Geoffrey Rush gives a subtle performance as the self-taught Lionel Logue. It would have been easy to go over the top with eccentricity and actorish hamminess. Yet Rush shows us Logue as a man of great experience, empathy and, with one exception, restraint. He provokes Bertie when he must and thereby brings the man out of his shell. The result is a slow but inexorable journey from quivering jelly to a man who could lead a nation and empire (or at least sound like a man who could).

 

Knowing the relationship is based on fact, Logue did remarkably well to break through protocol and offer what, in today’s terms, would have been cognitive behavioural therapy. He teaches the man to understand his body and come to terms with his emotional problems. Given the history of being ignored by his parents as a child and abused by his nanny, it’s remarkable the prince could withstand the later bullying by his brothers and father. Perhaps more importantly, Logue goes beyond the strict duty of a therapist and becomes Bertie’s friend, something the prince needed more than he knew. In the end, they share the sense of triumph as Bertie slowly becomes fluent when delivering his first broadcast following the declaration of war.

Helena Bonham Carter

 

So younger British readers and others of indeterminate age around the world can stop here. Firth’s performance deserves all the gongs and medals available for distribution. End of story. But I have a minor problem with the film as a version of history. No-one expects a film like this to tell the whole story of the royal family or to chart the progress of the European nations as they conspired to go for the best of two falls, two submissions or a knock-out to decide the winner of World Wars: The Series. In any event, who would want to challenge Edward Fox in Edward and Mrs Simpson which will always stay with me as a phenomenal piece of television? The problem is structural. Once you depart from the strict focus on the Prince and Logue, you could legitimately include a host of background information. This would make the film longer and perhaps unwieldy. So you either compress and distort the background into something that fits the story you want to tell, or you tell a fuller and more rounded version of what actually happened. My own preference would have been the latter.

 

This means I’m breaking the code of the reviewer. I’m supposed to stick strictly to the film as shown on the screen. As the director, this is Tom Hooper’s vision. The critic should not second-guess how the film might have turned out had a different script been available. So here it is in a nutshell: a King-in-waiting creeps into a dark basement where the plaster is peeling paint (as neat a metaphor for his inferiority complex as ever you will find) and is reminded of his inner strength by a commoner from the colonies. In this endeavour, he has the support of his wife played with considerable conviction by Helena Bonham Carter. He must also defy the best intentions of the establishment represented by Derek Jacobi. In the end, he’s strong enough to rewrite his emotional view of the past and becomes a better man who can talk to his children, a nation and an empire with pleasing fluency.

 

The King’s Speech is a heart-warming story of royal folk fighting their own wars to establish and maintain identity. It’s well worth seeing.

 

Fortunately, The King’s Speech has been well received internationally, winning the 2011 Oscars for being the best picture, with Colin Firth declared the best actor, David Seidler recognised for producing the best original screenplay, while Tom Hooper won the prize as the best director. It’s a clean sweep of the major prizes (the home-made British ones don’t really count as we’re supposed to be proud of our own).

 

For a general discussion of whether more historical accuracy was desirable, see Should Historical Films Be Like Documentaries?

 

Bear Daughter by Judith Berman

February 15, 2011 Leave a comment

My life is full of minor mysteries like why my hair falls out so fast, why food seems to be losing the rich flavours I recall from my youth, and why I buy books like Bear Daughter. I checked back in my records and I did indeed order this about six months ago but, as senility creeps ever closer to my mental door, I cannot begin to explain what must have been in my mind at the time. Anyway, this book reminded me of Project Habakkuk which, I am ashamed to say, was a plan hatched by the British during WWII. Essentially, the “powers that be” proposed restructuring an iceberg as an aircraft carrier. It’s a kind of reverse Titanic. British planes would fly out to this floating landing strip, load up with bombs, and then attack German U-Boats in the middle of the ocean where they thought they were safe on the surface. We Brits made prototypes that were towed up and down the Canadian and North American coast. Practical tests showed them unsinkable by naval guns and torpedos. Even the problem of melting in warmer water was solved by adding tons of wood pulp into the ice.

 

Well, Bear Daughter sounds like an equally boffo idea. One night, a twelve-year-old bear cub goes to sleep and wakes up a little girl. It’s all in the genes as her daddy of unknown origins had taken her human mummy away with him and impregnated her. The result is one of these immortals-half-full stories as our ingénue struggles to understand this unexpected transformation and reconcile the two parts of her inheritance.

 

Judith Berman has the misfortune to be an expert linguistic anthropologist, specialising in North American languages and myths. The book is therefore liberally larded with detail about life among an Inuit-type people, demonstrating how myths and magic percolate through their lives. If it’s in any sense to be taken as realistic, we must see it as set in the past where tribes preyed upon each other, killing the strong and taking the others as slaves. If this is a separate fantasy world, the summer lands are ruled by great brown bears and the seas by orca. The humans must therefore move carefully to avoid upsetting the relevant supernatural entities who sacrifice themselves as food from the seas and the lands. Shamans work within a framework of animism and talk with the spirits living within each animal. They aim to show respect, even during a hunt, and hope to maintain a balance between the human and spirit worlds. If harmony is lost, the consequences can be severe.

 

Well, Ms Berman takes her idea and launches it into the icy waters of the coast where everyone with a gun or torpedo tries to sink our waif as she runs from pillar to post (a challenge when spending so much time in a canoe) trying to summon up enough courage to accept she is able to talk to spirits and get things done. Incredibly, no matter how much explosives people pack into the warheads aimed at her, she just picks herself up, dusts herself down, and keeps on running or paddling in desperate search of who she is. After a while, it grows monotonous. Instead of having a little curiosity or gumption, she remains stubbornly resistant to the notion she could beat the various factions trying to kidnap or kill her. In the end, I gave up trying to work out who everyone is. They all blur together as a generic threat. Even when she accidentally falls in with the orcas and meets the Bright People, she remains paranoid and insecure. At every point, I found her attitude annoying.

 

Then, just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it does. This insufferably stubborn brat finds herself pregnant (although how this is achieved is left to our imagination) and, before you can say “Jack Robinson”, she’s had a quick dash as a killing machine and become a mother. Despite this unexpected delivery, she remains in perverse rejection of everything she could be, whether bear, girl, mother or something in-between. I suppose, by now, we should be used to this denial. As any alcoholic will tell you, denial is the biggest single barrier to recovery. What should we think of this cub? That she has the willpower and moral fibre of a beast unable to fight its way out of a soggy paper bag, or that she can recover if only she comes to terms with her essential nature.

 

Ah well, Ms Berman has the answer. All we have to do to pull this girl out of her funk is send her on another quest. This time, she will gather the bones of her father and brothers and, in backbreaking pilgrimage through the home she had known as a child to the place where reincarnation becomes possible, she will finally reach peace with herself. Then, all that remains is to beat the evil wizard and accept the one she loves — it is, after all, a romantic fantasy.

 

I suppose I could get out the thesaurus and start with tedious but, like the book, the task would immediately become repetitively boring. Just like Project Habakkuk, this book was doomed before it set sail. You can understand why it has been her only novel. What is more difficult to understand is how it came to be published at all. You should avoid it at all costs unless you like your fantasy weighed down with extensively researched details of North American myths.

 

Bear DaughterBear Daughter by Judith Berman
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The phrase that comes to mind is, “ghastly beyond belief”. Even the girl on the cover looks as sick as a parrot. It’s rare for me to find a book so awful. Perhaps it’s my time of the month.

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Matter by Iain M Banks

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Those of you who follow the genres will know there are two authors for the price of one in this name. Just as those of you into English accents will understand the intrusive ‘r’ as in my native Newcastle with the southerners’ version, Newcarstle, so we have an intrusive M in Iain Banks and Iain M. Banks. He wears his M hat as an SF author. In both modes, he usually provokes us into thinking about the world we inhabit. In Matter, we are invited to consider both the nature of societies and how they resolve disputes. At one level, the disputes may be completely internal, involving subgroups within subcultures. When you move up the scale, you may reach the level of conflicts between societies as countries. In those cases, where the relationships are not codified, it may be possible to go to war with little formality and no internationally accepted causus belli. You just make bellicose threats and when, as expected, the “enemy” ignores these words and matches the megaphone power of the rhetoric, this is an invitation to begin actual fighting. Yet, when there are treaties, memoranda of understanding and deeply entrenched commercial interdependencies, it may be too expensive for our two countries to fight directly. They must therefore find different ways of competing with each other militarily. This can be through proxies with some power. For example, China and the US cannot actually fight each other, but North Korea may offer a different way for China to rattle its sabre. Or the countries can fight using minions where there’s less at stake.

Iain Banks without the M

 

Let’s now take a look at one of the central metaphors of Matter, that of the shellworld. No developed society is homogenous. It’s always multilayered. There are social constructs, like pillars, supporting each layer. In theory these are also towers offering mobility between the different layers. But, as most people who live in a society with a class structure understand, it’s easier to see the appearance of mobility than actually move upwards. Hence most of the visible towers have been artificially shut off and the “open” towers are carefully guarded. In the galaxy, the same stratification also applies with different races and groups each accorded their own position in the hierarchy of the Culture, and respect must always be shown. A strict policy of non-interference applies. So, just as some shellworlds can suddenly become slaughterhouses as inhabitants accidentally trigger long-hidden systems for wielding death, the Culture moves tentatively across the interspecies minefields to avoid setting off any explosions that cannot be managed.

 

In all this, we must remember that the elite in each strata of culture can, to a greater or lesser extent, avoid direct participation in any real conflict. Fighting through proxies most of the time enables them to preserve wealth and status. Thus, in much the same way that some will queue to watch men batter each other in a boxing ring, the alien voyeurs may become fans of fighting. They do so because they are never directly emotionally involved. It’s all vicarious. If they had to live with the consequences of destruction and death, they would quickly lose their appetite for the reality of wars.

 

As to the story of this book: once upon a time, there was a King. The first born was a daughter. Even though she was highly intelligent, the fact of her gender was a great disappointment and, at the earliest opportunity, she was palmed off on to a mage who managed to perform a neat trick. He armed the girl and turned her into a warrior, albeit one with a conscience. The other two children apparently had the better fortune to be boys but, since our King was always off fighting wars, their upbringing was of indifferent quality. When the older decided to join his father on a battlefield, he chose a wonderful uniform and rode a conspicuously white horse. The younger formed his character as a negative. He aimed to be everything his brother was not. This was good as far as it went, but failed to define his hopes and aspirations in positive terms. When their father was killed, this forced the three children to decide what was important. Had this been a simple mediaeval world, it would have been straightforward. Everyone would have pulled out swords and fought to the best of their abilities. But this being science fiction pitches everyone into a universe where different beings and AIs dance elegantly in ways that avoid wars except when fought in shellworlds by proxies.

 

The whole novel is an elaborate shell game (pun intended) in which we watch the individuals and various races slowly come together for the final showdown. It’s fairly clear from an early stage why the various parties are manoeuvring for position. Think of that as the outer husk of the shell. What only becomes clear later on is the extent of the mistake being made. Self-evidently, the interested parties think they know what the buried treasure is. As in all such cases, the reality is rather different. In this, Iain M Banks plays perfectly fair. In all the info dumps that slow down the opening third of the book, there’s more than enough information to tell you what the real problem is likely to be. All you have to do is have the patience to read through it all, paying complete attention throughout, and then apply a little Sherlockian thought.

 

This should give you a clue as to my final reaction to this book. It does start rather slowly and there’s rather a lot of information to digest about the history of the shellworlds and how they fit into the politics of the Culture. But, if you’re prepared to work your way through it, the pace slowly accelerates and there’s a pleasing climax in which the truth we suspected all along is confirmed. As an afterthought, we’re also given a brief glimpse into the meaning of the phrase “domestic bliss”. It’s well worth reading if you enjoy Banks but, if you have not tried his science fiction before, there are better Culture novels to open first.

 

Jacket art by Mario J Pulice.

 

For the next Culture novels, see:
Hydrogen Sonata
Surface Detail.

 

Burst Angel or Bakuretsu Tenshi

February 10, 2011 Leave a comment

The animes Burst Angel or Bakuretsu Tenshi is produced by the usually reliable Gonzo, directed by Koichi Ohata and written by Fumihiko Shimo. This is essentially science fiction, set at least fifty years into the future and featuring two interlocking story arcs. The first is the battle for Tokyo which will determine the fate of Japan. The second is the personal story of Jo, a biologically engineered soldier who has escaped her training camp without losing her enthusiasm for fighting.

 

The primary battle is between RAPT (the Recently Armed Police Task Force), a renegade military outfit that aims to take over the country, and a dissident faction of the White Orchid Clan (Bai Lan) led by Sei. Acting on the advice of her grandfather, she recruits a team, including Jo, to fight for truth, justice and the Japanese way. The other members of the team are Amy, a teenage hacker, Meg an orphan who occasionally uses a really big gun, and Leo Jinno who maintains the fighting machines used by Jo. When they rescue Kyohei Tachibana, he’s immediately bullied into becoming the team’s chef. He pays the same penalty as the other recruits. If you’re talented, you get an immediate battlefield commission into the team.

Sei and Amy debate whether to recruit Kyohei

 

This serial allows me to start talking about one of the classic themes in anime: that of the armoured suit. In most military science fiction, we have what you would describe as traditional technology. Human drivers relate to the technology in much the same way as soldiers do in today’s tanks, i.e. they sit there and drive the vehicle to its maximum mechanical potential. One of the clichés of submarine dramas is that moment when the captain orders the helmsman to take the sub below its design depth. The crew sweat, the seams groan, the odd rivet pops and a pipe is suddenly likely to burst, allowing a spurt of sea water or a cloud of steam to emerge. But the old rust bucket hangs together and, as the sub manoeuvres at previously unexplored depths to escape the hunting ships above, the Captain smiles and remarks that engineers always build in redundancy.

Jo and Meg

 

Well suits like Django exploit the psychic ability of the drivers in a direct symbiotic link. Here, the driver becomes the suit, instinctively relating to the mechanical body and able to inject bursts of “adrenalin” into the mere metal to make it go way beyond its design specifications. For these purposes, the suits are designed with an interface that picks up and amplifies the intellectual and emotional power of the driver. Since Jo has been designed as a supersoldier, her abilities enable the suit to become extraordinary. More importantly, Jo is continuing to accept and grow into her powers. Her development is encouraged by the constant need to rescue Meg — she’s the clichéd damsel in distress along the literal lines of Pauline in the old silent films — always in peril and tied up by villains. The relationship between Jo and Meg is faintly homoerotic, which makes Jo highly motivated to rescue Meg.

Django in dominant mood

 

More generally, all the prepubescent and adolescent girls are drawn in the usual sexualised way, emphasising breasts and pudenda. We are even given the usual more revealing scene in a swimming pool where breasts and curves can be more lovingly explored. Obviously, the anime is aimed at men with a taste for younger girls wearing as little clothing as decently possible. When another female supersoldier from the same training establishment appears, the competition with Jo fuels even faster development. Their resumption of hostilities is presented in a directly genre-bending sequence where Jo appears to be transported back in time and, as fantasy, must relate to an enigmatic samurai trying to defend his village from a dragon. Except, of course, the dragon proves to be another suit like Django. The result is that Jo becomes the ultimate fighting machine when paired with an upgraded Django.

Jo interfaces with Django

 

What lifts the sfnal elements out of the routine is the political and urban fantasy context for the fighting. The trigger for the militarisation of Japanese cities has been its Americanisation in one specific respect. As a culture that values some of the traditions of its samurai warrior past, the decision to allow the ordinary Japanese citizen to carry a gun has had a profound effect. Once the genie is out of the bottle, the use of violence has gone beyond epidemic proportions and has necessitated the introduction of specialist policing units to cope. Hence the formation of RAPT and its association with the mainstream White Orchid Clan. This pairing gives enough muscle to impose a form of martial law on the major cities. Criminals, both individual and in gangs, are simply shot down. The urban fantasy element is the appearance of strange creatures, somewhat zombie-like in behaviour, with glowing brains. This is actually better than it sounds and feeds back into the emergence of new technologies capable of controlling and, if necessary, eliminating humans.

Kyohei caught by surprise (again)

 

This is not so much an original or groundbreaking anime as one doing all the basics reasonably well. Jo’s slow growth from manufactured soldier to human being is handled well. It’s not unlike Orson Scott Card’s seminal series of novels describing Ender Wiggin as he goes through Battle School and then tries to atone for his destruction of the Formics. The problem comes at the end when the linkage between Jo’s development and the creation of the shining brains is fudged. At a slightly different level, Kyohei grows into his role as catering officer for the troops — once actually getting into the action with Jo. The two male roles are significant. Kyohei is a desperately inexperienced adolescent and frequently embarrassed by girls, but he manages the rite of passage with increasing confidence. Leo Jinno may be the ultimate mechanic but, socially, he acts like a spoilt child, perpetually throwing tantrums when Jo damages his latest toys. The fighting is interesting, particularly as the new creatures emerge, first from the tunnels of the underground and then from the skies. Eventually, the real confrontation is one between the human symbiote and the shining brains in their machines. Both are, in a sense, new species fighting for the right to survive. Darwin would have been proud of the ideas as circumstance and direct intervention lead to the evolution of new lifeforms which then compete.

 

Overall, Burst Angel is just about worth watching through to the end.

 

Thanks are due to Autumn Rain for the screenshots.

 

Neo Angelique Abyss

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment

All good stories have their roots buried deep in human history. These are the universal or transcendent themes. So let’s travel back to the times of the primordial Greek gods when Chaos ruled over Heaven and Earth, then called Gaia. The first born is darkness and is named Erebus. He stands between Earth and the emergent Hell. A sister and Goddess of the Night, Nyx, is born to Chaos and, incestuously, Erebus and Nyx give birth to a clutch of children including Hemera, Oneiroi, Nemesis, and Thanatos, who represent day, dreams, revenge, and death. Eventually, Erebus gives his name to a specific region of Hell — what we would now call Limbo — where the dead first go before being ferried across the River Styx into the underworld. This gives him control over the souls of the newly dead.

Angelique does her thing

 

Turning now to Neo Angelique Abyss, this was a KOEI game, with the anime version produced by Yumeta Company and directed by Shin Katagai. It was divided into two seasons, both of thirteen episodes, the story continuing with only a time lapse of six months between the two parts.

 

For now, let’s ignore the way in which the narrative is developed and animated. At its heart, this is a wonderfully dark story. As a world, Arcadia has lapsed from a high-technology culture supporting off-world travel and advanced cyborgs, to an essentially preindustrial level where only vestiges of the previous technology remain with key elements rediscovered through archaeological digs. This collapse has been caused by random attacks by interdimensional creatures named the Thanatos. They bring death and destruction wherever they manifest. A few humans possess the power of purification, i.e. they can confront the Thanatos and send them back through through the dimensions to Erebus — for these purposes, there’s deliberate confusion between the being and the alternate world itself.

From left to right: J.D., Nyx, Rayne and Hyuaga

 

Arcadia fights for its survival both through the Artifact Foundation, which tries to recover and preserve technology, and through a religion led by Mathias which believes that, at some point, a Queen with supernatural powers will emerge and save the world. Unfortunately, both organisations are corrupted. The chief technologist is Erenfried. He’s young and gifted, but with a severe inferiority complex, consumed by jealousy for Rayne, the man in whose footsteps he follows. In this role, he’s assisted by Jet, a cyborg with no real will of his own. The leadership succession for Celestial City is supposed to work through a process similar to reincarnation. Mathias knows he’s not the rightful leader but, obsessed with the power he commands, he keeps the true heir, René, out of the picture.

J.D. and Jet square off against each other

 

This leaves the day-to-day fight against the Thanatos in the hands of a small group. Led by Nyx, we have Rayne who recognised the dangers of the Artifact Foundation’s reliance on only partly understood old technology, Hyuga who left the Celestial City to find a better way of fighting the Thanatos, and J.D. who is a second cyborg but one who has reprogrammed himself to achieve a level of emotional maturity approximating that of a human. It’s this team that identifies Angelique as the likely Queen and saviour of Arcadia.

Mathias and René before the storm

 

To sum up. The dead emerge and literally suck the life out of the living. The Artifact Foundation’s failure to understand the old technology strengthens the power of the Thanatos. Equally, Mathias is tempted into using Erenfield’s technology instead of allowing René to lead the people in prayer. The result is the effective destruction of Celestial City although one symbolic tree does survive. This leads to more widespread destruction and loss of morale by the people of the world. The fact that Nyx has been the agent of Erebos for some three-hundred years is the final nail in the coffin, completely undermining Angelique’s self-confidence. Now the world has lost its one real hope for survival.

 

It’s a great story except the execution fails to match the required level of darkness. What we have is twenty-six episodes of pulled punches. It begins with the style of the art work. The best of the dark fantasy and horror animes use shadow and darkness, capturing the viciousness of the threats and the terror of the victims. Here, almost everything is light which completely destroys any real sense of danger from the Thanatos. There’s no menace as these tentacled thingies vaguely float around. Properly directed, the light would fade to shadow as the Thanatos emerge. They are hunters. Hear their lust to feed and then their angry frustration as our heroes fight them. More importantly, appreciate the real brilliance of Angelique as she is imbued with a holy light that purifies these diabolical beasts into oblivion. As it is, the effect of the holy light is washed out by it largely appearing in daylight. It could all be so dramatic as the light slowly spreads out, battling the darkness and, when it touches the Thanatos, producing wails of despair as they return to death.

 

Worse, we have a cute cat to keep Angelique company and, when not fighting, our heroes are turned into housekeepers, cooking, cleaning and generally acting in a distinctly non-macho way. It’s just all too nice and equal opportunities. Even when their home is burned to the ground and Angelique is stunned into a coma, the three hangers-on just hang around, waiting for something to turn up. There’s never any real sense of desperation and despair. I suspect all the key players were slipped a copy of the script. This explains why they act as if it’s all going to come out right in the end. So, there’s little emotional power in Erenfield’s redemption and the way in which Jet resolves his programming does not have the impact it deserves. The worst failure comes in the relationship between the human Nyx and Angelique after his dual identity is revealed. This could have been pure theatre as the dominant Erebus comes and goes. Sadly, the only visible sign is that Nyx gets a purple rash on his face.

 

Thus, what should have been an anime of wonderful power and drama is left as a plodding, rather romanticised story of a young girl who keeps her upper lip stiff enough to get through to the end where, as the Beatles once endlessly repeated in one of their singles, love is all you need. It’s interesting but not very involving.

 

My thanks to Autumn Rain for the screenshots.

 

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