Humour is one of these slightly irrational human reactions. If A prods B with a sharp stick, excluding situations where scantily clad partners intend erotic reactions, it’s reasonable to predict an angry response. It’s more difficult to predict what will amuse or make people laugh. Assuming, of course, that the ultimate point of humour is laughter. Indeed, that assumption may be putting the cart before the horse. Does humour actually have a point? Often the things we find amusing are the results of situations where someone looks ridiculous or is the victim of an unfortunate accident. Yet people actively seek amusement which would suggest that humour has a social function. We obviously enjoy different types of stimuli and, whether by reading or joining in some activity, hope to relieve the tedium of existence with the resulting smile or laugh.
Let’s put aside what others find comic. When I look back at a lifetime spent reading, I recall rarely cracking a smile when ploughing through P G Wodehouse more than fifty years ago, but falling about in helpless mirth when absorbing some of the early Tom Sharpe. I suppose the best comedy lies in the contemporary moment when authors are able to address their audience in real time. Once even a decade has gone by, so many of the allusions and assumptions have changed, it grows harder to remember what people might have found amusing. As to humour from America, there were standout moments. Back in 1962 before onboard terrorism became a threat, an air stewardess asked me to stop reading Catch 22 because my laughter was disturbing the other passengers. But, in general, I’ve found even less to make me laugh in US fiction with the exception of some short stories in the 1950s and 60s by Henry Kuttner, Robert Sheckley and the pseudonymous William Tenn. I have the sense that comedy does not comfortably pass over linguistic and cultural borders unless the content is universalised as satire or absurdism. For the most part, I appreciate the cleverness of what’s intended to be comic writing. The craftsmanship of the wordplay can be genuinely pleasing. But it doesn’t make me laugh (or smile very often, for that matter).
All of which brings me to Stalking the Vampire by Mike Resnick (PYR, 2008). This follows the exploits of John Justin Mallory, a PI stranded in an alternate Manhattan and featuring in Stalking the Unicorn (1987), Stalking the Dragon (2009) and a collection of short stories titled Stalking the Zombie due later this year (2012). The hook is reasonably conventional. Our hero starts off his miserable existence in our New York. Like all noir PIs, his wife has succumbed to the charms of his partner and, left to his own devices, his business is going from worse to diabolical. As with any hero down on his luck, he takes to the bottle and so is less than impressed when an elf appears and offers him money to track down a unicorn that’s gone AWOL. This moves his business into an alternate reality in which the supernatural is accepted as perfectly normal by all who live there. Not surprisingly, our laconic Mallory takes everything in his stride, cracks the case and settles down in this new world. This leaves him down on his luck and struggling to earn enough to cover the rent on his new office. Plus ça change and then some.
So how does Stalking the Vampire measure up in the comedy stakes? Following the rescue of the unicorn, this book continues the strict adherence to the Aristotelian unity of time. As has now been popularised by the television serial 24, each chapter follows real time with the clock progressing an identified number of minutes. The convention is that the action in each book or story should be completed in no more than 24 hours. Second, this is the fish-out-of-water trope with noir meeting whimsy. The humour is intended to flow from our practical gumshoe’s reaction to the madcap world around him. Except, of course, many of the supernatural beings are as deadly in this world as they have been in ours. So our hero can’t verbally brush off all-comers. He needs the help of locals to navigate the waters safely. Hence, the regulars are Felina, a real catwoman, and Col Winnifred Caruthers who’s a female big game hunter. For the purposes of this book, we add Bats McGuire, a pusillanimous vampire, and Scaly Jim Chandler (better known as Nathan Botts), a dragon who writes very bad PI novels —a sample is included as one of the appendices. Finally, there’s Grundy who, in Sherlock Holmes terms, represents the local Moriarty. Were they not on opposite sides, they would be friends if only because Mallory is completely unimpressed by the demon’s villainous approach to life (or should that be afterlife — difficult semantics when talking about a demon interacting with the human world).
There are a number of individual moments when I smiled in admiration of a nice touch. Unfortunately, Mike Resnick relies on running jokes that, after the first few miles, grow lame. As the miles rack up, they get blistered and limp. In other words, at this length (248 pages of novel plus 20 further pages of appendices and a biography), the repetitive nature of the different styles of humour wears out its welcome. Had this been 150 pages in total, there would be less chance of the jokes recycling too many times. But every time Mallory talks with Felina, their conversation follows exactly the same pattern. She’s heavily into cupboard love and skritching, while he’s always negotiating to get her constructive co-operation in the investigation. Goblins relentlessly try to sell him silly things at inflated prices. And so on. When not into situational humour, we get verbal humour. When not into absurdity, we get nonsense. Even puns appear from time to time. You have to admire the dedication of the author to the cause.
So here’s the final view. Stalking the Vampire is well-imagined and, in short bursts, highly readable. But, unless your sense of humour is on this single wavelength, you will not find this uproariously funny. I understood where I was supposed to find things amusing, and one or two of the individual jokes do hit the mark. But, to my jaded palate, the set-piece passages slow down the development of the urban fantasy plot. Ah yes, the plot. This is very professional as, without a description of the vampire in question, Mallory and his sidekicks must find the fiend and bring an end to proceedings before the clock runs out. It does all hang together, but you need to be strong to get to the end in a single sitting.
As a final thought, Mike Resnick has sold the film rights to the John Justin Mallory books and stories, so this is yet another film we almost certainly will never see.
For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
The Cassandra Project with Jack McDevitt
Cat on a Cold Tin Roof
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
The Trojan Colt
Well, as an atheist, A Satan Carol by Alan Steven Kessler (Wild Child Publishing, 2011) comes as a bit of a surprise. I live in a very sheltered world, rarely bothering to keep track of what day it is, let consider alone what’s going on in the religious realm. I usually reckon that if the evangelically-inclined don’t bother me, I won’t bother them. So I hadn’t realised that Christian folk write this kind of book. It’s a bit of an eye-opener. Let’s see if I can capture the flavour of it for you.
We start off in Ireland in 1848 with potatoes in short supply. Thanks to the excessive zeal of Mr Green, a diabolical English landlord, Joseph, Meg and their strangely gifted son, Liam, die. On his death, Liam releases a golden soul and there’s a possible link to a boy called Pal in one reality and with Massachusetts one-hundred-and-eighty years in the future where Katie Katz is pregnant. Then we meet Oram and watch how he deals with the prophetic powers that come to him following a blow on the head. In our first meeting with Hugh Jackson, we learn he was born with a rare soul, i.e. demonstrated by the presence of a caul across his face on birth. When his parents are killed in a fire, he loses his faith but even a bad lot may be redeemed. He goes on to work for Harvey Katz, father of Katie.
Fritz Mueller is a young sociopath in an alternate reality who rather enjoys researching whether there’s something special about rats that enables them to grow fat on what appears to be a poor diet. He’s rather into vivisection and eating whatever’s left over. As a result of penning his name in the traditional blood on the bottom of a standard-form business contract, he’s trained as a doctor while pursuing his research into whether modern genetics can suggest a way of regenerating damaged or dead tissue. This should be helpful in restoring Pal. It seems this Antichrist is not doing so well. The plan is for Dr Mueller to run an abortion clinic and collect as much foetal material as he needs to pursue his research. He’s checking out the human genome to find the right combination for regenerating the Satanic baby’s brain. Once that’s working properly, he can contribute to the family business in his current reality.
So where does all this leave us? A Satan Carol asserts that it’s about free will. Our Mr Green is Satan’s disciple, so he has to play by the rules of whichever universe he happens to be in. He can’t intervene directly, but can use all his persuasive powers to try influencing outcomes. Since he can manifest himself any guise, he can use appearance in support of words to mislead or corrupt all those who might interfere with his plans. Taking an overview, everything we read is based on a range of distinctly black-and-white prejudices. Whether it’s on suicide as a sin, adultery as a betrayal of family values, or abortion as having a distinctly Satanic motivation, it’s fascinating to see what springs off the page next. Anyway, in the midst of all this, the title intrudes and we get echoes of Charles Dickens with ghosts popping up (or down depending on their point of origin) around the Noël. The problem with such experiences is that, even to a cynical lawyer, an encounter with a ghost may just provide evidence of an afterlife. That would be most inconvenient from Mr Green’s perspective. The rest of the book focuses on the proposed abortion of Katie Katz unborn “child” and a passage through the White Mountains to the alternate reality where Oram can meet Pal, but not directly interact with anyone. In this, he’s a bit like God who, in more recent years, has not directly interacted with anyone. So here comes the clincher. Which body will get the golden soul? Will it be Pal or Katie’s baby — we can leave the question of when the newly conceived acquire souls to another book.
Putting all this together. A Satan Carol is a flashback: a Christian-fueled story claiming to be about free will and the power of temptation as wielded by a disciple of Satan. I haven’t read anything along these lines for fifty odd years when I ploughed through a number of religiously inclined books to see how authors discussed their beliefs. This included the C S Lewis Ransom Trilogy with Perelandra a rerun of the Garden of Eden on the theme of temptation. In a way, I’m rather grateful for the chance to extend my understanding of how modern American Christians think about moral issues. Sadly, although “Mr Green” is given plenty of chances to persuade people on the merits, he rarely comes up with any clear, winning arguments. This reflects what, for me, is a serious problem. Alan Steven Kessler is a man who appreciates certainty. It’s implicit in the very notion of faith. Even though a believer has no evidence, he or she must believe. This rather trivialises debates on issues of major social importance. Instead of being able to start from a neutral position, seek evidence, construct arguments based on the evidence, and reach reasoned conclusions, this book is burdened with several non-negotiable presumptions. So, even when people holding different philosophical or religious beliefs might see shades of grey and hesitate before reaching any firm view, Mr Kessler finds himself in an ironic situation. His faith mandates belief in a number of truths. As a writer, he has no free will and the plot he constructs has to produce predetermined outcomes. What claims to be a book about free will, by definition, cannot be so. At an intellectual level, both the events described and the debates are mechanistic, superficial and somewhat tediously repetitious. The result is that, if like Alan Steven Kessler, you’re an American Christian of firm faith, this is probably the book for you. It will confirm what you believe is right. But if you are, for example, a Hindu, Moslem, Taoist or hold one of the many other faiths around the world, it will probably only interest you if you are a cultural anthropologist. As an atheist, I thought it quite sad, albeit amusing in part, but then I find anyone who has an absolute belief in anything supernatural to be quite sad.
A copy of this ebook was sent to me for review.
One of the problems when you write a serial is to keep the everyday events grounded in whatever passes for reality. In Britain, a classic example is the weekday serial called The Archers (BBC Radio) which is set in a farming community. Now it would no doubt be great for ratings if a flying saucer descended on to a field of wheat and the little grey occupants explained why a nice geometrical design would be left when they took off again. But this would be a one-shot audience high. Until the cylinders fired from the guns on Mars arrive, the writers would have to keep going with talk of which fields they will fertilise next and what they will do if there’s an unexpected frost after seeding. In fact, the weather patterns in the show closely follow the real world. That way, when the fictional farmers look out of their windows, they see what the listeners see. It makes them feel like the folks living next door.
I confess to being somewhat underwhelmed by Right Hand Magic, the first in this Golgotham series (I wait with interest to see which part of the body is to be featured in the title of the next book). It seemed to me a rather pallid piece of romantic fiction with some vague supernatural threats to deal with. Indeed, I’ve rather consistently found these urban fantasy or paranormal romances (pick whichever label you find most appealing) less than exciting. I’ve speculated the reason is my gender. As a man, I’m more used to blood and gore following on from assorted violent mayhem. Just as gooey romance on the large and small screen tends to leave me nauseous, debates over whether hunks are hot enough to bed are not my choice of reading material. Anyway, now we come to Left Hand Magic by Nancy Collins and, while it sticks to the script of nothing too exciting, there’s a slow improvement in the overall performance.
In Right Hand Magic, Nancy Collins dumped us in media res and I was critical of the failure to explain any of the background. Now we have the first book out of the way, this is evolving into an alternate reality series in which the author is applying the “what if” principle to a world in which the human exists alongside the supernatural. As in The Archers, we look out of the window and see a New York in which all manner of magical folk live in Golgotham, hopefully rubbing along without too many inter-racial or species conflicts. Except, of course, that’s always too much to hope for. So, when newspaper articles emerge praising the bohemian delights of pub crawls round Golgotham, the locals suddenly have to deal with an unwelcome flood of human rubberneckers. Inevitably, after both sides have consumed an appropriate quantity of alcohol, there can be disagreements about whether smoking should be allowed and other cultural issues. Unless nipped in the bud, this can build into a major civil disturbance. Then which policing agency should take jurisdiction and how should both sides of the community deal with the aftermath?
The answer to these questions is provided with some degree of rigor. Nancy Collins is exploring the initial premises and reaching some interesting social and political conclusions. Some of the ideas are also appealing. I like the methods for making an artist’s impression of alleged criminals and taking evidence from witnesses. We could do with such abilities in our human courts. So while I would prefer to avoid the angst over meeting the prospective mother-in-law, the ghastly sentimentality over acquiring and keeping a dog for the home, planning the wedding with Vanessa, dealing with jealousy from female magical folk, and issues over who gets to see whom naked around the home, there are emerging signs of intelligent life in this alternate reality. The argument to stir up the older magical folk is that the humans are marginalising them by developing technology. Who needs teleportation when you have a car or van? Who needs to be able to fly when you have aeroplanes? This has the right level of irrationality to appeal to the prejudices of anyone whose living depends on supplying magical services to the human community.
So Left Hand Magic is an improvement on the first volume, if only because it has begun to take itself seriously. The real test is satisfied. Nancy Collins does not feel the need to go out of her way to introduce outrageous supernatural threats. All the events feel reasonably consistent with the prevalent levels of magical abilities shown by each racial group or bloodline. Yes, there are threats to life and limb but they are not oversold. In other urban fantasies, there are citywide or, in one or two cases, state-wide effects to contend with. Here, everything is highly individual and the greater effects would come from political and not magical pressures. From my male point of view, it’s a shame I have to read through all this romantic mush but, hey, you never know. Perhaps our human heroine will turn out to have superpowers or, better still, the children of this mixed relationship will lead humans and the magical folk into a bright new future together.
For a review of the final book in the trilogy, see Magic and Loss
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Naamah’s Blessing by Jacqueline Carey (Grand Central Publishing, 2011) (Book III of the Naamah Trilogy which fits into the broader narrative of the Kushiel’s Legacy series) is both enjoyable and frustrating. This is what I take to be the final episode in the current series that began with Naamah’s Kiss (2009) and continued in Naamah’s Curse (2010). We have therefore to tie up all the loose ends when our heroine, Moirin mac Fainche, and her more pithily named husband, Bao, finally return to Terre D’Ange. All this could have been done in relatively short order had the main antagonist been available. Unfortunately, Raphael del Mereliot has disappeared off to the New World with Thierry, the Dauphin of Terre D’Ange in tow. Merchants have realised the full benefits of trade, particularly now that this alternate reality Europe has discovered chocolate. This exploratory mission is intended to forge the necessary links to make long-term trade possible.
Jacqueline Carey gives us 150 pages to familiarise ourselves with the new political realities of Terre D’Ange given that Jehanne de la Courcel is dead. Her husband, King Daniel, remains locked in grief and has temporarily passed de facto control of the kingdom to Rogier Courcel (never a good move to give an ambitious relative a position of real power). No matter. The King’s depression is so deep, he neither knows nor cares what’s going on around him. Worse, he can’t bear to be with his four-year old daughter, Desiree de la Courcel, who looks too like Jehanne. Her care has been passed over to “trained” nursemaids who are struggling to contain the tantrums of the precious little tyke. Such is the stereotype of behaviour displayed by the unloved. King Daniel emerges from his slough of despond long enough to appoint Moirin surrogate Mummy and, together with Bao, they start about converting the frog into a Princess. Although the politics of ruling the state and, ultimately, of succession have some mild interest, this first section drags like a sack of potatoes across a rocky terrain. Only when adverse news comes from the New World do things begin to perk up.
Even so, the sea voyage and the trek through the unforgiving jungle to find the missing men is all fairly routine. It may be an alternate reality but the jungle remains the same. There’s disease (damn mosquitoes are everywhere), snakes (damn things lurk on land and in rivers) and a river in flood to sweep away the unwary (damn thing pretends to be a means of transport, hides the snakes, breeds the mosquitoes and, when it rains a bit, acts as a meat grinder for anyone who falls in). And let’s not forget the damn natives who sacrifice the tour package holidaymakers, revolting villagers in neighbouring counties and anyone else they don’t like, and build temples to their gods out of the skulls they collect from the stew pots. There are, of course, Conquistadors but, mercifully, it’s too early in this version of history for pirates. When the chocolate trade gets started, shipping carrying the new gold will be targeted, of course. I read reams of these adventures stories when I was growing up and, now I’m old, having to plough through this rerun in an alternate reality book is ironic to say the least. This is a dismal swamp for desperate authors who want to spin out the story for a few more pages, i.e. to page 370 — only another 240 pages to go.
Only when we get to meet Raphael again does the book settle down into a more comfortable rhythm and back into a more creative zone (although one small passage suggests an awareness of “Leiningens Kampf mit den Ameisen” by Carl Stephenson (1937)). The final third of the book is immensely satisfying even though the resolution of the first 150 pages is achieved in a rather perfunctory way when the survivors get back to Terre D’Ange. It makes you wonder why the set-up was so long if there was to be no detailed follow-through. Nevertheless, this efficiency of disposition allows time for the final confirmation of the love between Moirin and Bao, and to see their immediate future settled.
So, let’s come back to the two words I started with. The final third of Naamah’s Blessing is fantasy of the very best quality. It’s more than merely enjoyable. It leaves such a good feeling, I’m tempted to forgive all the hack clichés that preceded it. Jacqueline Carey has consistently produced excellent work. It’s frustrating that this book should start off on the final leg of the trilogy journey with such leaden feet. Although, in fairness, all you young things who’ve never encountered people trying to make progress through a hostile jungle, may find the middle section the most exciting thing you’ve ever read. So, for those who are fans of the first two novels in the current cycle, there’s an emotionally satisfying ending as all the farewells are said to all the key players from the earlier parts of the story. It should go without saying that, if you’ve not read the earlier books, you should not start here. When in doubt, always start at the beginning.
It’s a rather beautiful piece of art from Alan Ayers for the jacket.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Anno Frankenstein by Jonathan Green (Abaddon Books, 2011) is the seventh book in the Pax Britannia series featuring Ulysses Quicksilver, agent of the Crown. For those of you who’ve missed the earlier episodes, we’re in an alternate reality based on an epic blending of steampunk, horror, science fiction, science fantasy and supernatural fantasy. There are probably more subgenres at work in this series but it really doesn’t matter. We’re as likely to stumble across a bioengineered kraken, werethings, vampires, zombie super-soldiers and sophisticated Babbage engines in the first few pages, quickly followed by a Smörgåsbord of whatever else the author thinks will pitch us headlong into yet more adventures. There’s a general wildness, not to say mayhem, about the excesses of creativity on display. That’s part of the fun. Yes, that’s right. There’s an irrepressible exuberance about these books as you turn the pages and find even more marvelous absurdities as yet another creature or person from history bounds on to the stage to take a well-deserved bow.
The title to this volume should give you a clue as to what’s afoot. Winston Churchill sends our hero out on a spying operation behind enemy lines. Sorry, I forgot to explain that this is 1943 and Magna Britannia has finally been drawn into the war with Hitler’s Germany. The Nazi war machine has just been reinforced by zombie, i.e. reanimated, super-soldiers who are patched together at Castle Frankenstein (what a surprise) and programmed to march into the valley of death and cause as much of it as possible. After all, the more people the dead kill, the more body parts there are to sew back together and send back out as reinforcements. Now we have that clear, Hercules Quicksilver is allocated a partner called Dr. Jekyll, although the good doctor is being kept on ice as our hero attempts to infiltrate Germany in a captured Zeppelin. But, sadly, dawn breaks before it reaches its destination. Ever-alert Nazi spotters alert the authorities and the airship is brought down by a squadron of weaponised cyber-eagles. After the crash, there are many dead. Once Jekyll gets warmed up, there’s no stopping his alter ego. By now, we’re deep into alternate reality territory as the local version of von Stauffenberg is trying to bring his conspiracy to kill Hitler closer to success. Also behind enemy lines, we’ve got some jolly hockey-sticks escapees from St. Trinian’s Military Academy for Young Ladies and a mystery man (if that’s the right way of explaining him) called Daniel Dashwood.
Once we get everyone to the Castle Frankenstein, it’s all nicely Gothic in the tradition of Where Eagles Dare, except one of the Monstrous Regiment goes to meet her Maker. No, wait. That’s not right in Castle Frankenstein. She needs to avoid meeting anyone who might make her into a Valkyrie — that’s German for dead maiden super-soldier. But never forget this mysterious Dashwood, he of the unsettling visage, who’s also lurking somewhere. Suppose he’s not one of them, but one of them! Yes, if you feel the plot is running out of steam to keep the punk going at full speed, there’s always time travel to get us back in the groove. Now we can all see how it turned out before it happens, as it were. Except, if our hero can get to the time before history went all pear-shaped — a big change from the usual pineapple — he might be able to get it back to what it should have been before. . . well, you know the type of thing secret agents do when able to mess with time. And, wait a minute! Who is this Hercules? What’s happened to Ulysses? Is this a major proof-reading SNAFU? Not a bit of it! And, when they do team up, they have to move on to another castle? Perhaps they should ask H G Wells how to get there.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are moments when the pace does flag a little — that’s not a white flag of surrender, of course — but unless the publisher is going to accept a 1950’s length of book — see time travel could be useful — authors are condemned to pad out their plots to make the designated word count. So, Jonathan Green is to be commended for valiantly persevering and making such a high percentage of the words count in entertainment terms. No matter how you slice and dice it like the original Baron, Anno Frankenstein is hugely enjoyable and, as you would expect, leaves everything set for the next book in the Pax Britannia series.
There’s very pleasing artwork for the jacket from Mark Harrison, taking time of from the comics.
A copy of this e-book was sent to me for review.
For once we’ve got a reasonably intelligent science fiction film rather than an excuse for poorly realised spaceships to dodge and weave about the screen, firing off superweapons and exploding in balls of fire — something that suggests there’s a previously unrecognised mass of oxygen in outer space capable of supporting combustion. Well, perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration since space opera is moderately rare in the cinema these days. Hollywood prefers the cheaper version of aliens running around, blowing stuff up on Earth. That makes for better explosions and cheaper CGI. Anyway, Source Code (2011) offers us one of the more coherent efforts at a multiverse story even if it’s more than a little amoral.
No, really? A multiverse story? What’s that?
Well, before we get into spoiler territory, let’s deal with a little of the background. This theory suggests we have more than one reality. Conventional physics says time, gravity and all the other constants move in a straight line. So although each individual makes choices, the outcomes to all the decisions are fixed in the one timeframe. We all live with our triumphs and mistakes equally. But others suggest each decision is like a fork in the road. Sometimes we walk left, sometimes right. So in parallel dimensions, we live out our lives with each set of choices. In the most interesting of these theories, there are an infinite number of possible universes because, over time, millions of us make decisions every day and so the number of possible outcomes expands without limit.
OK, taking this as our base, we assume that, at any one time, there are an infinite number of realities almost exactly the same as ours shading to realities nothing like ours. Dr Rutledge, played with introverted intensity by Jeffrey Wright, has developed a technique for implanting the mind of a man from our reality into the body of a matching man in an alternate reality. If you recall Quantum Leap, we’ve the same convention that Jake Gyllenhaal is transplanted into a different body, but we continue to see Jake Gyllenhaal. This form of the transplant keeps his female fans happy and lasts for exactly eight minutes, at the end of which the host dies (not through the shock of becoming Jake Gyllenhaal, you understand, but in an explosion).
For those who like to play around with the ideas, the death of everyone on the train in this alternate reality prevents there being any contamination of that timeline. Even though the transplanted man may say or do things to disturb the alternate, the effect never leaves the train. Dr Rutledge assumes that if our hero, Colter Stevens played by Jake Gyllenhaal, can identify the bomber in the alternate reality, the same person, driving an identical van with the same number plate can be arrested in our reality and so prevent a second explosion, this time a dirty bomb.
It’s actually better not to think too much about this because the chance of people in alternate realities having the same name or the same licence plate on their vehicles seems remote. I suppose this may occur because the source code recreates a “captured” version of the alternate reality every time the program is run, i.e. it starts with the same parameters every time. If this is the case, the good doctor is creating millions of people in a new reality just so a small number can be blown up on a train and millions can be maimed or killed in Chicago when the dirty bomb explodes. This act of creation and death is justified because it’s expedient to save our people. It would be less immoral if the alternate realities already exist. Now all we’re doing is exploiting what’s inevitable for them, so that we can avoid the same fate.
No matter how it works, in each of the eight minute insertions, Colter Stevens learns about the people in his section of the train. He does this by being prepared to beat them up and, if necessary, shoot to kill. We’re not supposed to care because the people we see only have eight minutes to live. What happens to them is irrelevant in the larger scale of things. In the midst of his investigating, Colter Stevens finds himself attracted to Christina Warren, played by Michelle Monaghan. He decides he should try to save her. This is interesting because, should he succeed, one person surviving the train explosion will produce a major divergence of the realities. That need not concern our timeline, of course. It just means there will never be any chance of going there again as this person now interacts with thousands of people during her lifetime, thereby moving that reality ever further away from ours.
With Colter Stevens dying every eight minutes, he develops psychological problems. Encouraging him to keep going is the pivotal Colleen Goodwin played with quite remarkable sensitivity by Vera Farmiga. Without someone strong in this role, the film would collapse. She’s pitch perfect throughout and gives the film unexpected weight.
This is the stand-out science fiction film so far this year. Jake Gyllenhaal strives valiantly in a slightly thankless role while everyone else, led by Vera Farmiga, rallies round and produces an excellent ensemble piece. It’s a clever script by Ben Ripley allowing the scenario on the train to continuously evolve and expand. For once, Ripley has produced something better than films about sex-crazed aliens, with the whole thing beautifully directed by Duncan Jones, who seems to be making a name for himself rather fast. All in all, Source Code is excellent viewing for anyone who likes science fiction which follows through to the implications of our actions no matter how immoral.
Stop reading here if you don’t want a discussion of what actually happens.
We get this far by suspending disbelief and accept the arrest of the bomber in our timeline. Not being sure how the machine works, we may have to thank Dr Rutledge for destroying Chicago in perhaps more than one hundred other realities depending on how many times Colter Stevens iterates through his eight minute loops. But we are safe. Our Earth’s authorities are delighted with the outcome and can’t wait to use the machine again. Before they embark on new threats, I sincerely hope the Government intends to use the machine to save as many alternate versions of Chicago as possible. This would be the moral step, maximising the benefit of this invention for all realities. We would want other realities to save us if they could, so every Dr Rutledge should be arguing for his Colter Stevens to help others before he helps himself. Sadly, we see Dr Rutledge rubbing his hands and only speculating on what his next triumph will be, confirming the general lack of morality in this project. This is selfishness personified, a sauve qui peut approach to life.
Perhaps anticipating how he will be used and taking everything he has learned about the train, Colter Stevens now knows enough to prevent the train from blowing up. He therefore persuades Colleen Goodwin to send him in one last time to save at least one Chicago. At the end of this eight minutes insertion, she’s to turn off his life support and let him die. This she does. The result is presumably an arrest with her sent off to die in the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico.
After the freeze frame, we are in the alternate reality where Colter Stevens saves Chicago, gets the girl, and sets off for a new life with her. What makes the ending initially appear so pleasing is the text message he sends to Colleen Goodwin in this new reality. For, yes, there’s an identical project in this reality with a version of himself waiting to be deployed to solve a major crime and avert catastrophe. This message primes Colleen Goodwin to encourage Colter Stevens. Not only can he “save the day” no matter where he’s sent, but he can also escape and find a new life for himself in an alternate reality. So each reality may be said to offer Colter Stevens hope, no matter how desperate things may seem. No-one can ask for more than that in any reality. Let’s not go into whether our hero could sustain a convincing impersonation of a man in that reality, once it’s confirmed he can stay with the new identity. There’s also an unresolved paradox because, if Dr Rutledge’s technology depends on the target man dying, he no longer dies, i.e. the transfer should not work.
Now let’s come to the really big question. Colter Stevens knows he displaces the mind of the man in the target body. Let’s say he believes the mind of the teacher is transferred into his body. When he persuades Colleen Goodwin to switch off the life support, he intends Goodwin to kill the teacher so that the replacement is permanent. In my book, that makes Colter Stevens and Colleen Goodwin murderers. However, no matter what he believes about where the mind of the teacher goes, the clear intention is to kill that mind so that our “hero” can have a happy ending. There used to be a morality code in Hollywood. It was known as the Hays Code. Although this was predominantly concerned with sexual and, to some extent, political content, there was a general view that motion pictures should not show criminals benefitting from their crimes. Under the Code, this ending could not have been added after the freeze frame. The rule used to be that criminals should be punished. While this is, no doubt, unacceptably black and white for our relativist age, I’m surprised a stone-cold killer should be shown enjoying his stolen life in the final frames. I’m not sure what message this is sending to our impressionable young.
Source Code (2011) has been shortlisted for the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation 2011 and for the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation — Long.