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Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)

platinum data-img

Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013) is based on work by Keigo Higashino who’s usually very reliable as a provider of source material. This first appeared as “Platina Data” which was published as a serial by Papyrus in 2006, and was later fixed up as a novel by Gentosha and published in 2010. I suppose I might be inclined to think the film of some value if I had not also seen Minority Report (2002), another science fiction film, albeit set in the year 2054. Just to remind you, the technology at the heart of this earlier film is that three precogs are slaved together to predict when a murder will occur. The police are then able to intervene and prevent the killing, consigning the murderer (guilty in mind only) to a deep-sleep jail. The theme of the film may rightly be characterised as a meditation on the relationship between determinism and free will.

 

So this film is set in Japan in 2017 and it has an all-singing, all-dancing computer system going through beta testing. It predicts both physical characteristics and behavioural patterns based on an advanced form of DNA analysis. If the tests are successful, the government has pledged to pass legislation authorising the collection of DNA from all Japanese citizens. Even babies will surrender a sample to ensure the database is kept up-to-date. Once the collection is complete, the quality of the data will represent platinum status, i.e. the computer’s mathematical models will be able to use any trace DNA to identify the probable offender. Although the police force will not become redundant, the investigation of all serious crime will be handed over to the machine. Enhancing the DNA capacity, there’s also a facial recognition system so that individuals may be tracked through the thousands of surveillance cameras placed throughout public spaces both outside and in common areas inside buildings. Once a suspect is identified, the system can guide the police to arrest him or her. The assumption is that the DNA predisposes the body to grow in particular ways and for the personality to have certain predictable traits, i.e. it’s a determinist system.

Reiji Asama (Etsushi Toyokawa)

Reiji Asama (Etsushi Toyokawa)

 

This fairly quickly looks a shaky proposition because once the system enters testing, there are thirteen instances where the DNA found at crime scenes cannot be identified. One of these crimes is a serial killer and, when the killer strikes again, the DNA found under the fingernails of one victim, Saki Tateshina (Kiko Mizuhara) proves to be that of Ryuhei Kagura (Kazunari Ninomiya). These are the two people responsible for writing most of the code for this DNA computer system. Detective Reiji Asama (Etsushi Toyokawa) is immediately suspicious. This killing does not match the others in terms of motive, nor is there any clear reason for one of the two brilliant coders to kill the other. But, as is always required in this type of film, Kagura goes on the run and we’re subjected to several rather tedious chases. For the record, the two coders met in hospital. One was an idiot savant. The other was suffering multiple personality disorder following the suicide of his father.

Two for the price of one Ryuhei Kagura (Kazunari Ninomiya)

Two for the price of one Ryuhei Kagura (Kazunari Ninomiya)

 

If you should decide to watch this movie, then remember the point of Minority Report. One of the precogs has an agenda which was to expose the murder of her mother. So this “trio” of personalities also proves to have an agenda. Yes, there’s a problem with the design of this system and perhaps, just perhaps, the DNA analysis is not infallible. Perhaps people are able to act outside the predicted behavioural parameters if the circumstances warrant it. Or there may be a different problem. If I was feeling more benign, I might dignify this as a more dystopian film. At least the government in Minority Report might have been altruistic in its intentions. This means you only watch the rather tedious and predictable Platinum Data or プラチナデータ if you want to see some quite pleasing future computer systems in operation and some cool locations. The look and feel of the graphics is pretty good. It’s a shame the plot proves so derivative and undercooked. Perhaps it reads better than it looks.

 

For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011)
Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 (2011)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ~劇場版・新参者~ (2012)

 

For a Galileo novel, see Salvation of a Saint.

 

The Detainee by Peter Liney

May 16, 2014 1 comment

The Detainee by Peter Liney

It’s always good to begin with an irreverent thought — it gets such ideas out of your system before starting on the serious business of writing the review. Anyway, back in 1965, I remember paying to see The Bed-Sitting Room, a hilariously absurd play about a man who, as a result of exposure to radiation during World War III, turned into a bed-sitting room. He was then occupied by the doctor treating him. This bodily invasion was justified by the doctor’s thought it was easier to treat his patient when he had somewhere comfortable to sit. This made a more amusing play than Becket’s Happy Days which has one character buried in a mound of earth. But the theme of both plays revolves around people who survive after a catastrophe of some kind. Back in the sixties, we were all somewhat obsessed by the different ways in which we might be terminated (apologies to daleks) in a nuclear holocaust. Today, we get to think about different types of apocalypse.

The Detainee by Peter Liney (Quercus/Jo Fletcher Books, 2013) has a financial meltdown which leads to a somewhat clichéd dystopia in which all the scroungers and useless people are sent to camps (in this case on an island) where they are expected to die. I didn’t have a problem with the logic of the trigger for this process of social winnowing, but I did wonder how it was managed in the cities. Equally, I wondered how the people arrived on this island. Do boats come across from the city on a regular schedule with people unloaded by goons with cattle prods? There doesn’t seem to be any system for meeting and greeting newcomers — old worthless people this way, Lord of the Flies wannabes follow me, collect your machetes after health screening for organ donation (it is an island after all and Logan’s Run rules apply).

Peter Liney

Peter Liney

And I wasn’t entirely clear how the old people survived. There doesn’t seem to be any routine of foraging in the rubbish dump for food, clothing or any other essentials. And how do they cook whatever food they find? No electricity, no running water, no obvious way in which to make fire assuming safely combustible material could be found. Or are we just to assume there’s enough in the garbage for them to snack on whenever the mood takes them? And then what happens during winter? The attrition rate must be phenomenal without having all the killer kids rampaging whenever the mists come down. Which makes it all the more surprising there’s no apparent system for collecting more victims from the disembarkation point and settling them into their lean-to hovels before execution or death through starvation. In other words, I couldn’t work out how the island was supposed to function as a place to live. The only explanation for the older arrivals was as a place to die quickly, the young more slowly (although whether anyone would want their organs if they were malnourished and addicted to drugs is not considered). These problems always arise with first-person narration because if our protagonist doesn’t see or think about the relevant information, we readers remain in the dark.

Our first-person narrator is sixty-three-year old “Big Guy” Clancy. Before the crash, he was muscle for a gangster. Think of him as the strong, silent type who would loom over people and intimidate them into doing what was required. He’s not overly endowed in the brain department, but equally not stupid. Physically, he’s in decline as you would expect of a man of his age who doesn’t work out. Even though he’s still physically impressive when compared to most of the other old folk, he’s disinclined to get involved when the killers come. He waits patiently for death, seeing no reason to shorten his life by attempting to defend those attacked. This leaves him somewhat disliked with only Jimmy and Delilah prepared to see any good in him. Then one day he has the good fortune to be saved from attack by an unexpected person. Over time, this leads to his rehabilitation as a person. We then go through the obligatory stage to recruit allies (there do prove to be quite a lot prepared to fight against the established order) and it’s into the climactic battle to end book one in this trilogy.

Now you might think because I’ve been finding fault with some aspects of the book that it’s unenjoyable. This is not the case. Some aspects of the plot are quite rigorously worked out and although the precise mechanism for the ending depends on one of these coincidences and is slightly deus ex machina, the whole is a fascinating preface to what I take to be the real story which begins in book 2 (or at least I hope it starts in book 2). Whereas what happens on the island is fairly well-trodden ground, what’s happening in the city could be the salvation of the trilogy when the books are read together. I’m actually interested to see what happens next.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Hunger Games (2012)

March 31, 2013 Comments off

HungerGamesPoster

More years ago than I care to remember, I was a classical scholar and something of an expert in not only the languages but also the cultures of the Ancient World. Amongst other things, this meant a basic familiarity with the mythology. Theseus was caught up in the dispute between Athens and Crete. Androgeus, the son of King Minos, had been assassinated in Athens. The price of peace was that, every year, Athens sent seven young men and women to Crete as tribute to be fed to the Minotaur. Coming forward in time, here’s a science fiction novel and now film. Ostensibly, this is a young adult post-apocalypse dystopian novel by Suzanne Collins where one young man and woman from each of twelve Districts is sent to the Capitol to participate in a televised fight to the death. The Hunger Games (2012) is the first in a projected series with the second being in production thanks to the massive amount of money made by this film both in the cinema and through DVD sales.

 

This has all the usual faults of a piece of science fiction aimed at young adults. To begin to understand the extent of these problems, let’s meet Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her love interest Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). They like to hunt in the forest around their District’s living area, hence our heroine’s expertise with the bow — there’s no large game, only squirrels and other small mammals. We immediately note the poverty of those in District 12. Later, this is juxtaposed with the high civilisation of the Capitol. It’s always interesting in dystopian contexts, to speculate on how the distribution of wealth and privilege could become so skewed. If, as shown in the historical newsreel, there was a nuclear civil war in which the twelve satellite states turned on the central state, the major population centres would have been levelled. Indeed, with twelve states shooting at one, it’s hard to see how the one could survive at all. Anyway, if this is the old USA, why were only twelve states involved? What happened to all the rest?

Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Lawrence relax before the big event

Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Lawrence relax before the big event

 

Even if we accept this curiosity, why would the defeated survivors have agreed to rebuild only one? The idea that the defeated rebel states could have been coerced into this arrangement followed up by this tribute system is not convincingly explained. There’s always a delicate balance of power between the oppressors and the oppressed. In the parade, we’re told the Districts specialise in mining, power-generation, and so on. This would suggest rather smaller units, rather like a core city with suburbs, yet the train journey from District 12 obviously goes on for hours at high speed. So let’s say there’s a rebellion among the people who dig up the coal for the power-generation people to turn into electricity. If these people are the only miners, sending in troops to kill large numbers of them completely destabilises the interdependent supply system. The oppressive regime can try intimidation, but extermination is impossible until there are sufficient replacements prepared to take over as miners. More generally, has the land not been irradiated by nuclear fallout or perhaps chemical weaponry? Perhaps District 12 is the only area where it’s safe to dig. Worse, the downtrodden citizens in District 12 all look remarkably well fed with no sign of starvation, yet we see only a few pigs fed on reject bread and no obvious farming. Where is all the food coming from, not just in the Districts, but also to support the lavish lifestyle of the Capitol? There’s no way the Katniss we see on screen has been deprived of food even though we do see her apparently desperate for a crust of bread from Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). More generally, how can anything grow if this was a widespread conflict involving the use of nuclear and/or chemical weapons? Surely the soil is irredeemably polluted?

 

Now let’s come to the tribute itself. Each year, there’s a ballot across the twelve Districts to pick the twenty-four victims who are sent to the Capitol. Why, you might ask, should there be a “winner”? If the Capitol simply wanted to intimidate the Districts, it could execute twenty-four young people randomly selected every year. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) explains the tribute is slightly more insidious by offering all participants the illusion of hope — an illusion for twenty-three since only one can survive. This is political nonsense. Surely the only real outcome is to depress eleven Districts who get to see their children killed on live television while the twelfth only gets back one child. Why do any of the victims have any hope? Why are the Districts not more angry? Finally, why must the winners go back to their Districts? Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who acts as mentor to Katniss and Peeta, is still in the Capitol after winning twenty years ago. Why was this drunken streak of misery privileged while everyone else was sent back to live in poverty?

 

If we look back in the cinema, films like Battle Royale, Death Race 2000, Rollerball and The Running Man have shown us dystopian futures in which mass entertainment is used to manipulate the mood of the people. It’s the old blood-and-circuses idea from Ancient Rome. So this film flirts with the Capitol being a new Rome as our carefully coiffed victims ride in in their chariots to be greeted by their adoring fans. This is reinforced by the naming system. The game’s manager is Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), the interviewer and all-round television face is Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and stylist Cinna (Lennie Kravitz) (originally a long-serving consul of the Roman Republic).

The wounded Josh Hutcherson gets comfort from Jennifer Lawrence

The wounded Josh Hutcherson gets comfort from Jennifer Lawrence

 

When sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is selected as District 12’s female victim, it’s up to Katniss to volunteer in her place. The other ballot “winner” is Peeta. She receives moral support and image advice from Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna. As is required for a young adult heroine, Katniss ranges between surly and spunky in early scenes at the Capitol. Her display with the bow, however, breaks the ice and makes her a popular favorite. Peeta consolidates her star quality by confessing a long-time crush on her. In the end this battle is all about the ratings and she becomes dominant, a fact displeasing to President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who fears this spunky volunteer may incite riots among supporters in outlying Districts.

 

When we get to the games themselves, like The Truman Show, the managers of this closed environment can control the day/night cycle. More importantly, they can start fires and force the contestants out of safe hiding places and towards a confrontation with the others. Otherwise one or two could just sit out the contest until everyone else was dead or wounded. Of course, all kinds of outside interference are possible if the government or sponsors permit. But what seems to be achievable is pure fantasy not science fiction. The fires are absolutely controllable, complete with RPG balls that can be shot at people, plus trees that fall on command. At the press of a button, they are extinguished and there’s no sign of smoke damage or burned vegetation during the rest of the film. And then there are these genetically modified dogs. I suppose they must be kept in kennels somewhere and then uploaded. But how are they cleared away so quickly?

 

So where does this leave us? At 136 minutes (including the credits) it’s too long. This is not to say the individual parts are not interesting but, when put together, it’s excessive. The fatal game sequence has its moments and, in strictly technical terms, there’s a certain fascination in seeing how the numbers are whittled down and the final deaths occur. This being a film aimed at a young adult audience, there’s little or no blood shown. The necessary deaths are managed with taste and decorum — many out-of-shot. Similarly the game romance is suitably chaste. Just a peck or two on the cheeks and lips, and lying down together platonically to maintain body temperatures while “healing” takes place. All this is quite enjoyable. But the major failing of the film is to explain how the Hunger Games came to be and, more importantly, how they fit into the current political framework. It seems even the managers are not entirely sure of their roles. The result is snatched scenes of rioting with white, helmeted troops moving in to quell the disturbances but nothing is explained.

 

As a final question, is District 11 racially segregated? In writing this I’m not trying to reignite the racist tweeting over the casting of Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) but, when we see shots of District 11, the majority of the inhabitants do seem to be African American. So is this the agriculture District where they grow the cotton? Although it’s good to see African Americans and a Nigerian in the cast, it seems we’re not post-racial in this post-apocalypse, i.e. we do not see a general ethnic and racial diversity across all parts of this state. We spend considerable time in District 12. Why is there no clear racial integration on display? If the film-makers had wanted to defuse suspicion of racism embedded in the structure of this fictional world, all they had to do was show a real mixture of races in District 12.

 

This leaves me thinking The Hunger Games is probably very entertaining for young adults but deeply frustrating for anyone with a fully developed brain.

 

A number of people have suggested that this film borrows a little too heavily from the two Battle Royale films. Here are the reviews: Battle Royale or Batoru Rowaiaru, バトル・ロワイアル, 大逃殺 (2000)
Battle Royale II: Requiem or Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Rekuiemu or (バトル・ロワイアルII (2003)

 

This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award and for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation.

Clean by Alex Hughes

December 24, 2012 1 comment

Clean by Alex Hughes

I suppose I must classify myself as having been an addict. I grew up at a time when more or less everyone smoked so, being one of the herd, I followed. Looking back, this was less than rational. I was born an asthmatic and was plagued by a wide range of allergies. To have begun smoking was a tragic error. With breathing an increasing challenge, I then recognised the only approach to quitting is abstinence. It’s the psychology of the process. If you are serious, you give it up and never go back. If you are less than serious, you switch your dependence to something supposedly less dangerous. Why? Because perpetuating addictive behaviour means you don’t want to make a full recovery. As part of the process of getting clean from the more dangerous drugs, many in the counselling industry advocate different versions of the 12 Step Programs. Obviously you should not try to beat addiction alone so regular meetings with other addicts reinforce the commitment to stay clean. It’s helpful to know others are struggling with the same problems and holding out. This package of measures may include finding a “higher power” This is often taken to mean you should pray to God, but prayer and reading the Bible are not actually necessary so long as you develop the self-discipline to avoid relapse. Feeling you have someone stronger in your corner fighting for you helps. Why are we starting in this way?

As the title, Clean by the gender-neutral Alex Hughes A Mindspace Investigation Novel (Roc, 2012), suggests, our nameless Level 8 telepath with precognitive skills is a recovering Satin addict. As a first-person narrative, we’re therefore given a ringside seat as our “hero” struggles not to relapse (again). In the general run of genre classifications, this makes the book a dystopian, noirish, urban fantasy, thriller, science fiction police procedural story about identity and redemption (assuming he can stay clean, of course). Ah, you noticed the labelling confusion. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I despair of the publisher/retailer conspiracy to categorise books. Although I concede it’s useful to know which part of a big store to visit to find books I’m likely to want to buy, it’s not constructive to label with increasing particularity. This forces authors to write to a predetermined formula so their book fit, i.e. it stifles creativity. For what it’s worth, I approve of books like this which conflate elements into the whole as needed to build a world in which the action is to take place.

Alex Hughes with a promising first novel

Alex Hughes with a promising first novel

So we have a telepath who works for the police force. There’s a serial killer on the loose so our hero and Homicide Detective Isabella Cherabino are off on the trail. The writing style is reasonably hardboiled or noir, but we’re set in a future following Tech Wars in which sentient technology tried to take over the world. Humanity was saved by those with Abilities and there are serious consequences including the abandonment of many types of technology. This has left the survivors in a very rundown city environment in which many aspects of life are unpleasant. To relieve the pervasive dystopian gloom, there are elements of romance between our hero and the Detective. Finally, the general level of threat and the need to fight to survive allows us to consider this a thriller. Thematically, if our hero stays clean, he may be considered redeemed and this will say something important about him as a person.

As a not wholly irrelevant aside, I wonder whether a part of the author’s intention is actually Edenic. Although it would be literally absurd to consider a dystopian environment anything like the Garden of Eden, we have a man who is struggling not to eat the apple. I also note that one of the 12 Steps is establishing a relationship with a higher power. In the Biblical sense, we distinguish between two types of covenant with God. Some are unconditional, i.e. God holds to His side of the bargain no matter what we do. Others, as in the Garden of Eden, are conditional, i.e. to avoid the loss of God’s bounty, Adam and Eve had to obey the covenant about the apple. What was the penalty for breaching this covenant? Instead of being able to live free off the land, Adam and Eve would have to work hard as farmers to grow their own food. Now return to one of the unconditional covenants. If you are redeemed from sin, you are allowed into Heaven. By hard work, you earn the ultimate reward.

So the essential questions are what Satin is, how and why our hero was first exposed to it, and whether he has sufficient strength to avoid relapse. In the midst of it all, there’s a serial murder case to crack and considerable personal danger to overcome. I find Clean very interesting. Although this may sound as if I’m damning the book with faint praise, this is not intended as a negative review. One reads books for many reasons and while this may not be the best science fiction book I’ve read this year and it’s certainly not the best noir thriller I’ve read, it does have a genuine willingness to explore the city and the implications of the Tech War that proved so devastating. The interaction between the Guild responsible for those with Ability and the police is intriguing. And the underlying motivation of those involved is revealed in a distinctly pleasing way. Clean is worth reading. For the record, the second book in the series is titled Sharp is due around Spring 2013 and I shall look out for it.

For a review of the second in the series, see Sharp.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Dredd (2012)

September 21, 2012 2 comments

It’s an interesting challenge to try recreating the mindset of earlier times when it was thought entertaining to take a character like Judge Dredd and show him knitting. It seems a lifetime ago, but this happened in 1995 with the hapless Sylvester Stalone cast as the brainwashed hero whose killer instincts had been diverted into domestic skills. I suppose we can dignify this aberration as satirical, yet that rather misses the point of the original. Born in the second issue of the comic, 200AD, Dredd was a direct and powerful indictment of police states and the general trend to authoritarianism. In part, this was why we were never allowed to see his face. When the state turns its attention to questions of justice, it should do so dispassionately. The results of each case should always be the same no matter which judge hears a case nor which defendant is charged. The identities of the individuals potentially gets in the way so, in the comic strip, the enforcer, judge, jury and executioner was faceless.

Karl Urban as the faceless Dredd

 

Mega-City One is a marvelously dystopian creation. With the Earth’s surface largely reduced to radioactive slag, the survivors have huddled together in major conurbations. With land at a premium, the only way to accommodate the millions was to build up. Thanks to the high levels of radiation and pollution, particularly near the outskirts, there are mutants. Some are physical changes, but there are also psychic abilities. In the comic, there are sometimes quite savage commentaries on current trends, e.g. in showing elements of the populations as excessively obese. This is deliberate overeating. Since 90% of the population is unemployed, different groups pass the time rioting, killing people for fun or participating in an Olympics reserved entirely for fatties.

 

Dredd (2012), the film, keeps the look of the city, complete with its own predator drones but not the fatties, and deals with the first day of Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) on the job. For these purposes, Dredd (Karl Urban) is assigned the task of evaluating her performance to determine whether she’s suitable to become a judge. In every scene, you can always see her because wearing a helmet interferes with her PSI powers. Fortunately, none of the perps is good enough to make the head shot. This allows the fan boys the chance to ogle the blond while, less importantly, us older viewers can watch the more complex humanity of her expressions as she confronts the reality of the job. Thematically, instead of adopting Stookie as the drug at the heart of this story, the creators have gone for a new product called Slo-Mo. If for no other reason, it gives the cinematographer the chance to create some rather beautiful images as, variously, we’re allowed to savour water in motion, breaking glass and travel in a vertical direction as new art forms.

Rookie Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) and mentor Dredd (Karl Urban)

 

The drug is manufactured by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) on the top floor of a mega-block. As an encouragement to loyalty, she has three minions skinned and dropped from the top floor to the main entrance atrium. This brings in Dredd and Anderson. At an early point, they arrest Kay (Wood Harris). This provokes Ma-Ma into a lock-down and a determined attempt to kill both judges. This could have been an endlessly violent shoot-em-up version of a video game with the two judges walking down featureless corridors, blowing away the waves of gun-toting gang members with their various weapons. Fortunately, recognising such a script is inherently boring, we get a character-driven thriller based on Anderson’s slow metamorphosis from something of a shrinking violet into a lets-just-get-this done enforcer of the law (as she sees it).

 

At this point, I’m going to make what might seem an incongruous remark. This is actually an intelligent film exploring some interestingly grey areas of morality. Early on, we see the two sides to Dredd. He ruthlessly dispatches a perp holding a woman hostage — incidentally, the use of the incendiary bullet produces a quite fascinating set of images as the man dies. But he also ignores petty crime in the form of a beggar sitting in the doorway of the mega-block where the murders occurred. This is pleasingly pragmatic. If every citizen turned against the judges, they would not stand a chance. Each judge must therefore find a personal balance between the law as written and the law he or she applies. Imprisoning or executing everyone would inflame resistance. Utilitarianism requires the maximum benefit to the greatest number of people from the way the law is enforced. Anderson must therefore learn to temper her own sword of justice, only pulling it from its scabbard when its use is unavoidable and knowing when to look the other way. In this, her psychic powers are of fundamental importance. Since she can see inside people’s minds, she genuinely can judge their innocence or guilt. Ironically, she’s capable of becoming the fairest executioner of them all.

Lena Headey getting into battle mode

 

Yes, Dredd is violent, genuinely earning its R rating, but it’s also visually interesting and carefully paced for the maximum tension and excitement. In this, Lena Headey does a particularly good job as Ma-Ma. You really do need a ruthless antagonist and she delivers the right qualities of viciousness. She enjoys every minute of her battle with the judges and lets nothing stand in the way of facing down the judges. The fact she has a mega-building full of hostages and has no compunction in killing them, makes her an appropriate challenge. Karl Urban does all the right things with his voice. Let’s be honest. He doesn’t need to move the stubble on his chin that much. The helmet does the acting for him. Olivia Thirlby is outstanding as you watch her body language shift from uncertain to ever greater certainty. This is a truly great version of the comic original, respecting its intentions and carefully avoiding everything associated with the earlier Hollywood version. You should definitely see it if you enjoy dystopian science fiction with a violent approach to exploring interesting ideas.

 

Shadow of a Dead Star by Michael Shean

February 11, 2012 2 comments

So this guy comes into the pub and, before you can say, “I’ll have another pint of [insert name of favourite ale],” he’s gathered a small crowd and starts to tell one of those interminable jokes. You know the kind of thing. It’s long, structured with intermediate amusing mini-climaxes which always get a smile and reinforce the listeners’ enthusiasm as they wait for the anticipated punchline, and all in the best possible taste. Too often, jokes rapidly head south and only emerge after a long period in a bedroom or wherever the protagonists are protagging each other. The guy holding forth is vaguely familiar and, as a regular barfly, you’ve been caught up in circle around him. From the out, you’re hooked. Like this story is hot even though not pornographic — a rarity indeed. You’re hanging on every word. And when it comes to the punchline, he wrecks it. He should have said, “. . .and he thought it was a disaster!” but what he actually said was, “. . .and he thought! It was a disaster.” I should have explained. I like to deconstruct jokes so I can savour the finer points of the humour. Shame really. He had us all in the palm of his hand to the very end. We all thought this was going to be the best joke in the universe. Guess the joke was on us for listening so long except I’ve added it to my repertoire. With the right punctuation and my storytelling ability, I’ll always get the laugh instead the groan.

Michael Shean with a superimposed brass flower falling from his shell-like ear

Shadow of a Dead Star by Michael Shean (Curiosity Quills Press, 2012) is a first novel falling into the always potentially pleasing SF/mystery subgenre. By this I mean the author moves us forward in time and then has a law enforcement officer or investigator of the age, show us round the new place as he/she/it tries to decide whodunnit. In this case, sixty years has produced a slightly dystopian Seattle in a world with some improvements in technology. Body enhancements are quite common and include the usual jacking ports to allow the wetware direct interface with the hardware and wifi access to those with the right onboard equipment. Genetic manipulation has moved forward to produce a range of treatments in the pharmaceutical industry (both prescription and street) including a real way of extending life span. This starts us off nicely as our unmodified agent, Thomas Walken, is tasked with intercepting an incoming flight alleged to be carrying three Princess Dolls. This is a particularly dark and pleasing idea — the bodies of dead girls animated and sold to paedophiles. The operation looks to be routine but, on their way to headquarters for examination, a group hijacks two of the Dolls (the third is irreparably damaged). Surprisingly, these trigger-happy bandits turn up dead a few hours later. When Walken goes to talk to an informer who may actually be the importer, the nark and his enhanced bodyguards are also found dead. In other words, the trail rapidly goes cold with two Dolls missing. Then the autopsy suggests the hijackers may have been killed by the Dolls. That would certainly be an unexpected development.

So, however you want to look at this, we’re pitched into a great story with an unenhanced cop chasing down the enhanced importers of sex toys for sale at inflated prices to the perverted. Except it gets better. About a third of a way through, our fearless defender of justice is framed and has to go on the run — so there’s almost certainly corruption in the police department. Enter a hacker with a helping hand and an accommodating interface for dongles of all types. Now we have a tag team to pursue the bad buys and deprive the perverts of their toys. All this against the clock because, sooner or later, the police force will catch up with our duo as they rapidly climb to the top of the most wanted list.

Now, as is always the way when you write reviews, you reach the boundary with spoiler territory and have to decide whether to cross over the line. In this case, I’m going to stay on the “right” side. Why? Because Shadow of a Dead Star is a terrific read which everyone who enjoys science fiction merged with a noirish mystery should try. The fact my first paragraph tells you I think the reveal is deeply annoying should not put you off. This is only one jaded old man’s opinion. You may think the ending a dramatic coup to cap a book which, in all other respects, is right on the money. I leave it to you to decide.

For a review of the other books in the Wonderland universe, see the direct sequel to this book Redeye and Bone Wires.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman

June 29, 2009 3 comments

Following in the footsteps of David Copperfield, you should continue reading to find out whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by somebody else.

But, just in case you’re of a nervous disposition, I’m the eponymous author of this piece, so be reassured. I survived to the end otherwise I couldn’t have written as much as I did before I (was) stopped. Ain’t no-one who can chop logic better than me (or something).

In this, I’m following the general trend in modern fiction. Most stories with an “adventure” element promise from the outset that the main characters are almost certainly going to survive whatever is thrown at them (like the cat in Ridley Scott’s Alien). If the authors want to introduce tension and suspense, the tried and tested tactic is to build up empathy between the readers and the most favoured characters. Thus, when they are exposed to the threat of injury or death, we can feel the vicarious thrill of danger. Escapes by the skin of teeth generate the “white-knuckle” quality that makes a good thriller. If the authors can’t manage a real sense of danger then they have to fall back on wit or satire or something else that will engage our interest and make us want to read to the feel-good ending of hero/heroine triumphant. There are, of course, famous exceptions where the author cheats and the hero/heroine dies. Sometimes, this happens in a first-person narrative which increases the shock value when we read the last page.

A different exception to the general rule crops up in some time travel stories where the authors happily maim or kill off lead characters in one version of history because they can be continued uninjured in sequential or parallel timelines depending on whether history is retrospectively changed (and no-one remembers) or multiple universes are created (as in the TV series Sliders). An example of mutable timelines is Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus where a small group of time travellers make sequential attempts to change history for the better. The alternative is the assumption that the timeline cannot be changed (as in the Company novels by Kage Baker). The best known example I can give you to explain why never to write a book based on this proposition is probably J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s about as exciting as watching paint dry because, having struggled through the overblown first version of history, you then get to read it all over again as the “hero” loops round to ensure that what was predestined actually results.

All of which brings me to The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman (Berkley, August, 2007). Joe (sorry about the familiarity, but I need to distinguish brother Jack) is getting a little long in the tooth. In conventional PR-speak he’s an “old pro” or a “veteran”, having first leapt into prominence with Hugo and Nebula Awards for The Forever War in 1975 — a triumph that should never go out of print. His approach to writing is simple and uncomplicated, telling the story in a straightforward way with little embellishment. This directness works really well when the plot moves along. Unfortunately, this latest effort is genuinely pedestrian. Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with pedestrians. They lurk forlorn in the corner of our eyes as we swish past in our gas guzzlers. But, in a different way, Joe is following a genuine favourite of mine, Jack Vance. The young Vance was full of passion and imaginative fire, and reading almost all his books is a delight. But that delight peters out when we come to what I assume will be his last book, Lurulu. Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a perfectly readable book. But it’s not a good advertisement for Vance. Similarly, Joe’s latest book is a big disappointment with his simple prose now wooden and lifeless.

Joe is peddling the saga of a young researcher as he hops forward through time. Structurally, time travel is simply a narrative excuse to jump from one culture to another, much as Swift pushed Gulliver into meeting people of varying size, avoiding uncultured Yahoos and inquiring whether sunbeams could be extracted from cucumbers. Swift was, of course, writing a satire which might continue in a cycle with Wells’ The Time Machine, detour via Huxley’s Brave New World, and end with Sheckley’s The Status Civilization. Wells tells us a straight-laced allegorical story about innocence and Morlocks. Huxley creates a dystopia of genetic manipulation which produces a sterile, drug-based, caste-ridden society. And Sheckley gives us another of his rollicking over-the-top satires. In short, the writer’s motive for introducing cultures that contrast with our own is to hold up a mirror to edify, amaze or amuse us.

So what does Joe offer us here? Well, the two pivotal episodes are religious and economic. As to religion, early writers like Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis set the bar high, closely followed by individual classics like Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, etc. but Joe seems content to dally with the notion of a new Church Militant, prepared to cast the first missile and smite the unbelievers in a restoration of an archaic Puritanism. Given the polarisation in the USA between believers and non-believers, I can understand that such a theme may have a certain contemporary resonance, but the delivery is curiously unconvincing. We’re given little more than a flat description of what our hero sees with no explanation or rumination to enliven the proceedings.

In the second set-piece, we’re in a culture based on barter. Telling it straight, one of the best writers of economic SF was Mack Reynolds, always prepared to extrapolate albeit with slightly naive political overtones. Personally, I prefer to laugh and so love Dario Fo’s theatrical farces like Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay in which a protest over shop prices has unexpected consequences. But the big comparison is with one of the best fictional barter societies — another delightful satire, Spondulix by Paul Di Filippo, where the owner of a sandwich shop inadvertently invents a new currency. Sadly, Joe doesn’t measure up.

One of the worst things that can ever happen to a book is that it lacks momentum. In the barter sequence, the society is managed by an AI character called La. “She” describes the people as  “. . .complacent and rather stupid. . . addicted to comfort and stability”. Later explaining, “This is one boring world.” Was ever an admission so ironic from an author supposed to be interested in keeping us amused?

In short, this is a competent book that goes through the motions of a time loop because that’s how plots of this kind have to work. But, instead of maintaining interest with subversive wit, boundless imagination and a satirical eye, we get descriptions of societies that even the author admits are boring. If you haven’t done so already, read the early Joe Haldeman. The man genuinely deserves his royalties for past glories rather than for this current effort.

Hey, guess what? I survived to the end of this episode. Next week, I’ve scheduled a heart attack during a visit from my mother-in-law. You’ll have to read on to find out whether I can be bothered to survive. Hopefully, I’ll find a better book to read in the meantime.

For reviews of other books by Joe Haldeman, see:
Earthbound
Work Done For Hire.

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