Archive for November 2008
Okay, I know it isn’t even December yet but I thought I’d present my album of the year:
Feed The Animals by Girl Talk
Feed The Animals is a gorgeous mosaic of over a hundred songs spanning a vast range of music from Sinead O’Connor to Lil’ Mama. Mash ups are often seen as a bit gimmicky and they can be but here Gregg Gillis forms a beautiful collage out of hard hip hop vocals, electronic classics like Girl/Boy Song and shit Europop like Ace Of Bass. It is seamlessly done and is more than the sum of its parts. It is also available as a “pay what you want” download so what is keeping you?
No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were being scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
At the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s version of War Of The Worlds Morgan Freeman gives a reading of these famous words that is so shoddy and tone-deaf that I immediately knew I was in trouble. This was only confirmed when we cut to Tom Cruise stacking crates down the docks before being told that he is not any old crate stacker but the best damn one in Jersey (with an awesome car to boot.) There is an interesting twist to this working class hero schtick; Cruise is actually a jerk and both his kids are dicks. This makes the inevitable Spielbergian family drama rather spiker and more involving than usual.
Then Spielberg hits an insurmountable barrier: the plot of the novel. You know, the aliens, the invasion, the tripods; you simply can’t tell this story in this day and age because none of it makes sense. It is not even vaguely plausible and putting it on screen in a big budget, modern day re-make makes this abundantly clear. To his credit, though, Spielberg does manages to add plenty of fresh idiocy of his own so even if you can get passed the fact that this interstellar civilisation has decided to expend untold resources to cross the gulf of space and pointlessly slurp human blood then there are still plenty of opportunities to sit back and say: “well, that was dumb.”
Todd Alcott takes the probably wise view that we should ignore the fact it is a load of old cobblers and instead focus on the symbolism:
So if War of the Worlds is an allegory, who are the humans and who are the aliens? A straight-ahead reading suggests that the humans are decent, working-class Americans and the aliens are the creepy, unknowable members of whatever International Islamic Jihad conservatives would have us believe waits and plots to take over the US (through their Manchurian Candidate Obama, of course — how sneaky, how diabolically clever, to have your inside man have the middle name “Hussein” — excellent work, International Islamic Jihad!) Read this way, the movie suggests that the Jihad may attack America, and they may try to turn us all into Muslims, but ultimately they will fail and die — because we’re American, damn it, and our blood is poison to them. In this reading, the mini-drama in the basement of the country house pits Decent Blue-Stater Tom Cruise against Rabid Red-Stater Tim Robbins in the battle of how best to respond to the threat.
Alcott puts himself in the mind of a conservative but you could also do a liberal version of the same reading. The aliens are terrorists attacking the major cities of the US causing panic. The humans are repeatedly depicted as being ignorant of the events that are unfolding around them. The army has no interest in protecting civilians because they are in such a rush to attack the enemy but despite all the firepower they pour at the terrorists it has no effect. Cruise’s son still joins up immediately even though it is clear he can make no difference and is directing his energy towards the wrong goal. However, the shock and awe of the terrorist attack cannot be sustained, it only lasts a short while before the organisation starts to rot from the inside. As it does so Cruise (a civilian) shows the army how to finish it off. Then he is re-united with his son and ex-wife and he can rebuild his family (ie America.)
In this reading Red Stater Robbins is an honourable man with an honourable job (ambulance driver) who is nonetheless unhinged by a psychic wound (Vietnam) and the resultant paranoid fantasies threaten everyone’s safety. Which gives Cruise no option but to settle his political argument with Robbins by going with him into a small room and – more in sorrow than in anger – beat him to death. A lesson for Democrats, I’m sure.
But another way to read the movie is that the humans in War of the Worlds are the Iraqis and the aliens are the American Army. It’s the Americans who invaded a country for no good reason, destroying the societal fabric and the physical infrastructure, provoking a civil war between factions of the population. In this reading, Cruise becomes the Regular Iraqi Citizen and Robbins becomes the Wild-Eyed Insurgent. In both readings, the regular-man protagonist becomes increasingly radicalized as the threat comes closer and closer to destroying the only social structure that matters — the family.
This is actually a reading I was thinking about whilst watching the film but for the opposite reasons. Cruise is hiding out with Robbins in the ruins of his house. They have been attacked indiscriminately by machines of war bring death from above. Now, for the first time, they see the invaders face to face. And what I was thinking was how much less scary and alien these aliens were compared to US troops. The aliens are merely fish-headed auditors having a dispassionate look around. They are calm, silent and uniform. Their presense is non-radicalising. Unlike Alcott I don’t see that Cruise is radicalised by this encountered and this is where his reading breaks down.
A third way to read the movie, of course, is that the humans are the United States and the aliens are the Neo-Conservatives, who have been lying in wait for many years, waiting for their chance to pounce and take over the world, eliminating all their competition for the sake of total dominance, turning the population into quivering masses or digesting them outright. In this reading, the movie turns prophetic, suggesting that the hubris of the Neo-Conservatives and their “Permanent Republican Majority” is as ridiculous a notion as the English empire that inspired H.G. Wells to write the novel in the first place, the Nazis who inspired Orson Welles’s version of the story, or the Communist Menace who inspired the 1953 George Pal version.
Who says science fiction isn’t prophetic? Spielberg got this one right!
Elsewhere, my old friend Gary Westfahl suggests no, the tripods are the makers of the film:
It is difficult to determine whether the creative forces behind War of the Worlds — director Steven Spielberg and writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp — ever saw themselves in the insidious aliens and machines of their story, but arguably there are telling signs. The tripods in this film, unlike those in H. G. Wells’s novel, are equipped with spotlights, the iconic symbol of the Hollywood premiere, and the very first tripod emerges in the middle of Merchant Street. Perhaps this is only an allusion to one of New York City’s most famous disasters, the Great Fire of 1835, which started in a warehouse on Merchant Street, but this may also signal that everyone involved in this alien invasion approached it primarily as a marketable product: you spend 200 million dollars making and publicizing a movie with sure-fire appeal, and you earn 400 million dollars at the box office.
I’ll admit to a soft spot for this reading because watching War Of The Worlds I did often feel like I was under assault from a vast and unsympathetic entity. It is a dire film notable only for some brilliant visual images and some surprisingly direct stealing from Spielberg’s own Minority Report.
I saw WALL-E yesterday. It was good. But this isn’t a post about Wall-E, no, this is a post about my internet nemesis!
Last year I gently mocked Gary Westfahl’s not very good review of Sunshine on Locus Online:
The definitive case of writing about the film you wished you’d seen rather than the film you did see? It even has shooting directions!
I’m impressed that this is the only review of the film I’ve read that doesn’t mention Event Horizon. Instead he seems to believe the audience will be concerned that it rips off Conquest of Space and Riders to the Stars.
At the beginning of June (a year later) Westfahl wrote a review of Dreams with Sharp Teeth for Locus. It includes the following passage:
I must proceed carefully now, since I have been accused of reviewing the films I wished to see and not the films I saw (yes, I bothered to read your stupid blog, just as I bother to read anything that mentions my name, though unlike Ellison I prefer to ignore criticism, which keeps my phone bills manageable).
At the end of June Westfahl wrote a review of WALL-E which I only read today. It includes the following passage:
To discuss this point, I must distress a few readers by not only failing to connect this film to such obvious predecessors as Short Circuit (1986) and Robots (2005) but also by mentioning a film that was made almost sixty years ago and suggesting (gasp!) that such an antique might actually have some relevance to a film made in 2008, but a few scenes in Wall·E represent, almost inarguably, a homage to Destination Moon (1950).
That’s right, Westfahl prefers to ignore criticism so much that he has shoehorned references to my four sentence blog post into not one but two reviews. Water off a duck’s back!
“I’ve brought something with me that you might like to read. It’s in my bag. It’s called The Stone Gods. I found it on the underground last night.”
“What’s it about?”
“A repeating world.”
The Stone Gods recently turned up on Amazon.com’s Jeff Vandermeer-selected top ten SF books of the year (it is a 2008 book in the US, although published in 2007 here.) This is interesting because Penguin refused to send out review copies to genre magazines and the Arthur C Clarke Award jury. This perceived slight as well as Winterson’s own supposed lack of respect towards the genre exercised various commentators, most notably Ursula LeGuin in her review of the novel for the Guardian. Which sort of misses the point because – spaceships and robots notwithstanding – The Stone Gods is not best read as science fiction but rather it is a teasing fable in the manner of Ali Smith (who contributes the cover quote and receives a dedication.) Not that you can tell this from the cover. Penguin have proved the old adage by slapping a bog standard I R Serious Writer cover on the front that gives no hint of the playful work inside. This is a book that features a space pirate called Captain Handsome, for heaven’s sake.
It is a novel of three halves. In the first part we are pitched into a pretty broad satire of consumerism set on the Planet Orbis before switching to the 18th Century Easter Islands and then finally a post-World War Three Britain. These disparate parts are united by their castaway protagonists, searching for love in society that has been destroyed by humanity’s hubris. It is wrong, I think, to read this the way a science fiction reader would: linearly, literally. Winterson is much more interested in the story making emotional rather than scientific sense. So it is that that Billie Crusoe, our heroine in the first part, is also our heroine in the final part, despite the two being separated by millions of years. The world repeats itself. It is a conceit that is not without its awkward moments, occassionally teetering on the edge of the abyss of incoherence as so many fabulations tend to. What sustains it is the beauty of Winterson’s prose. As LeGuin – who seems to have liked the book against her will – puts it:
But even in the lectures Winterson’s tone is lively. Her wit varies from flashy to flashing, her highly mannered, crackling dialogue moves things right along, the surface of her tale scintillates.
You might quibble about how much of a complement “moves things right along” is but crackling and scintillating certainly capture the writing.
A while ago the BSFA Forum was spammed with an advert for Bugz, a self-published novel written by David Jackson. He obviously realised that the BSFA were small beer because – unbelieveably – he has taken out a full page advert in today’s Guardian to try and entice people into buying it. Good luck to the mad bastard, I say; although, as you might expect, Jackson can’t write for toffee:
Svetlana, a Russian scientist, whose exquisite looks and vamp style ensnare the opposite sex easily, enabling her to manipulate situations, invariably resulting in Svetlana getting her own way. She inherited a fortune from an unknown benefactor thus thrusting her into the elite millionaire club. She strives for credibility in the science community but her stunning looks generally detract attention away from her fantastic physics brain, which frustrates her considerably. Her “socializing” technique has allowed her to build up a network of contacts in very influential circles; this is helped through her claim that she is a descendent of the infamous Rasputin. The Director General of CERN is part of her intimate circle of friends and he has gifted her a plumb job on an obscure particle physics experiment in return for services rendered.
I lack the critical vocabulary to properly describe it but I saw Volker Bertelmann tonight and he was made of win.
I went to see Red Fortress at the Unicorn Theatre last night. The Unicorn is a children’s theatre (or young persons theatre, if you prefer) in Southwark and this was the premiere of Carl Miller’s new play set in 15th Century Spain.
Rabia (Muslim), Luis (Jewish) and Iago (Christian) are three children who live in Granada as the armies of Ferdinand II approach. To further emphasise their differences as a trinity Rabia is emotional, Luis is intellectual and Iago is physical. They spend most of the play battering themselves against each other’s religion and nature before discovering that – wouldn’t you know it? – they are all in love with each other. Now, I liked Red Fortress quite a lot but this came perilously close to ruining the play for me. This supposed love triangle is so obvious, so perfunctory that it is an insult to the sophistication on display elsewhere. To hammer home the point Rabia declares: “We’re a triangle! It’s algebra!” This is nicely punctured by Luis pointing out that actually triangles are geometry but it shouldn’t have to have been punctured in the first place.
There was also rather too much acting. For reasons I will never understand theatres are loathe to publish cast details except, occassionally, on easily loseable slips of paper available in the foyer. So I can’t tell you who played Rabia but she seems to have confused playing a child with playing someone with learning difficulties. I was not the only person to notice this because I heard the kid behind me ask his companion: “Is she meant to be a spaz?” I believe the answer is no but it is true that it was sometimes hard to tell.
It is a very busy play. All the actors except the three leads play multiple roles, there are many scenery changes and even at over two hours the plot feels compressed and confused. Lots of ideas are nicely touched on but not fully explored. The tone also veers all over the shop from icy heartbroken pain to satirical songs about consumerism. There was a great, show stealing skit in which Chris Columbus turned up to explain to the audience his play to sail to Japan but this only reinforced the somewhat chaotic nature of the play. In fact, the main unifying thread is Tunde Jegede’s excellent score performed by three onstage musicians including (I think) himself.
And yes, despite everything I did like it (although I don’t think it deserves the rave reviews it got.) Its chaos is part of its charm as is its exuberance and ambition.
The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs don’t got nothing much to say.
“Need a poo, Todd.”
“Shut up, Manchee.”
“Poo. Poo, Todd.”
“I said shut up.”
That is the opening paragraph of The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, which won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize a couple of weeks ago. It richly deserved the prize. As fellow nominee Frank Cottrell Boyce put it in his review:
This book is on the longlist for the 2008 Guardian children’s fiction prize, along with my own. If I had any sense, I would try to improve my chances of winning by slagging it off. The trouble is, you’d only have to read the first sentence to see how fantastic it promises to be.
My review of the book has just gone up at Strange Horizons. You will notice that the letters YA do not appear in the review at any point. This is because there is no such thing and when it gets down to it most people seem to agree so we should just end this consensual hallucination that it exists. Please join my crusade.
Getting onto another bugbear, The Knife Of Never Letting Go is the first book in the Chaos Walking trilogy. As I mention in my review the fact that standalone novels are becoming increasingly rare in genre publishing is a source of some irritation to me. There is currently no information available about the next volume but hopefully it will turn up soon. I reviewed Thorn Ogres Of Hagwood by Robin Jarvis in 2003. I have had an Amazon order for The Dark Waters of Hagwood, the second volume of the trilogy, since 2004 but there is still no sign of it.