Archive for July 2009
King Rat, China Miéville’s debut novel, is often ignored in discussion of his work. The reason for this is probably twofold: firstly, it is a fundamentally different type of fantasy novel to the Bas-Lag books which made his name; secondly, it isn’t very good. It was published in 1998 when Miéville was 26 and the world was a different place. Mornington Cresent is still a ghost station and mobile phones are not yet ubiquitous:
I’ll hold out a bit longer. I won’t be another black man with a mobile, another troublemaker with ‘Drug Dealer’ written on his forehead in script only the police can read.
The unnessassary italics and capitals are a recurring feature of the novel and suggest a lack of confidence. King Rat opens with an almost embarrassingly enthusiatic set of acknowledgements and from there on it is the rough and ready work of someone still finding their way. Saul returns to London to discover he is part rat and is drawn into the underground to discover his true nature. At the same time the Piper (as in Pied) is hunting down King Rat, who in turn believes Saul is the weapon he needs to deafeat him. There are several minimally sketched secondary viewpoint characters who waste time on the way but really it is just Saul blundering around, heading straight for the inevitable climatic showdown with the Piper. Old stories, modern gods, secret London; it shares a lot of its concerns with the work of Neil Gaiman, particularly Neverwhere (1996). It also clearly shows the direction Miéville was moving – if not his exact route – and it is no suprise it ends with a rat revolution but it isn’t worth picking up for any reason other than to see how he has come.
I was at Truck at the weekend where I managed to see three bands. Okay, I saw more than that but only three on purpose and with any real attention.
The mainstage headliners Ash and Supergrass made an interesting compare and contrast exercise. Ash broke through in 1995, the year they left school and the year before they released their debut album, 1977. The debut Supergrass album, I Should Coco, was released the same year and similarly school was the genesis of the band. Both started as trios and the limitations of this setup as well as their youth and enthusiasm was a great deal of their charm. The difference is Supergrass have grown up.
When Ash took to the stage on Saturday night they still looked like overgrown teenagers. This is much less charming when you are on the wrong side of thirty and although the enthusiasm was there, this amounted to just bashing the songs out. It was a fun set, helped by both a great deal of nostalgia and the extra buzz a festival crowd always imparts, but the banality of many of their songs is inescapable and there was little sign of any evolution. New songs did show a slightly more interesting direction but as a whole the set suggested a band that reached their pinnacle with their opening salvo. Supergrass, on the other hand, bounded on stage with a youthful cockiness – fags in mouths, cheeky smiles, a welcoming shout of “oi, oi!” – that was augmented with a more mature confidence. The musicianship on display was far superior and they looked relaxed and happy both in themselves and as a band. An absolute pleasure to watch.
The third band were Detachments, three sexy boys with great style (visually and sonically) playing music that is both on trend and actually good but who somehow still added up to less than sum of their parts. Apart from that I deployed my summer wardrobe, guzzled cider, smoked too many rollies, poured beer over my phone and lost several wrestling matches to a three year old. The usual. I also heard some good breaks and some rubbish drum and bass which is clearly the wrong way round. Sort it out.
I’ve just finished reading Wireless, the latest short story collection from Charles Stross, which I am reviewing for Vector. It won’t be a particularly positive review; my pleasure in some of the individual stories was outweighed by my issues with the collection as a whole. However, one problem I didn’t have was that it was all doom and gloom. Such was Andrew Wheeler’s diagnosis:
Stross is without a doubt one of the most inventive and thoughtful writers in the modern SF idiom, and that makes it doubly unfortunate that his output so consistently takes the tone of battling to ever-so-slightly slow down the inevitable fall of night. Wireless collects some of the very best stories in modern SF, by one of the most important writers in the field — but, collectively, they form a singularity of depression and bleakness from which no optimism can escape.
My review, by necessity, won’t go into too much detail about the individual stories so I thought it might be helpful to go through the table of contents here and provide a different perspective to Wheeler:
1) Missile Gap – Ape shall always lose to ant. Negative
2) Rogue Farm – After the inevitable collapse of society a man can still have a wife, a dog, a plot of land and the nous to run troublesome posthumans off said land. Positive
3) A Colder War – Everyone has their soul eaten. Negative
4) MAXOS – Aliens are all Nigerian. Neutral
5) Down On The Farm – Life’s a riot with spy versus spy versus shoggoth. Positive
6) Unwirer – “Hi, I’m a journalist, I can fix the American government.” Positive
7) Snowball’s Chance – Even an itinerant Scotsman can outsmart the Devil. Positive
8) Trunk And Disorderly – PG Wodehouse is immortal. Positive
9) Palimpsest – Human civilisation either outlasts the galaxy or outlasts the galaxy and colonises known space. Positive
Two thirds positive! I think that counts as a sunny outlook on the future.
When Heroes was first shown in the UK a great deal of fuss was made over it, both by the BBC (who broadcast it in this country) and by British SF fandom. I watched the first couple of episodes, thought it was bollocks and switched off. I did promise to return to once it was released on DVD and I didn’t have to make it a weekly commitment though. I have now done this and, in fact, I devoured them. This is not because Heroes is any good, it is because Heroes is crack.
In a recent discussion about spoilers I suggested that:
You’d have to have a pretty mechanistic way of consuming art if the only thing that held your interest was wanting to know what happened next. Equally if that it is all there is to it then it would be a pretty lousy work of art.
Heroes is just such a work. The whole point of the programme is finding out what happens next. There was some kerfuffle over the fact that the whole of the season was nominated for the Hugo in the Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form category. Every episode ends with “to be continued” because it isn’t really an episode, simply a sliver of the whole, and the cliffhanger at the end is no different from the cliffhanger at the end, apart from the fact it further escalates the arms race of gotcha moments. You can forgive everything – the awful writing, weak acting, Sendhil Ramamurthy’s voiceovers – in exchange for the glee with which they endlessly pull rabbits out of hats. Characters aren’t really characters, rather they are endless malleable pieces of scenery, anyone could die but only because anyone could come back to life, it is utterly free of any need for consistency. It sounds awful but somehow it is not. Actually, it sounds like Lost, a programme I similarly gave up on after a couple episodes and also keeps a drug-like hold on people.
Apparently seasons two and three are shit. So it goes. I’m interested to see what “shit” means in this context though.
Scott Eric Kaufman on Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince:
it presents an unnerving and captivating account of a world and moment the audience can’t fully fathom. The confusion was compelling: I was drawn into situations whose meaning escaped me, but whose significance was clear, and so I spent the entire film intellectually engaged… The earlier films never alluded; they either explicated at length or vehemently pointed at the mystery the movie would explain. In The Half-Blood Prince, David Yates includes scenes whose importance is not established by the mere fact of their inclusion. The narrative wanders, forcing the audience to debate which of the various elements will ultimately be meaningful… The narrative ambiguity, coupled with a pace that allowed scenes to develop such that motivations were intimated rather than immediately revealed, resulted in a film that was strikingly adult in weight and complexity
You might think this sounds a bit like filthy postmodernism – I’m not convinced that a sloppy, confused narrative is actually a good thing because it allows multiple reads of the text – but it is still an interesting post and his snark about Manohla Dargis is worth the price of admission alone. It is interesting because it is the perspective of someone seeing the films with fresh eyes, especially since my views of the films are so coloured by the books. There are large chunks of Kaufman’s post I disagree with (starting with the opening sentence) but it is a good point about the impatience with the film of those familar with the books because they know how the story ends and the film singularly fails to move this story forward. At the same time though, I saw the film with my girlfrend, who hasn’t read any of the books either, and her response was less “what a wonderful intellectual puzzle” and more “well, that was pretty pointless”. If only Yates had played a bit faster and looser with the source text.
But there’s more! Kaufman has just posted his thoughts on the Hugos slapfight which John “Bellows” Scalzi has managed to supply with plenty more oxygen. By the way, if you are actually still interested in following the debate, the conversation over at Torque Control remains the most interesting and least retarded.
The Harry Potter films have been a masterclass in polishing a turd but unfortunately this impressive showcase in transmogrification comes to an end with The Half-Blood Prince.
The books dropped off rapidly after The Prisoner of Azkaban, bloating out with The Goblet Of Fire, dispensing with plot entirely from The Order Of Phoenix and becoming tortuous and tedious. The films, on the other hand, went from strength to strength replacing Rowling’s awful prose with an increasingly rich and sure visual language and using the cream of British acting to bring genuine life to pantomime characters. In the later books not only does nothing happen but what does happen doesn’t make any sense. Now, for the first time, one of the films shares this problem. The Half-Blood Prince looks like a very big book made into a pretty big film – you can see the gaps in its jagged, stuttering structure, where scences hit the floor – which is a bit odd because what does make it to the screen betrays some very strange choices about what to prioritise. How many times do we need to see Draco whip a dustcloth off the vanishing cabinet? Was the spider eulogy really necessary? The Deathly Hallows is going to be split in two so perhaps this will solve this problem. Perhaps it will throw it into sharper relief.
In his scathing review Peter Bradshaw suggests that the opening scene is the only good thing about the film. Most of his criticisms are accurate but The Half-Blood Prince is still an enjoyable (if bum-numbing and squandered) film and a vast improvement on the novel. Regardless of the ungainliness that reliance on Rowling makes inevitable, I was still able to go with it, to enter the world evoked; like all the films, this has life. In contrast, in addition to being incontinently plotted, the books are emotionally dead: you never laugh, you are never scared, you just listlessly flip-flip the pages waiting vainly for something to actually happen. You get all that in the film plus even a bit of pathos as Draco struggles with the situation he has placed him in, although surely more could have been done with this. What you don’t get is any real sense of sadness when Dumbledore dies. This is probably because it is very hard to care about Dumbledore who, despite being Harry’s mentor, is never around to do anything useful apart from pop up at the end of each book to explain what just happens. There is no man behind the beard.
John Burnside’s latest novel, Glister, finds him looping back to territory he has already mapped. His last but one novel, Living Nowhere, was set in the Corby of his adolescence, dominated by the steel works and on the cusp of becoming post-industrial. It was clearly strongly autobiographical and he followed this with a stunning memoir, A Lie About My Father, which Burnside noted was “best treated as a work of fiction.” Now, with Glister, he revisits the same subjects – youth, family, small town isolation – as fabulation. Things are heightened and distorted, mirroring the hallucinogens which feature in all three books. Corby is transmuted into Innertown and Outertown and the steel works simply become the Plant. Equally notionally the book exists outside of time but, flashes of modernity notwithstanding, we are back in the Seventies in Burnside’s youth.
It is an oddly structured novel: a clutch of short third-person chapters give way to a novella-length first-person chapter which makes up the bulk of the book. This is narrated by Leonard, an incredibly precocious and disaffected fifteen year old “who is quietly disappearing from the world he used to know and has already stopped knowing, more or less on purpose.” (p4) Not only is he too big for the town but a series of boys his age have disappeared. A fiction is maintained that they have simply left home but no one believes this, the pull of the Innertown is too strong. No one escapes:
But he didn’t go away. Nobody goes away. The kids talk about it all the time but the truth is , none of us really know what’s out there, twenty, or fifty, or a hundred miles along the coast road, because nobody has ever gone that far. (p68)
Instead a serial killer seems to be at work. Death is not rare in Burnside’s work but this hint of a crime drama or even a thriller makes the novel stand out. It is misdirection though, there is no interest in a genre narrative. Burnside’s focus remains fixed and it is impossible to read Glister in isolation. Dan Hartland described the novel as “visionary and elusive” and in a way it is but it is also much less so than Living Nowhere or A Lie About My Father. Burnside is a poet but much of the prose falls flat and there is often only a slender gap between ambiguity and inarticulacy. Burnside is doing many clever things here but he failed to hold my interest and that is a pretty damning criticism.