Archive for December 2009
Film Of The Year: Waltz With Bashir
A simply amazing blend of documentary, autobiography and fiction. That Ari Folman has attempted to examine his experiences of the 1982 Lebanon War in this way and succeeded with such surety is impressive enough but Waltz With Bashir is also an extremely stylish film. I hate the word “brave” as applied to artists but the fact that Folman has brought such a strong aesthetic sensibility to such an uncompromising subject matter (the Sabra and Shatila massacre is at the heart of the film) speaks of a great deal of confidence. This confidence was entirely justified.
I subscribed to LoveFilm in 2009 and as a consequence I saw a ton of dire films. However, I also saw a handful of quite brilliant ones so instead of the runners up here is the rest of a top five:
2) Synecdoche, New York
4) I’m Not There
SF Film Of The Year: Let The Right One In
A pretty bad year for SF cinema but everyone agreed this was a clear standout. This is doubly impressive since it came at a time when vampires had become as deadeningly overexposed as zombies. I did actually watch Twilight this year and thought it was an enjoyable enough slice of teen wangst but my God, enough is enough. Unlike most contemporary vampire stories, Let The Right One In managed to convey the weight and the trauma inherent in the condition and produce a proper tragedy or, more specifically, a poisoned love story:
Leaving the cinema I felt much the same way as after Eternal Sunshine For The Spotless Mind. Both films offer a final image of hope and fragile happiness but in both cases the audience knows that such hope is entirely illusory as we have already been exposed to the cyclical outcome.
Runner up: Moon
Children’s Animation Of The Year: Kung Fu Panda
I rented this and then went straight out and bought it. It is a pretty much pitch perfect take on a familiar story which rises above this by being genuinely funny (with nicely understated surreal moments) and having surprisingly beautiful animation and sophisticated direction for an American production. And Jack Black is much more personable when you can’t actually see him.
Runners up: Shrek 2, Aliens Versus Monsters
Hexadecimal Award For Worst Reboot Of The Year: Terminator Salvation
Despite having been burnt many times in the past, when I first heard about this I was relatively optimistic. Christian Bale as John Conner? That sounds pretty good, right? Oh, McG is directing? Hmm, well, er, Charlie’s Angels was actually quite fun. What’s that? The film has come mired in production hell? Oh. Even if you were completely unaware of all the script and personnel problems that had dogged it, they are all there to be seen on the screen. It is a total camel of a film; a testament to the danger of star power and the weakness of the Hollywood machine. Remarkably it even ends up making T3: Rise Of The Machines seem slightly less shit.
Runners up: Star Trek, Wolverine
Non-Franchise Turd Of The Year: Mutant Chronicles
A pile of shit.
Runners up: Black Sheep Drag Me To Hell
Pleasant Surprise Of The Year: 300
I saw this after Zack Synder’s heavy-handed assault on Watchmen so it was nice to find that everything that was so crass about that film worked surprisingly well in the context of Spartans beating the shit out of everyone. This high-end tosh actually makes me want to see what he does next.
Runners up: Die Hard 4.0, Babylon AD
Best Jason Statham Film Of The Year – Crank
I’ve got a soft spot for The Statham and somehow I ended up watching most of his back catalogue this year. By and large, it is unremarkable but mildly diverting stuff. Then I got to Crank. Fuck me. Statham is Chev Chelios, an English gangster in LA, who is poisoned and then has to artificially keep up his adrenaline levels to stop himself from dying. You can sort of see where the film is going from that brief synopsis but nothing prepares you for the awesome insanity of what follows.
Runner up: Crank 2
WTF!? Award: Inglourious Basterds
Obviously Crank was the dead cert for this slot but I thought it deserved a category of its own. So instead the WTF!? Award goes to a film which I think it is safe to say took everyone by surprise. My expectations were progressively lowered as its release date drew closer so it was a pleasant (but confusing) surprise to sit down in the cinema and be faced with such a startling mix of the audacious, the clever and the plain bonkers. I hope Tarantino isn’t stuck in this mad, recursive loop though because much as I enjoyed Inglourious Basterds I would hate it to become the only sort of film he makes.
Runners up: Zombie Strippers, Shadowboxer
So, as I mentioned, it hasn’t been a great year for reading. At the same time, I have written substantially more reviews than ever before. The upshot of this is that I will be reviewing less in 2010 and probably reading a lot less SF. I am feeling a bit stale and I need revitalising.
Another change is that from next month I will take over as reviews editor for Vector. I am working my way through the handover at the moment and I will post more about this once my first issue is ready towards the end of February. For the moment, I will just say I am excited about the opportunity. Anyway, I have a couple of reviews outstanding for the long-suffering Rodger Turner over at SF Site and I will probably continue to write four reviews a year for Vector but other than that I’m going to have a bit of break. Unless, of course, my resolve crumbles. This only applies to formal reviews (I will continue to blog about books) and books (I am hoping to write more film reviews).
Book Of The Year:The Crimson Petal And The White by Michel Faber
Looking back on what I’ve read this year, I’ve actually had a fairly mediocre year. This massive wodge of a book was one of the few true highlights. It has been sat on my shelves for some time, rather intimidatingly, with its 800 plus pages of small type but I finally had a chance to spend some time with it and, far from it being difficult or a struggle, it was a pure joy to read. Faber has produced an immensely nimble novel and his evocation of the Victorian period from a more honest perspective than was available at the time is extraordinary. If you think Dickens looks a bit dull and that lashings of piss and spunk improve most things, this is the book for you.
Runners up: His Illegal Self by Peter Carey, In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield
Why Didn’t I read That Before? Award: Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
In fact – good as Faber’s novel is -this was the best thing I read all year but I’ve arbitrarily split the categories between recent-ish and old-ish stuff. It made sense last year (although it still didn’t stop one A Roberts from teasing) but maybe I’ll drop it next year. Anyway, this is a bloody masterpiece. Reading Farewell, My Lovely in 2009, it still seems completely fresh; approaching some genre-changing material considerably after the fact, it can seems tired and dull in the wake of the evolution it has triggered (see, for example, Neuromancer) but, if anything, the opposite is true here as, for all the imitation, very little since has approached the quality of the original. The prose is pretty much peerless and at least some of 2010 will be devoted to a further exploration of Chandler.
Runners up: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, The Seige Of Krishnapur by JG Farrell
Science Fiction Book Of The Year: In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield
In my review I concluded:
In Great Waters is a delight to read, an elegant and contained work. People frequently profess to like clean, unadorned prose when often what they mean is prose that is charmlessly functional, prose that gets you from A to B without needing you to really to engage. Whitfield is the real deal, her prose is clear like a mountain lake; cool, beautiful, bracing, affording glimpses of great depths. I am extremely eager to see what she will do next.
Yes, it was so good I almost lapsed into blurbing… This was a lovely unexpected treat; a book I knew little about and which bowled me over from the first chapter. Her debut was nowhere near as impressive but, as I said in my review, only forward.
Runners up: The City & The City by China Miéville, The Ask And The Answer by Patrick Ness
Children’s Book Of The Year: The Ask And The Answer by Patrick Ness
There is absolutely no doubt that Monsters Of Men, the concluding volume of Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy, is my most anticipated book of 2010. The first volume, The Knife Of Never Letting Go was an unexpected delight: a great children’s novel, a great adventure novel, a great SF novel. The Ask And The Answer took this to the next level:
The Ask And The Answer may be slower and less exhilarating to begin with than its predecessor but that is because it requires a fundamental change of mindset from the reader. This is no adventure: it is a war story in which our erstwhile hero and heroine gradually become a concentration camp guard and a suicide bomber. Although obviously co-erced to one degree or another, Ness never shies away from showing that both Todd and Viola still have agency and are morally compromised by their complicity in the inescapable crimes that surround them.
Runners up: Epic by Conor Kostick, Thirsty by MT Anderson
Worst Book Of The Year: Biohell by Andy Remic
Remic is very much a nuts and bolts type of guy; at one point, he even refers to a spaceship as having “pistons.” His characters take after him. Keenan is the sort of bloke who thinks the Marlboro Man is a poof (although, of course, he would spell it “puff”). He is a man’s man and this book, with its casual misogyny throughout, is not one you can imagine many women picking up. Even if you can put aside this machismo though, even if all you want is a book about blowing shit up, there is still not much to recommend Biohell… There is no attempt to make the plot believable or, even, coherent, let alone concentrating on niceties like structure and pace. Characters flail from plot coupon to McGuffin to deus ex machine without any real direction… The book is set thousands of years in the future but it could be set last week: there are references to Nazis, Arnie and even Ronan Keating. A particularly insular Britishness is on display here which might be a good corrective to the parochial American world view so prevalent in SF except for the fact that two wrongs don’t make a right.
Runners up: Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson
Disappointment Of The Year: Nights Of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton
Runners up: Mouse Guard: Autumn 1152 by David Petersen, Saga by Conor Kostick
Guilty Pleasure Of The Year: God Of Clocks by Alan Campbell
This is a messy book, a sloppy book but one I couldn’t help loving. I came to God Of Clocks with a great deal of accumulated good will from the previous two novels and if Campbell didn’t exactly squander this good will, I can understand why his concluding volume pissed off a lot of people. Still, I found myself able to go with the flow and there is no denying it was a lot of fun:
He has written the fantasy equivalent of New Space Opera; widescreen baroque, indeed. He has produced a series infused with gothic imagery but devoid of po-faced goth sensibility. He has populated it with cartoonish characters which the reader is nonetheless able to feel a great deal of affection for. Above all else he has achieved the holy grail of producing a novel that is unadulterated fun, a book that was written as entertainment and is unremittingly entertaining.
In the end, that carried the day.
Runners up: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Martin Martin’s On the Other Side by Mark Wernham
Most Overrated Book Of The Year: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson (translated by Reg Keeland)
Not only only does it have all the problems one would expect of a contemporary thriller (ie the plot is preposterous) but thewriter is clearly more at home with journalism than prose, the translation is poor and it has a very queasy relationship with violence against women. I know people who have found the series absolutely compulsive but I had no problem stopping after the first one.
Runners up: The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway, Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry
Matt Cheney on Manohla Dargis on women in Hollywood
John Patterson on
It’s that time again. Pitchfork have published their 100 tracks of the year. I’ve already mentioned ‘Cornerstone’ (#67), ‘Empire State Of Mind’ (#44), ‘Surf Solar’ (#17) and Zero’ (#6) but Pitchfork have streams for all the other songs (no downloads, unfortunately, this year) and I will be working through them to see what other gems there are. Apart from the work of The Big Pink which I know to be balls.
There is a long thread on MetaFilter about Alicia Keys’s appearance on The Colbert Report and his duet with her on ‘Empire State Of Mind’. It quickly turns into a referendum on whether Jay-Z’s original is any good.
I love the song but it is impossible to deny its detracters have a point. It is a fairly standard Jay-Z rap about how he used to be the world’s greatest crack dealer but is now the world’s greatest hip hop mogul. This is due to the character-building crucible of New York which Keys helpfully informs us is “where dreams are made of”. In addition to the chorus, Keys has her own guest verse:
One hand in the air for the big city,
Street lights, big dreams, all looking pretty,
No place in the world that can compare,
Put your lighters in the air, everybody say yeaaahh
Even if you had some sort of computerised cliche generator it is hard to imagine it could come up with something more generic than this. And yet… Part of its attraction is that it is so alien: you can’t imagine a song about London sounding so upbeat, optimistic almost to the point of euphoria. What’s the closest we’ve managed? Camden Town by Suggs? It’s hardly the same, is it? On balance, I’m happy with this situation – my sensibility has always been more LDN than Empire State – but still, sometimes its nice to wallow (even vicariously) in this sort of triumpalist tubthumping.
Preface by Claude Lalumière and Marty Halpern
‘The Teb Hunter’ by Allen M. Steele
‘Coyote Goes Hollywood’ by Ernest Hogan
‘Spicy Detective #3′ by Jeffrey Ford
‘Auspicious Eggs’ by James Morrow
‘Timmy and Tommy’s Thanksgiving Secret’ by Bradley Denton
‘Savage Breasts’ by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
‘I Love Paree’ by Cory Doctorow and Michael Skeet
‘Arabesques of Eldritch Weirdness #8′ by Jeffrey Ford
‘The Seven-Day Itch’ by Elise Moser
‘The Scuttling or, Down by the Sea with Marvin and Pamela’ by William Sanders
‘A Halloween Like Any Other’ by Michael Arsenault
‘The Lights of Armageddon’ by William Browning Spencer
‘Doc Aggressive, Man of Tin #2′ by Jeffrey Ford
‘Bagged ‘n’ Tagged’ by Eugene Byrne
‘Amanda and the Alien’ by Robert Silverberg
‘Diary from an Empty Studio’ by Don Webb
‘Is That Hard Science, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?’ by Leslie What
‘Six Gun Loner of the High Butte #6′ by Jeffrey Ford
‘Encounter of Another Kind’by David Langford
‘Tales from the Breast’ by Hiromi Goto
‘Science Fiction’ by Paul Di Filippo
‘Mother’s Milt’ by Pat Cadigan
‘Deep Space Adventure #32′ by Jeffrey Ford
‘The Wild Girls’ by Pat Murphy
‘Jumping’ by Ray Vukcevich
‘Kapuzine and the Wolf: A Hortatory Tale’ by Laurent McAllister
As you will realise by now, I have not enjoyed Witpunk. I would go so far as to say that it is one of the worst themed anthologies I have ever read; of the twenty one stories, only three are any good – excluding Jeffery Ford’s brilliant interstitials – and one of those doesn’t belong in the collection in any shape or form. Whole swathes of the book can be dismissed pretty much immediately and as an attempt to prove that SF is still fun it fails abysmally.
I don’t have the strength to go over the stories again in too much detail but I will give a quick overview in terms of the three categories the contributors are grouped into on the back cover.
In hindsight it was a mistake to gobble up all Ford’s pieces in one sitting as they would have broken up the mediocrity of the rest of the book. Only two of the award-winners – James Morrow and Pat Murphy – actually served up anything decent. Morrow hits the target the editors have set but, as I mentioned, Murphy’s straight-faced coming of age tale doesn’t belong any where near this anthology. As for the rest, well, there aren’t many lows (although I could have done with out Steele and Sanders) but there aren’t any highs either. Despite the fact I know they have good eyes for material, for some reason Lalumière and Halpern just haven’t been able to find any. I can only speculate (lack of cash, lack of time, lack of interest) as to why this may be.
Nor have the two editors been able to uncover any new gems. Elise Moser’s contribution was at least decent, although again not really related to the book’s supposed mission statement. She doesn’t seem to have done much since 2003 but she did have a story picked up for Rich Horton’s Fantasy: The Best of the Year (2007) and she did publish her debut novel this year. Michael Arsenault, on the other hand, hasn’t published anything since his dreadful, disposable debut here.
The sort of sardonic stories Lalumière and Halpern are after should be bread and butter for satirists. Unfortunately – with the honourable exception of Laurent McAllister – they struggle too. Denton, Webb, Hogan and What all provide outright stinkers; Byrne and Langford aren’t on the top of the their game; I’ve not read anything else by William Browning Spencer but on the basis of this I’m sure he can do better. This is a very limp bunch of stories, too many contributors have just knocked off a one-note “joke” story that is unable to withstand even brief contact with an actual reader.
Right, I need a break after that. Bah humbug.
McAllister is the pen name for Jean-Louis Trudel and Yves Meynard, two writers who mostly work in French. This is a shame because I don’t speak French and this is one of the best stories in Witpunk. After everything I have already said about the anthology this is damning with faint praise but ‘Kapuzine And The Wolf’ is a good story fullstop.
It recasts Little Red Riding Hood (and some other more generic fairytale elements) into a post-collapse culture where resource consumption has finally hit the wall. Interestingly it inverts our modern expectations and makes the heroine part of a consumerist enclave, holding out against an environmentalist hegemony – the Gardeners – who want everyone to return to nature. The distrust and disgust Kapuzine feels towards greenery is wonderfully evoked and nicely contrasted against the way she is persuaded to carry out a terrorist mission against the Gardeners on behalf of the Woodcutters; her elder sister promises to let her have her first cigarette even though she isn’t yet 13. This cigarette takes on particular significance when, in the course of executing her mission, she is captured by the Wolves, the genetically-modified secret police of the Gardeners. The torture and imprisonment which follows is when the story is at its most exhortative and moving.
The story in reminescent of Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter in its blending of science fiction and fantasy and, in particular, its juggling of the modes of fairytale, bildungsroman and contemporary literary fiction whilst maintaining a remarkably effective and consistent tone. McAllister adds an extra layer to this by making the story political propaganda within the world of the story itself. Witpunk definitely went out with a bang.
Sweet short short about first love and the fact that yes, you would jump under a bus if she did it.
It is getting towards the time of year when I am being asked for contributions to best of round ups and In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield is featuring prominently. My thanks to Abigail Nussbaum for pointing me in the direction of another wonderful mermaid story published by a British writer this year: ‘A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc’ by Helen Keeble. I actually prefer its subtitle, ‘A Lullaby’:
Hush my babes, hush; sleep soundly in your shells. Do not open your eyes, not yet. Sleep softly, dreaming of blood.
If you feel a swaying, surely it is but the gentle tumble of the waves. If you feel a current, surely it is but the ripple of my fins around you. If you see a shadow, surely it is but a passing darkness. I am here, sweet spawnlings, little eggs. I am here, your father, wrapping you in the soft tides of my song. I am here, Sunlight-Reaching-Deep is here, warming you like my namesake. I promise you, when you awaken, you will see the sun. You will see the sun, and laugh.
But not yet, not yet. Curl tightly; fold your fins over your eyes. It is not time to wake. Sleep, o my small loves, sleep fearlessly, and let my voice rock you in your dreams. Surely no harm will come to you while your father sings.