Archive for September 2010
I was up at Ross-On-Wye last weekend and it seemed rude not to pop across to Hay-On-Wye whilst I was there. It was a much less rushed trip than last time I went but I still only managed to go into two shops. Not that I needed more:
That little lot is all from Bookends, the wonderful remainders shop which used to have a branch on Charing Cross Road but alas, this has recently become a Korean cultural centre. Not pictured is a hardback copy of Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock which I had my eye on but foolishly neglected to pick up whilst still making my first sweep of the shop. When I returned downstairs, it had gone so I hope it went to a good home.
Today I received two books from Orbit and, whilst I am looking forward to reading both, it was their covers that particularly struck me. Here is Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan:
And here is Version 43 by Philip Palmer:
The cover for Lightborn was designed by Nathan Burton and art directed by Duncan Spilling (more here, including larger image). The cover for Version 43 was photographed by Eric Westpheling and art directed by Lauren Panepinto (more here, including larger image). Both covers take radical yet radically different approaches to complimenting the work behind them
Lightborn has a stark, monochrome cover depicting light being split by a prism where, instead of producing a rainbow, it simply fans out in a grey wave. As well as harmonising with the title, it signals a novel with serious intent and presumably a dark future. It reminds me a bit of Gollancz’s paper space opera series but I’m worried it is too non-descript (the typeface is also very small for a novel). However, when I mentioned this cover on Twitter several people said that they thought it would stand out by virtue of the fact it is so different to other SF covers.
In contrast, I really do think Version 43 stands out. The cover is split between text and image and both are highly distinctive. The top half is a blue bold background with a really strong and unusual typeface (as well as a small element of graphic design). The bottom half is a photo an Action Man figure with several more in silhouette. Again, this harmonises with the title, a disposable figure in a conformist society. The protagonist of the novel is a cyborg cop, “more programme than man”, and the harsh light, stern expression and menacing shadows set a hard-boiled tone. It isn’t quite as instantly brilliant as the similar cover for his previous novel but it is pretty damn good. From comments elsewhere, it is also seems to be divisive though.
Your average woman of tomorrow will look at a spaceship and see something akin to a passenger liner or a freight train. Your average director of today looks at a spaceship and sees something akin to a haunted house. You can see why as it is a tried and tested formula: put ten little Indians in a metal box, chop ‘em up, in space no one can hear you scream. Cargo, a Swiss SF film directed by Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter, tries to move beyond this but keeps being drawn back to the utility of having someone jump out of a cupboard to provide tension. The result is a curious hybrid of Sunshine and Moon with all the strengths and weaknesses that suggests.
Which is not to say that those are the only two films it resembles. Dr Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) takes a job on a cargo ship, the Kassandra, to secure a fat paycheck which will allow her to join her sister on the idyllic colony world Rhea. The Kassandra itself is pretty much the Nostromo, right down to a pair of engineers (Michael Finger and Claude-Oliver Rudolph ) in the Yaphet Kotto/Harry Dean Stanton mold. The regular crew is joined a security officer, Lt. Decker (Martin Rapold), who initially appears to be taking the role of Ash as company man. He also acts as a sort of political commissar which is a reminder that dramas set on spaceships most closely resemble dramas set on submarines.
The ship sets off on its four year voyage and the crew enter cryosleep (a nicely realised version of this old standby). Three and a half years later Portmann is woken up, alone, for her shift. Engler and Etter capture the loneliness and introspection of self-enforced solitary confinement in a similar way to Duncan Jones’s Moon. But, of course, Portmann is not really alone. Dun dun duuunn! The rest of the crew are quickly awoken and things unravel from there as hidden motives boil to the surface.
The first image we see in Cargo is of a woman walking through a vast, sunlit cornfield. The camera pulls back and we see that this is, in fact, advert for Rhea being played on a huge screen. In other words, the first image we see in the film is a lie. This sets up the fact that Cargo is a film about secrets and lies. what is strange is how quick it is to give those secrets away.
Given that the Earth is blasted and barren and the remenants of humanity are crowded into orbital habitats we are more than a little suspicious of the paradise of Rhea where everyone has a schloss and two perfect children. The twist relating to this is telegraphed surprisingly early on when Portmann discovers what the cargo they are carrying actually is. Similarly Decker almost immediately abandons any pretense of being the baddie to become a standard leading man; this could have been a case of undercutting our expectations but the reversal is executed so quickly as to not be a reversal at all. That he embarks on an equally rushed romance with Portmann signals a further reliance on generic convention.
Four writers are credited – Engler, Arnold Bucher, Patrik Steinmann and Thilo Röscheisen – and I wonder if this is a case of a horse designed by committee. Cargo does keep some cards close to its chest but even these it discards abruptly. This echoes the pace of the film which tends to alternate between the frantic and the placid with little consistency. Plot holes and idiotic expedency abounds. My favourite example being Portmann as ship’s physician telling Decker to sling a crew member who has fallen several stories over his shoulder and run back to the medical bay. Proper ideas, interesting design and well-composed shots are strung at random along the thread of the film but, as in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine in-between them is dross. Where Engler and Etter have succeed most is in establishing a tone of emotional and intellectual seriousness which, even when they are not actually present on screen, allows the viewer to navigate their absence.
Cargo came out last year so it has missed its chance at the Hugos but it is certainly better than 60% of the shortlist. I’m not sure I can agree with Ian Sales that it is the SF DVD of 2010 though. But that did get me thinking. What are the SF films of 2010? My mind is a total blank apart from Inception (and I would be amazed if it didn’t win the Hugo next year).
I’ve read this before, right? Or have I just read Stephen Baxter’s version? He did one, right?
Anyway, this is a stone cold classic, both of science fiction and hard SF. A small group of colonists crash land on a planet with is almost entirely covered in water. They know they are going to die, they take this in their stride and they seed the planet with a microscopic version of humanity. Many years later this new form of humanity reaches for the stars.
The hard SF path of heroic endeavour is all here: the universe is a harsh, unforgiving vacuum; up by his bootstraps; per ardua ad astra; etc, etc. ‘Surface Tension’ also reconfigures the familar (the story takes place in a small puddle) into the utterly alien. A joy to read and larded with enough of Blish’s professional background in microbiology to skim of any holes in the plausibility of the scenario.
When I started this blog I was keen it didn’t just become about science fiction. I have succeeded: it has become a blog about science fiction and restaurants! I would go so far as to say it is the best blog about science fiction and restaurants on the whole damn internet.
Everything Is Nice is two today. Hooray! My average number of page views has doubled over the last year and I think I’ve worked out what I want to say and found a bunch of people who want to hear it. I’d still like to make the contents of this blog more diverse but it is pretty clear I’ve settled down into a pattern. Over the last year I have become the reviews editor for Vector and a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award; science fiction is a big part of my life and it is obvious that it is one of the things I most enjoy writing about.
The greatest hits of this blog this year as voted for by you, the public:
1) CAPS LOCK RAGE – in which I implore SF reviewers to raise their game.
2) ‘The Star’ by Arthur C. Clarke – in which I dislike a short story.
3) ‘The Fifth Head Of Cerberus’ by Gene Wolfe – in which I decided Wolfe isn’t all bad.
4) Epic Fantasy Vs Sword And Sorcery – in which I muse about, well, the title is pretty self-explanatory.
5) Inferiority Complex – in which I implore SF readers to raise their game.
6) Margaret Atwood Steals The Bread From Neal Asher’s Mouth – in which I don’t care whether science fiction is dying.
7) ‘Light Of Other Days’ by Bob Shaw – in which I dislike a short story.
8) Dark Waters of Hagwood – in which I wonder if Dark Waters of Hagwood is ever coming out.
9) Dark Fantasy – in which I wonder what the fuck Dark Fantasy is meant to be.
10) ‘The God Of Dark Laughter’ by Michael Chabon – in which I dislike a short story.
So, for the second year in a row, Andy Remic is what it is all about. The entry on ‘The God Of Dark Laughter’ is the only re-entry from 2009 (it was the eighth most popular last year) which means I really should get round to writing a proper piece about it.
When I’ve moaned about Eric Brown’s capsule review column in the past, people have complained I am being unfair. After all, I can only moan about it because it exists in the first place. Shouldn’t I just be grateful the Guardian is covering science fiction at all? There is something to this and the Guardian has generally been the newspaper most sympathetic to SF and provided it with the most space. The issue of space is important though. There is only a finite amount of it and I find it highly questionable that capsule reviews make the best use of it.
It should be stressed that this is an issue that goes far beyond Brown’s column. Capsule reviews are everywhere and the problems are inherent. The Guardian has capsule columns for thrillers, non-fiction, audiobooks and debut novels, not to mention the weekly paperback round up. In publications not focussed specifically on books – music or film magazines, for example – capsule reviews of books are the norm rather than the exception. The idea is to give an overview of a vast field in the limited space available. I often wonder if this couldn’t be achieved equally well by just printing the covers of new releases. After all, it is not as if the tiny wordcount available gives the reviewer room to make any meaningful judgement.
The majority of a capsule review must be spent providing context in the form of synopsis; any actual evaluation is usually left till the final sentence and just dangles there, unsupported. Yet these weightless reviews are accorded the same weight as any other, publishers hoover up words of praise to plaster over the covers of their books. From this perspective capsule reviews make sense when considered as part of the symbiotic relationship between publisher and publication but not sure how the reader benefits. The reader can’t even be sure they are reading an accurate synopsis of the work. Since reviewers have no space to say anything it is unsurprising that they have no motivation for actually reading what they are reviewing. This leads to staggering factual inaccurancies such as this and this (neither from Brown but both from the Guardian).
So I’ve already got a chip on my shoulder but a couple of things in particular struck me about Brown’s latest column. This month he has 555 words to cover The Evolutionary Void by Peter F Hamilton, Tales From The Fragrant Harbour by Gary Kilworth, The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi and Guardians of Paradise by JN Fenn. Reviewing The Evolutionary Void, Brown has 118 words for a book that is over 800 pages long. This seems like an exercise in futility.
But then, if you turn over the page, you find a 600 word review of a science fiction novel. This is I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore, reviewed by Patrick Ness, and it appears seperately because it is Teenage Fiction (I’m pleased to see the Guardian does not endorse the fiction that books for old children are actually for young adults). Ness has the space to give the novel a proper assessment and is not hamstrung by trying to cover three more novels in the spurious interests of diversity. It is a shame the same is not true for adult science fiction; I would happily trade Brown’s four pointless reviews for one meaningful one.
Which brings us to the question of which one of the four novels covered by Brown deserves a full review. Returning to the review of The Evolutionary Void, I find it hard to see who this is for. Hamilton is one of the biggest selling SF writers in the UK – the biggest according to Pan MacMillan – so it does make a sort of sense to cover the novel. At the same time though, it is the third volume of a massive trilogy that is essentially a single giant novel. Its only audience is those who are already fans and those fans certainly don’t need a review. At the other end of the publishing spectrum, Tales From The Fragrant Harbour is another short story collection from Kilworth, a jobbing writer scratching out a living in the margins. I’m glad PS Publishing exists to print this sort of work but it is very much small beer for a limited audience. Critic-proof blockbuster or small press irrelevancy, neither has much life outside fandom. The same is true of Guardians of Paradise, another third volume in an ongoing series (hopefully it still has a life within fandom, even though Gollancz seem to have changed Fenn’s name halfway through the series). These books will all be covered by the genre press (as they should be) but it isn’t clear to me that there is much benefit in covering them here. The Quantum Thief, on the other hand, is a major debut from a major publisher written by a young author with a PhD in string theory. The protagonists name is a reference to Fifties French film noir. It seems to me that this is the sort of novel that would both justify the extravagant luxury of a 500 word review and has the potential to interest the average Guardian reader.
But perhaps I’m wrong. Damien G Walter – one of the Guardian’s SF bloggers – has always claimed the readership couldn’t possibly have any interest in the genre and hence the SF reviews need to be safely coralled into a capsule column where they can be safely ignored. He may well be right but in that case the paper should probably axe the column as it is currently only of interest to publishers and Brown himself. I’m not so sure he is right though. I mean, the Guardian did publish three reviews of SF novels with the serial numbers filed off last week. And this week, on the page before Brown’s column, is a double review from Stephen Poole of The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr and Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser. Splodey spaceships may not float the boat of the Guardian’s readership but they almost certainly do have an interest in science and technology (Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking and David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins were on the cover of the Weekend section on the same day as Brown’s column). I also believe that they also have an interest in literature in all its forms, it is just a question of finding books which will re-pay that interest.
Then again, Walter also doesn’t think that the genre produces one book a month which is worthy of a 500 word review. Now, whilst I am happy to accuse the genre of publishing more than its fair share of crap, there is still wheat amongst the chaff. Catch me in my darkest moments of despair about SF, I will still always think there is at least one book a month worth talking about to a general audience. But if there wasn’t, so what? James Lovegrove’s science fiction reviews column for the Financial Times are much less frequent than Brown’s column for the Guardian but his latest column had 1,700 words to spend on four novels (including The Quantum Thief). The constrast is quite stark and I would rather wait for something of substance than be placated with regular filler.
‘Johnny Mnemonic’ (1981) is very much a dry run for Gibson’s famous debut novel, Neuromancer (1984). The protagonist is a young man, disaffected and detached. He has a valuable technical skill which powerful criminal interests are using to hold him over a barrel. He is aided by Molly, a razorgirl (and irksomely trad combo of mother and whore). He triumphs over organised crime with the assistance of some colourful street tribes. He makes friends with a smack-addicted ex-Naval Intelligence dolphin. Wait, that last one only happens in the story…
‘Johnny Mnemonic’ is more of a scene than a story. I’ve already written about the way the story immerses the reader and immersion is the intent here; we enter after the story has begun and leave before the story has finished but in that period we have learnt the world. Although the plot rehearses Neuromancer, it is relatively perfunctory and Gibson is more interested in Johnny as an inhabitant of the Sprawl than in Johnny himself. I think we can safely say that is something that has remained true throughout his career.