Archive for December 2010
Earlier in the year Patrick Hudson put forward the idea of Gap Year SF, named after the British tradition that school kids go off travelling for a year to see the world before going on to university. The aspiration is that you gain life skills by Peace Corp-style volunteering; the perception is that these life skills are more likely to involve having sex with other Westerners, learning rude words in foreign languages and doing a bit of minimum wage manual labour in Australia to make ends meet. As it relates to science fiction, the idea is that the United States has been the default future for so long that, as readers, we are predisposed to be attracted to SF set in the developing world. But, as with kids on a gap year, is our understanding and interest only likely to be superficial?
Sam (Whitney Able) is as close to a gap year student as you can be without actually being one. She is a trustafarian with a media mogul father and a honking great diamond engagement ring. We are never told why she is in San Jose but it is strongly implied she is in Central America to “find herself” before getting married, settling down and living the American Dream.
Then a disaster hits her hotel. She sprains her wrist and her father orders one of his locally based employees, Andrew (Scoot McNairy), to escort her home. Andrew is a photojournalist and he is as much an archetypal war photographer as Sam is Daddy’s little rich girl. He is cynical, reckless and arrogant (he hasn’t even bothered to learn Spanish). Above all, he has no interest in babysitting his boss’s daughter. So we are all set for a Hollywood romance, right?
Well, actually, we sort of are. But, of course, there is something I have been deliberately concealing, something signalled rather bluntly by the title of the film. That is to say, the disaster which struck Sam’s hotel wasn’t an earthquake or a terrorist attack but rather a giant space squid.
Six years previously a NASA probe brought back extraterrestrial life but unfortunately crashed on re-entry. This resulted in the infestation of vast swathes of northern Mexico and the southern United States with alien life forms and the subsequent coast-to-coast quarantine of a third of the continent. The whole of this area is a No Fly Zone so Andrew is unable to simply stick Sam on a plan. Instead they strike out for the nearest port using the traditional developing world combo of train, truck and shank’s pony. On arrival they find an equally traditional combo of corrupt officials, vibrant nightlife and passport stealing prostitutes. They miss the boat and – whoops – it is the last one for months because the alien mating season is just starting. Their only solution is for Sam to pawn her engagement ring and, in a nice piece of irony, employ coyotes to smuggle them over land through the quarantine zone and back into America (in a further irony, when they arrive at the border the anti-alien wall proves to be just as ineffectual as the current anti-Mexican fence). This all unfolds with a fluid naturalism which makes it possible to ignore the rather rudimentary construction of the plot.
So Monsters is fifty percent romance, fifty percent road movie. As they face travails both terrestrial and otherwise, Sam and Andrew grow closer to each other and start to question what is really of value in their lives. In her case, this means increasing doubts about whether she loves her fiancé; in his, increasing angst about the son he never sees and isn’t allowed to call him dad. The film ends with a genuinely beautiful moment of transcendence and emotional connection. Just like Gap Year students, they have found themselves by exposing themselves to an alien culture.
Monsters is the feature film debut of Gareth Edwards, a British documentary maker. It was written, filmed and directed by him, he provided the visual effects and reputedly brought the whole film in for half a million dollars. Now, film budgets always need to be taken with a pinch of salt but regardless, it is an impressive achievement. And, in many ways, Monsters is an impressive film. I just wish I could have liked it more.
Its strengths can be seen in the obvious comparison to Cloverfield, Matt Reeves’s schlocky 2008 re-imagining of Godzilla. Before are shot on hand-held cameras, although Edwards avoids the extreme contrivance of making the film an unedited, real time record. In both films, the monsters are usually glimpsed obliquely or in the dark. These two decisions were taken for financial rather artistic reasons but, although Reeve had fifty times Edwards’s budget, it is Edwards who has made the best of his constraints. He utilises the inherent intimacy of the shooting style to good effect in what is after al a small story but he also invites light, colour and scale onto the screen. More than this though, Monsters poses a refreshing question: what if NYC wasn’t the centre of the universe?
Once you’ve posed that question, you have to answer it though. Whilst it is always welcome to be reminded that cinematic science fiction can operate on another model to Hollywood, Monsters does not step too far from this path. The problem is not with its aesthetic but with its bones; Edwards is a Renaissance Man but I hope it is not uncharitable to suggest that he is one with a greater facility with images than words. If Hollywood (exemplified by the producer of Cloverfield, JJ Abrams) is habitually and accurately lambasted for preferring style to substance then where is substance to Monsters?
You may, for example, have detected a certain sarcasm to my introductory synopsis of the film. While I was aware of the many familiar elements of the film whilst watching it, it was only as I started to write this review that I became aware of just how many and how cumulative they are. Edwards is clearly striving for the universal but that is only a whisker away from the archetypal. Sam and Andrew are not clichés but they don’t rise far above them; they are characters we know well and whilst Able, McNairy and Edwards turn them into real people, they don’t turn them into particularly interesting characters. Their dilemmas are familiar, adolescent even. So too are their solutions.
Ultimately, I was reminded of Duncan Jones’s Moon: another recent debut by a British director, another quietly impressive science fiction film with a minimal cast, another rarity that was overly praised due to the paucity of similar films to act as any sort of benchmark. Isn’t the potential of science fiction cinema so much more than this though? Is the chasm between the boneheaded blockbuster behemoths and the slightly solipsistic small-budget films too wide to be bridged? Is there no room for an intelligent, exciting middle ground? I hope not and there is some evidence for this hope. Moon won the Hugo last year; I doubt Monsters will do the same and instead it will go to Inception, a blockbuster which, for all its undoubted flaws, had brains. Then there is next year’s Source Code, the next film from Jones and what (from the trailer) looks like an attempt to claim that very middle ground. Hopefully it will be artistically and commercially successful and this will be a progression that Edwards will also take. At the moment, Monsters is more of a calling card (one that is very likely to be successful). If someone hands him a bit more money and a good script I will be really exciting to see what he does with them.
Between the ages of about twelve and thirteen I read every short story Philip K Dick wrote. There are quite a few of them, hundreds in fact; his Collected Stories run to five volumes. I read them because I liked Dick and because they were available when so much else wasn’t. He is a writer who repays being read in bulk since so much of his work was variations on a theme. Inevitably, however, they all blurred together a bit.
‘The Indefatigable Frog’ is one of the few that stuck in my mind. This was because it introduced me to Zeno’s Paradox (technically the dichotomy paradox). Re-reading it now, I find that Dick used this paradox to produce a lame joke. Or perhaps I should be charitable and say several lame jokes: a satire of academia, a raspberry at the two cultures and zany version of the paradox itself. Dick doesn’t seem to have any real awareness or understanding of the elements he is using though and the results are fundamentally dumb.
This is Asimov’s third and final story in the anthology and for a minute I thought it might be okay. It isn’t. It is another Multivac story and, after a hard day’s inputting, two of its attendants retire for a quiet drink. As they shoot the breeze we get the only decent line of the story:
Lupov cocked his head sideways. He had a trick of doing that when he wanted to be contrary, and he wanted to be contrary now, partly because he had had to carry the ice and glassware.
It is one of the few times you feel Asimov is writing an actual human being. What the two are discussing is entropy and whether there is any way of avoiding the heat death of the universe. Multivac doesn’t know. So then the story repeats itself but further into the future. And again. And again. Eventually humanity is dead and we are rewarded with a cheesy punchline.
I never wanted to kill, I am not naturally evil
Such things I do just to make myself more attractive to you
Have I failed?
Morrissey, The Last Of The Famous International Playboys
The problem is, of course, that pirates are cunts. They are murdering, raping, thieving cunts and dunking them in a bucket of charisma a la Mal Reynolds and Jack Sparrow makes no difference to this fact. Luckily pirates are thin on the ground but they have a ubiquitous land-based equivalent in the form of gangsters. On film, if you are a hitman, you are cool. In real life, if you murder people for money, you are a cunt. (At this point I would have liked to point you to Cosmo Landesman review of The American but, alas, it is behind Murdoch’s Iron Curtain.) Occasionally you get a film like In Bruges which addresses the inherent moral issues but these are so rare that I have essentially given up on gangster films.
Which brings us to Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding. Darian Frey, our hero, is clearly a pirate: he has an airship and a crew and even a magic cutless. He is equally clearly a massive cunt. What he is not is charismatic; Wooding has crafted a charmless character, a loveable rogue who is not loveable. If Captain Reynold is meant to be good but not nice and Captain Sparrow is meant to be nice but not good then Captain Frey is neither nice or good. In fact, his defining characteristic is that he is a whiner (and nobody likes a whiner).
Here he is having just accidently committed mass murder:
Wanted for murder? Piracy, fine, he’d own up to that (to himself, at least. Damned if he’d admit it to a judge.) But murder? He was no murder! What happened to the Ace of Skulls wasn’t his fault!
It didn’t matter that piracy and murder carried the same penalty of hanging. In real terms, whether he did bothor only one was moot: his end would be the same. But it was the principle of the thing. It was all so tragically unfair. (p. 77)
He wanted to murder half a dozen people, steal loads of money and get away free. Instead, he murdered several dozen people, stole nothing and has the rozzers on his tail. Poor baby :( And here he is twenty pages later, having again “accidently” committed murder:
Frey’s reaction was as instinctive as Codge’s had been. He pulled the trigger. Codge’s head snapped back; tiny beads of blood splattered Frey’s face. Codge tipped backwards and crumpled to the floor.
Frey wasted a moment on shock. He hadn’t wanted to fire. What was he doing, going for his gun like that? (p. 100)
All Frey did was break into someone’s house with the intention of violently assaulting, how could he be expect to know there would be resistance? So we know Frey is a self-serving, self-deceiving murderous cunt. This deception extends to others in his milleu: “Sharka was a dangerous man, but he had a heart of gold, and Frey suddenly felt unworthy of his kindness.” (p206) Yes, he actually said heart of gold. Sometimes a bit of self-awareness does penetrate though. Once he arrives at Secret Pirate Island AKA
Hong Kong Retribution Falls, he finds he doesn’t much like spending time with people like him:
There was a wildness here that he found frightening… Danger surrounded them. He found he actually missed the spectre of the miltia. He liked his illegal doings to be conducted within the safety of an orderly civilisation. Total lawlessness meant survival based on strength or cunning, and Frey didn’t have too much of either. (p. 271)
Taken together, what do those three quotes suggest to you? Because to me they suggest comic writing that just happens to lack humour. You could read this as Wooding inviting you to laugh at Frey but, given the fact he is consistently written as the hero of the story, I find it more likely we are meant to laugh with him (that final sentence, for example, is clearly meant to be self-deprecating). In other words, Retribution Falls is a romp. Call me an old fuddy-duddy but romps and mass murder don’t mix.
At this point it is probably worth having a look at this review of the novel by Dan Hemmens of Ferretbrain. I read this earlier in the year and it is not the sort of review you forget. Hemmens probably likes Retribution Falls more than me but his review is even more damning:
So far, so swashbuckling, and it is indeed about sixty percent rollicking good fun. Unfortunately it’s then twenty percent tedious exposition, ten percent sloppy writing, ten percent sexism.
Before we get onto the sexism, there is a question raised (at length) in the comments about how reliable and sympathetic Frey is as a narrator. Clearly, Frey’s viewpoint is subjective but the only conclusion to draw from this subjectivity is that he is a massive cunt. So the argument has to be that perhaps Wooding intends Frey to be a cunt. However, there is nothing in the book – tone, character development, the viewpoint of other characters – to suggest this. So when it becomes clear that, in additon to being a cunt, Frey is also a massive misogynist, it is very hard not to attribute some of this to the novel itself. Hemmens has some handy sets of stats at the end of his review, including this one:
Number of Named Female Characters: 4
Of Whom Protagonist’s ex Lovers: 2
Of Whom Dead: 2
Of Whom Rape Victims: 1
Of Whom Murdered By Viewpoint Character: 1
The two characters who fall for him do so because of his amazing good looks and immense charisma. Since there is no evidence on the page of Frey having any charisma, this leaves them as two naive young fools who have had their heads turned by a pretty face. Frey promptly does a runner because, after all, all women are oppressive shrews who force committment on you. The consequence for the first women is that she attempts suicide, miscarries, is disowned and then spends the next decade being raped and beaten by pirates. Pirates like Frey. The second woman gets off lightly, she is merely disowned and imprisoned in a convent against her will. Frey shows no remorse for any of this (and, indeed, he has simply allowed history to repeat itself).
Why is any of this Woodings fault rather than Frey’s? For starters, Frey is the hero of Retribution Falls. I’m happy to hear arguments against this but I think you would be hard pressed to find them in the text. Then are Frey’s re-unions with the two women. When he meets the second, he spins her a line and she immediately jumps on his cock. When he meets the first, he discovers she has been turned into a mega-bitch (what with all the sustained physical and emotional trauma). The only real remorse Frey shows is that she is no longer fuckable but, by the end of the novel, they have reached a rapprochement.
Finally, we have the main female character. She is not one of Frey’s exes, she is competant, she is skilled, she is a person in her own right. So, obviously, at the conclusion of the book, she springs Frey from jail by having sex with an old man. Wooding is at pains to tell us that it is particularly degrading sex but this is instantly forgotten for a hugs all round finale. In fact, there are reasons within the book why this even more offensive than I have made it sound. Hemmens has much more on this and other offensive details in his review but it is hard to escape the feeling that in Retribution Falls women exist in relation to men and are only there to be used by them or to make them feel bad.
At the level of high culture with which this book is concerned, active bigotry is probably fairly rare. It is also hardly ever necessary, since the social context is so far from neutral.
That is from How To Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ and it is worth bearing in mind every time awards season rolls round or another anthology with no women in the table of contents is published. It is tiresome to have to constantly rebut the same talking points from those who ‘just care about good writing’ and, besides, you probably couldn’t do it as succinctly as Russ. Her chapter on bad faith – just two pages long – says it all:
Conscious, conspiratorial guilt? Hardly. Privilege groups, like everyone else, want to think well of themselves and to believe that they are acting generously and justly… Genuine ignorance? Certainly that is sometimes the case. But talk about sexism or racism must distinguish between the sins of commission of the real, active misogynist or bigot and the vague, half-conscious sins of omission of the decent, ordinary, even good hearted people, which sins the context of institutionalized sexism and racism makes all too easy.
How to Suppress Women’s Writing is small and imperfectly formed; Russ herself calls it “oddly-sized and oddly-shaped” and, although it is passionate and powerful, it is also sloppy and repetitive. It is showing its age as well. Written in 1978, it wasn’t published until 1983 and the British edition didn’t appear until 1994. At over forty years old, many of its examples seem outdated and, despite the fact the issues Russ is addressing certainly haven’t gone away, this can make it easier to dismiss. It would be nice if there was slightly fresher edition available for a new generation of readers. I can think of plenty of people who would benefit from one.
Another book of Russ’s that could do with a new edition(although not on grounds of age) is A Country You Have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews, published – in rather desultory fashion – by Liverpool University Press in 2007. Despite the subtitle, the book is divided into three sections (the third is letters) and without any pause for niceties such as an introduction we are plunged into the first review. It is from 1966, originally published in F&SF and sets the tone for the book. You will see what I mean if I quote the first and last sentences of the review:
Strange Signposts is a bottom-of-the-barrel anthology… This is one of that damned flood of anthologies that do nothing but cheapen the market, exasperate reviewers and disappoint all but the most unsophisticated readers.
Russ is utterly merciless, as well she might be since that is the role of the critic. It seems like it was a bit too much for F&SF, it was a year before she was invited back. Soon she was writing more frequently and at longer length though, her final column appearing fourteen years later. Like How to Suppress Women’s Writing, it is scrappy, wonderful stuff; ugly knots of “i.e.”, “e.g.” and “italics mine” giving way to devastatingly precise judgements. As Nic Clarke says in her review of On Joanna Russ, edited by Farah Mendlesohn, Russ is “a sharp, eloquent and intellectually restless critic and often a very funny one”.
It can be a frustrating reading experience though. The back cover claims the book compiles Russ’s “most important essays and reviews” but it isn’t clear what the selection criteria are which makes for a frustrating reading experience. For example, on page 126, in the course of one of her reviews, she footnotes one of her own essays, ‘Someone’s Trying To Kill Me And I Think It’s My Husband: The Modern Gothic’. One might reasonably expect this essay to be re-printed here but no. There is a reason for this – it is already collected in To Write Like A Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction, published by Indiana University Press in 1995 – but the reader is only alerted to this possibility by a passing mention on page 267. Another flaw in the production of the book is that it doesn’t contain a proper index. This means I can’t check my impression that Russ makes a reference to George Bernard Shaw once every three pages or so. You forgive Russ these repetitions because regrettably the message that SF needs to look beyond its limited horizons does need to be hammered home: “Outsiders mean bad and stupid things when they say “science fiction,” but sometimes the bad and stupid things are unfortunately accurate.” Plus ça change. That quote also gets at another truth: reviewers review out of love, not hate, it just isn’t unconditional love; Russ wants what we all want:
All books ought to be masterpieces. The author may chose his genre, his subject, his characters, and everything else, but his book ought to be a masterpiece (major or minor) and failing that, it ought to be good, and failing that, it at least ought show some sign that it was written by a human being.
Is that so much to ask?
- On Joanna Russ, edited by Farah Mendlesohn (Wesleyan University Press, 2009) – Reviewed by Nic Clarke
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Anthony Nanson
- The Folding Knife by KJ Parker (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Stephen Deas
- Blood in the Water by Juliet E McKenna (Solaris, 2009) – Reviewed by Penny Hill
- City of Ruin by Mark Charan Newton (Tor UK, 2010) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
- Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes (Gollancz, 2010) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
- Wolfsangel by MD Lachlan (Gollancz, 2010) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
- Muse and Reverie by Charles de Lint (Tor, 2010) – Reviewed by Amanda Rutter
- The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman (Penguin, 2010) – Reviewed by Lalith Vipulananthan
- The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie by Keith Brooke (Newcon Press, 2010) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
- Fun with Rainbows by Gareth Owens (Immersion Press, 2010) – Reviewed by Chaz Brenchley
- The Orphaned Worlds by Michael Cobley (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Martyn Taylor
- Brain Thief by Alexander Jablokov (Forge, 2010) – Reviewed by Tony Lee
- Veteran by Gavin Smith (Gollancz, 2010) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
- Yukikaze by Chohei Kambayashi (Haikasoru, 2010) – Reviewed by Ian Sales
- The World Inside by Robert Silverberg (Orb, 2010) – Reviewed by L. J. Hurst
- This Is Not A Game by Walter Jon Williams (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Shaun C. Green
- Blonde Bombshell by Tom Holt (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Simon Guerrier
- Retromancer by Robert Rankin (Gollancz, 2009) – Reviewed by James Bacon
- Conflicts, edited by Ian Whates (NewCon Press, 2010) – Reviewed by Ben Jeapes
- Lonely Werewolf Girl by Martin Millar (Piatkus, 2009) – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
- The Midnight Mayor by Kate Griffen (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
- Mr Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
- Neverland by Douglas Clegg (Vanguard, 2010) – Reviewed by A.P. Canavan
- Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (Faber & Faber, 2009) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
- Sunshine State by James Miller (Little, Brown, 2010) – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
- The Last Pixel Show by Graham Andrews (New Theatre Publications, 2010), Mistaking the Nature of the Posthuman by Steve Sneyd (Hilltop Press, 2008) and Time Grows Thin by Lilith Lorraine (Hilltop Press, 2009) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
It takes a few pages to find out what the relativistic effects of the title are and it took me those few pages to embrace the story. ‘Relativistic Effects’ starts as just a day in the office with blunt worldbuilding and a clunky future dialect. I thought I was faced with another competant man Miner of the Future story. But no, Benford is interested in peeling away the surface layer of the universe and looking at what is underneath, not just bashing up an asteroid.
And then it becomes clear what the context of this all is. Our sub-space miner is on a spaceship stuck in fifth gear, they are hurtling forward at almost the speed of light with no way of slowing down. Earth is five million years in the past. In their introductions, Hartwell and Cramer talk of the universe as antagonist being a hallmark of hard SF and it is perfectly demonstrated here. The weight of the implacable universe crushes the characters and turns what could have been another lump of coal into a diamond.