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Archive for May 4th, 2011

‘Red Star, Winter Orbit’ by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson

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I may be persuaded to look again at the work of John Shirley but let’s be honest, when you want cyberpunk, you want Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. Or do you? It is possible they are sui generis of the very genre they created. As Sterling notes in the introduction, he was best known at this point for the Shaper-Mechanist stories, a body of work that essentially leapfrogged cyberpunk and rendered it irrelevant. Similarly Gibson’s cyberpunk novels are the least interesting thing he’s written.

Colonel Yuri Vasilevich Korolev was the first man on Mars. Now he is disabled, pensioned off and rotting away on the equally rotten Kosmograd space station. Typical Soviet political shenanigans ensue. Sterling and Gibson then spring a surprise cyberpunk on the reader that is actually pretty reminiscent of all those up-by-our-bootstraps stories from The Ascent Of Wonder. It is also pretty naff.

Quality: ***
Punkosity: **

Written by Martin

4 May 2011 at 19:17

Black Death (2010)

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The week I went on holiday it was impossible to avoid A Game Of Thrones which was an important reminder of just how big television is and just how small books are. It was also a reminder of how people tend to get locked into narratives: fantasy is a form of historical fiction; recent historical telly has got lots of shagging in it; fantasy fans are asexual. Cue mild cognitive dissonance from assorted journos and a million identical ledes. Anyway, I liked the preview for A Game Of Thrones but I won’t see it until it has aired in America then aired in the UK then been released on DVD. So to deal with the wait I settled for the next best thing: Black Death (2010).

Or so I thought but I’d made a major category error. Yes, it stars Sean Bean as a long-haired, sword-wielding soldiers but this is a long way from Boromir/Ned Stark territory. Rather than being fantasy or historical fiction, Black Death is a horror film. In particular, it is a horror film in which faith is an instrument of torture. I shouldn’t have been too surprised since the film is directed by Christopher Smith who was previously responsible for Creep (2004), Severance (2006) and Triangle (2009). I’ve not seen Creep but the other two interesting and effective horror films with lots of unusual touches. Black Death is certainly full of unusual touches but the result is bonkers and baffling rather than effective.

Eddie Redmayne is Osmund, a nervy young novice monk in 14th Century England at the height of the plague. His love for God is in conflict with his love (which we are given to believe has been consummated) for a local woman. When the plague reaches the monastery he forces her to flee to the forest for her safety, only to be torn by doubt over whether to follow her or stay with God. He prays for a sign. This appears in the form of Bean’s Ulric, a paladin and envoy of the local bishop. He requires a guide to take him and his men to nearby village which is hidden in the marshes and is rumoured to be free from the plague. More importantly, it is rumoured that the reason for this freedom is necromancy and it is Ulric’s job to lay God’s vengeance upon them.

Following this introduction, the next act unfolds as you would expect: Osmund signs up as the guide and gets to know the motley crew, the tension between being a man of God and a man of war is explored and, inevitably, the crew get all medieval on the arse of various persons who get in their way. In the midst of this is an important scene in which the crew come across a witch burning. Osmund, the man of God, pleads for the release of the young woman and argues that it is not God’s will. Ulric, a man of God but also a man of the world, stabs her to death. This is, he argues, an act of charity since even if they had freed her the mob would have found and burned her. At least he gave her a painless death (although, to be honest, it didn’t sound that painless.) There is a rich stew of faith, fear, gender and morality here and it is a stew that is brought to boiling point by the crucible of the God-less village.

The arrival of the crew at the village, following a journey through an exaggerated and heightened landscape, marks the turning point of the film. Their entrance is reminiscent of the arrival on Skull Island towards the beginning of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), the initially seemingly abandoned village revealing itself to be populated by silent, haunting figures. Smith switches entirely into horror mode at this point. Despite the deliberately eerie way the scene is shot, the group receive an incongruously warm welcome from the head of the village, Hobb (Tim McInnery). The modern viewer is left to assume that the village is simply the innocent victim of rumour, just like the poor woman damned as a witch earlier in the film. Or, at least, we would be if everything wasn’t imbued with a heavy air of the unheimlich and the villagers weren’t quickly revealed to be a bunch of atheists. They make no secret of this and are ahistorically contemptuous of Christianity to these heavily-armed messengers from God.

This contempt comes most strongly from the village herbalist, Langiva, who is played with frankly bizarre modernity by Carice van Houten. With her modern manners, mannish behaviour, cartoon lasciviousness and foreign accent she simply screams witch. Could it be that Langiva really is a witch? At this point I started scratching my head. We know witches don’t exist. Equally we know that thousands of women were murdered in the false belief that they were witches. Is Smith making a film that seeks to justify this slaughter?

Two things happen next. Firstly, the villagers throw a feast in honour of their visitors, complete with gallons of booze and slutty local woman. Secondly, Langiva gives Osmund the come on and beckons him out into the night. You can see that this isn’t going to end well. In fact, Langiva has invited Osmund to watch a necromancy ceremony where, complete with prosthetic witch make up, she raises his beloved from the dead. Simultaneous his compatriots are all passing out from the drugged grog and being interred in Viet Cong-style water cages. So Langiva is a witch, right? Certainly the facial transformation, the magic and the plan to protect the village from the Black Death by crucify and disemboweling her Christian captives suggests so. This allows the film to easily cast Ulric and his crew as the good guys and lets us cheer at their subsequent escape and raving of the village. Hooray! The church has finally turned the tables on those bloody women!

This would be puzzling and unpalatable enough on its own but the film has a few more unwelcome surprises to spring. Because it turns out Langiva isn’t a witch at all. The make-up was just make up (remarkably quickly and professionally applied), the necromancy was just a trick (when Osmund saw her previously she was sleeping not dead – that old chestnut) and she is well aware that her sacrifice plan is bullshit. It is all just a rouse to give her power over the village, although why she wants or needs that power is left unexplored. So Langiva isn’t a witch, she is just a mad bitch pretending to be a witch. So that makes everything okay.

Black Death saves the the worst for last though. Until now Osmund has been the protagonist and our narrator, now that latter role transfers to Wolfstan (John Lynch), the last surviving member of the crew. In voice over he tells us how Langvia’s torments pushed Osmund over the edge and transformed him from sensitive novice to heretic-purging witchfinder. He travels up and down the country murdering innocent women in the guise of hunting his “witch”. Wolfstan audibly shakes his head at this sad news. Poor, poor Osmund. The film’s final words are Wolfstan’s heartfelt wish that Osmund achieved some measure of peace, words that take place against the backdrop of another young woman being sentenced to death by torture. I’d like to believe they were spoken with irony but given the clumsiness, confusion and attitude to women that proceeded this, I don’t think they.

The only major role for a woman is that filled by van Houten’s ridiculous performance but all the roles are underwritten. The relationship between Osmund and Ulric should be the core of the film but, after some initial gestures in this direction, the approach is abandoned to concentrate Osmund, only for that to be abandoned too. I liked the performances from both Redmayne and Bean but there is not enough from either. Both McInnery and Andy Nyman return from Serverance but both have substantially reduced parts that highlight the contrast between the films. Black Death was written by Dario Poloni and completely lacks the wit of Severence or the intelligence of Triangle, both of which Smith himself wrote. Here’s hoping that for his next film he gets his own pen out again.

Written by Martin

4 May 2011 at 13:04

The Langstrath Country Inn

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I’ve managed to dodge fandom’s Easter splurge – the Clarke, the BSFA awards, Eastercon, the Hugo nominations – by dint of being in splendid isolation up in Cumbria. I spent the first half of my holiday walking the Cumbria Way, a 70 mile footpath that tracks across the county from Ulveston to Carlisle, taking in a good portion of the Lake District National Park. I am not a novice hiker but after the first day it became me and my wife had perhaps over-estimated our fitness. Not that we are unfit but a 10kg pack on your back radically changes the game. Add in the killer combination of a cold and hayfever – not to mention unusually fierce sunshine – and it started to seem a bit of a struggle. Had I gone on holiday by mistake? Thankfully with a bit of determination, some Lemsip Max capsules and the rapid purchase of a Titanium Omni-Shield we made it through with just a few blisters.

The proper way of doing things would have been to have packed our Trangia and couscous along with the tent and sleeping bags but we made a considered decision to keep the weight down by ditching them. This was no problem because there pubs all allong the route and what could be better than that after a hard day’s walk? After a couple of nights we started to wonde if we had made a mistake though. We had forgotten what pubs are like. Living in London you tend to get spoilt food-wise; gastropubs are ten-a-penny and often serve food of a standard that makes them competitive with the capital’s many restaurants. Outside metropolitan areas a pub is often your only option for a warm meal but often it isn’t an offer you’d want to take up.

A detailed survey of the pubs of Cumbria revealed the following formula virtually universally applied: indifferent meat in rich, thick gravy or sauce served with massacred veg and chips. Chips! The chip is a thing of beauty, a brilliant culinary invention, but not the sort of the way they are served up in these pubs. Never mind the triple-fried chip that is de rigeur on gastropub menus, these pallid potato sticks didn’t look like they had been fried at all. As for the veg, at various locations I received raw green beans, overcooked but stone-cold carrots, luke-warm leeks in a horribly watery cheese sauce and salad that consisted of half an iceberg drenched in oil. The meat was usually submerged in dark, viscous liquid designed to conceal its blandness. For the vegetarian option, replace the meat with cheese and the sauce with more cheese. Ensure this is served at a dangerously high temperature.

Am I being fussy? A pub is a pub and its primary purpose is selling pints. But the way these pubs treat food stands in such stark contrast to the way they treat beer. Every pub I went into had at least three (and usually half a dozen) local bitters on draft. Several had their own brewery. Is it too much to hope that some of this passion and expertise could make its way into the kitchen?

Thankfully, my faith in the ability of pubs to actually cook rather than just heat was the Langstrath Country Inn in Stonethwaite, a tiny village in Borrowdale. The pub is virtually next to the National Trust campsite we were staying at which is exactly what was needed after a day of brutal ascents and descents through Stake Pass. The landlady was extremely accommodating, squeezing us in despite having a full list of reservations and the fact we looked somewhat battered. She even offered to find us a space in the restaurant but we agreed that a corner of the bar was probably best all round.

I started with cheese souffle served with pear and walnut salad. The contrast in the level of ambition and execution suggested by this is staggering. Here is food that requires technical skill to create, which shows an interest in the way flavours complement each other and which takes pride in the quality and providence of its ingredients (the cheese was local). The salad was served with a simple balsamic vinegrette which caused me to reflect that such a staple as balsamic vinegar probably wasn’t even present in any of the kitchens of the other pubs. N’s potted shrimp was also local and came with four good sized pieces of toast, a huge mark in their favour given how stingy restaurants usually are when it comes to providing baked delivery vectors.

I then went slightly insane and ordered the mixed grill. As she served N’s seabass, the waitress remarked that my wife had made the sensible choice. The full meat roll call here was rump steak, lamb chop, lamb kidney, pork loin, gammon steak and black pudding. I will admit that I pocket the black pudding – a huge disc – for breakfast but otherwise I think I acquired myself well. The beef and gammon steaks were essentially ballast but chop and loin were lovely pieces of meat and not overcooked (the bane of the mixed grill). Again, care was taken with provenance, the lamb was listed by both breed (Herdwick) and origin (Rossthwaite, a mile up the road). If not a particularly skillful meal then it still showed care and attention to the meat and accompaniments: juicy mushrooms, light (but still superflously) onion rings, a perfectly cooked fried egg with a huge, bursting yolk and – yes! – proper chips. There was no need for sauce here but an offer of three different mustards was gratefully received.

The second half of the holiday involved recovering from the first half in a cottage in Glenridding on the shore of Ullswater. Whilst we did put our feet up for a bit we also did quite a bit of fell-walking, notably Helvellyn via the frankly awesome Striding Edge ridge and High Street by another rocky ridge route. Such exortion deserved reward and, rather than gambling with the local pubs, we returned to what we knew.

The Langstrath was just as busy as the previous visit and we opted for the 6.15 rather than 8.15 table. This was a good job since after a quick splash in the stream our party of four suddenly found their appetite. A friend was rapturous of the cheese souffle, another loved the combination of black pudding and chorizo in a salad and me and N both went for scallops from the specials. These were huge beasts served with beurre blanc and some shards of toast which enabled us to mash the equally huge roe into a sort of crostini. Nom. My main of duck was a bit of a let down though. We were asked if we minded it pink. To which the answer is, of course not, that is how it should be. So it is very disappointing then to find the meat was not at all pink and on the verge of being overcooked. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. It came with an excellent but too small slice of daulphoise but, to be fair, this was offset by the generosity of the very large portion of duck. The whole thing was swimming in berry sauce which I needed to be smaller, thicker and more self-contained. My duck-eating companion, on the other hand, averred that the sauce the better and promptly ate the last of my drenched cabbage.

It is worth mentioning the prices here. That huge portion of scallops was £5.95 which is a steal. The mains were a more normal £14-16 but that is still very reasonable. And it looks even more reasonable when you compare it to the inedible £11-13 dishes being served up in every other village across Cumbria.

Written by Martin

4 May 2011 at 10:30