Saturday, 28 February 2015

Film: Divergent (2014)

This one slipped past me when it appeared in cinemas a year ago and I only found out about it when I saw an advert for the sequel, due for release soon. I hadn't heard of the novels it was based on either until I looked them up, and discovered that the young author (Veronica Roth) had won awards for her trilogy (Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiant) published in 2011-2013. I haven't yet read these, so had no particular expectations of the film. There are a few minor spoilers in this review.

The setting is a post-apocalyptic world in which civilisation is maintained in Chicago, kept separate from the mysterious dangers of the rest of the world by an enormous fence. Within the city, the population is divided into five factions depending on their personal attributes: Erudite (the intellectuals); Dauntless (fighters and peacekeepers); Abnegation (who help others and run the government); Candor (who always tell the truth) and Amity (the peaceful; farmworkers etc). Which faction they belong to is determined when they reach adulthood by a psychological test. Those unable to belong to any of these are known as the Factionless, and live on the fringe of society, surviving by begging. The purpose of dividing society in this way was to achieve stability but, at the beginning of the story, Erudite is stirring up discontent with Abnegation's rule.

Enter the heroine, Beatrice or Tris (Shailene Woodley), brought up in an Abnegation family, whose test is inconclusive; she is a Divergent, a rare personality type feared and hated by the others because they are unpredictable and ungovernable. She keeps her result secret and chooses to join Dauntless, where she is put through a tough training regime designed to weed out the uncommitted. She is surreptitiously helped through this by Four (Theo James) one of the trainers who takes an interest in her. The tension steadily mounts as the growing political crisis becomes interwoven with Tris's personal battle for survival.

Divergent is reminiscent of several other stories, most obviously The Hunger Games and the film Aeon Flux (reviewed on this blog), with a touch of Harry Potter and even echoes of Huxley's Brave New World; plot elements which seem to have been carefully selected to appeal to the target Young Adult audience, as no doubt will the rather simplistic good guys vs bad guys characterisation. While the story contains little in the way of original ideas, these disparate elements are mixed together quite effectively in a film which is well-paced and well-acted, and it held my attention throughout. Not a great film but a good one, and worth watching.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Mainline by Deborah Christian

I was browsing my bookshelves the other day and spotted Mainline by Deborah Christian.  I was puzzled, because I had no recollection of this book whatsoever, but must certainly have read it (books don't get shelved until I have). The publication date was 1996, when I would probably have ordered the book from a postal SFF bookseller I dealt with at that time, who used to send an occasional stock catalogue with recommended reads and comments on each book – sadly, long killed off by the online booksellers.

The blurb sounded promising so I duly read it. The plot is set in a very distant future in which humanity has expanded to create an empire of many worlds, shared with alien races. Some humans have developed psychic abilities of one kind or another, and these are marked with face tattoos to warn people of their particular skills – except for some Imperial agents, and wild talents who have so far escaped identification.

Reva is such a wild talent – a young woman who can move between alternate time-lines at will or hover invisibly between them, deciding on which one to enter. A useful talent for her chosen profession of assassin, enabling her to appear and disappear from any particular reality; her ability to achieve the apparently impossible has made her wealthy. She is a sociopath who has kept aloof from involvement with other people, simply changing lines to avoid problems. However, on a visit to her home planet R'debh, a watery world where she endured a difficult childhood, she finds herself drawn into relationships with Lish, a "Holdout" (supplier of illegal merchandise to the criminal fraternity) and Vask Kastlin, whom she believes to be a fixer, but (as readers know) is actually an Imperial agent with his own talents. The threat posed by another assassin, the formidable alien Yavobo, holds Reva pinned to the mainline – the reality she is now in – due to her reluctance to abandon her new friends to their fate. She is faced with one problem after another in resolving the complex situation which develops, and experiences a gradual shift in her priorities and character, eventually being forced into taking drastic action.

This was the author's first novel and was an impressive debut, keeping me turning the pages and reluctant to put the book down. It is not without flaws, however.  The story is too crowded with characters and other strange beings such as Borgbeasts and the legendary Ghost Ray, although to her credit I didn't usually forget who people were. Furthermore, I could never sort out what happened to the versions of herself who existed in other time lines which she crossed to. She materialises physically in each line, but also seems to replace the local version. I do prefer such plot devices to make sense within their own context, however wild the concepts might be.

A quick web search revealed that Deborah Christian, who nowadays prefers to use her middle name of Teramis, has been working primarily as a game designer, although she has published three other novels; two fantasies soon after Mainline, and Splintergrate (to be published soon) which is set in the same universe as Mainline.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Film: Ender's Game (2013)

I read Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game shortly after it first came onto the market some thirty years ago but I didn't rate it highly enough to keep on my shelves, so I haven't read it since. I could recall the broad outline of the story but remembered few details, so I watched the film with an open mind.

For any readers unfamiliar with the story, it is set in a future in which Earth is at war with Formics – aliens resembling giant ants – who had been beaten off after trying to invade some decades before but were now perceived as posing a renewed threat. The International Fleet defending Earth had discovered that children, intensively schooled in computer games, were faster at understanding and solving tactical situations in battle, so instituted a programme of training and selection to find the best. Their choice was Ender Wiggin, a boy who exhibited the right combination of intelligence, tactical control, and ruthlessness in battle. The story follows Ender through his training, climaxing in a final battle with the Formics.

I can't comment on similarities and differences compared with the book, as I read it too long ago. However, I formed the impression right at the start that the film was "the book on screen" type of adaptation, rather than a freer interpretation of the concept; the fact that the author was involved in the production might have had something to do with that. So the film starts with a rather clumsy voice-over infodump to explain the background to the story, about the aliens and the programme to train children, before the drama begins. It's the kind of thing that you might expect in a sequel, just to remind viewers what happened in Part 1. Once it gets going, the direction, acting and CGI are all handled competently enough, and the zero-gravity combat training scenes are convincing and entertaining. Despite this, I found that the film lacked a certain tension until the climactic battle; it had a rather routine, by-the-numbers, box-ticking air which left me feeling uninvolved. Good to have a conclusion which challenges the morality of an all-out interspecies war, though. It was just about worth watching, but rather forgettable, with the most memorable image being the Maori tattoo on the face of one of the characters!

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Interzone 256 (Part 2)

The author interview this time is with Ann Leckie, author of Ancillary Justice (reviewed here on 2nd August last year) and its sequel Ancillary Sword (currently in my reading pile). The review of the sequel, which incorporates a comparison with the original, is interesting since it sounds rather different in approach, so I may have to accelerate that one up my priority order, if it can find its way past all of the others....

Other book reviews did not prompt me to add any more to my "must buy" list (I am becoming increasingly selective, given the way my reading pile keeps growing faster than I can shorten it). The film and DVD reviews are as entertaining and informative as usual, although thanks to my recent efforts to actually travel to a real cinema to watch films in their natural habitat, I have already seen some of the ones featured here.

An interesting addition to the usual contents is an interview with artist Wayne Haag, who has worked on many films as well as providing covers for Interzone over the past year. Some insights into a normally obscure corner of the film industry.

Now to the short stories, of which there are just five this time.

Nostalgia by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, illustrated by Richard Wagner. Dysfunctional people in a future dystopia, trapped by their drug addiction in an apparently endless cycle.

An Advanced Guide to Successful Price-Fixing in Extra-Terrestrial Betting Markets by T. R. Napper, illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe. The hero of this one is a not entirely sane gambling addict who follows obsessive little rituals such as varying the treads of the stairs which he steps on, imagining that alien gamblers are placing bets on which he chooses. Until reality crashes into his imaginary world to dire effect, forcing him into drastic action to save the day. A likeable story, filled with wry humour.

The Ferry Man by Pandora Hope, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. For ninety percent of the story this appears to be a non-genre tale about the grief of a recently widowed old man who turns to an unusual therapist for comfort, but the ending veers off into mythological fantasy.

Tribute by Christien Gholson, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A glimpse of an incomprehensible world in which a more or less normal human culture – apart from a predilection for sacrificing children to their god, that is – coexists with what seems to be one of the "gods", who doesn't have a clue what is going on.

Fish on Friday by Neil Williamson. A short story which consists entirely of one side of a telephone conversation, in which an earnest minion of an independent Scottish state tries to persuade a recalcitrant elderly woman to eat more fish, along the way revealing some of the bizarre priorities of the ultimate "nanny state".

I frequently complain about the downbeat mood of stories published in Interzone, so must raise a cheer that there are no fewer than two amusing stories in this issue. No surprise that they are my favourites by a wide margin. Williamson's tale is a little gem, using the comic possibilities of only hearing one side of a phone conversation to good effect, as the reader enjoys imagining the other side. Napper's story reminded me of the kind of really good tale that used to appear in anthologies decades ago when a neat story structure, dry humour and a satisfying ending were far more common ingredients of SFF than is the case today. More like these, please!

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Interzone 256 (Part 1)

An interesting editorial in the British SFF magazine this week, criticising the current sensitivity about spoilers. The focus is on films (the author reviews these for the magazine) with the point being made that the pleasures of watching a movie include far more aspects than any particular plot twist. Indeed, if viewers like a film they will eagerly watch it again and again, regardless of the loss of any surprise. I am reminded of the famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones, facing yet another combat challenge from an enthusiastically sword-wielding enemy, just looks wearily at him – then pulls out a revolver and shoots him. I have read that the element of the unexpected makes this the most popular scene in the film, yet even though everyone knows what is about to happen, it still brings cheers and laughter when it appears.

I would argue that much the same applies to book reviews. Certainly there are some circumstances in which a spoiler really can ruin enjoyment (most obviously, to know WhoDidIt in a WhoDunIt) but the flow of events, the characterisation, the quality of the writing, all remain to be discovered whatever the reviewer may reveal. Having said that, some books are harder than others to review without spoilers, particularly those which include a significant plot twist part-way through; to avoid all spoilers would require ignoring everything from that twist onwards.

In writing my reviews for this blog, I do outline the plot for the sake of those readers who want to know what the book or film is all about. In doing so I try not to reveal crucial plot developments wherever possible but, when I really have no option, I split my posts into an initial spoiler-free assessment, with the full review separated from it by spoiler warnings. The example which comes to mind where this particularly applied was The Palace of Eternity by Bob Shaw, which heads off in a radically different direction part-way through. I hope that is satisfactory, but please let me know if you disagree (or agree, come to that!).

A new columnist who appears to have a regular slot in Interzone is author Nina Allan, whose stories occasionally appear in the magazine (my favourite being The Silver Wind, in issue 233). She has a different complaint, concerning supposedly SF books in which the SF element is merely a background rather than an essential part of the story. The specific example she gives is The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne, a novel set in the near future. Allan praises the quality of the writing, the story-telling, and the richness of the imagined world, and says she enjoyed reading it. But she confesses to disappointment overall, because "the story could have taken place anywhere, at any time". That complaint struck a chord with me, as I have commented on a number of occasions on this blog about stories which are not obviously science-fictional. As Allan says: "When faced with the unfamiliar, the reader's first instinct is to ask why: why is this story taking place on another planet, in the future, in an alternate reality? Why didn't they just set it down the road from where they live? Does the science fiction matter, and if it doesn't, why is it there? If the reader feels bound to ask this question, then so should the writer." Wise words for all aspiring – and established – SFF writers to bear in mind.

While on the subject of Interzone columnists, I should mention Jonathan McCalmont's regular Future Interrupted column, in which in this issue he discusses the importance of ambiguity in stories and the value of surprise twists (assuming that a reviewer hasn't revealed them, of course!). To keep surprising readers as they grow more experienced and sophisticated, authors have to work harder to be inventive. He makes the following interesting comment: "The reason they say that the golden age of science fiction is twelve is that twelve-year-olds are sophisticated enough to comprehend most texts yet naïve enough to be surprised by nearly all of them." An interesting topic for discussion!

I've spent so long on the columnists that I'll postpone the reviews and stories till next time.