Saturday, 23 May 2015

A Rumor of Gems by Ellen Steiber


Ellen Steiber has written many stories for younger readers plus some X-Files spin-offs, none of which I have read. A Rumor of Gems is her first adult fantasy novel. I have a vague recollection that this book was recommended to me by someone who had noted that I loved Sheri Tepper's Marianne Trilogy, but it took me some time to find a copy.

The story is set in the present day but in the imaginary city of Arcato, where people live normal lives except that the existence of gods – from all faiths – and of magic are widely believed. The heroine is Lucinda, an unhappy young fashion model with a spiky personality and a long history of failed relationships, both familial and sexual (which is where the "adult" bit comes in – the language is explicit). Her only friend is Tyrone, the fashion designer she works with, and she is uninterested in the stories of valuable gems which keep suddenly appearing around the city. The reader is soon aware that these come from Alasdair, a visitor from the "lost towns", whose inhabitants have a special relationship with stones in general and gemstones in particular – in their hands, they can indeed produce magic.

The stories of these individuals soon combine, along with those of tricksy shape-shifters and even some of the gods, as Lucinda reluctantly combines forces with Alasdair to solve a series of abductions and murders which are threatening the city's inhabitants.

The story is original, intriguing and beautifully written; the characters are strong, easy to identify with, and are not simply divided into "good" and "evil".  Arcato is a magical creation which comes to life in the text. I was puzzled by an initial focus on a strong plot line concerning a street urchin which abruptly concludes and is then almost forgotten, but I can't think of anything else to criticise. How does it compare with The Marianne Trilogy? In most respects it is better, but it lacks the strongly bizarre and surreal flavour which is what appeals to me most in Tepper's story.


A Rumor of Gems was published in 2005 but appears to be the most recent novel from this author. That is a pity, as I would like to read more by her. This is one of those rare novels which I was genuinely sorry to finish; it is not a short story (around 450 pages) but I wanted it to be longer.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Film: Lucy (2014)


The plot of this film initially seems like a standard "accidental superhero" story: heroine Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) receives a massive overdose of a new drug and acquires superpowers which enable her to gain revenge on those who have mistreated her. In reality, however, that is only the starting point of a highly ambitious tale which heads off in an unusual direction. The problem is that the basic premise of the story is flawed but, if you can swallow that, the film is well worth watching. If you'd rather find out for yourself then you had better stop reading as the rest of this review contains spoilers.

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Let's get the basic flaw out of the way first: that is the claim that humans only use a small percentage of our brains and that anything would be possible if we could substantially increase this. We see a scientist (Morgan Freeman) giving a lecture on this subject in a parallel plot thread which converges with the main thread when Lucy tracks him down to ask for his help. The problem is that this widely-popular notion is not true; neuroscientists, who have ever more sophisticated tools for studying how our brains work, state that we do in fact have a use for every part of them. This should come as no surprise, given the evolutionary imperative of "use it or lose it"; our huge brains absorb huge resources to make and maintain, and if we failed to use 90% of them, we wouldn't keep them for long.

This rather undermines the whole basis of the plot, and the dramatic way in which a number flashes up on screen from time to time to show the steady percentage increase in Lucy's use of her brain as the drug increases the neural connections. Also unconvincing are the consequences of this in terms of instant superpowers, fully developed and under control. Ultimately she attains near god-like powers, but she realises that this rapid evolution of her cells will have an inevitable conclusion within a matter of hours: her own death. There are echoes here of Flowers for Algernon, although Lucy is much more complicated, messy, fast-moving and violent than Keyes' classic tale.

Despite the flaws there is much to enjoy. First and foremost is Johansson's performance; I am not a fan of hers but I have to admit that she carries this film, giving an excellent performance while appearing in almost every scene. Then there are the playful moments that Luc Besson inserts: initially, as the helpless innocent Lucy has gang members closing in on her, the action is interspersed with clips of predators menacingly closing in on their prey. The impressive CGI takes centre stage in the finale, and the whole film is packed with such interesting detail that I would happily sit down and watch it again – not something I could say about many films.


Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Furies by Bill Napier


This is the fifth (and so far, last) novel by astronomer Bill Napier, the others all having been reviewed here earlier (see review list on the left for links). It emerged in 2009, six years after the previous one (Shattered Icon). The story begins in the present day with some mysterious deaths in a remote part of the USA, apparently the result of biowarfare. Evidence at the scene suggests that the perpetrators were inspired by Nazi ideology – or could this be the result of a secret weapon programme from World War 2? A letter which appears to come from the same people is received in London, threatening dire consequences for the city. Enter Lewis Sharp, an expert on WW2 weapons technology with particular reference to secret Nazi projects, who becomes involved in a race to discover what is really going on. He faces battles with disbelievers on his own side as well as threats from the mysterious terrorists while he is trying to solve the puzzle.

The plot is complex, alternating between the present day and WW2 and featuring assorted villains with rather different agendas. As a result the story is at first confusing and it's easy to lose track of who's who. By far the strongest and most convincing scenes – and those with the best characterisation – are set in WW2, with the grim conditions in late-war Germany forming a well-realised backdrop. This part of the book focuses on Max Krafft, a Waffen SS officer and engineer who is despatched to a remote site in Bavaria to assist with the design and development of a weapon intended to end the war. His tussles with Hess (not that one!), in command of the project, his battle with his own conscience over the work he is doing and his growing relationship with mathematician Daniela are well drawn. Interestingly, Krafft's side of the story is told in the first person (for reasons which become evident towards the end of the book), while Sharp's scenes are in the third person. That might in part account for the greater impact of the German scenes, but for whatever reason the present-day characters (good and evil) and events are much less memorable.

The Furies is longer than Napier's previous novels, giving more space to develop the characters and introduce plot complexity. The downside is that the pacing is initially relatively slow so it isn't an immediate page-turner, but in the second half the pace accelerates as the mystery is gradually solved. As usual, the author's science background comes through in the descriptions of the technical problems faced by the German team and how they were tackled. I hope that this isn't the last novel from Bill Napier, his books are always worth reading.


Saturday, 2 May 2015

Film: Blade Runner (The Final Cut, 2007)


Blade Runner is one of the most famous SF movies ever made, but I had only seen the original 1982 cinema version, and that a long time ago. Several different versions have been made but in only one of them did director Ridley Scott have complete artistic freedom – The Final Cut, released in 2007 – so when it came up on TV I was keen to watch it.

I'm sure I needn't say much about the plot, concerning the efforts of a specialist police officer (Bladerunner) in a future Los Angeles to identify, track and "retire" (kill) four replicants; very tough and strong artificial humans made for work in outer space who have illegally returned to Earth in the hope of extending their artificially short lives. The four most important characters in the film are the Bladerunner Deckard (Harrison Ford), two of the replicants he is hunting (Rutger Hauer in a compelling performance, and Darryl Hannah) and a young woman who also turns out to be a replicant (Sean Young).

The setting is dystopian, with Los Angeles a grim, dark, dirty, violent and decidedly wet place (most of the scenes seem to be set at night, in the rain). The mood is enhanced by the soundtrack, with strange mechanical noises from the city frequently intruding into the futuristic background music from Vangelis. The most noticeable difference between The Final Cut and the original is the deletion of the explanatory voice-over from the protagonist Deckard; a big improvement in my view, as it adds to the bleak, mysterious atmosphere of the film. Little is explicit and the viewer has to focus to keep up with the often fast-moving action, but time is taken to give some depth to the major characters, and some of the minor ones too. The fact that the replicants are treated with some sympathy adds to an air of moral ambiguity; this is definitely a film for adults to appreciate, in a way that few SF films have been (Gattaca being another example).

The original release should certainly feature in anyone's list of best SF films; The Final Cut is vying for the top spot. Compared with another good SF film seen recently – Interstellar – it lacks the ambitious plot and spectacular visuals, but as a piece of filmic drama it is clearly superior. Any SF fan who has not seen this film should certainly do so, and try to see The Final Cut if you can.

A final thought: the film is set in 2019, which in 1982 was presumably felt to be far enough into the future for interstellar colonisation to be feasible. It is rather sad, but typical of SF, that this optimistic assumption was so far from reality that we are in fact further from achieving that now than we seemed to be in 1982. Yet the IT visible in the film was far less advanced than ours – which just emphasises how difficult it is to predict technological developments.


Saturday, 25 April 2015

The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell


This is the sequel to London Falling, the first of the Shadow Police series, which I reviewed in July last year. I was impressed with the tale, in which a team of police officers in present-day London discover that the supernatural is all too horrifyingly and murderously real. The Severed Streets is set a few months later, with the team still together and trying to get used to the "Sight" which they had all accidentally acquired and which enables them to see supernatural beings and events which are invisible to normal people.

It is a summer of discontent in the capital, with flash-mobs causing chaos and a resentful police force threatening illegal strikes. A prominent politician is gruesomely murdered in impossible circumstances so the team is called in to investigate. It is immediately obvious to them that a very powerful supernatural force was responsible, but exactly what and why baffles them. While they are still searching for clues, the bodies begin to pile up. In their hunt for answers, they delve into the city's occult underworld but keep finding every likely avenue being blocked. In the meantime, the members of the team have their own problems, both privately and with each other.

It literally takes a trip to Hell to solve the mystery but even that doesn't tie up all of the loose ends. At least one of the team is badly affected by the outcome, and there is a considerable mystery about what exactly their Superintendent knows that they don't. Clearly, this is not a series in which each volume is going to conclude tidily, so there will be more to come. I must admit that while the story is very well written, it is even darker and bloodier than the last one and includes some genuinely shocking moments, to the point at which I was beginning to be turned off the story. In the end, thought, I was pleased that I had persevered and I await further developments with interest.

One curiosity is that Neil Gaiman is one of the characters – yes, the real-life fantasy author, with the added twist that he knows about the occult underworld and has a part to play in the story. This certainly catches the attention but I am rather baffled by the motivation, and I'm not at all sure that this blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction is a good thing. Does it presage further "guest appearances"? Will Paul Cornell be appearing as a magical character in Gaiman's next novel? I think we should be told…