Friday, 24 December 2010

Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

I can't quite recall how I came to choose this book for review, because it isn't my usual reading fare. It combines two fantasy sub-genres, superheroes (I sometimes watch these on film but don't read about them) and zombies (which I neither watch nor read). However, I decided to regard it as educational and pressed on.

The time is the near future, when two different events have completely changed the world. The first is when a few ordinary people began to acquire specific superhero powers. The principal character is known as St George, an invulnerable crime-fighter of immense strength who can leap over buildings and breathe fire, but others include Gorgon, who can drain people's life force with his eyes, Zzap, who turns into a being of pure energy, and Cerberus, a young female engineer who has no superpowers but has developed a huge, powered, armed and armoured fighting suit. And then there is the mysterious Stealth, a beautiful woman dressed head to toe in a skinsuit, who is formidably intelligent as well as superhumanly fast and strong, and becomes the superheroes' leader.

The second event is far more serious and follows shortly after the first; zombies begin to appear in increasing numbers. They are driven by a desire to bite healthy people, who sicken and die and become zombies themselves. The only way to kill them is to destroy their heads. An initial slowness to react and take the drastic measures necessary to contain the outbreak means that it has spread around the world. Even many of the superheroes fall victim to them, and return to fight their former comrades.

As Ex-Heroes begins, almost the entire human population has become zombies. A few thousand people survive in Los Angeles in two groups: one, supported by the surviving superheroes, is concentrated in the Paramount Studious complex, a walled area which can be defended against the surrounding hordes of zombies. The other, much larger, group is a criminal gang known as the Seventeens, who attack the other humans and superheroes when they can.

The chapters initially alternate between "now" and "then"; the ones set in the past each focusing on a specific superhero as the zombie plague begins, and thereby introducing the reader to the characters in more detail than the main narrative. Towards the end of the book, the attention is very much on "now"; the fight for survival against the zombies and the Seventeen, which reveals the limitations of even the most powerful superhero.

The plot is unusual, the story well written, the characters developed well enough to engage the reader, and it's a gripping tale from start to finish. I have only two reservations; it's a very grim dystopia (although with a glimmer of hope at the end), and there are an awful lot of gruesome fight scenes with the zombies. It made an interesting departure for me, but has not inspired me to want to read any more books about zombies!

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Films: Dogma (1999), Highlander (1986)

I was pointed towards Dogma in an SFF discussion forum, so I gave it a spin recently. The plot of this comic fantasy is novel: two fallen angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), living as humans in present-day USA after having been banished by God long ago, conceive a plan to get back to Paradise. The problems are that if they succeeded this would prove that God is fallible, and thus cause the end of all creation; and that God, who could stop them easily enough, has gone missing while in disguise, somewhere on Earth. To help prevent disaster, God's spokesman (Alan Rickman) recruits a woman (Linda Fiorentino) who, unknown to herself, is the last scion of the family of Jesus of Nazareth. She is tasked with stopping the angels, with the aid of an assortment of dubious characters.

This is the excuse for a lot of rather heavy-handed and sometimes crude humour, mostly at the expense of religion in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular - I gather that it prompted protests from Catholics in the usual Pavlovian manner. Subtle it ain't, but it fires enough comic shots for a number of them to score hits. All in all, worth watching if you are in the mood for some broad humour, unless you are religious and of a sensitive disposition.

I've been meaning to watch Highlander for years, but have only just got around to it. The story of the accidental immortal Connor MacLeod (played by Christopher Lambert) who spends centuries battling the Kurgan, another immortal warrior, must be well-known by now. Two plot threads run in parallel with the scenes flipping between them; one in the sixteenth century, when Connor first discovers he is immortal and is trained by fellow-immortal Ramirez (played by Sean Connery) and one in 1985 when the climactic battle takes place.

I have to say that I was rather dissatisfied. There are yawning plot holes, with no attempt at any explanation for what is going on and why. Lambert makes a broodingly impressive hero but the Kurgan is a cardboard cut-out villain and the rest of the cast (except Connery) are unmemorable. I found the background pop music jarringly inappropriate, and the whole film rather pretentious and overblown. It compares badly with some of the more recent superhero movies. I gather it has cult status and is highly regarded compared with the sequels, so I won't be wasting time on them…

Friday, 10 December 2010

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21, edited by Gardner Dozois (Part 4)

The final batch of eight stories.

The Accord by Keith Brooke. A far-future story of people living pleasant, simple lives on a backward planet, all believing in a supernatural life-force called the Accord. Then an anomalous character appears to disturb the peace - and it becomes apparent that the world is not at all what it seems. An intriguing story concerning reality and identity. I recently reviewed Brooke's YA novel, The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie.

Laws of Survival by Nancy Kress. A dystopian future in which, following nuclear war, unseen and mysterious aliens arrive and establish impenetrable grey domes close to the sites of destruction. A woman, barely existing from hand to mouth by following her own rigid rules of survival in a collapsed world, finds herself inside one of the domes and learns that the aliens have their own bizarre priorities.

The Mists of Time by Tom Purdom. A fascinating tale of a future in which a kind of time travel is possible with great difficulty - but only to observe the past, invisible to the people then. Only one visit to any scene is permitted to avoid any risk of problems, and the time-travel rig takes only two people. A wealthy man funds a mission to film a crucial incident in the life of an ancestor, the young commander of a small Royal Navy vessel cruising on anti-slavery patrol off North Africa in the 19th century, but the film-maker who goes with him has her own ideas of what kind of film she wants to make. The viewpoint alternates between the young commander and his descendent, watching and listening in fascination. Combat at sea in the days of sail is richly and tensely evoked, and the difference in attitudes and priorities between the observed and the observers wryly portrayed. A gem of a story.

Craters by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Another dystopian future in which young children are turned into unwitting suicide bombers by having bombs undetectably inserted into them, timed to explode years later. A reporter visits a dangerous refugee camp to try to determine the truth behind the incidents.

The Prophet of Flores by Ted Kosmatka. A alternative present-day Earth in which the accepted scientific methods of dating the past appear to prove that nothing is more than 6,000 years old, so the Bible is regarded as literally and unchallengeably true. Hominim remains discovered by archaeologists are categorised as "human" (tool users deriving from Adam and Eve) or "not human", but these careful distinctions - along with the archaeologists - come under threat when the remains of the small humans of Flores are discovered.

Stray by Benjamin Rosenbaum and David Ackert. A bizarre little fantasy of an immortal, able to command anyone to adore and follow him, who falls to Earth in a segregated America, determined to try to live as a human.

Roxie by Robert Reed. A man's life with his old and ailing dog, told against the background of an impending major asteroid strike on Earth. Hugely sentimental, and for dog lovers only.

Dark Heaven by Gregory Benford. Aliens in the form of vaguely humanoid amphibians have arrived on Earth as peaceful visitors, and live in a few specially-made structures on the edge of the oceans, rarely seen by most people. But then bodies start being found with mysterious injuries, and a police detective in the southern USA begins to suspect that the presence of the nearby alien base may not be coincidental.

Something of a marathon effort, this; I don't think I've read so many short stories in such a brief period of time. The book provides a fascinating cross-section of the state of SF short fiction today, and reveals it to be at least as varied and interesting as it has ever been. The stories are all of a high standard, and the choice of favourites will be determined by the preferences of the reader. Of this group, I most enjoyed the tale by Purdom, and also liked the ones by Brooke, Kosmatka and Benford. My overall selection of ones I liked most from each batch (which also happen to be the ones I liked most overall) is:

Finisterra by David Moles (first batch - reviewed 18 September) - the overall winner.
Alien Archeology by Neal Asher (second batch - reviewed 8 October)
Hellfire at Twilight by Kage Baker (third batch - reviewed 6 November)
The Mists of Time by Tom Purdom (final batch)

Friday, 3 December 2010

The Weaving by Gerald Costlow

This is a first novel by an author who has had numerous short stories published. The outline of the plot of The Weaving, featuring princes and kings, witches, wizards and shapeshifters, goddesses and an evil demon, all set against a medieval background , sounds very familiar and not all that promising. However, this one is a bit different.

The heroine of the story is the Witch of the Woods, a magically powerful young woman whose pining for romance results in a change to reality, delivering a loving husband to her but also freeing a long-incarcerated demon, in the form of an attractive woman, to begin to rebuild her evil empire. Two plot threads run in parallel; a supernatural one as the various magical powers prepare for the final confrontation, and a more mundane one of rivalries between small kingdoms preparing for war. There are twists, turns and unpredictable developments leading up to the unexpected conclusion.

This story turned out to be more enjoyable than I had anticipated. Gerald Costlow turns a mature and perceptive eye on the proceedings, successfully bringing his interesting characters to life and leavening his writing with a wry and sometimes saucy humour which prompted more than a few smiles.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Interzone 231

The November/December issue of the British SFF magazine is a Jason Sandford special, focusing on the work of this US writer. He has already had several highly-regarded short stories published in Interzone which I have reviewed in previous posts, and this issue features three new ones. There is also a long interview (with Andy Hedgecock) in which he explains his view that a new form of genre writing is developing, which he dubs SciFi Strange. He says this "sets high literary standards, experiments with style, is infused with a sense of wonder, takes the idea of diverse sexuality for granted, focuses on human values and needs, and explores the boundaries of reality and experience through philosophical speculation." Which all sounds very impressive, but for me bottom line is simply "is it a good read?"

Peacemaker, Peacemaker, Little Bo Peep (illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe) is the first of his stories. The population of the USA is gradually fragmenting into a patchwork of lynch mobs trilling "Peace!" as they slaughter not just criminals but anyone using violence - including police officers and soldiers. A policewoman escapes with the aid of a serial killer and discovers the chilling truth behind the frenzy.

Memoria (illustrated by Richard Wagner) is next up. Spacecraft travel between parallel worlds, but there is a price to be paid by some of the crew; possession by ghosts of the dead. Criminals escape jail by volunteering to be the "shields" to experience this, gradually losing their memories and minds from the impact of the series of imposed personalities. But it all goes wrong when a new sort of possession afflicts one crew, and they learn why civilisations on parallel Earths have destroyed themselves.

Millisent Ka Plays in Realtime (illustrated by David Senecal) completes the trio of Jason Sandford stories. A future in which the economy runs on time - people's life time. Whenever a citizen wants something - to be educated or to be healed, or just to shop - the price is paid in the form of a specified period of time, ranging from seconds to years, for which they are committed to serve the Lord who provides such services. Their accumulated debt is burned into their genes so it can never be lost. But what might happen if someone discovers that the system isn't infallible? A young musician finds out.

So, do Sandford's stories live up to the billing? The plots are complex and the reader only gradually discovers what is going on; they need careful reading - some passages more than once - which might absorb some readers and irritate others. His writing is to a high standard, the ideas are original, there is a strong "sense of strange" infusing each one (particularly Memoria), and, yes, they are good reads.

There are two other stories in this issue:

The Shoe Factory by Matthew Cook, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. A man keeps being distracted from his solitary mission on a doomed spacecaft by spells of reliving a past life with a former girlfriend. Can he escape by recreating his former existence? A strange story with a complex structure; I wasn't sure what was going on until the end (and I wasn't entirely certain even then).

The Shipmaker by Aliette de Bodard, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A story set in this author's "Xuya continuity", an alternative Earth in which the Chinese discovered America before Columbus. A Grand Master of Design Harmony, responsible for integrating all of the aspects of a spaceship project ready for the new Mind which will be uniquely capable of transforming the ship into a viable entity, is thrown into a crisis when the Mind is born too soon. There is an appealingly lyrical flavour to this author's writing.

In addition, the usual book, film and DVD reviews are present and correct, and I notice that a favourite TV series from my young adulthood, The Avengers Series Five (the first series in colour) is now available on DVD, featuring the wonderful Diana Rigg as the action woman Emma Peel. That should brighten up a lot of lives.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Lost SF Classics in the New Scientist

The New Scientist magazine is a serious journal aimed at keeping the scientific community (plus interested bystanders like me) up to date with current developments across the whole field of science. However, the editor obviously has a soft spot for science fiction, as occasional pieces about it appear. The most recent example was in the 23 October issue, in which ten prominent scientists and writers were asked to nominate a lost SF classic. Their choices, with their comments, were as follows:

Dark Universe by Daniel F Galouye, nominated by the biologist (and atheist flag-bearer for Darwin's theory of evolution) Richard Dawkins. "…hauntingly imaginative, and uses the medium of science fiction to let the reader reconstruct how myths can start."

Journey of Joenes by Robert Sheckley, nominated by James Lovelock (who invented the Gaia concept). "...a mid 20th century version of Voltaire's Candide. I like it because I am often asked to predict the future state of the world and authors like Voltaire, Wells, Orwell and others of their kind appeal more than purely technical prophets."

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem, nominated by cosmologist Sean Carroll. "...a wide-ranging exploration of robotics, technology, computation and social structures."

Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack, nominated by cyberpunk novelist William Gibson. "It's a book you really have to read to see why."

New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis, nominated by Robert May (former UK Chief Scientific Adviser). "…a scholarly review which takes science fiction seriously."

We by Eugene Zamiatin, nominated by novelist Margaret Atwood (winner of the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award for the novel The Handmaid's Tale). "…contains the rootstock of two later themes - the creepy, too-smiley utopia, as in Brave New World, and the Big Brother dystopia, as in 1984."

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, nominated by SF author Stephen Baxter. "…a kind of god's-eye-view survey of the human far future, as bracing and original today as it was when first published…"

Floating Worlds by Celia Holland, nominated by SF author Kim Stanley Robinson. "…Holland's immense power as a novelist, and her new take on old science fiction themes, turn everything to gold."

The Listeners by James Gunn, nominated by SETI astronomer Seth Shostak. "I read this book two decades ago when I was first becoming involved with the search for cosmic company…"

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, nominated by physicist Freeman Dyson. "It's a sensitive human drama, with California providing the enduring natural environment as background."

An interestingly varied selection. Of the ten, I have only one on my shelves (New Maps of Hell) although I recall reading (and being impressed by) Floating Worlds, and assume (simply because they are so well known - not exactly "lost" classics) that I probably read Last and First Men plus Earth Abides a long time ago when I absorbed large quantities of SF every week, although I don't remember them. I have certainly read books by Galouye, Sheckley, Lem and Gunn, although I don't recall the specific titles mentioned. I fear that when it comes to SFF, I have forgotten rather more than I remember!

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The First Men in the Moon (BBC TV)

This is a new adaptation of the famous 1901 novel by H.G.Wells, made for British television in 2010. It is remarkably faithful to the original (judging by the book's Wiki plot summary - I read it too long ago to recall anything about it), with few changes. One of them is evident from the start, which is set in 1968 at a fête to celebrate the imminent Moon landing. A boy wanders into a tent in which a very old man is showing an early film, purporting to be of the Wellsian story; for the old man is Bedford, who really was the first man in the Moon.

The scene then switches to Edwardian England and follows the plot of the novel very closely. We see Bedford, then a young, failed businessman, meet the brilliant and eccentric Professor Cavour and learn of his invention of cavorite - a liquid which, when it cools and dries, shields the force of gravity. They construct a space capsule which can be steered by rolling and unrolling blinds coated with cavorite, and arrive at the Moon. There they find that a local atmosphere, frozen in the long nights, forms in the heat of the lunar day, and they leave the capsule only to be captured by Selenites, large intelligent insects. One change from the book, necessary for even minimal acceptability, is that the fast-growing surface plants described by Wells are missing: the Selenites live entirely underground in a huge system of deep caverns with a permanent breathable atmosphere. In their attempt to escape, Bedford and Cavor split up. Bedford manages to reach the capsule and return to Earth but Cavour remains behind, working with the Selenites who learn his language and are very curious about the Earth - and cavorite. The ending differs from the original, in that the film neatly explains why the Moon is lifeless and airless today (although the very last scene rather spoils that).

There are some technically shaky aspects - BBC4 doesn't exactly have a Hollywood budget to work with, after all. While the initial action on the Moon's surface features the obligatory low-gravity slow-motion antics we are familiar with (plus an amusing Edwardian version of Armstrong's first words), this gets forgotten underground, with some vague hand-waving about gravity being stronger there. Despite this, it's an entertaining production, rich in period flavour, and well worth seeing.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21, edited by Gardner Dozois (Part 3)

Into the third batch of eight stories (one more batch to go):

Sanjeev and Robotwallah by Ian McDonald. A youth in a future India is entranced by the remotely-controlled battle robots he sees in action and becomes determined to get involved. But reality proves less glamorous than he expected.

The Skysailor's Tale by Michael Swanwick. Another dissatisfied youth, this time in an alternative America in the Revolutionary War period. A vast British flying craft with a crew of a thousand, held up by a huge number of hydrogen-filled balloons, appears in the sky over his home town and of course proves irresistable to the youth. A story strong in atmosphere and convincing detail, as I have come to expect from this writer.

Of Love and Other Monsters by Vandana Singh. Yet another youth, in India again, who has the ability to weave minds together. He slowly finds out more about his origins as he constantly tries to escape the attentions of a man like himself - only far more powerful. An original and intriguing tale.

Steve Fever by Greg Egan. Dissatisfied youth number four (am I detecting a theme here?) in a future USA feels powerfully drawn to escape his farm and head for the city. But his impulse is not self-generated, and he is being called to the city for a bizarre purpose. A strange tale of nanobots out of control.

Hellfire at Twilight by Kage Baker. A time-travelling cyborg tasked with retrieving historical documents is sent back to the notorious Hellfire Club, a group of British aristocrats devoted to excess in depravity. He is after a Greek scroll describing the ceremony of the Eleusinian Mysteries , but find himself involved more closely than he expected. This one reminds me of Connie Willis's novel To Say Nothing of the Dog.

The Immortals of Atlantis by Brian Stableford. The destruction of fabled Atlantis, a biotechnologically advanced civilisation when the rest of humanity was still in the Stone Age, led the inhabitants to ensure their survival via latent mitochondrial DNA, which could be awakened in the unsuspecting carriers by the application of a sequence of drugs. An interesting notion given an unexpected twist in this short story, in which a woman in a present-day housing estate receives a peculiar visitor. I particularly enjoyed the wry description of the crime-ridden slum estate: "The Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses had stopped coming to the estate years ago, because there were far easier places in the world to do missionary work - Somalia, for instance, or Iraq".

Nothing Personal by Pat Cadigan. A present-day US police detective is assailed by a growing feeling of dread, which seems to be associated with the natural deaths of two identical young girls. But much more than this is going on. Not time-travelling in this tale, but shifting between alternate realities.

Tideline by Elizabeth Bear. An crippled battle robot tries to use its last energy to create a suitable memorial for its dead human comrades on the beach of a distant shore, and strikes up an unlikely relationship with a young boy.

A varied mix of stories this time (except for the dissatisfied youths) with some original ideas and unpredictable plots, although the Bear story struck me as rather familiar. My favourites from this group are the ones by Swanwick and Baker.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie by Keith Brooke

This recently published book, which has an introduction by Adam Roberts, is the tale of an overweight teenager, the butt of cruel humour at school, who escapes into vivid daydreams of the way he would like his world to be. He is shaken when he discovers that the real world is gradually changing to match his dreams - his broken family is reunited and even his twin sister, killed in an accident two years before, reappears as if nothing had happened. He finds that he is able, with an effort of will, to change events to suit himself. But no sooner does he master this than he realises that his control is being challenged and is beginning to slip; for there is a rival power in the town, the mysterious, never-seen Owner, who seems to know exactly what Frankie is up to.

The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie has a clearly-written style which will appeal to young and old alike, with an engaging combination of closely observed reality against a surreal, dream-like background. The story of Frankie's forced growth to maturity holds the attention to the unexpected but satisfying conclusion. I suspect that this is one which will stay in my mind for a long time, and will remain on my shelf for a future re-read.
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A rare sighting recently - a new review of my novel Scales. It has appeared in THIS blog. An extract from the introduction to the review:

Most likely you haven’t read this book because you didn’t know it existed. The novel was published through Authors Online LTD a British company formed in 1997 which publishes novels online and can also now print novels on demand.

Before I say anymore, I have to be honest here, I know the author of this novel through cyberspace. Tony and I have both been active posters at Yahoo’s Classic Science Fiction Message Board for many years. So, I will admit that I might have some bias. But those who know me and/or those who have read some of my reviews, know that I’m not one that minces words or lets authors off easy.

So you know I am being completely honest when I say that Scales is such a great Science Fiction novel it deserved a Hugo Award nomination.

I’m sure those who haven’t read the book are sort of checking out mentally or thinking to themselves, “this guy is a really good friend.” But those who have read the novel understand why it is worthy of such high praise.


A reminder: you can read my thoughts on writing the novel, plus all published reviews, on my website HERE , where you can also download the entire novel as an e-book free of charge - and you're not likely to get a better offer than that all week!

Friday, 22 October 2010

A Plague of Demons by Keith Laumer

This novel, first published in 1965, was one of my favourites from the period and I still have my well-worn 1967 paperback. It's several decades since I last read it so I thought I'd see how it stood up today.

I've already posted one review of a novel by this author (A Trace of Memory, reviewed 15 December 2007) which I started as follows:

"Keith Laumer (1925-1993) was a prolific American SF author who specialised in fast-paced adventure stories (of which the Bolo series, concerning intelligent tanks, is best known) and comic satire, notably in the Retief books about an interstellar diplomat. A Trace of Memory, published in 1963, is a stand-alone novel in the former category."

A Plague of Demons falls into the same category, being a short (170 page) and exciting adventure thriller. It is set on a near-future Earth and features a government agent, John Bravais, who is tasked with investigating the mysterious disappearance of large numbers of soldiers involved in the formalised battles then being used to settle disputes. He observes a dog-like alien - one of the demons of the title - decoying soldiers away from a battle and attacking them. He is able to kill one of these extremely tough creatures and take back evidence of its alien origin. His task then becomes the investigation of what is going on, and to assist him he is given a new programme of internal biomechanical enhancements which greatly increase his strength, endurance and survivability. The demons are quickly on his trail, assisted by their ability to manipulate people's minds so they can appear to be ordinary humans, and what follows is a running battle which ends up off the Earth as Bravais desperately tries to fulfil his mission against heavy odds. I can't say more without spoiling the surprises for any new readers, but I will say that this is the book whose popularity inspired the Bolo series.

The story is told in the first person with the laconic hard-boiled style of a Mickey Spillane thriller, including one-liner gems such as: "I was as weak as a diplomatic protest". There is also something of the flavour of Eric Frank Russell's novel Wasp, reviewed here on 26 August 2007. The introduction in particular reminded me of the start of a James Bond movie - I could visualise the film scenes as I read. In fact, the whole book would make a good film, with little need to change anything. Inevitably, the complex plotting and character development which feature in most modern novels are notable for their absence, but in this kind of story they would only slow the pace.

I was intrigued by a couple of scenes for a personal reason. In one of them Bravais, having just received his enhancements, breaks the machine used to test his strength. In another, he is able to use his mind (in this case aided by radio) to analyse and overcome electronic locks. As I read these I realised that I had included similar elements in my novel Scales, without being aware that I might be borrowing them from somewhere else. This isn't the first time this has happened to me and does make me think about the process of imaginative writing. Clearly, our imaginations are developed from and informed by our own experiences and previous reading, and it can be difficult to determine which are our own original ideas and which are those we might subconciously have recalled from a consciously long-forgotten story.

Anyway, to return to Laumer: I can well understand why I liked this book so much and can warmly recommend it to readers who enjoy the style and pace of these 1960s SF thrillers. It's such great fun, with an added dash of nostalgia!

Friday, 15 October 2010

Film - Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

I quite enjoy popcorn movies when I'm in the mood for some mindless amusement, and I was encouraged by the fact that Prince of Persia was produced by the same man responsible for the entertaining Pirates of the Carribean trilogy, so I thought I'd give a spin.

Like PotC, PoP is an adaptation of a video game, but as I've never felt motivated to dabble in that field I can't comment on the relationship. The plot is the usual hokum, with the hero Prince, on the run after being wrongly accused of the murder of his father, having to prove his innocence while preventing bad guy Nizam from using the Dagger of Time to change the past to put himself on the throne. The CGI city looks impressive, the fireworks when the Dagger is used are spectacular, and the Prince (Jake Gyllenhaal - or at least his stunt double) puts on a suitably athletic display of parkour, free-running around the rooftops.

That's most of the good bits. Unfortunately Ben Kingsley's talents are wasted on a rather cardboard Nizam and Gemma Arterton is woefully miscast as the princess who is supposed to guard the Dagger of Time. This role calls for grace, gravitas and mystery, but I was constantly aware that Ms Arterton is a modern miss in dark makeup. In dramatic moments I kept expecting her to squeal "Oh My God!" and whip out her mobile phone to text to her friends. That's a pity considering that Bollywood is awash with beautiful Indian actresses who could do a more convincing job in their sleep, but I suppose Hollywood has its own parochial priorities.

On the other hand, perhaps they should have given Ms Arterton a mobile phone and played it for laughs, since the best bit of the film - and the only element which made the whole farrago enjoyable - was the comic performance by Alfred Molina as the bandit chief who cultivates a ferocious reputation in order to keep the tax collectors at bay, while he gets on with his favourite pastime of ostrich racing. I laughed out loud on several occasions when he was on screen, uttering decidedly modern-sounding opinions and reacting with Pavlovian fervour to the enticement: "It's tax free!".

Overall, the film lacks the panache of the PotC series, and sorely needs a strong central love/hate character like Johnny Depp's Captain Sparrow. Judging by the presence of the subtitle more films in this franchise could be on the way, but I doubt that I'll bother to watch them unless the fun quotient goes up markedly.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21, edited by Gardner Dozois (Part 2)

More stories from the anthology, following on from the first instalment posted on 18th September.

Glory by Greg Egan. Set in a far galactic future. Embodied virtual facsimilies of two explorers are sent to a newly discovered planet to find out what a previous alien civilisation had learned about advanced mathematics. But the current inhabitants have a war to fight.

Against the Current by Robert Silverberg. A man from the present day suffers a sudden reversal and watches in dismay as history rapidly rewinds before his eyes. More of a psychological mood piece than a story with a clear plot or purpose.

Alien Archeology by Neal Asher. A retired secret agent discovers an artifact of great value from an extinct alien race, only to have it violently taken from him. The star-hopping chase for restitution and revenge involves murky dealings in the galactic underworld, rogue AIs and the uneasy threat of what exactly it was that destroyed all previous galactic civilisations. A modern version of traditional SF by a rising star in the genre, densely-packed and fast-moving; the kind of writing that you have to read twice to make sure you've grasped it all. An unusual aspect is that the story is at first told from the villain's viewpoint (in the third person) before switching to the hero's (in the first person). One of the highlights of the anthology so far.

The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate by Ted Chiang. A merchant in long-ago Baghdad tells a fantastic tale to the Caliph, concerning a gate through which people can travel twenty years into the future - or into the past. He recounts the varied fortunes of those who have used the gate, including himself. More of an Arabian Nights tale than conventional SF but a fascinating read. An intriguing contrast with the author's award-winning Exhalation, reviewed in this blog on 15 May 2009, which demonstrates the remarkable versatility of this master story-teller.

Beyond the Wall by Justin Stanchfield. Another complete contrast, as if to illustrate the vast range of modern SF. An enormous alien structure has been discovered on Titan and is promptly put out of bounds while countries try to decide what to do about it. A group of wardens tasked with protecting it from illegal explorers are compelled to enter it and find their hold on reality slipping as they experience alternate futures. An unsettling tale.

Kiosk by Bruce Sterling. A real oddity this one; a man living in eastern Europe after yet another major economic crisis makes use of a "fabrikator" - a machine which spins 3D models of anything it can scan - to start an economic revolution.

Last Contact by Stephen Baxter. I've commented before about the fundamental optimism of many of the stories in this collection, but here's a tale from the opposite end of the spectrum. Near-future astrophysicists discover that the Universe is unravelling, right down to the atomic level - and the Earth has just few months of existence left. This poignant story follows a middle-aged woman, the mother of one of the scientists who made the discovery, as she copes in mundane ways with the inescapable fact of impending annihilation.

The Sledge-Maker's Daughter by Alastair Reynolds. I'd read this one before and was sure I'd blogged about it, but I can find no reference so my memory must be at fault (again). Another one on the pessimistic side as far as human civilisation is concerned. A girl lives in a post-industrial Tyneside with a medieval level of technology, but discovers that the folk tales of winged men falling from the sky have substance, and that there is a lot going on behind the scenes. An intriguing tale, with a setting which would justify a full-length novel - which I would buy.

Half-way through the anthology - more later.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Interzone 230

The September/October edition of the SFF magazine celebrates 25 years of Nick Lowe's analytical and well-informed film reviews under the "Mutant Popcorn" banner, with a long article by Jonathan McCalmont, reviews of several current films (including an ambivalent one of Inception, which is on my must-see list), and a reprint of his first column from 1985 in which he reviewed Brazil, Night of the Comet, Trancers and Ghoulies. An interesting point is made that despite the fact that SFF novels are regarded as specialist reading for geeks (Harry Potter excepted), the genre has nonetheless produced seven of the ten biggest grossing films of all time. Discuss, as the exam paper says.

The usual book and DVD review columns include The Stainless Steel Rat Returns by Harry Harrison, the twelfth in his comic SF series which started in 1961 with the last addition being in 1999. I'll have to get this book, if only for pure nostalgia. There's also a welcome return of an old master with the publication of Fritz Leiber Selected Stories.

Five short stories this time:

Love and War by Tim Lees, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A dystopian near-future in which a war against vaguely humanoid jumblies from Earth X, a version of Earth in a parallel universe which is beginning to emerge in random patches on the Earth's surface, has led to the imposition of a dictatorship of "the Party" to defeat the threat. The eventual ending of these incursions does not, of course, lead to any more liberal government but instead the emergence (or invention) of yet another threat to maintain the Party in power. A parable for our security-obsessed times, in which our civil liberties are being steadily eroded to meet the terrorist threat. But how likely is it that all those laws extending government power will ever be repealed?

Age of Miracles, Age of Wonders by Aliette de Bodard, illustrated by Darren Winter. A surreal fantasy in which a robotic being parades a former god around the country, putting him to an agonising death (from which he returns) time and again to demonstrate to the people that the old gods are no longer in power. This author focuses on limited but intense scenes from fantastic futures, steeped in atmosphere and mystery.

The Insurance Agent by Lavie Tidhar, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A near-future thriller with a fantastical twist. A security consultant who specialises in bodyguarding celebrities is assigned to protect a Significant Entity (SE), a young woman who has achieved a god-like status as a result of the popularity of the Alien Theory of Spiritual Beings; a rather sardonic send-up of the tendency to elevate the status of the leaders of religious cults. He finds himself with more trouble than he expected when his SE meets a rival.

Camelot by Patrick Samphire, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. A tale of immortals cast out from Camelot, who have lost the memories of their past existence. An ageless man searches endlessly for his brother who went missing in World War 2, aided by a beautiful woman who knows about his past and has her own reason for finding his brother. However, success in his quest does not bring the expected result.

The Upstairs Window by Nina Allen, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. Another dystopian future in which the return of religious authority leads to censorship of the arts. A war correspondent is caught up in the fate of a controversial artist friend whom he tries to help.

A rather depressing batch of stories this time, distinctly lacking in optimism both in terms of their settings and their events. These stories make a stark contrast with the ones I reviewed a couple of weeks ago in The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21, which are far more to my taste. I hope the mood improves in the next issue.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Pride of Chanur by C J Cherryh

I have earlier reviewed a couple of Cherryh's books and during the discussion of one of them was advised to read her Chanur series, so I have made a start with the first of them, The Pride of Chanur. One of her earlier works (it was first published in 1981), it is short and fast-paced. This review contains some spoilers.

The story is told entirely from the point of view of Pyanfar Chanur, a member of a humanoid if rather feline race (the hani) which still retains a tribal and hereditary social structure despite being space-faring traders. They trade with a few other alien species, both oxygen and methane breathing, one of which originally provided the hani with the technology to get into space.

Pyanfar is a spaceship captain and a senior member of the Chanur tribe; her small crew are all female relatives as is customary (male hani being considered too violent and uncontrollable to be allowed off-planet - an wry feminist dig). The trouble begins when a strange, ugly, almost hairless alien seeks refuge on Pyanfar's ship while it is berthed at a space station. At first it is thought to be non-sentient until it demonstrates otherwise, and the reader comes to realise that it is, in fact, a human man called Tully. He was escaping from a particularly nasty alien race, the kif, who had captured his spaceship and were using torture to try to get him to reveal the location of Earth, since the discovery of a new civilisation was a rare and great prize. Pyanfar refuses to hand Tully back to the kif and the rest of the story is essentially a running battle as the hani try to make it back to their home planet with their unexpected passenger.

The most unusual aspect of the story is that while humanity is represented by Tully, we only see him through alien eyes. In Pyanfar's judgment he is inadequate in various ways, apart from being fundamentally untrustworthy as a male, but he redeems himself by the end of the tale. The depiction of the alien races, especially the hani, is as well done as I have come to expect from this author, since this is one of Cherryh's strong points. The principal alien characters, Pyanfar and her enthusiastic young niece Hilfy, are convincingly drawn and likeable. It's a good read, and I can understand why it is regarded as something of a modern classic; I must seek out the sequels.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 21, edited by Gardner Dozois (Part 1)

I don't normally buy anthologies but read a very good review of this one so I added it to my "to read" pile. It took a couple of years before I pulled it out, though; the occasion being a travelling-light holiday abroad for which I needed one book which would keep me entertained for the entire period. At over 700 pages of small print this proved to be more than adequate, and I only managed to get part way through it. So this is just the first instalment, covering eight of the thirty-two stories in the book; the rest will follow in due course.

I'm new to this series, so I was pleasantly surprised by the Summation which occupies the first fifty pages of the book. In this, the editor gives a detailed analysis of the SFF fiction market of the previous year (2007), discussing among other things the varying fortunes of short-story outlets, both paper and electronic. A fascinating insight into contemporary trends. Now for the stories:

Finisterra by David Moles. A far future in which humanity shares the galaxy with other intelligent races. A woman trained secretly as an engineer in a male-dominated society accepts an illegal but high-paying task on a strange world. It is a gas giant with a narrow zone within its atmosphere capable of supporting human life. In this float vast living islands up to 100 kilometres long, on which remanents of humanity have settled. But the islands have a greater value to some off-planet species. An original and memorable setting, complex and interesting characters and a gripping plot: what more could one ask for?

Lighting Out by Ken MacLeod. Another optimistic future in which humanity has spread to the stars, primarily threatened by artificial intelligences getting out of hand. A young woman is haunted by her mother who constantly sends virtual versions of herself to inveigle her into worthwhile activities. A grand plan for marketing some of the huge variety of new developments flooding back from the stars produces unexpected results.

An Ocean is a Snowflake, Four Billion Miles Away by John Barnes. Two rival documentary makers combine to produce a story on a Mars whose terraforming is about to be completed by breaking up a huge comet in such a way that the ice falls to the surface and creates oceans. But they have different priorities and not everything goes to plan.

Saving Tiamaat by Gwynth Jones. Human diplomats try to intervene in a devastating civil war between the humanoid masters and slaves of a distant planet. But the situation is more complex than had been imagined, and some unorthodox methods are required.

Of Late I Dreamt of Venus by James Van Pelt. The world's richest woman decides to sponsor the terraforming of Venus, but this will take so long that she decides to sleep for a thousand years, waking only occasionally to review progress. Society does not, however, stay unchanged.

Verthandi's Ring by Ian McDonald. A galactic war to the finish between humanity and an impenetrable alien race. Three warriors, used to being constantly switched between different virtual and actual bodies, win a significant victory but discover an alarming threat to humanity's survival.

Sea Change by Una McCormack. A near-future story on a smaller scale concerning two upper-class girls whose perfection was assured by genetic modifications, and how they relate to each other and to the rest of society.

The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small by Chris Roberson. Another change of pace and scene in an alternative history story which barely qualifies as SFF. A young functionary in a Chinese Empire is given the task of researching the distant land of Mexica in preparation for a planned invasion. He discovers that the best source of information is a political prisoner who has for decades resisted every attempt to make him cooperate; but his future is on the line.

In summary, a promising start. I was pleasantly surprised at the traditional and optimistic setting of so many of the stories, featuring a galaxy-spanning (or at least system-spanning) humanity. It will be interesting to see how many of the rest have similar themes.

Friday, 10 September 2010

UFOs: The Secret Evidence

This is a two-hour UK TV programme by aerospace journalist Nick Cook, who decided to step outside his comfort zone and take a critical look at the case for unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and the possible explanations for the phenomenon.

The story begins in WW2 with the frequent reporting by RAF bomber crews on night raids over Germany of "foo fighters"; bright lights appearing to move around them. These have never been clearly explained, beyond the fact that very tired and frightened men in a state of permanent stress may be prone to hallucinations which may be "infectious"; if one says he saw something, others may too. Another possible explanation lies in secret Nazi projects such as those conducted in the Wenceslas Mine in the Sudeten Mountains, as reported after the war by a German officer who was based there. As well as vague reports of a "bell" reputedly connected with antigravity research, there is the massive above-ground structure of the "flytrap" which still exists today; a large reinforced-concrete circular framework, apparently with provision for a massive electric power input, for which there is still no explanation.

The focus then switches to Roswell in New Mexico in 1947, with perhaps the most famous UFO story of all; the wreckage of some artificial object of which there are various conflicting reports, ranging from a weather balloon to an alien spacecraft complete with aliens. However, this was only one of many UFO reports from this area, most of which can probably be attributed to the unusual atmospheric conditions which create illusions such as lenticular clouds. Cook interviews several witnesses with conflicting points of view and examines what was going on at the time at the nearby White Sands airbase. Here some 200 German scientists had been based in the years after WW2 as a result of Operation Paperclip, the effort to recruit as many scientists involved in advanced research as possible. At that time the USA was engaged in developing a wide variety of experimental aircraft (including the saucer-shaped Vought XF5U "Flying Flapjack") but the most likely explanation for the Roswell incident was the secret Skyhook project to send huge unmanned photographic reconnaissance balloons over the USSR, which regularly drifted over the Roswell area. Most significantly, Cook obtained evidence that the UFO stories were deliberately encouraged by the CIA as a disinformation scheme to distract Soviet attention from such recce projects (involving planes as well as balloons). This may account for the fact that the USAAF/USAF kept changing its story over the wreckage, and for the existence of one official report which stated that the UFOs may well be alien spacecraft.

One series of sightings for which there is still no adequate explanation, however, concerns the moving formations of lights in the sky widely observed over Washington in 1952. Such was the public concern that astronomer J Allen Hynek was tasked with looking into the question (I recall reading his book on Project Blue Book decades ago). He was able to dismiss the vast majority of sightings as misperceptions but acknowledged that there was no adequate explanation for a small percentage of them. Furthermore, he was only able to examine civilian reports: the potentially much more valuable ones from military pilots were excluded.

The 1960s saw a new development: the growth of "close encounters of the third kind", in which figures were reported walking next to a landed UFO. The most striking report came in 1964 from a police officer called Zamora, who was patrolling in the area of the White Sands base. After considering alternative ideas, Cook identifies the most likely explanation as a secret USAF project based on a development of the unsuccessful Canadian Avro Avrocar "flying saucer", to which the USAF had bought the rights.

There was a great increase in UFO sightings in the UK in the late 1960s, possibly related to a secret US deployment of the SR-71 strategic reconnaissance plane (which may also have been responsible for many UFO sightings around the Nellis USAF base; the notorious "Area 51"). Cook then looks at the series of cases of animal mutilation in the area of Los Alamos in 1976-86 which have been attributed to alien experiments, but he considers more likely to have been a covert US testing and monitoring programme.

The Soviet Union also carried out an investigation into military UFO reports from 1977 to 1990, attributing many of them to missile launches, but concluded that the evidence was inconclusive and that some were unexplained.

Finally comes the period of "alien abductions", which goes back to the 1950s but became an epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s with no fewer than two million Americans claiming to have been abducted. Cook attributes this to a "need to believe", with many of the characteristics of a religion.

In conclusion, UFO sightings can be grouped into various categories. As Hynek identified in the 1950s, the vast majority are a result of misperception of ordinary phenomena: clouds, astronomical objects or routine man-made ones such as aircraft, spacecraft and balloons (the recent craze for flying illuminated "Chinese lanterns" has caused another surge in UFO reports). For nearly all of those which cannot be accounted for in this way, the most likely explanation is that of military "black projects"; it is significant that the CIA encouraged the UFO hypothesis as a way of covering up such activities. The epidemic of alien abduction reports seems most likely to have been the result of a kind of mass hysteria, strongly emotional and quasi-religious.

This still leaves a very small percentage of reports which cannot be explained in any of these ways and remain genuine mysteries. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the U of UFO stands for "unidentified" - which simply means that at the moment we do not have enough information to identify the cause of the sightings. It is a pity that the "alien spacecraft hypothesis" enthusiasts have adopted UFOs since this makes scientists - and even serious journalists - reluctant to consider the issue for fear of losing professional credibility. All credit to Cook for analysing this intriguing subject objectively.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Films: Solaris (2002), Spiderman (2002) and Evolution (2001)

I have only a dim recollection of reading Solaris by Stanislaw Lem decades ago and have never seen the 1972 Russian film, so watched the 2002 film without preconceptions.

Psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) answers a call for help from an old friend, Gibarian, currently based on a space station studying the planet Solaris. On arrival, Kelvin discovers that Gibarian has committed suicide and two surviving scientists are the only people on board. However, he catches a glimpse of a young boy who appears to be Gibarian's son and then meets a reincarnation of his own wife, Rheya (a compelling performance by Natascha McElhone) who had previously died on Earth. He realises that a powerful intelligence on the planet was examining the thoughts and dreams of the humans and bringing to life that which they most yearned for or felt guilty about. Eventually, he is left with a series of difficult choices.

The film focuses on the relationship between Kelvin and Rheya - or rather the version of Rheya created from his memories - and is a strong on atmosphere and psychology. Those who expect an SF film to be packed with action and special effects will be very disappointed with Solaris. Furthermore, I gather from the Wiki summary that Lem wasn't much impressed with either film (the 2002 version being quite similar in theme to the 1972 one), as his focus was not on the relationships between the couple but rather on the sheer alienness of the intelligence on the planet and the impossibility of achieving any meaningful communication with it. However, I was gripped by the film from start to finish and really enjoyed it. One of the better SF films I've seen.
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In complete contrast was the first of the current Spiderman series, featuring Tobey Maguire. While this has its darker moments, it lacks the grim, adult feel of the most recent Batman films. However, it makes for painless and undemanding entertainment - if you can swallow the preposterous proposition that someone infected by the bite of a genetically-modified spider can acquire superpowers. The transformation of a weakling nerd student into a powerful hero has huge adolescent wish-fulfilment appeal, while the moral message that "with great power comes great responsibility" is hammered home in word and deed. A worthy effort, with some spectacular swooping flights over the cityscape.
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Evolution is yet another contrast, being a cheerful comedy. It follows the fortunes of a disgraced scientist (played by David Duchovny) who discovers alien life on a meteorite; life which proceeds to evolve at a phenomenal rate, from single-celled to large animals in a matter of weeks. It becomes clear that the future of humanity is at risk, and it is down to the hero and his sidekicks to prevent catastrophe. It rather reminded me of the brilliant Tremors (1990) and, while not quite up to that, is nonetheless a good popcorn movie.
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The next post on this blog will be in a couple of weeks.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Hothouse by Brian Aldiss

Brian Aldiss was one of the "New Wave" of British SF authors in the 1960s, signalling a break from traditional SF themes towards more experimental fiction. Aldiss himself alternated between mainstream and genre fiction and is regarded as a "literary" author, with a high critical reputation. Hothouse (initially published in the USA in abridged form as The Long Afternoon of Earth) is an early and more conventional work, fitting within the SFF mainstream. Despite being described as SF, this story is more of a fantasy in my view, as I will explain.

The setting is the very far future, close to the end of the Sun's life, when Earth has settled into an orbit which keeps one side turned permanently to the Sun, and the Moon has become a twin planet, also remaining in the same place relative to the Earth and now supporting life. The habitable part of the Earth is entirely covered by one vast, interconnected banyan tree, and inhabited by various (and usually ferocious) vegetables and insects. Humans - in a considerably shrunken form - are almost the only animals left, and exist in small groups at pre-stone age survival level in the middle layers of the forest, constantly threatened by predators.

I should warn you that the rest of this review contains spoilers, as it's difficult to comment on the story without them, so I will just sum this up as an interesting period piece, highly regarded when it first appeared, but not standing up too well today.

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The protagonist is Gren, a rebellious near-mature male child in a society run by women. He and the other children are abandoned by the adults of their group who head off into the sky in a strange ritual, eventually arriving (much changed) on the Moon.

Gren and the other children are almost immediately in one set of trouble after another, and Gren's disruptive behaviour eventually causes him to be exiled. He falls prey to a morel, an intelligent fungus which invades and takes over his nervous system and is able to ransack his race memories to learn the history of humanity. With the morel's somewhat unreliable guidance Gren is able to survive, meeting various people and weird life forms and experiencing one adventure after another. He meets Sodal Ye, an intelligent dolphin who is aware of the history of the world and of its imminent destruction as the Sun goes nova. Finally, the transformed adults of Gren's group return from the Moon, and Gren is faced with a choice of futures.

I said at the start that I regarded this story as a fantasy despite an attempt by the author to establish it as set in a possible future. This is because some of the aspects of it - especially the space-travelling traversers and the bizarre tummy-belly men - are just too fantastic to be credible, at least as far as I'm concerned. Which does, of course, open the door to the age-old debate about where the boundaries between the two genres lie, but I'll save that for another time.

I enjoyed this re-read rather less than I expected. Partly this is because the principal character is so unsympathetic - the kind of brash and self-centred youth I would dislike in real life - partly because the procession of one fantastic creature after another becomes a bit wearing. The story reads as if the author was packing in as many bizarre ideas as he could, just for the sake of it.

I was also not entirely comfortable with one aspect of the writing; the narrator, who kept throwing in additional pieces of information to explain the background. Some of it made no sense: for example, the entertainingly-named killerwillow, bellyelm and sand octopus, which only lived in Nomansland where no human ever went - so how did they acquire such names, if no-one knew they existed?

A few more general comments:

There are various possible ways of making the reader understand unusual settings. One (popular these days) is to explain nothing, leaving the reader to piece together what the story is all about from scraps of information scattered through it, and possibly even remain a bit puzzled at the end. A second is to build in occasional infodumps in the form of the notorious "As you know, Bob" type of conversations; however, this isn't possible in a story like Hothouse, in which none of the characters understands the background until the morel and Sodal Ye appear. Another might be for the characters to stumble upon some ancient document which explains it all (also not applicable to Hothouse, where no-one can read). Or there could be a prologue which gives a summary of the back-history, but that could spoil the surprise element. A further approach is explicitly to establish the narrator as being in the future, looking back and describing what happened; a variation on this is to supplement the narrator's role with extracts from a history written in some future time, inserted before the start of each chapter (a technique used effectively by Frank Herbert in Dune); but again, neither is applicable to Hothouse, where there is no prospect of any future historian.

As a general rule I prefer the narrator to be unobtrusive, simply describing what is happening and what the main viewpoint character is thinking. Aldiss' approach left me uncertain about who the narrator was meant to be; seemingly, some all-knowing commentator rather than an observer of current events. On balance, I would have preferred a brief prologue for this novel, probably only a paragraph, explaining about the changes in the orbital behaviour of the Earth and the Moon and their consequences for life, because these are explained by the narrator early on anyway. The rest of the explanations could have been handled by the morel and Sodal Ye.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri Tepper is an author to give hope to all aspiring writers of mature years, because her first published novel didn't appear until she was in her mid-fifties. However, she hit the ground running and has since authored some thirty SFF novels under her own name plus more than a dozen thrillers under pseudonyms, not to mention shorter works. Nine of her novels have been nominated for awards, one of them (Beauty) winning the Locus Award in 1992. She has become associated with ecological and feminist themes, although this is only obvious in some of her work. She wins my award as the author of my favourite contemporary fantasy series, The Marianne Trilogy (reviewed on this blog on 4 July 2007), a unique and surreal vision of parallel fantastical worlds.

Grass is the first of her Arbai trilogy (somehow I've missed the other two and must get hold of them) and I first read it when it was published in the 1980s. I remember being very impressed at the time, but since I had forgotten the plot I was able to enjoy it all over again.

The story displays her ability to create strange but compelling worlds. It is set in a distant future in which humanity has spread across a large number of star systems, so far finding no signs of other intelligent life except the widespread ruins of the Arbai civilisation, created by an extinct race of humanoid reptiles. The controlling force across human civilisation is a religion, Sanctity, whose unique selling point is to collect genetic data from its followers ready for machines to restore them to a purer life after the expected death of humanity. At the start of the story this appears to be imminent as humanity is suffering a deadly and incurable plague, to which the inhabitants of only one of the settled planets seem to be immune; the world of Grass.

Grass is unique for several reasons. The first is what gave the planet its name; the land surface is almost entirely covered by grasses, in a vast range of different types varying greatly in colour and size depending on the soils and microclimate. The only exceptions are marshy areas, where giant trees grow. Another is that the controlling settlers, a group of aristocrats, have divided the land into vast estancias and forbidden any settlement other than their own mansions and the villages of their servants, with the principal exception of the Commons, a hundred-square-mile upland area cut off from the grasslands by marshy forest. In this crowded space is the interstellar port and all commercial and scientific activities, a culture quite separate from that of the aristocrats. Elsewhere there is also a small settlement of recalcitrant monks despatched to the planet as a punishment, who spend their time excavating the most complete Arbai city ever found.

The story is first seen through the eyes of the aristocrats, collectively called the "bons" because of their practice of indicating their aristocracy by adding this to their names, as in Rowena bon Damfels. They are obsessed with hunting and do little else during the hunting season, which takes place during the summer; winters are so harsh that they are spent in underground warrens. The hunting style is modelled after the ancient British sport of fox hunting, with the hunters on mounts and accompanied by hounds as they ride in pursuit of their prey, which are even known as "foxen". However, their mounts - Hippae - are not horses, their hounds are not dogs and the foxen are not remotely like foxes, and there is something very strange about the entire custom.

Into this world comes the Yrarier family, Rodrigo together with his long-suffering wife Marjorie and reluctant teenage children, covertly sent by Sanctity to discover why the inhabitants seem to be immune to the plague. They have great difficulty in being accepted by the suspicious and xenophobic bons, and find that they need to participate in the hunting to be taken seriously; but this hunting is, literally, like nothing on Earth. Another plot thread concerns some of the monks on Grass, who are making interesting discoveries about the Arbai and why they died out. The various threads are gradually woven together into the climatic conclusion, in which the true nature and history of the native Hippae, hounds and foxen are central.

The author is a great story-teller and has a marvellous ability to take the reader inside the worlds of her imagination. The culture of the bons, the rope-climbing sub-culture of the younger monks (which reminded me of Peake's Gormenghast), and the intense internal struggles within the Yrarier family, are all memorable.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

China Miéville is a highly regarded new British SFF author but I'd never read any of his work, so I decided to pick up a copy of Un Lun Dun, which has received good reviews. I was initially somewhat disconcerted to read in the introduction that it was his first novel for "younger readers"; something I hadn't been aware of when I bought it. However, I am aware that this category includes some of the best fiction past and present, so after a few mental and physical warm-up exercises (the book has over 500 pages) I got stuck in.

The location is London, the time is the present, the focus on a pair of schoolgirl friends to whom unusual things seem to be happening. There are signs and portents that one of them - Zanna - is the subject of intense interest not just from strangers but from animals too. Together with her friend, the reluctant Deeba, she follows her instincts and the pair find themselves in a strange, distorted and magical version of the city: Un Lun Dun. It is filled with all of the rubbish which has been discarded by London, with houses built of old washing machines or gramophone records, and populated by an extraordinary mixture of fantastic individuals including ghosts and ferocious carnivorous giraffes. Red double-decker buses drift across the sky supported by balloons, while the London Eye (the UnLondon-I) is a giant water-wheel generating electricity.

This fantastical world is under threat - from the deadly Smog, which has grown so thick that it has developed a malign intelligence and aims to take over all of Un Lun Dun. Zanna turns out to be the Chosen One, long prophesied in a revered and rather talkative Book to be the agent of the Smog's destruction. She collects a disparate group of allies and begins to fulfil the prophecies.

So far, just a different take on a predictable plot. But the story doesn't stay predictable for long, with twist after twist throughout the novel, right to the end. To say any more would spoil the surprises, but suffice it to say that I read the book in only three sessions and finished with a smile on my face. It has likeable heroes and is packed full of original ideas; I particularly enjoyed the UnGun!

Stories like this make a stark contrast with most modern fantasy, which has become very derivative if not hackneyed. I will be reading more from this author.

Friday, 30 July 2010

More on immortality, and The Dark Knight film

I posted on the subject of the potential problems with the enthusiasm for immortality some months ago, and have stored this as an article on my website HERE. I was reminded of this when reading reviews in the New Scientist (10 July) of a couple of US-published books on this subject: Long For This World: The strange science of immortality by Jonathan Weiner, and The Youth Pill: Scientists at the brink of an anti-aging revolution by David Stipp.

The reviewer of both books, S. Jay Olshansky, says of Weiner's book that it is "a brilliant exposé of the fascinating science that has emerged in the search for everlasting life, and the quacks, drunks and geniuses participating in one of the greatest shows on Earth". Weiner focuses on the more extreme wing of the anti-aging enthusiasts, the ones who wish to extend the lives of individual humans indefinitely. I had quite a lot to say about this in my article, and it is telling that Olshansky says of one of its most prominent proponents that "having no children himself, he sees no need for future immortals to have them either". As if…

Stipp's book concentrates on the less ambitious goal of producing a longevity pill which will extend the human lifespan by a limited but measurable amount. This is the realm of serious scientists conducting careful, evidence-based research. Success would still not be without problems, though, as I have mentioned; the impact on employment and retirement being among the obvious ones.

Other recent articles in the New Scientist (one in the same 10 July issue) have discussed progress with identifying genetic differences between those who live to be 100 and those who don't. Scientists at Boston University have identified 150 elements in the genome which are far more common in centenarians than in those who die earlier, but their work only looked at people of white European descent and needs corroborating anyway. Even if this results in a useful outcome, such genetic indicators would clearly be only part of the story, since lifespan is also affected by environmental factors such as accident, disease, poverty and the abuse of drugs, alcohol and food.

All considered, it seems likely that science will begin to come up with some answers to life extension in the foreseeable future. All the more reason for society to start debating the kind of issues which I raise in my article, rather than be taken by surprise by them.
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I recently saw The Dark Knight, the second of Christopher Nolan's reinventions of Batman, once more featuring Christian Bale as the millionaire crime-fighter. This time his enemy is The Joker; an unnervingly convincing depiction of insanity by the late Heath Ledger. The plotting is dense and it's necessary to concentrate to keep up with all of the developments - this is one film which merits a second watching.

I am more and more impressed by this director's output, he really is good. He has taken Batman from a simplistic comic-strip to a grim adult morality tale which is gripping from start to finish. These two Batman films highlight just how weak and pointless Superman Returns (reviewed a few weeks ago) is in comparison. I have read good reviews of Nolan's latest film, Inception, which has an SF plot which sounds fascinating. That's one I must see.

Friday, 23 July 2010

The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove

Four weeks ago I reviewed A Rebel in Time by Harry Harrison, concerning an attempt by a racist American to travel back in time to give the plans for the Sten sub-machine gun to the Confederate side of the American Civil War in the hope of changing the outcome. The Guns of the South has the same basic idea but the way it is handled is entirely different.

The first half of Harrison's book is a mystery story set in the present day, with almost all of the rest in the 1850s before the war starts; only the final wrapping-up chapter is set late in the war. In contrast, Turtledove starts his story in 1864 when the war is going badly for the Confederates and the timeline continues from that point. There are other important differences, the most obvious being that Turtledove's time-travellers are an organised group of Afrikaner racial supremacists, and that they do not bother with 1860s production of modern guns and ammunition (with the attendant difficulties I pointed out in my review of Harrison's book) but simply transport large quantities of both back in time.

The action commences with the arrival in the weary Confederate camp of a mysterious soldier carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle, which he proceeds to demonstrate to the considerable astonishment of the soldiers. He promises delivery of a hundred thousand such weapons and ammunition to match, and begins to supply them. The effect on the next few battles is predictably dramatic, and the Confederates storm Washington and capture Abraham Lincoln, winning the war. This happens well before the half-way point of the novel; the rest of the story is concerned with the aftermath, particularly the political debates over the nature of the Confederacy and the influence of the Afrikaners.

Throughout the story, the viewpoint alternates between two principal characters; a sergeant in the Confederate Army, Nate Caudell, and the Confederate General Robert E Lee. This works well, as it enables the author to portray the grand strategy and political infighting plus the effects of this on the lives of ordinary people. However, the Afrikaners are little more than caricatures and we are told nothing about the circumstances which led to their intervention, other than that they stole a time machine in 2014.

The depth of the research into the Civil War period is impressive, with a lot of detail not just about the war but about the way people lived. The institution of slavery and its effects are thoroughly portrayed. I understand that many Civil War enthusiasts love this book, and I can see why. However, I sometimes had the impression that the author was more concerned with displaying his knowledge than with getting on with the story. There are frequent long conversations which do nothing to advance the plot, but just round out the characters and fill in more and more details about life in that period. With the exception of the battle scenes this is a slow read, although it does speed up towards the end.

Turtledove is much more of a military history and technology buff than Harrison and it shows. He goes into great detail about the handling and maintenance of the AK rifle and also discusses in depth the problem of manufacturing ammunition for it in the 1860s, specifically the formation of the cartridge cases and the chemistry of the propellant. I do have one small quibble in that he refers to the "proper name" of the time-travelling gun being the AK-47. It should actually be AK or AKM, depending on the model, but for some reason the West commonly refers to both by the designation which the Russians only used for the prototypes.

I have previously read only one Turtledove work, the Worldwar tetrology, about WW2 being interrupted by invading aliens. I thought this was OK but not good enough for me to keep the books for a re-read, probably because the story became bogged down in detail and was too repetitive; it dragged on for far too long. I can see some of the same characteristics in The Guns of the South, although to a lesser extent.

The contrast with Harrison's A Rebel in Time could hardly be more striking considering how similar are the basic premises. Harrison's story is a fast-moving adventure mystery, focused primarily on one present-day individual, with only a brief account of the beginning of the war and virtually nothing about the rest. It's a much faster read, in both senses (it's only about half the length), and much more likely to appeal to the average, non-specialist reader.

To sum up, The Guns of the South is an interestingly different book, very thoroughly researched and worth reading, but probably not worth re-reading unless you're a student of the period.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Interzone 229, and Colleen Morse

Featured author in the July-August issue of this British SFF magazine is Jeff VanderMeer, with both an interview and a review of his book Finch. I've only read one of his books - Veniss Underground, reviewed on this blog in December 2007 - and was quite impressed by it, but I did skip over the more gruesome bits. I probably won't read Finch, since it seems to be a similar blend of horror set in a dystopian future and therefore not really to my taste, but VanderMeer's story-telling skills are such that I suspect I would enjoy it if I read it. However, I have too many books to read already, and not enough time.

The usual book, film, TV and DVD reviews included the final series of BBC TV's Ashes to Ashes. I was pleased to see that the reviewer liked it too. There are five short stories this time:

Mannikin by Paul Evanby, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. During an alternative American War of Independence, a scientist on the Dutch West Indian island of Saint Eustatius works to replace slaves by developing artificial humanoids. A bizarre plot and a story strong on atmosphere.

Candy Moments by Antony Mann, illustrated by Richard Wagner. Some time in the future, a mysterious organisation begins offering a unique service to unhappy people; a process which removes the pain of such memories. The after-care treatment consists of a particularly enticing brand of chocolate. One man is tempted to participate because of the guilt and grief he feels over his wife's death, but is there more to this than meets the eye?

The Melancholy by Toby Litt, illustrated by Paul Drummond. Even an intelligent computer programme, switched from machine to machine as different tasks require, feels a need for a home.

Alternate Girl's Expatriate Life by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, illustrated by David Senecal. An artificially constructed girl from a land of robots tries to settle in a human area. A surreal take on identity and belonging.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark Matter by Jim Hawkins, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A more conventional SF tale of an orchestra of expert killers which tours rebellious worlds, wooing them with music; but if that doesn't work….

Being something of a traditionalist I enjoyed Hawkins' story the most, although Mannikin was also memorable.
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Sad news this week, of the death of Colleen Morse at the age of 60. Often using the name Ms TigerHawk, she was the founder of both the Classic Science Fiction and Modern Science Fiction Yahoo discussion groups, plus several others. Despite her poor health in recent years, she seemed to have boundless energy, reading a phenomenal number of books, writing a couple of novels of which one has been published to date (using the name April Knight) and also taking part in a variety of social and political activities. She will be missed.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Proxies of Fate by Matthew Moses

A warlord of a predatory race, the reptilian Krush, leads his fleet towards his next juicy, undefended target: the Earth of the 1930s. In his way stands a representative of an ancient race of legendary powers, the Theria. To resolve the stalemate, they agree that they should each select one member of the human race to act as a proxy to decide the fate of the planet in single combat. The two proxies would each receive the essence of their alien sponsors, giving them different ranges of special abilities.

The proxies are selected and transformed on opposite sides of the world. The Krush select Li Chen, a Chinese teenager in a Manchuria under the iron grip of Japanese occupation. The Therian chooses Chris Donner, a penniless farmer in the dustbowl of the central USA during the Great Depression. Both develop their strange abilities; Li Chen becomes a huge being with almost invulnerable skin, great speed and appalling strength, who can defeat entire armies single-handedly. Donner becomes a slight, ghostly figure with a range of paranormal powers, including healing, telekinesis and levitation. Both focus on their tragic local circumstances, trying to help their fellow men, with mixed results. Only at the end of the book do they discover each other's existence and come together in a climactic battle.

This novel is a rather puzzling mixture of comic-strip plot and action with what is clearly a great deal of background research into the two different environments. I don't claim to be knowledgeable about either historical setting, but what I do have some knowledge of (the weapons of the Japanese army) appears accurate and the settings are carefully drawn, detailed and convincing. This is the major strength of the book. The time taken over the stories of the two proxies also helps to develop their characters and enlist the sympathy of the reader for both of them. These two plus points were enough to keep me reading to the end, despite some flaws in the writing.

The first problem to become obvious is the florid and overwritten style of many descriptive passages, sometimes using words which had me reaching for a dictionary. For example (page 166):

"Crimson dawn colored the heavens over Hsinking. Across the horizon, purple clouds obscured the stirring sun while the stars of twilight sank into the empyrean sea. The cool breath of Pangu blew from the scarlet east, setting myriad wind chimes ringing throughout the capital, signalling approaching morn."

And (page 319 - describing a bombing raid);

"Like fatalistic einherjar returned from Valhalla on that final drive to Vigrior, umbral craft sailed through the ether, laden with weapons callously loosed upon the district."

The other issue I have with the writing is the author's weak grasp of sentence construction. A couple of examples, the first from page 318:

"Unable to contain the beast, permission was granted to firebomb the ward."

This makes no sense. Who was unable to contain the beast? Who asked for permission? What the author meant was "Unable to contain the beast, the Army commander obtained permission to firebomb the ward." Yet this key individual was never mentioned. Another example, on page 343:

"Corrupted by the laelap, twisted into the beast, Donner witnessed Li Chen take up the mantle of champion…"

This reads as if Donner had been corrupted and twisted, but the author actually meant Li Chen. This kind of error frequently occurs.

My final gripe is a lack of consistency in the characteristics of the two proxies, especially Donner. In their final battle he engages in fisticuffs with Li Chen, which seems absurd in the context of their respective abilities.

The author's writing shows some promise, but he would benefit from a much stricter editor.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance

Jack Vance was one of the giants of my early SFF reading and is still around today. His last novel (to date) was published in 2004, some 54 years after the first. In between came some forty SFF novels, plus novellas and some mystery stories. He won several major awards, one of them - the Hugo in 1963 - for The Dragon Masters. This was one of my recommendations for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group, as I felt that such an influential author needed an airing and I was looking forward to re-reading his work after a long absence.

The most obvious feature of the book is its length: at just over 120 pages it is barely a novella in modern terms. Even by the standards of the 1960s this is a bit short (something nearer 200 pages being more typical then) , but that doesn't mean it is lacking in ideas. In fact, novels from this period tended to be all about ideas, with characterisation and detailed world-building receiving sketchy treatment. That doesn't make them worse than modern doorstops, just different, with the added benefit that they can be polished off in a session or two so even if they're not much good, you haven't wasted a lot of time on them. In contrast, I need to wind myself up to grappling with a huge modern tome, and have to feel mentally fit and fresh before I start. Also, I frequently don't finish them; if they're going to monopolise so much of my time, they'd better be good. I wrote about book length in more detail in this web article.

No problems of this sort with The Dragon Masters. The reader is plunged straight into the action, in the form of a strange intruder breaking in to the private apartment of Joaz Banbeck, hereditary leader of the small community of Banbeck Vale on the sparsely populated planet of Aerlith. The intruder is a sacerdote, one of a secretive group of contemplative humans who live a separate existence in deep caverns in the mountains which border the Vale. Joaz investigates the sacerdotes to find out what is going on, and learns that they have developed a mysterious but powerful weapon. He is interested in this because not only is he facing a challenge from his territorially expansive neighbours in Happy Valley, he is worried that the gradual brightening of star Coralyne may indicate the possible return of the grephs (the "dragons" of the title); a lizard-like race with technology - including spaceships - far more advanced than the humans, and whose previous destructive visits have been to capture humans for slaves and breeding stock.

Vance then jumps back to the past with a chapter set in the time of the last greph attack. The grephs subjected their human stock to selective breeding, producing a variety of specialised types differing considerably in size and characteristics (much as we do with dogs). The humans of Aerlith were able to capture some of the grephs and over the intervening years also bred them - for internecine warfare, producing breeds with names such as Termagants, Fiends, Murderers, Juggers and Blue Horrors.

The plot follows the fortunes of Joaz as he juggles the problems of invasion from his neighbour, greph attack, and the enigmatic sacerdotes.

How does this award-winner stand up today? Not too well in terms of literary quality, but the fresh and imaginative plot, the selective breeding of humans and dragons, and the strange culture which results on Aerlith, all have their appeal. Definitely worth the couple of hours needed to read.

Friday, 25 June 2010

A Rebel in Time by Harry Harrison

In the late 1960s when, as a somewhat lazy student, I read more fiction (nearly all SF) than ever before or since, Harry Harrison was one of my favourite authors. He wrote short, fast-paced and often hilarious page-turners, and I still have a few of his classic novels on my shelf: Bill the Galactic Hero (a spoof of Heinlein's Starship Troopers) and the Deathworld trilogy. Probably his best-known comic character was Slippery Jim DiGriz of The Stainless Steel Rat series, but he also wrote more serious fiction, most famously Make Room! Make Room! about overpopulation. Although he was still publishing novels in the 1990s (and has a new Stainless Steel Rat one due out this year) I last read his work in the early 1970s, with A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (also published as A Tunnel Through the Deeps), a very tongue-in-cheek take on an alternative Victorian world which would nowadays automatically be classified as "steampunk". I'm not quite sure why I bought A Rebel in Time (published 1983) but it's been sitting on my shelf for a while and I felt like some light reading (Iain M. Banks tends to do that to me) so I picked it up. It was not quite what I expected.

A Rebel in Time deals with two familiar SF themes; time travel and alternate histories. A present-day soldier, Troy Harmon, is recruited into an obscure government organisation whose job is to "watch the watchers"; to keep an eye on people with high security clearance. He starts to look into the puzzle of Colonel McCulloch, head of security at a top-secret research establishment, who has been behaving strangely - in particular, he's been converting most of his assets into gold. Almost half of the novel is concerned with Harmon's investigation, always one step behind McCulloch, while he tries to understand what's happening - until McCulloch suddenly disappears, leaving a trail of crimes behind him. Harmon gradually pieces together what has happened, and realises that McCulloch has used the time-travel experiments of the research establishment to send himself into the past, just before the American Civil War, together with a fortune in gold and with plans for making the very simple Sten sub-machine gun. Harmon realises that McCulloch, a pathological racist, is going to try to help the Confederacy win the war. He decides that he must follow him on a one-way trip into the past to try to prevent this from happening, since he has a powerful motive: Harmon is black.

This is a serious novel a lot longer and more deliberately-paced than his typical 1960s work (although at just over 300 pages, still not long by current standards), but the Harrison story-telling skills are as strong as ever and it is a gripping page-turner. Harmon's experiences in the slave culture of the southern USA in the late 1850s ring true, and the ending, while certainly not of the "happily ever after, all tied up" type is exactly right.

I did have one technical issue over the Sten gun. I have no doubt that the gun itself - possibly the simplest and crudest 20th century firearm to have seen general service - could have been manufactured in the 1850s, but I have serious doubts about the ammunition. Possibly the drawn brass cases might have been, although I'm not sure (coiled brass sheets were used when cartridges were first developed) but the propellant is another matter. The Sten's 9x19 Parabellum ammunition was designed for smokeless powder, much cleaner burning and more efficient (requiring less volume) than the gunpowder in use in the 1850s; the advances in chemistry which made this possible didn't happen until the 1880s. Loaded with gunpowder, the ammunition would have been much less powerful, and even if it could be made to work it is likely that the gun would have become quickly fouled by gunpowder residues, causing it to jam.

Despite this nerdish niggle A Rebel in Time is a very impressive and enjoyable story.

If this plot sounds vaguely familiar you might be thinking of Harry Turtledove's The Guns of the South, which also features people from the present day taking modern automatic guns back to the American Civil War to help the Confederacy win. This was published nine years after A Rebel in Time and has also been sitting unread on my shelf for a very long time, so I'll tackle that soon to compare and contrast.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Film: 2012

I suppose it had to happen. There's been a huge amount of nonsense posted on the internet, by those whose grasp of reality is somewhat tenuous, concerning the claim that the Mayans predicted the end of the world on 21 December 2012. As it happens the Mayans did no such thing, although the degree of nonsense involved would be no less if they had; I discussed this on this blog on 6 March 2009. Anyway, someone in Hollywood got to hear of this and spotted a money-making opportunity, so we now have a dramatic film about it. Naturally, I just had to watch it…

I'll pass quickly over the the gibberish which the film-makers used to provide a pseudo-scientific explanation for the mechanism which would bring about global disaster. I'll give them one credit for the fact that the Mayan believer in the film was portrayed as a raving nutcase, but since it all came to pass as the Mayans "predicted" that isn't worth much.

Let's move on to the film - how did it work as a drama? The start was not at all promising, with the same tired old Hollywood cliches trotted out; the hero coping with a broken marriage, his wife's new partner, and sharing custody of their young kids (who are frequently in danger, of course, but survive, of course). This reminded me of the recent War of the Worlds film which focused on such family relationship issues to such an extent that I gave up watching out of sheer boredom. 2012 isn't quite that bad, so I stuck with it and we soon get into the strength (actually, the only point) of the film, which is the CGI vision of the end of the world. And I have to admit it's pretty dramatic, with huge earthquakes and tsunamis, canyons suddenly opening up and cities disappearing into them, followed by floods across the world.

The problem is that the film-makers seemed to be so bewitched by all this that they didn't bother overmuch with a plot, providing instead one relentless chase scene as the hero and his family struggle to get to China where several arks (vast armoured ships, each housing tens of thousands) designed to ride out the disaster are waiting (they get there, of course). The last part of the film is an anti-climax, with the hero struggling to solve a technical problem with their ark (work which he delays, despite its urgency, in order to have a passionate heart-to-heart with his ex), which seems very minor-league stuff after the colossal disasters we've witnessed.

It doesn't help that the hero (played by John Cusack) and his family are not particularly engaging or likeable. There's a much more interesting and appealing combination of Chiwetel Ejiofor as a scientific adviser and Thandie Newton as the US President's daughter, but they have only secondary roles. Ejiofor gets to make the big moral speech about how they should open up their ark to let in thousands of people left stranded, an action which very nearly results in the destruction of the ark. All very noble, but no-one mentions the surely important issue of how much food they have on board to last whatever time it will take before the land stabilises again and they can start growing crops; did they all have to go on a starvation diet to cope with the extra numbers?

As an aside, this moral dilemma reminded me of one of those table-top disaster management exercises which took place in the UK some years ago. The scenario was that an outbreak of a highly infections and highly lethal disease had occurred in a hospital, and the task was to decide what to do to stop it spreading. The winners (in terms of minimising casualties) were the team who opted for stationing snipers all round the building and shooting dead anyone who tried to leave. This was regarded as abhorrent by the more moralistic participants, but their "humane" approaches resulted in predicted death-tolls in the tens of thousands. Me, I'm with the snipers…

A couple of unnecessary details jarred with me. One was a news flash that the 2012 London Olympics had had to be abandoned because of the rapid onset of world-wide geological disaster. Anyone with the vaguest interest would know that they are to take place in the summer, not December. The other was the sight of an elderly lady with some corgis entering one of the arks - obviously intended to suggest the Queen. This is the duty-driven daughter of the King who, in the darkest days of World War 2 when London was being bombed daily and a German invasion believed to be imminent, refused to leave Buckingham Palace and was observed in the grounds practising with his revolver, preparing to make a last stand against the invaders. I can imagine the Queen ordering Prince William to flee the country and take refuge in order to continue the line, but herself? Never.

So is 2012 worth watching? If you like disaster movies with spectacular CGI, then yes it is. But you'd better set aside whatever critical faculties you possess if you hope to enjoy it as a drama: I suspect that the internal application of a moderate quantity of alcohol might help!