Friday, 30 September 2011

Film: King Arthur (2004)

This one falls loosely into the "fantasy" category. It is a very different take on the Arthurian legend, and is claimed to be far more realistic than the usual medieval mythology. The hero, Artorius Castus (Clive Owen), is depicted as a commander of the Sarmatian cavalry, an auxiliary force to the Roman Army, based in Britain by Hadrian’s Wall at the time of the Roman departure in the fifth century AD. He and his men have to cope with a Saxon invasion as well as incursions by the savage "Woads" (Picts, who allegedly adorned themselves with woad – blue dye – when preparing for battle).

Artorius's "knights" are a rough and shaggy lot of pagans (light years from the usual virginal Christian knights in shining armour) who have earned their impressive reputation the hard way, in savage hand-to-hand fighting. There's quite a lot of that in the film. They have come to the end of their fifteen-year contracts of service with Rome and are looking forward to returning home to the Middle East when they are ordered on one last, seemingly suicidal mission, over the wall and into Woad territory, right in the path of the invading Saxons. The end result is the climactic battle of Mount Badon.

About the only relationship to the traditional Arthurian characters is the names: not just Artorious/Arthur but Lancelot, Galahad, Bors, Tristan and Gawain all feature. Merlin is the leader of the Woads (with no suggestion of magical powers) and there's also Guinevere (Keira Knightley), a feisty Woad warrior whom the Sarmatians pick up on the way. A round table is slipped in (in a different context) but there's no mention of Camelot or the Holy Grail.

Is it realistic? Well, the setting is historically not far out; the first and only credible mention of Arthur (written centuries after he is believed to have lived) places him in approximately that time and place, although the timing is compressed somewhat - the Romans were long gone by the the late fifth/early sixth century, when he is historically supposed to have lived. The Battle of Mount Badon is believed to have some basis in fact, although no-one knows where it actually happened. And in the first tales he was no king, but a noted warrior who fought alongside the British kings. All of the medieval twaddle which has since accrued around the Arthurian myth was entirely invented from the twelfth century onwards.

Clive Owen makes a good fist of the Arthur role, and on the whole I enjoyed the film. For me, the least realistic element was Guinevere - or rather, Keira Knightley. She is a photogenic and popular young actress who is often cast for that reason - and quite frequently miscast, as in this film. My suspension of disbelief slipped badly the moment I heard her cut-glass voice emerged from a supposedly savage Woad. While she does a reasonably good bloodthirsty impression, I couldn't see the skinny arms of her size zero body pulling a war bow or wielding a sword in battle. And where did she get lipstick from? Oh well, I suppose that some cinematic conventions must be determinedly protected against the onset of too much reality.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Barsoom Project by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

The Barsoom Project, published in 1989, is the sequel to Dream Park, which I reviewed a couple of years ago so I won't repeat the basic background - please read the Dream Park review for that (see the list of reviews in the left column). The Barsoom Project features the same principal character, Alex Griffin, the Head of Dream Park Security, and the plot follows a similar pattern in having two parallel threads. One thread features Griffin's attempts to unravel a murder within a game which happened eight years before, while simultaneously trying to uncover a plot against Dream Park itself. While ostensibly what the plot is all about, in practice this is only an minor distraction from the main thread, which follows the progress of several characters participating as players or actors in a new game: a version of the Fimbulwinter game which was the venue for the old murder, but this time recast as a "Fat Ripper Special", aimed at helping obese people lose weight.

An additional plot element is kept in the background until close to the end - the attempt by the Dream Park organisation to promote the real-life colonisation of Mars by means of a skyhook, or space elevator. This Barsoom Project provides the title to the book, although it's hard to see why since most of the story is concerned with the progress of the Fimbulwinter game, set in the Arctic and featuring Inuit (Eskimo to us oldies) mythology.

I had some issues with aspects of the story. I was not entirely convinced by the economics of the Dream Park games, nor by the logic of the "fat rippers"; even if their experiences encouraged the game-players to change their diets (although it wasn't obvious why it should), why would it have the same effect on overweight computer gamers? However, the biggest problem with this story for me is that it lacked much in the way of dramatic tension, simply because the reader knows from the start that the constant stream of bizarre dangers faced by the participants in the game is not real - if they are "killed" in the game, they simply retire uninjured. Now it could be argued that, by definition, fiction is "not real" anyway, but in a conventional story the author and reader conspire to pretend that what is going on is genuine so that tension can be built up to high levels - that simply doesn't happen here (in fact participants in the game have to be reminded that they need to lie still and be quiet when they're "dead"). As in Dream Park, the criminal in the story is unmasked at the end without any prior clues to allow readers to work out who it might be.

Despite this, the many who loved Dream Park will I expect enjoy The Barsoom Project. As I'm not interested in role playing games it took me some time to get into the story, although the pace picked up after the half-way point. I found it moderately entertaining, but it doesn't really add anything to Dream Park. On checking my previous review I was reminded that there is a third book in this series, The (California) Voodoo Game (which I have read, although I recall nothing about it) and I see a fourth has just been published, The Moon Maze. I think I might pass on that one - initial reviews are not encouraging.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Film: Source Code (2011)

I have been looking forward to watching Source Code ever since I saw director Duncan Jones' highly impressive debut film Moon. I was not disappointed.

US Army helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), on active service in Afghanistan, abruptly finds himself travelling on a train to Chicago, sitting opposite an attractive young woman who clearly knows him. To add to his confusion, when he sees himself in a mirror the face which looks back at him is not his, and he discovers that he is known as Sean Fentress. He is still trying to understand what is happening when a bomb explodes on board the train, killing him and everyone else on board.

He wakes up again in a strange cockpit-like capsule, in CCTV communication with Air Force Captain Goodwin (Vera Farmiga). She explains to him that he has been in the "Source Code", an experimental environment which enables him to experience the lives of people in an alternate reality for eight minutes after their deaths. The people in the train are already dead - he can't save them but he has been sent to identify the bomber since it is believed that a second and much larger "dirty" bomb is due to be detonated in Chicago by the same man. The film follows Stevens' efforts to find the bomber as he is repeatedly sent back to experience the same eight minutes before the explosion. Along the way, he learns more about his own circumstances and becomes convinced that the alternate world in the Source Code is not what it seems.

Like Moon this has an intelligent and intriguing script (by Ben Ripley), is crisply directed by Jones and very well acted, by Gyllenhall and the excellent Farmiga (who impresses me more every time I see her). By modern standards it is relatively low-key with no hype and few special effects; the concentration is on the characters and the story. There is no padding and its 93 minute running time is short, but perfectly judged. It has immediately jumped onto my shortlist of favourite SF films, and I eagerly await Jones' next film.
A few domestic notices:

When I started this blog I expected to focus on reviewing novels but films have been increasingly featuring (with the occasional TV programme thrown in), so I decided to create an index to these reviews. You can find it in the left-hand column immediately below the book review list. Just click on any title that interests you and you'll be taken straight to it.

I have been pondering offering my novels in Kindle versions. I don't have an e-reader myself, simply because I have about a hundred unread paperbacks stacked on my floor and hundreds more on my shelves that I want to read again, which are likely to keep me going until Kindle has become obsolete. However, I gather that it is proving a successful medium for self-publishers like me, so I might try offering Scales on it, just to test the water. If that works it might motivate me to finish my third novel, which has been sitting untouched for a couple of years now.

Some gratifying reviews lately on for my alternative World War 2 novel, The Foresight War. Nice to see that it's still gathering fans and sales more than seven years after publication. Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to post your thoughts about it.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Down Town by Viido Polikarpus and Tappan King

Cary Newman, a boy brought up in the country, is appalled to find himself living in New York following the collapse of his parents' marriage. Swept away from his mother by flowing crowds in the subway, he loses consciousness and wakes to find himself in a different version of the subway in a different version of New York: Down Town.

Down Town is the place in which everything and everybody no longer wanted in Up Town New York ends up. It has many levels, with the most recent at the top and the most ancient at the bottom. The inhabitants are the dispossessed and rejected, and they vary in size, becoming steadily smaller the longer they are there. Cary falls in with a gang of street children led by the pugnacious Allie, a girl his own age. Allie takes pity on him and agrees to try to find a way to return Cary to Up Town, since he doesn't seem to belong in Down Town. Their journey through varied scenes is hindered by the attempts of the black-clad Badmashers, led by the sinister Commander Brand, to apprehend him, but aided by an network of colourful friends. It gradually becomes apparent that Cary has a special purpose for being there, to preserve Down Town - and even Up Town - from being taken over and ruined by a rapacious organisation.

This is the first time I have re-read this book since the late 1980s (it was first published in 1986) and I had forgotten that it was aimed at younger readers. Still, I have a fondness for such stories about parallel realities into which people can fall, and this one is rather good. It has some clear messages about balancing technological advances with concern for the environment, as well as developing loyalty and determination in its young protagonists.

Down Town reminded me of several other more recent stories on my shelves, two of which I have reviewed here (see the reviews list in the left column): particularly Un Lun Dun by China Miéville and to a lesser extent The Ragchild by Steve Lockley and Paul Lewis (the first review I ever posted on this blog). Another one which comes to mind is Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, and of course the prototype and inspiration for all such stories, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, which I haven't read since I was a child and really must renew my acquaintance with!

Friday, 2 September 2011

Films: The Jacket (2005), and Alien Resurrection (1997)

The Jacket is a time-travelling film with an unusual twist or two. WARNING: some spoilers.

Soldier Jack Starks (Adrien Brody), seriously wounded in the 1991 Gulf War, returns to the USA and begins to hitch his way across country. After helping a mother and her young daughter with a car breakdown, he becomes inadvertently caught in the crossfire of a gunfight between a police officer and a criminal in which the officer dies. Starks is found guilty of his murder and sent to a mental institution where he receives experimental treatment involving drugs, a straitjacket, and sensory deprivation. During these sessions, he travels in time to 2007 where he meets and begins a relationship with the girl, now a young woman (Keira Knightley). He discovers that not only is the girl's mother due to die in the early 1990s, but so is he. His efforts to discover what will happen to him and to change the future make up the rest of the film.

This is an engaging low-key drama with Brody (whom I can't recall seeing before) putting in a convincing and affecting performance. I do have a small logical niggle: I can accept for the purposes of fiction the concept of someone time-travelling in a mental, non-physical way, or even travelling physically from one time to another, but Starks travels physically to the future while still leaving a physical body in the past, which I found a bit confusing. I understand that the film wasn't a commercial success, but I liked it and think it's well worth seeing.


I recently saw Alien Resurrection for the first time; I saw its three predecessors soon after they were released (Alien in 1979, Aliens in 1986 and Alien 3 in 1992). An 18 year spread from first to last with the same principal character in all of them (Sigourney Weaver as Lt Ellen Ripley) is quite an achievement.

Since Ripley died at the end of Alien 3, for Alien Resurrection she is reconstructed as a clone, 200 years later, from a blood sample she left shortly before her death. At that time she was a host to an alien queen and, in the cloning process, the two sets of DNA became mixed, resulting in Ripley having enhanced strength and speed plus corrosive blood, as well as a mental link to the aliens. The military scientists who clone her aboard a spaceship are primarily interested in extracting the alien queen from her in order to breed the species, but once the queen has grown it predictably escapes. The film then becomes the usual battle for survival aboard the spaceship with Ripley and a dwindling band of survivors trying not just to escape but also to prevent the aliens reaching Earth.

The original film rightly became one of the classics of SF, but this one adds little to it. There are no real surprises this time around, although Weaver dominates the film in a compelling performance as the part-alien Ripley. Worth watching if you enjoyed the others.