Friday, 31 August 2012

TV - Game of Thrones, Season 1

This is my second look at Game of Thrones, as I commented on it in May after seeing the first two episodes. Now I've seen all ten episodes of the first season so it's time for a round-up (the second season is not yet available on DVD hire in the UK).

To recap, the plot is set in an alternative medieval world with its technology, social development and politics very similar to that of the Europe of six or seven centuries ago. At the beginning, the principal difference seems to be that the seasons last for years at a time, with winter being a long period of bitter cold. Initially, there is very little in the way of fantastical elements, just hints and rumours, although these start to become real in dramatic form at the end of the first season. The main plot thread concerns the struggles among the noble families of the land of Westeros for control of the Iron Throne. Two other plot threads run in parallel. One is set overseas in the land of Essos where the last members of the Targaryen family which formerly ruled Westeros have taken refuge. The third plot thread is set on the northern border of Westeros, where an immense Wall, guarded by the Night Watch, protects the land from the frozen territory beyond, where nothing but the Wildings and the dreaded but mysterious White Walkers live.

In Westeros, Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell (Sean Bean), the northern part of the land, is called to the capital city King's Landing to take up the post of the Hand of the King. Here he finds himself in opposition to the rich and powerful Lannister family, which includes Queen Cersei (Lena Headey). Meanwhile in Essos, the young girl Daenerys Targaryn marries the warlord of the barbaric Dothraki and she and her brother plot their return to the Iron Throne. On the northern Wall, the dreaded winter is on the way and the legendary White Walkers are rumoured to be on the move.

The most significant aspect of GoT is that it takes the best part of ten hours to cover the events of only the first of the novels in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. This gives the programme producers huge scope to do full justice to the story, compared with the usual frantic compression which goes on to convert a novel into a two-hour movie. The pacing is therefore deliberate, with time taken to develop the plot and, most importantly, the characters. Even the wicked ones are given well-rounded personalities which allow viewers to feel some sympathy for their positions (especially Queen Cersei); conversely, even the most honourable of the characters faces difficult moral dilemmas. This pacing also gives viewers the time to appreciate the superb production, script and acting.

On the subject of the actors, it is interesting that most of them are little known, with the notable exception of Sean Bean. Although the actors seem to be mostly British, I can only recall having seen a couple of the others before. Most surprisingly, I had never heard of Lena Headey, despite her acting ability and considerable beauty, and the fact that she has been appearing in films for twenty years. Evidently she has resisted the usual self-publicising efforts which sees film stars constantly appearing on the front covers of magazines and in the gossip columns. A special mention is also due to Peter Dinklage who plays the dwarf Tyrion to such effect that he dominates every scene he's in; he's rightly won an Emmy and a Golden Globe. He's my favourite character in the series, if only because he's the only one to demonstrate a sense of humour.

I find it impossible to fault this series on any objective grounds. It is simply magnificent in every respect, and isn't just the best ever effort in the field of screening adult fantasy, it is leagues ahead of anything else. It makes even the best of the current crop of superhero movies look ridiculously juvenile and trivial. Subjectively, some might be uncomfortable with the frequent nudity and sex (this is very definitely an adult fantasy in every respect), while I found the relentless and often grim realism, plus the overall sense of impending doom, rather daunting. As I observed before, this would not be a pleasant world in which to live even as one of the ruling class, and there is a certain predictability that events are going to keep on getting a lot worse before there is any chance of them getting better. Accordingly, I found I had to brace myself before watching, girding up the loins and stiffening the sinews so to speak, but once each episode started I became engrossed again in the tale and am now completely hooked. Even the music and the fascinating animation in the title credits are real treats.

I am looking forward to the availability of the second season. I note that the book series currently includes five novels with two more on the way, so there could be many hours of high-quality viewing still to come.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Plague of Angels, by Sheri Tepper

Sheri Tepper has long been one of my favourite authors. I still recall the impact her first novel, The True Game, had on me in the 1980s - it was the first of a truly original fantasy series, and an indicator of what was to come. Since then, I have read many of her stories and re-read a couple of them which are reviewed on this blog; The Marianne Trilogy and Grass. These two illustrate her range, in that the first is a surreal present-day fantasy while the second is science fiction set in the far future. Most commonly what she writes has a mixture of SF and fantasy elements, often including some social commentary, and that is true of Plague of Angels, published in 1993, which I had not previously read.

This is an awkward book to review in that it starts out appearing to be a pure fantasy but as the plot develops and the reader gradually understands what is going on, it becomes more and more science fictional (although fantasy elements remain strong to the end). In consequence, it is difficult to give a comprehensive review without spoilers, but I will try to avoid this by only giving a brief and general summary of the plot.

Plague of Angels concerns two people, a young man and a girl, who grow up apart in what appears to be a largely rural medieval-type fantasy world except for some strange elements, some of them very modern. It is a quest story, a romance and a deadly mystery, all wrapped up in a journey which gives the author the opportunity to describe a variety of different settings and situations. Tepper is sometimes dismissed as a "feminist author" as she usually features strong female characters and her plots often contain elements which, implicitly or explicitly, criticise male-dominated societies. This is true of PoA, as it contains some painfully convincing descriptions of the adolescent attitudes of the male gangs which dominate life in the few cities, and her "ideal society", in a town described later in the book, is one of complete equality. However, there are strong and positive male as well as female roles and the great villain of the story is a woman, so I wouldn't say that the novel is unbalanced by this - it certainly didn't spoil my enjoyment of the tale.

In a couple of places in the story there is an interesting reflection of the ideas in Vance's The Languages of Pao, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. Namely, that the languages people speak affect their attitudes to life. In this case, it isn't different languages so much as the way they speak a common language. To quote one of the characters, concerning the limited and brutal vocabulary of the urban gangs:

"Like apes, Abasio. No oral tradition, rejecting literacy as unmanly. It's a decadent tongue, Abasio, an impoverished tongue. As vocabulary is reduced, so are the number of feelings you can express, the number of events you can describe, the number of things you can identify! Not only understanding is limited, but also experience. Man grows by language. Whenever he limits language, he retrogresses."

Conversely, later in the book Tepper describes what can only be regarded as social engineering through language similar to Pao, by changing names and deleting words which have harmful associations.

Having said all this, I don't want to give the impression that the novel is some sort of dull social tract. Above all, Tepper is a great storyteller and this tale effortlessly carries the reader along, with characters who are credible and sympathetic. She has a tendency to whimsical quirkiness which comes out in such ways as talking animals (for which there is a perfectly acceptable science-fictional justification, in a typical Tepper mix of the genres). There are revelations, twists and turns, right to the end of the book, to keep the reader engaged and entertained. While this isn't my favourite by this author, I enjoyed the ride. So although the story is complete in itself I may look up her other book with the same setting, The Waters Rising, which only appeared in 2010.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Film: The Awakening (2011)

This film is supposedly a a ghost/horror story set in England in 1921, in the aftermath of the devastating Great War. I don't usually watch such films, but was attracted to this one because it was filmed in Lyme Hall, a stately home I'm familiar with, and I was curious to see what they made of it. The Awakening stars Rebecca Hall as Florence Cathcart, an author and exposer of mediums and other supernatural hoaxers. She is persuaded to visit a remote boarding school where a boy had died in mysterious circumstances and the remainder of the boys were terrified that a legendary ghost had been responsible.

Florence sets to work with the aid of two staff members: teacher Robert Malory (Dominic West) and housekeeper Maude (Imelda Staunton). It isn't long before she exposes a fraud and solves the mysterious death. However, matters then take a different turn and for the rest of the film it becomes increasingly unclear what is reality, what is supernatural and what is delusion. There are lots of twists, turns and plot surprises right up to the intriguingly ambiguous ending, which reminded me of Inception.

I wouldn't describe this as primarily a ghost or horror story, it's more of a psychological mystery thriller - and a very good one. I was impressed by the plot, the writing, the setting and the acting (Rebecca Hall being excellent). All in all, it proved a pleasant surprise and is well worth seeing even if you don't like ghost stories. And by the way, Lyme Hall looks magnificent - and very spooky!


Incidentally, I've recently updated my list of favourite SFF novels in the left-hand column and extended it from 20 to 25. There are still a few I'd like to include….also, don't forget that linked lists of the books, films and TV programmes reviewed here are further down in the same column.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Survival, by Julie E Czerneda

This is the second book I have read by Julie Czerneda, my review of Beholder's Eye appearing on this blog in January last year. That one (the first of the Web Shifters trilogy) I enjoyed, with some reservations. Survival is also the first of a series, called Species Imperative, and was published six years later in 2004. I decided to read it as it was chosen as a novel of the month by the Classic Science Fiction discussion group.

Survival is decidedly easier to get involved in than the earlier book because the heroine is an ordinary human woman rather than an energy being and the Earth she lives in, while set in the future, is recognisably much the same as ours. Dr Mackenzie Connor (Mac) is a biologist who has devoted her life to studying the salmon on the Pacific NW coast of the North America. Her work routine with students and colleagues, including her friend Emily Mamani, is disrupted by the arrival of an honoured visitor - a member of an alien species. Humanity had been invited to join a galactic community some time before and some alien races were well-known, but Brymn was the first of the Dhryn race ever to visit Earth; and he had come specifically to see Mac.

Brymn is an archaelogist researching what had caused the Chasm, an area of the Galaxy which had once thrived with life but has been completely dead for millennia. Biology is not studied by his race, so he arrives looking for assistance. He is chaperoned by Nikolai Trojanowski, a bureaucrat Mac initially finds very irritating, before realising that there is more to him than meets the eye. She soon learns that there is a deadly threat, possibly connected with the Chasm, spreading from planet to planet and destroying all life on them. And that Brymn is not the only alien with an interest in Mac. This is the start of adventures which take her to alien worlds, fighting to discover what is going on and exactly how her friend Emily is involved. There are many twists and turns in the plot before the final startling revelation.

This is a more involving story than Czerneda's earlier book, and well worth the read. The characterisation is very good, Mac being a credible and likeable heroine. I still have a few reservations, though. I'm not sure of the credibility of a life form which annihilates every living thing on a planet, leaving nothing for itself to feed on. Also, at one stage a budding romance between two of the principal characters acquires something of the flavour of a Mills and Boon plotline (formulaic and slushy multi-author romantic fiction aimed at women) and begins to dominate the tale, but fortunately that phase doesn't last too long. My final reservation is that the story is spread a little thinly over nearly 500 pages which for much of the book slows down the action, making this somewhat less than an unputdownable page-turner. There's no shortage of tension or surprises in the last part, though, and I remain sufficiently gripped to want to read the rest of the series.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Film: 300 (2007)

I don't usually watch historical epics (the last one I can recall being Troy, several years ago), but when I realised that I'd recorded 300 sometime around last Christmas and it was still sitting on my PVR memory, I decided to look through it and see if it was worth watching.

As I expect most readers will be aware, the film concerns the Greek legend of the three hundred Spartans who fought the massed hordes of the invading Persians to a standstill in the Battle of Thermopylae, over 2,500 years ago. The battle certainly happened in the location attributed to it although the situation was, perhaps unsurprisingly, rather more complicated than that portrayed in the comic series by Frank Miller on which the film was based. As recounted by Herodotus, the Greek historian and main source of information on the battle who was born shortly after it happened, there were many more Greeks involved, somewhere in the region of 4,000, from a variety of Greek city-states. When a secret path around the narrow pass the Greeks were successfully holding was revealed to the Persians by a traitor, Leonidas, the Spartan king, did order the majority of his army to retreat, but that still left nearly 1,500 Greeks (including the 300 Spartans) to form a rearguard to enable the others to get away. Almost all of the Greeks in the rearguard were killed, including Leonidas.

From the historical point of view, the film therefore simplifies the tale to emphasise the glory of the self-sacrificing Spartans. It also shifts elements of the story around, putting in incidents which occurred on other occasions. Some of the bizarre menagerie of creatures in the Persian army also owe more to fantasy than reality. Despite this, overall it is probably at least as true to the accepted historical account as any Hollywood historical movie ever is (the notorious U-571 of 2000, in which the warship which captured a U-boat mysteriously changes from British to American, springs to mind). Herodotus' story may itself have exaggerated the achievement of the Greeks, of course. Early historians were often more concerned with telling a good tale (especially one which boosted the grandeur of their own people) than being strictly accurate, and even if that didn't apply in this case, Herodotus was relying on tales which had been told for decades, and maybe grown in the telling.

Setting the historical debate aside and judging it purely as a movie, was 300 worth watching? Well, just about. It is a very violent film, with lots of fighting, hacking, thrusting and spraying of blood, repeated in slow-mo action replays just in case the viewer missed the finer points the first time around. The characters are two-dimensional caricatures declaiming portentously as if they want to sound as epic as possible, with the notable exception of Lena Headey (currently gracing the small screen as Queen Cersei in Game of Thrones - which may alone be enough to persuade some people to watch). She has a strong part as Leonidas' wife in the scenes in Sparta which are interleaved with the battles, providing some contrast, not so say relief from the constant slaughter. The film has a voice-over, describing and explaining what is going on, which seems rather odd until it turns out at the end to have been the account of the one of the survivors; a trick which works rather well. So, if you like lots of gory hand-to-hand fighting, lots of heroically muscled Spartans wearing not a lot, or Lena Headey wearing not a lot, then you might well enjoy this film.

Incidentally I recently tried to watch another 2007 epic with rather less association with reality, Beowulf. This uses "motion capture", effectively taking real actors and sort of "cartoonising" them (if there is such a word). Now I like watching real actors and can happily watch cartoons and computer-generated alien characters such as those in Avatar. But something about the appearance of the motion capture characters put me off completely - I found it very creepy and the film thereby unwatchable. So I only saw the first few minutes.