Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Interzone 252

The featured author is Neil Williamson, with an interview alongside a review of his first novel, The Moon King. This sounds very interesting, with echoes of Gormenghast and the classic TV series The Prisoner, and is set on an isolated island state with a tradition-bound culture, kept going by ancient machines. One for my reading pile.

Another of the books reviewed appealed to me enough to want to read it: The Three by Sarah Lotz (another debut novel from an established short-story writer). On one day, four passenger planes crash on four different continents, each leaving one survivor, one of whom (the only adult) dies shortly afterwards, leaving a strange message. The story then focuses on the three child survivors, and is a mixture of fantasy and SF.

Of the films and DVDs reviewed, Ice Soldiers seems to be a promising addition to the superhero genre, the new Robocop also gets a good review and Noah sounds as if it might be fun.

On to the stories:

The Posset Pot by Neil Williamson, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A near future in which strange bubbles keep forming and then suddenly disappearing – replacing whatever part of our world is caught inside them (including people) with material from a different universe. The result is a pock-marked planet and a destroyed civilisation, with survivors scrabbling to live while avoiding the bubbles. Sounds grim, but is actually quite intriguing.

The Mortuaries by Katherine E.K. Duckett, illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe. Another dystopian tale of the future, this one a long "novelette". Two huge towers hold the plasticised remains of the dead, set in tableaux, for family members to visit. Their isolated location is about to be ended by the slow-motion collapse of civilisation. Bizarre.

Diving into the Wreck by Val Nolan, illustrated by Wayne Haag. A psychological drama played out during the search for the Eagle, the ascent stage of Apollo 11, which crashed somewhere on the Moon.

Two Truths and a Lie by Oliver Buckram. An odd little two-page game. Baffling.

A Brief Light by Claire Humphrey, illustrated by Richard Wagner. Ghosts are real, everyone can see them, and they have become a considerable nuisance.

Sleepers by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, illustrated by Martin Hanford. Strange horse-like beasts called sleepers keep appearing in the dead of night before disappearing again. A troubled young woman finds peace of mind after meeting them.

Not a particularly memorable crop this time, but my choice for a second reading would definitely be the first story, by Williamson. I've only just noticed that it was written by the author featured elsewhere in this magazine, so that's a good omen for his novel!

Friday, 23 May 2014

Dream London by Tony Ballantyne

I recently started to read Wool by Hugh Howey, a novel which has received strong reviews and was selected as a monthly read by the Classic Science Fiction discussion forum. It is set in a huge self-sufficient post-apocalypse underground bunker in which thousands of people have lived for generations. They cannot survive on the surface as the atmosphere is poisonous, but live camera feeds constantly remind them of what it is like. Criminals and the suicidally inclined are sent outside to keep the cameras clean in the few minutes before they die. The story begins with such a suicide then follows, in great detail, the actions of the elderly mayor and her equally aged deputy sheriff. Frankly, I found it rather unimaginative, in fact downright dull, and while I did my best to keep going I finally put it down after reading 120 of its 500 pages.

Unimaginative is not a word that could be applied to the next book I picked up; Dream London by Tony Ballantyne. It is set not long in the future, when something very strange has begun to happen to London; the proportions and even the locations of its buildings and open spaces have been changing, gradually altering day by day. The usual commercial shops were being replaced by small, often quirky establishments. Furthermore, the personalities of the residents also seemed to be shifting to an older pattern, in which superstition rules and women are housewives, cleaners or prostitutes. The final twist being that no-one can leave London – no matter how hard they try, they keep finding themselves back where they had started.

The story is told by Captain Jim Wedderburn, a charismatic former soldier and now a famous rogue and a pimp. He finds that two opposed groups want to recruit him to their causes; one to destroy whatever is changing London, the other to exploit the changes, and while he prefers the former group, the latter is threatening all manner of unpleasant fates if he does not comply. He tries to find a way through his predicament (not always successfully) as he gradually learns more about what is happening and why, before witnessing the rousing finale.

Regular followers of this blog will be aware that I have a soft spot for fantasies set in modern London, but while this one held my attention throughout, I wouldn't count it among my favourites. The fantasy is a little too surreal, rather like an adult version of Alice in Wonderland (but note that the language alone, as well as some of the scenes, mean that this is emphatically not a book for children). Jim Wedderburn is also not a particularly sympathetic character, which makes it harder for the reader to become fully involved. High marks for effort and novelty, downgraded somewhat by the execution of the ideas.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Film: About Time (2013), and a TV catchup

There seems to be something about time travel which appeals to Rachel McAdams; not that she ever gets to do it herself, but About Time is the third film I've seen in which she has played a woman involved with a time-travelling man, after The Time Traveller's Wife and Midnight in Paris (both of which I've reviewed here).  Not that I'm complaining, since she's the most captivating leading lady of her generation and always a pleasure to watch. She also has three different roles to play in these three very different films.

The principal character in About Time is a gauche young man (played by Domhnall Gleeson) who inherits the ability to travel back in time whenever he wishes; a trick he frequently uses to "re-run" embarrassing moments to get them right the second – or third – time around. The story focuses on his pursuit of the girl of his dreams (McAdams, naturally) with a secondary focus on Gleeson's engaging family, particularly his father (Bill Nighy).

The first thing to say is that SF fans with a penchant for picking holes in logical inconsistencies in time-travel films had probably better avoid this film, as it is full of such errors; it doesn't even stick to its own rules. I am usually as nit-picking as anyone, but parked my critical faculties as this is not really an SF film; it's a soft-centered romantic comedy. It is exactly what you would expect from Director Richard Curtis (whose credits include Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones's Diary and Notting Hill) and merely uses the time travel element as an excuse to add some fun. The result is a lightweight confection suffering from Curtis's characteristic slide into mawkish sentimentality. It is made watchable only by the actors, particularly McAdams (did I mention that she is irresistably appealing?).

Two pieces of good news concerning the smaller screen; the second season of Orphan Black has begun showing on UK TV, with the story of the assorted group of clones (all played by Tatiana Maslany) continuing as they struggle to discover how to respond to the various threats facing them, not least a lethal genetic illness. What makes this so entertaining is that, while it certainly isn't a comedy, there is enough humour in it to balance the drama.

The other news item is that the second season of Continuum is also (at last!) available for rental in the UK. I've watched the first couple of episodes in which the tale continues of a Canadian law officer and a group of terrorists she is hunting all being thrown back from 2077 to the present day. Not much humour in this one, but it's got everything else you could hope for. I have to say that due to the long gap since I saw the first season, I initially floundered since there is little in the way of a recap and it took much of the first episode for my memory cells to catch up. I generally dislike recaps (and, even more so, "this is what will happen next week" sign-offs) when they appear in each episode, but I could do with a more thorough one at the start of each season.

Finally, the second season of Person of Interest is more than half-way through and continues to entertain and amuse. The latest development is that the all-seeing computer which draws attention to people about to be involved in a serious crime (whether as perpetrator or victim is usually unclear to begin with) is in trouble. It has become rather formulaic, but is still essential viewing.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell

I hadn't heard of Jack Campbell until I read a recent recommendation from the Classic Science Fiction discussion group, but I was intrigued that he was so highly rated as a writer of military SF, so I bought the first book of his Lost Fleet series, Dauntless, first published in 2006.

The setting is in the far future with humanity spread over many star systems and engaged in a civil war between two equally matched forces; the Alliance and the Syndics. John Geary, an Alliance spaceship captain, is rescued from suspended animation in a survival capsule after having his ship destroyed right at the start of the war. He is horrified to discover that a hundred years have passed, and the war is still going strong; what is worse, his valiant battle has resulted in a legend being created around him as "Black Jack Geary", and his reputation has been used for generations to inspire the fleet. He has no time to recover from his hibernation before the fleet that rescued him is defeated in a huge battle and he inherits command of the remainder, deep inside Syndic space. He finds that a century of war has led to a very different kind of fleet to the one he trained in: discipline is slack, tactics are poor and ethics have disappeared. He faces an uphill task in fulfilling his promise to return the fleet to Earth.

In an interview at the end of the book (Titan Books edition, published 2011), the author says that he decided to combine two famous and epic elements: the "lost hero" myth, which occurs in many cultures (most notably the Arthurian legends of England); and the long, fighting retreat through enemy territory, as first featured in Xenophon's The Anabasis (better known as The March of the Ten Thousand), a description of an actual event 2,500 years ago written by a man who was there.

The result is highly impressive: a gripping page-turner of a tale in which Campbell puts to very good use his experience as a US naval officer, bringing the ring of authenticity to his hero's command problems and meticulous accuracy to his description of the complexities of fighting a space battle in which the distances involved are so great that enemy actions can only be observed some (constantly varying) time after they have happened.

That is not to say that the book has no weaknesses. The total focus on Captain Geary's viewpoint and command problems is unrelieved by any other elements; it's a bit like a meal which is all meat and no veg. Furthermore, although Geary's personality is clearly drawn, there are no physical descriptions of him or anyone else in the book, other to say whether they are male or female, and look young or old.  This gives no guidance to the reader's imagination in conjuring up mental pictures of the scenes. Despite these points, I will be placing an order for the next couple of books in this series.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Films: Paul (2011), and Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)

I started to watch Paul not really expecting to finish it, due to my previous very mixed views of the characteristic humour of Simon Pegg, who wrote the script and starred in the film. While I enjoyed his surreal police story Hot Fuzz, I didn't stick with Shaun of the Dead for very long. Paul turned out to be a pleasant surprise, though.

Two British SF fans (played by Pegg and Nick Frost) are on their first visit to the USA to attend an SF convention. They hire an RV to tour the legendary sights, including of course Roswell and Area 51. Their holiday is interrupted when they become accidentally involved with a real alien – small, grey and with large eyes – who is being hunted by the Secret Service from whom he is escaping. What follows is a riotous chase, much enlivened by the sardonic, wise-cracking personality of the alien (voiced by Seth Rogen). On the way they pick up another passenger, a young woman from a fundamentalist Christian family (Kristen Wiig), whose attitudes are the butt of more humour (warning: fundamentalist Christians are unlikely to enjoy this film). The rousing conclusion is all that you would expect, with the bonus of an unexpected twist. Don't stop watching until the credits stop rolling, as there's PS scene at the end.

The entire plot is a tribute to classic SF themes, packing in many references to other films (especially ET) and SF tropes. Great entertainment for all SF fans.


I think I saw just about all of the Star Trek: The New Generation TV shows when they first came out (I've not seen them since then) and thought that I had seen the associated films as well. So when I saw Star Trek: Insurrection was showing on TV I watched it expecting a bit of nostalgic viewing. I was therefore surprised to realise that I hadn't seen it before.

Having said that, I still had my dose of nostalgia; the same old cast, all doing exactly what you expect them to. The plot is not only typical of the TV shows, it could actually have been lifted from the original Star Trek series. It lacks the darkness of First Contact, the previous film in the franchise, and there is a lack of tension throughout. It's undemanding OK viewing, but don't expect your adrenaline levels to rise.

On looking at Wiki's notes on the films I realised that I seem to have missed Nemesis as well – I'll have to watch out for that one being shown.