Sunday, 4 November 2018

Windhaven: The Graphic Novel, by George R.R. Martin & Lisa Tuttle

A graphic novel is a new experience for me. I have never considered buying one, probably because I associate them with the comic books of my youth (mostly featuring derring-do in World War 2). However, I understand they are popular with a wider audience these days, and since Windhaven is a novel I like and have reviewed here, I accepted the offer from Titan Comics to review the graphic version of it.

I will start by replicating my review of the print version:

This stand-alone 1981 novel consists of three novellas (the first two originally published separately in 1975 and 1980) and an epilogue. The stories are set on the planet of Windhaven which is almost entirely covered by ocean except for a few widely-scattered groups of islands. These islands were populated by the survivors of a spaceship crash-landing generations before the events in the novel. Due to resource shortages the civilisation has regressed to the medieval level with one exception: they still possess quantities of almost indestructible but extremely thin and light fabric, ideal for making glider wings. The Windhaven weather is almost always windy and frequently stormy and, although not specified in the book, the combination of surface gravity and air density is sufficient to support long gliding flights by highly-skilled hereditary "flyers", with the aid of folding wings with a twenty-foot span. The high-status flyers form the main communication links between the islands, as shipping is hazardous due to the storms and sea monsters.

Although nominally SF, there are no mind-stretching concepts other than the initial premise described above. The story is really about people; their alliances and antagonisms, struggles to succeed, failures and successes.

The novellas focus on the story of three stages in the life of Maris, a girl of humble origins who is adopted by a flyer and thereby given the chance to learn to fly – the only thing she has ever wanted to do. She is faced by many obstacles and problems throughout her life, and this is far from a "happily ever after" story. It is something of an emotional roller-coaster ride, being very moving in places. There are some impressive set-pieces such as the intense and brilliantly argued debate at the end of the first part in which the flyers decide who should and should not have the right to be trained to join them.

The character of Maris is superbly developed throughout the book and the richness of the descriptions of the society, the personalities and the emotional intensity of their complex and ever-evolving relationships irresistably drew me in. I found myself really caring about what happened, sometimes even reluctant to carry on reading because of the dangers Maris courted and the pain and disappointments she suffered.

Windhaven is not a long book by modern standards but nonetheless tells an epic story, the stuff of legend. It is beautifully told and deserves to be far better known, and I highly recommend it.

The first point to note about the graphic version is that the adaptation was done by Lisa Tuttle, co-author of the original novel, which is a big plus point. The artwork is by Elsa Charretier. The book is a smart hardback, the full-colour graphics printed on high-quality paper; it is an attractive book to handle and look through. Unlike the comics of my childhood, the illustrations of the characters are, well, somewhat stylised and cartoonish rather than realistic, but I understand that is the popular fashion these days. Most of the text consists of dialogue, supplemented by a few short information boxes per page. Effectively the text forms a precis of the print book, and a good one too – all of the key moments are there.

I approached this book with some reservations (which would also apply to any other graphic novel) because of the way in which I normally experience a novel. While I don't do this consciously, I realise that when I read a text, the words generate pictures in my mind; effectively, I create my own movie as I read. This quite strongly affects my experience of the story. For example, if the text describes a building on one side of a river, I form an image of the view with the building located on what I think is the correct side. If, later on, it turns out that the author means the building to be on the other side of the river, I find this very disorientating. I generally find that it is very difficult to rewind and "reshoot" the view in my mind to match the change;  it is easier to ignore the author's words and continue to picture it on the "wrong" side, unless that really messes up the plot. With a graphic novel of course this situation cannot arise: in effect, the reader is seeing the illustrator's movie of the story (or stills from it, at any rate). This reduces my involvement in the story as I become a spectator rather than a participant.

However, I need not have worried. Somewhat to my surprise, I was immediately drawn into the story once more and read it without a break (it took about an hour, a quarter of the time it takes me to read the print version). Of course, it is a different kind of experience to reading the print novel but I found that I had no problems with getting into and appreciating the story, and the conclusion was still moving. I was aware that my familiarity with the tale may have enabled me to understand the context rather more easily than a newcomer to the story could manage, but it's impossible for me to assess that.

What is the value of the graphic version of this (or any) novel? It certainly saves time and some mental effort, so is an easier way to enjoy the story. It is more accessible, potentially stimulating an interest in the story which could be a lead-in to the print version. It is unlikely that I will ever prefer the graphic format, as I gain so much pleasure from exercising my imagination as I read, but I found the graphic Windhaven surprisingly enjoyable.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Six Moon Dance, by Sheri Tepper; and Armor, by John Steakley

Six Moon Dance was chosen by the classic SF discussion group as one of its monthly reads, and being a long-term fan of Sheri Tepper I made a point of acquiring a copy. It is a stand-alone book, rather than being one of the short series which comprise much of her output.

The story is set on the planet Newholme, which had been settled by humanity not many generations before, and exists with a low level of technology. The matriarchal culture is curious, driven by the fact that a considerable imbalance in the population has developed, with far more males than females. This means that females are highly valued as well as dominating the powerful planetary religion, with prospective husbands (or their families) having to pay a massive dowry to obtain a wife. The males are principally concerned with becoming "family men", with their own business or farm, a wife and children; the oldest son inherits, so younger sons have little to look forward to. One of the options open to the more attractive ones is to become a Consort or "Hunk"; highly trained to please women in every way and purchased by wives for their pleasure once they have completed their compulsory duties of child bearing, a state of affairs which is accepted as normal.

There is a mystery about Newholme that no-one likes to talk about: when the planet was first settled, an exhaustive search failed to find any trace of sentient natives, freeing humanity to settle the planet. However, not long after the settlement, humanoid natives were everywhere. The settlers do not like to admit that they exist, since their settlement would then become illegal, so they pretend not to see them, despite the fact that the natives voluntarily act as servants and manual workers. However, word that something odd was happening on the planet led to the arrival of the Questioner: the representative of the Council of Worlds, and a cyborg of ultimate power and authority. The Questioner arrives at a time of crisis, with the six large moons of Newholme moving towards a rare configuration which would create massive seismic effects on the planet.

The story mainly follows four humans: a young man who enters training as a Hunk; a girl who pretends to be a boy in order to avoid her childbearing fate; and two young dancers dragooned by the Questioner to assist her work. What is really happening on the planet turns out to be something far greater and more fundamental than anyone suspected. The author drops hints about the mystery throughout the book, particularly when describing the activities of the natives, who know far more about the situation than anyone else, and the meaning of some terms they employ only becomes evident towards the climax.

This story is typical of Tepper, combining SF and fantasy elements with a large measure of social – and especially feminist – commentary. Some readers are deterred by the strong feminism in the plots of many of her books, but it does not bother me. Her fantasy elements and characters tend to have a whimsical side to them, and (SPOILER WARNING) I have to admit to being amused by the concept of a vast space creature becoming obsessed with gender rights issues and heading off into the galaxy to preach the gospel!

On looking through Tepper's novels and noting the ones I have reviewed, the others I read before I started reviewing, those which I possess but have not yet read, and the ones I have not so far obtained, I discover that I have quite a lot of reading to do in order to catch up with this prolific author's impressive back catalogue.


John Steakley had an unusual publishing record. Between 1981 and 1990 he published a handful of short stories and two novels: one a military SF (Armor, 1984), the other a horror (Vampire$, 1990). He died at the age of 59 in 2010. Both of his novels were well received, with Vampires (different spelling) being turned into a 1998 film. I first read Armor shortly after it was published, and thought well enough of it to keep it for a re-read – which has now occurred.

Part 1, the first 80 pages of Armor, consists of an intense focus on a few days in the life of Felix, a soldier in an interstellar war being fought against giant insectoids dubbed "ants". The human soldiers are heavily protected by massive powered armour which gives them colossal strength and speed; the ants are less technological but are bred as killers. The soldiers are "dropped" onto planetary surfaces from massive orbiting spacecraft (via some kind of teleportation), and at the start of the story Felix is awaiting his first drop onto an ant world the humans call Banshee.

Felix survives several days of ferocious fighting, very much against the odds. Terrified of the prospect of fighting, he gains aid from a part of his mind he thinks of as "the Engine"; which turns him into a relentless killing machine. There is some mystery in his past, a suggestion of hereditary high rank, but no answers as to why a civilian like him has become a soldier.

One key question occurred to me at the end of this part of the story: Banshee was not just an ant world, it was uninhabitable by humans due to highly poisonous oceans and atmosphere, plus extreme temperatures; in other words, of no value to humanity at all.  So why were soldiers being sent down to the surface to fight ants hand-to-hand? The obvious response to such a situation should be for the spaceships to stay in orbit and rain thermonuclear-tipped missiles down on any observed concentrations of ants. (This evidently bothered the author too, as much later in the book he states that the atmosphere was too poisonous and with two many random electromagnetic fields for guidance systems to work. But the teleportation system does? Hmmm…) Anyway, to continue with the story…

Part 2 is headed Jack Crow, and provides a complete change of plot and characters. The focus this time is on the notorious pirate of the heading, and is told by him in the first person, in contrast with the third-person structure of the first part. We first meet him in prison, from which he is saved by another pirate, the giant Borglyn, and is compelled by him to undertake a mission on a planet called Sanction. This is inhabitable by humans, but currently occupied only by a large research base plus a motley collection of settlers inhabitating a nearby slum city, including the enigmatic Lewis, an alcoholic who reputedly owns the planet. This part is not that comfortable to read, as Crow befriends the researchers with the aim of betraying them to Borglyn. Meanwhile Hollis, the innocent genius who heads the research base, has become fascinated with a suit of combat armour which Crow had discovered in a spacecraft abandoned in orbit, and is trying to unlock the memory files embedded within it. When he succeeds, both himself and Crow experience Felix's life in combat via virtual reality as they try to discover what happened to him. Part 3 continues with Felix's story as experienced by Crow and Holly, and the psychological tensions build up steadily as relationships with the settlers reach crisis point.  The fourth part switches back to Banshee and resolves the identity of Felix, a man running from his past. Part 5 is the finale, as Borglyn arrives to claim Sanction, triggering a climactic conflict.

This is far more than just another military SF tale, and almost half of the story is set on Sanction. The plotting and characterisation are very good, although it struck me as slightly odd to have two different heroes with nothing to connect them until right at the end. Strongly recommended, and such a pity that Steakley wrote no more SF novels.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Screen time

Some films and a TV series to catch up with:

Film: Seventh Son (2014)

The cast of this fantasy epic looked promising: Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander being the big names, alongside the always good Olivia Williams and a brief cameo by Kit Harington (of Game of Thrones fame). The hero (Ben Barnes) is a young man who is, natch, a seventh son with unusual abilities, and as a result is recruited by Gregory, the last of the Spooks; a band of witch-hunters. Gregory certainly needs all the help he can get since the Witch Queen has broken free of her long imprisonment and is after revenge. The relationships all get rather tangled with almost all of the principals turning out to have a past history or to be related in some way to at least one of the others (and the hero predictably falling for a young witch who can't be all that bad, being Vikander). Inevitably, the climax is a pitched battle between the forces of good and evil, and guess who wins?

This film received poor reviews and was not a success at the box office. I find that a little surprising; I have seen worse movies treated more kindly. I suspect that the low ratings were down to disappointment that something more original did not emerge, the plot being predictable and the strong cast somewhat wasted, but there are worse ways to spend 100 minutes or so.

Film: Jurassic World (2015)

I enjoyed the first Jurassic Park film (1993) but felt that the two sequels were a bit too similar. The format doesn't lend itself to much variation, after all: recreated dinosaurs get loose and terrorise lots of people (as well as eating a few who really deserve it) before being defeated, and only the peripheral details vary.

My expectations were therefore not that high for the first episode of the second trilogy. Just as well, as it didn't vary from the formula. The additional details this time concerned a genetically manipulated and highly intelligent super-T-Rex, plus plans for "taming" the velociraptors to make them more useful in a military role. Chris Pratt does his usual hunky hero stuff, but he is ably supported by his co-star (Bryce Dallas Howard) who actually saves the day when all seems to be going badly. Nice to see the female lead being given a bold and courageous role, rather than being eye-candy who gets to scream a lot while awaiting rescue by the hunky hero. All in all, this film is adequate without rising above the ordinary. I gather that the next episode (Fallen Kingdom) is supposed to be better – I might get around to it sometime.

Film: Forbidden Planet (1956)

I almost certainly saw this film long ago, but had forgotten all about it. My first surprise was that it is in colour; it's so old that I expected monochrome! The plot is well known, and is said to have some similarities with Shakespeare's The Tempest, although it's too long since I last saw that play for me to comment.

A starship travels from Earth to visit Altair IV in order to rescue any survivors of an expedition which landed there twenty years before. To their surprise the starship crew find one of explorers, Morbius, living in some style and in command of highly advanced alien technologies including a robot. With him is his daughter, who was born on the planet before all of the expedition members except for Morbius and his wife were torn apart by some unseen entity. Needless to say, the daughter creates quite a reaction among the all-male starship crew, but then the destructive entity reappears and starts killing the crew.

The film is of course now very dated, but not as much as I expected. I thought it was roughly on a par in all respects with the early Star Trek TV series which came along a decade later – in other words, The Forbidden Planet was well ahead of its time and is still worth watching.

TV – Missions (2017)

This a French TV serial (with subtitles), set in the near future, about the first manned missions to Mars. Ulysses, a European space craft funded by William Meyer, a fabulously rich Swiss entrepreneur, is arriving in Mars orbit when they learn that they have already been beaten to the planet by a much faster American craft, funded by an equally wealthy US businessman, Ivan Goldstein. It becomes evident that the US craft experienced major problems on landing, so the European crew decide to attempt a rescue. They manage to land nearby (not without their own problems) and find one survivor in a spacesuit, but he has a surprise for them. After this, the plot evolves from a routine "trip to Mars" to something of much greater significance.

The serial ran for ten episodes of 25 minutes each (on BBC4 in the UK) and is structured in such a way that it isn’t possible to say any more about the plot without spoilers. I will just say that I was reminded of the film 2001, not so much in the specifics of the plot as in the atmosphere of a cosmic mystery gradually unfolding. It is intriguing and well worth seeking out.