Friday 30 May 2008

The X-Files film

No, not the new one but the 1998 production which I only recently got around to viewing for the first time. I should start by saying that I was a fan of the early X-Files TV series, enjoying the interplay between the two FBI agents who are the main characters: David Duchovny as the gullible Fox Mulder who believes that the presence of aliens is being covered up, and Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully, the science-trained sceptic. They are tasked with investigating incidents which defy rational explanation, and the mix is partly FBI procedural, partly mystery and suspense, with elements of SF and horror plus a substantial dollop of paranoid conspiracy theory.

As a firm believer in the cock-up rather than conspiracy theory of why things go wrong, I never bought into this but I nevertheless enjoy a well-told story, which at first this was ('Capricorn One' is another conspiracy theory SF film which is also great viewing). I think I stopped watching the TV programmes at some point in the third or fourth series, partly because the scenarios became rather repetitive and partly because the horror elements became stronger, with the plots steadily ramping up the yuck factor – not my favourite kind of viewing.

Reading about the forthcoming second film, I decided that it was time for a stroll down memory lane and dusted off an old videotape of the first film from the back of a cupboard. The mix was pretty much as I recalled, with the yuck factor (horribly unnatural things happening to people, in graphic detail) coming in strong at the start and cropping up at intervals throughout the film. However, it was interesting enough to hold my attention, and in particular I had forgotten how good Duchovny and Anderson were together; an enjoyable pairing of opposites, spiced with that frisson of never-released sexual tension.

Having said that, I found the plot a confusing mess. The main threat was an alien virus in the form of a black goo which infected people and turned them into alien monsters, apparently in preparation for the return of the aliens to take over the planet. Since the virus was supposed to be the oldest living thing on Earth, which would put it at about 3.5 billion years old, this suggests an alien planning timescale which makes present-day major military procurement programmes look quite speedy.

Where I got lost was when the conspiracy bit kicked in. It seems that a powerful organised group was trying to help the alien takeover along (for reasons which were never explained) and were doing this by breeding bees to carry the virus (but being stung by a bee seemed to produce entirely different results from the black goo – the relationship between them was not explained); corn crops came into this as well, but I didn't understand why (other than that they provided a good place for our two heroes to hide from searching helicopters). There was a mass release of bees but as this happened in the middle of a desert it is hard to see what this was supposed to achieve, and this plot thread disappeared. There was also an Antarctic base on top of an alien labyrinth which turned out to be a space ship (3.5 billion years old?) with which the conspirators were tinkering, but to what end was never explained, except that they seemed to be providing human hosts for the virus. I was thoroughly confused by this point, but it did of course all end happily; no producer would dare kill off one of the heroes while they might be needed for sequels.

I'm old-fashioned enough to prefer plots which make sense (however improbable) by the end of the tale, which this one really didn't. The new film will have to garner some impressive reviews before I feel tempted to watch it; except, perhaps, as a nostalgia trip in another ten years.

Friday 23 May 2008

The Birthgrave by Tanith Lee

The Birthgrave was first published in 1975, and I read it not long after. It made such an impact that it joined the select group of books I've read more than once, and now I've read it for the third time, decades later. I had forgotten almost everything except the general outline, so I was able to enjoy it all over again.

The story is set on another world, with an early medieval culture; small city states, nomadic groups, constant little wars and skirmishes, swords and primitive cannon, and multiple deities. The nameless heroine is the sole survivor of a race of cruel, humanoid, super-beings who had previously ruled this world before being wiped out by disease, leaving their human slaves to carry on. She wakes after a long coma and goes out into the world, where she is hailed as a goddess but finds herself strangely powerless, haunted by dreams of the magnificence and horror of her past. She is controlled and manipulated by ambitious men, and only breaks free right at the end of the book, which suddenly includes a science fiction element to add to the fantasy.

Tanith Lee's writing is rich and strong, powerfully evocative of the cultures her heroine moves through. It is frequently gritty and brutal; the death rate around the heroine – among friends as well as enemies – reaches epic proportions. There is a sustained account of a vicious form of chariot race, in which the tension is gradually built up from the initial preparations, through the training and into the race itself, until its crashing climax. This passage is so well-written and gripped me so strongly that I couldn't put the book down until the race was over.

If there is any criticism I could make of the book, it is that a greater than usual suspension of disbelief is required to accept an almost invulnerable super-race of god-like powers, who can live on air and even survive for years in a coma in an airless environment. There is also an unexplained inconsistency in the basic timeline of the book: the heroine grows from child to adult while in a sixteen-year coma and is supposed to be only twenty, yet the cities of her youth had fallen into ancient ruins and the memory of her race had faded into legend.

One thing which slightly surprised me: a couple of scenes which I recalled from previous readings weren't actually in the book; they must be in the sequels, Shadowfire and Quest for the White Witch. Oh well, they're sitting on my shelf with a rather expectant air…

Friday 16 May 2008

Indigo by Graham Joyce, plus the Platypus

This book is curiously difficult to review, or even to describe. It is set in the contemporary world, and features Englishman Jack Chambers, who has been summoned to Chicago to execute the will of a controlling and manipulative father he has loathed, but not seen, for some twenty years. He discovers that he is required to publish a manuscript in which his father lays out in detail the protracted physical and mental preparation required to see the colour Indigo (that mythical seventh colour of the spectrum) and thereby gain not only a different form of seeing but also the ability to avoid being seen by others.

Chambers meets his disturbingly attractive half-sister for the first time since she was a young girl. They both travel to Rome, his father's second home, in order to dispose of his property and trace the principal beneficiary of the will. What follows is a strange mixture of mystery, tension, drama, sex and romance, as Chambers struggles to discover what his father had been up to, work out whether the manuscript held genuine knowledge or was just delusional, and incidentally sort out his own life.

Indigo is worth reading if only for the atmospheric quality of the writing:

"You didn't look at Rome, you slipped into it and it parted around you like warm water. History lay everywhere, like mineral mud on a river bed, or broken and glistening as it broke the surface. Antiquity waved vast anemone clusters and drew your attention to submerged treasure, or to a sunken rock which on close inspection turned out to be artefact. There was no more pristine, native rock. Everything had been mined, carved, sculpted, worked, improved, discarded, reworked into a lustrous flow. In Rome you needed a set of gills to move through history, and if you tried to come up for air you found that even the sky was seeded with the dust of ancient brick. It was cloying and sweet and pearly with reference. Every evening the city crumbled under the weight of its own memory; each morning it was rebuilt with the fresh hot brick of making the past anew."

This is not a conventional SFF novel; it is in fact rather hard to categorise. I found it well worth the time spent on it, though. My only complaint is that Penguin chose to publish it in what looks like an eight-point font, which is almost too small for comfortable reading.
As a follow-up to my post here (25 April) about the New Scientist's feature on evolution, another development covered in the magazine (10 May) is the sequencing of the genome of the Australian duck-billed platypus. This has revealed some intriguing information, as might be expected of an animal which combines a bird-like beak with fur, and lays eggs while producing milk for its young. As expected, its genome contains a mixture of mammalian and reptile features. The sequence for determining sex is more like a bird's than a mammal's, yet the milk-producing genes are similar to humans and cows. The conclusion is that milk-producing evolved before the ability to have live offspring.

Perhaps my marsupial saurians in Scales weren't quite so implausible after all!

Friday 9 May 2008

Flood: and a few bits and pieces

A two-part four-hour drama shown on UK ITV in early May, 'Flood' explored what might happen if a huge storm surge funnelled down the North Sea and arrived at the Thames estuary at the same time as the highest tide of the year. This was, of course, more or less what happened in 1953, causing widespread flooding and hundreds of deaths in England, and thousands in the Netherlands. I even have a vague childhood memory of that, as at the time my family were living in an East Coast town which suffered considerable damage from the storm.

The plot of 'Flood' assumes that the resultant surge from storm and tide combined would be high enough to overwhelm the Thames Barrier and inundate much of central London, with heavy casualties. There was a cast of stock characters: the hapless Meterological Office man who got the forecast wrong, delaying evacuation plans; the professor who had always argued that the Barrier was in the wrong place leaving London vulnerable to just such a threat; the divorced couple forced to work together because of their expert knowledge of the Barrier; the Metropolitan Police Commissioner trying to co-ordinate the response to the threat and subsequent disaster while worrying about her own daughters trapped in central London; the Deputy Prime Minister saddled with the responsibility of making very tough decisions in the absence abroad of the Prime Minister; and for contrast, the two workmen on the Underground system who found themselves trapped in the tunnels.

There was some interesting material in this. The CGI of the great wave travelling up the Thames and flooding one famous landmark after another was gripping. The operations of the government COBRA Committee, the difficult issues they grappled with, and the response to the disaster were all fairly convincingly, if somewhat patchily, portrayed (although I can't comment on their authenticity). However, for my taste the programme was over-dramatised and over-long: too much hysterical screaming and panicking, too much time spent on the various "human interest" sub-plots.

A pity really, because this is a genuine threat which needs to be treated seriously. When first built 25 years ago the Thames Barrier, which rises up to block the Thames when sea water levels threaten to flood London, was used only once or twice a year. As SE England continues to sink by a few mm a year (isostatic recovery from the last Ice Age still going on) and sea levels gradually rise, so the threat is increasing and the Barrier is deployed more often – 14 times in 2003. Furthermore, we seem to be on the receiving end of more frequent violent storms. The plot of the drama came too close to reality for comfort on 9 November 2007, when the Barrier was raised twice due to a storm surge and high tide combination, but fortunately they didn't quite coincide.

I would have welcomed a shorter, calmer and more realistic drama-documentary. In fact this subject has quite enough drama on its own, so I'd be happy with just a "what-if?" documentary, examining the growing probability of the threat, the likely consequences if it happened, how the authorities would respond, and what we should be doing to minimise this risk, since the Barrier will eventually become inadequate. They could retain that CGI of the floods, though – definitely worth seeing!
Something of a disappointment on the reading front this week. I had read lots of high praise for Geoff Ryman's 'Air', concerning the impact on a small and remote Asian village of a test to beam the internet right into people's heads. So I bought a copy and got stuck in. However, I stopped reading after four chapters. Nothing wrong with the author's writing style or ability, it was just that the story wasn't to my taste. And I have so many books lined up waiting to be read that I don't persevere for long with one which I'm not enjoying.
A curious trend in the sales of my alternate World War 2 novel, 'The Foresight War'. Up to the end of last year, after three years of sales, more than twice as many copies had been ordered from the UK printers as from the US ones (it's Print On Demand, so copies are only printed as they are purchased). This didn't surprise me, as the principal character is British and the plot is very much focused on Britain and Germany. Since January, however, sales in the UK have declined while those in the USA have increased, to the extent that in this year so far US sales are 2.5 times higher than UK ones. Perhaps I've just run out of Brits interested in alternate WW2 stories!

Friday 2 May 2008

Dark Horizons Issue 52

The Spring 2008 edition of the British Fantasy Society's biannual publication contains the usual predominance of short stories flavoured with poems and articles (in this instance, just one article; a long interview with Charles de Lint by Jan Edwards). The cover design is by Dan Skinner, and there is a stand-alone illustration: 'More Tea?' by Chris Bell.

I can't say I'm a poetry fan but the contrast they provide with the prose adds to the interest. This time, one of them is traditional: 'The Twa Corbies' (for which a translation of words from Scots is helpfully provided). Most of the others are short and enigmatic; 'A Dinner Party' by Marion Pitman; 'Road To My Soul' by Laura Willis; and 'Pain in Every Measure' by Jo Fletcher; the exception being 'Walt Whitman Did It For Me, And Continues To Do It' by Robert Holdstock, a homage to the famous poet.

So to the short stories:

The Gentleman Assassin by Richard Hudson: a playful tale of a fictional assassin, told from the perspective of his creator.

Star-Changer by Rebecca Lusher (winner of the 2007 BFS Short Story Competition): trainee shape-changers undergo their first ritual test.

Behind the Curtain by Joel Lane: a willing vampire victim in a sordid future.

Withered by Meaghan Hope: an intriguing premise – a woman wakes with no memory of who she is, but realises that she is not human – ends abruptly, as if the first few pages had been extracted from a novel.

Flies by Jim Steel: an ironic tale describing the life of a group of early hominims who are conscious of their evolutionary status and govern their lives using modern management concepts and jargon. It reminded me of a story I read long ago (author and title forgotten), in which hominim mothers were wont to yell at crawling children; "Get up on your legs and walk – you want to undo millions of years of evolution?"

The Bequest by David A Riley: a supernatural horror story of demonic possession in a mundane contemporary family.

Keep off the Grass by Sally Quilford (runner-up in the 2007 BFS Short Story Competition): yet another dystopian future, a Britain run by robots among which the few surviving humans scavenge.

A varied mix of tales. The one which caught my attention most was Withered; I find that kind of plot appealing, and if Meaghan Hope ever extends it into a novel I'll be joining the queue to buy it.