Saturday 27 February 2010

Screen time: Batman Begins and The Last Dragon

I've never been a fan of comic book superheroes but I'd heard good things of the Batman Begins film so I thought it was worth a spin. What I'd heard was right; the film attempts to establish a logical reason for the creation of the Batman identity and the source of his advanced technology (including the Batmobile). These efforts to make a basically daft idea credible move it (somwhat) towards the SF rather than the pure fantasy camp. Fortunately there is no mention of Robin and his somewhat questionable relationship with the hero.

Much time is spent on establishing Bruce Wayne's personality as he develops from a young boy to a troubled adult, leading to his training with a ninja-style organisation and his decision to use the output of the advanced projects department of the family firm to help him to wage war on the organised crime which is running Gotham City. Cue lots of dramatic flying around, fighting, and car chases. Still, it's a lot better than most such movies and I realised why when I saw in the credits that it was directed by Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Prestige). 'Nuff said.
The Last Dragon I want to talk about isn't the 1985 Hollywood martial arts movie but the 2004 feature-length production re-shown on UK TV at the beginning of this year (known in the USA as Dragon's World: A Fantasy Made Real or Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real). It purports to be a drama documentary and is set in the near future (the obvious sign of this being portable equipment able to replicate the most advanced scanning and analytical techniques available today, and to do so almost instantly). The main character is a scientist who has an obsession with dragons which has ruined his reputation: he believes that there must be a core of truth behind the world-wide stories of giant, fire-breathing flying creatures. So when the frozen corpse of a large unknown animal is discovered in an ice cave high in the Romanian mountains he goes to investigate.

The rest of the programme is split between the a dramatised version of the scientist's detailed investigation of the corpse and excerpts from a mock-documentary describing the evolution of dragons. I liked the problem-solving approach to the investigation, in which much trouble is taken to find logical reasons for the dragon's unique features. For instance, special gut bacteria produce a hydrogen-methane mix which is stored in large internal bladders. These make the dragon light enough to fly despite its relatively small wings, and also provide the fuel for the flame-throwing; this is ignited by using platinum (obtained by grinding up ore) as a catalyst, as the expelled gases reach the oxygen in the air. Obviously, the dragons are limited in the amount of fire-breathing they can do at any one time because it affects their ability to fly. This may all be nonsense, but it sounds good!

The documentary element is modelled on a typical wildlife programme with a sober, authoritative narrative about the life of dragons and is illustrated with lots of good CGI. It is reminscient of the popular TV programmes which have been produced on dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. We learn that dragons co-existed with dinosaurs and although the land-based ones died out when they did, a marine version survived and later re-emerged onto the land, evolving into various forms in different parts of the world. We see the non-flying Chinese forest dragon as well as the European mountain flying dragon. Towards the end, attention focuses on the fate of the dragon which has been discovered in Romania, which died in a battle with soldiers at the end of the 15th century - perhaps the last one to live. But there is a hint at the end of the programme that there are discoveries still to be made…

The programme is played with an entirely straight face throughout. It is very well done and hugely enjoyable if you are at all intrigued by the dragon myths. One to look out for.

Friday 19 February 2010

Jumper and Reflex by Steven Gould; books and film

I first read Jumper in the early 1990s, shortly after publication. I enjoyed it a lot, along with several other books by the same author in the same time period (I reviewed Wildside here on 25 July 2008). Gould's writing style is clear and accessible, appealing to young and old adults alike, and his concentration on the development of his young characters is impressive and convincing despite the fantastic nature of the situations he places them in.

When the film of Jumper came out, I noted that it was heavily criticised by fans of the book (so what's new?) but I only recently got around to watching it. Fortunately, I had forgotten all but the basic premise of the book, so I wasn't making direct comparisons. I thought the film of the boy who discovers he can teleport himself by an effort of will was a mildly entertaining piece of film-making but I was left dissatisfied, as if I'd had a meal consisting solely of side-orders. It all seemed rather pointless with an indeterminate ending and I was left thinking "well, OK, but so what?"

This did, however, prompt me to re-read the book along with its recent sequel, Reflex. Reading Jumper after the film was a revelation; I was gripped yet again by the story of David Rice, the young adult struggling to cope with his suddenly-acquired paranormal ability while simultaneously trying to create a life for himself and deal with relationships, good and bad. What struck me most was the amount of thought Gould put into the story, the way in which he got inside the heads of his characters and worked out what really would be the problems and how they might respond to them. This perceptive intelligence adds hugely to the appeal of the book as it draws in the reader; it is almost impossible not to think "what would I do in a similar position?" This also revealed to me the influence this must have had on my own novel, Scales, which follows a similar trajectory until mid-way, when I provide an inevitably rather wild explanation for what had happened which takes the plot in a different direction.

I was also struck by the considerable changes in the plot of the film, most especially that David's teleportation ability was not unique but was shared by many others; and furthermore that there was a secret organisation, the Paladins, which had for generations been dedicated to tracking down and killing the teleporters, whom they regarded as unnatural. This seriously detracts from the principal fascination of the book - the credibility of the story (apart, obviously, from the teleportation itself). It turns the tale into yet another popcorn conspiracy fantasy. To sum up, the book is a diamond, the film is paste.

Fortunately, Reflex is the sequel to the book and not the film, despite what the cover of my Tor paperback edition claims (those who go straight to this book after only seeing the film will be sorely puzzled - what happened to the Paladins and the other teleporters?). It is always difficult to write an initially unplanned sequel to a popular book which is not a disappointment, because the novelty of the basic premise has worn off. Gould succeeds with this one, though, writing a tight and gripping story which significantly develops his original idea. It is difficult to review without some spoilers, so if you like everything to be a surprise, stop reading NOW!

Reflex is set ten years after the events in Jumper. David and Millie are married, living in their desert cliff home and working elsewhere; David is rich due to working for the NSA on a freelance basis, using his unique ability for various clandestine operations. Then disaster strikes; David is kidnapped, leaving Millie stranded in their home. She discovers (the hard way) that she has also acquired the ability to teleport, and the story then follows two tracks; with David, as he struggles to overcome the restraints placed upon him, and with Millie, as she fights to discover what has happened to him.

As is only appropriate given the increased age of the protagonists, Reflex has a more adult and somewhat darker feel than Jumper. The long incarceration of David lasts for most of the story, during which he is systematically tortured and sexually tempted in order to break his will and condition him to obedience; for some, this may be a bit too realistically portrayed for comfort. However, the story is very well-written and exciting, and is highly recommended to anyone who enjoyed Jumper (the book, that is, not the film…). As a bonus, the book's ending dangles enough future possibilities for another book in the series. Bring it on!

Friday 12 February 2010

The Book of Kells by R.A. MacAvoy

The Book of Kells is a "portal story"; one which involves some sort of gate providing access to another world. If the other world turns out to be a different planet, then the portal mechanism is usually wrapped up in pseudo-scientific blarney and the stories are classified as science fiction. The same might also be true of portals opening into parallel universes, or those which enable travel through time. However, if the author doesn't bother with such explanations but instead presents the portal as magical, the story is regarded as fantasy.

This is the case with The Book of Kells, in which a way is opened from present-day Ireland to 1,000 years in the past by an artist tracing the complex pattern on an ancient monument while listening to appropriate music. The irony is that this story is otherwise far more grounded in fact than most science fiction. Were it not for one brief episode concerning the apparent appearance of a goddess (or possibly a saint, depending on your perspective) and a miraculous healing which followed, the story set in ancient Ireland could well be classified as historical fiction. Ms MacAvoy is clearly an enthusiastic student of Celtic history, as indicated by the list of dedications to academics and other experts, and it shows: tenth century Ireland is portrayed in all its earthy realism. The tensions, scheming and outright warfare between the Irish and the Norsemen (somewhat uneasily settled in Dublin) with their differing cultures, attitudes and practices, are richly evoked. In fact, the frank descriptions of nudity and sex may be considered too rich for children (by their parents, if not by the children…).

What of the plot? Having accidentally opened the portal, the artist and his sometime girlfriend pass through and spend nearly all of the rest of the story in ancient Ireland, trying to adapt and survive while being pursued by vengeful Vikings. That's about it, really, apart from the ending which, while not unexpected, has a satisfying twist to it. However, the enjoyment of this book isn't down to the plot so much as the richness of the portrayal of ancient Ireland plus the quality of the writing, which is unusually intelligent and perceptive. The characters are distinct, credible, well-developed and sympathetically portrayed, and a recurrent stream of humour bubbles through the tale. Although it has moments of grimness, it's the kind of story you finish with a smile on your face, wishing for more.

The Book of Kells was first published in 1985, and I read it shortly afterwards. I remember enjoying it a lot at the time, and I did again. I have another, equally good pair of books by the same author: the highly original Tea With Black Dragon and its sequel, Twisting the Rope, which are on my re-reading list. I notice from her Wiki entry that she has also written two trilogies, the Damiano and Lens of the World series, plus a few other stand-alone works, but I haven't read these. I must try to get hold of them sometime; this is an author of rare and engaging quality.

Friday 5 February 2010

Interzone 226

The usual engrossing mix of SFF news, book, film and TV reviews and short stories in the Jan-Feb 2010 issue of the British magazine, which this time has a cover by Warwick Fraser-Coombe. As usual, I'll focus on the stories:

Into the Depths of Illuminated Seas by Jason Sandford, illustrated by Ben Baldwin: a young woman in a coastal village finds the names of local sailors running across her body - the names burn when they are dying.

Hibakusha by Tyler Keevil, illustrated by Mark Pexton: a man makes a dangerous pilgrimage to where his lover died in the ruins of a London hit by a dirty atomic bomb.

In the Harsh Glow of its Incandescent Beauty by Mercurio D. Rivera, illustrated by Jim Burns: against a strange background in which humanity's access to space is aided by aliens who believe we are just wonderful, an abandoned husband chases across the solar system after his drugged wife and her abductor.

Human Error by Jay Lake, illustrated by Daniel Bristow-Bailey: mining the asteroids - and the consequences of finding something decidedly unnatural.

Again and Again and Again, by Rachel Swirsky: generational rebellion comes full circle.

Aquestria by Stephen Gaskell, illustrated by Jim Burns: a human-colonised world is decaying and dying; what does this have to do with a strange, tortured man?

A varied mix as usual, although none especially stood out for me this time.

This issue contained the Readers' Poll for the best stories and artworks published in Interzone in 2009 (issues 220-225). It wasn't too difficult to select the artist who produced the best cover, since all of them were by Adam Tredowski. This was a treat, since I really enjoy his style of art; bizarre conjunctions of alien landscapes and vast unidentifiable machinery painted with an almost photographic realism. Visual SF at its best. If really pushed, I think I'd choose the cover of issue 224 to hang on my wall.

The short stories are tougher, largely because they have such varied styles that they are difficult to compare. However, looking back at what I said about them in this blog, I'd pick out four as particularly intriguing me:

Will McIntosh: A Clown Escapes from Circus Town (#221)
"a bizarre tale of a world in which clowns and other circus characters are the sole occupants of a town. One escapes to find similar towns scattered around the countryside, each inhabited by a different occupation. What's the explanation, and why do the inhabitants keep disappearing? A story which is amusing but also rather sad; just like circus clowns."

Sean McMullen: Mother of Champions (#222)
"cheetahs are not at all what we think – they have evolved to perfection!"

Jason Sanford: Sublimation Angels (#224)- a novella.
"...set in a distant, star-travelling future when humanity is largely managed by its AIs. The Aurals, incorporeal but powerful beings of light and energy, have been discovered but have refused to communicate except to a small group of explorers sent to occupy a remote planet in which the atmosphere has been frozen into solid form. Over the generations, the explorers revert to a primitive existence, always short of air (which has to be sublimated from its frozen state) and of warmth. The story focuses on the lives of some of these explorers and their relationship with the Aurals.

I was strongly reminded of Fritz Leiber's short story A Pail of Air which Sanford acknowledges in his dedication. This is set on a frozen Earth which has become detached from the Sun and despatched into interstellar space. The survivors, living underground, are forced to don spacesuits and venture onto the surface to scoop up buckets of frozen air to take back inside. Sublimation Angels is a well-written and involving tale, although I suspect that Leiber's much simpler but visceral and gritty story of survival will stay with me for longer."

Shannon Page & Jay Lake: Bone Island (#225)
"a remote present-day island, where different kinds of magic still hold sway in parallel with our normal world, sees two fearsome women battling over possession of a young man with a gift - and a responsibility."