Thursday 24 February 2011

Film: From Time to Time (2010)

This is a combination of time travel and ghost story based on Lucy Boston's Green Knowe series of children's books which were published between 1954 and 1976. The film, featuring several well-known British actors including Dame Maggie Smith, went on limited British cinematic release last year and was recently shown on UK TV.

The setting is an ancient English country house at the end of World War 2. A young teenage boy, whose father has been reported missing in action, has been sent to stay with his grandmother from whom his family had been estranged. The house had been in the family for centuries and the boy explores it, fascinated by its history. He soon begins seeing visions of people from two centuries before, a few of whom (children, not adults) can also see him. He finds with increasing frequency that in going from one room to another he may suddenly be back in the 18th century, watching and listening to the people and events there. These scenes are interleaved with ones in his present day, as his grandmother (who has no problem with believing in ghosts) fills in the details of who the people were and what happened to them.

The boy becomes friends with a girl in the 18th century, a distant relative who was blind in real life but can see him. As a result he learns things which even his grandmother does not know, which are of practical benefit to the family.

This is a charming film, well-scripted and acted, and I enjoyed it throughout - but for the odd logical niggle. Now you may say that logic has no place in a ghost story, but I do like to see internal consistency. For example, the scenes set in the 18th century clearly involve the boy experiencing a kind of spiritual time travelling. He sees the house, people and events as they actually were at that time; they are not ghosts (in fact he is a kind of ghost from their future - except that he is still alive). Yet later in the story, while he is in the 20th century, he is visited by the spirit of the girl who tells him things that she could not have known while she was alive. So she really was a ghost at that point, and not time-travelling forwards to see him.

That I could just about swallow, but there was a more glaring inconsistency in the 18th century scenes, in which the boy was there in spirit only; while hardly anyone could see him (and in fact most walked straight through him) he was nonetheless able to pick up and carry material objects from that time - and leave behind physical objects he had brought with him, to be discovered a couple of centuries later. That really won't do!

Friday 18 February 2011

Sylvow by Douglas Thompson

Having been intrigued by Ultrameta, a previous novel by this author (reviewed on this blog on 2 October 2009) I was looking forward to seeing how his new work, Sylvow, compared.

There are some parallels between the two. Both are written in the form of discrete chapters - seventeen in this case - some of which have appeared as short stories in various publications. Two of them, Veronika and Vivienne's Garden, I had previously read in two anthologies from the British Fantasy Society; New Horizons (see my 6 November 2009 blog post) and Dark Horizons (22 January 2010). Both novels also feature a series of letters to a loved one written by one of the characters who has disappeared from normal existence, although in Sylvow the expanation for the disappearance is rather more mundane; the writer has chosen to live a wild existence in a forest.

The theme of Sylvow is the revolt of nature against the activities of mankind. Sylvow is an imaginary northern European city/state in the present day, formerly of great power but now in decline. The novel follows the lives of half a dozen of the inhabitants over several years: two women friends, Vivienne and Claudia, and their husbands; Claudio's Franco is a psychotherapist who unwillingly becomes involved with Veronika, a ferocious young Goth, while Vivienne's Leo (who is also Claudia's brother) had gone off to live in the forest surrounding the city several years before the story begins. His letters to Claudia have been the only contact from him since. The final main character is Anton, who after treatment by Franco had chosen to become a forester and who befriends the two women.

Strange things begin to happen in Sylvow. Giant insects emerge from the surrounding forest, plants begin to grow with great speed throughout the city, disrupting the services and blocking the roads, and soldiers are seen conducting peculiar experiments in the forest. The city gradually suffers organisational and social collapse, until it is finally threatened by flooding.

This description may sound like a fashionable environmentalist catastrophe tale, but it is very different from a conventional story. Like all of Thompson's writing, this has a surreal, dreamlike quality, like a fairytale of the original Grimm sort, dark and mysterious and sometimes horrific. There is a haunting quality to his prose, but that doesn’t mean that it is entirely detached from reality as there are some penetrating observations about life and relationships scattered through it; for instance, Franco's ruthless analysis of his own infidelity and the state of mind which led inexorably to disaster in his personal life.

This book won't appeal to everyone. In fact, if I had only read this description it wouldn't have appealed to me, since it isn't the kind of book I normally read. However, the quality of the writing and the strangeness of the story compelled me to read it all the way through.

Friday 11 February 2011

Film: Stranger Than Fiction (2006); Outcasts (BBC TV)

I record any film on TV which I think looks as if it might be interesting, but when I watch them I reject most within a quarter of an hour of the start. I recently saw Stranger Than Fiction after deleting several films in a row, but this one hit the spot so I stayed with it to the end.

This comic fantasy, set in Chicago, has an unusual premise: the hero of the tale, IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) who lives a life of obsessive monotony , starts to hear a female voice in his head describing everything he is doing - or is about to do. He fears he is going mad, but is galvanised into action when the voice prophesies his imminent death. A psychiatrist can't help him so he turns to a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) who is intrigued that the voice appears to belong to an author who is writing a novel featuring Howard, but he can't identify her. He advises Howard that there is nothing to be done and that he had better enjoy life while he can, so Howard starts to fulfil childhood dreams and also plucks up the courage to approach the feisty baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) he has been investigating for failure to pay her taxes.

Meanwhile, the author (Emma Thompson), who lives in the same city, is suffering from writer's block and can't work out how best to kill off Howard to conclude her new novel, Death and Taxes. Howard recognises her voice in a TV interview and manages to track her down, leading to some unexpected twists and turns before the end.

This film held my attention and amused me throughout. It is a life-affirming story, well-acted by a high-quality cast and told with intelligence and wry humour. Highly recommended.
Outcasts is a new BBC TV SF eight-part drama, of which I have so far seen the first two parts. The scenario is far enough into the future for humanity to have developed huge starships, one of which had managed to establish a settlement on the distant planet of Carpathia (named after the ship which rescued survivors of the Titanic disaster) some years before. The name is significant, as civilisation on Earth appears to be in its final throes, and the last starship is due to arrive.

All is not well on Carpathia, however, as the team of explorers who spend most of their time away from the settlement are planning a rebellion. The president (Liam Cunningham) aided by the head of security (Hermione Norris, who famously played a formidable MI5 agent in Spooks) try to hold the line while preparing for the arrival of the starship. All is not well with that either, as it has suffered some damage which threatens disaster if it tries to land on the planet, so it launches an escape pod to ensure that some survive. Just to complicate matters further, there is a band of renegade humans in the wild, rejected by the settlement years before.

The focus is on the human drama and the acting is reasonably good (Norris being the stand-out performer) although some of the dialogue still sounds rather stiff and awkward to me - a perennial screen-SF problem. However, the SF elements are weak so far, and even the big CGI effort of the starship is hopelessly unconvincing, simply because the plot requires this vast structure, with living space in two huge counter-rotating artifical gravity wheels, to try to land on the planet. Now you don't have to be an SF geek to realise that such a vessel cannot possibly enter a planet's atmosphere let alone make a landing, a fleet of shuttles being required for that task, but the programme makers don't seem to realise that.

Overall it's moderately promising so far and I'll keep watching; I'll return to it to make some final comments once I've seen the lot.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Interzone 232

A surreal picture by Richard Wagner is on the cover of the Jan-Feb issue of the British SFF magazine; I like this type of photo-realistic painting showing impossible things. The book reviews include Corvus by Paul Kearney, the sequel to The Ten Thousand, which I reviewed here in October 2008. The reviewer makes similar observations to mine about Kearney's writing, when I wrote: "The strength of the book is in its battle scenes, of which there are many. The author belongs to the gritty realism school of writing, and the fear, panic, confusion and brutality of battle are powerfully evoked, as are the campaigning problems of hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and body lice. The result is a gripping account which draws in the reader and had this reviewer shivering with the tension of the build-up to the final climactic battle."

There are also reviews of three books from the 1950s, made available again by Westholme Publishing in their "America Reads" series of classic works: The Flying Saucer by Bernard Newman, One by David Karp and Limbo by Bernard Wolfe. By and large, the reviewers feel these haven't worn too well, with One receiving the highest accolade - a rather tentative and qualified approval. Another of the new works reviewed which caught my eye, Buntline Special by Mike Resnick, is set in an alternative history in which the power of the native American medicine men has held the European invaders at the line of the Mississippi. Resnick's name is one I've been familiar with for a long time, but I can't recall ever reading anything by him. This one sounds entertaining, though.

The film and TV reviews include Tron Legacy (ho hum) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (a stage-setter for the finale), both of which I hope to see before long; I rather liked the original Tron, which for some reason has been withdrawn from circulation by Disney. A DVD set of The Avengers Series Six revived fond memories of the bizarrely fantastic plots, but this series didn't have Diana Rigg in it (except to say farewell in the first episode) so where's the a-Peel?

On a sadder note, the obituaries record the death of John Steakley at the age of only 59. He was the author of Armor (1984) and Vampires (1990), the latter being made into a film. I still have a copy of Armor on my shelf for a re-read some day, an intriguingly different take on militaristic SF.

Now to the short stories, of which there are five:

Noam Chomsky and the Time Box by Douglas Lain, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A portable "time box" has been invented which allows owners to travel back in time and interact with people there, although no substantial changes are possible no matter how hard they try. The box also has a reset button to allow the traveller to cancel his interventions and go back to the start to try again. The main character has the obsessive notion that he could make subtle but important changes by going back to the 1960s and forcing an interaction between the linguist Noam Chomsky and the fantasist Terence McKenna (he of the 2012 catastrophe theory), and his account of his many efforts to achieve this is written in the form of a series of blog entries. Really strange, but earns points for originality.

Intellectual Property by Michael R Fletcher, illustrated by Mark Pexton. A time when people can have - quite literally - plug-in memories in form of a flash-drive like device which is inserted into the head. When the device is removed, they lose all memory of what happened or what they learned while it was in - until it is reinserted. The protagonist is an innocent young woman normally, but unknown to herself becomes a deadly secret agent when her plug is inserted by her employers. An intriguing plot device, but it takes some time to work out what is going on.

By Plucking Her Petals by Sarah L Edwards, illustrated by Mark Pexton. A medieval fantasy in which magic can be used to make permanent changes in people's appearance. One low-level practitioner of such magic becomes embroiled in affairs which are way above his head.

Healthy, Wealthy and Wise by Sue Burke, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. A clash of cultures in the near future between a Spanish woman who needs expensive medical treatment, and an American student doing field work who she has to host her in return for receiving the treatment. The action is seen from the viewpoint of the student's "Friend", a highly capable AI in her phone who observes everything that is going on, monitors her physical and mental health, translates when required, and generally advises and takes care of her. An upbeat and engaging tale - who wouldn't want a Friend like that? I can't help thinking that it would rapidly encourage a strong psychological dependency, though.

Flock, Shoal, Herd by James Bloomer. This won the James White Award (open to non-professional writers). A distant future in which government agents can conceal themselves to carry out their work by adopting other human or animal bodies, or even multiple bodies. One such agent goes in search of a former lover who has learned to transcend the limitations of this system and become something else entirely. Like the Fletcher story above, the tale skips across events like a flat stone across water, so the reader has to concentrate to keep up; but it's short enough to read again straight away.