Friday 26 August 2011

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold is best known for her excellent Vorkosigan SF series (five of which I have already reviewed on this blog, with several more waiting to be read) but The Curse of Chalion is a classic medieval-with-magic fantasy.

The story is set on an unspecified planet with vague geography (no maps) which seems to be a kind of alternative Earth, judging by the plants and animals described. There are the usual small kingdoms in uneasy juxtaposition, fighting occasional wars in various combinations. Military technology consists of swords and crossbows. The religion has five gods with different roles (although one bunch of heretics only worships four), but while there is occasional evidence that the gods exist, they rarely get involved in human affairs. There isn't even any magic in the usual sense of practitioners casting spells, with one exception: Death Magic. Anyone can learn how to do this, with enough research and determination; it involves calling on one of the gods to send a demon to kill a hated enemy. The only catch is that the person working the magic invariably dies too.

The hero of the story, Cazaril, is a minor lord and former courtier and soldier who has fallen on hard times due to betrayal and subsequent slavery. Penniless, exhausted, and still half-crippled by injury, he makes his way to Valenda, a city in the land of Chalion in whose court he had worked as a young page some twenty years before, in search of some menial job and a place to live. There he meets Iselle, a royesse (princess) of Chalion, and finds himself reluctantly roped in to act as her secretary/tutor. He tries to impart some of his hard-won wisdom to the headstrong young royesse but when the action moves to the royal court in Cardegoss, Cazaril is tested to the limit in his determination to protect Iselle from the political and magical dangers surrounding her.

The setting sounds somewhat unoriginal as similar territory has been marched over countless times by other authors, but Bujold adds her own distinctive style. She is a natural and intelligent story-teller, injecting occasional flashes of wry humour (an element which tends to be sadly lacking in fantasy, in which authors often take their creations much too seriously). Her characterisation is as good as usual and the reader soon comes to care about her characters and what happens to them. There is something of the flavour of Guy Gavriel Kay in the writing, but Bujold is less dark and elegiac. After a slowish start the pace gradually accelerates and I read the last half of this substantial (500 page) tome in one sitting, late into the night: something which I rarely do.

The Curse of Chalion may appear somewhat formulaic but if you enjoy this kind of story this is about as good as it ever gets.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Films: Unbreakable (2000) , and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

A contrasting pair of superhero movies this week.

This was my first viewing of Unbreakable, which I knew nothing about except that it was a superhero movie. Indeed, this was my first complete viewing of any film by M. Night Shyamalan, so I wasn't sure what to expect. What I saw surprised me: it is indeed a superhero movie, but of a most unusual kind.

Bruce Willis plays David Dunn, a security guard, who survives uninjured a train wreck which kills everyone else on board. He is approached by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) who has a genetic brittle bone disorder, and whose passion for superhero comics leads him to believe that Dunn is his opposite - someone who cannot be injured. Dunn refuses to believe this but as he thinks back through his life he realises that he cannot recall ever being injured or even sick. Furthermore, Price forces him to confront the fact that he appears to have an instinct in his work for spotting people who are carrying weapons or otherwise likely to make trouble.

Dunn's life is complicated by his crumbling relationship with his wife (Robin Wright Penn) and the passionate belief of his young son, who is aware of Price's theory. Eventually, he puts the theory to the test, leading to a climax with a dramatic and unexpected twist.

The film is slow-paced, reflective, and notably lacking in the usual chases, explosions, violence (except for one brief scene) and CGI spectaculars. The director's focus is on how an ordinary man copes with the notion of being a superhero, making it a far more adult and thoughtful production than the other superhero movies I've reviewed. The acting throughout is good; even the seemingly obligatory family-problems-with-appealing-kid fit in well and are not objectionable. The ending seemed tailor-made for a sequel, but none has emerged. Recommended.


X-Men: The Last Stand is the third of the franchise. I reviewed its two predecessors here and here .

The new plot element this time is the discovery of a treatment for mutants which permanently suppresses their powers, and the conflicts this re-starts both within the mutant community (which seems to have multiplied dramatically) and between the mutants and humanity. Sadly, this one isn't up to the same standard as the others (I gather that the director changed) with the focus very much on the action rather than the more thoughtful aspects of the earlier films. The whole film basically leads up to the final climactic battle which seems to settle everything, but there was a teaser at the end to suggest that maybe, it might not…

Friday 12 August 2011

Nemesis by Bill Napier

Having read and enthusiastically reviewed Bill Napier's The Lure, I promptly ordered all of his earlier books, of which the first to be published was Nemesis.

The setting is the near future, and the basic plot element a familiar one: a giant asteroid is believed to be on a collision course with Earth. There is a twist here, though - there is intelligence that its course is not accidental but has been modified by a resurgent and strongly nationalist Russian leadership to strike the continental USA, "accidentally" destroying the country without incurring the immediate response of a nuclear counter-strike. The problem is that no-one in the USA knows which asteroid has been selected, where it is, or when it might strike.

Oliver Webb, a British astronomer and astrophysicist, is one of a small international team assembled by the US government to work in secrecy to identify and locate the asteroid and devise a plan for diverting it from its course. The secrecy is necessary because of a fear that if the Russians found out that their plan had been discovered, they might launch a nuclear first strike for fear that the USA would do the same. Strong voices on the US side, alarmed by the possibility that the asteroid could arrive with little or no warning, are indeed urging a first strike by the USA while it is still possible.

Against this tense background, Webb and the rest of the team are in a race against time, which involves locating a rare and ancient book by an early Italian astronomer which is believed to hold information vital to identifying the asteroid. Scenes of their struggle against increasing odds are interwoven with those of political infighting in the US government and also with some from the past, in which the Italian astronomer faces trial for his heretical beliefs about the nature of the Solar System. As in The Lure, the arguments debated in these scenes are well thought through and convincing.

Arthur C. Clarke is quoted on the cover as having described Nemesis as "The most exciting book I have ever read". I wouldn't go quite that far, but it is certainly a page-turner and I can understand Clarke's enthusiasm since Napier, a professional astronomer, share's Clarke's interest in including a lot of accurate and realistic astronomical science. He also shares Clarke's rather weak development of his characters. The book is a very good read and while the writing has some rough edges, it is a remarkable achievement for a first novel. Not surprisingly, it is not quite as good as The Lure, mainly because the plot elements (not the asteroid but the human shenanigans) are rather more far-fetched, but it can still be confidently recommended to anyone who enjoys this kind of near-future science thriller.
I had heard good things about Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World, published in 2009, so I bought a copy and settled down to enjoy the read. The story starts in a confusing future, when it is clear that something has gone drastically wrong with Earth; what is left of humanity survives in the Livable Zone. The first chapter concerns a team of people dealing with an unexpected emergency, but the reader is left dangling as to what this might be as the second chapter jumps back in time to the early childhood of two of the team members - the book's main protagonists - at a time when the world was much as it is now. Most of the rest of the book then works its way forwards to the events of the first chapter.

There’s some memorable writing but much of the book consists of digressive sub-plots rambling around all over the place. Some of them are amusing set-pieces but they turn the story into a patchwork quilt which only occasionally remembers that it's supposed to lead somewhere. I wanted to like this story and stuck with it for more than half the book, but finally admitted defeat and stopped reading when I realised that I was becoming more and more reluctant to pick it up and wasn't interested in discovering the ending.

I can see, in an objective sort of way, why the book attracted some enthusiastic reviews, but it simply failed to grip me. Which just demonstrates (if it needs demonstrating) that every book ever published has some readers who love it and some who don't.

Friday 5 August 2011

Films: Tron (1982) and Tron Legacy (2010)

I saw Tron once before, but so long ago that I had forgotten all but the basic premise of a man stuck in a computer game. So I decided that a second viewing was due before watching the long-delayed sequel.

It's hard to think back over the changes in the digital world since Tron was made. According to Wiki, 1982 was the year when "the Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP) was standardized and the concept of a world-wide network of fully interconnected TCP/IP networks called the Internet was introduced", although the impact of the internet on popular culture was still more than a decade away. This was the first film to be mostly based on computer-generated visuals, and it made quite an impact when it first appeared. It even predated Neuromancer, the innovative novel imagining what it might be like for a human mind in a computer network. So it has a secure place - indeed a cult status - in the history of SF films: but how does it stand up now?

The film focuses on four characters who are present in both the real and digital worlds: Jeff Bridges plays the computer games designer Kevin Flynn (and also his virtual equivalent, an independent programme called Clu), cheated out of his successful inventions by the head of software company ENCOM, (David Warner). The others are two ENCOM employees (Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan) who help Bridges to break into the company's mainframe to find evidence of Warner's guilt. However, the mainframe has literally developed a mind of its own, the MCP (Master Control Program) which is able to "capture" Bridges and trap him in a virtual game world. Most of the film consists of the three heroes battling their way through the game world to achieve their objective.

The plot is simplistic and the CGI is of course primitive, but I didn't mind that - it was appropriate for the purpose and impressive for the time. Ironically, what struck me more was that the initial part of the film, set in the real world, had a rather dated feel. Also, while the digital background music was fine, the inclusion of the more traditional orchestral elements jarred somewhat. Despite this, I enjoyed seeing it again - it is still entertaining and worth watching if you've never seen it.

Tron Legacy also features Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner, reprising their roles. Bridges again has two parts, as an enhanced CLU (who has not aged, thanks to some CGI trickery), and as Kevin Flynn, who has spent the last twenty years trapped in "The Grid", the name for the virtual game world he created. The focus now is on Flynn's adult son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) who follows a trail in search of his long-lost father and also finds himself trapped in the Grid. Cue for many reprises of the virtual chases and combat scenes, as father and son try to escape. To reveal more of the plot would spoil a few surprises, so I'll restrict myself to generalities.

The CGI is of course vastly superior to the original film although the same general appearance of the virtual world is maintained, with some added touches reminiscent of the Matrix series. The artificially youthful Bridges is a clever idea but not entirely convincing - if you didn't know what had been done, you would think he was wearing really thick make-up. Some questions from the original film remain unanswered: what exactly is the nature of the humans trapped in the Grid? What happened to their physical bodies when they were "scanned" into the Grid, and how were they reconstituted when they came back out again? If they are virtual, why did Sam Flynn "bleed" when injured and why should Kevin Flynn age? These little niggles kept bothering me as I watched the film.

Overall, Tron Legacy doesn't really take the ideas of Tron much further, and it is of course nothing like as fresh and ground-breaking. It isn't in the same league as The Matrix. However, it's undemanding entertainment and anyone who liked the original and is able to park their critical faculties and enjoy the ride will probably like the sequel.