Friday 27 January 2012

Film: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, and TV: Eternal Law

The last of the eight films covering the seven Harry Potter books by J.K.Rowling, not so much a fantasy series as a global phenomenon. Just to recap, I only read the first of the books (I thought I would have loved it as a ten-year old, but it didn't do much for my ancient self) but have watched all of the films. I find I am rather more tolerant of films than of books, partly because visual spectacle can provide entertainment which may be lacking in print, and partly because films take far less time to watch than books do to read.

The first few films made for rather engaging light entertainment, but as time progressed and the children grew up, the mood (and the lighting effects) grew progressively darker. The first part of The Deathly Hallows was indeed rather deathly, so gloomy and dark in every sense that I found it barely watchable. Fortunately, the final film came to the rescue. While the mood is still grim until close to the end, there is more variety and interest in the plot than in the previous film, plus a satisfactory conclusion which wrapped up all of the loose ends and finished on a feel-good high. However, there were few stand-out moments; the one which sticks in my mind not being one of the more dramatic action scenes (all too common in modern films) but the surreal banking hall with the ranks of gnomes scribing away on either side.

At the end of it all, my main feeling was one of relief that it was all over. That is perhaps rather unkind, as history is almost certain to record that this series is one of the most outstanding achievements in fantasy film-making, along with The Lord of the Rings (I only hope that the forthcoming The Hobbit maintains that standard). Perhaps one day I'll feel like seeing all of the Harry Potter films again, only in relatively quick succession so that I literally don't keep losing the plot in the long gaps between releases. That isn't likely to happen for quite a long while, though.
Eternal Law is a six-part ITV series by Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham, the creators of the marvellous Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. It features Samuel West and Ukweli Roach as angels who have been sent down to Earth (to be specific, the city of York) in human form to help people - as lawyers! They are assisted by the always-impressive Orla Brady, whose character had given up her angelic status to live as a human, and opposed by a fallen angel in the form of another lawyer, played by Tobias Menzies. To complicate matters, the fallen angel's human assistant (Hattie Morahan) had been the love of the Samuel West character's life in (literally) his former incarnation, but she doesn't recognise him.

The result is a strange mixture of fantasy, comedy, and sometimes emotional courtroom drama. Although I've now seen four of them I still can't decide how well this all gels, but it's intriguing enough to keep me watching. Compared with LoM and AtA, it suffers from the lack of a charismatic lead equivalent to Philip Glenister's Gene Hunt. Best summed up as rather whimsical light entertainment.

Friday 20 January 2012

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) is acknowledged one of the "greats" of SF, a hugely productive multi-award-winning writer of novels and short stories as well as a science professor and non-fiction writer. His most productive fiction period was in the 1950s although new work was still being published into the 1990s. He is perhaps best known for the "Three Laws of Robotics" featured in his robot stories, but his most famous fictional work is probably the 1950s 'Foundation' trilogy: Foundation, Foundation & Empire, and Second Foundation (based on short stories from the early 1940s). I first read these in the 1960s but the last time I opened their pages was in the 1970s, so I was interested to see how these classic works stood up.

The time is the far future, with humanity spread over a vast galaxy-wide empire which had been ruled for thousands of years from the Imperial capitol at its heart, Trantor - a planet completely covered with buildings. But the huge spectacle of power presented by the Empire covers a gradual internal disintegration, with regional governors breaking free and creating their own kingdoms. Few people realise the inevitability of the decline, but among them is the famous psychohistorian, Hari Seldon. Psychohistory is the mathematical analysis of trends in society to predict the broad sweep of future social history. Seldon recognises that the disintegration is inevitable but aims to reduce the resulting "dark age" from a predicted 30,000 years to just 1,000 by setting up two Foundations, on planets at opposite ends of the galaxy, with the purpose of preserving human knowledge and skills.


In the first volume, Seldon manages to obtain imperial permission to set up his Foundations, and the remainder of the book follows the fortunes of the First Foundation on the remote planet Terminus. The ostensible purpose is the creation of a vast Encyclopedia Galactica of all knowledge, and steady progress is made until the break-up of the Empire creates a crisis for the Foundation. A recorded image of the long-dead Seldon then appears, accurately predicting the crisis, and Salvor Hardin, the mayor, takes control from the academics and solves the problem, beginning a line of powerful mayors. They apply practical politics to managing their local area of the galactic fringe, controlling other planets by providing the high technology they have lost, wrapped up in the guise of an invented religion. These are in turn replaced by the traders, who ultimately develop into merchant princes, notably Hober Mallow, who are no less devious in their commitment to controlling their markets.

So far the first Foundation has been successful in following the path foreseen by Seldon, and confirmed by the occasional appearances of his recorded messages at moments of crisis. The Foundation has survived, maintaining its scientific knowledge and technology (and in some cases surpassing the achievements of the Empire, especially with miniature atomic power), and establishing a commercial empire in their small part of the galaxy. But the story is a long way from being over…

Foundation & Empire

The episodic nature of the first book, skipping generations at a time to focus on particular periods of crisis, is continued in the second but slows down somewhat, with only two parts this time. The first concerns the last attempt by a fading Empire to use its still powerful fleet, under the command of energetic Bel Riose, to crush the Foundation. The second and much longer part marks an intriguing side-step from the Seldon plan, when a mysterious new individual, never seen in public and known only as the Mule, seizes power in one system after another with astonishing ease, threatening the Foundation itself. This had not been foreseen by Seldon, and prompts a desperate journey to the heart of the old Empire in order to seek help from the legendary Second Foundation. Interestingly for the period in which it is written, this part features a heroine, Bayta, who is much more competent and impressive than her husband.

Second Foundation

The final part of the story continues with the search for the mysterious Second Foundation, concerning which there is only the briefest of references in the records, with no indication as to its nature or location. This is also in two parts, the first following on from the previous volume in covering the attempt by the Mule to locate and destroy the Second Foundation, the second a couple of generations later when growing tensions between the First and Second Foundations threaten to destroy Seldon's plan. This final part also features a strong female character, the precocious teenager Arcadia Darell (Arkady), Bayta's granddaughter.

To sum up, I greatly admire Asimov, not just for his landmark contributions to SF but also for his work in popularising science. The Foundation trilogy is a bold conception, a coherent and well-structured story covering four centuries and postulating a different kind of human civilisation based on developing mind skills rather than technological power. However, I have to say that despite his status in the genre, I find his fiction lacks something which keeps it out of the very front rank. While I enjoyed re-reading the Foundation trilogy it isn't as gripping as the very best fiction. There is a certain lack of excitement, of that "sense of wonder" which makes the best classic SF so compelling; instead, there's a flavour of didactic lesson about it. The episodic nature of the story, spread out over centuries with each episode featuring its own characters, also makes reader engagement more difficult to sustain.

Having said that, it's still an impressive achievement, especially for the 1940s. There are some nice touches: each part begins with an extract from the future Encyclopedia Galactica providing a brief introduction to the period (a neat way of inserting a useful little "info dump" to plug the gaps, copied by Herbert in Dune). The story also gets better as it goes along, as the longer episodes provide more time to focus on the key characters. In particular, Arkady is a marvellous creation, an observant and amusing portrayal of teenage dreams and angst. She gives the lie to the assumption that the early SF writers couldn't develop characters and must surely have been based on a girl or girls Asimov knew well.

In conclusion, the trilogy not only should be on the "must read" list of every SF fan who has any interest in the history of the genre, it is still worth reading in its own right.

Friday 13 January 2012

Black Mirror (C4 TV series)

A series of three TV dramas on UK Channel 4 "that taps into collective unease about our modern world". Each takes a look at some aspects of modern society by imagining what the future might hold if current trends continue.

The National Anthem

The nation's favourite princess has been captured and is being held to ransom. The kidnapper's demand? That the Prime Minister should have sex with a pig - live on TV - that day; otherwise she dies. This is the premise for an hilarious but very dark comedy as the PM struggles to find a way out of the situation, with spin doctors, special forces, TV reporters and his wife all getting involved, and many twists and turns before the final sting in the tail. Painfully real - the PM's agonised dilemma is all too convincing.

15 Million Merits

Some time in the future, the lot of most citizens is to spend their days on exercise bikes, generating power for some unknown purpose. The harder they pedal, the more Merits they earn to spend on food, consumer goods and popular entertainment. The only way out is to earn the 15 million Merits needed to get a ticket onto a talent show, where their performances are judged by a panel plus the reaction of a virtual audience. One man hears a new neighbour singing, an innocent girl only just old enough to have started pedalling, and is so moved that he sponsors her for the talent show. But the outcome is entirely unexpected, and drives him into making a dramatic intervention - with an equally unexpected consequence. No humour in this one apart from the satirical portrayal of the judging panel, but it's a bitter, thought-provoking take on some trends in modern society.

The Entire History of You

The time is the near future, when almost everyone is implanted with a Grain in their heads: a small memory chip which permanently records everything a person sees or hears. It can be played back in their heads or sent to a TV screen, as often as they want. This is remarkably convenient but the drama reveals the social and psychological dangers of a memory which is not only perfect, but can be replayed to anyone else. The plot follows the gradual disintegration of one man who obsessively replays his memories to look for clues about the relationship between his wife and an old flame of hers they'd recently met, zooming in on details, using lipreading programmes to decipher distant conversations, and so on. Not for those who prefer their entertainment to be light-hearted.

These programmes make compelling viewing and, unlike other TV dramas, have stuck firmly in my mind. The first is more of a political satire but the others are adult SF, and all of them were written to make people think rather than be passively entertained. They make the usual TV SFF hokum look ridiculously juvenile. If you missed them, try to see them. They are not always easy to watch but are exemplars of what modern adult SF programmes should really be like.

Saturday 7 January 2012

Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore

I have previously reviewed two other alternative history novels concerning the American Civil War - Harrison's A Rebel in Time and Turtledove's The Guns of the South (see my review list in the left column) - so it was natural for me to pick up a copy of Moore's Bring the Jubilee which, since its first publication in 1953, has become regarded as a classic.

Moore's approach is very different from the later works mentioned above. The principal character, Hodgkins McCormick Backmaker (Hodge), is a young man born in 1921 into a very different America. The Confederate side had won the American Civil War (known as the War of Southron Independence) and had since flourished, absorbing Mexico and other central and south American states and becoming one of the world's great powers, along with the German Empire (following their victorious 1914-1916 European war) and the British Empire. The northern rump of the United States of America is a backward, weak and impoverished country of no account in world affairs, but this is where Hodge was born and brought up. The plot of the novel almost entirely focuses on Hodge's experiences over a period of several years, painting a usually bleak picture of life in this alternative pre-industrial USA. In approach it therefore has a lot in common with P K Dick's The Man in the High Castle (also reviewed here), which similarly focuses on the aftermath of a different outcome of a war - in that case, World War 2. Moore does not deal directly with the Civil War until the very last part of the book.

Hodge is an unlikely hero, too big and clumsy to be of much practical use and only really interested in reading. He is an observer of life and only occasionally a reluctant participant, and his dream is an academic career as an historian, but that is highly unlikely in the restricted opportunities available to him. He leaves the farm where his parents barely scrape a subsistence-level existence and walks the dirt tracks to New York, where he finds employment in a bookshop. However, the city is full of tensions with the radical Grand Army, a banned nationalist organisation, competing with Southern agents, and Hodge becomes unwittingly involved.

This is not an easy read and I gave up at one point, before returning to it a couple of weeks later. The gloomy situation and Hodge's knack of falling into trouble become somewhat depressing, and only my interest in seeing how it turned out led me to return to it. Fortunately, the mood changes to one of (relative) optimism half-way through as Hodge's circumstances change for the better.

Critics of SFF usually point to a lack of characterisation but have nothing to complain about here. Not only is Hodge a well-drawn individual but so are several other characters: Tyss, the bookshop owner who offers a haven to Hodge; Enfandin, the Consul for the Republic of Haiti, a fellow-spirit who becomes his friend; and the three women in his life, Tirzah, his first love, the intensely conflicted Barbara and the captivating Catalina. In fact, from the SFF viewpoint Moore devotes too much time to developing his characters and not enough on exploring and explaining the very different world he outlines.

I can't say more about the story without spoiling some surprises, so I will merely say that the book deserves its classic status, even if it isn't the most cheerful or exciting of stories.

SPOILER WARNING - read no further if you want to read the book for yourself!

Hodge applies to universities, more in desperate hope than expectation since he has no formal qualifications, but to his surprise he is invited to Haggershaven, a combination of commune and academic refuge, where researchers are free to pursue their interests as long as they contribute labour to the running of the farm and various associated industries. For Hodge, it seems like Paradise. He now has the leisure to focus his interests on the War of Southron Independence and becomes a noted scholar, publishing well-received papers. However, he remains most intrigued by one crucial episode in the Battle of Gettysburg when a small number of Confederate soldiers were able to hold onto an important position, turning the tide of the battle and starting a cascade of Confederate victories which won them the war.

Meanwhile, another member of the Haggershaven community, a brilliant physicist, is working on a time machine. Tests prove that it can send and retrieve people for up to 100 years into the past, and Hodge cannot resist the temptation to visit that crucial position at the Battle of Gettysburg and see for himself what actually happened. I leave the rest to your imagination (or to the Wiki plot summary if you're really desperate to know). I will only say that the ending is unusual in that it represents both a triumph and a tragedy, depending on the perspective.