Friday 24 February 2012

Film: The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (TDVC) is probably one of the most famous and also the most notorious novels of the last decade. The former for its huge international sales success, the latter for the clunky writing style and the fact that the author pretended that some long-discredited theories about the basis of the Catholic religion were true. As I posted in my review of his 2009 book The Lost Symbol, "I read TDVC when it first came out, before all of the public furore, and while I didn't think much of the author's writing style I was intrigued by the plot. This was obviously a mixture of fact and fiction and had me guessing as to which was which. It seems it had the author guessing as well, since he took literally a fictional source, but that didn't hurt sales."

I watched, with rather mixed feelings, the film of TDVC shortly after its release. When it came up on TV recently I decided to give it another look. I won't comment on the religious and other controversies which accompanied both the book and the film, except to note that the principal character, symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), displays a rather more sceptical attitude to the main plot elements than he does in the book. I also won't describe the plot - it's very well known, and anyone who doesn't know it can easily find a summary on the internet. Instead, I'll just concentrate on it as a piece of film-making.

It starts off rather badly in the Louvre, with a man receiving an eventually fatal gunshot wound. He survives for long enough to write a series of coded messages in various places (using an ink only visible in the ultraviolet), then undresses and decorates his body with symbols before finally expiring. I couldn't help wondering why, if he had so much time, he didn't just call an ambulance. That rather set the scene for the rest of the film, a series of more or less improbable set-pieces flying past with such speed that there was scarcely time for more of a response than an occasional "But…" or "Hang on a minute…".

To be fair, the film makers had a problem in that the book is just the same. Furthermore, they couldn't really miss much out without making the story even more confusing. They set themselves the impossible task of covering a long and action-packed novel within the time limitations of a single feature film. Even with a bladder-testing running length of 2.5 hours, this was nowhere near enough - they should have split it into at least two films (or a TV mini-series) which would have given them enough room to improve on the book by developing the characters beyond two dimensions.

Despite all of this, it is a just about watchable if decidedly frantic film (provided you keep hitting your "yes, but…" alter ego on the head) and I found the penultimate scene, in which the heroine (Audrey Tautou) discovers her origin, surprisingly moving.

Friday 17 February 2012

Deryni Rising by Katherine Kurtz

Deryni Rising is the first novel in the long Deryni fantasy saga. The first trilogy (known as The Chronicles of the Deryni) was published between 1970 and 1973 and has since been followed by three other complete trilogies plus a fourth still underway, as well as a stand-alone novel, short stories, fan-fiction and reference works. In short, a complete and constantly expanding fantasy world. I read the first trilogy in the mid-1970s at least twice and loved it, so I thought it would be interesting to see how it stood up today after a gap of nearly forty years.

The setting is an alternate world generally corresponding with the Celtic culture of a thousand years ago, with one key addition: the existence of the Deryni, a race of people human in all respects except for some formidable magical abilities. A couple of centuries before, a long period of Deryni rule had ended in revolt and most of the Deryni had been killed in retaliation. The survivors had abandoned their magical practices or gone into hiding, condemned by the Church. At the start of the story there is just one acknowledged half-Deryni with magical powers, General Alaric Morgan the Duke of Corwyn, protected by his close friendship with King Brion of Gwynedd. The line of Gwynedd kings has a secret - although human, they maintain a tradition of passing on to their heirs the ability to acquire Deryni powers using a technique learned in the last days of Deryni rule.

I don't want to describe the plot as that would immediately involve spoilers, so I'll just say that Morgan, the principal character, faces constant suspicion, the opposition of some powerful individuals and the deadly emnity of a Deryni sorceress in his efforts to defend the monarchy.

So how did the novel stand up? Well, I picked it up one evening expecting to read for an hour or so and didn't put the book down until I'd finished it in the early hours of the morning. That very rarely happens to me, and indicates that it was just as exciting and entertaining as I remembered. The story is fast-moving and, although it has some darker moments, is generally light with a straightforward plot. It is eminently suitable for young adults as well as for older folk, particularly as it features a strong teenage character, Prince Kelson.

I expect I'll go on to read the other two novels in the first trilogy, as I still have those and recall them to be just as good as the first. I also read a few of the later books in the 1970s, but found them less satisfying so didn't keep them. The action slowed down and the focus shifted more towards religion and the description of its practices, which the author evidently found a lot more fascinating than I did. Still, the first trilogy has my strong recommendation.

Friday 10 February 2012

Gridlinked by Neal Asher

Gridlinked was the first published novel by this author, emerging in 2001. Since then, he has published eleven more set in the same, far-future Polity universe, four featuring the same principal character as Gridlinked, as well as novellas, short stories, and some unrelated novels; an impressive output. I hadn't read any of these but had heard good things about them, so I eventually got around to reading the first of the series.

The novel starts in the twenty-fifth century when humanity has spread to many worlds using FTL ships, but has since installed interstellar matter-transmitters known as runcibles for routine travel. This empire (known as the Polity) is managed not by people but by Artificial Intelligences which vastly exceed human capabilities. They are linked via the AI Grid, to which some humans also have direct mind links surgically implanted in their brains. The Polity's interests are defended by the ECS (Earth Central Security) which sends agents wherever trouble arises. Their top agent is Ian Cormac, who has been gridlinked for thirty years - ten years longer than the recommended maximum.

At the start of the story, Cormac reluctantly realises that his extended time linked to the Grid has gradually been dehumanising him, so decides to shut down his link despite the instant access to information and automatic control of linked equipment this provides (which makes the title rather odd: "No Longer Gridlinked" would be more accurate!). Even without this, Cormac is a formidable operator, highly intelligent and ruthlessly logical, with his strength and speed artificially boosted, and is aided by his programmable self-propelled shuriken, a high-tech version of the multi-bladed throwing weapon.

Cormac is recalled from his latest mission against a separatist group led by Arian Pelter (during which he had killed Pelter's sister) in order to investigate an unthinkable event - the violent explosion of a runcible, resulting in the devastation of a large area of a planet. In solving this crime, he deals with an enigmatic alien being known as the Dragon, while being constantly pursued by a vengeful Pelter.

The story has many familiar SF elements: modified human types (including outlinkers who are specialised for life in zero-gravity space stations); artificial humans (golems) who are much faster and stronger than any human; physically boosted soldiers (sparkind); anti-gravity machines, anti-matter bombs and proton beam weapons. This is all combined into a page-turning thriller which maintains a brisk pace despite being over 500 pages long. It is quite a traditional story, filled with the basic optimism of a galaxy-wide humanity, but is none the worse for that. Cormac himself doesn't come alive as much as some of the other characters, the mercenary John Stanton being both better-developed and more likeable, and even Mr Crane, a highly dangerous "broken" golem working for Pelter, displaying more of a personality. Despite that, Gridlinked was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I'll be seeking out the sequels. The Polity series has been compared with Iain M Banks's Culture series, but judging by this first one it is less quirky and offbeat, being more of a straight-line action adventure tale.

On a point of detail, I was pleased to see that the book defied the currently fashionable orthodoxy by having both a prologue and infodumps. The latter appear at the start of almost every chapter in the form of extracts, sometimes amusing, from future histories and references; an approach previously used by Asimov in the Foundation trilogy and Herbert in Dune. These aren't suited to every story but can be very useful in some cases so shouldn't be dismissed as old-fashioned by the "show don't tell" evangelists. I do get rather tired of having to read a large part of a story before I can find out what's actually going on - assuming I even get that far!

Friday 3 February 2012

Interzone 238

Only four stories this time (there used to be six in every issue, but they seem to be getting longer):

Fata Morgana by Ray Cluley, illustrated by Richard Wagner. In a drowned world in which people live in the top floors of city buildings in a rigidly stratified, horizontally layered society, a boy living a grim poverty-stricken existence dreams of travelling to the mythical city above the sea - built on sand.

Fearful Symmetry by Tyler Keevil, illustrated by Mark Pexton. In a grim future in which some nuclear catastrophe has presumably taken place, an environmentalist travels to Siberia to examine the evidence for a possibly mutant tiger which has been killing people. Should it be protected or shot?

God of the Gaps by Carole Johnstone, illustrated by David Gentry. A woman takes a young boy to a funfair, and finds herself in a UFO exhibition with a nasty twist. A horror story with a thin wrapping of SF. The ending can be seen coming from a long way off, which doesn't make it any more enjoyable…

The Complex by E. J. Swift. A long-term prisoner on a harsh colony world reaches the end of her sentence and views with increasing anxiety her imminent transfer back to a ruined Earth.

I have to say that I found this collection intensely depressing. This issue should have carried a health warning: "Special Dystopia Issue - readers may suffer acute misery from reading this magazine". There is a place for the occasional story like these - definitely not more than one per issue - but to have all of them set in downbeat, pessimistic futures is too much. Yes, we need some fiction to warn about the kind of future we might be drifting haphazardly towards and SF is better placed than any to do that, but people also read SF and fantasy to enjoy a period of escapism from this world and its troubles. Surely there are some lighter, optimistic and more entertaining stories worth publishing to provide some contrast?

Fortunately, the substantial book and film reviews sections are as interesting and informative as ever. I noted a couple of books to add to my list (I hadn't caught up with the fact that Richard Morgan is now writing fantasy) plus a couple of films - and also some to avoid!