Friday 30 March 2012

Film: Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

Compared with last week's post, this is going from one cultural extreme to the other. Yes, I know, the title should have warned me off, but I couldn't resist watching it!

Daniel Craig (the current James Bond, for the benefit of any readers from other planets) plays a gunman in the Wild West who wakes up with no memory but with a hi-tech bracelet firmly clipped around his wrist. At the same time, people are being attacked and captured by small flying machines. One of these crashes, and the tracks leaving it indicate that something decidedly non-human was on board.

A motley posse sets off on the hunt for the alien, and then in search of the source of these flying machines with the hope of rescuing the captured people. Apart from Craig, this includes Harrison Ford as a rich farmer, Olivia Wilde as eye candy (though she does turn out to have a role to play) and various assorted lawmen, cowboys, criminals and even Indians.

This is a lightweight and forgettable film but makes for a couple of hours of trivial entertainment, preferably watched in well-oiled social company in the mood for a laugh.

I do have one gripe (at the risk of a mild spoiler): why are "bad" aliens in such films always shown to be hideously ugly monsters with such deliberately evil intent? Do the film makers not realise that evil wearing an innocent face is far more chilling? Or that the activities of aliens on this planet might incidentally have a disastrous effect on humanity even without any evil intent? Or is such subtlety beyond their comprehension (or at least, more subversive than they think their target viewing public will accept)? Oh well, I suppose I'm expecting too much of a lowest-common-denominator popcorn movie based on (and closely resembling) a comic strip. To be fair, though, the good guys do not all get to live happily ever after.

Friday 23 March 2012

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

Yet another selection for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group. Something of an achievement for me; I don't think I've managed to read both the classic and modern novels in one month before.

I first read The Dispossessed when it emerged in 1974 but haven't done so since. I had conveniently forgotten everything about the plot so could read the story with fresh eyes.

The setting is the far future, with humanity existing on several worlds but apparently having developed separately since before the beginning of recorded history, the original race who had seeded the other planets being the Hainish. These had more recently provided the technology for interstellar flight to less developed civilisations such as the Terrans (who had by then completely wrecked the environment of the Earth). This background was used for other Le Guin novels from this period: Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, and The Left Hand of Darkness.

The Dispossessed is set on Anarres and Urras, a pair of worlds which orbit each other as well as the star Tau Ceti. The Cetian civilisation had developed on Urras, Anarres being smaller and almost barren. However, a revolution nearly two centuries before had seen the revolutionaries, followers of an anarchist named Odo, voluntarily transferred to Anarres to continue the development of their ideal society there. Urras continued as a patchwork of nations and philosophies not very different from present-day Earth. Contact between the two worlds then ceased but for some essential trade.

The story begins with the controversial journey of a ground-breaking physicist, Shevek, from his home in Anarres to visit Urras. The chapters then alternate between his experiences on Urras and his earlier life on Anarres which led up to his unprecedented decision to leave his home world. Anarres is a harsh, dry world permitting little but a survival level of existence, well suited to the frugal, egalitarian society implanted there, and Le Guin paints a convincing picture of the how the society functions, with all its flaws and benefits. On the lush world of Urras, Shevek finds himself not only the centre of attention but also the focus of tension, as competing interest groups are stirred into conflict by his arrival.

The Dispossessed isn't really a traditional SF novel; the setting and plot are merely vehicles to enable the author to explore some fundamental issues about society and humanity in a much more clear-cut way than would otherwise be possible.

This novel is not a dramatic page-turner and isn't the kind of story which would normally appeal to me, but it is so well-written and contains such intelligent observations that it held my attention throughout. It deservedly won both the Hugo and Nebula awards as well as being well-received outside the SFF community. Highly recommended.

Saturday 17 March 2012

Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds' first novel, Revelation Space, was published in 2000, since when there have been nine others plus various shorter fiction, much of it published in collections. They might be regarded as traditional, optimistic, hard SF; all (as far as I can judge) set in far futures in which humanity has not only survived but has expanded into space. They are heavily science-based, reflecting the author's background as a physicist and astronomer.

I read his first three novels, all in the Revelation Space series, when they first came out and was sufficiently impressed to keep them for a re-read sometime. I found them intriguing and plausible but also long, dense and rather heavy going - not exactly page-turners. Perhaps that's why he dropped off my reading radar until recently, when his 2005 novel Pushing Ice was selected as one of the monthly reads of the Classic Science Fiction discussion group (which picks one classic and one modern SF novel per month, as well as a weekly short story).

Pushing Ice is a stand-alone novel unrelated to his other books. After a prologue set eighteen thousand years into the future, the story proper starts in 2057, (the near future by Reynolds' standards) on board Rockhopper, a commercial space vessel under the command of Bella Lind, which is mining comets in the Solar System. Suddenly Janus, one of Saturn's ice moons, leaves its orbit and begins to accelerate towards a distant star. It soon becomes apparent, as much of Janus' ice cover falls away, that it is really a gigantic spaceship. Rockhopper is the only ship near enough to intercept, so is despatched in pursuit. So far, the plot is strongly reminiscent of Clarke's classic Rendezvous with Rama but, unlike that novel, the landing on and exploration of the alien craft is only the start of a much longer saga. I can't give more plot details without posting important spoilers but suffice to say that the story stretches into the far future and is ambitious in scope, involving alien races and the future of humanity.

As usual with this author, the story is very long (over 500 pages of a rather small font) and densely packed. Other differences from Rama are that there is a strong emphasis on developing the major characters on board Rockhopper as they start their great adventure, as well as on the dilemmas and disagreements they face, and in particular a friendship which turns into bitter emnity between two of the principal characters. The result of this is that the pace of events is slow for much of the book, and at times my interest in discovering what was going to happen next was only just enough to keep me picking up the book to read some more. It wasn't helped by the occasional insertion of gaps of years or even decades in the narrative. Fortunately, the pace then begins to accelerate and I found that I read the last quarter of the book in one session stretching into the night, unable to put it down.

To sum up: an impressive achievement, definitely worth reading, but initially a degree of patience is required. I would have preferred to see a brisker pace from the start.

Friday 9 March 2012

Film: Troll Hunter (2010)

This is something different: a Norwegian "found footage" film with a combination of fantasy, horror and comedy elements.

It purports to be the result of a student film project anonymously handed in to the film company which is releasing it. Each scene was therefore filmed from only one viewpoint, the pictures are sometimes jerky and the scenes cut abruptly from one to the next, with no background music. It reminded me of the brief period during which I tried to film my holidays on a camcorder!

Three students set out to make a film about bear hunting, and learn about the presence of a suspected poacher. They follow him, only to discover that he is after much bigger and more dangerous game than bears. It is giving away no secrets (given the title and the inclusion of a gigantic beast in the posters promoting the film) to reveal that he is after trolls….The students follow the troll hunter in a sometimes hair-raising, sometimes comic series of adventures before the dramatic climax.

Troll Hunter is an entertaining film, convincingly acted by the young students but dominated by Otto Jespersen, who delivers a great performance as the laconic, cynical, expressionless hunter, wearily going through what for him is his routine and tiresome official job of hunting down the most dangerous beasts on the planet - beasts whose existence the government is very anxious to keep secret.

There's a moment of unexpected humour right at the end, when Jens Stoltenburg, who really is the Prime Minister of Norway, is seen in an interview saying "Norway has trolls". The interview was genuine, but the audio slightly edited…he was actually referring to the Troll oil field just off the coast of Norway!

Incidentally, I don't know what language the UK cinema release version was in, but as I watched it on DVD I had a choice and elected to watch it in Norwegian (with subtitles, of course!). I hate films with dubbed-in speech; I find listening to the original language much more authentic and interesting even though I don't understand it, and relying on the subtitles doesn't bother me.

Friday 2 March 2012

The City and the City by China Miéville

China Miéville has been establishing a reputation as a high-quality writer with a very varied SFF output. I have so far picked up three of his books. Un Lun Dun is an intriguing, Alice in Wonderland kind of fantasy which I reviewed here a couple of years ago. It is an entertaining tale which I enjoyed despite it being aimed at younger readers. Next up was Perdito Street Station, a darker, adult story also set in a fantastical city. However, after reading 70 pages or so (with another 800 still to go), it had failed to grip me: I didn't care about the characters and decided that I had other books I'd rather be reading, so I stopped. As a result, I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I picked up The City and the City.

What I found was something very different from the previous two: a story set in the present day in an imaginary Middle Eastern country, consisting mainly of one large city. It is a murder mystery, featuring and told by Inspector Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad of the city of Besźel. So far, so mundane - but this is no ordinary city. I can't say more without a few spoilers, so if you like everything to be a surprise you had better stop reading now. I will just conclude this paragraph by saying that this book has my strong recommendation.


What is peculiar about the city, as the reader soon begins to realise, is that for reasons lost in history it is two organisationally, culturally and linguistically very different cities occupying the same physical fabric. They even have different names: Besźel and Ul Qoma. This doesn't mean the city is carved into sectors like Berlin during the Cold War; while some parts are purely Besźel and others Ul Qoma, these sections are scattered at random throughout the city and the remainder is mixed, with Besźel and Ul Qoma buildings intermingled. Stranger still, the inhabitants of each city are conditioned from childhood only to see the buildings and people of their own city. They can recognise the differences easily enough; the buildings are of different architectural styles and the people dress differently and have different gestures and body language, as well as speaking different languages. It is absolutely forbidden to interact with, acknowledge or even look directly at people or buildings in the "other" city (a crime known as "breach") and the inhabitants learn to "unsee" the other city, ignoring anyone or anything which is not theirs. This draconian rule is enforced by a shadowy and much feared organisation simply called "Breach"; enforcement officers who dress and behave in such a way that they are "unseen" by the inhabitants of both cities, until they suddenly emerge to arrest anyone guilty of breach. The two cities interact in only one place, Copula Hall, which is also the "virtual border" between them. Inhabitants of either city can obtain permission to visit the other, but they have to be trained first to "see" the city they are visiting; which means that for the duration of the visit, they "unsee" their own city.

This bizarre situation can make the life of a police officer like Borlú very complicated, so when a visiting American student, working on an archaeological dig in Ul Qoma, turns up dead in Besźel, he knows he's in for trouble. Working with his Ul Qoman opposite number he tries to get to the bottom of a complex and murky case, complicated by the apparent involvement of Orciny, a legendary third city "unseen" by the other two, and with the threat of Breach constantly hanging over him.

This novel is really unclassifiable and it may well not appeal to all SFF fans, but the extraordinary conception of the two cities gripped my imagination and I found the story fascinating on two levels: if this author ever tires of writing SFF, he could make a good living in crime fiction. For once, I was sorry when the book ended (it is quite short by Miéville's standards, at only 370 pages). It is rare to find something so completely different and it will undoubtedly prove to be one of the highlights of my reading year.