Friday 27 April 2012

BSFA Awards 2011: shortlisted stories

An unexpected bonus of my membership of the British Science Fiction Association: a booklet containing all five of the short stories shortlisted for their awards (although it did arrive too late for me to vote). Two of them I had reviewed before, but it was interesting to read through them again and I have repeated my reviews here.

The Copenhagen Interpretation by Paul Cornell. An alternative Earth with a strange mixture of the futuristic and the traditional, and some unexplained technologies which the reader has to try to figure out from the context: e.g. "folds" which may refer to folds in space-time, and "embroidery" which is to do with communications. The tale is a spy-cum-romance thriller concerning a British agent and a courier whose messages are kept securely inside her head. Somewhat entertaining, somewhat baffling.

Afterbirth by Kameron Hurley. The life of a woman who is passionate about astronomy, but who lives in a female-dominated religious world in which scientific enquiry is not encouraged, all but the ruling caste are primarily seen as wombs, and boys are merely cannon fodder for the endless wars. Not the most cheerful of stories.

Covehithe by China Miéville. The wrecks of long-gone oil rigs have been slowly reassembling themselves on the sea bed and are now marching onto the land. A bizarre tale, but well-told as usual from this author.

Of Dawn by Al Robertson. This appeared in Interzone 235, which I reviewed in July 2011. A young female violinist goes in search of what motivated her dead brother's bizarre poetry, following clues to a village abandoned since World War 2 when it was incorporated into an army training area. Strange visions and music feature in a story strongly reminiscent of Robert Holdstock. I concluded: my favourite from this issue. Although I am mainly an SF fan, there is something haunting about this story (and Holdstock's work) which appeals to me.

The Silver Wind by Nina Allen. This appeared in Interzone 223, which I reviewed in April 2011. A future in which Britain has elected a right-wing government, resulting in the formation of a police state and the ejection of all non-whites from the country. This is the kind of depressing scenario which doesn't appeal to me and usually sets up a "brave defiance by principled hero" plot, but this author handles it in a more subtle and intriguing fashion. She focuses on a conformist property agent who doesn't question the status quo (it all happened long ago) but who becomes fascinated by the history of a clock made by a talented dwarf, Owen Andrews. He manages to locate and visit Andrews in a remote part of London, separated by a new and dangerously inhabited forest from the main city, and learns of experiments concerning time which are taking place in an old hospital nearby, and their sometimes horrific results. He is captured after becoming lost in the forest and is taken to the hospital, where he finds that there is an alternative to the existing paradigm. An engaging story. I concluded: Nina Allen's story is certainly the stand-out one in this issue, I enjoyed her fantastical take on an unpromising scenario.

A very varied mix of stories, all of them intriguing in different ways. My personal preference is for Nina Allen's tale, with Al Robertson's and then Paul Cornell's following on. I see from the BSFA website that Cornell's story got the award.

Friday 20 April 2012

Film: Watchmen (2009)

When I saw this film I knew nothing about the plot, having never read the mid-1980s comic book of which (as I learned later from the Wiki entry) the film is said to be a faithful adaptation. I'm not sure whether this was an advantage or disadvantage; at least I didn't spend my time checking its authenticity and was able to evaluate the film purely on its own merits.

The setting is an alternative 1985 in which the USA has had a history of masked vigilantes (superb fighters but otherwise normal humans) now all retired. There is also one genuine superhero with god-like powers as a result of a laboratory accident, who is now a glowing blue figure known as Dr Manhattan. His existence enabled the USA to win the Vietnam War and gave them a dominant position over the Soviet Union. However, he is becoming increasingly remote from normal human affairs and seems to have disappeared, causing Cold War tensions to become increasingly hot: nuclear war threatens. Meanwhile, someone is killing off the vigilantes and the survivors get together to try to discover what is going on.

Having experienced something of a surfeit of Hollywood superhero movies of late, I had certain expectations. I was expecting light entertainment: a fast-moving thriller with a straightforward good vs evil plot, lots of action and special effects, probably a dash of humour in the quieter scenes, and maybe a touch of thwarted romance. I was therefore rather surprised to discover that, although Watchmen has most of those elements (I can't say I noticed much humour), it also has a lot more. It is a generally slow-paced and indeed very long film, running for over 160 minutes. It is also rather confusing, hopping constantly between the present and the pasts of several of the heroes at different stages of their lives: I wasn't always sure who the younger versions of the characters were meant to be. Overall, it is a rather grim and downbeat film with a pessimistic twist in the ending.

I understand that many aficionadoes of the comic book rate this film very highly. My own view is rather more mixed. There are some good elements and some strong scenes, but overall I suspect that the desire to be faithful to the comic has resulted in a rather messy and confused structure with too much packed into it. It was involving enough for me to watch to the end, but I'm not likely to want to see it again.

Friday 13 April 2012

Revelation by Bill Napier

This is the third of Bill Napier's novels I have reviewed here (although the second he wrote), with two more still in the reading pile. I was deeply impressed by the first one I read, which was his fourth novel, Lure (keep up at the back!). The first novel, Nemesis, was also good although a bit rougher around the edges.

Revelation has what can now be recognised as typical Napier elements: the principal character is a scientist, researching a mystery which puts him in danger from an organisation determined to suppress the truth. This leads to chases across national boundaries and a fair amount of violent action. There is commonly an historical aspect to the mystery, involving scenes set in the past. There are set-piece debates - very well done - which allow the author to explore aspects of his plot in more detail. The core of the mystery is always to do with science, which is unsurprising as the author is also a scientist. And there is a trace of romantic tension, always kept well in the background.

In this novel, the historical background is the development of the atom bomb in the early 1940s and the fate of one of the scientists, Lev Petrosian, who appeared to have discovered something entirely new and very dangerous - but his work had been lost with him. In the present day, Dr Fred Findhorn, an Arctic specialist, is sent to recover some documents from an old plane wreck buried in an Arctic glacier. These documents provide a key to the mystery of Petrosian's work and become the focus of a deadly hunt as competing groups, with very different agendas, are out to get them. The action hops between the Arctic, the UK, the USA, Armenia and Japan as Findhorn (with some attractive female assistance) tries to discover the secret while staying alive.

I was less impressed by Revelation than the other books; it seemed rather rushed and there were various improbabilities, unexplained aspects and loose ends. As I have observed before, Napier is weak on characterisation and Findhorn never came alive for me. There are also an awful lot of characters and I was occasionally left trying to remember who somebody was. Having said that, the science is as intriguing as ever and the adventure exciting, so it is still worth the read, although the SF element is less strong than in the previous books I've reviewed (question: where does the techno-thriller end and SF begin?).

Friday 6 April 2012

Interzone 239, and Once Upon a Time (TV)

As well as the usual book and film reviews (featuring an interview with Chris Beckett as well as a review of his book Dark Eden) the SFF magazine has an R.I.P. section which this time notes the passing of John Christopher, author of the 1953 disaster novel The Death of Grass (among various other SF works), a title I recall from long ago.

A reversion to shorter stories this time, with six included:

Twember by Steve Rasnic Tem, illustrated by David Senecal. A near future in which strange cliff-like apparitions rise up, move across the landscape and disappear, leaving little physical trace of their passage but causing major disruptions to the lives of the inhabitants.

Lips and Teeth by Jon Wallace, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A long-term prisoner in a despotic state is recruited to use his unique power - but can he use it to help himself?

Tangerine, Nectarine, Clementine, Apocalypse by Suzanne Palmer, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A fruiterer in a society confined within a space station has the ability to see the future - and which fruit he gives out has a meaning. But there is one fruit which he never gives.

Bound in Place by Jacob A. Boyd, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. Ghosts can be made to do all of the housework, provided you have the manual of instructions.

Railriders by Matthew Cook, illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe. A downbeat tale of people on the fringes of society who steal rides on interstellar craft.

One-Way Ticket by Nigel Brown, illustrated by Mark Pexton. An alien world provides a chance of a strange kind of survival for the terminally ill.

I was very critical of the previous issue for publishing stories which were all relentlessly grim and downbeat. This time they are thankfully more varied. Railriders is the grimmest, and only superficially SF - it could have been written about hoboes of a century ago. My favourite is Twember - I like this surreal kind of tale.


Once Upon a Time is a US TV fantasy series which has just started being shown on UK TV (Channel 5 on Sundays, for anyone interested). As a result of an evil spell from a wicked queen, characters from fairy tales are transported to a hellish place where there are no happy endings: the present-day USA! They now look like normal people and have no memory of who they once were, but one very modern woman unknowingly seems to be destined to save them. An intriguing premise, and the first episode was promising. I not only watched all of it (more than I can say for any of the other US TV fantasy series I've tried to watch in recent years) but I'm even looking forward to the next episode. I'll keep you posted.