Friday 25 May 2012

Broken Angels by Richard Morgan

Richard Morgan is one of a current wave of British hard SF authors ("hard" in this sense meaning set in distant space-travelling futures with lots of advanced technology), some others being Alastair Reynolds, John Meaney, Neal Asher and (although a lot quirkier) Iain M Banks. Having said that, Morgan has more recently branched out into fantasy. Until now, the only book I had read by Morgan was his first, Altered Carbon, which won the 2003 Philip K. Dick Award for Best Novel. The sequel, Broken Angels, was published a year later.

I read Altered Carbon when it first emerged and was sufficiently impressed to keep it for another read sometime. I have yet to get around to that, but fortunately Broken Angels is set thirty years afterwards and, although it features the same principal character, Takeshi Kovacs, the plot is not related so they do not have to be read in order.

The time is the 26th century when humanity has spread to many star systems, thanks in part to the discovery of the remains of an ancient galactic civilisation, known as the Martians since their remains were first found there. Physical travel between the stars is limited to sublight speed, but communications are much faster through subspace. A person's consciousness can be digitally stored and sent via subspace to be implanted in another body grown for the purpose, known as a "sleeve". Consciousness can also be stored in small data nodes called "stacks" implanted in a body, which can be used to "resleeve" people who have died.

This civilisation is loosely monitored by a United Nations Protectorate which enforces its will be means of "Envoys", highly trained operatives. Kovacs is an ex-Envoy who, at the start of Broken Angels, is working for a feared mercenary organisation called the Wedge. Rumours of a dramatic discovery, in the form of a complete Martian starship, cause him to join a race to find and secure this enormous prize, in which all of his Envoy skills are needed just to secure his survival.

This is a complex novel, told by Kovacs in the first person. It portrays a brutal and cynical world of corporate power overriding any humanitarian concerns. It involves frequently shifting relationships, betrayal, explicit sex and a lot of violence, so those of a sensitive disposition had better avoid it. I found it took me a while to get into it, but I read the second half of this long book in one late-night sitting. A memorable tale, but not for the faint-hearted.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Time travel films: The Time Traveler's Wife (2009), and Midnight in Paris (2011)

I thought I'd group these together, as they make for an interesting contrast.

The Time Traveler's Wife is yet another film based on a best-selling book which I haven't read. So my review will focus just on the film rather than its relationship to the book.

Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana) suffers from a peculiar genetic disorder which causes him to travel in time. This happens at random intervals and he has no control over when it happens, whether he goes forwards or backwards in time or where he arrives, but these events usually last for only a brief period before he returns to the present. One added complication; he can't carry anything with him, so whenever he time-travels he arrives naked. As can be imagined, this leads to all manner of awkward situations.

The plot is really a romance between Henry and Claire Abshire (Rachel McAdams) who keep meeting at various times of their lives from when she is a young girl onwards. There are complicated chronological crossovers here, as sometimes a younger Henry meets an older Claire or vice versa, but it is usually possible to keep up with what's happening, given a bit of concentration. Despite the difficulties, their relationship heads towards marriage but that is far from the end of their problems.

The film hangs on the performance of the two principal characters and they both carry it off well. The basic plot has lots of potential for humour but there is very little of this, the emphasis being on the drama of their personal lives, and there is a growing sense of impending doom as the story approaches its climax.

Overall, I thought it was a good film. It is well-made and well-acted, and the unlike some time-travel stories (see my review of Déjà Vu for an example) the events seem more or less to make sense, given the improbable premise. Worth a look, but if you are emotionally inclined keep a tissue box to hand towards the end.
I must admit that when I ordered the DVD of Midnight in Paris I didn't realise that it was a fantasy; I merely picked up that it was supposed to be Woody Allen's best film in years, which along with the location (one of my favourite cities) was enough for me to want to see it.

It is essentially a romantic comedy which uses a fantasy element to emphasise the dilemma of successful scriptwriter and aspiring novelist Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), who is visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams, again - not that I'm complaining!) and her parents. Pender is in love with Paris, and especially the era of the 1920s when it was alive with writers, artists and composers, but Inez has little sympathy with him. The rest of this review inevitably contains some mild spoilers so if you like everything to be a surprise, you'd better stop reading - but do watch the film!

Wandering alone through Paris at midnight, Pender is offered a lift by a group of people in an ancient car and taken to a party, where he gradually realises that he has shifted in time and is back in the 1920s. A few hours later, he finds himself back in the present day. He spends the next few nights returning to the 1920s each midnight, meeting many of his idols as well as Adriana (Marion Cotillard) which whom he gradually falls in love, while drifting further apart from Inez during the days.

It really would spoil the enjoyment of this film to reveal more of the plot, but suffice to say that it is neatly and amusingly scripted to make a point, is well acted, and has a rich, romantic texture which makes Paris the real star of the movie. I found it very enjoyable and can well imagine myself wanting to watch it again, which is a strong recommendation as it's something I rarely do.

Thursday 10 May 2012

The War Against the Rull by A E Van Vogt

I last read The War Against the Rull in the 1960s and liked it enough to hang on to my ancient copy, so I was pleased to renew my acquaintance with it when it was selected for this month's read by the Classic Science Fiction discussion group. Its origin is a series of five linked stories published between 1940 and 1950, which were tied together into one fix-up novel in 1959. I should add that according to another review there is at least one more story, from 1978, included in later editions of the book, but I haven't read that.

The setting is the far future, when a human galactic empire is engaged in a long-drawn-out war of survival against the empire of a formidable insectoid race called the Rull. The principal character in most of the tales is Trevor Jamieson, a high-powered trouble-shooter for the Galactic Convention and typical of the "competent man", capable of dealing effectively with any situation, who features as the hero in so much SF even to the present day.

Rather surprisingly, the Rull only make an occasional appearance and that mostly towards the end. The most significant is when Jamieson and a Rull leader are trapped together on a sheer-sided mountain top on an uninhabited world in a classic one-on-one climactic battle of wits; interestingly, the viewpoint alternates between the characters. Another is told from the viewpoint of Jamieson's young son, who has to deal with Rull agents on Earth.

Far more time is devoted to Jamieson's problems with the ezwal; terrifyingly large, fast and powerful telepathic beings who are regarded as non-sentient animals by most of humanity and are targeted for destruction since their planet is needed for a strategic base. Jamieson is the only person who is aware of their intelligence and telepathic ability but has a major task to convince them to co-operate with humanity in order to save themselves, and to persuade other people to believe him. The novel immediately plunges the reader into the middle of a critical situation involving an ezwal who crashes with Jamieson on another remote planet, this time in an equally classic "co-operate or die" situation. As with the Rull, in one story the author provides the ezwal's viewpoint.

In assessing this novel it is only right to remember its origins, and the period in which the original stories were written. It has a decidedly disjointed feel without any clear structure. The characterisation is minimal, as is usual for the period, and is as good (or bad) for the Rull and the ezwal as it is for the humans; in fact, providing their viewpoints adds depth and interest to the stories. There are some intriguing SF ideas, as one expects from this author. The one which caught my attention (and the only part of the story I remembered in advance of reading it again) was ability of the Rull to hypnotise humans to carry out certain actions by the use of carefully-designed patterns inscribed on a suitable surface.

Was it worth reading again? Yes, despite its flaws I enjoyed it, but nostalgia played a part in that. Unlike Bester's The Stars My Destination, another classic novel from the same era, it doesn't stand up well today. Don't expect the kind of approach a modern writer like Cherryh would give to a tale of alien races.


Friday 4 May 2012

TV: Once Upon a Time, and Game of Thrones

This is my second look at Once Upon a Time as I commented a month ago after seeing the first episode, but I've only just seen the first two episodes of Game of Thrones as I had to wait for the DVD (not having satellite TV).

The two programmes are similar in that they are examples of that rare beast, a TV fantasy series meant to appeal to adults. In fact, in the case of GoT only to adults; the language, nudity and sex gaining it an 18 rating. In contrast, OUaT is entirely family-friendly. One other incidental similarity is in the detail: both include evil queens who are far more beautiful than the heroines (those seen so far, at least) - a very subversive feature!

Having said that, the two series are very different. Judging by the first two episodes, GoT is less of a fantasy and more of an alternative history. There are no fantastical elements included and it is little more than a fictionalised but convincing depiction of life as it was in Europe about 1,000 years ago. Perhaps it develops in more interesting directions later; the camera keeps dwelling on some supposedly fossilised "dragons' eggs" in a rather suggestive manner. Anyhow, while viewers are awaiting such developments, we can enjoy a well-scripted, well-acted show with high production values. The only downside is that I find it all rather depressing; after all, life at that time tended to be nasty, dark and dirty, and this is faithfully reflected in the story, which also has a sense of doom about it. Not an alternative world I would choose to live in even as a member of the aristocracy, let alone a pleb.

OUaT is far more whimsical and lighthearted, despite the darker elements introduced by the evil queen and Rumpelstiltskin. It is also completely unrealistic in almost every respect - except that it is set in an ordinary-looking present-day American town, and the heroine is (as far as she knows) an ordinary American young woman. It is the clash between our expectations of the mundane setting as seen from the heroine's viewpoint, compared with what we discover is actually going on in that town, which provides the intrigue. There's a faint echo of The Truman Show here, except that in this case hardly anyone in the town is in on the secret. A picture of the events which led up to the present situation is built up by occasional flashbacks showing the town's inhabitants as they had been in their lost fairy-tale world of castles, royalty, dwarves and magical powers. The series is still holding my interest.