Friday 28 September 2012

ARIA: Left Luggage, by Geoff Nelder

A technician at a US air-base is excited to be one of the first to handle an alien artifact – but he soon finds that his memory is beginning to fail him. And not just him, but everyone he comes into contact with – and then everyone they come into contact with. That’s the starting point for Geoff Nelder’s new SF novel ARIA: Left Luggage.

This is a global disaster story with a unique twist – a highly infectious amnesia virus which gradually destroys people’s memories, starting with the most recent and working backwards. People first forget what they were doing the week before, then as their memories are wound back to their earlier selves, wiping out about a year’s worth every week, they forget how to do their jobs, where they live and who they are married to. To make matters worse, they are unable to form new memories and start each day unaware of what has happened to them. Inevitably, society rapidly collapses except for a few who manage to avoid infection and do their best to survive while they try to work out what is happening and what to do about it: scientists at isolated bases and astronauts orbiting the Earth. Meanwhile, some who have the virus are struggling to find ways to continue with their lives.

Inevitably, the story is reminiscent of The Day of the Triffids which I reviewed on this blog not long ago. If Geoff Nelder’s writing style is plainer, with less of a literary gloss than Wyndham’s, the plot is more complex and there is a series of unexpected twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention gripped. It is an exciting page-turner of a story, tautly written at less than 300 pages, and I read it from start to finish in one sitting. The price of this is a degree of unevenness in the characterisation; some of the cast are strongly drawn but others could have done with more development. Left Luggage is the first book of the ARIA series and concludes with yet another major surprise to set up the next volume, Returning Left Luggage, which I am already looking forward to reading.


In contrast, I have been struggling to read Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and finally gave up after getting more than a third of the way through. It is set in an alternative world in which the Jews were thrown out of Palestine in 1948 and were granted a self-governing lease on some islands off the coast of Alaska; a lease which at the time of the story was due to expire, leaving the inhabitants to become ordinary citizens of the USA. The principal character is a police detective trying to solve the mysterious death of a chess genius. I found the writing to be of high quality but, although developed in great depth, the setting and the plot were only moderately interesting and the pace very slow. In the end it simply failed to hold my attention or persuade me to continue reading it, a fate which befalls an increasing number of the books I start, due to the large pile of unread books awaiting my attention.

Friday 21 September 2012

Films: Total Recall (1990 and 2012)

I had first seen the original Total Recall so long ago that I had forgotten most of the plot, but in view of the fact that a remake has only just been released I thought it would be useful to refresh my memory of the original. Both films are described as being loosely based on Philip K. Dick's short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, but since I read that one (if indeed I did) so long ago that I have completely forgotten it, that hasn't affected my view of the film.

First, a brief and general plot summary of the 1990 version, avoiding major spoilers. The year is 2084 when Mars has been colonised and travel throughout the solar system is commonplace. On Earth, Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a bored construction worker forever dreaming of life on Mars. He decides to visit Rekall, a company selling "virtual holidays" through memory implants, and elects to play the part of a secret agent on a trip to Mars. However, in the process he discovers that something is badly wrong with his memories and he gradually comes to realise that his current identity is false and has been implanted in his mind. He comes under attack but receives aid from his earlier self, in the form of a recorded message explaining what is happening and encouraging him to go to Mars. Once on Mars he becomes involved in the battle between planetary governor Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) and a resistance group opposing his dictatorial rule, with many twists and turns in the plot before the finale.

This is a fast-paced and exciting film, with the plot twists coming so thick and fast that it becomes difficult to keep up and to be sure what is reality and what are implanted memories. I did have the suspicion that there may be some logical flaws in the plot, but there are so many layers of deceit that I frankly became rather lost in trying to work out who was supposed to know what at which point. On the downside it is filled with cartoonish, slapstick violence of the "hero fires a brief unaimed burst from his machine pistol and a whole row of bad guys falls over" variety: keeping track of the body count would be quite an exercise. The special effects team also had some fun with gross-out elements including the bulging faces of those dying in the near-vacuum of Mars and a head appearing from somebody's chest. On a point of detail, I note that it was apparently considered OK to have a mutant woman exposing her three breasts, even though they looked completely real, and even have a man fondling them - but to show real breasts, oh no! The contortions of our bizarre approach to morality never fail to amaze and amuse. No doubt any alien observers of human mores could produce endless doctoral theses on our weird and hypocritical attitudes to such issues.

To sum up, it's not a bad film but it could have been much better with a more adult approach and the omission of much of the juvenile violence. The plot is certainly clever enough to justify more serious treatment, and I would have liked to see it made by the team who produced the excellent Gattaca.


Since I happened to be staying in a city recently I took the opportunity to see the 2012 version of Total Recall in a cinema rather than waiting for the DVD to be available. This enabled me to enjoy to the full one of the strengths of this film; the dramatic, multi-level, futuristic CGI city-scapes, which are among the best I can recall seeing. Sadly, Mars has disappeared from the plot, being replaced by a rather bizarre Earth which has almost entirely been rendered uninhabitable by chemical or biological warfare, with only (for some unexplained reason) parts of the UK and Australia still supporting human life. The relationship between them is reflected in their names: the United Federation of Britain, and the Colony (bet that goes down well in Australia!).

Strangest of all, the two settlements, on opposite sides of the planet, are joined by “the Fall”, a gravity-powered transport system consisting of shaft bored straight through the centre of the Earth, down which a huge container, able to hold large numbers of people plus freight, drops before re-emerging on the other side of the globe – a system so fast and routine that workers commute daily from Australia to the UK. I have to say that this caused me some credibility problems. For a start there are the vast technical difficulties concerning boring and maintaining such a hole through the colossal heat and pressure existing at the Earth’s core. This is not just impossible now, we could not even see any way in which such a project might be tackled at any time in the future – it makes the task of achieving sub-light-speed interstellar travel look very simple (yet there is no mention in the film of any kind of space travel). Then there is the question of how the container could possibly reach the speeds required to make daily commuting feasible, unless the air in the tube was evacuated ahead of it – but in that case, people wouldn’t be able to survive on the outside of the container, as they do in the film. Oh well, lets move on to the story.

Once more we have Douglas Quaid (this time played by Colin Farrell) in much the same situation as in the original, with the plot following generally similar lines. There are even some direct references to the original film (yep, including the triple-breasted prostitute). Kate Beckinsale makes a suitably mean and nasty opponent, Jessica Biel an appealing good girl. Overall, the acting as well as the special effects is much better. But, but…some of the freshness and appeal of the original have been lost along the way. The overall feel of the new version is darker, more adult, less like a comic strip. Despite this, the plot seems more straightforward than the 1990 version, without so many layers of deception. It comes across as one relentless chase, with lots of the fights, crashes and explosions which contemporary fashion requires, and after a while becomes rather repetitive and tiring.

I strongly suspect that the original version is going to retain its place in viewers’ affections for much longer than the new pretender.

Friday 14 September 2012

Film: John Carter (2012)

Well, I finally got around to seeing Disney's notorious "flop", based on the first of the century-old Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Just in case there is anyone who is unaware of the basic plot, it concerns an American soldier who had fought in the Civil War of 1861-65 who finds himself suddenly transported to Mars - but a Mars unlike the one that we now know. It has a breathable atmosphere and populations of both humans (or humanoids - they have some non-human characteristics in Burroughs' stories) and Tharks; giant green six-limbed beings, intelligent but primitive. Their name for their planet is Barsoom. To be fair to Burroughs, little was known about surface conditions on Mars 100 years ago and the existence of a canal-building civilisation on the planet was widely believed even by serious astronomers (ironically, their opinion shifted against this idea around the time the Barsoom stories were first published).

I read the books as a youngster, far too long ago to recall anything much about them other than the intriguing nugget that the apparently "human" women laid eggs rather than giving birth to babies. I do recall being struck by the energy, enthusiasm and inventiveness of the tales, plenty by themselves to carry along young and uncritical readers, even though I knew at the time that these stories were now firmly in the "fantasy" category as Mars was really a dead planet. They made for great escapist fiction: what lad wouldn't want to be reborn as a super-warrior on an alien planet, fighting for a beautiful princess? I needn't say anything else about the plot, as that sums it up well enough for this review.

The film received a very mixed critical reception when released and its financial failure led to the resignation of the head of Walt Disney Studios. So I was curious to see whether I agreed with the critics or the supporters and watched it with an open mind. I was prepared to like it, but I have to say that on balance I agreed with the critics. The structure of the film is messy and sometimes difficult to follow and the pace is frantic, skipping rapidly through a series of improbable events without much explanation. In the battle scenes I was usually unsure of who were the "good" and "bad" humans as they looked and dressed much alike; I could never distinguish between the "good" and "bad" flying machines they used either. The character-building is weak to put it mildly, with Taylor Kitsch as the hero making little impression (someone with more screen presence, like Chris Hemsworth who made such an impressive Thor, might have made a difference) although Lynn Collins is fine as Deja Thoris - unlike most actresses, she has enough muscle to make the sword-wielding seem feasible. The strength of the film is, as one might expect, in the visual spectacle: the Tharks, the strange flying machines, the dramatic-looking cities (including a moving one), and the fighting. Lots of fighting. The overall impression I was left with was of much jumping and dashing around and whirling of swords.

To be fair, the film-makers had the usual problem in adapting a decidedly outdated novel: do they try to make sense of it for modern viewers, or do they stay faithful to the novel and produce something which is frankly rather ludicrous? On this occasion I think they tended towards the latter end of the spectrum. It was just about watchable for the spectacle, but left me unengaged and unimpressed. This was intended to be the first of a trilogy, but that now seems highly unlikely to materialise.

Incidentally, those who like the basic plot idea might enjoy reading a more modern and realistic (if such a term can be appropriate for this kind of fantasy) approach to the same theme, not set on Mars but on an initially undefined world: this is the seven-book Gandalara Cycle by Randall Garrett and Vicki Ann Heydron, published in the 1980s. I have reviewed the first three novels on this blog in December 2011 and July 2012, and they are great fun - undemanding escapist entertainment.

Friday 7 September 2012

TV - Once Upon a Time, Season 1

I've finally reached the end of the 22-episode first season of Once Upon a Time, which I have briefly discussed early in the series (in April and May). To recap: the story begins in the present-day USA when Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), a young woman with a talent for finding people, is herself found by her son Henry (Jared S. Gilmore) whom she had given up for adoption ten years previously. She takes him back to his home town, Storybrooke, and immediately find herself in conflict with Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla), the town's mayor and the woman who had adopted Henry.

Henry has a firm belief that Storybrooke is no ordinary town but is populated by people from another time: characters from fairy tales who have been transported to the USA by a spell from an evil queen - who happens to be Regina Mills. Unsurprisingly Emma Swan refuses to believe him but the viewers of the series know better, since running in parallel with the scenes in Storybrooke are those from the land of fairy tales, in which we see the same characters as they used to be. So we know that teacher Mary Margaret Blanchard (Ginnifer Goodwin) is really Snow White - and Emma Swan's mother - and that her husband Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) has become David Nolan, a local handyman who is inconveniently married to someone else.

The core of the plot in Storybrooke is the tussle between Regina and Emma, with Mr Gold, formerly the evil magician Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle) playing a mysterious game between the two of them. Meanwhile Henry is desperately trying to convince Emma that all is not as it seems, and that only she has the power to break the curse which preserves everyone in Storybrooke, frozen in time, and allows none of them to leave. As I mentioned in my previous comment on this series, there's a faint echo of The Truman Show here, except that in this case it seems that hardly anyone in the town except the mayor is in on the secret - although that is not quite true, as we slowly become to realise.

The programme makers have a wonderful time drawing on a wide range of fairy tales for the scenes set in fairyland, where we are shown a whole series of interlocking events (not always in chronological order) which gradually build up a picture of exactly what led up to the mass transfer to Storybrooke. The contrast between the scenes in Storybrooke and the interleaved ones set in an exotic world of queens and princes, magicians and spells, keeps the series interesting. The downside is that there are many characters (some of which play a major part in just one episode before disappearing) and many story lines, which leads to a certain lack of focus and drift from the main story. Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed the series which finished on a cliff-hanger of an ending to set it up nicely for the forthcoming second season.