Friday 28 December 2012

Film: X-Men - First Class (2011)

This is the fourth film in the X-Men series I have reviewed, and I wasn't expecting much since such series generally run out of steam and I had read some critical comments about this one. So it came as a pleasant surprise to discover that it is at least as good as the other films in the series - which is to say, very good indeed by comparison with most superhero movies.

For those unfamiliar with the way this film fits in, it is a prequel to the others and describes the beginning of the mutants' story when they were still young (and are therefore played by different actors). The story begins in 1944 with a young Jewish boy in Germany who subsequently becomes Magneto, while at the same time in the USA Charles Xavier is meeting the girl who becomes Mystique. The remainder of the story is set in the early 1960s when the existence of the X-Men first becomes public, concluding with the Cuban missile crisis which nearly led to World War III (with archive clips from TV of that period included).

The film takes its time in developing the main characters and showing their back-stories, plus their uneasy relationship with the CIA before their existence becomes public. This adds far more depth to the story than you find in most such films and makes the dilemmas which the mutants face towards the end of the film much more credible. I found it engaging throughout, with the "human" story of the mutants never being drowned out by the inevitable spectacular CGI depictions of super-powers and battle sequences.

Incidentally, further to my discussion in my earlier blog post on Inglourious Basterds about the definition of alternative history, this film is right on the borderline: while the X-Men get involved in the missile crisis the broad outcome is not changed, which is the main criterion for identifying alternative histories.

Friday 21 December 2012

7th Sigma, by Steven Gould

Steven Gould has managed the rare achievement among current writers of having one of his books on my all-time top 20 list of favourite SFF novels (since expanded to 27 - see the list in the left column of this blog). This is his best-known work, Jumper, which I reviewed on this blog in February 2010 along with its sequel, Reflex, and the disappointing film version of Jumper. I have also reviewed another of his novels, Wildside. The author is one of the best storytellers I know. He has a plain and simple writing style which puts the reader right into the tale, identifying strongly with the protagonist, and once I pick up one of his books I find it very difficult to put down again.

This remains true of his latest novel, 7th Sigma. As with most of his other stories, the protagonist is a teenage boy of unusual maturity. Much SF of the action-adventure type has featured a "competent man" as the hero, someone who succeeds through being smarter, braver and usually tougher than his opposition (in a different genre, James Bond is a classic example). Gould specialises in the "competent adolescent" or, in 7th Sigma, "super-competent" in the form of Kim Creighton, who later adopts the name Kimball Monroe.

At the start of the story, set some time in the near future, Kim is a thirteen year old street kid living alone in "the territory", a large area of south-west USA which has become mysteriously infested with self-replicating robotic "bugs"; mechanical flying insects with a passion for consuming metal which is so great that they will fly through anything to reach it, including people. Carrying any metal means almost certain death so those who still live in the territory have had to adopt a drastically modified metal-free lifestyle. Equally mysteriously, and fortunately for civilisation, something keeps the bugs within this clearly-defined area.

Kim falls in with Ruth Monroe, an aikido instructor who has entered the territory in order to set up a new dojo, and he becomes her student. Subsequently, he is recruited as a spy for the authorities, helping to track down criminals. The story concerns Kim's varied adventures as he grows into a young man, developing both his aikido, espionage and meditation abilities while learning how to live in his strange world. If this sounds vaguely familiar, that is because it is in effect based on Rudyard Kipling's famous early-20th century novel Kim.

7th Sigma is unlike Gould's other novels in that it does not reach a conclusion and is clearly intended to be just the start of a series. The pace is relatively slow by his standards, although the plot becomes episodic in the latter part of the book as some three years pass. The focus is very much on the character of Kim and the events which befall him, the SF element in the form of the bugs remaining in the background with few developments or revelations concerning it. I found the character of Kim to be rather unbelievable because he is so good - he never seems to suffer from teenage angst and is always rational, polite, forward-thinking, very mature, courageous, smarter than anyone else and a superb fighter. For all these reasons I found it less satisfying than Gould's other novels; however, it is just as un-put-downable and I read it in only two sessions. I am looking forward to the next volume.

Friday 14 December 2012

Films: Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief (2010), and The Secret of Moonacre (2009)

Something of a change from my usual fare, but perhaps appropriate for the holiday season: a couple of films aimed at younger viewers.

Percy Jackson & The Lightning Thief (aso known as Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief) is loosely based on the first of a series of novels by Rick Riordan. It concerns a 17-year old boy (played by Logan Lerman) in present-day USA who suddenly finds himself under supernatural attack, and discovers not only that his previously unknown father was Poseidon, the God of the Sea, but that he is suspected of stealing Zeus' greatest weapon, the lightning bolt. If the bolt is not returned, there will be war among the gods which would lead to devastation on Earth.

Percy reaches safety at a special camp in rural USA established to train demigods like him; the offspring of relationships between gods and humans. There he discovers some of his magical abilities and, with two companions, sets off on a quest to find the bolt and rescue his mother, who is being held hostage by Hades, the God of the Underworld. Many spectacular adventures ensue before the quest is over.

There is a strong cast, including Uma Thurman, Sean Bean, Pierce Brosnan and Catherine Keener. The story rolls along well enough, mixing mystery, excitement and humour with some dramatic CGI, and will probably appeal to teenage fans of the Harry Potter films.


The Secret of Moonacre is based on a children's fantasy novel, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, first published in 1946. It is set in the 1840s and concerns a teenage girl, Maria Merryweather (Dakota Blue Richards, who played the lead character in The Golden Compass) who is orphaned and sent to live with her taciturn uncle Sir Benjamin Merryweather (Ioan Gruffud) in his remote country estate, Moonacre Manor. There she discovers that the Merryweathers have had a generations-long vendetta against their nearest neighbours, the De Noir family, in which magic was involved. She gradually learns that she has a pivotal role to play in ending both the vendetta and also an ancient curse which threatens to destroy everything in the valley.

The cast of this film is strong too (it also includes Juliet Stevenson in a comic turn, Tim Curry and Natascha McElhone) and the production excellent - it’s a visual pleasure. The story is rather bland with a schmaltzy ending and it didn't grip me, which is perhaps no surprise since I would assume that its target audience is young girls (who I guess will probably love it), but it was painless to watch.

Friday 7 December 2012

Interzone 243

The November/December issue of the SFF magazine includes an interview with Adam Roberts and a review of his new novel Jack Glass, a crime story set in an SF context (or rather three separate stories concerning the eponymous hero), which sounds rather interesting. There are several other book reviews, including the following by well-known authors: The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks; Empty Space by M John Harrison; The Wurms of Blearmouth by Steven Erikson; and The Sphinx of the Ice Realm by none other than Jules Verne. This last one, written in 1896, is a rewriting of Edgar Allan Poe's 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. Must put that one on the purchase list…

Film and DVD reviews include Looper and Prometheus (not yet seen but on my list) plus Avengers Assemble and the remake of Total Recall (both reviewed on this blog). It's always intriguing to read someone else's review of a film I've seen, particularly since they often see entirely different things in it (both good and bad) than I have.

Five stories this time:

Moon Drome by John Wallace, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A series of brutal races between one-man spacecraft around a moon in a far system is further enlivened by unpredictable interventions from a deadly alien race known as the Fear. Scorpus is the most successful of the slave-status race pilots facing his final contest before winning his freedom; but half the pilots die in each race. Will the Fear get him this time, and what is their purpose in being involved?

The Flower of Shazui by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu and illustrated by Richard Wagner. A man in a future China is fascinated by a beautiful prostitute called Snow Lotus, but she has a brutal husband. More of a social drama than an SF one.

The Philosophy of Ships by Caroline M Yoachim, also illustrated by Richard Wagner. In the far future, people can choose to have more than one consciousness inhabiting their bodies, or can even opt to merge with the bodiless network.

Lady Dragon and the Netsuke Carver by Priya Sharma, illustrated by Martin Hanford. A powerful female Samurai in an alternative Japan negotiates the deadly pitfalls of her existence.

Mirrorblink by Jason Sanford, illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe. A strange, far-future Earth with no visible Sun, Moon or stars, and populated by people who stay in their home towns in fear of both the mysterious inhuman Observers and the burn - catastrophic fires which fall unpredictably from the sky, destroying whole areas. Ein is a young woman who has become a Scope, one of the few people who travel from town to town trading information. What had happened to the world, and why is an Observer so interested in her?

The stories by Wallace and Sanford are the two which appealed to me this time. Wallace's story is classic hard SF. In contrast, Jason Sanford is establishing quite a reputation as a writer of highly imaginative, often surreal, and very varied tales, and always provides good value.