Friday 29 March 2013

Film: The Invention of Lying (2009)

The Invention of Lying stars British comedian Ricky Gervais (who also co-authored and co-directed) as film scriptwriter Mark Bellison, who lives on an alternative Earth which is identical to ours except for one important detail; no-one is capable of lying, so everyone tells the blunt truth at all times. In fact, the concept of lying does not even exist, so people instantly and firmly believe everything they are told. The movies on which Bellison works are all factual documentaries and all consist simply of one person reading the script; fiction does not exist.

Be warned - this review contains spoilers!

Bellison is a loser in all aspects of his life and has reached rock bottom, but then suddenly has an inspiration - he lies to get himself out of trouble. From then on his life makes a spectacular recovery as he lies to obtain money, and writes dramatic but entirely fictional scripts which are a huge box-office success since everyone believes the fantastical events in them to be true. His life heads in a different direction when he is overheard lying to his dying mother about the wonderful afterlife which awaits her, to ease her fear of death. This world lacks the concept of religion and Bellison's stories spread like wildfire, bringing him global fame. However, this still does not make him sufficiently attractive to Anna (Jennifer Garner), the love of his life who is also being courted by a rival scriptwriter.

Although I have been unable to discover any reference to it, this film was surely inspired by James Morrow's novella City of Truth, which I reviewed on this blog in December 2007. Some of the basic elements differ (in the novella, people have the capacity to lie, but are conditioned from their earliest years to tell only the truth), but many of the jokes resulting from the brutal honesty of everyday life are similar. Despite this humour, Morrow's story is darker in tone, while TIOL is (rightly) billed as a romantic fantasy comedy.

I suspect that this movie didn't go down too well in more religious parts of the world, since it portrays Bellison as inventing a "Man in the Sky" to account for the existence of the afterlife he has described. He writes a moral code allegedly from the Man in the Sky which is equivalent to the Ten Commandments, and presents it to an eager audience, only to be disconcerted by some of the literal questioning about the practical details. As he becomes involved in ever more detailed and convoluted explanations for the inconsistencies in his newly-invented religion, he is dismayed by some of the consequences of its spread. Apart from the concept of a happy afterlife for those who behave themselves, it appears that the religion has a largely negative effect on most people's lives. Needless to say, however, the film has a happy ending.

I have to admit that Gervais's humour and mine operate on different wavelengths so I don't generally find him very amusing. I found this film better than most in that respect and worth watching, despite the satire being rather blunt and heavy-handed, but Morrow's novella is more thought-provoking.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Ethan of Athos, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Ethan of Athos is an unusual 1986 story from Bujold, in that although it is set in the Vorkosigan universe it doesn't feature her long-term hero Miles. Athos is a remote, agricultural planet with one peculiarity - there are no women. The men who settled Athos had strong religious objections to women, regarding them as evil temptresses, so they took advantage of replicator (artificial womb) technology to produce their (male) children. The problem was, the replicators needed occasional restocking with female genetic material which had to come from off-planet, so when an urgently-needed batch of new material proves to have been switched for useless junk, they are in a crisis.

Ethan is a young doctor, an expert on the replicators, so is sent off-planet in order to find the material required. This is a huge adventure since travel off-planet is normally banned: Ethan has never seen a woman, and even photos of them are highly restricted. He arrives at Kline Station, a vast independent entrepot which gives him the best chance of buying genetic material, only to find himself in the middle of a conflict he doesn't understand, which all seems to be focused on the material which Athos should have received but has gone missing. He is up against ruthless Cetagandan secret agents and only survives with the aid of Elli Quinn, a female mercenary who is also involved in the case. Eventually all is resolved, although in an unexpected fashion.

This is an entertaining tale, well written as usual by Bujold who is a master (or should that be mistress?) story-teller. In some respects, it defies expectations.

WARNING: some spoilers follow.

With Ethan constantly in the company of the beautiful, likeable and resourceful Elli, the story arc seems predictable: Ethan realises that his culture has got it all wrong as far as women are concerned, rejects his backward religion and tumbles into the sack with the willing Elli, before starting a new life well away from the stiflingly parochial Athos. Except that none of this happens, and what he wants from Elli turns out to be rather different. This makes me reflect that Bujold seems to have a soft spot for minorities. Miles is physically handicapped, but overcomes his disadvantages with cleverness and determination. Ethan is homosexual, like everyone else on his planet, and is shown as a likeable if naïve hero who gets a rough time from the repellent homophobes on Kline Station. Even the bizarre Athosian culture is merely described in a matter-of-fact way, without criticism and with only some gentle parody, and it all seems to work well enough for the Athosians.

Ethan isn't unchanged by his experience, however, and does end up doing something rather radical which will have major implications for the future of the people of his planet - but there is no suggestion that they will become anything other than entirely male.

Friday 15 March 2013

Film: Prometheus (2012)

I eventually got around to watching all of the Alien series of films for which Prometheus was advertised as a prequel, so it was natural for me to see this one too. I have to say that I watched it with some trepidation as I have reservations about the earlier films; while the first one is a classic and they are all very atmospheric, in general they dwell too strongly on the yuck/horror aspects for my taste.

A brief plot summary, with some spoilers: almost a century into the future, two researchers (played by Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) believe that they have discovered pointers to a distant star system in prehistoric cave paintings and manage to persuade a billionaire to fund an expedition to the system. On arrival they discover a vast structure which is gradually revealed as a base for the Engineers, effectively the creators of mankind. Then things start to go horribly wrong in the usual - and depressingly predictable - fashion. You just know that when two members of the team exploring the structure get lost they are going to die horrible deaths; that the mysterious containers which start to leak black fluid are going to have horrible consequences for humans; and that when Rapace's character becomes impossibly pregnant she will be carrying something horrible rather than a human being; and all these duly come to pass.

There are some good aspects to the movie: Michael Fassbender plays a creepy android, Charlize Theron an android-like human, and Rapace is worth watching. There are some strong and atmospheric scenes, and I found the Engineers fascinating: I would very much like to have seen a lot more of them, including more exploration of why they created humanity and why they apparently turned against us, but presumably these developments have been saved for the sequel(s), should they eventually emerge. Instead, what we get is a gross-out yuck/horror gore-fest in the latter part of the film. The frustrating thing is that the potential was there: it has some of the elements of a great SF film but it ended up as yet another horror movie with an SF background and with nothing much new to say. Disappointing.


I also started to watch another recent SF film, Chronicle. However, after a quarter of an hour or so it seemed to be going nowhere of interest so I stopped.

Friday 8 March 2013

Interzone 244

Two author interviews to accompany book reviews this time: Saladin Ahmad (Throne of the Crescent Moon) and Karin Tidbeck (Jagganath). The former is a fantasy author drawing upon both western and eastern heritages, while the latter is a Swedish author who has translated her own short-story anthology. Other book reviews which caught my eye were Eric Brown’s Helix Wars and Benedict Jacka’s Taken. Film and DVD reviews include a double dose of Tolkien, with the Blue Ray extended editions of The Lord of the Rings and the first part of The Hobbit. There's an interesting discussion of some of the quirks and limitations of the films caused by the way in which the Tolkien film rights were handled (or more accurately mishandled) decades ago. On the TV side, Season One of The Continuum sounds interesting – a policewoman from the future operates in present-day Vancouver.

There are six stories include two novelettes, indicating that the new compact format has allowed more space for fiction:

The Book Seller by Lavie Tidhar, a novelette illustrated by Warwick Fraser-Coombe. Yet another story in the author’s strange future world focused on a space station sited in Israel. As with Strigoi in IZ 242, this concerns a data vampire arriving at the station.

Build Guide by Helen Jackson, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A curious little story about corruption in constructing a space station. A story which would have worked just as well set on Earth.

The Genoa Passage by George Zebrowski, illustrated by Martin Handford. If you go to the right place, a pass in the mountains through which Nazis escaped at the end of World War 2, you can still see them as ghostly figures, escaping again and again – but some people don't want them to.

iRobot by Guy Haley, illustrated by Jim Burns. The last flicker of activity left in an ancient robot on a lifeless world. Atmospheric.

Sky Leap - Earth Flame by Jim Hawkins, a novelette illustrated by Richard Wagner. A boy and girl are bred to be linked to a powerful new artificial brain designed to avert the devastation of human space. But will it be capable of the task?

A Flag Still Flies Over Sabor City by Tracie Welser. A dystopian city-state in which the oppressed workers have few opportunities to express their small rebellions.

The Hawkins story is the most substantial in terms of traditional SF and will bear re-reading, although Zebrowski’s odd tale seems likely to stick in the mind.

Saturday 2 March 2013

Film: Iron Sky (2012)

And now for something completely different…. All those Nazi super-technology conspiracy myths turn out to be true when some near-future US astronauts paying a return visit to the Moon stumble across a huge Nazi base on the dark side. This prompts the Nazis to launch a reconnaissance mission to New York by ambitious senior officer Klaus Adler (Götz Otto), accompanied by his naïve and enthusiastic girlfriend Renate Richter (Julia Dietze), to prepare the way for an attack on the Earth to establish the Fourth Reich. Cue lots of culture-clash comedy with everybody's best-laid plans going seriously awry.

The movie is a Finnish-German-Australian production, with the principal actors being from Germany, Australia and New Zealand. I suspect that it didn't go down too well in the USA, since it isn't just the Nazis who are parodied but the Americans too. The Moon mission turns out to be a re-election stunt by the US President (un-named, but clearly Sarah Palin, played by Stephanie Paul) who seizes on the opportunity to boost her popularity rating. And what could be better than a Star Wars-type battle against the Nazis?

This film is in hilariously bad taste throughout, and I frequently laughed out loud at its sheer effrontery. Don't bother to point out the plot holes or scientific nonsenses, this film revels in them (World War 2 era motorcyle-sidecar combinations puttering across the Moon?). The story was by Johanna Sinisalo, a Nebula Award-nominated Finnish SFF writer, but the sense of humour seemed to me to have a strong Australian flavour - subtle it ain't! I don't know what the film-makers were on, but they surely had a ball. Probably best watched in company with the aid of alcoholic pre-lubrication and with your critical faculties locked away for the ride.