Sunday 28 July 2013

Labyrinth, by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is the next up in this author's Vorkosigan series which I am intermittently working through, following Ethan of Athos which I reviewed in March. That one was unusual in that it did not feature Bujold's hero Miles, a junior officer in the Barrayan Imperial Security service, but he returns in Labyrinth in his role as Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet. He is making a visit to Jackson's Whole, an outlaw planet divided among several powerful criminal organisations each ruled by an hereditary lord and specialising in a particular brand of nefarious activity. Miles is supposedly buying weapons but is actually there to liberate a skilled genetic scientist from one of the organisations and deliver him to Barrayar. As always, things do not go to plan with various complications and setbacks until Miles arrives at an unexpected solution.

Labyrinth is a novella of only 80 pages but a lot of action is packed into them, with dramatic tension laced with humour in Bujold's usual style. Also very evident is her fascination with difference, both physical and sexual, which was so strongly featured in Ethan of Athos. As well as the physically handicapped Miles, we have his ship's captain, the hermaphrodite Bel Thorne; a Quaddie, engineered for a zero-gravity environment with two extra arms instead of legs; and last but far from least, a ferocious eight-foot-tall genetically engineered super-warrior who also happens to be a teenage girl. As is also usual with Bujold, she makes all of her disparate characters sympathetic (except for the bad guys who do of course receive their just desserts).

Like all of this series it's an entertaining read and it's good to return to Miles after a longish break. I have another volume of his stories awaiting my attention, but they'll have to wait – that book is just one in a dauntingly large pile of new novels which keeps growing faster than I can get through them, not to mention the old favourites I want to re-read when I can find the time!

Saturday 20 July 2013

Film: Alien Hunter (2003)

This one appeared on UK TV not long ago with a reasonable write-up, so I finally got around to watching it.  (Warning – this review contains spoilers.) It features James Spader as a scientist with a background in SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, in case anyone's in any doubt) who is invited to an Antarctic research base to investigate an object buried in the ice which was discovered by satellite imagery. It had been excavated and transferred to the base, and as the ice around it melts it gradually emerges as an alien vehicle – warm and emitting radio signals. Cutting it open is the traditional Bad Idea since it turns out to be an escape pod containing an alien who promptly revives from suspended animation. For once the alien isn't hostile, but it does carry a disease lethal to all Earth life which is transmitted with great speed, leading to the deaths of several of the researchers. The US government is aware of this risk (from Roswell, of course – need you ask?) so has asked the Russian government to order one of their submarines in the area to hit the base with nuclear missiles. Meanwhile the aliens arrive to find out what's happened to their escape pod.

Alien Hunter has nothing original to say and isn't that well produced. It uses rapid scene changes, especially at the start, leaving the viewer with no time to absorb what's going on or to get to know any of the characters. There's also an obtrusive soundtrack banging away all of the time (thought for the day – some of the most impressive films I've seen have no music in them at all). The result is a by-the-numbers effort which left me unengaged, although it just about remained watchable. The ending seemed to be calling for a sequel to follow-up what happened to the survivors from the base, but if this were ever to be attempted it would require a lot more imagination from the script writers.

A final point for collectors of screen trivia: one character is played by Carl Lewis, the famous athlete from the 1980s and early 90s. I wasn't aware that he appeared in films and TV programmes, although a quick check of his Wiki entry shows that this wasn't the only time.

Friday 12 July 2013

Fated, by Benedict Jacka

I have a soft spot for contemporary urban fantasies, especially ones set in London, so when I read in Interzone a review of one of Jacka's Alex Verus novels I was immediately hooked and sent off for the first volume, Fated.

Alex Verus is a young man who runs a present-day magic shop near Camden Market (which will surprise no-one who knows Camden!). The difference is that while most of the shop's contents are mundane and sold to passing tourists, some are not – because unknown to those tourists and to the overwhelming majority of the population, a world of magic coexists with our own. Verus is a diviner, whose skill is the ability to see the consequences of future choices so he can pick the best course of action to obtain the outcome he wants. This is highly useful in a world in which he has to contend with formidable Light and Dark mages, some with lethal powers. Fortunately he has some magical non-human friends, plus his assistant, a young woman called Luna who suffers from a strange hereditary curse.  

Verus needs all of his ability coupled with very sharp wits when rival factions among the mages try to recruit him to assist in discovering the secrets of an ancient but dangerous artifact which appears to have a magical potential far beyond that of modern mages. What follows is a tense, exciting story with many twists, turns and unexpected developments. The setting may seem similar to Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, with well-known London landmarks being used for decidedly unconventional activities, but the mood is more of a mystery thriller with Verus being a resourceful and likeable hero. The story is told in the first person by Verus and the style is laconic, very reminiscent of a classic private eye novel, and perfectly suited to the story.

These days I rarely read a new novel that I enjoy as much as Fated, which I read in just two sessions, late into the night. I have immediately sent off for the next two Alex Verus volumes, Cursed and Taken.

Saturday 6 July 2013

TV - The Returned (2012)

The current UK TV enthusiasm for importing subtitled versions of foreign TV series continues with The Returned, a French drama. A coach crash kills thirty-eight young students from a small town. Four years later, one of them returns home – looking exactly as she did at the time of the crash and behaving entirely normally. She has no idea that any time has passed, and is just puzzled that one moment she was on a coach trip, the next she woke up in the countryside near her home. Then more people, dead and buried years earlier, begin to turn up alive…

This is nothing like the usual zombie horror story that might be expected. It is handled with great realism, with the focus initially being on the reactions of the families they are returning to, varying from stunned delight to horrified rejection. By the end of the first few episodes the returned are learning what has happened to them – especially the young girl whose identical twin is now four years older, and the young man killed on his wedding day who returns a decade later to find his bride about to marry another man. Other mysteries are still to be unravelled; who is Victor, the small mute boy who came from nowhere and seems to be involved with these strange events? And why is the level of water in the local mountain reservoir dropping rapidly?

This is a different kind of fantasy; a strong and adult psychological drama, deliberately paced and dark in tone, with an air of foreboding. It is compelling viewing and supports the growing opinion that the best drama (including SF and fantasy) being made today is for television rather than the big screen. SFF blockbuster movies these days seem to be overwhelmingly about spectacular and often violent action scenes, the target audience allegedly being 12-year old boys. A TV series allows much more time for the gradual and subtle development of the plot and the characters, pulling the adult viewer into the story. We have seen this with Game of Thrones, Fringe, and Continuum, three current series which have me pinned in front of the screen. The Returned is very different from these, but still a worthy addition to this list.