Saturday 31 August 2013

Shattered Icon, by Bill Napier

Bill Napier first came to my attention when I read The Lure, reviewed here two years ago, which I said was "one of the most thoughtful, realistic and exciting first contact novels I've ever read." Shattered Icon (also sold as Splintered Icon) is the fourth of his books I've read.

As is often the case with Napier's novels, there are two interleaved stories. The principal one is set in the present day and concerns the search for an icon which is claimed to contain a piece of the "True Cross" on which Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified. The key to the search is an ancient encrypted manuscript that is believed to contain the clues needed to find the icon. This tells the story of the British 16th century Roanoke expedition to found a settlement in North America, as seen through the eyes of a young crew-member of one of the ships.

The protagonist of the main story is Harry Blake, a former soldier now working as a dealer in antiquarian books and manuscripts, who is asked to research the background to the Roanoke manuscript to determine its authenticity, a search which takes him to Jamaica. On the way he is aided by two young women, one a historian the other being the owner of the manuscript, and is opposed by some shadowy but ruthless forces.

So far we seem to be in Dan Brown territory, but Napier is a very different author. Apart from being a better writer, as a professional scientist he believes in getting his facts straight and his speculations realistic. His plots are throughly researched, the account of the Roanoak expedition being thoroughly convincing as well as a gripping adventure; there is some intriguing detail concerning early encryption systems and some of the finer points of radio carbon dating; and a summary of the legal situation with regard to the ownership of such an icon is both thought-provoking and amusing. I do enjoy being informed at the same time as being entertained.

Napier is something of a cross-over author, his plots ranging from SF through techno-thrillers to more solidly based myseries like this one. There are no fantasy or sf elements in Shattered Icon beyond the icon itself, but it is still a worthwhile read for those who enjoy such tales, being both exciting and educational. As usual the characterisation is somewhat sketchy, but it is adequate to carry the story. Recommended.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Film: Aeon Flux (2005)

Aeon Flux kept cropping up on TV with some rather lukewarm reviews but I finally decided to watch it and make up my own mind. It is set in a future in which all but five million people had perished in a world-wide plague some four hundred years before. The survivors had been gathered together in one city, walled off from the rest of the world, and ruled by the hereditary Goodchild family who had originally developed the vaccine that had saved the survivors. Life was generally good for the inhabitants but, as always, there were some who were determined to overthrow the Goodchilds' rule. Aeon Flux, played by Charlize Theron, is a member of the resistance movement and their most accomplished agent. The film focuses on her story as she tries to break the domination of the Goodchilds.

At first I found the film rather unpromising, as the characters and the combat action were so stylised and unrealistic that it was like watching an animated comic strip. So I wasn't too surprised when I checked on it afterwards to find that the original inspiration was indeed a comic strip. Apart from some futuristic settings, Theron is really all that makes this part worth watching (she looks terrific as the black-clad black-haired agent). I must admit I was impressed to read that she had been injured during the making of the film while performing a series of back handsprings as part of a stunt routine – not something you'd see many Hollywood A-listers attempt, I suspect.

The second half of the film is much better than the first, as the plot becomes increasingly complex with unexpected twists and turns and some interesting SF ideas, and it becomes clear that the situation is not at all as it had seemed, on several levels. The conclusion is appropriate and satisfying. I couldn't help reflecting that the film, without any plot or even major script changes, could have been made entirely differently by ditching the comic strip elements in favour of more realistic characters and action in the Gattaca style, and it could then have been a really good SF film dealing with some serious themes – an approach I would have preferred.

The film was a commercial failure, which doesn't surprise me, but if you can get past the beginning the second half makes it worth watching. As does Theron!

Saturday 17 August 2013

Green, by Jay Lake

Green is the first of a trilogy (plus another couple of books set in the same universe) and I had read a favourable review of one of them, so I decided to try it out.  It is a fantasy set in a world at the start of an industrial revolution (primitive guns and some sailing ships with steam engines) although the feel of the culture is medieval. Multiple gods are worshipped, with plenty of evidence that they exist and can wield magical powers. So, in the right circumstances, can some people – both humans and especially the cat-like humanoid pardines.

A three-year old girl living on a marginal farm is sold by her poverty-striken father and carried off to a strange land. She spends the next decade encarcerated in a luxury prison in which she is trained by a number of different Mistresses in everything a noble lady needs to know. It emerges that her owner is the Duke of the city of Copper Downs, who had ruled for four centuries due to a magical form of immortality, and one of his hobbies is to train up promising girls as future consorts. One of the Mistresses has her own agenda and secretly ensures that the girl, who adopts the name Green, is also trained in altogether more violent skills. This suits Green, who has never lost her rebellious anger at having been sold and is determined to resist what is planned for her. The action oscillates between continents as Green tries to find her way in a largely hostile world, dealing with the gods themselves to achieve her aims.

The story is well-written and initially deliberately paced, focusing on building up the personalities of Green and the other major characters. The plot is original with many unexpected twists and turns, and Green is an intriguing heroine. In theory I should have enjoyed it a lot, and I can see why it attracted good reviews, but somehow I never fully engaged with it. Sometimes I find it hard to define exactly why I like – or don't much like – a particular story, and this is one such case. I read it to the end and didn't begrudge the time spent on it, but I don't feel motivated to seek out the sequels.

Saturday 10 August 2013

Film: Battleship (2012)

Yes, I know, I probably shouldn't have been watching this film given the volume of critical comment it received on its release last year. The fact is I had just bought my first Blu-ray player because my DVD player had died (I am not exactly an "early adopter" of new technology and don't generally replace equipment while it's still working) and was looking for a cheap Blu-ray film to try it out. The store had a BOGOF offer on a few remaindered discs, only a couple of which were SF films I hadn't already seen, Battleship being one of them.

The plot is simple enough: hopelessly idealistic scientists (led by a gormless Brit, who else?) send a welcome message to an Earth-type planet orbiting Gliese. They receive in response several hostile spaceships which land in the Pacific near Hawaii, where they are engaged by some USN and Japanese ships on exercise. The heroes (no, I don't mean the aliens, silly) have to resort to the old battleship USS Missouri, now a museum ship in Pearl Harbour. They eventually win, the principal hero gets the girl, and the survivors live happily ever after (oops, sorry, hope these unexpected revelations won't spoil the surprise!).

My expectations were very low which probably helped me to enjoy the first part of this film a little more than I had anticipated. The story had a bit more character depth and humour than I had expected and the CGI of the alien spaceships was fun. However, while Taylor Kitsch seemed more comfortable in his role than he was in John Carter, I still find it hard to understand why he's given leading roles at all. The only real actor in the production was Liam Neeson, who could do this sort of thing in his sleep (and looked as if he was).

The film's main problem is of course the lack of credibility. No, I don't mean alien spaceships promptly arriving from 22 light years away, which even if their ships could travel instantaneously meant that they wouldn't have received the message from Earth for 22 years. I don't even mean the ludicrously inefficient guns with which the aliens, clearly aggressive beings with technology centuries ahead of ours, fired at the human ships (although the giant circular saws were fun). Or even the way in which one USN destroyer was able to knock out two of the giant spaceships simultaneously. Or even that the hero not only captained the ship but was off doing all sorts of other heroic things, such as chasing aliens gun in hand through his ship, and subsequently engaging a spaceship with a .50 cal rifle. Captain, that sort of thing is what you have a crew for, you should be in the CIC directing operations.

No, what really blew it for me was the central focus of the film, the battleship. This put to sea apparently with no delay, crewed by a few sailors from a modern destroyer guided by handful of veterans on museum duty, and successfully engaged the enemy. Umm, guys, this ship was decommissioned in 1992 and was made a museum ship in 1998. The very first thing that a navy does on decommissioning a warship is to fully destore it, with particular emphasis being given to removing all ammunition. The idea that after a decade as a museum ship it would have live HE shells and propellant cartridges on board, not to mention fuel in the tanks and boilers full of water, is ludicrous, as is the notion that you could just turn the metaphorical ignition key and sail off in it (it takes a long time to raise a head of steam). Not to mention sail and fight it with a couple of dozen crew. When last in commission this ship needed 1850 men to crew it and while it wouldn't need all of those for a quick trip to fire the main guns at the enemy, each of the three 16 inch triple turrets required 77 men to operate it. The fire control system was complex and also required a large and highly specialised crew, but in the film they fortunately had Rihanna, who could do it all by herself a few minutes after arriving on board. I was also amused by the way four men carried an HE shell through the ship. Even the "lightweight" 16 inch HE shell weighed in at 1800 lbs (the AP shell was much heavier). And anyway, that class of ship had a built-in transport system specifically designed for transfering ammunition between magazines. Now you may say that it unreasonable of me to use my somewhat specialised knowledge to criticise the film, but if they're making such a big fuss of featuring the battleship they might at least try to get major facts concerning it in vague sniffing distance of reality.

So yes, the film deserved to bomb. It seems that to enjoy modern blockbusters like these it is helpful to be as ignorant as possible, since the more you know, the more nonsensical they become. I found this one best enjoyed as a spoof, like an "Airplane!" version of a silly action movie, but it could have done with some better jokes.

Saturday 3 August 2013

Interzone 247

I gathered two things from the varied book and film reviews in this issue of the SFF magazine: first, that none of the films is really worth my time to watch, either due to their quality or to the fact that the plots don't interest me; second, that one of the books reviewed does look intriguing: The Curve of the Earth, by Simon Morden. Another one to add to the reading pile…

This issue sadly notes the passing of two very different authors: Jack Vance, a master of a golden age of SF, whose first published work emerged in 1945, and Iain M. Banks, who wasn't even born until nine years after that but still established a high reputation as an imaginative and literary writer.

Six short stories, as follows:

The Pursuit of the Whole is Called Love by L.S. Johnson, illustrated by Wayne Haag. A very strange story of two itinerant people who are different aspects of the same person.

Automatic Diamanté by Philip Suggars, illustrated by Richard Sampson. A tactical AI needs psychiatric treatment as a result of its war experiences.

Just as Good by Jacob A. Boyd, illustrated by Richard Wagner. Another bizarre tale, with irresistible aliens who only seem interested in exchanging people's possessions.

The Cloud Cartographer by V.H. Leslie, illustrated by Martin Hanford. Clouds covering the Earth have become so dense that in some places it is possible to walk on them. One man is sent on a voyage of exploration.

Futile the Winds by Rebecca Schwarz, illustrated by Daniel Bristow-Bailey. Martian colonists sent on a one-way trip are reaching the limits of their survival.

The Frog King's Daughter by Russ Colson, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A successful businessman has himself transported into the body of a frog in a bet that goes wrong – but can he save his daughter from the threat to her life?

All of these stories are very much at the peculiar end of the SFF spectrum and certainly won't be to everyone's taste (including mine). The stories by Leslie and Colson appealed to me the most and seem likely to stick in my memory.

Finally in a second essay, Jonathan McCalmont continues his theme of arguing that new SF should be looking forward, not back, and should not be bound by its traditions. Judging by the apparently endless series of remakes and remixes of superhero, vampire and zombie films pouring out of Hollywood, it would seem that the producers of the visual versions of SFF don't agree.