Sunday 27 October 2013

Film: Space Cowboys (2000)

Yet another film which had escaped my attention until now, this is a present-day (actually, slightly historical since it includes an operational Space Shuttle) comedy drama concerning an emergency space mission by four elderly former test pilots.

The film starts in 1958 with four USAF officers who are part of a rocket-plane test programme leading up to the first manned space flight. However, they are denied the chance to get into space. Move on to the present day, when an old Russian satellite is in danger of re-entering the atmosphere and crashing. For political reasons it is considered imperative to prevent this, but the satellite's navigation system is malfunctioning and needs repair. It turns out that this was copied from a US system designed by Frank Corvin (played by Clint Eastwood, who also directed and produced the film), who happens to be one of the now retired USAF officers. The system is so old that only Corvin knows how to repair it, so he assembles the other members of his old team - Hawk Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones), Jerry O'Neill (Donald Sutherland) and Tank Sullivan (James Garner) - to achieve at last their dream of getting into space.

On the way there is much gentle humour concerning the problems of the ancient astronauts, internal battles among themselves and with an unwilling NASA, and a major and unwelcome surprise when they eventually reach the satellite.

This isn't the sort of film I would normally make a point of watching since despite involving space travel there is very little SF in it – it might best be described as a techno-thriller with comedy overtones. In a way, it made me think of Apollo 13, which I have never seen since I regard it as more of a dramatised documentary, a category which doesn't interest me. Space Cowboys is formulaic and predictable, offering nothing new, but it is serviceable entertainment that pushes enough of the right buttons to be worth viewing.

Friday 18 October 2013

Pilgrims at the White Horizon, by Michael Wyndham Thomas

It is over four years since I read and reviewed here The Mercury Annual, by Michael Wyndham Thomas. Pilgrims at the White Horizon is the long-awaited sequel to this book, and completes the Valiant Razalia story. The best introduction I can give to the sequel is to reproduce my original review:
"The Mercury Annual is one of the strangest stories I have read in a long while. It commences with a lengthy Prologue which describes the world of Razalia and its neighbouring planets, together with their peoples. To say that this system is bizarre would be an understatement; it is the purest fantasy of the most unrealistic kind, in that no account is taken of any laws of science. The system's sun wanders among its planets, the inhabitants of one planet likes to visit others by means of giant catapults, Razalia is covered with barriers of pure white, like cracks in reality, into which people vanish never to return, and its humanoid people have a rather flexible anatomy, immediately growing organs as and when they need them. Each town is ruled by a Tharle, who acquires other peculiar abilities.

This is not the easiest story to get into and I was beginning to feel dubious about continuing until I reached the first chapter, which is dramatically different. This and much of the rest of the novel are set on present-day Earth and focus on the entirely mundane lives of Keith, whose main passion in life is his massive collection of classic comics, his dominating and aggressive wife Donna, their daughter Imogen and Keith's strange friend George, who shares his enthusiasm for the odd collectables of life. Donna is determined to convert their attic into something useful and plots to clear the space by manipulating her husband into selling the comic collection which covers the floor (the book's title refers to one of these). There is much loving description of the stories in the comics as Keith sorts through them, trying to decide what to do. The characters are well-drawn, the scenario and relationships entirely convincing. Only at the end of this part of the book is there any hint of a connection between Earth and Razalia.

The final part of the story returns to Razalia and describes the efforts of the Tharles to discover why the white barriers have begun to expand. One of their number has invented a peculiar device which he claims enables him to see and hear the legendary Maker of Razalia, who lives in a world which sounds increasingly familiar.

This short novel (under 160 pages) is only Part 1 of Valiant Razalia, and the various story threads are all left hanging in the air at the end of it. I am still trying to make up my mind about this book. It isn't the stuff of best-sellers, and the series could either vanish without trace or attract a cult following. However, it managed to hook me to the extent that I will be looking to get hold of Part 2 when it comes out."
Pilgrims at the White Horizon picks up immediately where the first book finishes – it is really one complete story, and essential to read The Mercury Annual first. In fact, I re-read the first book before plunging into the sequel and was pleased I did, as it put me in the right mood to explore more of the parallel worlds of Earth and Razalia. The book is twice as long as the first, providing more scope for exploration and character development. It is difficult to review effectively without some spoilers, so if you want to read it and hate knowing anything about what is in store, I will just say that this is a worthy sequel which develops the plot themes of the first book, introduces a lot of new elements and finally reaches a satisfactory solution (or does it?).  If you enjoyed The Mercury Annual, you really must read this one. Spoiler warning – read no further!

Donna continues to plot the sale of Keith's comic collection – she really is a chilling example of a manipulative wife – while the rather passive Keith tries to work out what to do about this as well as cope with his dysfunctional family, of which the engaging Imogen is the only redeeming member (if only all teenagers were like her!). Despite all of the discussions in a local pub with George and other sympathetic friends, the prospects are not looking good, but then something unexpected happens to Keith and Imogen.

On Razalia, Dreest the Tharle has been expanding the capabilities of the makeshift instrument he constructed to search for the Maker of Razalia, in the hope that this all-powerful being could intervene and stop the spread of the dead white zones gradually taking over the planet. It transpires that Razalia is only mentioned once outside its own system: in one of the treasured Mercury Annuals possessed by Keith, who is one of the last people to remember it. Dreest's search therefore homes in on Keith, whom he assumes is the Maker, and he is able to pull Keith and Imogen from Earth to Razalia, where they are faced by the awed expectations of the Tharles.

On Razalia they meet other characters including the mysterious and beautiful figure of the "Carolla who is not", and another Earthman who was extracted by the Tharles as also having some connection with Razalia (a lot more, actually, than Keith). Eventually Keith is forced to live up to his notional status and take the most drastic of steps to try to solve the problem of the spreading white, and in doing so makes even more fantastic discoveries.

The whole story of Valiant Razalia is so unusual that it defies comparisons. The three elements of a mundane Earthly tale of domestic hassle, a love-letter to the nostalgic essence of British 1950s children's comics, and one of the most bizarre worlds in fiction, are woven together to splendid effect. This is a tale that will remain in my mind for a long time, and joins the very select group of modern novels which I already want to read again.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Film: Stargate (1994)

It's been a long time since I saw this film and, as I recalled enjoying it, I thought I'd give it a second viewing. I should perhaps add at this point that I have never seen any of the various TV spin-offs such as Stargate SG-1 so I can't make comparisons (in fact I didn't realise there had been so many spin-offs until I looked up "stargate" in Wikipedia).

First, a plot summary (with some spoilers). The film starts in 1928 with a baffling archaeological discovery in Egypt; a huge ring several metres across made of some unknown mineral and carved with a variety of strange symbols. Cut to the present day when the US military has got hold of the ring and is trying to work out what it is for. Cue the recruitment of a geeky academic Daniel Jackson (James Spaader) whose radical theories about ancient Egypt had caused him to be regarded as a joke. He is able to decipher the symbols and activate the ring, which turns out to be a stargate, providing instant access to another planet. There Jackson and a team of soldiers led by Colonel O'Neill (Kurt Russell) discover what appears to be an ancient Egyptian civilisation still thriving, but dominated by a powerful alien who has adopted the identity of the sun-god Ra (Jaye Davidson). They learn that Ra had long before transported the Egyptians from Earth to this planet to mine the rare mineral used to make the stargate. The team find themselves battling with Ra for survival and to protect the Earth.

I must admit I enjoy this kind of story – I am fascinated by the sheer alienness of ancient Egypt (without believing that it must therefore have been created by aliens!). I also like the concept of the stargate, which has featured in so many SF novels that it can be regarded as one of the standard tropes of the SF genre, along with spaceships which can travel faster than light. No-one has any idea how either type of device might practically work but they are too convenient to space opera to ignore, so they are usually passed off with mumbo-jumbo about wormholes and warp drives. Another trope is of course the academic with crazy ideas who everyone laughs at until he proves to be right all along, so this movie ticks lots of comfort boxes.

There are also the less forgivable Hollywood SF tropes, notably that radio works instantly, everywhere. The vast distances and timescales of the galaxy (let alone the universe) are far too inconvenient for Hollywood to bother with, so they just ignore them. In more advanced scenarios they apply some more mumbo-jumbo about tachyons, ansibles or dirac transmitters, but in Stargate they don't have such fig-leaves, just ordinary steam-age radio.  This doesn't deter them from taking this trope to the extreme, with a robotic probe sent trundling through the newly-opened stargate instantly sending back a radio message via a cute little foot-wide dish antenna from a location which the scientists are able to work out is on the other side of the universe. Umm, guys, you do know how long it would take for a radio message to arrive from the other side of the universe (assuming it had sides, of course)? About 13 billion years….which is even longer than the combined running time of all of the Stargate spin-offs!

Having poked some fun at it, I have to admit that I still like this film. I admired the dramatic alien spaceship and the way it used a pyramid as a parking bollard, and was intrigued by the androgynous Ra – I still wasn't certain whether Jaye Davidson was male or female until I looked him up. There are some engaging characters among the people of the distant planet, supplying both humour and romance. The CGI is dated but adequate. Despite its age, it is well worth watching and still provides far better entertainment than the majority of SFF films. About the only aspect which niggled me this time was the obtrusive and over-dramatic background music constantly sawing away, which does date the film.

A final dose of reality which crossed my mind – the next expedition to the planet had better take a large quantity of vaccines and other medical supplies or the ancient Egyptians would be rapidly wiped out by the accumulation of evolved viruses and other pathogens which we carry around with us.

Saturday 5 October 2013

Interzone 248

The Sept/Oct issue of the British SFF magazine notes the passing of three authors whose names I am familiar with: John Boyd, who wrote The Last Starship from Earth and a dozen more novels in the 1968-78 period; Douglas R Mason, perhaps better known as John Rankine, who published 21 SF novels between 1968 and 2001 as well as contributing stories to Space 1999 and other series; and last but far from least Frederik Pohl, who was one of the giants of my early SF-reading life. Pohl's first published story emerged in 1937 and he wrote around 150 books, the last being published in 2011. I will always associate him with the 1960s, my formative decade of SFF reading, by which time he had not only written many novels himself (I still have one by him, A Plague of Pythons, and must re-read it soon) but also collaborated with others, particularly Cyril Kornbluth. Two of these works I have re-read in recent years and reviewed here: The Space Merchants and Wolfbane.

The featured author is Christopher Priest, with a long interview to accompany a review of his latest novel, The Adjacent. Priest is one of those authors whose work I respect more than like, as I don't always find his subjects of interest (or indeed understand what is going on), but I did read and review The Separation a few years ago and might well pick up his new book. There is also the usual collection of book and film reviews, although with the former in particular I get the sense that some reviewers are trying to impress their peers with their erudition rather than writing to inform simple readers like me.

The five stories in this issue are as follows:

Ad Astra by Carole Johnstone, illustrated by Wayne Haag. A young couple on a years-long journey in a small space capsule experience all of the stress one might imagine, with bizarre consequences.

The Hareton K-12 County School and Adult Extension by James Van Pelt, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A ramshackle old school serving a small town appears to acquire a life of its own.

Dark Gardens by Greg Kurzawa, illustrated by Martin Handford. Mannequins seem to come to life in a house with a very unusual basement.

Il Teatro Oscuro by Ken Altabef. An old theatre is scheduled for demolition, but one man still – literally – sees it as it used to be.

Technarion by Sean McMullen, illustrated by Richard Wagner. This starts as a steampunk tale but turns into something else. The battle against computers is taken to a literal level since there is, in a very real sense, no future in them.

A collection of stories which all tend (or enthusiastically dive in) to the bizarre. Johnstone's story is the most conventional of them and even that has a strange ending, but the one that seems most likely to stick in my mind due to its downright oddness is Van Pelt's tale of the all-embracing school.