Saturday 28 December 2013

Short Story Award shortlist

I recently unearthed a booklet, long buried in my reading pile, which consisted of the four short stories short-listed for the British Science Fiction Association awards – in 2010. Oh well, just a tad too late to vote…  It was a convenient size to take on a recent railway journey so I managed to get through it, discovering that I had already read and reviewed two of the stories because they had first appeared in Interzone magazine.

Flying in the Face of God, by Nina Allan. This first appeared in Interzone 227, and the comment I made then was: "An astronaut makes her goodbyes as she is irrevocably changed by a treatment to make long space journeys possible." Not one of the three stories I liked from that issue, but on re-reading it's a powerfully atmospheric piece, as usual from this author.

The Shipmaker, by Aliette do Bodard. This one is from Interzone 231: "A story set in this author's 'Xuya continuity', an alternative Earth in which the Chinese discovered America before Columbus. A Grand Master of Design Harmony, responsible for integrating all of the aspects of a spaceship project ready for the new Mind which will be uniquely capable of transforming the ship into a viable entity, is thrown into a crisis when the Mind is born too soon. There is an appealingly lyrical flavour to this author's writing." This time I thought the writing was impressive but the story was not to my taste so I skimmed through it rather than reading it all again.

The Things, by Peter Watts. A shape-shifting alien able to take over human bodies causes havoc in an Antarctic station. Sound familiar? Indeed it does, since this story was told in the 1951 film The Thing from Another World (remade in 1982), itself based on the 1938 novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell (writing under the pseudonym of Don A. Stuart). A similar plot device was also used in the 2003 made-for-DVD film Alien Hunter which I reviewed in July 2013. Watt's version sticks to the original plot but with the intriguing twist that the story is told entirely from the viewpoint of the alien. I haven't read much by Watts (I reviewed his novel Blindsight in March 2011) but there is a certain grim darkness to the story-telling which also features here.

Arrhythmia, by Neil Williamson. A dystopia in which the citizens are brainwashed into enjoying spending each day doing monotonous and meaningless assembly work in a huge factory, with the aid of constant music with a regular, driving beat. A spark of rebellion is ignited by a young singer hammering out a revolutionary message without the rhythmic beat – but is the rebellion all that it seems?

I can't say that I really liked any of the shortlist, although I acknowledge that they were all well-written. If I applied the test of "which would I like to read again?" then my order of preference would be: Watts, Williamson, Allan, Bodard. 

P.S. Aliette do Bodard's The Shipmaker won the award. It isn't the first time I've disagreed with awards judges!

Sunday 22 December 2013

Wine of the Dreamers, by John D MacDonald

A few weeks ago, in my review of A Plague of Pythons by Frederick Pohl, I mentioned that the basic plot idea of people using machines to exercise telepathic control of others at a distance had already been used by John D MacDonald. This author is best known for his very enjoyable private eye thrillers featuring Travis McGee (a series of twenty novels written over twenty years), but before this he did write a couple of works of SF: Wine of the Dreamers (reprinted as Planet of the Dreamers) and Ballroom of the Skies, as well as a comic fantasy, The Girl, the Gold Watch and Everything.

Wine of the Dreamers, published in 1951 some fourteen years before Pohl's novel, begins on a near-future Earth in which exploration of the Solar System is underway and plans are being made in the USA for the first interstellar spaceship. This is designed to avoid the limitations of light speed, involving some pseudo-scientific explanations that sound rather more original and impressive than the now clichéd warp drives and wormholes. The controversial project is however knocked back by an act of sabotage by a trusted engineer, just one of a whole series of inexplicable actions by normally rational people who seem to go temporarily insane and claim to have been possessed. Project Director Bard Lane, aided by the project's psychologist Sharan Inly, tries to understand what is happening while fending off the military who want to control the project and politicians who want to scrap it.

Meanwhile, in a strange world that appears to consist entirely of rooms and corridors, the Watchers live their restricted lives, spending much of each day in coffin-like dreaming machines, which they believe have been designed for their entertainment. Here they can dream of visiting other worlds, strange places where people exist on the surface of planets and experience lives very different from that of the Watchers. To add to their entertainment, the Watchers can take over the bodies of any of those people at will and make them do as they wish. A few of the more senior Watchers remember that they have one particular duty while dreaming – to destroy any attempts to develop technology advanced enough to construct space ships – but all of them believe that the worlds they watch are entirely imaginary.

Raul Kinson is one of the Watchers, a misfit who constantly questions and challenges their lives and who comes to believe that the worlds they visit really exist. The drama plays out in two parallel plot threads, alternating between Earth and the Watchers.

To be honest I wasn't expecting much from this story since it was written at a time when most SF was simplistic stuff of no great merit and, at 170 pages (coincidentally the same as Pohl's work), there was little space available for plot or character development. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The story is well told, the characterisation much better than usual for the period and, even though I remembered the basic outline of the plot, I was still gripped from start to finish. It is a different kind of story from Pohl's, without any of the intriguing moral ambiguity, but is still a welcome reminder of what a great spinner of yarns John D MacDonald was, whatever genre he was writing in.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

Film: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

I vaguely recall seeing the original 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, but it was many years ago so I had to use Wiki to refresh my memory in order to compare it with the 2008 remake which I saw recently. I learned something from this, which is that the 1951 film was based on the short story Farewell to the Master (1940) by Harry Bates, not one that I recall reading.

The 2008 remake sticks quite closely to the general plot and spirit of the original with some changes to the detail, partly to take advantage of modern CGI. To summarise (with spoilers – skip the rest of this paragraph if you don't want to know what happened): a huge, transparent, globe filled with swirling patterns arrives from space and lands in Central Park, New York. It is promptly surrounded by military forces plus some selected scientists. A humanoid figure emerges from the sphere but is shot and wounded; a giant robot then emerges and shuts down the power to the weapons. The humanoid (who turns out to be physically human once the outer covering is removed and bears a remarkable resemblance to Keanu Reeves) is taken away by the military from whom he is helped to escape by one of the scientists, Dr Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly). He has a message from an association of civilisations in the galactic vicinity who have become worried about human aggressiveness: change, or be exterminated. He eventually decides that humanity will never change and sets in motion world-wide destruction of humanity and its works (the opportunity for some novel CGI), before Benson puts in a final appeal for a reprieve.

It clearly would not be fair to assess the 2008 film by the same standards as the 1951 version. The original was a ground-breaking film which has rightly become a classic; the new version merely updates the story for a modern audience. Ignoring the original for the moment and judging the 2008 version on its merits, it is not a bad SF thriller and is painless to watch, although not particularly gripping. Perhaps the worst aspect is the comic-book military action, including one point of detail which particularly jarred with me: someone in the production team was obviously impressed by the name "Sidewinder" since they used Sidewinder missiles to attack the globe on two occasions. In fact, this is a short-range air-to-air missile with a very small warhead, which is just about the least suitable missile in the US inventory for attacking such a target.

Overall, not a film worth making a point of watching, but bearable. Probably more rewarding to spend the time watching the 1951 original, which although obviously dated is a genuine landmark.

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Rivers of London, by Ben Aaronovitch

"Being a seasoned Londoner, Martin gave the body the 'London once-over' – a quick glance to determine whether this was a drunk, a crazy or a human being in distress. The fact that it was entirely possible for someone to be all three simultaneously is why good-Samaritanism in London is considered an extreme sport – like base-jumping or crocodile-wrestling."

When I read the above extract on the first page of the novel, I thought "I'm going to enjoy this book" and indeed I did. Set in present-day London, it tells the story of Peter Grant, a young police constable, who discovers that there's an entirely unsuspected aspect of London – populated by ghosts, vampires, deities and wizards. This is reluctantly acknowledged by a few senior police officers, and Peter finds himself assigned to work with Detective Chief Inspector Nightingale, who turns out to be much more than just a policeman. As he tries to help Nightingale solve a series of brutal and bizarre murders, Peter finds allies and enemies among the supernatural inhabitants of the capital city – and some major temptations along the way.

The writing is full of the deadpan cynicism revealed in the first quote, and frequently had me chuckling. If the content sounds familiar, it is in a similar category to Fated, by Benedict Jacka, which I reviewed here in July. I'm not really sure which book I enjoyed the most, but fortunately there are several more in each series, so I have a lot of entertaining reading to come before I need to reach a conclusion.

One book I tried to read recently was Among Others, by Jo Walton. This has received rave reviews and managed the rare double win, being voted best novel for both the 2011 Nebula Award and the 2012 Hugo Award. It is a first-person account of the life of a young Welsh girl who finds solace from a grim reality in her reading of SFF books, to which there are copious references. I ploughed on for over 70 pages before deciding that it was getting nowhere interesting and I didn't care what happened next, so I gave up.

Anyone who might have made use of the lists of book and screen reviews on this blog (see left-hand column) has probably noticed that these two lists are no longer in alphabetical order. Or to be more accurate, each of them is in two groups, each of which is in alphabetical order: those reviews posted before 29 June 2013 form the major group, but all those posted since then form a separate list which appears first. Clicking on the "sort alphabetically " button in the Design controls works while I am on the design page – but has no effect when I return to the web page. I have tried everything I can think of to merge these two groups, including individually moving each review into its proper place in the lists, but again this does not transfer to the web page. I don't know what happened in late June but it is obviously resistant to change. Any suggestions welcomed…

Incidentally, this week's posting is early for domestic reasons, and the next one will be late. Normal service should be resumed thereafter.