Sunday 23 February 2014

Films: Pitch Black (2000), and The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

I hadn't seen Pitch Black before, but it kept appearing on the TV schedules with reasonable ratings so I decided I'd give it a look. Warning – this review contains spoilers.

The basic plot is hardly new: a spaceship crashes on an uninhabited desert planet, with a small number of survivors. Just to liven things up, they include a convicted killer who had escaped from jail, and the bounty hunter who was bringing him in. When they explore, one man dies while investigating a cave and it is clear that dangerous things live underground. A mineral prospectors' base, which had been abandoned over twenty years earlier, provides more mystery. The survivors are tormented by the brightness and heat (the system has three suns, bathing in the planet in almost perpetual sunshine) but an orerry in the base reveals that from time to time there is a total eclipse that can last for quite a while. Needless to say, the eclipse occurs and all of those nocturnal creatures emerge from underground, very hungry…

There are no real surprises in this rather simple story, the main points of interest being guessing who's going to die next and who might still be standing at the end. We know of course that the criminal Riddick will survive as Vin Diesel has a sequel to make, but the rest are literally up for grabs. Despite the lack of originality, this isn't a bad film (as long as you don't examine too closely the mechanics of the eclipse); there's quite a strong cast featuring Radha Mitchell as the pilot, and it's nice to see Claudia Black, then in the process of becoming famous as Aeryn Sun in Farscape.

The Chronicles of Riddick is a direct sequel, but is a very different kind of film. Instead of being a pared-down horror thriller, it aims for epic fantasy status. Instead of just being a criminal who can fight well, Riddick becomes a survivor of a race of formidable warriors and the only chance of defending humanity against the ravages of an army of religious extremists, the Necromongers.

It is obvious that this was made with a much bigger budget than the original film, as it is packed with special effects and takes place a wide range of different settings. It also includes some class actors; Judi Dench, Thandie Newton and Colm Feore. Despite this, it doesn't really gel; it seems too concerned with emphasising the dramatic images, especially the iconography of the Necromongers whose mysterious religion never made much sense to me. The constant violent action means that there is no time for developing the characters (Vin Diesel was nominated for a Razzie award for Worst Actor), and a coherent plot is another casualty. Best regarded as a curiosity, and only worth watching if you have time on your hands. I gather that there is a third film in the series now out, but the reviews I've read do not encourage me to watch it.

Sunday 16 February 2014

The Iron Thorn by Algis Budrys

The writing career of Algis Budrys stretched over the second half of the last century, publication dates starting in 1954 and finishing in 1993. In that time he published eight novels along with many short stories. I used to own copies of three of the novels: Who?; Rogue Moon; and The Iron Thorn. All of them memorable, but the best-known of them was Who?: one of the few SF stories to achieve a much wider readership than SF fans, it was made into a feature film in 1973. As a result of occasional space-saving purges over the years I have kept only The Iron Thorn. A shorter version was first serialised in IF magazine in 1967 before the novel was published in the following year; an alternative title was also used, The Amsirs and the Iron Thorn.

The Iron Thorn begins in a small community on a bleak desert world. The people have lived, for as long as their collective memory can recall, clustered around a tall metal tower which they call the Iron Thorn. People can only survive, and crops will only grow, in the area surrounding the tower. Those wearing special metal caps can range further afield, but only in sight of the tower; go any further and they die of lack of air and freezing cold. The few caps are given only to those who hunt for food the enemies of humanity out in the desert; the Amsirs, human-sized flightless birds who make formidable opponents.

Honor White Jackson is an intelligent and rebellious young man on his first hunt, during which he discovers some shocking facts that were kept concealed from everyone except the hunters. This leads him on a journey during which he experiences a series of revelations about the nature of his world. That's really all I can say without posting spoilers, so all I'll add at this point is that, on reading for it the first time since the 1970s, I can understand why it survived my purges. It's a terrific story, exceptionally well plotted and written, and worth anyone's time to read, especially as it only runs to 160 pages. I read it in one sitting, because after reading the first page I didn't want to put it down. However, it is a little-known book, so for those who want to know what happens I'll continue the description below.


What Jackson discovers is that the Amsirs are intelligent, carry throwing weapons similar to his, can speak, and want to capture humans instead of killing them. Feeling stifled by the limited nature of life around the Iron Thorn, Jackson rebels and sets off to the desert where he voluntarily surrenders to one of the Amsir. With the aid of clothes and breathing apparatus supplied by the Amsir, Jackson is taken across the desert and over the mountains to a huge, lush valley where the Amsirs live within the protection of their own, much larger, Thorn. There, he learns that the Amsirs want humans in order to gain entry to a much smaller version of the Thorn that stands beside the big one; there is a ladder to a closed door half-way up the small Thorn, but any Amsir who tries to open it is killed by the Thorn. Humans are not harmed, but so far none has been able to open the door.

Jackson manages to get the door open and discovers that the small Thorn is a functioning spaceship. After a rapid education-by-induction process he understands that he is on Mars, and that the two colonies of humans and genetically-engineered Amsirs were set up long ago as an experiment to see if life could be adapted to the planet. He flies the ship to Earth, expecting to find a high-technology civilisation, only to discover that there have been massive changes in the intervening period. The world is run by Comp, an all-pervading artificial intelligence that can instantly provide for any need. People now lead idyllic but pointless lives of leisure, focused on achieving status through social games (portrayed in a chillingly convincing and thought-provoking way), and Jackson once more feels himself out of synch with the life and rebels against the role the people want him to adopt.

Budrys, who died in 2008, had a reputation of being one of the more thoughtful and literary SF writers of his era. This reputation is fully justified by The Iron Thorn but, despite these qualities, the story remains as fast-paced and exciting as any. Highly recommended.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Interzone 250

Some intriguing book reviews in the Jan/Feb issue of the SFF magazine, two of which prompted me to place immediate orders. One is The Eidolon by Libby McGugan who is also the featured author. Experiments into advanced physics at CERN raise fears of an uncontrollable chain reaction if they are not stopped, and one of the scientists there is recruited by a shadowy organisation to achieve just that. The other is Dream London by Tony Ballantyne: something very strange has happened to the City of London and to those living in it; is it a dream or a nightmare? Another couple of books I noted as sounding very promising were Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton (a combination of historical fantasy and detective story, set in the late Roman Empire and reminiscent of Guy Gavriel Kay), and On the Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds (part of the Poseidon's Children sequence). It's a long time since I read anything by Reynolds and I have some catching up to do.

Seven short stories this time:

The Damaged by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. A woman who works at a factory making life-like androids finds herself fascinated by the damaged rejects she collects from the street, and in what causes them to stop functioning after a few years.

Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place by David Tallerman, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A man dissatisfied with his life is perturbed when he meets some people who appear to be from another reality; is our Earth real, or just a temporary back-up copy?

The Labyrinth of Thorns by C Allegra Hawksmoor, illustrated by Dave Senecal. An investigator infiltrating an illegal organisation undergoes a memory implant. What effect will this have on his sanity?

Beneath the Willow Branches by Caroline M Yoachim, illustrated by Martin Hanford. A neurosurgeon tries to revive his wife, who is in a coma as a result of a problem with a memory implant (again!). But to try to retrieve her consciousness involves meddling with time.

Predvestniki by Greg Kurzawa, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A visitor to Moscow notices strange towers beginning to appear in the view from his bedroom window, but somehow he can never quite locate them on foot. There is something ominous about them….

Lilacs and Daffodils by Rebecca Campbell. Contrasting takes on elements of a child's memories at different stages of her life; are these real, or an artificial construct?

Wake Up, Phil by Georgina Bruce, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A woman in a dystopian world divided into two totally opposed commercial forces is startled by the nature of her neighbour. Or is her perception being changed by the dieting pills her employer has given her to test?

Memory, time, reality and states of consciousness are the themes of these stories, which make them rather dreamlike (or nightmarish). I can't say that these are especially to my taste, but Kurzawa's story stuck in my mind and is the one I'd choose to read again.

Saturday 1 February 2014

TV – V (2009-11): Series and Serials

This is my second look at V, since I've now finished both seasons. Before getting into the review, recent TV SF programmes have made me ponder the way in which these are constructed and in particular the difference between series and serials. This is largely ignored these days, when every episodic programme is referred to as a "series" (and divided into "seasons" rather than "series"), but there is a distinction that is worth bearing in mind. A series consists of self-contained episodes with a common background and characters but with a complete story in each episode, so they can be watched in any order. A serial is one continuing story which is chopped up into short segments to fit the needs of TV programming, so it is essential to watch them all, in the right order; if you try to start half-way through you won't have a clue what's going on.

In practice, most series tend to have elements of serials within them: those like Star Trek or the X-Files usually have some minor continuing plot threads running through them (developing relationships between characters, for example). Some series occasionally incorporate stories that take more than one episode to complete, so in effect they have mini-serials within them. Others have a roughly equal mix between the two, in that each episode contains a mini-story but the continuing plot threads are equally important (from what I can recall, Farscape was like that). Finally, a few programmes evolve over time: Fringe, for example, started as an X-Files type series but continuing plot threads which were of minor importance at the start gradually came to dominate, so that by the final season it had effectively morphed into a serial.

I find that serials are generally more satisfying than series – like enjoying a well-planned multi-course meal rather than lots of separate snacks – but I imagine they are more of a risk for the TV companies. The problem is, the viewing figures at the launch are probably as good as they're going to get; new viewers are less likely to join later because if they've missed the start, they won't understand what's going on, so the viewing numbers are only likely to decline through the duration of the programme. Series don't have this problem so if the initial episodes are well-received they can gather an audience over time. I suspect that this makes long-running serials more vulnerable to being closed down than series.

I should add that serials are also more of a risk for viewers, who may become hooked on the story only to find the programme is cancelled before reaching a conclusion. This is more of a problem in the USA than the UK, simply because planned programme runs are generally much longer. In the UK, serials usually consist of only a few episodes that are all made together, and are shown as one continuous "season". One exception was the BBC SF serial Outcasts (reviewed on this blog three years ago), which ran for one season of eight episodes and finished on a multiple cliff-hanger, only to have the planned second season cancelled due to poor viewing figures. In that particular case I can't really argue because the show was riddled with flaws and plot inconsistencies, but I found it strangely fascinating and was sorry it was cut off.

Which brings me back to V, another serial that was closed down earlier than planned, after 22 episodes. In this case it seems unjust, because it is right up there with the best TV SF I've seen. It's got everything: alien invasion with vast starships hovering overhead; strong characters, very well played, who develop throughout the story (the scene-stealer throughout being the manipulative and deceitful alien leader, an amazing performance by Morena Baccarin); a great plot which is thought-provoking, tense and dramatic, with a lot of uncertainty about who the good guys and the bad guys are (or those changing from one to the other); and twist after plot twist keeping viewers on edge of their seats.  It's also aimed at adults, which means there's an intelligent script containing some severe moral dilemmas, the setbacks for the heroes at least match the triumphs, and the good guys are not invulnerable, or always right, or always virtuous. It just kept getting better as it went along and deserved to be highly successful, but the initial viewing figures had dropped by half at the end – possibly because the good guys were having such a rough time that it certainly doesn't qualify as comfort viewing.

Ironically the final episode does indeed achieve a dramatically satisfactory ending, just not what viewers would expect. Had the serial been planned to end in that way it would have made TV SF history for the originality and audacity of its conclusion; so it's still very much worth watching, even in its curtailed form.