Saturday 29 March 2014

Interzone 251

The author interview this time is with Simon Ings, juxtaposed with a review of his novel Wolves, set in a dystopian near future in which a global catastrophe is about to happen. Not one likely to find its way into my reading pile. In fact, of all the books reviewed here only one sparked my interest – Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest, one of her Clockwork Century series, steampunk adventures set in an alternative nineteenth century. Must look those up. Of the many film and TV reviews, those that I might see include Her (a very favourable review), Thor: The Dark World (also favourable), Ender's Game and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (both given rather lukewarm endorsements).

On to the short stories:

Ghost Story by John Grant, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A happily and faithfully married man is startled to receive a message from a family friend to say that she is pregnant, and he is the father. He arranges to meet her and finds their memories of the last few years to be entirely different. It gradually becomes clear that something is very wrong….

Ashes by Karl Bunker, illustrated by Jim Burns. In a world almost depopulated by disease, a man travels with a robot IA friend to find an appropriate place to bury the ashes of his partner. But something strange is happened to the IAs, who keep disappearing.

Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa, illustrated by Jim Burns. A horror story concerning an old man hiding in a city occupied by the enemy, and a surgeon who says he wants to help him. Baffling.

Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer, illustrated by Martin Hanford. A much longer novelette about a female engineer mining asteroids in a dystopian future in which the miners are effectively indentured for life and women are, at best, second class citizens. After being raped, she plots an elaborate revenge.

A Doll is Not A Dumpling by Tracie Welser, illustrated by Richard Wagner. Another robot IA, this time one that sells dumplings, is hijacked by people who want to use it for something entirely different. Rather mystifying.

This is How You Die by Gareth L Powell. Yet another dystopian future in which a flu-like lethal illness has destroyed society. Depressing, but fortunately very short.

For me, Palmer's story is the stand-out one and (probably not coincidentally) the nearest to a traditional SF tale. Although the plot summary does not sound encouraging, we are given a brave and resourceful heroine to cheer on. Of the others, Grant's tale is intriguing and well worth reading again. The rest are best not read by anyone who prefers light and optimistic fiction.

Saturday 22 March 2014

A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin

Yet another recommendation from a review in Interzone, The Madness of Angels does make me wonder just how many different stories set in an occult version of contemporary London the market can cope with. Currently we have Jacka's Alex Vera novels and Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series, before that we had the stand-alone novels Un Lun Dun from China Miéville (and also Kraken by the same author – yet to be read), Paul Cornell's London Falling (also yet to be read), Christopher Fowler's Roofworld, and finally Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. I say finally, but no doubt there are others out there…

A Madness of Angels is the first in a series of four published so far, and is recounted in the first person by Matthew Smith, a journeyman sorcerer who was killed by his mentor, the powerful sorcerer Robert James Bakker, two years before. He is therefore somewhat disconcerted to find himself back in the flesh, sharing his body with a collection of strange beings known as the "blue electric angels". He discovers that in his absence Bakker has created a vast occult organisation called the Tower, which has incorporated most of the magical talent in London by the simple expedient of killing everyone who refused to join. Matthew Smith is being hunted but he has revenge in mind and has no intention of giving in, so he recruits an unlikely band of assorted allies and battle commences, with the geography of the city forming an effective background.

Author Griffin slots into the London occult canon at what might be called the "richly detailed fantasy" end of the spectrum. Her style is more similar to Aaronovitch than Jacka, but the pace is slowed somewhat, leading to the book being significantly longer. I thought of Clive Barker's work when reading this (I really must read Weaveworld again, I haven't done so since it was first published). While I generally prefer a fast pace to a long book, Griffin succeeded in keeping my attention, and I will be buying more of this series.

Sunday 16 March 2014

TV – The Dead Zone (2002-7)

A trawl through TV SFF series and serials available on DVD pulled up a dozen that looked interesting enough to try, and the US/Canadian production The Dead Zone ("based on characters" from Stephen King's 1979 novel of the same name) was the first one to drop through my letter box. This lasted for six seasons with 80 episodes made, but (as so often seems to be the case) was cancelled without reaching a proper conclusion. In this particular instance it probably doesn't matter too much, in that the basic plot is quite open-ended with each episode largely self-contained and without any prospect of some dramatic conclusion solving an edge-of-the-seat mystery.

The setting is a small town in the present-day USA. Johnny Smith (Anthony Michael Hall) is a teacher who spends six years in a coma with major brain damage after a car crash, before making an unexpected recovery. He discovers that his brain has rewired itself and he now has psychic abilities; making physical contact with people is sufficient to tell him a lot about them, including things they don't know themselves, from their past, present or future. He also discovers that his pregnant fiancee Sarah (Nicole de Boer), having been told that Johnny had no hope of recovery, married another man – the local sheriff (Chris Bruno). Johnny gets involved in solving crimes and preventing deaths, attracting growing media attention, especially from a local journalist (Kristen Dalton).

I've seen all of the first season, and I'm quite impressed. The script is intelligent and the lead character's problems complex and difficult enough to engage adults, not just adolescents (as seems so often the case today).  The first three episodes form one continuous story of Johnny's recovery, the discovery of his abilities and the rapidly growing interest of the news media.  The focus then switches away from this to individual cases he deals with (some of them seeming rather trivial), though returns to the main story line from time to time. So far I'm finding it sufficiently absorbing to keep watching it, although I suspect I'll lose interest long before the end. Time will tell.

Monday 10 March 2014

Films: Elysium (2013) and The Incredible Hulk (2008)

I admired director Neill Blomkamp's 2009 SF film District 9 (reviewed on this blog in September of that year) so was naturally keen to see Elysium. Most of it is set on a dystopian Earth a century hence in which population growth has caused the ruin of the planet's environment, with people living in sordid poverty in shanty-towns. The exception is the very rich, who have created a utopia for themselves on a vast orbital space habitat called Elysium. Max Da Costa (Matt Damon) is one of the poor down on Earth, trying to make ends meet, when he is involved in an accident at work which leaves him with only days to live. He accepts what is virtually a suicide mission so that he can qualify for a trip to Elysium where his life can be saved. Meanwhile, he is hunted by mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) and his crew, who are controlled by Delacourt (Jodi Foster) the Secretary of Elysium, leading to a final showdown on the space habitat.

The style of the film is very reminiscent of District 9, being tough and gritty with a lot of violence and moments of wince-inducing gruesomeness. Matt Damon does his usual expressionless hero stuff, while Sharlto Copley is unrecognisable as the psychopathic mercenary. I usually admire Jodi Foster's acting ability but in this instance I didn't find her particularly convincing. Alice Braga as Da Costa's love interest provides a contrast in mood but otherwise the action is relentless. Having said that, the film is well-constructed and gripping throughout (although I was totally unconvinced by a space habitat with no roof over the atmosphere).  It isn't such a ground-breaking film as Blomkamp's first offering and the basic plot reminded me very much of the 2011 film In Time (also reviewed here). Apart from the obvious differences that In Time is set entirely on Earth and includes the extra factor of people's lives being time-limited, the concept of a hero from the poverty-stricken massses breaking into the secure enclaves where the wealthy live lives of pampered luxury is the same. On reflection, In Time has a more complex and interesting plot and is definitely the one I would choose to watch again. Despite this, Elysium is still worth viewing.


I hadn't seen any version of Hulk / The Incredible Hulk before, but noticed that the 2008 film was on TV with a good write-up so decided to take a look. I'm sure I don't need to use space in explaining the story here, but basically the film has three stages: the first is a lightning-fast infodump explaining the entire backstory is a rapid rush of images; the second covers an interesting period while Banner (Edward Norton) is hiding in Brazil, desperate to maintain his human form; and the third – and by far the longest – is an endless series of chase and especially fight scenes while the Hulk does his stuff, briefly interrupted by interludes with love interest Liv Tyler. I thought it was competently made but superficial, with the constant fighting becoming rather boring. Reading about the Hulk films suggests that maybe Ang Lee's 2003 version would have suited me better, but I can't say I'm interested enough in the story to take the time to see it – a little Hulk goes a long way!

Sunday 2 March 2014

Eidolon by Libby McGugan

My attention was caught by a review in Interzone 250 of Eidolon, the first novel by Libby McGugan, together with an interview with the author. The story sounded promising, so I ordered a copy. The plot is set in the present day and concerns Robert Strong, a young theoretical physicist who is contacted by the Observation Research Board, a shadowy but powerful organisation. ORB presents convincing research evidence that the experiments with the CERN Large Hadron Collider may result in the creation of "strangelets", sub-atomic particles which, by interacting with ordinary matter, could destroy our present reality. However, CERN had dismissed the risk, so ORB wants Strong to sabotage their research before it is too late.

So far the plot seems like a techno-thriller with a rather more fundamental plot than most, and (as far as I am competent to judge) the author has done her research into theoretical physics while displaying her knowledge with a light touch that doesn't distract from the story. What struck me first about the novel is how beautifully and intelligently written it is, how full of perceptive observations. It's difficult to write a lot more without spoilers, so all I will say is that the plot develops in very unexpected and increasingly strange directions that compel Strong to question his understanding of the nature of reality.

Eidolon is that rare thing, a novel with a unique and intriguing plot that has no respect for traditional genre boundaries. The only other book I have read in recent years of which I could say the same is China Miéville's The City and the City. While Eidolon is complete in itself, the world the author has created clearly has far more scope for exploration, so I was delighted to read in the interview that she is working on the sequel. That one will go straight to the top of my reading pile!


Another book I picked up having read good reviews was Paul McAuley's The Quiet War, the first of a series of four (to date). The author's name sounded vaguely familiar and having looked up the list of his publications I suspect I may have read at least one before – Pasquale's Angel – although I don't remember it. So I started with high expectations but found myself disappointed. The plot concerns a 23rd century environmental engineer from Earth trying to set up a new biome on Callisto against a background of tension between Earth and the colonised moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The problem I found is that the book is very heavy on description; in the first two chapters there are only a couple of brief snatches of conversation, all the rest is infodump. Furthermore, McAuley is a biologist by training, and while I always appreciate expert knowledge being applied to fiction, he allows his enthusiasm for the nuts and bolts of biome creation to override the priority for a good story. The pace accelerates later but the action is still frequently put on hold for yet more technical description, and I never became fully engaged with the characters or the plot. I was reminded of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, which was similarly dominated by the setting to the extent that it seemed the author was more interested in writing a detailed "how to terraform Mars" handbook than a novel. I persevered with The Quiet War until I had read over 70 pages but finally asked myself "do I want to spend a few more hours on this or would I rather stop and try something else?" As I have a huge pile of books to read the answer was easy, so I stopped.