Sunday 27 April 2014

The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump by Harry Turtledove

It's been a long time since I read any of Turtledove's work and this one (along with a few others) has been sitting in my reading pile for years. A reorganisation of the large pile into several neat stacks (thereby allowing me to enjoy the illusion of progress) happened to bring this book to the top of one stack, so I finally picked it up in the hope of enjoying some light entertainment. I was not disappointed.

David Fisher works for the Californian branch of the Environmental Perfection Agency in a very different world: one in which magic, sorcery, demons, gods and other manifestations of the Other Side are thriving on This Side, and deliver many of the services that technology does for us. For instance, travel is by magic carpet, and telephones and the ethernet work by using cloned imps transmitting information between themselves. Fisher's job involves making sure that none of these manifestations cause trouble by getting out of hand or reacting with each other.

His work is mostly routine until he is given the task of checking out a local toxic spell dump – where the nasty residues of magic are securely stored – to follow up reports of leakages from the dump affecting the local population. What he discovers sparks off a major investigation that gradually spreads to include native American gods, and threatens the very existence of the Judeo-Christian Western Civilisation.

There is a lot of humour in the tale, mostly resulting from the juxtaposition of the familiar with the strange, and it is liberally spiced with puns of all kinds; for instance jinnetic engineering and virtuous reality. The Department of Defense is based in the Pentagram, the CIA really does employ spooks, a spellchecker is something entirely different and there's a groan-inducing joke about the San Andreas Fault.

Although published in 1993, the book first struck me as reading very much like a fantasy spoof from the 1960s, except for the sexual activity between Fisher and his girlfriend that wouldn't have featured then. Later in the story, as Fisher desperately tries to keep on top of his growing list of things to do while being constantly diverted from the task he thinks is most important, I was reminded of the humour of Connie Willis. This kind of story won't be to everyone's taste, but I enjoyed it.

I started Equations of Life by Simon Morden, the first of a favourably reviewed series set in a decidedly different, future London, but I didn't get very far, and gave up after three attempts. The setting is dystopian, the principal character unsympathetic, and the plot rather grim, none of which appeals to me. I have too many other things to read…

Sunday 20 April 2014

Films: Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

I hadn't seen Tim Burton's version of Alice in Wonderland before and knew little about it: I was surprised to read that it is one of the highest grossing films of all time, earning around $1 billion at the box office (five or six times what it cost to make). Although I was of course familiar with the book as a child I hadn't read it since then so, although I recalled odd details, I didn't know what to expect, except a lot of nonsense! I read through the Wiki summaries afterwards to see how the plots compared.

The first point is that the film is not simply an adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but takes elements from the sequel (Through the Looking-Glass) plus adds some original ones and spins a rather more coherent story around the mix. While the result still contains a lot of surreal nonsense – I wasn't disappointed in that respect – it makes for a reasonably understandable tale. The acting is good with some well-known names (Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway to name but a few) and the film is visually very rich and appealing. Not really my cup of tea, but entertaining enough to be worth watching.


I watched Battle: Los Angeles with low expectations, supposing it to be another juvenile popcorn movie like Battleship. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised: it is instead a grittily realistic war movie that just happens to involve an alien invasion. The hero is a war-scarred US Marine Staff Sargeant (Aaron Eckhart) who is about to retire when clusters of "meteorites" landing in the oceans next to major cities turn out to be alien invaders. He leads a squad on a mission to rescue civilians trapped in a part of Los Angeles due to be heavily bombed by the USAF to clear it of aliens. His task is not helped by the fact that he has gained a reputation for losing his men in combat. Naturally, all does not go smoothly and what follows is a violent, confused running battle with the aliens not even seen for some time, except for brief glimpses.

I've not been a soldier (let alone a US Marine) so I may be mistaken, but the combat action seemed convincing to me – especially in its early, confused stages – until the finale involving laser-guided Copperhead missiles streaking horizontally across the sky and leaving flame and smoke trails. In fact the Copperhead is a guided 155mm artillery shell without a rocket motor and would have arrived in a downward trajectory at far too high a velocity to be visible (obviously unacceptable to Hollywood!). Despite this quibble it is a solid film, worth seeing if you like SF and enjoy war movies.

Sunday 13 April 2014

Dante's Equation by Jane Jensen

I first read and reviewed Jane Jensen's novel Dante's Equation six years ago, but have just read it again since it was one of my recommendations selected for the monthly read of the Classic Science Fiction group. This is what I said about it the first time:
Aharon Handalman is a rabbi in modern Jerusalem who is fascinated by "Torah codes"; hunting for significant words in the patterns of letters in the book. One name which keeps recurring is that of Kobinski, a rabbi, philosopher and physicist who disappeared in Auschwitz. Denton Wyle is a vain and wealthy young American who amuses himself by researching mysterious disappearances for a magazine on popular mysteries. He too becomes intrigued by Kobinski, who apparently vanished without trace. Calder Farris is a USMC officer assigned to the Department of Defense in order to monitor scientific research for weapons potential. And Dr Jill Talcott, aided by her graduate student Nate Andros, is at a US university researching wave mechanics while pursuing an "energy pool" hypothesis, that all matter exists as energy waves in a higher dimension. The lives of these characters gradually converge as they realise that Kobinski may indeed have discovered something of great potential and that he left records which had become scattered across the world.

So far this seems to be just another modern mystery – if not mystic – thriller, but the perspective changes as the characters find out the hard way that the consequences of Kobinski's and Tallcott's work are very real. They find themselves in a series of worlds which differ radically from each other as a result of variations in the frequency of their energy waves, and their experiences fundamentally change them.

This is a very ambitious and original work by a writer best known for creating computer games. It is not only broad in scope, it is massive in length too, at nearly 700 pages. Regular readers of this blog will recall that I usually take a jaundiced view of very long SF novels, finding most of them to be either so padded as to be slow and tedious, or so packed with characters and incident that I lose track of who is doing what to whom and why. Jensen falls into neither trap: this is a well-paced and well-told story, using its length to develop the characters into distinctive and convincing individuals struggling to cope with the bizarre situations in which they find themselves - and with each other. The book engaged my attention from the start and built up into an impressive and satisfying climax. Well worth the time to read.
My original high opinion of Dante's Equation was reinforced by the second reading. Interestingly, I discovered that while my recollection of events in the book was (fortunately) somewhat patchy, what had stuck clearly in my memory were the characters involved and the strange worlds they came to inhabit. In fact, despite its length one criticism I would make was that their time in these worlds came to a rather abrupt conclusion – this book could have been longer.

The plot of this adventure thriller contains a curious mixture of religion, mystery and physics which won't appeal to everyone, but I have decided to grant it the very rare accolade for a modern book of inclusion in my list of all-time favourite SFF novels.

Monday 7 April 2014

Films: Next (2007) and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

I have commented before that Nicholas Cage is not one of my favourite actors and, what's worse, at one time I disliked the films he was making to the point that seeing his name on the credits was enough to put me off watching them. However, he has more recently produced a number of films that I have rather liked. I reviewed Knowing here in September last year, and I have previously enjoyed the National Treasure duology, a lightweight but fun blend of Indiana Jones and Dan Brown.

Next (yet another film based on a story by Philip K Dick) continues this trend. Cris Johnson (Cage) is able to see two minutes into his own future, a secret talent that enables him to make a living as a stage magician and gambler. His life becomes a lot more complicated when the FBI, in the form of Agent Ferris (Julianne Moore), discovers his ability and wants to recruit him in an urgent search to locate a nuclear bomb thought to have been smuggled into the USA by terrorists. Further complications arise when Johnson meets the woman he believes to be the love of his life (played by Jessica Biel) while he is being hunted by both the FBI and the terrorists. The plot is complex and well-handled, and the ending is unexpected. This didn't get good reviews, but I found it well worth watching.


Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is an animated film concerning the adventures of unsuccessful but determined young inventor Flint Lockwood, who devises a machine that is able to convert water into food. This accidentally ends up in the sky, from where it promptly begins to suck in the clouds and shower whatever food Flint specifies onto his home town. This promises to save the town from economic disaster and makes him a hero – but inevitably, things start to go wrong. The film has fun lampooning targets such as the ambitious politician who wishes to become bigger than his job of town mayor permits (and he does…) and the condescending sexism of a TV presenter, and it must be commended for making the hero a science nerd. Furthermore, the cute weathergirl sent to report on his efforts, with whom he instantly becomes smitten, turns out to be a science nerd herself, and who secretly wears (shock, horror) glasses!

I find that I have a patchy relationship with animated films, which although aimed at youngsters vary greatly in their appeal to adults in general (and me in particular). Leaving aside the marvellous stop-motion products of Aardman Animation (especially the Wallace and Gromit series), animations which I have enjoyed include Ratatouille (particularly) and Wall-E, those I haven't persevered with include Toy Story and Up. Cloudy falls just on the favourable side of that divide.


Season three of Game of Thrones has at last become available on DVD, so I've taken a deep breath, gritted my teeth, stiffened my sinews and plunged in to yet another few hours of grim and nasty action. With dragons. I'm not at all sure that I actually like this series because it's so dark, but it is such a magnificent production that I can't stop watching.