Saturday 25 April 2015

The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell

This is the sequel to London Falling, the first of the Shadow Police series, which I reviewed in July last year. I was impressed with the tale, in which a team of police officers in present-day London discover that the supernatural is all too horrifyingly and murderously real. The Severed Streets is set a few months later, with the team still together and trying to get used to the "Sight" which they had all accidentally acquired and which enables them to see supernatural beings and events which are invisible to normal people.

It is a summer of discontent in the capital, with flash-mobs causing chaos and a resentful police force threatening illegal strikes. A prominent politician is gruesomely murdered in impossible circumstances so the team is called in to investigate. It is immediately obvious to them that a very powerful supernatural force was responsible, but exactly what and why baffles them. While they are still searching for clues, the bodies begin to pile up. In their hunt for answers, they delve into the city's occult underworld but keep finding every likely avenue being blocked. In the meantime, the members of the team have their own problems, both privately and with each other.

It literally takes a trip to Hell to solve the mystery but even that doesn't tie up all of the loose ends. At least one of the team is badly affected by the outcome, and there is a considerable mystery about what exactly their Superintendent knows that they don't. Clearly, this is not a series in which each volume is going to conclude tidily, so there will be more to come. I must admit that while the story is very well written, it is even darker and bloodier than the last one and includes some genuinely shocking moments, to the point at which I was beginning to be turned off the story. In the end, thought, I was pleased that I had persevered and I await further developments with interest.

One curiosity is that Neil Gaiman is one of the characters – yes, the real-life fantasy author, with the added twist that he knows about the occult underworld and has a part to play in the story. This certainly catches the attention but I am rather baffled by the motivation, and I'm not at all sure that this blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction is a good thing. Does it presage further "guest appearances"? Will Paul Cornell be appearing as a magical character in Gaiman's next novel? I think we should be told…

Saturday 18 April 2015

Film: Cargo (2009)

Cargo is something of a novelty, a Swiss-made SF film with German dialogue translated via sub-titles. Don't let any of that put you off, though, it is worth watching. It is set 250 years from now, with the Earth abandoned as an ecological disaster area and the survivors of humanity living largely squalid lives in a vast orbiting space station, suffering from the activities of anti-technology terrorists. Most people's dream is to win or buy a trip to Rhea, an unspoiled "second Earth" of a planet a few light years away.

A young doctor, Laura Portmann, hopes to move to Rhea to join her sister who won a place there seven years before. To pay the fee she needs to earn more money so takes a job on an interstellar mission to deliver cargo to the unmanned Station 42. Interstellar travel is by huge sub-light-speed spacecraft with the crew spending most of the time in cold sleep, so the round trip will take her eight years, during which the small crew take it in turns to be awake and on duty for eight months at a time.

During Portmann's watch she suspects that there is someone else on board so wakes the rest of the crew. What follows is a tense drama with one revelation after another as the real purpose of their mission and its importance to mankind is gradually uncovered.

The film is atmospheric, both visually and in its soundtrack, with the CGI of the enormous space station and the ship providing an impressive sense of scale. The overall mood is of grim foreboding, emphasised by the rough condition of the old spacecraft, but Cargo is not the horror movie that this setting may suggest. While the plot is a mash-up of elements from other stories the script is intelligent, keeping viewers guessing what is coming next, and the ending has a realistic touch of optimism for the future.

Saturday 11 April 2015

Counterclockwise by Roger L Conlee

Having written one myself, I have a particular interest in alternative histories of World War 2; Counterclockwise (published in the USA in 2007) was drawn to my attention a few years ago but it took me a long time to get hold of a copy. It proved an interesting read, taking an individual approach to the subject.

The best-known alternative WW2 novels are concerned with the aftermath of the war, rather than its events. The only one of these to break through the genre barriers and become a best-seller is Fatherland by Robert Harris (published 1992); a detective story set in 1964, twenty years after a Nazi victory. In a similar vein is Dominion by C.J. Sansom (pub. 2012, and still on my reading pile) a political thriller set in the 1950s in a world in which the UK sued for peace after the fall of France in 1940; the country remains independent, but very much under the Nazi thumb. The best known to SFF fans is of course P.K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, reviewed on this blog in August 2009. Another I recall reading is 1945 (Gingrich & Forstchen, pub. 1995), which follows events immediately after a different WW2.

Novels actually describing the events of an alternative WW2 are less common. One well-known work is Turtledove's Worldwar series, but since the difference concerns an alien invasion, that one can be put into a separate category. At the opposite extreme of the probability spectrum come various "counterfactual histories", some by professional historians, concerning what might have happened had some key event turned out differently. Such an event is known as the "POD" – Point Of Departure – by alternative history fans; other key terms being OTL – Original Time Line (i.e. what actually happened historically) and ATL – Alternative Time Line (i.e. what happens from the moment of the POD).

Other novels that I am aware of which describe a different war are a very mixed bunch. I reviewed Priest's The Separation on this blog in July 2008, a review which points out the huge differences in approach between this work and my own The Foresight War. And there is Counterclockwise, which is different again.

Counterclockwise needs concentration to follow as it has a complex structure. The protagonist is Tom Cavanaugh, a drug squad detective living in 1988 (OTL), who finds a book published in 1965 by his journalist great-uncle, Jake Weaver; an account of a Japanese attack on Los Angeles in 1942. At first Cavanaugh takes it to be a work of fiction, but evidence gradually builds up to suggest that it is describing an ATL. The scenes then alternate between 1988, in which Cavanaugh begins to experience visions of the past, and 1942 as described by Weaver in extracts from his history. Within this history, the viewpoint switches between Weaver's own experiences (told in the first person) and that of several others whose accounts he subsequently collected, including that of a young Japanese Navy pilot taking part in the attack. Fortunately this potentially confusing structure is clarified to some extent by using a different font for Weaver's story and a new sub-heading whenever the scene changes.

The most obvious characteristic in Conlee's story is that the focus is very firmly on a few days in 1942, with events over that period recounted in great detail. Wider differences in the ATL only get a brief mention at the end of the novel. Two-thirds of the way through the book, the story changes gear with the introduction of a major new element in Part 2, but I can't say any more about it without serious spoilers, so if you want to find out by reading Counterclockwise for yourself, stop reading NOW!


Two characters in the 1988 OTL are elderly ladies, one of whom has a small shop dealing with antique clocks and historical documents which is where Cavanaugh finds Weaver's book. She is the widow of a physicist who had identified the existence of the two separate time-lines and discovered a means of travelling between them; he had also determined that the timelines were gradually recombining, which meant that only one history would eventually survive. The other lady is Cavanaugh's great-aunt, the widow of Jake Weaver. Cavanaugh discovers that these women are not only both fully aware of the ATL but also learned from the physicist a way of travelling to the past, albeit for a period of only a few days.

Cavanaugh realises that the recombining of the time-lines poses an existential threat which he can only resolve by travelling back to 1942 (ATL) – which he duly does, accompanied by Cass, his fiancée and constant companion. Their experiences there, including meeting film stars and trying to avoid being arrested on suspicion of being Nazi spies, are described in entertaining detail. This triggered a memory of similar events in stories I read some fifteen years ago, which I managed to locate on my shelves: the Timeshare trilogy by Joshua Dann (published 1997-9), in which the protagonist works as a guide for time-travellers and, among other things, becomes very personally involved in some of the events of WW2 (although without significantly changing history).

I do have a few criticisms of Counterclockwise, mostly trivial: there are the seemingly inevitable minor errors when non-specialists describe WW2 weaponry, plus the odd piece of carelessness (e.g. the fate of a man killed in 1968 described in the history published in 1965). More fundamentally, while I have no problem with time travel (I used it in The Foresight War) or moving between alternative timelines (included in my second novel Scales, along with the idea of timelines recombining), to include both in one story seems to me to be over-egging the pudding somewhat. For one major scientific impossibility I am willing to suspend disbelief, but two is pushing it! Despite this, I enjoyed this entertaining novel.

Saturday 4 April 2015

Film: The Man From Earth (2007)

The Man From Earth is a 2007 film with a screenplay by Jerome Bixby. That name seemed familiar to me so I looked it up and was reminded that Bixby was a prolific SF short-story writer in the 1950s and 1960s, probably best known for the chilling "It's a Good Life", a story I recall very well despite having read it several decades ago. Bixby also wrote screenplays, working on scripts for Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and four movies; The Man from Earth was his last work.

The plot is not entirely original but is unusual enough to be intriguing: a professor rather unwillingly hosts an impromptu farewell do for his academic friends, having decided to leave at short notice. They are baffled and hurt by his sudden decision, and pester him for an explanation. He eventually reveals that he always moves on every ten years to conceal the fact that he never ages; he was actually born 14,000 years ago. His friends are naturally incredulous and an intense debate takes place during which he fields their questions and challenges, with many revelations, twists and turns and more than a little emotion displayed.

The production could hardly be simpler as almost the entire film takes place in one room and consists only of half-a-dozen people talking to each other for an hour and a half; it was made on a budget of $200,000. It has more the feel of a good stage play than a movie (I was not surprised to discover that it was subsequently turned into a successful play). Despite this, it is one of the most absorbing and gripping films I have seen in a long time. The dialogue is very intelligent and thought-provoking, the shifting relationships between the characters fascinating; this is unquestionably a film for adults (very much a rarity in the SFF field). I discovered that it won a whole bunch of awards, mostly for its screenplay, and I am not at all surprised. It was released straight to DVD which I suppose is understandable considering the complete lack of any of the action, CGI, chases, fights or explosions that cinema audiences seem to require these days, but it really should not be missed.

The plot of the film did make me think: just how easy would it be these days for anyone to keep reinventing themselves every decade? I suppose it would depend on the circumstances: if you are happy with casual, cash-in-hand jobs then you could survive unnoticed for a long time, especially in the heart of a major city where hardly anyone knows their neighbours and you probably wouldn't even need to move around very much. But if you want a professional job it gets much more difficult; a professor would come from an existing academic post, would be known by others in his field of study, would be expected to have published academic papers and so on. And that's before we get into the whole panoply of personal data held by governments and other authorities. If you have money and know the right people, then you can buy forged ID and other documents, but these will only stand up to a certain level of scrutiny; it takes the resources of a government to create bomb-proof in-depth false identities. Curiously, this minor flaw in the film's plot niggled me rather more than the impossibility of anyone living for 14,000 years!