Sunday 28 February 2016

Interzone 262

Jonathan McCalmont's regular Future Interrupted column this time consists of a long review of the Quatermass series by Nigel Kneale, a genuine classic of British SF from the 1950s, written for BBC TV. These feature a rocket scientist (Professor Quatermass) in contemporary Britain who "continually finds himself confronting sinister alien forces that threaten to destroy humanity" as Wiki puts it. These rapidly achieved a cult status comparable with the Dr Who series only more adult and less kitsch. The first three series (The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II, and Quatermass and the Pit) appeared between 1953 and 1959, with a long delay before the final series (The Quatermass Conclusion) arrived in 1979 on ITV. Cinema versions from Hammer for the first three stories also appeared in the 1950s and 60s, and there was a 2005 remake of the first series for BBC4.  I must admit I have only vague recollections of seeing some of the programmes on monochrome TV long ago, without having much idea what they were about.  More details of the productions and plots can be found on the Wiki Quatermass page, but beware the usual spoilers. Sadly, most of the first series has been lost, but some DVDs are still available from UK Amazon, as are Kneale's one and only novelisation – of the final series – plus some scripts and explanations of the series.

In the Review section Dave Hutchinson is the featured author, along with his books Europe in Autumn and Europe at Midnight, which sound fascinating – definitely added to my "to buy" list. There are some other intriguing-sounding books reviewed as well: Planetfall by Emma Newman, Ultima by Stephen Baxter (the sequel to Proxima, which I haven't read), and The Sand Men by Christopher Fowler, but my reading pile continues to grow faster than I can shrink it, so I'm trying to impose some self-discipline here… The main film reviews are both somewhat lukewarm; of the new Star Wars film (I'm not a big fan, but I expect I'll see it sometime) and the final part of The Hunger Games (ditto).

On to the short stories:

The Water-Walls of Enceladus by Mercurio D. Rivera, illustrated by Jim Burns. As I have said a couple of times before: yet another of this author's stories concerning the relationship between humanity and the advanced alien Wergen race, who find humans irresistably attractive. Possibly the last we'll hear of them, judging by the finale.

Empty Planets by Rahul Kanakia, illustrated by Richard Wagner. An AI-controlled civilisation in which a dissatisfied adolescent Moon resident travels to take a Non-Mandatory Study program on Mars in an attempt to win a "bounty" for making some valuable discovery.

Geologic by Ian Sales, illustrated by Jim Burns. An expedition to a strange desert planet tries to work out the meaning of an ancient, massive rock covered with carvings. More like a brief segment from a story, but very atmospheric.

Circa Diem by Carole Johnstone, illustrated by Richard Wagner. In a far future in which the Earth's rotation has slowed right down, much of humanity has evolved to hibernate through the long, dark winters. The rest live in deep artificially-lit caverns, but the two versions of humanity carefully avoid each other. Until a young couple happen to meet and form a Romeo-and-Juliet kind of relationship.

A Strange Loop by T.R Napper. If you're short of money, you can sell your memories for rich people to live through. But then you've lost them forever. What will that do to your relationships?

Dependent Assemblies by Philip A. Suggars, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A fantastic alternative history set in a very different South America in which children can be made, as machines, then given life by the magical lux potion.

An interestingly varied collection of tales this time: the Wergen stories do nothing for me (a matter of personal taste) but while none of the others stands out, they are all well worth the time to read. The Sales story is particularly tantalising, as it made me want to carry on reading to discover what happened next.

Saturday 20 February 2016

Miles Errant, by Lois McMaster Bujold

It's been more than two years since I read any of Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan stories, but I was in the mood for some good-humoured and reliably entertaining SF so picked up Miles Errant, an anthology containing three linked stories describing her physically unimpressive hero's further adventures. These are The Borders of Infinity (a novella of 66 pages), Brothers in Arms (242 pages) and Mirror Dance (400 pages). The author clearly does not feel any need to be constrained to any particular page count.

In The Borders of Infinity Miles is transported to a Cetagandan world in which some ten thousand prisoners of war are held within a dome-shaped force field half a kilometre in diameter. The desert landscape within contains nothing except a number of lavatory-cum-water supply facilities; there are no buildings because the weather is controlled, with an even temperature and no rainfall. The force field is only breached to allow daily food bars and newcomers in – and bodies out. There are no guards since no-one can escape and the prisoners are left to fend for themselves.

Miles is of course there for a specific purpose but the reader does not learn what that is until close to the end. Meanwhile, he commences his usual psychological manipulations to arrange matters inside the camp to his liking.

Brothers in Arms sees Miles in his role of Admiral Naismith, leader of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet, stopping off in orbit around Earth to get his ships and crews repaired after a running fight with the Cetagandans who are furious at his activities on their prison world. Here he has to juggle his identities carefully between those of Naismith and Lieutenant Miles Vorkosigan of the Barrayar armed forces, since it is imperative that no more than a small handful of people should know that these two are one and the same. Further complications ensue due to the activities of some Komarr rebels who have never reconciled themselves to the Barrayaran conquest of their world, and call Miles' father the Butcher of Komarr.

Miles has to rely heavily on his friends in the Dendarii fleet plus his amiable but slow cousin  Ivan Vorpatril to extricate him from increasing complications – especially an unexpected relative.

Mirror Dance continues the story two years later, but takes it into a new direction. While the plot is mostly set on the grim world of Jackson's Whole we first met in Labyrinth, Miles only has a supporting role, the main focus being on his clone brother, Mark. In this sometimes horrific story, we see the forces and events which shape Mark into a very different personality from his brother – but an equally intriguing one. The depth of characterisation is impressive and takes Bujold's writing up onto a new level. I must catch up with the rest of the series to see if this standard is maintained – and I hope that there is more about Mark to come.

Saturday 13 February 2016

Film: San Andreas (2015)

Hollywood disaster movies of recent years seem to be increasingly formulaic, and San Andreas is no exception, ticking all of the usual boxes:
  1. Some disaster or other occurs, allowing the special effects people to try and outdo previous films in the scale and realism of the spectacle they create.
  2. A classic "competent hero" is caught up in the disaster, and battles through it to achieve his goals.
  3. The hero has marital problems which are worked out as part of the plot.
  4. The hero's child is also caught up in the disaster, with her rescue being the main plot driver.
  5. The hero succeeds in his endeavours after many set-backs, and all the important good guys survive (although one in a minor role is allowed to suffer a heroic, self-sacrificing death).
  6. There's a bad guy (played by a British actor, as usual) who turns out to be a coward, and dies a satisfyingly nasty death.

Sorry if the last two points are plot spoilers, but such films really only vary in their excuse for the spectacle. The excuse for this one is at least relatively credible in that it concerns the "Big One"; the long-predicted major earthquake along the – you guessed it – San Andreas Fault (SAF) in California, an earlier version of which flattened San Fancisco in 1906. One of equivalent power today would still have a devastating impact despite all of the work done on earthquake-proofing major buildings. While (contrary to the movie) such a massive quake is not yet expected by seismologists, I can't help thinking that the millions of people who live along the SAF must to some degree be in denial, rather like those who live on the flanks of active volcanoes. That could provide an interesting psychological element to a drama, but don't look for it in San Andreas – this is all about the action.

And the action scarcely lets up from start to finish. The CGI really has become very realistic, and if the repeated spectacle of modern skyscrapers collapsing becomes rather repetitive, these are book-ended by a huge dam burst and an impressive tsunami (although I am sceptical that movement along the SAF would result in such a massive tsunami – those happen when an earthquake involving lots of vertical displacement takes place under the ocean floor). While the whole film is about as predictable as tomorrow's sunrise, there's the odd bright spot: the daughter in distress turns out to be a capable young woman who plays a major role in her own survival, and other British actors play minor heroes (I was amused to note that the young man had the kind of perfect English diction that you never hear today). Furthermore, the acting was up to the admittedly limited demands of the plot even by the awesomely muscled Dwayne Johnson as the hero, not much emotional subtlety being required.

Is it worth watching? Sure, the visual spectacle makes it passable popcorn fare (unless you live along the SAF and are of a nervous disposition). A final spoiler: the last exchange in the film is: "What do we do now?" "We rebuild". Yep, I thought, just to see it all levelled again in another century or two….

Saturday 6 February 2016

The Inner Landscape, by Peake, Ballard and Aldiss

This rather odd little 1970 Corgi anthology (previously published by Allison & Busby in 1969) consists of three novellas by famous authors, without any editorial foreward to explain them, just a few portenteous phrases on the cover about eerie worlds and strange landscapes in which man himself becomes strange.

The first story is Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake, with a double copyright attribution: 1956 to the author, but 1969 to Maeve Peake, the author's widow who was herself a writer (Mervyn died in 1968). This was disappointing simply because I realised that I had already read and reviewed this story eight years ago, so I'll just repeat what I said then:

This novella (112 pages, c. 25,000 words) is set in the world of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, although they are not named, being referred to only as the Boy and the Castle. It is the Boy's 14th birthday and he wearies of the endless rounds of official celebrations to mark the event, so he takes an opportunity to escape into the wider world beyond. He encounters three strange beings known as the Goat, the Hyena and the Lamb, and faces a terrible danger. That's about as much as I can say about the plot without spoiling it for potential readers. My edition of the book (Hodder Signature, 1996) is illustrated by P. J. Lynch.

It is a very strange story, even by the standards of Gormenghast; the three beings are entirely fantastical and the plot very bizarre, being more in the nature of a fairy tale (of the original Grimm sort). What comes through most strongly is the poetic beauty of Peake's writing. Take this passage describing a peal of bells to celebrate the Boy's birthday; for me, this brought back memories of the strange, rich flavour of the Gormenghast books:

"A bell began to chime, and then another and then a swarm of bells. Harsh bells and mellow ones: bells of many metals and many ages: bells of fear and bells of anger: gay bells and mournful; thick bells and clear bells….the flat and the resonant, the exultant and the sad. For a few moments they filled the air together, a murmuration, with a clamour of tongues that spread their echoes over the great shell of the Castle like a shawl of metal. Then one by one the tumult weakened and scores of bells fell away until there was nothing but an uneasy silence, until, infinitely far away, a slow and husky voice stumbled its way over the roof-tops and the Boy at the window heard the last of the thick notes die into silence."

Peake is not for everyone, but if you are a fan of the Gormenghast series (as I am) then this one should be added to your collection.

Next up is The Voices of Time, a 1969 story by J.G. Ballard. A strange and atmospheric story, typical of this author, with a plot which is difficult to describe. It involves a post-World War 3 future in which life in general seems to be winding down: a disease is gradually spreading through humanity, sufferers losing their memories while sleeping for an ever-increasing percentage of the day until they never wake up. Meanwhile, crops are becoming steadily less productive and fewer children are being born.

In an academic community set in a bleak, desert landscape, scientists keep working on their projects, including artificially accelerating evolution via radiation. But the word from the stars seems to be the relentless onward progression of entropy.

Finally comes Danger: Religion! by Brian W Aldiss. Yet another post-nuclear-war setting, in which Edinburgh has survived to become the capital of Europe. A historian meets a stranger who uses a portable device to transport them into an alternative world, dominated by religion and with a slave culture. He finds that people from many different worlds have been collected together to help them solve a problem faced by this world, but he rebels instead. His major ally comes from a world in which Imperial Rome is still dominant, but as their fight continues he discovers a problem…

A rather messy story in which various elements and plot ideas seem to have been thrown together to make something of a dog's breakfast. I actually remembered the punch-line so must have read a version of this story at some time, but most of it was unfamiliar. The explanation probably lies in the copyright note, which says that "this version" was copyrighted in 1969; I suspect that I had read an earlier, shorter story.

A curious collection of very contrasting stories which have little to connect them; I suspect that the publishers found themselves stuck with three stories by well-known authors which were too short for individual publication, so decided to shove them together!