October 26, 2013

Status

In some imaginary world there are people out there, readers of this blog, like you I guess, who these last few months have been frustrated. Abandoned. Cast adrift in the universe of Science Fiction. Wondering. Floundering. Without my rushed reviews as guidance they have read the wrong books or watched the wrong films or given up and started reading Fantasy.

All this I know to be untrue (bar the reading Fantasy bit). If you care about speculating on the next superhero film to be made in a years time you are reading io9, if you want to read writers endlessly plug their latest novel/comic or talk about their hangovers you are reading Twitter, if you want to keep up to date on the latest author interviews you are reading SF Signal, if you are obsessed with awards you are listening to one of the multitudes of SF podcasts, if you like SciFi television you are probably just watching everything that is on regardless of its quality, same goes for films. The reduced frequency of posts on this blog has made no difference to your life unless you very specifically wanted to know what I have been reading/watching/listening to.

So, to maintain that illusion that someone cares, let me inform you. The answer is suprisingly little. There have been not many things to inspire me. A few of course, Les Revenants was a superb slow burning take on zombies, The Chaos Walking Trilogy was interesting although unable to maintain it's vibrancy across three books and very recently Salt by Adam Roberts was a fantastic examination of the difficulties in trying to cross the gaping void of cultural differences. But in general I have felt, do feel, out of step with the current state of Science Fiction.

On TV only The Walking Dead maintains my interest. Every week I fall asleep whilst watching The Agnets Of SHIELD (literally). I gave up on everything else. It all feels so bland and formulaic. Where are the issues and agendas? Where is the passion? Where is the relevancy?

With books I have struggled to find anything that sparked my interest. I have even failed to read Empty Space which I have started three times and given up on. Everywhere I look it's urban fantasy or Game Of Thrones or YA. It's authors and publishing struggling to make a profit and somewhere inside of that the urgency is lost. I want a book that gives me a future, that is screaming for revolution, that shows me change. The only novels that have come close to that for me recently are Little Brother and Homeland by Cory Doctorow, both written for the YA audience. What does that say? Have we given up on the adults? Are we too old to change anything? I just don't think so. Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places? I've been listening to Clarkesworld podcasts and Lightspeed podcasts and the stories there don't grab me. The only short story I can even remember from the last few months is by Tim Maughn and it was published on Medium! I must be missing something, there must be more out there like that, there must be places to publish fiction like that.

Maybe I'm craving primary (or at least secondary) sources? The things that pique my interest right now are Bruce Sterling's blog, are Arc Magazine, are people looking at a possible future via speculation, people doing real research even. Perhaps this is the point I give up on consuming Science Fiction? Instead of reading and writing so much I've been coding, writing open source code, making something. It may only be an app that plays sounds or some new blogging software but there is something about open source that feels like the future. That feels worthwhile. At least more worthwhile. I want that feeling back from my Science Fiction.

That's it, a splurge of thoughts, unedited, typed in one sitting, with no conclusion. It's an ongoing conflict and this is just a snapshot.

July 27, 2013

Review Amnesty

It's been too long and too many reviews have stacked up. The longer I leave it the harder gets. So it's time to clear the decks with a blitz of short reviews.

The Secret History Of Science Fiction
An anthology of short stories, mainly by writers from the literary edge of the genre. Overall I felt unmoved by the stories, turning to disappointment when reading the stories by Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon (too high expectations perhaps?) and I didn't even finish the Gene Wolfe story. The stand out stories were by Thomas M. Disch and Maureen F. McHugh, both of whom I'd like to read more of.

7 Against Chaos
Written by Harlan Ellison with art by Paul Chadwick and colours by Ken Steacy, and published by DC comics, 7 Against Chaos is an old fashioned tale of trans Solar System futuristic heroes. I guess the old fashioned bit was supposed to be part of the style but overall the story and universe failed to interest me, leaving an overwhelming feeling of tiredness.

The Fractal Prince by Hannu Rajaniemi
The sequel to The Quantum Thief, whose ideas I liked more than the story, suffers from much of the same. The ideas are wonderful, the plot is really complex and there's great stuff going on. And yet it failed to grab me emotionally and I never really felt like I cared for the characters. Disappointed.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
A YA Science Fiction novel following a crackdown on civil liberties in San Francisco after a terrorist attack. Being YA means several things, the language is basic with no literary poetry flourishes, the plot motors along and the heroes are all teenagers. The teenage characters are exactly the right age to resist the crackdown, both in technical expertise and righteous outrage. It's a novel full of important ideas which is extremely relevant to right now and the revelations of the PRISM surveillance. There are plenty of infodumps, a deliberate decision, but presented in an almost chatty style, which never feels like a chore and instead like our young hero patiently teaching us technical concepts. Definitely worth reading. Double so if you feel at all concerned about retaining liberty in the face of terrorism.

The Walking Dead
The TV series has continued to get better, with series three and the arrival of The Governor being scary, gripping, exciting and shocking. If you haven't seen it yet you really should, but you probably have.

Having liked the TV series so much I decided to read the comic version, courtesy of the two massive compendiums, a couple of the volumes and finally four single issues. Reading the story in a few weeks instead of the real time elapsed of about ten years is obviously a different experience, and yet I still ended up caring about the characters (and getting upset when they inevitably died). Overall it's a great comic, the story keeps hurtling along from one disaster to the next whilst our heroes struggle for survival. As with all great apocalyptic fiction the real heart of the story is how humans and society cope with rebuilding after the disaster. Not that the zombies are a mere inconvenience, especially since they can be drawn in their hundreds on the page, but as has been revealed in the TV series, humans are a greater threat. Excellent stuff.

Waiting a month between issues was proving to be hard work, but fortunately the comic is going bi-monthly from Octiber for a while. Hurrah.

May 27, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

As I've stated here many times before, I've never been a big Star Trek fan, sure I've watched bits of all the series but to be honest I mostly found it boring. Maybe it's that classic Star Wars / Star Trek divide? Not sure. However with the first JJ Abrams Star Trek film he made something that I actually really liked.

He's repeated the act with Star Trek Into Darkness. I really enjoyed it. The plot hurtles along at a million miles an hour whilst have conversations about the prime directive, about saving friends or crew, about following orders, about the ridiculousness of the plot. Because yes, some things are really silly and done for effect, even Scotty thinks that hiding the Enterprise underwater is crazy, but it sure looks cool when it comes up.

It's not just that scene that looks cool, the entire film looks stunning, lens flares galore, a hyper bright white Enterprise, a super realistic city chase, explosions, space, spaceships! At no point was I pulled out of my belief by a wonky looking computer generated special effect. At no point do you have time to worry about contrived plot points because with barely a moment to catch your breath the next chunk of action is upon you.

It is also a fun film, it made me laugh multiple times, and retains a true sense of fun despite the enemy in the film being rather nasty and the lose of life rather large.

Special mentions for acting go to Benerdict Cumberbatch who was scary, and Zachary Quinto as Spock and Karl Urban as Bones who both have made the characters their own and both made me laugh frequently.

Star Trek Into Darkness isn't intellectual stimulation, it's not like reading an awesome thought provoking SF novel, it's more like riding a roller coaster, and that's okay, because it's a good rollercoaster.

Thoroughly enjoyable and I cannot wait for JJ to get his hands on Star Wars.


May 17, 2013

My story Non-Stop Party published in Cosmos Magazine

My story Non-Stop Party is now online at Cosmos magazine.

What would you do if you could live your whole life as one non-stop party? Utopia right?


"60 SECONDS!" 

The Non-Stop Party roared into a moving countdown, the crowds loud and boisterous and ecstatic, the music frenetic and infused with energy. 

"What?" said Lenah, she couldn't hear the words that Karl spoke so stepped closer to him, her hands on his upper arms, her ear to his mouth. 

"I'm leaving," said Karl.

May 12, 2013

Avengers / Iron Man 3

Having recently seen Iron Man 3 I realised that I never got around to reviewing Avengers either, so here's a review of both.

(The) Avengers (Assemble)

I watched the Avengers on DVD, so maybe the spectacle was diminished on a smaller screen with smaller sound? Maybe. Overall though, I was disappointed. It's difficult seeing something a month or more after all the hype of a cinema release, it definitely affects how you feel about a film. Maybe it was because, as I've said many times here, I've never been the biggest Marvel fan, but for most of the film I just didn't care. Thor is irritating as a hero, alien god whatever. Black Widow and Hawkeye are just soldiers / special agents. Captain America is made of jingoism. Which only leaves Iron Man and Hulk to care about. I can't help feeling that a film with just those two would have been better. Hulk was funny, Iron Man had some witty lines but Joss Whedon's much vaunted dialogue didn't really materialise and the entire film turned into one big SFX fight with some aliens. It left me feeling the opposite of when I saw Dredd. After Dredd I wanted more, more, more. After Avengers the thought of more made me groan.




Iron Man 3

Which brings me to Iron Man 3. I quite liked the first one. Can't remember the second (but I have seen it). And now really enjoyed the third. I liked Tony Stark wrestling with his celebrity status, fighting demons after saving the world, hiding away by letting himself be consumed by his geeky technology obsessions. On top of that there's a great over the top performance by Guy Pearce, Gywneth Paltrow coping with being elevated to Stark's other half and Ben Kingsley being amazing. Unfortunately as seems to be the case with Marvel films the nice character stuff devolves into people hitting each other. Which left me with a bit of an empty feeling, like all the good work was undone by endless fighting. The highly amusing end credits picked me back up again but ultimately the film left me as I left the cinema, another empty but fun superhero film. It's only now, thinking about the film again, that I realise how much I liked the three quarters of the film and how much, for me, the finale tainted that. Yes there was, ultimately a point, a moment where Stark had to let go, but it was just too much, it 

April 13, 2013

Judge Dredd Day Of Chaos : The Fourth Faction

It's been a good few years since I read any Judge Dredd, but like I've said here many times before, I grew up reading 2000AD and the recent (and excellent) Dredd film nudged me to get back to stories in the Big Meg. So, where better to start I thought, than the most recent epic storyline Chaos Day and the first part collected as a graphic novel.

Right from the start it looks great, from the cover onwards. I really enjoyed spending my time looking at the artwork, looking in the background and generally soaking in the feel of Mega City One. It's something I've missed from not reading comics, the way you can linger over a story whilst still taking it in.

The second thing that struck me was how "grown up" the stories were. And here, by "grown up" I mean: violent, gruesome, intelligent, witty, biting, satirical. Great writing throughout with Dredd now being a grizzled veteran, not at all past it and fighting to stay out of Judge meetings. 

The stories in the collection build up to form a picture of what's going on, mosaic like at times. That's always been the strength of Dredd, stories that seem unrelated suddenly become drawn into a major arc and become key. There's a psycho lone killer, PJ Maybe (also a psycho killer), a female rookie Psi Judge, the return of East Meg, fatties and plenty of Dredd hitting the streets. With such a big canvas to play with there's so much scope for invention and yet even when returning to classic themes and characters it never feels clich├ęd  It has respect for its own past. It never dismisses it with a reboot, it builds and builds and builds, layers and layers, like Mega City One itself.

I lingered whilst reading it, and yet when finished still felt like it was too fast and wanted to read it again. And wanted to know what happened next too, but for that I'm waiting until Endgame is published in summer (well more accurately July as I don't think summer is ever going to arrive).

A great place to jump back into Dredd, or if you liked the film but have never read any, start.

March 30, 2013

Oz The Great And Powerful

Oz The Great And Powerful feels like a film of two halves in more than one way (well, more probably more accurately a film of 1/8th and 7/8ths). The fist section which is black and white and 4:3 ratio concerns Oz himself, a magician at a travelling circus, dreaming of being Houdini or Edison, dreams of greatness, but instead living out the life of a serial womaniser and cheap conman. It feels like a film from the forties not a modern Disney film aimed at kids. If this section was any longer then I expect it would lose the interest of it's younger audience but I enjoyed it and could have seen more.
Then into Oz, widescreen and full colour. I believe the depth changes too if you're watching in 3D but I saw it in glorious 2D. And the story shifts to become overtly fantasy with more child friendly comedy and characters. I found the comedy sidekick flying monkey tedious, but the kids in the audience seemed to like him. The story in Oz is not subtle, it has the wicked witches and their origins, it has the good witch, it has flying baboons. In many ways it's very predictable but it looks nice and for younger audiences the wonder and spectacle is probably enough.

James Franco is great as the conman struggling to live a good life. He's just the right level of manic and sleezy with that core of good inside that I was rooting for. Everyone else is okay, as you would expect really, wicked witches, good witches, munchkins.

There are moments that are clearly just there as 3D gimmicks, and in 2D it is really obvious, they grate. They look out of place. They don't benefit the story. Cheap tricks. Which is 3D all over.

All in all it was a fun kids film (eventually) but won't be remembered as a classic.

March 25, 2013

Twilight Breaking Dawn Part 2

Finally I got to watch the "epic conclusion" to the Twilight Saga. And well, just about everything I said before is true but this time with more fighting and silliness.

More than ever the fast moving vampires look ridiculous. Really silly. I think we're supposed to be happy that Bella isn't dead and that she's a vampire, but I wasn't, she's undead, why be happy? The vampires all seem to love it, she's strong and fast and craving blood. I just kept thinking about her poor father and how extremely selfish she had been. Even the werewolves seemed to be happy, Jacob placated by the promise of falling in love with their baby. Which is weird.

There is of course a big fight, the one on the trailer, but first everyone has to travel around the world collecting Pokemon, sorry, vampires with strange powers: He can control water! She can emanate electricity! She wears a bikini in the snow!  It's all a bit tedious. But then there is Michael Sheen and some fighting. Heads are ripped off, bodies are burnt. FIGHT! The ending is silly though.

The end sequences reinforced my opinion that Bella is selfish and stupid and really needs to get over herself. Like, really. 

So, it's fun I suppose, but a far distance from the lower key, student in a strange land of the start of the tale, which I liked. I'm too far out of the target demographic for the story to mean anything to me but it made me laugh and entertained me, which I suppose is what it's meant to do.

March 16, 2013

The Hunger Games Trilogy

Somehow I managed to miss the first waves of adoration that The Hunger Games induced on its release. I said that about Twilight too, I think this once and for all indicates that I am old and that I have no idea what's cool with "the kids". So, when the film adaptation arrived I was keen to see it and thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, unlike many adaptations, watching it left me with a strong desire to read the novel, easily satisfied by the box set of the trilogy with the lovely "grown up" cover art.

As I'm talking about the entire trilogy here there will be spoilers, so if you haven't read all three please go and do that now. If you're anything like me an entire weekend will be consumed by the stories of Panem and you'll be back here in no time.

On with my ramblings.

The consequence of the novel being told entirely in first person from Katniss's viewpoint, unlike the film, is that it engulfed me rapidly in the world of District 12 but took a bit longer to discover its full nature. As I knew this world already I can't comment on what the effect would be like if you didn't know, but the emphasis on the character is effective and well done. Despite knowing the plot the book was a joy to read, I instantly began to care for Katniss and her family. Like the film I think the best part of The Hunger Games is the first half, when the world is still to be discovered, when we learn what the games are, when we are repulsed at the show and glamour in the Capitol for the slaughter of children. The games themselves I found less interesting, however in the novel the timespan is at least increased which makes more sense. It's a game of survival against the elements as much as the other competitors, something that was hard to convey in a two hour film. I also enjoyed the chance the novel offered to more fully explore the important relationships between Katniss and Peeta and Gale.

One of the key scenes in the film that I thought set it apart from a standard adventure film was the scene of uprising in District 11, hinting that there was more to this world than we had seen. In the novel, due to the first person nature, we don't see that, instead though we get the feelings of Katniss, her hate of the Capitol, the hints that the oppressed are ready for a change. And then we get two books to see the consequences.

I devoured Catching Fire and Mockingjay in a weekend. I literally could not put them down. I find it hard to separate the two now, in my mind they're the full story of Panem. The first book stands apart because I had seen the film, but I'm sure if I hadn't all three books would be merged in my mind as the big arc of Panem.

As a story it continually surprised me, switching from a story of oppressed people and their control, to the story of a revolution, to a wide-screen war adventure and back to the small, tight focus of a tragic story of love and family. I loved these gear changes. I loved the focus on the damage that the games had inflicted on the winners, it wasn't dismissed or ignored, it was dealt with. Maybe condensed, yes, but I felt the novels attempted to deal with the mental damage caused by war and conflict.

The second games I found to be perhaps the weakest part of the story. I know it's the hook, but it felt like the most ideas driven part of the novels and wasn't executed s well as I'd wanted, like I would expect from a top class SF novel. Instead the novels are best when they are focusing on the characters. Sure there is plenty of adventure but it's there to show us the people.

I've heard some people complain that The Hunger Games is unrealistic and that a game which involves the slaughter of children is an ineffective way to oppress the masses. I have never seen the games as part of that tool, I see the games as a cruel punishment, a taunt, the people are already oppressed and helpless and the Capitol kills their children to make them angry and unhappy. The idea that the districts could even attempt to rise up against the Capitol is never even considered. Why should it be? They are all powerful, they are all controlling, they are arrogant. Only when the uprising begins do they even consider it possible. Katniss and Peeta were indeed the catalyst, they were the ones who out of all those children stood up to the Capitol and were prepared to sacrifice themselves to prove a point, to fight against the oppressors. Before them no one thought it was possible. They really were the spark.

Finally to the ending. It can be hard to end a trilogy. Very few have endings that I remember, perhaps only Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy left as a permanent memory. The Hunger Games trilogy has joined this, indelibly imprinted in my mind. Heartbreaking yet offering us all hope. Life carries on. We can carry on. We can love and live and we can, if we are lucky, be happy. We can make a better world for a children, it may be hard, it may cost, but it will be worth it.

Wonderful.

February 3, 2013

The Twilight Saga (minus the last one)

Somehow I not only managed to avoid discovering anything but superficial details about the Twilight series of books when they were released, but I also managed to retain my ignorance during the release of all the films. All I knew was that they were about vampires, there was some teenage romance and a lot of people argued very heatedly about them. Very recently however I had the opportunity to watch the first four of the films within a week of each other and so I took it. You can't judge what you haven't seen after all. 

It's interesting to come into something with such a following in a single leap of 8 hours viewing, it's like suddenly lots of foreign conversation around you have been translated in your head. "Oh now I understand what they meant by sparkly vampires" etc.

I will assume knowledge of the series and there will be spoilers. (But if you are here reading this blog you probably have seen/read everything  of these stories that you want to by now.)

I did wonder what on earth there was left to say about Vampires that hadn't already been said in Salem's Lot or the Lost Boys or Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Clearly there's a lot when you completely redefine what vampires are. This caused me much irritation.

Things that are wrong with the vampires in Twilight:
  • They can enter your house without asking. ARGGGH! How terrifying. It was one of their key weaknesses. Now they can just stroll into your bedroom and kill you. This does not seem to be a big deal in Twilight because there is always a good Vampire or a good Werewolf to guard you. Well lucky for you Bella, everyone else is getting killed in their sleep.
  • They sparkle. WTF?! That's the weakest excuse I've ever heard for not appearing in sunlight. Oooh, can't go into the sun because I'm a bit sparkly. Once again a prime weakness of vampires taken away and it's made out to be a real drag... they have to live in the cloudy Pacific Northwest, dude that sucks.
  • They all have superpowers. Because being an undead, superfast, superstrong killing machine isn't enough. Obviously.
  • They have rules and the only reason to obey the rules is because otherwise Michael Sheen will get a bit stroppy with you and do that crazy laugh.
Anyway, enough of the easy targets.

I actually, mostly, enjoyed the films, however I think I laughed a bit more than I was supposed to. In particular I liked the first half of Twilight which did a great job of that "newcomer in a new school" trope, with slo-mo and overblown angst and falling in love with a bad boy. It had a bit of a Twin Peaks, something slightly odd feel about it.

I also enjoyed the love triangle and rooting for the werewolf, because you can never trust a vampire. Whereas with a big wolf you know where you stand. The relationship between Bella and Jacob was nice, well until he became a werewolf and she became all annoying. Another highlight was Billy Burke as Bella's father, doing the parent confused with their teenage daughter thing really well.

However the core message of the stories annoyed me intensely. The message is that if you're a teenage girl, who feels like a bit of outsider, the solution is to turn your back on everyone, your friends, your family, everyone, and run off with the first boy that you fall in love with. Really?! To make it worse it's not just falling in love with but actively wanting to convert herself to an undead monster, just to be with a boy. Talk about selfish. Stop moping about, stop being selfish and get real. I know you're a teenager but listen, you don't want to do that. You want to marry him? Oh, well that's okay. Seriously? Romeo and Juliet isn't a template it's a warning. Please, if you feel like an outsider do not follow this path, instead I suggest you become a writer, or learn to play guitar and make music, or paint, or read a million books, or start running, or start a blog, anything to realise that you're not really an outsider. In this day and age with the internet you don't have to be alone. Bella was a fool, self indulgent and selfish.

Haven't seen the last one yet, but I've heard there's some good fights and more Michael Sheen.


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