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Messages - Tony Williams

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Books / The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
« on: August 28, 2011, 10:53:16 am »
Bujold is best known for her excellent Vorkosigan SF series (five of which I have already reviewed on this blog, with several more waiting to be read) but The Curse of Chalion is a classic medieval-with-magic fantasy.

The story is set on an unspecified planet with vague geography (no maps) which seems to be a kind of alternative Earth, judging by the plants and animals described. There are the usual small kingdoms in uneasy juxtaposition, fighting occasional wars in various combinations. Military technology consists of swords and crossbows. The religion has five gods with different roles (although one bunch of heretics only worships four), but while there is occasional evidence that the gods exist, they rarely get involved in human affairs. There isn't even any magic in the usual sense of practitioners casting spells, with one exception: Death Magic. Anyone can learn how to do this, with enough research and determination; it involves calling on one of the gods to send a demon to kill a hated enemy. The only catch is that the person working the magic invariably dies too.

The hero of the story, Cazaril, is a minor lord and former courtier and soldier who has fallen on hard times due to betrayal and subsequent slavery. Penniless, exhausted, and still half-crippled by injury, he makes his way to Valenda, a city in the land of Chalion in whose court he had worked as a young page some twenty years before, in search of some menial job and a place to live. There he meets Iselle, a royesse (princess) of Chalion, and finds himself reluctantly roped in to act as her secretary/tutor. He tries to impart some of his hard-won wisdom to the headstrong young royesse but when the action moves to the royal court in Cardegoss, Cazaril is tested to the limit in his determination to protect Iselle from the political and magical dangers surrounding her.

The setting sounds somewhat unoriginal as similar territory has been marched over countless times by other authors, but Bujold adds her own distinctive style. She is a natural and intelligent story-teller, injecting occasional flashes of wry humour (an element which tends to be sadly lacking in fantasy, in which authors often take their creations much too seriously). Her characterisation is as good as usual and the reader soon comes to care about her characters and what happens to them. There is something of the flavour of Guy Gavriel Kay in the writing, but Bujold is less dark and elegiac. After a slowish start the pace gradually accelerates and I read the last half of this substantial (500 page) tome in one sitting, late into the night: something which I rarely do.

The Curse of Chalion may appear somewhat formulaic but if you enjoy this kind of story this is about as good as it ever gets.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

A lengthy review of Outcasts is now on The ZONE website...
Yep, I don't disagree with that.

This eight-part serial has now finished, so as promised I'll sum up. To refresh your memories, I'll include some of what I said after the first two episodes.

The scenario is far enough into the future for humanity to have developed huge starships, one of which had managed to establish a colony on the distant planet of Carpathia (named after the ship which rescued survivors of the Titanic disaster) some fifteen years before. The name is significant as civilisation on Earth is collapsing, and the last starship is due to arrive.

Almost all of the 70,000 humans are concentrated in one walled settlement, Forthaven. The president (Liam Cunningham) aided by the head of security (Hermione Norris, who famously played a formidable MI5 agent in Spooks) try to hold the line while preparing for the arrival of the starship. All is not well, as the ship has suffered some damage which threatens disaster if it tries to land on the planet, so it launches an escape pod to ensure that some survive.

All is not well on Carpathia, either, as the team of explorers who spend most of their time away from the settlement are planning a rebellion. Just to complicate matters further, there is a band of renegade artificial humans (advanced cultivars, or ACs) in the wild, rejected by the settlement years before, with whom there is intermittent but bitter conflict.

The focus is very much on the human drama and the acting is initially variable (Norris being the stand-out performer) with some of the dialogue sounding stiff and awkward; a perennial screen-SF problem. This seemed to get better as the serial progressed, or perhaps I just got used to it. Also developing through the serial was the role and relationship of two of the internal security officers, played by Daniel Mays and Amy Manson.

I was amused to note that the one clear villain - the former head of the evacuation programme (played by Eric Mabius), who arrives on the escape pod and immediately starts to worm his sly and manipulative way up Carpathia's hierarchy - is constantly criticised for bringing religion to the secular colony and cynically using this as his vehicle for building a power base. I suspect this might not go down too well in some markets…

The SF elements are initially weak, and by the half-way stage I was ready to dismiss it as a soap opera with a few unusual plot elements in a mildly exotic setting. It is a puzzle to work out what everyone does or how they live, as the town is surrounded by wasteland and hardly anyone ever goes outside the walls. The discovery of natural diamonds lying around to be picked up is acceptable, but the fact that they are mysteriously gem-cut rather than in the rough is not. However, the background music is worth a mention as it is one of the strong points. It reaches elegaic heights, powerfully reinforcing moments of high drama. Intriguingly, the more stacatto music used to accompany action scenes is very reminiscent of similar music in Spooks.

The second half of the serial contains a lot more science-fictional mystery, although it frequently doesn't seem to make sense.  First comes the discovery of fossils of early hominim remains, despite the fact that there is no other animal life on the planet - just plants and insects (I still don't understand that: hominims dying out, sure, but they would only have been the tip of an enormous pyramid of animal life - did that all die out? We are not told). This is accompanied by hints from one of the first men on the planet, who has been living rough in the wild, that the planet did not want humans there. Then people begin to report seeing loved ones they know to be dead, a convincing duplicate of one of the explorers appears (the fact that this duplicate is clearly solid, whereas others appear and disappear instantly, remains unexplained), a mysterious disease strikes and it becomes clear that the colony is facing a deadly but hidden threat. Meanwhile, a further and unsuspected starship secretly approaches Carpathia with malevolent intentions.

By the start of the final episode I was wondering how all of the plot threads, both human and alien, could possibly be resolved in just one hour. The answer is that they weren't; it ends on a huge multiple cliff-hanger, the point of maximum crisis for the whole story so far, evidently lining everything up for a second serial. This would be fine if a sequel was coming along soon, but the viewing figures were disappointing and the BBC announced immediately after the finale that the planned second serial had been cancelled. So, rather frustratingly, we will never know the answers to the many questions.

Why did it fail? I think it was too adult and slow-paced to appeal to the usual Doctor Who/Primeval band of TV SFF followers, while containing too many unexplained inconsistencies to satisfy more mature SF fans (a nit-picking lot, we are). And of course, few people who are not SF fans bother to watch any SF programmes unless they are so good that they transcend the usual genre prejudice barrier.

Outcasts is easy to poke holes in, but I found I had become strangely attached to it and will miss my weekly visits to Carpathia. Despite a slow start and the unexplained inconsistencies, it had managed to get its hooks into me.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

TV and Film / Re: Iron Man - Robert Downey Jr.
« on: March 13, 2011, 10:10:40 am »
I seem to be working through superhero movies at the moment, even though I'm not a fan of the genre and scarcely looked at any comics even in my youth, let alone since. However, good ones do make for stress-free undemanding entertainment and there have been some critically acclaimed examples recently, among them the Iron Man films.

Robert Downey plays Tony Stark, the womanising engineer/genius inventor head of a major armaments firm, who is injured and captured by terrorists in Afghanistan and held for three months, supposedly working on a weapon for them. In fact, he is building a prototype powered armoured suit with which he escapes, but he has been changed by his ordeal and decides to stop making armaments. Back home, he is opposed by Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), his deputy, but supported by his adoring assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). He works on perfecting his powered, flying and fighting suit, using an "arc reactor" of his own invention to provide almost limitless power. With this, he returns to Afghanistan to take on the terrorists and is later faced with an even more grave threat at home, when he is challenged by a second "iron man" built using his original plans. The first film ends with his identity as "Iron Man" revealed.
Iron Man is as good as Nolan's Batman films - which is to say, very good indeed - with Downey being remarkably convincing as the conflicted inventor. His performance dominates the screen, with Patrow very good in the supporting role; the on-screen chemistry between them works well.

As a result, I looked forward to the sequel, Iron Man 2. Sadly, this is just a rehash of the first, with yet another "Iron Man" emerging to challenge him. The film tries to distract the audience from noticing the lack of original ideas by introducing Scarlett Johansson as an athletic secret agent and throwing in more fight scenes and bigger explosions, but it doesn't really work and I was relieved when it ended. It isn't a bad film by most standards, but was a major disappointment after Iron Man.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

Books / Blindsight by Peter Watts
« on: March 06, 2011, 02:19:12 am »
The time is the late 21st century, and the aliens have arrived. Sixty-five thousand unknown objects, in perfectly symmetrical formation, simultaneously burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. An unmanned probe, far out at the edge of the Solar System, detects the faint trace of communications from a large asteroid, aimed further out into space. High-velocity remote probes are sent from Earth, but the asteroid explodes.  A manned ship, crewed by a handful of radically adapted specialists, follows the communication trace out towards the Oort Cloud. Their leader is a vampire.

Some time before, it had been discovered that vampires once existed before being killed off by humans at the dawn of civilisation. Their genome had been retrieved from ancient remains and they had been reconstructed. They are top predators (humanity being their favoured prey) who can paralyse people with fear just by looking into their eyes, and were only defeated because they suffer a massive seizure and become helpless at the sight of right-angles – such as a cross. To overcome this they are given a medicine which also tames their predatory instincts; they are valued because they are vastly more intelligent than humans. Their ability to hibernate in a near-death state for months or years has been transferred to the humans who form the rest of the crew, allowing them to make the long, slow journey.

One of the crew is Siri Keeton, a synthesist with half his brain removed in childhood to cure his constant and violent seizures. The vacated space is now filled with technology used to enhance his autistic ability to dispassionately observe and analyse events - and especially the rest of the crew - in order to keep an objective record to send back to Earth.

They manage to track down the destination of the signal, a bizarre alien craft orbiting a brown dwarf star, too dim to have been detected from Earth. The craft appears to be growing but its nature, and that of what the crew assume to be the aliens inhabiting it, makes no sense. The crew struggle to understand what is happening, and suffer increasing stress as the situation deteriorates beyond their control.

Blindsight is an ambitious epic of first contact, in the best tradition of hard SF. It is packed full of original and sometimes startling ideas, and richly deserved the Hugo nomination it received when published a few years ago. However, I have to say that I did not find it an easy read. The very density of ideas slows the pace, while the reader is made to work hard to follow what is going on. I found that I could only read it in small doses so it took me over a week to complete. It was worth the effort, though the conclusion is not one that optimists will enjoy.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

TV and Film / Film: From Time to Time (2010)
« on: February 27, 2011, 03:04:48 pm »
This is a combination of time travel and ghost story based on Lucy Boston's Green Knowe series of children's books which were published between 1954 and 1976. The film, featuring several well-known British actors including Dame Maggie Smith, went on limited British cinematic release last year and was recently shown on UK TV.

The setting is an ancient English country house at the end of World War 2. A young teenage boy, whose father has been reported missing in action, has been sent to stay with his grandmother from whom his family had been estranged. The house had been in the family for centuries and the boy explores it, fascinated by its history. He soon begins seeing visions of people from two centuries before, a few of whom (children, not adults) can also see him. He finds with increasing frequency that in going from one room to another he may suddenly be back in the 18th century, watching and listening to the people and events there. These scenes are interleaved with ones in his present day, as his grandmother (who has no problem with believing in ghosts) fills in the details of who the people were and what happened to them.

The boy becomes friends with a girl in the 18th century, a distant relative who was blind in real life but can see him. As a result he learns things which even his grandmother does not know, which are of practical benefit to the family.

This is a charming film, well-scripted and acted, and I enjoyed it throughout - but for the odd logical niggle. Now you may say that logic has no place in a ghost story, but I do like to see internal consistency. For example, the scenes set in the 18th century clearly involve the boy experiencing a kind of spiritual time travelling. He sees the house, people and events as they actually were at that time; they are not ghosts (in fact he is a kind of ghost from their future - except that he is still alive). Yet later in the story, while he is in the 20th century, he is visited by the spirit of the girl who tells him things that she could not have known while she was alive. So she really was a ghost at that point, and not time-travelling forwards to see him.

That I could just about swallow, but there was a more glaring inconsistency in the 18th century scenes, in which the boy was there in spirit only; while hardly anyone could see him (and in fact most walked straight through him) he was nonetheless able to pick up and carry material objects from that time - and leave behind physical objects he had brought with him, to be discovered a couple of centuries later. That really won't do!

(An extract from my SFF blog)

TV and Film / Film: Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and Outcasts (BBC TV)
« on: February 13, 2011, 01:07:49 pm »
I record any film on TV which I think looks as if it might be interesting, but when I watch them I reject most within a quarter of an hour of the start. I recently saw Stranger Than Fiction after deleting several films in a row, but this one hit the spot so I stayed with it to the end.

This comic fantasy, set in Chicago, has an unusual premise: the hero of the tale, IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) who lives a life of obsessive monotony , starts to hear a female voice in his head describing everything he is doing - or is about to do. He fears he is going mad, but is galvanised into action when the voice prophesies his imminent death. A psychiatrist can't help him so he turns to a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) who is intrigued that the voice appears to belong to an author who is writing a novel featuring Howard, but he can't identify her. He advises Howard that there is nothing to be done and that he had better enjoy life while he can, so Howard starts to fulfil childhood dreams and also plucks up the courage to approach the feisty baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) he has been investigating for failure to pay her taxes.

Meanwhile, the author (Emma Thompson), who lives in the same city, is suffering from writer's block and can't work out how best to kill off Howard to conclude her new novel, Death and Taxes. Howard recognises her voice in a TV interview and manages to track her down, leading to some unexpected twists and turns before the end.

This film held my attention and amused me throughout. It is a life-affirming story, well-acted by a high-quality cast and told with intelligence and wry humour. Highly recommended.
Outcasts is a new BBC TV SF eight-part drama, of which I have so far seen the first two parts. The scenario is far enough into the future for humanity to have developed huge starships, one of which had managed to establish a settlement on the distant planet of Carpathia (named after the ship which rescued survivors of the Titanic disaster) some years before. The name is significant, as civilisation on Earth appears to be in its final throes, and the last starship is due to arrive.

All is not well on Carpathia, however, as the team of explorers who spend most of their time away from the settlement are planning a rebellion. The president (Liam Cunningham) aided by the head of security (Hermione Norris, who famously played a formidable MI5 agent in Spooks) try to hold the line while preparing for the arrival of the starship. All is not well with that either, as it has suffered some damage which threatens disaster if it tries to land on the planet, so it launches an escape pod to ensure that some survive. Just to complicate matters further, there is a band of renegade humans in the wild, rejected by the settlement years before.

The focus is on the human drama and the acting is reasonably good (Norris being the stand-out performer) although some of the dialogue still sounds rather stiff and awkward to me - a perennial screen-SF problem. However, the SF elements are weak so far, and even the big CGI effort of the starship is hopelessly unconvincing, simply because the plot requires this vast structure, with living space in two huge counter-rotating artifical gravity wheels, to try to land on the planet. Now you don't have to be an SF geek to realise that such a vessel cannot possibly enter a planet's atmosphere let alone make a landing, a fleet of shuttles being required for that task, but the programme makers don't seem to realise that.

Overall it's moderately promising so far and I'll keep watching; I'll return to it to make some final comments once I've seen the lot.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

Other Media / Interzone 232
« on: February 06, 2011, 01:47:06 pm »
A surreal picture by Richard Wagner is on the cover of the Jan-Feb issue of the British SFF magazine; I like this type of photo-realistic painting showing impossible things. The book reviews include Corvus by Paul Kearney, the sequel to The Ten Thousand, which I reviewed here in October 2008. The reviewer makes similar observations to mine about Kearney's writing, when I wrote: "The strength of the book is in its battle scenes, of which there are many. The author belongs to the gritty realism school of writing, and the fear, panic, confusion and brutality of battle are powerfully evoked, as are the campaigning problems of hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and body lice. The result is a gripping account which draws in the reader and had this reviewer shivering with the tension of the build-up to the final climactic battle." 

There are also reviews of three books from the 1950s, made available again by Westholme Publishing in their "America Reads" series of classic works: The Flying Saucer by Bernard Newman, One by David Karp and Limbo by Bernard Wolfe.  By and large, the reviewers feel these haven't worn too well, with One receiving the highest accolade - a rather tentative and qualified approval. Another of the new works reviewed which caught my eye, Buntline Special by Mike Resnick, is set in an alternative history in which the power of the native American medicine men has held the European invaders at the line of the Mississippi. Resnick's name is one I've been familiar with for a long time, but I can't recall ever reading anything by him. This one sounds entertaining, though.

The film and TV reviews include Tron Legacy (ho hum) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (a stage-setter for the finale), both of which I hope to see before long; I rather liked the original Tron, which for some reason has been withdrawn from circulation by Disney. A DVD set of The Avengers Series Six revived fond memories of the bizarrely fantastic plots, but this series didn't have Diana Rigg in it (except to say farewell in the first episode) so where's the a-Peel?

On a sadder note, the obituaries record the death of John Steakley at the age of only 59. He was the author of Armor (1984) and Vampires (1990), the latter being made into a film. I still have a copy of Armor on my shelf for a re-read some day, an intriguingly different take on militaristic SF.

Now to the short stories, of which there are five:

Noam Chomsky and the Time Box by Douglas Lain, illustrated by Richard Wagner. A portable "time box" has been invented which allows owners to travel back in time and interact with people there, although no substantial changes are possible no matter how hard they try. The box also has a reset button to allow the traveller to cancel his interventions and go back to the start to try again. The main character has the obsessive notion that he could make subtle but important changes by going back to the 1960s and forcing an interaction between the linguist Noam Chomsky and the fantasist Terence McKenna (he of the 2012 catastrophe theory), and his account of his many efforts to achieve this is written in the form of a series of blog entries. Really strange, but earns points for originality.

Intellectual Property by Michael R Fletcher, illustrated by Mark Pexton. A time when people can have - quite literally - plug-in memories in form of a flash-drive like device which is inserted into the head. When the device is removed, they lose all memory of what happened or what they learned while it was in - until it is reinserted. The protagonist is an innocent young woman normally, but unknown to herself becomes a deadly secret agent when her plug is inserted by her employers. An intriguing plot device, but it takes some time to work out what is going on.

By Plucking Her Petals by Sarah L Edwards, illustrated by Mark Pexton. A medieval fantasy in which magic can be used to make permanent changes in people's appearance. One low-level practitioner of such magic becomes embroiled in affairs which are way above his head.

Healthy, Wealthy and Wise by Sue Burke, illustrated by Ben Baldwin. A clash of cultures in the near future between a Spanish woman who needs expensive medical treatment, and an American student doing field work who she has to host her in return for receiving the treatment. The action is seen from the viewpoint of the student's "Friend", a highly capable AI in her phone who observes everything that is going on, monitors her physical and mental health, translates when required, and generally advises and takes care of her. An upbeat and engaging tale - who wouldn't want a Friend like that? I can't help thinking that it would rapidly encourage a strong psychological dependency, though.

Flock, Shoal, Herd by James Bloomer. This won the James White Award (open to non-professional writers). A distant future in which government agents can conceal themselves to carry out their work by adopting other human or animal bodies, or even multiple bodies. One such agent goes in search of a former lover who has learned to transcend the limitations of this system and become something else entirely. Like the Fletcher story above, the tale skips across events like a flat stone across water, so the reader has to concentrate to keep up; but it's short enough to read again straight away.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

TV and Film / Re: Inception
« on: January 30, 2011, 01:27:47 am »
Written, directed and produced by the brilliant Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Prestige, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight), this was one of the films of 2010 most eagerly awaited by SF fans.

It is set in the near future in a world the same as ours except that a combination of drugs and technology permits people to invade the dreams of others, imposing their own dream structures (designed by specialist "architects") in order to obtain secrets and even influence their target's subsequent actions (a process known as "inception"). The principal character, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert at this, and is hired by a powerful industrial organisation to influence the heir to a rival energy corporation (Cillian Murphy) to break up the corporation on the imminent death of his father. Cobb assembles a team who succeed in drugging the heir on a long flight and proceed to take him on a dream journey, steadily downwards through dreams within dreams, each with its own distinct setting, until facing him with a modified recreation of his father's deathbed scene. During this process, Cobb is hounded by guilty memories of his wife (Marion Cotillard), who committed suicide as a result of his manipulations, and who appears in the dreams constantly trying to frustrate his actions.

This is an intelligent, convincing and exciting thriller which held my attention throughout, but it certainly requires concentration to keep up with the fast-moving events as the story keeps flipping between dream levels. I understand that a lot of viewers found it baffling, but as I was aware of the general plot in advance I had no problem in following it. However, there were some details I was uncertain about or unaware of, and I found the Wiki plot summary (which I read after seeing the film) useful in tidying up some loose ends.

I rarely watch films more than once, but if I've enjoyed one enough to want to see it again, I like to leave at least a couple of years between viewings so that the details have faded from my memory. However, Inception is one of those rare films that I immediately knew I would want to watch again before long, in order to obtain even more enjoyment through a deeper understanding the next time around.

Christopher Nolan has done it again - the man seems unable to make anything but excellent films. What I like most about his work is that it is exciting but also highly original and intelligent - a league above the usual by-the-numbers, predictable and sometimes downright moronic level of Hollywood action movies.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

Books / Re: The Pan Book of Horror Stories - Reissued after 50 years
« on: January 24, 2011, 01:41:32 pm »
I used to own a copy of that one - when I was a teenager aeons ago!

Books / The Hidden Oasis by Paul Sussman
« on: January 23, 2011, 01:22:18 am »
The Hidden Oasis (2009) is the third novel by Paul Sussman, the others being The Lost Army of Cambyses (2002) and The Last Secret of the Temple (2005). All three are written to the same formula; present-day adventure thrillers in which the characters are struggling to solve mysteries linked to events in both the recent and the very distant past. The author's background as a field archaeologist who has spent much time in Egypt is made full use of, with rich descriptions of the country and of archaeology, and his understanding of the different cultures of the region comes through clearly.

There is one common character in all three novels - Inspector Khalifa of the Luxor Police - but he has only a cameo role in the latest story.  The principals are a young American woman who visits Egypt for the first time for the funeral of her elder sister, and the British archaeologist who had worked with her sister in a search for the "hidden oasis", a legendary place sought for centuries which was supposed to contain a weapon of mysterious power. Added to this, an aircraft carrying an important cargo had vanished in the area some twenty years before, and various groups - including some exceedingly unsavoury characters - were taking an active interest. Inevitably, the principal characters become involved in the search and much skullduggery, chases and general excitement follow, before all is revealed.

Sussman's work has been compared with Dan Brown's but his plotting, characterisation and writing in general are vastly superior. In spirit, this story reminded me a little of a childhood favourite: Rider Haggard's King Soloman's Mines. The pacing of the story is steady to start with but gradually ramps up and I read the last third of this 620 page book in one go - I couldn't put it down.

On the face of it Sussman's books do not fit into the SFF category, but in all his stories there is an touch of fantasy at the end and this forms a major element in The Hidden Oasis. This may sound odd coming from an SFF fan, but I rather wish it didn't; this story works perfectly well as an exciting modern adventure mystery set against an authentically detailed background, and the magical happenings right at the end seem somehow out of place. I would have preferred an element of uncertainty as to whether or not there could have been a mundane explanation for events, but no such get-out in this story; the impossibility of the ending is literally earth-shaking. Despite this reservation, the novels are well worth reading if you enjoy burying yourself in a really good, well-researched yarn.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

TV and Film / Film: The Truman Show (1998)
« on: January 16, 2011, 11:56:08 am »
Continuing with my efforts to catch up with worthwhile SFF films, I've finally seen The Truman Show. The plot must be well enough known by now, although I must confess I did wish whilst watching it that I hadn't had any advance notice of the basic premise, as it would have been fun discovering that for myself as the film developed. So if you really have no idea what it's about, my advice is: watch the film (it's terrific), but read no further.

The plot is mixture of a soap opera and reality TV show on the surface, but underneath is a paranoid conspiracy theory made real. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) lives an apparently normal, happily married (to Laura Linney) life in an idyllic little American town set on a small island. The one quirk is that, following a childhood accident in which his father was drowned, Truman is so terrified of water that he can't even drive over it on a bridge; so he has never left the island. Despite this, he has a fantasy of travelling to Fiji to follow the girl he really fell in love with (Natascha McElhone) who had vanished abruptly from the island years before.

The problems begin when odd events cause Truman to start to question the nature of the world he lives in. Strange incidents keep occurring, starting with a piece of equipment falling out of a clear sky. I enjoyed the way in which the headline of the next day's local paper always had a logical explanation for the events (in this case, that an aircraft in trouble had shed some equipment over the island). Despite such cover-ups, Truman gradually becomes suspicious, and feels that he is being spied on and set up.

The truth is far worse than that; for the entire island is a movie set, and everyone on it except himself is an actor. Broadcast around the world from thousands of cameras concealed around the island, the real-time continuously-running story of Truman's life since birth has been the entire purpose of The Truman Show, and is followed by millions of devoted fans. The film gradually interleaves scenes of Truman's increasing paranoia and desperation to escape the island with those of fans watching the show, plus views of the control-room staff under the direction of Cristof  (a chillingly controlling Ed Harris) who constantly choreographs the actors to keep the show on the rails. I was reminded of the old joke: just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean that they're not out to get you!

The climax of the film (and the Show) is dramatic and uplifting, a fitting end to an excellent, original and amusing production. Full marks!

(An extract from my SFF blog)

Books / Beholder's Eye by Julie E. Czerneda
« on: January 09, 2011, 12:52:49 am »
I haven't read anything by this author before but kept hearing favourable comments about her work, so I decided to try Beholder's Eye, the first of her Web Shifters trilogy, published in 1998.

The premise is unusual in that the heroine, Esen, is not only not human, she is an immortal being of pure energy who has the power to take the form of any race she knows. She and her small group of related Web Shifters spend most of their time in material form, spending years living within one culture after another and using their unique abilities to absorb and remember everything about them so that they will not be forgotten if they disappear. Their primary concern is not to be discovered, so they hide their true nature from everyone.

In this far-future universe, humanity has spread over a large number of worlds but is just one among many races in a mostly peaceable but occasionally turbulent galactic civilisation, divided into several rival blocs. Esen inadvertently becomes involved with a group of humans and is captured along with one of them, Ragem. In order to save his life she is forced to reveal something of her nature and he then becomes her intermittent companion in the adventures that follow.

I enjoyed the beginning of the tale but after a while began to find it somewhat uninvolving. This is partly because it's a bit difficult to empathise with an immortal alien energy being, partly because there is an inevitable lack of tension, despite a series of dramatic escapades, since the reader knows that Esen could escape from any threat if she chose. However, this changes in the last third of the book as a deadly danger, a more primitive Web Shifter predator, begins to hunt down and attack Esen's group. The story then becomes a tense battle for survival for the Web Shifters.

The story is told in the first person by Esen, who makes a likeable heroine although her attitudes are not at all alien; she thinks and behaves exactly as a human woman might if given her unusual ability. On the other hand she is influenced, sometimes amusingly, by the attitudes of the races she copies, because she becomes them in style of thought as well as appearance. Her developing and sometimes rocky relationship with Ragem, as he gradually discovers more about her circumstances, is another plus point. In the end I found it a good if not great read and worth the time spent on it, despite my reservations.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

TV and Film / Film: Gattaca (1997)
« on: January 02, 2011, 03:29:37 pm »
Yet another film which I finally got around to seeing after meaning to for many years.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, it is set in a not-too-far distant future in which children's genetic make-up can be adjusted at conception, a process routinely done by those who can afford it. This is not just to avoid any genetic disabilities but also to produce flawless people of superior all-round physical and mental ability. Such people, known as "valids", have huge advantages in life and are routinely appointed to the best jobs. But not everyone is born with such advantages - many are "in-valids". So what do you do if you have a burning desire to go on a mission to the outer planets, but lack the genetic superiority which is a basic requirement of being an astronaut? Particularly when instant genetic tests are carried out frequently at workplaces, as a matter of routine?

This is the problem facing the protagonist Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke). He finds a way of tricking the tests with the aid of a crippled valid whose identity he takes, and is duly selected for a forthcoming space mission. But he lives in constant fear of discovery; a situation exacerbated when he becomes involved with a colleague (Uma Thurman, so glossily perfect that she seems alien). Then a murder occurs at his workplace and an intense investigation follows in which he becomes the prime suspect.  Will he be able to survive this and take his place on the mission?

Gattaca succeeds on three levels: it's a gripping thriller, relying on psychological tension rather than car chases or explosions; it foreshadows issues around human genetic manipulation which are likely to be with us in reality all too soon; and it is a human story of a fight for identity and achievement over and above that which is written in the genes. The direction is restrained and the film has a pared-down minimalist feel without an unnecessary scene or word; the score by Michael Nyman complements it perfectly. I am not a fan of dystopias, which is basically what this film portrays, but it is still one of the best SF movies I've ever seen.

(An extract from my SFF blog)

TV and Film / Films: Dogma (1999), Highlander (1986)
« on: December 19, 2010, 03:26:02 am »
I was pointed towards Dogma in an SFF discussion forum, so I gave it a spin recently. The plot of this comic fantasy is novel: two fallen angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon), living as humans in present-day USA after having been banished by God long ago, conceive a plan to get back to Paradise. The problems are that if they succeeded this would prove that God is fallible, and thus cause the end of all creation; and that God, who could stop them easily enough, has gone missing while in disguise, somewhere on Earth. To help prevent disaster, God's spokesman (Alan Rickman) recruits a woman (Linda Fiorentino) who, unknown to herself, is the last scion of the family of Jesus of Nazareth. She is tasked with stopping the angels, with the aid of an assortment of dubious characters.

This is the excuse for a lot of rather heavy-handed and sometimes crude humour, mostly at the expense of religion in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular - I gather that it prompted protests from Catholics in the usual Pavlovian manner. Subtle it ain't, but it fires enough comic shots for a number of them to score hits. All in all, worth watching if you are in the mood for some broad humour, unless you are religious and of a sensitive disposition.

I've been meaning to watch Highlander for years, but have only just got around to it. The story of the accidental immortal Connor MacLeod (played by Christopher Lambert) who spends centuries battling the Kurgan, another immortal warrior, must be well-known by now. Two plot threads run in parallel with the scenes flipping between them; one in the sixteenth century, when Connor first discovers he is immortal and is trained by fellow-immortal Ramirez (played by Sean Connery) and one in 1985 when the climactic battle takes place.

I have to say that I was rather dissatisfied. There are yawning plot holes, with no attempt at any explanation for what is going on and why. Lambert makes a broodingly impressive hero but the Kurgan is a cardboard cut-out villain and the rest of the cast (except Connery) are unmemorable. I found the background pop music jarringly inappropriate, and the whole film rather pretentious and overblown. It compares badly with some of the more recent superhero movies. I gather it has cult status and is highly regarded compared with the sequels, so I won't be wasting time on them…

(An extract from my SFF blog)

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